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Close to Queenstown (at least on the map) you’ll find three tracks, the Hollyford, the Routeburn, and the Milford Track. All are flagged as Great Walks by the Department of Conservation (DoC), and they should know. As a student I romped up one, scampered over another, and failed, ever, to book in time for the Milford. Everyone has to book in advance for the Milford.
Now some Irish friends, with a young family, plan to arrive in Queenstown. Which Great Walk do I recommend? A distant relative gets in touch with much the same question. Let's have a wee think.
The Hollyford river runs gently down the low-lying Hollyford valley to a most interesting bay. A fresh-water lake gouged out by a glacier would be a deep saltwater fiord, like all the others, if it wasn’t for a sandbar forever building up and blocking access to the sea. Behind the dunes, a lagoon forms and re-forms as the river finds its way at last through the breakers.
The words “gentle” and “low-lying” above describe the 56 kilometre Hollyford track, too. No avalanches force the track to close-down, like Milford, through all of winter and spring. No kilometre-high peaks make you sidle across exposed shingle slides with an eye on storm-clouds, as on the centre part of the Routeburn.
It often rains along the Hollyford, but then it soon stops. The welcoming and unafraid seals, penguins, and herons don’t mind the rain. Nor will my distant great-aunt, especially if she books a guided tour with some walking replaced by boat trips and flights. The Hollyford people will organise everything.
The Routeburn track, in contrast, runs shorter and higher for 32 kilometres and DoC describe the middle bit as exposed. “Exposure” in this context has the mountaineer’s meaning of empty space below you, not the medical meaning of becoming seriously chilled. The middle bit is optional, though. You can miss it out. Both ends of the Routeburn offer popular day and overnight trips and a number of shelters and huts, as well as camp sites, and you get views across open spaces unlike anything in Ireland.
The rain falls less here on the Routeburn than on the seaward slopes only a few kilometres away. Alpine beech forest shelters colourful birds: Grey Warbler, Brown Creeper, and the rare Yellowhead. As on all the Great Walks, breathtaking beauty assaults all the senses. Stand above a circular amphitheatre dug by ice and big enough to hold the whole of Rome. Shut your eyes. You can hear the immensity of the cirque in the sigh of the wind across the forest and the far-away call of a kea, while another native parrot scrabbles across the rock and picks at your bootlaces.
Winter’s snow doesn’t close the Routeburn down any more than it does the Hollyford. The track provides welcome access to back-country skifields.
Milford! Last and loveliest, Milford Sound is relatively accessible, even at short notice, unlike the Milford track. The sound, or fiord, extends far enough for cruise vessels, jetboats, seaplanes, and helicopters to share without their customers feeling crowded. You can even paddle your own kayak and get away from every other tourist. The 53 km Milford Track from Lake Te Anau over the Mackinnon Pass, however, does require booking beforehand, usually months beforehand.
For historical reasons, you may sign up as a freedom tramper and bring your own food. There is a certain cost for the cold-water huts, camping out isn’t permitted, and your party of 40 must clear each hut before the next party arrives. Alternatively, you may sign up as a guided tramper. It costs more, but every luxury awaits you at your luxury lodge each evening where the chef has dinner ready to serve. Your party will be 50 strong and again there will be no dawdling.
During the avalanche season from May to October, mountaineers from NZ and overseas who take responsibility for their own safety may enter the area and stay as long as they like.
Summing up, then, I’d take my elderly relatives on the Hollyford at any time, choosing the jet-boat and aircraft options and a bit of gentle walking on the way towards haute cuisine and unlimited hot showers.
The Routeburn will suit families wanting a short, spectacular, and safe trip from either end. That said, extremely fit people who are lucky with the weather can run the whole Routeburn track at so many kilometres an hour in less than a day.
On the Milford, you pay your money and you take your choice. In season, you can go guided or DoC. Out of season, it’s up to you. Either way, the Milford Track’s scenery makes the track the greatest of the Great Walks of New Zealand.
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