The Routeburn TrackThe Routeburn Track is one of the Great Walks in New Zealand. I tramped (tramping is the local word for hiking) most of it from 20 to 22 January 2007, starting from the eastern trailhead in Mount Aspiring National Park. After a big detour, I finally finished at The Divide on the 26th, in Fiordland National Park, and I have to admit it was great indeed. It would have been even greater if the weather had cooperated: it was rather foggy, so I missed out on some of the views. However, the fog gave the whole walk a very special atmosphere. Made me feel like a hobbit on a quest.
By the way, the Routeburn Track is not a circuit, which creates an interesting logistical challenge, especially if you are considering tramping it in one day. Fortunately, there are some private companies that provide transport to and from the trailheads. You should book in advance and show up on time after your walk. I didn't do that - booking in advance that is - because I wanted to be flexible as when I would arrive at the other end, but when I eventually got to the other end, I had no trouble getting a seat in one of the passing busses anyway. I don't know if that's normal, or if I was lucky.
Enjoy the pictures!
Great WalksFrankly, the whole idea of Great Walks is a marketing concept. I don't mean that in a derogatory way, just making an observation. Granted, the two Great Walks that I tramped are great indeed, and the few others I considered and hence read about certainly appear to be so as well, but there are many more outstanding walks that do not have this accolade, for various reasons. A case in point is my favorite tramp, the Cascade Saddle route, which, officially, is not a Great Walk. More on that later.
The first consequence of being designated a Great Walk is that it brings more trampers (the marketing works) than on other tramps. Quite a lot more in fact. That's both a good and not so good thing, I suppose. Good, because it attracts people who otherwise wouldn't be out there in the first place, and many of them will get an unforgettable experience. Not so good because more people unavoidably means red tape. Generally, I don't like that, but in this case I understand and agree with it.
In the tramping season, a reservation system is in place to avoid overcrowding. You have to book your spots in the huts or on the designated campgrounds in advance. Wild camping along the tracks themselves is not allowed, altough on most tramps, you are allowed to camp wild if you go far enough away from the track. For the Routeburn Track, 500m is officially far enough. Some walks are booked out a long time in advance, but you can get lucky if someone else bails out (and notifies the officials). If you're really strong, you could actually tramp it in one day, in which case you don't need a reservation. On the plus side, all these fellow trampers mean you won't be alone out there. There is safety in numbers.
The tracks are very well maintained and sign posted. None of them are really hard, because the Great Walks are aimed at reasonably fit people, not necessarily burdoned with experience (which is why the Cascade Saddle route will never be a Great Walk). With only a short route description, it's still easy to follow the route. That said, if you do get off track and lack a good sense of direction, a map and the knowledge how to use it can be a life saver. There is an awful lot of wilderness out there to get lost in.
In the tramping season, the huts on the Great Walks have wardens, and the stoves have gas. The huts also have mattresses, drinking water and toilet facilities. With all these amenities, you can travel really light. In addition to the usual gear for a day tramp - which, in New Zealand, always includes being prepared for a sudden onslaught of really cold and wet weather - you'll need a sleeping bag, tooth brush, kitchenware, more food and you're set. Probably you'll also want a change of clothes.
After reaching the end of the Routeburn Track, I stayed at McKellar Hut and then continued on the Caples Track.
The New Zealand Department of Conservation, or DOC for short, does a great job in preserving the outdoors. And for all oudoor enthousiasts, their site has an enormous wealth of information, including many route descriptions.
The official DOC description of the Routeburn Track explains everything you need to know.