Rain on the Routeburn Track

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When we touched down in Queenstown, New Zealand the weather was beautiful. Blue skies stretched for as far as the eye could see and there was nary a cloud in sight. This seemed to bode well for the trip we had planned for the next day: the Routeburn Track. However, the forecast told a different story. The next two days—the entire time we would be hiking on the track—were forecast to be rainy. I had booked our reservations for the Routeburn Track way back in June so changing our reservations wasn’t an option. The Routeburn Track is a Great Walk, which means it is beautiful but also very, very popular and if you don’t book camping or hut reservations well in advance you will be out of luck. Not wanting to miss out on this Great Walk, we had already decided that rain or shine, we were going to complete the hike.

After we arrived in Queenstown we picked up our rental car and headed to our hotel, the Rydges Queenstown. We had quite a bit to accomplish that evening since we were scheduled to depart on a shuttle to the Routeburn Shelter (the starting point of the Routeburn) at 7am the following morning. Jet-lagged and slightly delirious, this was not an easy task but we got our backpacks ready, set a couple early alarms, and promptly fell into a deep sleep.

Altogether too early our alarms rang, but the excitement of the impending hike was enough to jolt me awake. We gathered our gear and headed to the shuttle. It wasn’t raining—yet—but the previous day’s clear skies had been replaced with a thick canopy of clouds. The scene was ominous.

The rain held off for the duration of the bus ride. It was enough to lull me into feeling optimistic, but once we stepped off the bus at the trailhead big drops started falling from the sky. We reluctantly put on our pack rain covers and rain jackets and officially hit the trail. Our plan for the first day was an ambitious one: Hike from the Routeburn Shelter about 14 miles. First we would head up and over the Harris Saddle, and then we would continue down to Lake Mackenzie where we had a tent site reserved.

The hike did not go as I had envisioned. In the months leading up to our trip I had envisioned sunny skies and brilliant views. In reality it felt as if we were hiking inside a cold and wet ping pong ball with clouds and fog completely obscuring the scenery. The southern region of New Zealand gets about 200 rainy days a year, so it should really come as no surprise that we happened to visit on a couple of those days, but I was still dejected.

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Lake Harris

Lake Harris

After awhile the clouds began to lift ever so slightly and revealed just a little more of that spectacular scenery I knew had been hiding behind the veil of fog. Somehow this all happened right as we were making our way to the spot on the trail I had been most looking forward to, Harris Saddle. We were able to hike on the narrow trail above the lake with a perfect view of the moody scene. The clouds made the scene look so dramatic that I’m now happy they were there!

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The moment we crested Harris Saddle the clouds descended on us again—even more so than before—leaving us completely engulfed. Every so often a cloud in the distance would grow thin and we could see the faintest outline of a mountain behind it—giving us just a little glimpse of what we were missing—but then the cloud would enshroud the mountain again and we would be left with a wall of white in front of us.

Looking down on Lake Mackenzie

Looking down on Lake Mackenzie

And so this continued until we reached the hut at Lake Mackenzie, at which point it began to pour. The tent sites were still another ten minute hike from the hut so I pulled my jacket tighter and we picked up the pace until we finally made it to the tent site. Thankfully, there is a sheltered area at the tent site. It houses a few picnic tables and some sinks. It was barebones but it was shelter from the rain and that was enough to lift our spirits. We unpacked our bags, laid our wet clothes out to dry, and began cooking dinner. We kept putting off the task of setting up the tent, however, it wasn’t long until we couldn’t put the task off any further. As soon as the tent was set up we jumped into it, zipped the doors, and remained there for the rest of the night.

The rain poured and the wind howled for the entire night. Sometimes the rain fell with such intensity that it hit the rain fly, permeated the fabric, and turned into a mist inside the tent that then fell onto our faces. It wasn’t the most comfortable night of sleep I’ve ever had.

When our alarms went off it was raining harder than ever. I sank farther into my sleeping bag, already dreading the soggy hike out. I willed the rain to stop but it did not abide, instead it seemed to fall with a new ferocity.

Breakfast was a somber affair. There were about five other groups that had spent the night camping and we all commiserated and laughed about the situation we had all volunteered for.

It seemed as if our second day on the trail would be as equally wet as the previous day. Luckily, our hike on Day 2 was much shorter (only about seven miles) to the Divide Trailhead where we would get picked up by a bus and shuttled back to Queenstown.

We hit the trail early, hoping to get out of the rain sooner rather than later. Surprisingly, the day’s hike would end up being wildly beautiful despite the torrents soaking us to the bone. All of the rain that had fallen in the past day had transformed into countless waterfalls pouring down the valley walls. Every time we turned a bend in the trail we would see more cascades. In some places the trail had even turned into a small stream, but by that point our feet were soaked so we didn’t care about hiking straight through the water.

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It took us about three hours to reach the Divide Shelter. Once again we rushed under the protection of the shelter’s awnings and laid out all of our wet things, hoping they would somehow dry even though the humidity felt like it was at 140%.

We had another three hours to wait until our bus would arrive but we weren’t in a hurry. We had shelter, we had changed out of our wet clothes and into dry clothes, and we had books to read.

Our time on the Routeburn Track did not go as planned and I know we missed out on quite a few of the views the track is so famous for, but I enjoyed it just the same. Perhaps we’ll return one day to see everything we missed out on this first time!

If you are interested in hiking the Routeburn Track, the Department of Conservation of New Zealand creates some of the most intensive and thorough track guides. Check it out HERE!

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