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The Routeburn Track in one day

Approaching Lake MacKenzie Hut.

Most people take three leisurely days to walk the iconic 32km Routeburn Track Great Walk. Peter McDermott decided on a quicker approach.

Could we do it? Walk the 32km Routeburn Track in one day. 

I’d watched YouTube videos of people walking it with ease; read every blog post I could find; pored over GPS contour charts, and read all the DOC info. I’d even watched a video of some guy walking it barefoot, and learned the annual Routeburn Classic running race record of 2hr 38min.

I’d enjoyed walking the Routeburn Track in December 2018 with family and friends, taking a typical two nights and three days, staying at idyllic Lake McKenzie Hut and the spectacular Routeburn Falls Hut. 

This time, almost two years later, a one-day attempt would mean good fitness training, long hours of daylight, and luck with the weather. Here’s how we did it.

0400: We’re awake at our Glenorchy motel for a breakfast of porridge, raisins, and brown sugar.

0530: We set off from the track start at Routeburn Shelter. Our support crew (my brother John), began the drive to Te Anau and on to The Divide. 

The weather looked promising; the snow-covered peaks magnificent. We saw no one for over an hour and enjoyed the sound and sights of the crystal-clear Route Burn.

0718: We arrived at Routeburn Flats Hut, having walked 6.5km and climbed over 200m. Keen to make good time, we carried on, commencing the 300m climb up to Routeburn Falls Hut.

0819: After a further 2.3km, we reached Routeburn Falls Hut. Our schedule for the day was looking good. Harris Saddle by 10am? But wait – there’s been snow overnight – some walkers spent the night in Harris Saddle Shelter – and the track is closed until 10am. So we have an enforced break, enjoying hot drinks and the views of Routeburn Flats and the mountains. I update John using the satellite phone I’ve hired. He’s in Te Anau already.

1000: We’re off again on an initially steep then steady 300m climb over 3.5km to Harris Saddle, taking care of our footings on the parts with compacted snow. I’m a bit slower here due to reduced lung capacity from a years-old injury, but Lake Harris and the surrounding scenery is stunning and the weather is perfect. 

1131: Harris Saddle. We’ve now climbed more than 800m and this is the highest point. It’s sunny, with clear blue skies, and it’s dead calm. Yesterday’s weather forecast had been predicting 50km/h westerlies. We have a long way to go, but it’s looking achievable. 

Along the Hollyford face, the track undulates for around 5km. There’s snow and rocks and it can get slippery underfoot. I’m glad I have my two hiking poles.

1322: Ocean Point, and one of the track’s best views. Down to Lake McKenzie and its hut, 300m below.

1431: We’d booked a night at Lake McKenzie Hut as our backup plan, but we’re feeling good and having already done 20 of the 32km, we felt we could complete the walk. We leave a note in the visitors’ book, give John our updated ETA and set off just before 3pm. 

There’s an initial climb of 130m on this 8.6km section, undulating, then a 300m descent. 

1645: Earland Falls. Stopping only briefly to fill our water bottles, we continue on with a spring in our step. The legs feel okay. In several places you could see where a lot of repair work had been done to rebuild storm-damaged sections of the track. 

In fact, the full track had reopened for the current season only five days earlier.

I’d pre-booked a table in Te Anau for dinner and final orders were to be at 8.15pm. Could we make it? We weren’t sure but, it certainly was motivation!

1748: Lake Howden Hut. Well, actually it’s a pile of gravel now; the hut was demolished after damage from a landslide in the February 2020 storms. Back then, 195 trampers in the area were rescued in New Zealand’s largest aerial evacuation. We have 3.4km to go.

After climbing 100m from Lake Howden for 20min, we pass the turn-off for Key Summit (a popular day trip from The Divide) and it’s a 300m descent from here.

1851: The Divide. Finish! We did it! It’s taken us just under 13.5hr, including our wait at Routeburn Falls. It’s been a rewarding and enjoyable day. And we took time to stop and enjoy the views.

2005: The road from The Divide to Te Anau is one of the most scenic in the world, and we made it to our celebratory dinner in Te Anau.