Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Off the Routeburn

A year ago I'd done a fantastic 4 day tramp with the Upper Clutha Tramping Club to Lake Nerine. This year I decided to join the club for another trip, this time to Lake Wilson.

The tramp begins at Routeburn Shelter. We left Wanaka at lunchtime, stopping for a cuppa and cake at Glenorchy's Mrs Wooley's Store, before heading off late afternoon for the short walk in to Routeburn Flats. All but 2 of us had booked campsites, mostly because that was all that was available. But given we were going on a trip that needed tents it didn't seem good value for money to pay $65 for a bed in the hut!!

It's a steady climb, looking downriver

The Routeburn at one of the many bridge crossings

There were quite a few other campers at Routeburn Flats, but there's heaps of space available with two cooking shelters, a couple of drop toilets and quite a few picnic tables. 

The evening was somewhat chilly, so most went to bed early. I didn't sleep too well, and the next morning we were up and off by 8 am, continuing along the Routeburn Track climbing up to Routeburn Falls Hut. The views back down to the flats were spectacular.

A wee peak through the canopy down to the Routeburn Flats

Both Flats Hut and the private lodge run by Ultimate Hikes are built cheek by jowl in a small depression below the falls. You need to climb up from either hut to see the falls which are pretty spectacular. I found out later you can actually climb down to the bottom of the falls, but no-one from the club, if they knew that, told me. I was right at the back so didn't have a lot of time to linger.

Routeburn Falls

Routeburn Falls

View down to the Flats with all that accomodation snuggled in together and almost hidden

My biggest bugbear with walking with UCTC is the hurry they always seem to be in. This tramp was not expected to take all day so there was lots of time to take in the scenery, take photographs, and just savour the experience. On the Lake Nerine trip I tended to be tail end Charlie so I would have time to take photos. On this trip my fitness isn't there yet, and I'm still struggling with the uphills, so being at the back is by necessity rather than choice. Robyn was official tail end Charlie, but Charlotte and I both took our time taking photos. To be fair, the front runners didn't seem to be mind.

Robyn being my perspective model (hence why she is in front!)

Looking back down the valley, track on right, to the Falls

The track climbs along the left hand side of the valley

Once were glaciers...

Once above the falls the valley opened up into a wide glacial hanging valley, with Lake Harris at it's head. The track skirted the south eastern side of the valley, it was truly spectacular. The Routeburn is usually voted the most scenic of all the Great Walks, and this certainly goes towards explaining why. And we weren't even doing the whole track!

First view of Lake Harris

Look carefully, can you see the walkers in upper left of picture?

We walked along above the bluffs overlooking Lake Harris and then sidled across to Harris Shelter perched in the saddle. From there you can climb up Conical Hill, but this was our lunch stop before leaving the Routeburn behind.

The track above the bluffs

Tarn at Harris Saddle

After lunch we retraced our steps back to Lake Harris and joined a faint track sidling along above the lake to the head of the lake. Once off the Routeburn Highway the track condition deteriorated very quickly, but despite being an unmarked route it obviously gets heaps of foot traffic and there were absolutely no concerns about navigation! It's an unfortunate side effect of the popularity of the Great Walks, that these side trips are now getting a lot more traffic than is sustainable if the environment is to stay pristine.

Off the Routeburn Highway, sidling beside Lake Harris

Looking back down the lake

Head of Lake Harris and entrance to The Valley of the Trolls

What I will say is, apart from a lot of footprints and extensive trapping lines, I saw little other evidence of human impact. I saw no litter and no toilet paper, so for that we can be grateful. I had heard otherwise on the inter webs, so was pleasantly surprised.

At the head of Lake Harris is The Valley of The Trolls. It's no wonder they used NZ to film Lord of the Rings!! 

Lake Harris in background

Walking towards that big waterfall in the middle of the picture

The trolls were all hiding....

I doubt it's possible to camp in the valley, it's basically one big boggy swamp littered with large crags. It's stunning!!

Across the bog to the waterfall

Tarns too

At the head of the valley is an impressive waterfall. This is the main outlet for Lake Wilson, and to get there we needed to climb up beside the waterfall. Well, that green gulch on the right hand side as you look at it. Easy hey?

Looks fairly straightforward right?

It actually wasn't hard at all. Mostly it's a steady scramble at a not too steep gradient, and then there's one section where you have to climb over a rock. John and Inge were there to help. Many took their packs off, but once John showed me where the good handholds were I found it a very easy climb, pack still on. I guess my rock climbing and caving skills from my youth have never left me...

Coming up to the crux of the climb

A rock spider

We emerged at the outlet of the lake. More spectacular views!!

The top of the waterfall!

Lake Wilson from the outlet

The crew putting on warmer clothes, the top of the climb comes out at that notch behind the lady with the bright red jacket on the left (Charlotte)

Back across to Lake Harris, can you see the Routeburn Track way in the distance heading across the Hollyford Faces towards MacKenzie Hut?

We crossed at the outlet and walked around the southern side of the Lake to a spot where we could pitch our tents and get a little bit of shelter from the wind. I had brought my old Vango tent because I had been concerned about the possibility of mischievous Keas damaging my tent. Something I didn't want to happen a week out from my trip to Australia, so I'd left the light weight Tarptent behind. I'd also brought some heavy duty pegs after having issues with windy conditions when using my lightweight pegs. I'm happy to say the MSR Groundhogs did their job!

We had some Kea fly over, but they weren't interested in us. Perhaps there were better pickings to be had at the Routeburn Huts!

Lake Wilson from our campsite

The first night camping at Lake Wilson was brutally cold. We each cooked our dinners and then retreated to the shelter of our tents. I slept well for a few hours and then woke up cold and couldn't quite get warm again.

In the last few years I've found that menopause has meant that I sleep much warmer than I used to. This trip was a good example of the type of conditions I'll be sleeping in in the high Alpine sections of our Australian Alps trip. I'll be taking the extra warm layers after all!!

The morning was moody, with mist coming off the lake. We were camping two nights in order to have a leisurely exploration around the lake. 

We set off up the lake to climb to yet another tarn even higher up, this one looking out to the Hollyford Valley and the Darrens across the way.

Right down the Hollyford to the sea

Madeline and Tutoko

Once we'd circumnavigated the tarn we returned to Lake Wilson and made our way to the head of the lake and then up to yet another tarn, where we stopped for lunch. From here you can continue up along the Serpentine Range all the way to North Col. Not for us on this trip...

Up through that notch. Are they waiting for me?

Lunch tarn

Most of the group continued around the lake, but four of us returned the same way, though by a different route. That meant we got different views and got to climb different slabs of rock on the way back, I'm not sure it was any easier!

Very few patches of snow left after a warm dry summer

Nup, that route was a dead end!


The second evening was much more pleasant, and we all stayed outside sitting on the rocks and watching the sun disappear behind the peaks. Then the temperature began to plummet and another early night was had. I slept better, and was much warmer.

A wind came up in the early morning, so we all had dry tents to pack up for our return hike out. We left around 8am, back around to the outlet crossing and then down the green gulch, over the rock crux and down to the Valley of the Trolls. 

Heading off from the campsite to cross at the outlet

At the start of the climb down

Almost at the bottom

Best of all, we saw a rock wren! Click the link to see some video of this elusive alpine bird.

There was a lot of traffic to and from Lake Wilson. Aside from our 8 tents there was at least another 5-6 other parties both nights, though they all camped elsewhere. I hope everyone was packing their shit out like we were!!

Back through the Valley of the Trolls and back on the Routeburn Highway we strolled down to Routeburn Falls Hut for lunch. There was one guy at the hut towing a wheeled bag!!

The final stretch was a downhill stroll back to Routeburn shelter. After what had been a pretty non strenuous trip the final long walk out didn't seem difficult at all. I remember those last few kms on the Lake Nerine trip had seemed to take forever. I still took the opportunity to have a quick wash and soak my feet in the cold river water though.

We stopped again at Mrs Wooley's on our way through Glenorchy before the drive back to Wanaka.

Now it's time to wash and pack tramping gear for the next section of The Australian Alps Walking Track.

That's next!

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