You will need:

  • 3 backpackers, more interested in saving money than being properly equipped for the trip. Must be not very fit and with limited hiking experience
  • 1 tent, from the cheap shop – not particularly waterproof nor very durable
  • 3 sleeping bags, 2 of which are designed for children, not adults
  • Assorted backpacks, varying levels of waterproofing
  • Raincoats, none of which are particularly waterproof
  • 2 sets of clothes, one to be worn when the other is wet, though soon both will be wet
  • A lot of pre-prepared food, as you certainly won’t be bothering to buy cooking equipment
  • 3 pairs of sturdy(ish) shoes: 1 hiking boots, 1 Timberlands, 1 pair of Nike trainers (not waterproof)
  • A (very) positive attitude: This is totally feasible… right?

You will not bother with:

(as suggested in the Department of Conservation’s kit list)

  • Waterproof pack liners
  • Waterproof trousers
  • Roll mats to make sleeping on the ground marginally more bearable
  • First aid kit – insect repellent, plasters, painkillers etc
  • Survival kit – survival blanket, whistle, pen and paper
  • Torch and spare batteries
  • Underlayers, top and bottom; mid-layers (what even is a mid-layer anyway)

Serves: 3

Hiking time: 9 hours 15 minutes total, with significant additional time for snacks and other miscellaneous breaks. Surprisingly lower than projected time advertised on various signs throughout.


  1. Arrive into Queenstown, 6pm, day before hike. Almost too late to make preparations, but not quite. Drop stuff off at hostel, then proceed to rush around trying to:
    1. Find another sleeping bag for preferably less than the price of the tent
    2. Come up with a meal plan and buy all food for next three days
    3. Get tickets for campsites from tourist information centre
  2. Achieve one of the above: supermarket trip is a success. Fail to find sleeping bag, and realise that the tourist information office is closed.
  3. Resolve all problems by talking to someone at prebooked Routeburn transport company, Info & Track. Rebook bus for 12pm, rather than original 8am, allowing time to find sleeping bag and get tickets. Relax.
  4. Sensibly leave all prep for next day. Allow just barely enough time in the morning to fit in all necessary activities: collecting tickets, preparing and storing three days’ worth of food, miraculously sourcing a sleeping bag from a girl on a Facebook group, and collecting said sleeping bag.
  5. Leave hostel in considerable hurry. Arrive at the departure point mildly stressed, more than marginally flustered.
  6. Realise that one of the party has lost or left their rain coat somewhere.
  7. Purchase hilariously low-quality raincoat substitute, knee-length and black, with significant hole under the arm, which makes wearer resemble a more outdoorsy Professor Snape.
  8. Make final preparations before boarding the minibus with several intrepid-looking Germans.
  9. Fret about how much more well-equipped said Germans seem to be. Germans have definitely followed kit list you have chosen to respectfully ignore.
  10. Sit back and enjoy 2-hour drive to the start of the trek. Hazy mountains and tree-lined hills allow a modicum of comfort: at least trek will be pretty if not entirely comfortable.
    Routeburn track NZ

    fig 1: Hazy mountains


  11. Arrive at Glenorchy, nearby to start of track. (One member of team purchases warm cookie, $3, and decides this is possibly best decision of life thus far. Conclusion debated hotly between two remaining team members.)
  12. Soon after, arrive at the starting point. Swiftly get left behind by Germans, who walk briskly off into horizon. Faff around with bags, adding and/or removing layers as necessary. Set off ten minutes or so later.
  13. Struggle through first section of walk. Enjoy gradual onset of burning lungs, tender calf muscles, and aching shoulders.
  14. Catch up with Germans at picturesque lunch spot. Celebrate (internally). Eat lunch and practice being intrepid hikers by clambering around on fallen trees across the aquamarine water.
  15. Curse as Germans leave before you. Set off shortly afterwards.
    along the route of the Routeburn track

    fig 2. Picturesque lunch spot


  16. Arrive at first campsite, Routeburn Flats, around 4pm. Take advantage of present lack of rain by putting up tent as swiftly as possible.
  17. Realise that only one member of team knows how to erect a tent. Roll eyes/sigh deeply as you see fit. Regain composure after nasty shock and instruct rest of team, as patiently as possible.
  18. Tent constructed, quickly retreat inside it. While away hours until appropriate bed time with card games and eating. Justify excessive eating with the fact that each bite reduces weight in bag for subsequent days.
  19. Have seventeenth game of rummy interrupted by campsite warden, looking for tickets. Show tickets and get gleefully informed of
    1. the grim weather forecast of the next two days. Are entirely unappeased by warden’s excitement at the fact that “waterfalls are better when it rains.”
    2. the mouse problem. Are advised to hang up all food unless would prefer to have it nibbled by tiny rodents.
  20. Go to bed at unreasonably early hour of 1930. Figure that it is dark and therefore early sleep is acceptable. Also reason that sleeping bags are comfier than sitting on the floor.
  21. Sleep intermittently. Alternately wake up too hot and too cold. Ground is hard. Frequently regret buying child-sized sleeping bag. Reflect that am in fact not realistically anywhere near child-sized.
  22. Wake up in darkness to realisation that rain has started. Hope that rain sounds worse than it is, because it sounds pretty bad. Go back to sleep.
  23. Awake at 0615 hours in order to start hike in time to avoid worst weather at highest point of the walk. Despite this fairly urgent motivation, still fail to get out of bed for half an hour.
  24. Struggle out of sleeping bag at 6.45. Forego changing clothes because too cold. Scoop all belongings into rucksack with little regard for sensible packing order. Emerge from tent grumpily into biting cold and semi-darkness. Discover one pair of shoes are soaked from combination of dew and rain. Sigh, and put on shoes anyway.
    Milford track huts... not for us - just a tent!

    fig 3. Biting cold and semi-darkness


  25. Dismantle tent quickly (before rain starts up again).
  26. Find food mostly un-nibbled (though two cereal bars seem to have fallen casualty to a particularly intrepid mouse who must have climbed up the walls of the shelter). Swap stories with fellow camper who has awoken to find mice poop all over belongings. Struggle not to laugh.
  27. Get going by 8am. Do not look forward to the day, with promises of 65-95 kph gusts of wind, narrow and winding cliff paths with a sheer drop to one side, and up to 35mm rain.
  28. Trek off into the drizzle, steep ascent unwelcome to already tight calf muscles. Grumble often, mostly under breath.
  29. Reach Routeburn Falls, location of much posher accommodation, and make use of their toilet, which is at least eight times nicer than the one down at the campsite. After brief pause, move on.
  30. As day wears on, get into the swing of things. Feel that maybe this hiking lark is not so bad after all. However, still worry often about
    1. possibility of all things getting wet because of tent poles poking out of bag
    2. ominous absence of high-speed gusts of wind: perhaps they are waiting for least expected moment to strike
    3. the terrain to come: imagine bare-faced rocks and possible snow and sharp-edged cliffs, perhaps with spiny bushes and spiky rocks to break the fall
  31. Reach flat(ish) section of walk and cheer up considerably. Marvel at scenery often. Stop to take pictures more than is reasonable and end up with 800 pictures of same landscape all from slightly different angles. Frustrate rest of team with snail pace, but care little because LOOK HOW PRETTY.

    fig 4. 800 pictures of the same landscape, all from slightly different angles


    Routeburn: one of New Zealand's Great Walks

    fig 5. Slightly different angle 1


    Routeburn hike New Zealand

    fig. 6 Slightly different angle 2


  32. Arrive at Harris Saddle bafflingly early, and gratefully retreat into shelter (which is, incredibly, an actual building with walls and a roof and everything). Are briefly discouraged by swift arrival of several children also doing walk, but comfort selves with notion that children don’t have to carry bags and are also generally full of energy beyond capacity of adults.
  33. Push on into bitter cold after brief snack break. Prepare for worst: cliff edge is imminent, surely.
  34. At no point reach anything resembling image embedded in brain. Wind is cold, certainly, and air temperature frigid, but no death-defying gusts ever become apparent. Vegetation still abundant: no sign of bare-faced rock. Begin to think internal image may have been an exaggeration.
  35. Fill water bottles up from nearby stream, more for novelty than out of necessity.

    fig. 7 Fill up bottles from stream

  36. Continue on bravely through wet and wind, scrambling up rocks and over bridges. Trip over own feet often, distracted by views.
  37. Eventually emerge to view of Lake Mackenzie, far below: the camping spot for the night. Feel that it is unreasonably distant considering how far has already been walked, but press on nonetheless. Pass time by making bets on time of arrival.
  38. By 2pm, reach campsite, somewhat at a loss as to what to do for remaining hours before dark/bedtime.
  39. Set up tent and find that ground is too hard for tent pegs. Attach rocks to guyropes instead.
  40. Conclude that playing cards is best/only option. Settle down for several (hundred) rounds. Try not to be too grumpy at constant losses.
  41. Discuss plan for following day. Have to be at The Divide, the ominously-named end point of the hike, by 11 am. 10.50am, to be precise. Walk is, by all accounts, at least 4 hours. Debate merits of walking in the dark in the rain for longer versus walking faster in the light. Have no real idea of when it will become light.
  42. Warden comes to check tickets and confirms four hour walk estimate (even in rain).
  43. Alarms duly set for 5am, allowing fifteen mins of snooze time plus one hour to pack and get ready for the hike.
  44. Sleep early. Wake often. Ground harder than previous site. Discover several holes in tent lining. Wonder if they were mouse-induced or just a result of poor tent quality. Worry that will soon wake to rising floodwaters. Go back to sleep.
  45. Awake mere hours after having slept. Darkness is complete. Fumble around, packing up, the sound of rain teasingly drumming on the tent canvas. Worryingly hard. Put on all available clothes. Remain cold. Dash from tent to shelter with bags, then dash back to take the tent down.
  46. Discover putting tent down in the dark is more difficult than imagined. Especially with only two torches. Struggle to undo knots with phone torch in mouth; trip over guy-ropes often. Eventually succeed.
  47. Shove wet tent into bag. Past point of caring about other stuff getting wet.
  48. Ready at last, begin painstakingly slow journey in the pitch darkness, with two torches between three hikers. It is 6.15am.
  49. Make way along path (checking signs extra-carefully: a mistake at this stage would be disastrous). One in front, with torch, leading middle person, with no torch, backed up by third person, with torch. Every few feet turn round with torch to guide middle person over ground just covered, like bizarre pantomime horse.
  50. Find hilarity in the whole fiasco. It is more than an hour til the dawn, and you are hiking down difficult terrain (think boulders and slippery mud) in the pouring, freezing rain, with one phone torch (soon to run out of battery) and one camping torch. The waterfalls, as promised, are now huge and powerful, and more than a little bit intimidating in the darkness. Heard before they are seen.
  51. Situation becomes more ridiculous at first sign of path becoming more like stream. Earlier warning prompts of ‘Puddle!’ become laughable: entire walkway is now covered in water.
  52. Feel that this must be some kind of joke when first waterfall across path is discovered. Look around for alternative (surely this is not actually where you have to walk?) but find none. Brace selves for imminent death.
  53. Wade/splash/jump across waterfall, taking life in hands. Manage to successfully survive. Breathe once more.
  54. Five minutes later, come across second waterfall. Sigh deeply.
  55. One hour later, as light begins to emerge, crossing waterfalls has become run-of-the-mill. Swearing and thumping heart no longer greet each new sighting of said obstacle.
  56. In grey dawn, path is eerily quiet. Pass time by making bets on when first fellow hiker will be spotted in other direction.
  57. Wonder if feeling will ever return to fingers and toes, and whether shoes will ever dry. Even sturdy waterproof hiking boots are now soaked through.
    (Side note: three days on, shoes still not dry.)
  58. Despite success at leaping across waterfalls, continue to inexplicably trip often over tiniest of stones on path, worryingly close to steep drop.
  59. As morning breaks across the valley, more than just distant mist and fog become visible, and views become beautiful. Continue marching on as rain is persistent.
  60. Reach shelter of Lake Howden camping spot, roughly three hours in, one to go. Relish temporary dryness of hut, and exchange rueful glances with fellow hikers about to head into deluge. Brightly inform them it isn’t that bad (i.e. lie).
  61. Do not allow selves too long relaxing: the longer taken to sit down, the less appealing it is to move onward into the elements.
  62. Depart. The final hour commences.
  63. Get gradually more miserable as rain penetrates your very soul, and yet more determined and excited to finish the challenge. Wonder constantly whether you are nearly there yet.
  64. Experience serious exasperation as further waterfalls block path. Give fervent thanks that you are not doing this hike out of season, when waterfall-crossing would be the least of your worries (think snow, avalanches, water sources freezing over etc).
  65. Half an hour done, start fantasising about warm dry bus that should be waiting at other side. Daydream about warm baths, hot coffee, radiators and blankets. And clothes that are dry.
  66. Forty five minutes down, begin to feel that the path will never end, and that you will be stuck wandering through the Fiordlands forever, never quite reaching your destination.
  67. Five minutes to go, spot a road. A real life road! Seems painfully far away. Pick up pace.
  68. At 10.15, finally arrive to a car park, and The Divide, with gloriously sheltered bus stop. Reach new levels of bliss in changing into (mostly) dry clothes and staying under roof to wait for lift to the Milford Sound. Regretfully have to put wet socks and shoes back on as no alternative.
  69. Half an hour later, almost miss bus to the Sound, but luckily ask bus driver if he is waiting for three hikers and he confirms.
  70. Board beautifully cosy, dry bus, shoving all belongings haphazardly underneath. Sit back and enjoy the journey, especially bus drivers inane jokes. Decline to get out at any of the stops along the way, far preferring to sit in comfort of heated vehicle than look at scenery just hiked through.
  71. Arrive to port of Milford Sound. Stand, shivering, waiting for boat to depart; take vast enjoyment in washing hands in warm water in the toilets (repeatedly).
  72. Finally hear call to board. Fantasise about promised fish and chips on board.
  73. Get given extra portion of food and a free round of coffees, probably because you are such a tragic-looking bunch.

    fig. 8 Milford sound

  74. Sit back on Milford Sound cruise and ponder achievements of the last three days. The cold, the camping, the hard ground and fitful sleep, the crappy food, the poor-quality sleeping bags and tent, the stinky long-drop toilets, the sweaty backs and lack of showers, the aching muscles and the tough climbs up rocky track, the jolting descents and sore knees, the blisters and the bites, the death-defying waterfall crossings, the biting wind and freezing rain soaking into every pore on the final day. The camaraderie, determination and exhilaration. The panoramic views of mountains and rugged scenery, the thundering waterfalls and hillside lakes and crystal-clear mountain streams.
  75. Realise that it was totally worth every exhausting, challenging, ridiculous moment. A bloody brilliant way to spend three days.

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Hiking New Zealand's Routeburn Track_ A recipe for complete idiots