Has the idea of an Australia-New Zealand post-pandemic travel bubble got you planning? Here’s how to fit three of New Zealand’s most iconic ‘Great Walks’ into less than two weeks – the perfect annual leave adventure!
You’ll need to book your huts on these hikes well in advance, and I’d recommend pre-organising all bus and boat transfers too while you’re at it!
During peak season, each hut on these tracks has a ranger living on site. They’re a valuable source of local information regarding weather, flora, and fauna. Also, due to the booking system, you’re guaranteed a spot in a hut, so there’s no need to carry a tent. The huts have foam mattresses and gas stoves further reducing the amount of kit you need to carry. Although carrying your own stove is useful for preparing a cuppa on the trail.
Pro Tips for Arriving at Tāhuna / Queenstown
Fly into Tāhuna / Queenstown (early morning flight) and pick up any additional food and supplies you’ll need for your trip. We already organised most of our food in Naarm / Melbourne, so just needed to get dried fruit and spare head torch batteries – which are prohibited to take on the plane.
Aotearoa / New Zealand has an amazing antihistamine cream called Anthisan – I’m yet to find an Australian equivalent that’s equally as effective. I’d recommend visiting a chemist and getting a tube for the inevitable onslaught of insect bites that awaits you.
Due to the strong tramping (kiwi lingo for hiking) culture in Aotearoa, most supermarkets also have a very extensive range of sachet tuna and salmon – much more suitable for a multi-day hike than the tinned equivalent.
Hike 1 – Routeburn Track
Distance: 32km one way
Planning your Routeburn Track hike? Read this
Birdlife to keep an eye out for:
- Toutouwai – New Zealand Robin
- Mōhua – Yellowhead
- Kakaruai – South Island Robin
Many of the small robins on the Routeburn Track are very friendly and curious. They’ll hop along the tree branches next to you as you hike and may come close to inspect the insect life you’ve disturbed in the ground with your feet.
You’ll need to catch a bus from Tāhuna / Queenstown to Routeburn Shelter in Tititea / Mount Aspiring National Park to commence the Routeburn Track (about 2 hours).
Your first night is at Routeburn Falls Hut and the nearby Routeburn Falls provides a great opportunity for a refreshing swim.
A side trip up Conical Hill is highly recommended. You can leave your pack at Harris Saddle Shelter and just take a day pack up with snacks and water. It’s a steep and rocky ascent, but you’ll be rewarded with 360° views of Tititea / Mount Aspiring National Park and Fiordland National Park at an elevation of 1515m.
After a big day of walking, you’ll arrive at Lake McKenzie Hut, providing another good opportunity for a dip. By this stage, you’ve now crossed over into Fiordland National Park. Just a short walk from the hut is Split Rock. Take your head torch so you can explore the centre of the cavern (not for the claustrophobic).
After completing the Routeburn Track at the Divide Shelter, catch a bus back to Te Anau (about 75 minutes). Spend the night in Te Anau, do your washing, have a shower, and restock your food. It’s time to get ready for the next hike!
Hike 2 – Kepler Track
Distance: 60km circuit
Planning your Kepler Track hike? Read this
Birdlife to keep an eye out for:
- Ngirungiru – South Island Tomtit
- Titipounamu – Rifleman
- Tokoeka – Southern Brown Kiwi
The starting point of the Kepler Track is a 2km walk from Te Anau.
Following a steep ascent up O-te toroa / Mt Luxmore, you’ll be greeted by alpine tussock grasslands. Personally, I found this ascent to be the toughest part of the three hikes. Maybe it was the exhaustion and lactic acid talking, but Luxmore Hut perched atop the mountainside surrounded by tussock grasses and rugged cliff lines looked magical. Like the setting of a New Zealand version of The Sound of Music.
There’ll likely be keas nearby to greet you at the hut. Be careful where you leave your boots, apparently they have a taste for expensive orthotics.
Try to get to the hut with enough daylight left to explore the nearby Luxmore Caves. Be sure to take a head torch and venture into the intricate network of caverns, climbing over boulders and dodging stalactites, you may get deep enough to find an underground river network.
Try to get up early – the sunrise view at Luxmore Hut is spectacular, especially if you get a rainbow as we did. Forestburn Shelter provides a great spot for lunch. Again, you’ll need to be wary of the kea as they often team up to lure tourists away from their packs while another one sneaks in and takes their food.
After the sharp descent into Iris Burn Valley you’ll see the vegetation and ecology transform into fern-filled beech forests. Moss and lichen cling to the branches, creating a magical sense of fairy wonderland. The air feels damp and fungi fruit from the trees – the Iris Burn Valley bursts to life, as you approach Iris Burn Hut.
The downside to sleeping in the provided huts is that some of them don’t have great air circulation and can get quite stuffy with 20+ sweaty bodies inside, especially when other people in the hut refuse to open the windows for fear of insects. On a couple of occasions, we dragged our mattresses outside (they’re waterproof) and slept under the stars.
Just check with your hut ranger if they’re okay with this. Falling asleep to the mating screeches of the kiwi (bird, not person!), and waking up to a kea sitting on the end of your mattress trying to open your sleeping bag zipper, is pretty unforgettable.
Another day of walking through the magical beech forests brings you to Moturau Hut. Stopping off at the nearby Lake Manapouri provides another great swimming opportunity. Lake Manapouri was probably the warmest swimming spot of the whole trip, as many of the other creeks and rivulets are fed directly by snowmelt.
From Moturau Hut, you have a short walk back to civilisation (Te Anau) where you can again rest up and get ready for the next walk.
Hike 3 – Milford Track
Distance: 53.5km one way
Planning your Milford Track hike? Read this
Birdlife to keep an eye out for:
- Pāteke – Brown teal
- Whio – Blue duck
- Kea – New Zealand Mountain Parrot
New Zealand’s most popular Great Walk?
The Milford Track is one of New Zealand’s most popular multi-day hikes. Don’t get me wrong, it is stunning (as is most of Te Wai Pounamu / New Zealand’s South Island) but I do feel that it’s a bit overrated.
But perhaps I’m biased; the Kepler Track was my favourite of the three hikes as it encompasses such diverse landscapes, from ridgelines to tussock grasslands, and even temperate rainforests. Although, having said that, the boat rides in and out of the Milford Track were quite exciting, like something out of a covert James Bond mission, or so my travel companions thought.
You’ll need to catch a bus from Te Anau to Te Anau Downs (30 mins), followed by a boat from Te Anau Downs to Glade Wharf (1.5 hours) to commence the hike.
The first day of walking is a very short and leisurely 5km through towering beech forests, alongside the crystal waters of the Clinton River. As you near Clinton Hut, keep an eye out for the local Takahē and Weka. There are also some nearby glow worm grottos that are worth checking out after sundown.
Prepare to feel dwarfed as the track leads through the Clinton Valley, with towering rocky escarpments surrounding you on all sides. In January this section of track is dotted with bursts of yellow and pink as the weedy daisies bloom to life. You’ll get your first view of MacKinnon Pass as you begin the gradual ascent towards Mintaro Hut.
On your way to Dumpling Hut, you’ll climb to MacKinnon Pass at an altitude of (1154m) with breathtaking views of Lake Mintaro and the Clinton Canyon. From here, it’s easy to see why New Zealand is known as the land of the long white cloud.
On your descent, a short side trip takes you to one of the tallest waterfalls in New Zealand, Sutherland Falls, at a heady 580m. Take a good rain jacket as the splash from the velocity of the water will drench you as soon as you get too close.
You’ll need to catch a 20-minute boat ride from (aptly named) Sandfly Point to Piopiotahi / Milford Sound. The boat takes you through Fiordland and provides an opportunity to reflect on what you’ve just accomplished. At this moment, as we were speeding across the water, I was reminded of how small I was and how I felt like a tiny ant among the ridges, cliffs and valleys that I’d just traversed.
We stayed the night at Milford Sound Resort before catching the bus back to Tāhuna / Queenstown (approx 4.5 hours) the following day, but you could skip the overnight stay and head straight back to Tāhun if time was of the essence. You can then fly straight back to Australia, or spend some time exploring the town and resting your legs. That’s what we did!