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April 2005

New Zealand Backpacking

It's better than you've heard, and closer than you think. Here's how to see it all in 10 perfect days.

Harris Saddle: Days 2-3

The Trail:

The first half of this section of the Routeburn is arguably New Zealand’s single most spectacular day of hiking. In the 1880s, just a decade after European settlers tried–and failed-to establish a track here to link communities on either side of the Southern Alps, tourists discovered the route and immediately recognized a world-class trail. Today you’ll see why. Above Routeburn Falls, the track enters a subalpine zone of slick snowgrass, brilliant lichens, delicate mountain buttercups, and wait-a-while views in every direction. After ascending to Harris Saddle, the path crosses the Hollyford Face, an exposed traverse that’s exhilarating on a fine day. Eventually the track descends below treeline again, then drops down to a large hut at the edge of Lake Mackenzie.

The Details:

The high-traffic trail is well marked and easy to follow, first climbing from the Falls Hut to Harris Saddle (1 to 2 hours), where there’s a good sidetrip up Conical Hill. From there it’s another 3 hours or so to Mackenzie Hut, then 4 hours out to Howden Hut and on to the western trailhead on Highway 94. Here you’ll either catch a ride to Milford Sound (see "Add a day," opposite), or return to Queenstown via the Caples Track (page 70). You can get water from creeks and lakes between the huts, but plan on treating it. Help preserve the area by using toilets at the huts and on Harris Saddle, and by not trampling fragile cushion plants in the alpine areas. Traversing the Hollyford Face can be difficult or even dangerous if avalanches or bad weather threaten. Staffers at the huts post daily beta on route conditions.

The Huts:

End the day at Mackenzie Hut (where camping is also available) or Howden Hut. Mackenzie shortens the day’s hike by 5 miles, but it’s also a larger, more crowded hut (50 bunks compared to 28). Choose Howden if you’re going to catch a ride to Milford.

Local Beta: Mountain parrots Watch out for New Zealand’s exotic, green-feathered, and thieving keas. The alpine parrots are a thrill to see and hear (they sound like cats), but they’ll steal unguarded food and shiny objects.

Don’t Miss: The best views

Make two easy sidetrips to see the best views on the route. At Harris Saddle, follow the obvious path up conical hill to get a vista that stretches all the way down the Hollyford Valley to the Tasman Sea. The side trip takes an hour, longer if you take time out for a leisurely lunch on top. Get equally good views of the Darran Mountains from Key summit, near howden hut. If you arrive at howden with a couple hours of daylight left, continue 15 minutes toward the divide, then take the marked trail to key summit, less than half an hour uphill.

Kayak Milford Sound

What: In the race to cram in the most thrils and scenery per mile, as every New Zealand adventure seems to manage, Milford Sound stands alone at the top. The famed fjord is crowded on all sides by granite peaks, waterfalls, and glaciers, and is home to dolphins, fur seals, and penguins.

Why: A day of sea kayaking on Milford Sound puts you up close and personal with the dolphins. Time permitting, you can also beach your boat at Sandfly Point and hike part of the spectacular Milford Track.

Where: State Highway 94 dead-ends at Milford Sound, where there’s a small town and harbor. You can start paddling directly from the dock, or, even better, get a ride on a boat far out into the Sound, then kayak back.

How: Arrange to have an outfitter pick you up at The Divide on State Highway 94, spend the day on Milford Sound, then get dropped off at The Divide afterward. Before and after you’ll spend the night at Howden Hut, 2 miles from the trailhead. If you want more time on the water, you can spend the night at a hotel in Milford.

Cost: Approximately NZ$120, depending on options.

Contact: or

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