32kms doesn't sound like an overly intimidating challenge but the reality of tackling this Great Walk turned out much harder than it had appeared on paper! Though of course it was worth every blister, stumble, scramble and brush with almost catastrophe. It was harder but also incomparably more enjoyable than anything we had anticipated.
It started off with a scenic (everything in NZ, particularly the Fjordland region, is scenic) transfer overland from Queenstown, via Paradise (an actual place!!) to the Routeburn Shelter.
Day 1 from the Shelter to the Routeburn Falls Hut - was relatively easygoing. You begin a steady climb through a wooded valley, before descending to the valley floor and a vast expanse of grassland. From here it was an uphill climb over rocky terrain to the Hut. They have a lodge up here for the more discerning traveller. We were 'roughing' it in the Hut bunkhouse. Which was clean, comfortable (byo sleeping bags but mattresses are provided) and fully equipped (large communal kitchen area and spotless facilities.) Bookings are required in the summer months, and each evening a ranger addresses that days walkers with an update on weather etc. This took place around 8pm, and pretty soon after we were in bed. Exhausted and gearing up for an early start (to beat the forecast storm.) Note; though our dehydrated meals were light and easy to pack we did look with envy on those (no doubt wiser and more experienced) who had thought to bring along cheese, nibbles and drinks!
Day 2 from the Routeburn Falls Hut to Lake Mackenzie - this is where we had our brush with 'catastrophe' (only a slight exaggeration I promise!) The storm was forecast to hit around midday so we were up and out before anyone else has stirred to try and beat it to the pass. The first couple of hours we were treated to some exceptional scenery. So different from the day before, the grassland and forests gave way to a truly wild environment as you navigate the route through the top of the mountains. Unfortunately the storm decided to join us, just as we were making our way along the most precarious bit of narrow mountainside. We took shelter in an abandoned hut (after getting a thorough drenching - we were woefully poorly outfitted for the occasion!!) Fortunately as wild and as quickly as the thunder and lighting had arrived did it also leave. In a break in the weather we had the chance to crawl up to Conical "Hill" (don't let the name fool you!!) This was quite a tricky side-trip. But so worth it for the jaw-dropping view above the clouds.
We then scurried down the side of the mountain and took more shelter, as the storm made a return appearance, in the ancient wooded and otherworldly moss covered terrain that sits above the lake - our destination. It's very hard to explain without using the word magical just what this part of the walk was like. We tried to take photos of the hanging moss and lush green trees but gave up after a while as nothing could do it justice. When we eventually stumbled out of here we went straight to bed (to warm up and dry off.) After a few hours sleep, we dragged our exhausted selves outside to be greeted by sunshine and the stunning lake aspect (hidden to us on arrival.) There were about 20-30 other walkers who had joined us by this stage. All with clothes strewn over grass and bush to try and dry them off. We all gathered around the lake to bask in the afternoon sun and later in the dining hall for another early dinner.
Day 3 from Lake Mackenzie to the Divide - bliss. This day was almost all on relatively level ground which was a welcome relief after the previous two days. It was another full day of walking, though yet more diverse landscapes unlike any we had yet encountered. By late afternoon we popped out in to the Divide where we were met by our friendly driver for the long journey back to Queenstown. Where we were booked in to a nice hotel for the evening - a well deserved and still happily reminisced about treat after a solid few days of "tramping" across the New Zealand wilderness.