The other Routeburn
While the Great Walks offer an excellent introduction to the enjoyment of tramping, they also provide launchpads to more intrepid places where fewer trampers venture.
Just an hour off the Routeburn Track, the Route Burn North Branch leads to an alpine valley hidden from the Great Walk by a small hill, revealing a series of broad meadows framed by 1000m rock walls. Most of the track is on the easy-going Great Walk, so there’s a lot of gain for little pain.
Starting from Routeburn Shelter, the route to the North Branch follows the Routeburn Track for the first 90-minutes, slowly climbing through dense beech forest above the azure-coloured Route Burn as it funnels through a gorge.
South Island robin are becoming common here thanks to predator control. We also heard groups of kaka flying above the canopy.
The track emerges from the bush at the idyllic Routeburn Flats, where the valley opens to views of the 2000m peaks of the Humboldt Mountains to the north and south and the Routeburn Falls at the head of the valley. Routeburn Flats Hut includes a shelter and is a good spot for lunch.
The track to the North Branch starts directly across the nearby stream. There is no marked trail, but a track through the grass leads north towards the valley, which can clearly be seen between the Humboldt and Serpentine ranges.
After about 10 minutes, the track goes through a patch of orchard-like ribbonwood trees before joining a marked track that enters beech forest and becomes notably more rugged compared to the Great Walk. It climbs steadily through the forest before descending into an open valley with picturesque river flats and incredible mountain scenery. But don’t stop yet, better is to come.
The track continues north through the valley, marked by an occasional pole or cairn, before entering another small patch of forest and climbing steeply beside the river. Within a few minutes, the valley opens into a much larger and more dramatic landscape. A wall of granite rises almost vertically to the snow-capped and glaciated peaks of the Humboldt Mountains, which appear to loom above the valley floor. The sharp peak of Somnus (2293m) provides an exclamation point to the view. Waterfalls run down a number of rugged gulches in the rock and there were still remnants of an avalanche when we visited in late December, 2018.
To the north, at the head of the valley, is the snow-covered Nereus Peak (1962m), which sits above North Col, a stepping stone to gain the tops of the Serpentine Range. A family of paradise ducks were swimming in the river and later in the day a small flock of kea played up and down the valley.
There is a number of good camping spots on the river flats. We set up camp and explored the valley. To the north, it narrows and becomes strewn with seemingly impassable boulders and scrub, but there’s a number of pools which are good for a quick icy dip.
The next morning, we followed the trail back, stealing glimpses of the mountains now behind us and were soon back on the Great Walk, walking against the tide of trampers that came in waves as tour buses disgorged.