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March 2020 Issue
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Weather bomb closes Routeburn indefinitely

Soggy boots line the porch of Lake Mackenzie Hut. Photo: Dave How

With the track closed ahead and washed away behind, Dave How had no choice but to hunker down at Mackenzie Hut. 

He and 10 others had left Routeburn Falls Hut at around 10am on February 3, tramping through torrential rain, lightning and thunder, which rumbled through the valleys.

Their rainwear had soaked through, but spirits were high – despite the weather, the hut ranger had said conditions weren’t expected to exceed dangerous levels, and they were enjoying the moody atmosphere.

Nobody expected the Routeburn Track would be closed indefinitely from that day.

How knew rain was forecast, but its ferocity took everybody by surprise.

“When we checked in with DOC at the start of the track to see if we could walk, we were told we wouldn’t know until we were there because [weather] changes so quickly,” he said.

By the time his group arrived at Lake Mackenzie, signage had been put up at the track junction informing of track closures in all directions. 

“We got to the hut with about 70 other people and everybody was a bit miserable – we were trapped,” How said. “The waterfall between Lake Howden Hut and Mackenzie Hut was raging, and behind that there were slips.”

Some walkers tried to move through to Lake Howden Hut, and were forced back, and those who made it battled floods and slips which threatened to destroy the hut overnight. 

After a soggy night in an over-capacity Lake Mackenzie Hut, all 70-odd trampers were evacuated by helicopter to Te Anau.

How’s group had a rest day before walking the Kepler Track in fine weather – though they triple checked the forecast at every opportunity.

“We had been wrong once, and we didn’t want to be the suckers who had to get rescued twice,” he said.

Guiding company Ultimate Hikes, which guides clients on the Milford and Routeburn tracks, had no huts or facilities damaged by the weather, but has been affected by the closures.

“We have 160 staff and we’re only halfway through the season – we have a few thousand walkers who are expecting to rock up to New Zealand and see these fantastic parts,” general manager Noel Saxon said.

“We remain very positive about reopening a walk on the Routeburn – we don’t know what that looks like at the moment, but we are working closely with DOC to understand the areas that can be fixed quickly and the areas that will take more time.”

The damage to the Routeburn Track is not yet fully evaluated, but DOC said it will not open fully until next season and it is offering refunds for all walkers booked within the Great Walks season. The Milford Track will also remain closed until further notice.

In all, 75 tracks in Fiordland and Mt Aspiring national parks were closed due to damage caused by the February storm.