Tramping in Winter Wonderland

By Alina Suchanski

Centuries ago, Māori ancestors travelled through Fiordland, forging tracks in search of the prized pounamu. European pioneers, often led by Māori guides, used those tracks searching for gold or new land to settle in, and discovered incredible natural wonders. Alina Suchanski walked two of these tracks, following in the footsteps of those early explorers.

Walking in the wilderness can be hard at any time of the year, but winter creates additional challenges when it’s colder, and days are shorter. Some huts provide fewer comforts but having the hut to yourself and fresh snow on the mountain tops are treats you could consider to be the proverbial icing on the cake.

When the summer season closes at the end of April, huts on the Department of Conservation (DOC) Great Walks map, such as the Milford, Kepler, or Routeburn Tracks, are

By Alina Suchanski

Centuries ago, Māori ancestors travelled through Fiordland, forging tracks in search of the prized pounamu. European pioneers, often led by Māori guides, used those tracks searching for gold or new land to settle in, and discovered incredible natural wonders. Alina Suchanski walked two of these tracks, following in the footsteps of those early explorers.

Walking in the wilderness can be hard at any time of the year, but winter creates additional challenges when it’s colder, and days are shorter. Some huts provide fewer comforts but having the hut to yourself and fresh snow on the mountain tops are treats you could consider to be the proverbial icing on the cake.

When the summer season closes at the end of April, huts on the Department of Conservation (DOC) Great Walks map, such as the Milford, Kepler, or Routeburn Tracks, are downgraded to ‘back-country’ status. Before the friendly DOC rangers leave their quarters, they disconnect gas and water, remove the cookers, lock up fancy flush toilets and fill up the woodsheds with a good supply of firewood in preparation for winter. Some bridges are also removed in areas prone to avalanches or flooding.

For seasoned Kiwi trampers, this is business as usual. We are used to crossing icy streams with our boots on, using long drop toilets in the bush and carrying our own gas and cookers. Some purists may even argue that this is the only real tramping.

I’d wanted to walk the Routeburn Track for a long time, but the logistics of this one-way trail had put me off. I finally decided to bite the bullet in winter 2018.

Routeburn is a 33km mountain trail that starts in the Fiordland National Park, climbs over the Harris Saddle, and ends in the Mt Aspiring National Park near Glenorchy. My dilemma was how to get back to my home in Te Anau. Rather than use a car relocation service, I decided to return via the Caples Track, which would take me back.

It had been snowing for two days before the start of my trip, so I hired snowshoes just in case I needed them at the tops. I left Te Anau in the morning and drove to the Divide carpark on Milford Road, where I threw my pack over my shoulder and wandered into the wild leaving my car and civilisation behind.

After half an hour of walking through beech forest I reached the bush line, and soon came to the Howden Hut turn-off. From there, a side track leads to the Key Summit – one of the most popular day walks in Fiordland that offers magnificent 360-degree mountain views. Leaving my pack at the fork I hiked to the top unburdened by its heavy load, admiring the majestic peaks covered in snow.

I returned to my pack and followed the steep descent to Howden Hut, where I lit the fire, put a mattress in front of the log burner and settled in for the night. Sadly, Howden Hut was destroyed beyond repair in a giant slip during Fiordland’s severe weather event in February 2020, which closed the Milford Road. It wiped out the historic Gunn’s Camp in Hollyford Valley and seriously damaged many tracks.

The following day I woke up to stunning mirror reflections of the surrounding mountains in Lake Howden.

The track there climbs through the beech forest to the impressive Earland Falls (174m). Dazzled by their frozen sides glittering in the sun, I thought the place was a real winter wonderland. Crossing a small bridge, I proceeded on a gradual ascent past the ‘Orchard’: an open grassy area dotted with ribbonwood trees.

After three hours I arrived at Lake McKenzie Hut, where I stopped for lunch before continuing up towards Harris Saddle. The scenery improved with every step as Lake McKenzie slowly came into view with the towering mountains reflected in its glassy surface. Wanted to reach the Routeburn Falls Hut before dark and I knew I had a long way to go yet.

Luckily, the weather was on my side – sunny, warm, and calm. As I crossed the long traverse above Hollyford Valley, I looked at Gunn’s Camp below with its huts scattered like toy blocks. Built in 1938 by the Public Works Department, the camp was originally known as Henderson’s Camp, named after Jack Henderson, who was an engineer on the Hollyford Road building project. In 1951 Davey Gunn, a farmer and a tourist guide bought the camp that now carries his name. I tried to imagine Davey running his almost wild cattle from Martins Bay, where he lived, along what is now called the Hollyford Track, and all the way to Invercargill. After Davey’s death, his son, Murray took over the running of Gunn’s Camp. Today it’s another bit of history, obliterated by recent floods and landslides.

It was dusk when I reached Harris Saddle (1255m) and I walked the rest of the track in thickening darkness, grateful for clear sky and bright moon but worried about the dropping temperature which turned the slushy snow into ice.

I was pleased to see bright lights of the Routeburn Falls Lodge and was very tempted to worm my way into staying there instead of the hut. But the sign on the door clearly said: ‘Guided walkers only. Penniless trampers – keep out!’, or something like that.

So I descended a few more metres to the Routeburn Falls Hut submerged in darkness. Unexpectedly I found one person there – a young woman reading by a head torch. She had a fire going with a few pieces of wet wood, hardly making any difference to the huge kitchen/dining area, but the bunkrooms were surprisingly warm.

Kinloch Lodge

The next morning, I only had to walk two hours along the beautiful Route Burn (river), past the Routeburn Flats Hut and all the way down to the road end, where a bus from Kinloch Lodge was waiting for me.

This side of Lake Wakatipu offers some spectacular views from a place still relatively unspoilt by civilisation. I spent one night there enjoying all the luxuries it had on offer: a hot shower, a comfortable bed with clean sheets, a hot meal with a glass of mulled wine; and where I was able to wash my clothes, dry my boots, and even watch a movie at night in the cosy TV room.

Refreshed and with renewed energy I set off in the morning on the Caples Track. Named after Patrick Caples – a gold prospector who in 1863 was the first to cross from Lake Wakatipu to the West Coast – the track follows the Caples River from its mouth at Lake Wakatipu to its source near the McKellar Saddle. Two Southland runholders, David McKellar (after whom the McKellar Saddle was named) and George Gunn were the first Europeans who in 1862 came here looking for grazing land.

Day one was easy walking along the translucent blue Caples River for about five hours to reach Upper Caples Hut, often used by hunters and fishers. A guy from Dunedin was already there. With plenty of firewood and coal supplied in the shed, the two of us made the hut toasty warm.

The next day started with a steady climb through a beech forest to the McKellar Saddle (945m). Once above the bush line, a long boardwalk led through a wetland with some picturesque tarns amongst patches of celery pine, bog pine, dracophyllum and stunted mountain beech.

Enjoying lunch and a long rest at the top of the saddle, I basked in the sun admiring the amazing mountain vista dominated by Mt Christina (2474m). The Key Summit top was in full view across the Greenstone River valley. It was hard to believe that I had been standing there only five days earlier. After lunch it was all the way down to the Divide, where I’d left my car. I came out of the bush feeling elated and energised, yet a little sad that my adventure was over.

Shaped by glaciers and other forces of nature over millions of years, both the Routeburn and the Caples are beautiful tracks with superb alpine views, deep lakes, and crystal-clear rivers. Today Aotearoa may be a different place to that found by early Māori and European explorers, but the scenery in this part of the country has hardly changed since our nation’s ancestors first saw it centuries ago. It sure is a privilege to have easy access to these and many other trails connecting us to our ancient past.

Enchanted forest on the Caples Track

Sources: 1. DOC Greenstone Caples Track brochure 2. The Southern Lakes NZDA

Photos: Alina Suchanski