Fiordland, New Zealand: Kepler & Routeburn Tracks

Fiordland is located in the south-west of the South Island of New Zealand. I spent unforgettable 9 days there, wandering, hiking, soaking under its brutal rain, capturing  waterfalls and rainbows. I’ve hiked a lot in many different parts of the world, these landscapes and experiences definitely stand out!

New Zealand is rich in amazing nature and hiking trails. Nine of them are collectively called the 9 Great Walks. When visiting Fiordland I walked two of them: Routeburn Track and Kepler Track.

I am a very impulsive traveler and I just go where the wind blows, and it’s hard for me to plan and book things in advance. So I sat down to reserve a spot on bunk beds for these tracks the day before I started hiking. I got kinda lucky and also had to do some adjustments to make it work (for example hiking basically the whole Routeburn track in one day:). But these beauties are extremely popular, especially in the summer season (which is January-February, that’s when I went). And also they are trying to limit the amount of hikers on these hikes to a small amount (the number of available beds and tent sites is very limited). So if you’re not into gunning and taking last minute chances like me, better book in advance.

ROUTEBURN TRACK

I started walking down the Glenorchy road in Queenstown direction Routeburn track, and before I even got my final destination sign out, I got picked up by two young German hikers, going to the same hike. Score!

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Routeburn track is 32 km long, and the recommended hiking time is 2-4 days. By the way, in New Zealand they call it tramping, not hiking:) Since I booked last minute, I had a very interesting plan: first day I basically hiked less than an hour, because the only available hut was right at the beginning of the trail. No problem, I was IN! And I did practically the entire trail the next day, at leisurely pace, no rush, super moderate and doable. The second night I also spent at the very end of the trail, one hour out.

The one thing I’d have done differently, if I knew and could book in advance: book a hut at Lake Mackenzie. That is the most amazing lake view (especially from the top, when you hike down to it).

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The weather is super intermittent: at some point it showers and you can’t see anything. Everything is covered in fog. You can just somehow sense the grandeur around you, hear multiple enormous waterfalls next to you, feel that there’s a cliff/ precipice… but you see nothing! Then the wind blows and opens a view like this….

When I was passing this awesome giant rock, I met a father and a son. I was for some reason so excited about this weather, it was so mystical and unapologetic. So I genuinely greeted them and said what a lovely lovely day that was! They made a sour face and said ‘Yeah right!’ I guess not everyone is enthusiastic about fog and rain cataclysms:) I KNOW I was missing out on some spectacular views, but you can’t order sunny weather and also the fog made the experience so intimate! But definitely have good rain gear, rain pack cover, good shoes. And good attitude!

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So it’s cliffs and waterfalls…and then….I seriously didn’t read anything beforehand and had no idea… I found myself in the most mysterious place I’ve been to: the rainforest. It was something. I was speechless. Thousands of types of mosses and ferns, tiny crooked trees, streams and endless holes where the rabbits with watches obviously live and where Alice fell. I was ready to go down one!

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One of the perks of heavy rains: endless waterfalls and rainbows. I say yesss please! Definitely recommend this hike! It’s fairly easy, long enough and stunning stunning stunning. You will find yourself on the set of the Lord of the Rings (true fact actually!)

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MILFORD SOUND FIORDS

As I exited the forest, I had no exact plan. I had three more days till the next hike I booked. So I decided to test my luck and stuck my thumb out direction the famous Milford Sound Fiords. Then another hitch-hiker girl emerged from the woods and in no time we stopped an awesome ride: a guy organized motobike tours in New Zealand and was meeting his bikers at the Fiords.

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I ended up joining their lovely group for the day. Went on a ferry ride around the Milford Sound exploring the fiords. Turns out I had no idea what fiords were!! By definition, fiord is a “long, narrow, deep inlet of the sea between high cliffs, typically formed by submergence of a glaciated valley”. So this is it on the picture:

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And of course, the fog, the wind frivolously uncovering the beauty, the giant waterfalls.

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The biker crew invited me to join their picnic lunch on the ferry: wine, fancy bread and cheeses, wheatgrass, oysters… Agh after the days of saving money and eating super simple (NZ is expensive! I only ate food from supermarkets), this was such a feast! Moreover, they drove me to my next point, little town of Te Anau (where I spend the next 3 days), dropped off at the hostel and gave me all the leftover food! So when in the evening all other backpackers cooked their pastas, I ate oysters with a spoon and drank expensive sparkling water:)

KEPLER TRACK

Three days later I was more than ready for my next tramping adventure: the Kepler Track. The loop is 60km (you end in the same place), and it’s a little more challenging than Routeburn Track, still it’s an easy intermediate hike.

14What didn’t make it super easy again? The weather!!! It was so windy and rainy. You definitely need good rain gear… I had it all, but at some point the rain was so harsh, nothing helped! I was wet to my bones.

Also when we were passing a mountain ridge, the wind was dangerously strong. The 1st hut ranger – when he saw the prognosis for the first day – actually told me that if I feel unsafe on the ridge because of the high speed rain (and I might!), I should come back. I didn’t turn back, but a certain mountain stretch was quite fun and challenging. A good idea to have a hat and gloves, even when tramping in the summer months. 
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A lot of time you hike wrapped in thick fog, you just see an immediate stretch of the path in front of you. And then – the wind! And suddenly this opens up! Or one time I passed a cliff wall with 30 (thirty!!!) giant waterfalls roaring down! That was surreal!

17And then I got up to the highest point of the Kepler hike and look who waited for me there! This is KEA – the world’s only alpine parrot which lives only in the New Zealand’s South Island. A parrot living in the mountains!!! Keas are one of the most intelligent living creatures, they can solve logical puzzles/ unzip bags/ figure out tools to get food!
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By the end of the day you meet other hikers in the hut and discuss the natural wonders you saw during the day. They have little stoves in the hut on some hikes (Routeburn and Kepler – yes!), so you can cook warm meals!
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Just to illustrate how brutal the rain was: I was trying to dry my shoes all night, didn’t do much good, so I had to hike in plastic bags over my socks. A good old trick I learnt back from my hiking in Russia!

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The last – third – day was so sunny and gorgeous, as if it never was rainy and windy before! Nature forgets very quickly. And so did we, all the hikers, soaking in the sun rays and enjoying the gorgeous greens and blues.

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