New Zealand – The Caples, Kepler and Routeburn

The Routeburn and the Kepler are two of the most popular tracks in NZ.  It is impossible to get a reservation for a campsite or a hut, so instead we decided to just bash them out in one day each instead of three.  And to avoid having to get a bus 300km from Glenorchy we decided to walk 40k over the mountains on the caples track instead…., cheaper and it seemed a more elegant way to join up the route

Lake Howden

Day 1 – easy stroll and a bivvy on the caples

We left the greenstone carpark about 3.30 after taking the shuttle from the Rees valley.  Papa scout was amazed that a shuttle even went to the carpark given how remote it was, and I was in love with Joanna our shuttle driver who stopped to let us get coffee and cake, charged my phone for me, and offered to take our rubbish to town for us (there were no bins in the carpark).

Papa scout trying to avoid sand flies
The paths on the caples are some of the easiest in NZ, as doc has used a mechanical digger to bulldoze a route through the forest.  While it doesn’t look great, it does make for very easy waking so we busted out a quick 20k in four hours.   Finding a camp site was a bit tricky, and for a while we contemplated pitching our tents on the trail, but we eventually found a spot which was vaguely flat and set up for the night.   After more dehydrated food which I didn’t want, it was off to bed with the earplugs as the birds were being pretty chatty.

Bivvy on the caples

Day 2 – 19k out to the divide

I was awake at 6.15 but there wasn’t much light so I made breakfast in bed and had a litre of coffee, and shouted out papa scouts wake up call at 6.45.  We broke camp at 7.15 and meandered up the saddle.  We had plenty of time to kill as our shuttle wasn’t until 13.30.   We stopped at the lovely Howden lake for an hour for a substantial second breakfast (I am a hobbit), and then wandered up to key summit.  After annoying the gizzillions of tourists who were up the hill by running back down from the summit, we made it to the divide carpark with two hours  to spare.  We contemplated hitching but I didn’t have a great deal of confidence in the driving ability of the tourists here, so we killed time by eating some more and doing yoga.    While we had planned to head straight out on the Kepler, the weather forecast was very dodgy so we decided to have a posh dinner out a redcliff instead…. venison and spätzle…. and then sleep on an actual bed (albeit in the backpackers dorm) after having a shower…. what luxury

After running up to key summit

Day 3 – up the Kepler – 42km, 1500m of up, 7 hours

The forecast was for gale force winds and it was a grey and gloomy day.  We decided to head out on the track and go as far as we could while the weather held.  Being purists, we walked to the start of the track from town and then the flat section to Brod Bay, about 10k.   Apparently no one does that, as shortly after Brod Bay we started overtaking hikers who had taken the boat over to the bay to skip some of the trail.

Lake te anau from the control gates
The climb up to luxmore hut is lovely, with nice easy switchbacks on a beautifully graded trail.   We were below the tree line for much of the climb enjoying the ferns and the luminous green of much of the kiwi bush.

Summit of Mt Luxmore in 90k winds
When we broke out above the trees, the winds started howling so we sped up and shortly after arrived at Luxmore Hut.  The weather was turning and there were 90k an hour winds on the tops, so my original plan to walk all the way along the ridge wasn’t a great idea, plus the views would have been rubbish.  Instead we climbed up to the summit of Mt Luxmore, trying not to get blown off the trail and then called it a day and headed back.

Near Luxmore hut
Papa scout was having an ‘off’ as he calls it, with ‘heavy legs’ but that didn’t stop him busting out a cracking walking pace of 7k an hour for the last ten k, my legs could barely keep up…. especially as his are quite a bit longer.  After seven hours of effort on just two muesli bars we did spend much of the last five k figuring out what we were going to eat and in what order….. for me it was rump steak, chips, fried egg, mushrooms, caramel slice, lolly cake and two coffees at 4pm, followed by half a chicken, half a loaf of bread, grain waves, pikelets and Nutella and half a Moro bar at 7.30.   And I was still hungry!!!!   Can’t wait to get home to eat some proper vegetables.

Day 4 – back to the routeburn – 5k hike plus 15k bonus running miles

Unfortunately we are having to stretch our three days of walking to five, given the camping restrictions and the vagaries of track transport, so we didn’t head off to the start of the Routeburn until 13.30 from te anau.  We did rouse ourselves by eight though to go for a run along the lake shore, and then went to town for coffee and yet more food.  French toasted banana bread, bacon, strawberry muffin, ginger kisses and coffee.  Honestly am getting tired of eating but I am also starving most of the time!   It will be nice to eat normally again!

Tents on the greenstone saddle
We were lucky with the weather today and arrived up the divide to stunning sun.  We got to the greenstone saddle campsite in under an hour and set up our tents.  It was only four so we went for a gentle 10k run through the forest down the greenstone track to Mckellar hut and back.  For once I went faster than papa scout who was really having an ‘off’.   Had a lovely, albeit too brief chat to Chelsea from Paeroa who is wisely taking some time out and enjoying a wonderful haerenga around our beautiful country including getting out into the bush.

Chelsea at the mckellar hut
Back to the campsite for dinner and then early to bed as it is pretty damp and cold. It took me about ten minutes to kill the c.50 sandflies who had managed to join me in the tent and am now well wrapped up and ready to sleep and it is only 19.30.

A group of four turned up at 19.45 and were about to pitch about 3metres away from my tent when I asked them what they were doing!!!  I never understand why people think it is ok to go out into the bush and then pitch their tent on top of you.  They were friendly enough kids and when I warned them I was getting up at five the were happy to shift further along.

Day 5 – out to the Routeburn road end – 32km, 1300m ascent

I awoke to a very wet tent in the damp greenstone saddle and was too cold and lazy to change out of my pajamas, so I made some coffee and got ready to go, only to find papa scout also preparing to leave in his pajamas!  We warmed up about half an hour in and got changed on the trail!   The morning was mostly quiet, no one was moving in Howden hut when we passed just after 7.

The lovely lake mckenzie
We made it to the lovely lake McKenzie by nine and knew we were close as we started meeting folks on the trail.  From the lake we were at Harris saddle by 11 and it was an irresistible day to head up conical peak.  I have been over this way many times and I couldn’t help but tell everyone on the summit how lucky they were to get the view from the peak!  To see the Hollyford reach the sea at the end of Lake Mckerrow and to marvel at the lovely Lake Harris from above –  these are rare gifts from the weather gods in these parts.

Alongside lake Harris
From the saddle we wandered down to Routeburn Falls hut, where we bumped into the hut ranger on the trail – the same one we had met on the Gillespie pass last week – small world!    He was heading up the saddle to work on the trail.  Our doc wardens are national treasures!

Lake Harris from conical peak
After a royal lunch of brie, Nutella, pancakes and flatbread sitting on the rocks above the falls we meandered down the valley where I bumped into another lady I had met at the Oturere hut in Tongariro three weeks ago.  Papa scout reckons I talk too much and this is why I meet so many people.

We arrived at the road end at 3 having made cracking time in spite of the leisurely pace, long lunch, and the side trip up the hill.  8 hours from start to finish including all the stops – not bad given we were carrying all our gear!

Routeburn flats
I had a swim, cleaned and dried my tent, and kept busy killing sandflies until the shuttle arrived at four.   Papa scout is flying home tomorrow and reckons his legs are done,  I reckon we both have enough juice left for one more run up the summit of Ben lomond at dawn tomorrow.    We will see!

Notes

– the Kepler – on a good day it is an easy day walk to Mt Luxmore or further onto one of the shelters before the descent to Iris Burn.  For my money the section from Luxmore Hut to the hanging rock shelter is the best section on the Kepler, so if you don’t have time for the full hike or can’t get a reservation for a hut, you can see all of the great views in a long day walk (shorter if you take the boat)

– the Caples – is easily walked end to end in 6-7 hours, and would make a nice overnight loop with the Routeburn if you camped one night at greenstone saddle.  This is also a great hike for new trampers as the trail is easy and well graded with no exposed sections

– the Routeburn – my favourite day hike!!!! But definitely too crowded to do as a traditional tramp.  Huts are impossible to book and full of people who don’t understand tramping culture.  If you do want to take a bit longer you can camp legally and for free at greenstone saddle and on the north branch of the routeburn behind routeburn flats hut

– transport.  From glenorchy to the caples or routeburn, I highly recommend the lovely folks at glenorchy journeys.  On the divide side you can use tracknet or buckleys to get to and from te anau

Recommended Hikes in NZ

I have met many wonderful people on my travels who want to come to NZ, and have asked for my top tips on where to hike.  Apologies for the tardiness, but here are my favourite places to run and hike in the worlds best hiking country

The Great Walks

There are nine great walks in NZ, and they are justly named as they are some beautiful tracks (what we call trails in NZ) – including the Routeburn, Kepler, Milford, Abel Tasman and Tongariro.   I would no longer do any of these walks as hikes, as there are too many people on them and you have to prebook the huts.   However, if you are new to hiking, and/or want to be sure of company, then you will be happy walking any of these Great Walks.

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the Heaphy Track

If you are a trail runner, I can highly recommend running some of the Great Walks as the trails are all beautifully groomed, my fave runs are:

  • Routeburn from the Glenorchy carpark end up to the Harris Saddle or onward to Conical Hill, and back down to the carpark
  • Abel Tasman from  Awaroa back to Marahau or vice versa using the water taxis to transport you one way – about 4-5 hours (tide dependent and with some paddling stops), 30k and pretty easy
  • Heaphy as a two day run, with an ultra light pack as you only need a bit of food and a sleeping bag
  • Rakiura is an easy 4-5 hour day run around Stewart Island
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Running up to the Harris Saddle on the Routeburn
Terrific multi day hikes which are not ‘great walks’

New Zealand is a land blessed with wonderful hikes, and ones I would highly recommend are (* means trails are extremely runnable)

Near Auckland 

  • Hilary trail which is a lovely stroll along the west coast of Auckland

Near Nelson/St Arnaud

Near Wanaka

  • Wilkins Gillespie Circuit near Makarora with a side trip up to Lake Crucible
  • Matukituki valley tracks near Wanaka with some wonderful shorter walks based out of Aspiring Hut
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Fording the Rees river heading up the Rees valley

Near Glenorchy

  • Rees Dart circuit * – one of my absolute favourites, simply a stunning run/hike up the rees valley and down the dart.  This can be joined up with the Matukituki valley tracks in good weather with a traverse over the Cascade Saddle into the Aspiring national park.  Note the Dart part of the track is currently closed
  • Greenstone/Caples track *- two good day runs, or a nice 2-3 day round trip, much less crowded than its popular neighbour the Routeburn
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Tuatapere Humpridge Track

If you are feeling super energetic you can join up the Wanaka/Glenorchy trails in a big long loop – hiking from Arrowtown to Wanaka on the Motatapu Trail, hitching a ride from Wanaka to Makarora to walk the Wilkins Gillespie, and if you have alpine experience traversing the Rabbit pass directly from the Wilkins to the Aspiring Hut (near Wanaka), and then taking the Cascade Saddle over to the Rees track to come out at Glenorchy.   This is a pretty epic route and I am looking forward to seeing if I can make it work this summer

Near Te Anau

  • Hollyford track – a wonderful walk and you get to see the seals at Martins Bay.  This can be a bit tricky, as the ‘demon trail’ is aptly named.  If you want to go a bit upmarket and take a boat around the tough bits you can pay for a guided tour and they also chopper you out from the end
  • Tuatapere Humpridge*  – a very good track, privately run, which means you can upgrade to a private room if you don’t want a dorm.  You can also buy food in the hut, so you really don’t need to carry anything.  And they have hot showers!!!
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Hollyford Track

If you are looking for somewhere to base yourself for these hikes, I would recommend the quieter bases of St Arnaud, Motueka, Wanaka and Glenorchy.  I tend to avoid Queenstown these days as it is too busy!

There are hundreds of other hiking opportunities in NZ, including considering embarking to Te Araroa – the long pathway which runs for 3000km from the top of the country to the very bottom, I have only picked my favourites, and I am sure others would prioritise different hikes

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Rakiura on a Rainy Day
Accommodation/Transport
  • If hiking, you can get a great value pass from Doc for $122 which will allow you unlimited nights in back country huts for a year (excluding Great Walk Huts)
  • There is lots of good free camping in NZ, and I use the camping NZ app to find free campsites – many of these are pretty basic and administered by DOC.
  • I highly recommend that you DO NOT rent an RV and drive around the south island – our roads are not terrifically well designed for big slow vehicles and it is much more sensible (cheaper and easier) to rent a small car and stay in hostels or camp
additional information
  • Doc – the department of conservation is a wonderful source of info with track maps and the local office can advise you of trail conditions
  • Good too maps are free to download from http://www.topomap.co.nz

 

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West Sabine River