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Day 3 - Routeburn Falls to Lake Mackenzie

Day 3 - Routeburn Falls to Lake Mackenzie
Home > Treks > NZ Great Walks > Routeburn Track > 3
 
 

 

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February 2018

 

Mt Aspiring/Fiordland

New Zealand

 

44°45'S
168°11'E

890 - 1415m ASL

 

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Introduction to today's journey

Evening... brought me to a lake on the mountains, surrounded by glaciers, crested pinnacles giving it a magnificent appearance (Lake Harris). To avoid the lake I passed ovr several glaciers, in which I had to make steps with a shovel.

- Patrick Caples, 1863

THE MOUNTAINS above the bushline are covered in a carpet of snow tussock which grows very well at this time of year, and is buried in deep snow over winter. Conditions over much of the year is very harsh in these subalpine areas all along the Southern Alps, with intense rain coming from the north west and polar blasts bring snow from the south east. These areas are generally safer during the summer hiking season, but even then the weather can turn adverse.

For hundreds of years, the Maori people ventured over the mountains over narrow passes crossing the terrain otherwise unpenetrable over much of the year. When the European early settlers arrived, the Maori people guided them across these otherwise difficult to find mountain passes as they explored the South Island. Harris Saddle is one of these many mountain passes, crossing over from the Otago headwaters into the southern West Coast above the Hollyford Valley. A road was once proposed over this route, but the mountain terrain and long snow season around the saddle made this impossible, allowing this route to forever remain a walking track.

Today's trek initially takes me into a large hanging valley above Routeburn Falls. The track traverses across the side of the valley to a narrow shelf crossing a dramatic cliff face above Lake Harris before reaching the relatively tame Harris Saddle. From the Saddle I divert from the main track heading up Conical Hill for some more spectacular views before returning to the shelter and continuing along the main track above the bushline high above the Hollyford River. Eventually the track crosses a spur and starts a long descent into another hanging valley where I reach the hut at the mouth of Lake Mackenzie.

 
 

Today's Journey

Distance trekked today: 13.3 kilometres.

Total distance trekked to date: 23.1 kilometres.

 
 
 
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07:11 - The light of dawn begins to illuminate the eastern sky on this very cold morning with a wind gently blowing up the valley. The sky is clear though, so this is going to be a spectacular day to cross the mountains.

 

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07:21 - I am not the only one up early. Several others are ready to leave, particularly a couple of people catching the early van at Routeburn Shelter and a couple of others heading all the way through to Howden Hut today. I planned this trip well in advance to prevent having to be rushed - why would you want to be rushed in such a spectacular setting?

 

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07:40 - Looking up the steep cascade to the top of the Routeburn Falls as I follow the rocky path up the precarious route above the hut. Fortunately there are rails and ropes to hold as I stumble my way up the track still waking up.

 

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07:57 - Looking from near the top of the scramble, the huts are way below me as I have a final look back to Routeburn Flats. The newly risen sun now streams across the mountaintops.

 

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08:16 - Entering the valley. The track is not as wide as it was up to the hut, but it is still in excellent condition as it heads up the hanging valley now above the bush line. The low scrub and snow tussock makes for a very different landscape to the previous two days. Most of the foliage here is quite soft, the only exception is the well named occasional clump of speargrass where the tips of the leaves can stab right through you. The increased altitude exposes this area to temperatures too cold for the forest to survive. Snow fills this valley for months at a time over winter.

 

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08:24 - Another crystal clear mountain stream draining from the towering mountains. This would have to be the nicest and purest cold drinking water available anywhere.

 

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08:41 - Following the fault line rising at a moderate grade above the valley. For the first time, the summit of Mount Xenicus is coming into view on the other side of the valley. The track climbs partly in anticipation of the towering bluffs I'll soon need to negotiate to get over the saddle. It also climbs because the valley floor is extremely boggy.

 

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08:46 - Looking upstream, the left branch river is a lot more placid now. I get my first view of Harris Saddle in the gap near the middle of this image. When tour expeditions started here from the 1870s, this valley became notorious for its bogginess as hikers who had scaled the cascading Route Burn above Routeburn Flats were now confronted with the deep bogs of this valley as they struggled their way up on this final leg to Lake Harris. Fortunately the modern track is well above the boggy valley floor and covered in rocky gravel to keep it mud free.

 

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09:12 - The track rises the slope of Ocean Peak to the start of a jumble of enormous boulders brought down from perhaps an earthquake or maybe deposited from an old small glacier in this area.

 

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09:27 - Looking back to the upper Route Burn valley having already gained a fair bit of altitude. The fault line hides the lip through which the river flows down to the next valley. The low hill above the lip hides a small lake on the other side of it.

 

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09:29 - Reaching more enormous blocks of rock rolled down the side of Ocean Peak. The track weaves its way around these spectacular rocks as it continues moderately rising towards the saddle still unseen. The rocks form part of the Harris Saddle Formation sandstones which were laid down on an ancient sea floor between 220 and 270 million years ago during the Permian and Triassic periods, perhaps capturing part of the biggest extiction event to date around 252 million years ago.

 

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09:34 - The track passes through a short tunnel under some of the giant boulders which have rolled together. This isn't the place to be during a big earthquake.

 

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09:47 - From the boulders the track rises along a fairly new staircase steeply ascending the side of he valley. I can now see all the way back to the Routeburn Gorge and near the start of the track, as well as the range on the other side of Glenorchy. The Route Burn silently meanders mirror smooth through the bogs and tarns of the bottom of the hanging valley now far below.

 

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09:48 - Looking ahead, Lake Harris comes into view. This drains into the Route Burn, although the lake itself isn't the source of the river. Upstream from the lake is another lake from where the river begins. Above Lake Harris is Conical Hill which has a side track leading towards it summit, and tucked away hidden to its left is Harris Saddle.

 

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09:51 - The track continues heading up the side of the mountain towards a ledge crossing between two levels of near vertical cliff towering over the lake.

 

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10:10 - The track becomes rougher as it follows the ledge between the cliffs high above the spectacularly blue lake. Mount Xenicus is standing very fall above the lake.

 

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10:22 - The track rises and falls along the ridge above the almost mirror smooth lake. This is the highest part of the track, at about 1300 metres above sea level. The lake at 1225 metres above sea level freezes over in winter. The ice melts breaks up into icebergs in spring and melt away before summer begins. The water is extremely cold even at this time of year when it should be at its warmest.

 

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10:33 - Looking back to the mouth of the lake as more people approach from behind following the track precariously wedged between the levels of cliff. The early tourists looking up the mountain from Lake Harris probably thought heading up to Harris Saddle would be impossible.

 

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10:34 - Looking across the lake zoomed into Route Burn Valley. A recent ice age created the lake carving it out of the surrounding lake and leaving the exposed rock of the low range of hills to hold the water back.

 

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10:35 - Hikers who have just passed me are now descending around the lake towards Harris Saddle. The saddle is around the other side of the spur they are hiking around. From this view it would be hard to believe there is a saddle around the corner. From here I can now see the upper reaches of the Route Burn above where the stream flows into Lake Harris.

 

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10:38 - I get my first view of the 1255 metre high Harris Saddle as the track continues to descend around the spur. The saddle itself looks quite flat compared to the surrounding walls of rock terrain. The saddle marks the main divide of the Southern Alps, and where Mount Apsiring National Park ends and Fiordland begins. Fiordland National Park was gazetted in 1952 and Mount Aspiring National Park was gazetted much later in 1964. The saddle also marks the boundary between Otago (on this side) and Southland. The saddle and the lake were named in 1863 when the route crossing the saddle was explored by Patrick Caples naming if after John Hyde Harris, the superintendent of Otago.

 

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10:41 - Last clear view of the lake from the main trail as the upper section of Route Burn comes down the little valley in the centre from its source at the smaller Lake Wilson. The water is a spectacular blue colour as it drops very deep from its turquoise shores.

 

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10:52 - Harris Saddle shelter is now just a few minutes away on the other side of the numerous tarns. The Maori name for Harris Saddle is Tarahaka Whakatipu, forming one of the routes across the mountains between the greenstone areas in Fiordland and near the mouth of the Route Burn.

 

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11:00 - I reach Harris Saddle Shelter, the near hut for the guided hikers and the far one for the independent hikers. The first shelter was built in 1968, and rebuilt in 1992 at around the same time the track was realigned to minimise damage in this sensitive area. The inside of these shelters is very basic, allowing hikers to store their backpacks safe from the keas and relax here for lunch or attempt to climb Conical Hill.

 

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11:05 - The side track heading up towards Conical Hill. Most of it is more of a scramble than a track, but forms a good diversion for hikers who are making very good time on this longest leg of the trek.

 

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11:24 - I pose at the shelter during my early lunch rest. Behind me the Hollyford Valley stretches in a straight line from the Milford Road to the left in the far distance, down the valley all the way out to the Tasman Sea on the right. On the other side of the valley is the Darren Mountains with mountains towering to over 2700 metres high. Milford Sound is just on the other side of these mountains around 20 kilometres directly behind me.

 

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11:47 - View back to the shelter from part way puffing up the Conical Hill track. Looking up the Hollyford valley towards Te Anau where I will be heading in a couple of days following the end of the trek.

 

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12:23 - Further up the track and zoomed in along the valley I can see the Milford Road and Lake Gunn on the other side of The Divide. The track above Lake Mackenzie (not yet visible) is also just visible rounding the nearest major spur. There is still a long way to go after I get back down to the shelter.

 

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12:24 - Following the very rough track towards the saddle between the two hills with Conical Hill to the right.

 

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12:33 - View from the saddle over the lake and down the upper Route Burn Valley. The lake is very deep. Part of the track up to the saddle is visible on the right beside the lake. Ocean Peak rises behind the lake, and Lake Mackenzie is tucked in directly behind its summit.

 

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12:34 - Close-up of Mount Xenicus with the headwaters of the Route Burn hidden behind the nearby spur. The layers of sandstone compressed by millions of years of mountain building is clearly visible on the mountains.

 

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12:35 - Looking up Conical Hill. There's another hundred metres of climbing scrambling over rock, but I need to get back to the shelter and continue to Lake Mackenzie as there is a long way to go.

 

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13:30 - The shelter soon comes back into view as I scramble down the steep track. The main track passes the shelter as it traverses across the top of the saddle.

 

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14:01 - Starting along the track from Harris Saddle Shelters towards Lake Mackenzie. A road over the saddle was proposed upon the settlement of Jamestown at Martins Bay in 1870. 3000 pounds was set aside for the construction of a 112 kilometre long road running between Kinlock at the head of Lake Wakatipu and Martin's Bay on the West Coast, but it was abandoned three years later due to very slow progress and the realisation the construction of the road would not be at all practical due to the steep terrain and extensive winter snows. Instead a pack track was constructed along the Greenstone Valley further towards what is now the Milford Road.

 

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14:09 - From the tarns the track descends some steep country heading down into the Hollyford Valley carved deep in the mountains. The unseen bottom of the valley is nearly a vertical kilometre below me.

 

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14:10 - The track follows a ledge high above the river heading upstream. Although conditions are calm with almost no wind at all today, this is the exposed side of the mountains and there is frequently heavy rain falling here with wind blowing around 80 to 100 kilometres per hour. I've been very fortunate with the weather today.

 

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14:58 - Looking across the Hollyford Valley to the Darran Mountains. I am just above a plateau on either side which would have once been the glacial valley floor. In a more recent ice age, another glacier carved its way through this valley deepening it to its current level. The top of that glacier would not have been as high as this plateau, and the hanging glaciers on either side of it would have stopped near the tree line with streams of meltwater flowing into the main glacier.

 

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15:03 - The track narrows as it goes around the first spur heading towards Lake Mackenzie. Towards the end of the spur, I reach the junction to Deadman's Track. This was the original path of the Routeburn Track once crossing Harris Saddle. From here it drops steeply into the Hollyford Valley to the gravel road below. A much later survey from 1909 constructed what is now the main track gradually going down to the Milford Road. It was during the construction of this track Lake Mackenzie was discovered.

 

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15:23 - The track continues going around Ocean Peak. By the end of today I will have gone nearly three quarters of the way around this mountain.

 

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16:04 - Looking up a glaciated valley draining a hidden lake under Mount Gunn.

 

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16:08 - First view of the Hollyford River about 800 metres below. A road runs from the Milford Road to about this part of the river where the Deadman's Track reaches the valley floor. From here there is another track heading downstream along the Hollyford River to the coast at Jackson's Bay, the southern end of the West Coast road.

 

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16:15 - Looking up the valley towards the Milford Road now seen as a scar across the mountain in the middle. The road is seen descending from The Divide to the right - the end of the Routeburn Track, towards the valley heading up towards the Homer Tunnel.

 

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16:20 - The track becomes more precarious as it goes around another spur.

 

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16:40 - Once around the spur, the track starts going uphill towards the next spur around which will be the Lake Mackenzie hidden valley. No wonder it wasn't discovered until this track was surveyed in 1909.

 

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16:57 - A waterfall just above the track viewed from a small metal bridge.

 

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17:10 - A bridge crosses another stream tumbling down the mountainside. The bridges here are metal constructions easily removable by helicopter when the winter avalanche season starts.

 

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17:11 - Looking downstream from the same bridge to before the creek leaps down into the valley below. The ledge marks where the old valley was bottoming out before a new glacier in a more recent ice age carved the middle of the valley a lot deeper.

 

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17:19 - Looking down the Hollyford Valley to where the horizon of the Tasman Sea is now just visible in the distance. The coast is around 25 kilometres away.

 

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17:23 - A tarn on the plateau just below the track.

 

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17:33 - Heading around to the next ridge as shadows of the mountains start sweeping across the Hollyford Valley as the sun starts sinking towards the horizon.

 

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17:37 - Passing under a cliff at the end of the spur.

 

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17:44 - Heading up to round the next spur. This spur is quite flat, and upon reaching the top, the track follows it gently uphill.

 

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17:54 - Upon reaching the top of the spur, I get my first view down to the Mackenzie guided tour hut, with the start of tomorrow's track heading towards Lake Howden visible across the nearby flat. It is a long way down but seems deceptively close from here.

 

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17:59 - A little bit further along the track as it leaves the top of the spur, I pass through a field of pineapple shrub Dracophyllum menziesii and get this spectacular view of both huts and the spectacular Lake Mackenzie.

 

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18:00 - The lake is nicely nestled under the towering mountains. It was completely hidden and undiscovered until a new track was proposed following above the bushline from Lake Howden at the end of the Greenstone Route, to Harris Saddle as a more comfortable alternative to descending the steep Deadman's Track. Harry Briley was employed as a tour guide at the time, and during his 1909 survey discovered the lake, which he named after the then minister of tourism, Thomas MacKenzie who was a keen hiker himself.

 

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18:07 - The track winds in amongst the bluffs towards Mount Emily and Emily Pass. The distance is similar to what I had seen the other day from Routeburn Flats, which are now just six kilometres away as the crow flies.

 

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18:28 - The huts are getting further away. This descent is going to take a lot longer than expected. Following Hary Briley's 1909 survey, construction on this track began in 1913 where two gangs working from either end built it using picks, shovels and wheelbarrows. Contruction had been completed from Howden to Mackenzie when World War I broke out, and the remainder of the track was delayed until the war was over.

 

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18:29 - I can now see the track doubing back the other way and also the stream feeding towards Lake Mackenzie. At least I will be going in the correct direction soon.

 

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18:37 - A Mount Cook daisy almost at the end of its flowering season before the long winter sets in.

 

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18:52 - I reach the turn in the track a long way from the hut now. At least I'm going to be heading in the right direction from now on. The orange markers mark the track when there is a lot of snow on the ground.

 

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19:03 - About ten minutes after the bend I reach these plaques to hikers who have perished around here. Two children Heather and Bryan perished here in the 1960s in adverse conditions on a school trip. One Chech guy died two winters ago after he and his partner left the Mackenzie Hut to head towards the saddle. He slipped on the ice falling down after they had come over Harris Saddle. She stayed here with his body for three days before heading to Mackenzie Hut and stayed there alone for about a month before she was discovered by rescuers. Such is the remoteness of this area over winter.

 

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19:08 - Following the track back toward the hut as the sun sinks low in the western sky. This is the last view of the valley I get before entering the forest.

 

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19:35 - This is the first forest I have seen since sunrise at the Routeburn Falls hut. The forest on this side of the mountains is different with a lot more moss and undergrowth testament to the higher rainfall here in Fiordland. I hurry down this section as the sun is shortly to set.

 

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20:08 - I reach the bottom of the valley after sunset with the view of Mount Emily as cloud begins to build around the peaks. Interestingly the lake does not have an outlet stream. The water must flow underground filtering through the terminal moraine dumped by the glacier that once flowed here carving out the valley. Shortly afterwards I see the hut and reach it soon before dark.

 

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20:40 - I unpack and set up bunk in a bed the group of Aucklanders reserved for me. We had lunch together at the Harris Saddle Shelter before they headed off in this direction. Once set up I head down just in time for the hut talk given by the warden Evan who has instrumental in setting up the stoat hunting program in this part of Fiordland over the past couple of decades, mentioning a big motivation was in getting the birdsong back to the then silent forests. Many pests have been trapped here since, with the numbers falling. The birdsong is starting to return to this valley.

 

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21:06 - I cook dinner (another Back Country Cuisine) before heading off to bed.

 
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