Hiking the Routeburn Track with Ultimate Hikes in New Zealand
Once in a while
you may come across a place
seems as close to perfection
as you will ever need.
And striving to be faultless
the air on its knees
holds the trees apart,
yet nothing is categorically
thus, or that, and before the dusk
mellows and fails
the light is like honey
on the stems of tussock grass,
and the shadows are mauve birthmarks
on the hills.
~ Brian Turner
I love the outdoors, but since I didn’t grow up with parents who took me hiking and camping, I also feel super intimidated and scared of it… After all, I have no idea what to do, how to camp, how to survive. I could fall off the path or get lost and nobody would know, only to be eaten by a wild animal.
Luckily, I’m not the only one in such a predicament… I soon found a company called Ultimate Hikes that offered a multi-day Routeburn Track group trip. I had no idea what I was in for, but paid them a lot of money and signed up.
The hike itself was absolutely spectacular! Just ridiculous views. I don’t think words can describe such raw natural beauty. And my pictures don’t even give it justice! So here is a taste of what you might see:
I loved getting a gleam of the breathtaking snow-covered mountains through the tree…
And when the mountains reflected in the water 😍
But not all mountains had snow. Some were greeeeen!!!
There was one mountain that was shaped like a perfect cone! Nature is truly amazing!
We got to walk on the side of the mountain for a while :) It was actually tough because it was unprotected from the wind or rain, but it was still one of my favorite parts!
These mountains on the lake were just unbelievable!
Can you believe this?!!!
I’ve never seen a forest like this! The trees, so tangled up! So mystical!
It was like being inside the Lord of the Rings movie!
So many waterfalls! Have you ever seen a rainbow at the end of the waterfall like this?!!!
Sometimes, the waterfall would have sooooooo much might and power!!
And of course, where there are waterfalls, there are rivers that need bridges to cross. I loved walking across so many forest bridges, sometimes sitting on one for a few minutes, just watching the water run underneath.
The Routeburn Track takes 3 days (and 2 nights) to hike - although, you can probably do it in 2 on your own if you camp and walk super fast and have more daylight hours (in the summer). It is located in the Fiordland National Park, which gets A LOT of rain. You are pretty much guaranteed to get wet during the hike.
Ultimate Hikes provides hiking backpack (with waterproof cover) and rain coats. This was super helpful, as I do not own these items myself. And since I’m a nomad, I would have had to buy them only to throw them out potentially, since I can’t add any more items to my one suitcase.
You can also rent walking poles from them for $25, which most people in the group had. I’ve personally tried them before and hated them - I hate carrying stuff in my hands and maybe I don’t use them right… So I skipped with no regrets. Those who did get them seemed very very happy with them, especially on uphill and downhill and icy days.
The one big things I did not have were hiking boots… but I did actually need them. @olegcode told me that the New Zealand version of REI is Kathmandu. But he warned me that clothes in New Zealand are A LOT more expensive than in the U.S., so to avoid buying it here if possible. Unfortunately, I had no choice.
Also, unfortunately, since I was living far out from Christchurch in Lyttelton at the time, the only time I could go to Kathmandu was the day before my flight. It is not recommended to get new hiking shoes before a big hiking trip… so I was definitely worried about blisters.
But at the Ultimate Hikes store, they sold something I haven’t seen before. Foot Fleece!
You just tear off a piece and put it in your hiking shoe where you feel blisters coming, and it’ll prevent them! For me, that part was at the ankles (since I usually wear shoes without ankle support), so it was easy to put in. And I did not get blisters during my entire hike. In fact, I LOVED my hiking shoes - I know they cost a lot more than in the U.S., but I am so happy with them, and will definitely keep using them!
Ulimate Hikes has a list of things to bring, which I tried to follow, but I didn’t want to buy extra stuff (like waterproof pants) since it’s expensive and I couldn’t really fit them into my suitcase.
My daily outfit on the track included a thermal undershirt, a t-shirt on top, a light North Face jacket, leggings, liner + wool socks, and a hat. Oh, and I bought hiking underwear from Kathmandu, since most of mine is cotton - highly recommend investing in this! I also bought a big fleece neck-warmer since the one I had before from Leh got worn out.
One big mistake I made was bringing my big puffy warm coat. The weather looked very cold and there was even snow in part of the track (I did the hike in late April, which is Fall in New Zealand and the end of the season on the Routeburn track), but when you’re walking, you heat up. I ended up not wearing the big puffy coat except at night or in the morning in the lodges. Which was nice, but not worth the extra weight.
The lodges also have a way to hand-wash your clothes and an incredible drying room, heated so everything dries very fast. I would bring less clothes (such as socks) or t-shirts next time. I actually ended up washing my favorite socks and drying them instead of using a new pair. Again, I carried the extra weight, but didn’t really have to.
What to Expect
The day before the hike, Ultimate Hike had an orientation for the group. That is where you pick your backpack and rain coats. They also give you a sheet to carry that you’re supposed to use at the lodges.
The coolest thing I learned was that any water we find in Fiordland National Park is so clean, it’s safe to just drink! That also meant that we didn’t have to worry about having a large supply of water on us at all times. Just my Klean Kanteen (800 ml) water bottle that I use every day was more than sufficient.
They also told us that there would be no cell service or Wifi for the duration of the hike. I was very happy about this. I definitely needed to disconnect!
Now the main reason many people join the group trip - safety! There would be three guides with us. One in the front, one in the middle, and one in the end. The guides are trained in first-aid, and they have radios to communicate with each other and the base. So if you get hurt on the track, one of the guides would know you’re missing and come find you - they’ll know what to do to help you!
The group consisted of about 20 people and included solo hikers like me, fathers and daughters, couples, and friends. The coolest thing was that there were people of all ages! It’s always so encouraging to see older people hiking. I want to hike like this when I’m their age!
We had to meet at the Ultimate Hikes center at 6:30am on the first day. The bus ride over to the start of the hike was about 2-3 hours! But it was such a gorgeous bus ride! Sooooooo many sheep!!
We hiked 10 - 15 kilometers (6 - 9 miles) per day, starting at around 9:30am and ending at around 4:00 or 5:00pm.
So there was plenty of time for everyone to finish before sunset. I was always near the end of the group, just ahead of the oldest hikers lol.
The thing is, there is really no rush to get the lodge. Once you get there, you’re stuck. Sure, you get to shower, and prepare for the next day, but after that you’re just sitting there waiting for dinner, which was served very late at 7:00pm or so. There is nothing to do but chat, play boardgames, check out books.
Instead, I took slower to hike and enjoy the nature - the real reason I was there! At some parts of the track, I would just sit down and look at a waterfall for 30 minutes.
The pace of the group accounted for people being very fast vs very slow. It was super spread out. There were periods of hours where I didn’t see anyone from the group, especially on the second day. This was super nice! Even though I was hiking in a group, I still got the alone hiking time I really wanted (but couldn’t do fully on my own). I really appreciated hiking at my own pace and not feeling rushed at all.
There was one part of the track, however, that was uphill and covered in very slippery ice. At this point, the guides made us all stick closely together. And I’m sure all of us appreciated that!
The only part of the schedule that annoyed me was the late start. Wake up time was set for 7:00am, and we left by 9:15am. I personally wake up at 4:00 - 5:00am. However, I made the best of it and used this time as my alone time to look at the stars and watch the sunrise! I also wish dinner was earlier. But of course, I know I’m more of an outlier in this.
I was expecting a soggy sandwich for lunch. Instead, I got this on the first day!
Doesn’t look like it, but this is gluten-free and vegan, which I requested on my food form.
After the first day, we had to make our own lunch. At first, I hated the idea - so much work! But I’ve come to appreciate it very fast!
Instead of getting a pre-made lunch with ingredients I didn’t like, we could choose from an endless options they provided to make our own favorite meal, the way we wanted!
There was bread (including gluten-free bread) and lots of sandwich meats and any vegetables you’d want for your sandwich. I personally put a bunch of vegetables in a salad container, and wrapped the bread separately - did I mention I don’t like soggy sandwiches?
There were also trail mixes, hand-made granola bars, and fruit to take. I separated all these out so I could have easy available snacks during the hike.
As you can imagine, dinner was more ridiculous. An amazing 3-course meal! I got quinoa for my main course on the first night and vegetable curry on the second - other options included steak, chicken, salmon, or lamb!
Did I mention there was dessert?
And yes, apparently they did make it gluten-free and vegan for me! My ice cream is coconut!
There was also a paid bar - many people got wine.
Breakfast included everything you’d want - there was a cereal, fruit, yoghurt, jam, station:
And there was a toast station with all amazing jams and peanut butter provided.
And that’s not all! They also made fancy egg dishes every morning. They made an incredible mushroom sandwich for me one morning (since I listed that I’m vegan).
I recently learned the term glamping…
“Glamping is a portmanteau of glamour and camping and describes a style of camping with amenities and, in some cases, resort-style services not usually associated with “traditional” camping.” ~ Wikipedia
So I guess that’s what I was doing! The lodges were ridiculously amazing! Do you see the grey building there? That’s the lodge!
The second lodge must have been built into a waterfall! You can see the grey roof of it!
The first thing you wanted to do upon getting to the lodge was take a hot shower. There were shared shower facilities, but they were soooo nice! I was expecting something more like hostel showers. They included super nice eco-products (I have sensitive skin) for soap, shampoo, and conditioner. The hot water was heaven, especially, after hiking in the rain and getting soaked on the second day of the hike!
The rooms were simple but spacious. I shared my room with one other single hiker, but up to 4 people can share one room:
While I’m usually not a fan of sharing a room, this was not as bad as a hostel. In fact, it wasn’t a problem at all! We were all on the same schedule, so there was nobody in coming in randomely at midnight. Plus, the lady I shared with was older, so she had a similar schedule as me - going to sleep earlier and waking up earlier. It was fun to share impressions from the hike at the end of the day as well! I might just be friendlier and more willing to share in the woods 😂
Finally, the lodges had an amazing big common area with couches where everyone can hang out. There were board games, all kinds of books (the poem in the beginning of this post is from a book I found there one morning), and even a fireplace! We all had dinner together at several round tables. It was fun to listen to what people from all over the world had to say!
As I briefly mentioned in the beginning of this post, I paid A LOT of money for this group hike ~ $1,000 USD. On it’s own, it is in fact a lot of money. But when you consider that New Zealand is a more expensive country, it’s actually a reasonable price.
For example, check out this list of prices posted in a hostel for things to do in Queenstown, the touristy town where the hike starts:
If you stay in Queenstown for 4 days, and do one activity per day, you’d end up spending around $1,000 either way.
But even without that. When you consider the cost of doing this yourself - getting transportation to and from the hike, staying in lodges along the way, buying and preparing and carrying food for 3 days, buying a backpack / rain coat yourself, etc., that already comes to at least $500. Even more! And that doesn’t include that aspect of someone else planning all the things for you and being there in case of emergency.
I think it can be done for cheaper if you a local experienced camper with a car you own, but it was worth every penny for me!
After you finish the hike on the last day (so sad!), they take you to a pub in a nearby town of Glenorchy to celebrate. I don’t really get why it’s assumed that the first thing people want to do after going on a beautiful hike is to drink… So I talked to the guides about timing and left the pub to explore the town of Glenorchy instead!
I went to the water only to be greeted by this incredible view:
I loved the floating trees!
When I came back, there was a little graduation ceremony, where everyone got a completion certificate :)
We rode away from the town, again looking at the gorgeous views and of course the sheep!
I think I want to be a New Zealand sheep in my next life. They look so peaceful just eating grass with no worries and such gorgeous views!
One of the big reasons I did this hike was because I was super stressed. I have a lot coming up in the next few months. I knew getting away from it all for a few days (did I mention no Wifi on the hike?!!) would really help, and it did!
After 3 days in the woods, I felt soooooooo happy! And peaceful. And focused.
It’s truly amazing what a few days of nature could do. I sat in the plane just smiling, I couldn’t help it.