There's never been a better time for New Zealanders to consider hiking a Great Walk. With COVID-19 having shut our international borders for the foreseeable future, suddenly we no longer have to compete for the limited space available on our most popular tracks like the Milford Track and the Routeburn Track where bookings can often sell out in minutes when they go live for the new season.
On 17 May 2020, the Government also announced spending of $14 million to complete the vast infrastructure project required to fix up the damage done in the huge storm that hit Fiordland in February 2020, with the goal to get both the Milford and Routeburn Tracks fully operational for the 2020-2021 summer season. If you've ever considered hiking a Great Walk this should be music to your ears! Here are 9 top tips to get the most out of your walk:
Book early! The Great Walk booking system usually goes live in June for the November-April summer season. Whilst this year there is likely to be less competition, hut tickets can book out VERY quickly for popular dates so make sure you plan ahead so you have the best chance of securing the dates you want.
You can catch the Tracknet bus transport that stop a few times of the day at either end of the track but if you want more flexibility use a car relocation service like Trackhopper. They will relocate your car from from where you started to the other end of the track and they were SO easy to deal with, I highly recommend their service.
The Great Walks brochure for the Routeburn Track describes it as an Intermediate/Easier walking track, and there are definitely parts of the walk where the path is reasonably wide and easy to walk on. HOWEVER, there are also a lot of narrower sections clambering over loose and slippery rock, so I highly recommend walking poles for stability and to reduce the strain on your knees on the downhill which can be pretty steep and challenging at times!
It can be tempting to pack everything under the sun, but then you have to carry it all, so dehydrated meals are a great way to keep your weight down while providing excellent nutrition. We took Back Country Cuisine and Radix Nutrition meals which are great if you have food intolerances like I do, and they were super filling to fuel us for the long hours of walking ahead and to refuel at the end of the day. We didn't eat much while walking, simply snacking on a homemade scroggin mix with nuts, raisins and M&M's, which are great because they don't melt in the heat.
Take some HEAVY duty bug repellant like The Bushman's brand, you'll need it for any South Island walks where the sandflies are ferocious. Using a silk liner inside your sleeping bag is a great way to either add extra warmth on a cold night or so you can sleep without sweating in warmer weather, and they take up no space at all. Walking in merino clothing including socks is THE BEST way to go, it's so breathable and light, doesn't take long to dry if it gets wet or sweaty and you can just layer up when you need to.
If you plan to take lots of photos, having a power bank to charge your camera or phone along the way is essential as there's no electricity at the huts. And while we're on the subject of camera gear, pack light and only take 1-2 lenses, I found myself using my 16-35mm wide angle lens 90% of the time so next time I'll think twice about taking more.
If the weather is good, the views from Key Summit and Conical Hill are incredible. We only took the side trip to Key Summit because the cloud was too low the day we reached the Harris Saddle to consider hiking further up to Conical Hill, but I'm so glad we added the extra trip into our day as the panoramic views from the top were incredible.
Most of NZ's Great Walks take you on a decent elevation gain, or they're located in a part of New Zealand which experiences fast changing weather conditions, and The Routeburn Track is no exception. It's pretty rare to get 3 fine days in a row in Fiordland, so make sure you pack a waterproof jacket and trousers as well as dry sacks or a pack liner to protect your gear. On our 3 days we experienced mist and low cloud, torrential rain and thunder (while we slept), bright sunshine, and hazy cloudy conditions. Luckily we managed to escape walking in torrential rain though this is pretty typical especially for the walks in Fiordland, so you do need to be prepared for it!
Sharing a bunk room with up to 30 other people isn't terrible conducive to a good night's sleep (though taking a good pair of earplugs helps!) and the chances are you'll be awake early, so why not make the most of it by watching the sunrise? In particular the view down the Routeburn valley from Routeburn Falls Hut is simply incredible at sunrise. I snuck away to sit up on a vantage point above the hut and to this day the sunrise on the last morning is one of my enduring memories of the walk.
It's amazing the people you meet on these hikes, people from all walks of life and from all over the place. The hut talks provided by the DOC wardens in the evening are a great way to learn about the history of the area, as well as insights into the flora and fauna you'll be seeing along the way. We also ended up having great conversations with our fellow walkers while relaxing in the evenings, one of which was with a family who only lived just down the road from us in the Waikato and had the same first names as us....what are the chances!
While you do need to walk at a pace fast enough to complete the distances on each day, there's really no need to rush from one point to the next. Stop and take photos, sit and admire the views, chill out beside a waterfall or even take a dip in the alpine lakes if you can bear the extreme cold! It's certainly a logistical exercise to plan a trip like this, so make the most of the moments.
I think every physically able New Zealander should complete a multi-day hike in NZ's back country at some stage in their lives, it is simply THE best way to unplug from our busy, modern lives while experiencing the best scenery the country has to offer. The fact that you have to put in the effort to earn the majestic views along the way only makes it all the more rewarding.
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