Kinabatangan River – adventure into the wilds of Borneo

Table of Contents
Sandakan-a-rustic-old-world-vibe
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre 
Sun Bear Conservation Center 
Kinabatangan River Cruise 
Gomantong Caves
Rainforest Discovery Center
Sandakan Memorial Park

Kinabatangan River is the second longest in Malaysia (563km) and drains into a wide delta and into Sulu Sea at Sandakan. The river has many uses – serves as a conduit for transport between interior villages and developed towns upstream. Why Kinabatangan River? The area has diverse habitats – dipterocarp forest; riverine and freshwater forests; limestone caves at Gomantang; mangrove swamps on the coast and ox bow lakes. Furthermore, it is endowed with remarkable wildlife, some endangered. In fact, amongst the highest concentration of animals in Borneo. The place to do this is in the Lower Kinabatangan River – with lodges around Abai, Bilit and Sukau. We choose the most dramatic and with abundant wildlife – Sukau. Homestay and river excursions in local villages is also possible.

To see my adventure photos, go to Kinabatangan River.

We took a 3 days /2 nights package deal which included lodging; meals; river cruises and transport from Sandakan and the resort; Sepilok Rehabilitation Center; Sun Bear Conservation Center; Rainforest Discovery Center and the Gomantang Caves. The package is practical and just be taken care of. You can do it independently – book accommodation, organize food and transport independently. However, most lodges provide all the services.

We booked with Sukau Rainforest Lodge and its affiliate Borneo Ecotours. This lodge became the first member of the prestigious national Geographic Unique Lodges of the world collection.  It cost more than other resorts, but it had a reputation of being eco-friendly, using electric motors on smaller rivers/streams and supports environmental issues. A bit of luxury from time to time is great.

Read about  Sandakan – a rustic old-world vibe

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.

Sandakan, the gateway to wildlife, is a great place to hang around, enjoying local fruits and delicacies, seafood and ordinary life. We were picked up from our hotel in Sandakan. Our first stop is the unique Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. As wildlife is threatened by habitat loss to agriculture, profiteering and human settlements, this center is a pioneer in rehabilitation and reintroduction into the wild. More importantly, it is an educational center. To learn and educate issues relating to Orangutan in Sabah.

Our visit coincided with the 10am feeding time. Several age groups reside here. Interestingly, the released orangutans are free to go into the unenclosed part of the forest. I managed to see a wild male and a mother with a baby. It was an amazing feeling. At the center, it was a little crowded with visitors. Watching through the glass room was not particularly inspiring. Perhaps necessary to separate visitors from the animals.  My first encounter with an orangutan was in the late seventies in Semenggoh Wildlife Centre in Kuching, Sarawak. I was a student. His name was Bullet – as a bullet is lodged in his head permanently. Any attempt to dislodge may cause death. He had the softest of palms as he grabbed my hand and walked.  I was nervous. A moment to cherish.

Sun Bear Conservation Center

Close to the Orangutan Center is the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center. Malayan sun bear are the smallest bears in the world. Again, like in the orangutan center, it is about rehabilitation, reintroduction and education. Most bears are brought into the center escaping capture and hunting. Poaching is a major concern. The bears are in an enlarged enclosure and watching them in a ‘natural’ environment is great. They seem to get on with their normal business – foraging for food. Magnificent animals though.

Kinabatangan River Cruise 

We were picked up by bus (by boat if we had taken the most expensive room – the villa) in Sandakan and headed towards Sukau, on the banks of Kinabatangan River. Ironically, to see wildlife, we passed large swath of oil palm plantations. Its cultivation, for economic growth is equally a major threat to biodiversity, wildlife habitat and ecology. Other threats include human settlement and draining wetlands for cultivation. How do we balance it? We arrived at Sukau village and caught sight of the muddy brown Kinabatangan River. The water level was high and occasional flooding is common. A short boat ride brought us to our lodge. I am always awed and feel inspired when surrounded by dense lush green tropical rainforest. The only sound heard was the fast-flowing river and sound of the forest – insects creaking, bird calls and the occasional boat passing on the river. The lodge has expansive boardwalks, aptly named Hornbill and Attenborough Boardwalks, extending into rehabilitated forest for nature walks – day and night. The reason we are here, to hopefully to see wild orangutan, pygmy elephants and proboscis monkeys while on a river cruise. There is a sense of tranquility, having arrived. Only the sound of forest. Along the boardwalk, high on a tall tree, I sported a nest. It was an elegant Wallace Hawk Eagle. Later, I was stopped in my track by a group of common pig-tailed macaques. They can be aggressive. Butterflies, creepy crawlies and lizards kept me occupied along the walk.

After a relaxed evening snack of traditional deserts, we embarked on our first river cruise. Spotting wildlife on the riverbanks is by chance. Surprisingly, just a short ride on the river, we spotted a wild orangutan gorging itself on wild figs. Its golden hair shined in the afternoon sun. It was exciting to know that these gentle creatures, although increasingly difficult, to see them wander freely in the forest. Soon we encountered the playful and endangered proboscis monkeys or “Monyet Belanda”. They have distinctive flopping nose. They are endemic to Borneo. The mainly live on trees amongst the mangrove forest. They are arboreal – tree dwellers. My first encounter of these monkeys was at Klias Wetlands near Beaufort in Sabah. Birdlife is plentiful and likely to spot the many species of hornbills and water birds. Sightings of pygmy elephants had not occurred for nearly sixty days as our guide explained. The reason – plentiful of fruits inside the forest. I was optimistic. Perhaps a stray or rouge elephant. Our lodge is comfortable and relaxing. Don’t miss the talk by a guide on the lives of the orangutan. Fascinating and informative.

At 9pm, we took the optional night cruise. In the pitch black, only illuminated by a spotlight, we sped through on the river. I had no expectations on what we would see. Perhaps a waste of time. I was wrong. We spotted a kingfisher, presumably in deep sleep as it did not move as the light shined on it. Its technicolor feathers are amazing. I could almost grasp it in my hand, and that’s how close we got! Next, look out for red spot on the water, our guide advised. They would be salt water crocodiles. There are plenty here and they move quickly and submerged immediately. It certainly was an interesting hour.

The next days’ ‘morning cruise was early. We departed around 6am. In parts of the forest, the mist had settled on the surface of the water. It was a dreamy world. However, it disappeared rapidly as the sun rose. We slowly made our way through several smaller tributaries. The forest here is closer. So is the wildlife. More proboscis monkey swayed on trees as the foraged for food. Some with little babies on their rounded bellies. On the way to an ox bowed lake, our guide pointed out to a pair flying birds some distance away – Storm’s Stock. She mentioned that there is only five hundred left. We were lucky. As we made our way through a narrow channel, a small troop of proboscis monkeys jumped in mid-air from one bank to the other. Their acrobatic skills must be admired. They happen to be good swimmers too. Just watch out for the crocodiles. We switched to the electric motor for a slower and quieter cruise. There was a chorus of calls from the black and white Oriental Pied Hornbill.  Further down, a Brahminy Kite (Eagle) perched on a treetop, surveyed its domain. However, the lake is slowly being choked with aquatic plants. Common kingfisher casually passed looking for their next meal. We revisited the fruiting fig tree near the lodge. We were lucky, again, to see a mother and baby wild orangutans feeding on the fruits. A lovely outcome to end the day.

Gomantong Caves

After lunch we headed to Gomantong Caves (optional). It is known for its resident, mainly, colony of the wrinkle-lipped free-tailed bats. It was an interesting walk through the forest aided by wooden steps to get to the cave entrance. this is Simud Hitam Cave. It was dark and had a strong odor of bat droppings (guano). These make great organic fertilizers. Aided by torch and head lights, we managed to make our way slowly. I could see the floor moving – giant cockroaches and spiky (centipede-like) insects. Above, chatter from bats. The entire wooden walkway is slippery from water seeping through the limestone. In the middle, a shaft of light and greenery. An exposed section and an outlet for bat to enter and exit. Permanent ropes hung from the ceilings. These are used to collect swiftlet bird’s nest high on the walls. A dangerous and arduous job to collect them. Any false move, a 90m fall into the guano heap below. At the entrance, an owl was perched on a tree branch waited patiently in anticipation. In the skies above, falcons swirled. Why? Well, like us, they too are waiting for the daily dusk exodus of bats from the caves. Unlike us, they want to feast on them. Finally, the exodus began in batches. I could only see them as black dots in the sky. They swayed like music cords. They were in their thousands. An impressive sight indeed.

We departed our luxury lodge after breakfast. We were in luck. Instead of returning to Sandakan by bus, we were put on the boat. Something I hoped for. It was a fast but pleasant two-hour ride through initially the main river and eventually through smaller mangrove forest channels at the mouth of the river at Sandakan Bay. The final section is rough as we hit open water. It was another opportunity to spot wildlife, and we did – crocodiles and proboscis monkeys. Also, an opportunity to see the Orang Sungai community – the indigenous people of the river.

Rainforest Discovery Center

From Sandakan we headed to the wonderful Rainforest Discovery Center close to Sipilok Orangutan Sanctuary. This is a great way to explore the Borneo Rainforest. Not only at ground level but also with an aerial experience via the several canopy walks. Seeing eye level of  treetops is amazing. A bird’s eye view of the forest below. however, with our guide’s schedule, we managed about 1.5 hrs.

 Sandakan Memorial Park

A lovely park to commemorate one of history sad episodes. This is one of three site of POW camps between Sandakan and Ranau. A few articles displayed were a steam engine and a dredge. This is a place for contemplation. On an black obelisk, these words were written –

Sandakan Memorial
In Remembrance Of All Those
Who Suffered and Died Here,
On The Death Marches
And At Ranau

Finally, we returned to Sandakan and just in time to celebrate Chinese New Year.

 

Sandakan – a rustic old-world vibe

I have been to Sabah several times. Sandakan is a new destination. The main reason – to explore the mighty Kinabatangan River on a river cruise. We checked into Four Point by Sheraton, ideally located at the heart of Sandakan, overlooking Sandakan Bay and Sulu Sea. Nearby is the harbour and fish landing base, central market and a walking promenade. To see my photos, go to Kinabatangan River

Sandakan buildings looked tired but have a delightful old-world village vibe about it, especially around the central market and harbour. In the morning, rickety fishing boats laden with their daily catch arrived and unloaded. This include, sting ray, prawns, sharks and an assortment of fish. Ice blocks are transferred from lorries to the market via ramps. The fish market is busy. So is the adjacent produce market. I love markets as they are a great way to soak in local culture and gauge the economic prosperity. Outside the central market, impromptu stalls sell all kinds of produce from night to early morning. It becomes a car park after 7am.

A great way to experience this old town is walking the Sandakan Heritage Trail (about 2hrs) – we started at the old town’s 100 year old Masjid Jamek – a quaint square with William Pryer Monument and the Sandakan Heritage Museum – a steep climb on the a rather unkempt 100 steps staircase through a forest surrounding – sipped tea amidst great sea views at English Tea House with an English colonial architecture – Agnes Keith Memorial, then called Newlands. Once occupied by American author, Agnes Newton Keith, amongst which wrote the Land Below The Wind in 1939 – little remains of an old staircase to nowhere – pay respects at Kun Yum Temple (Goddess of Mercy Temple) – Saint Michael’s and All Saints Church – Sum Sing Kung (Temple of Three Saints), opposite the town field and back to town. A short ride to Puu jih Syh Temple, high on a mountain, provides wonderful views of rustic Sandakan and its coast.

In the evening, head to Kampung Buli Sim Sim for some seafood dinner over swaying water. It is overpriced but you should try it once. There are several eateries to choose from. Ask the locals for their recommendation. My favorite is the out of town, Kim Fung market – from breakfast to supper! Try the handmade Youtia (Yew Char Kuey), Tow Foo Fa and many delicious local dishes. Others include Kong Teck (homemade noodles) and San Da Gen Kopitiam, a cafe style and the food court above the central market, in the old town. You won’t go hungry in Sandakan.

Rhythmic drums echoed through the old town as a golden dragon made it way through. Even dragons use elevators (inside the mall)! Today is Chinese New Year. In the evening, the waterfront is the place to be – watch the sun set and stalls opening for business. After dark – durian, mangosteen and langsat seller occupied the pavements to sell their wares. Nearly everyone eats on site. That way, you don’t pay for bad ones. Just watch out for pick-pockets!

Sandakan is also the gateway into nature reserves – Kinabatangan River cruises, Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary, Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre, Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, Rainforest Discovery Center, Gomantong Caves and Turtle Island. Nature, wildlife, food and cultural experiences in one town.

Tiritiri Matangi Island- a birder’s paradise

I had lived in Auckland for over 17 years and only recently I discovered this unique rehabilitated island in the Hauraki Gulf, a hours’ ferry ride (30km) from central Auckland. It is a 220 ha island free from predators. Early Maori lived here. Western settlers arrived and converted the island into farmland. Between 1984 – 1994, conservation staff and volunteers replanted the island with native flora and re-introduced native birds. Today, it is a bird sanctuary, 60% forest and 40% grassland, showcasing over 70 species New Zealand’s native bird. It includes twelve species of endemic birds. You can see my photographs in Tiritiri Matangi photos

I arrived here with John and family on his sailing yacht. It took us about three hours. We saw a small pod of dolphins and blue penguins. We anchored just off Hobbs Beach and motored to the wharf. A ferry was anchored at the wharf. Large flowering Pohutukawa trees lined the beach front. From here, we walked to the bunkhouse along the Wattle Track. We were greeted with a array of bird songs. I was excited and looked at every tree, branch and ground to spot the birds. My first sighting was the Tui bird. They flew low and fast. A small, introduced and naturalised Brown Quail foraged along the track margins. The track was mainly under the canopy of the forest. I spotted a lime green Bell bird (korimako). After twenty minutes, through the spiky cabbage and crimson flowering Pohutukawa trees, the light house appeared on top of a hill. On the way up, I met Richard – my fellow hiker on the Routeburn Track. A wonderful coincidence.

Lighthouse

At the lighthouse, by the cafe and visitor’s center, there were many visitors. Three quarters of them were day trippers. The other buildings include two cottages used by the ranger and volunteers. The lighthouse, one of the oldest in New Zealand, was built in 1864. A concrete building with a foghorn is located on the cliff face on the north-east. Great Barrier, Little Barrier and Waiheki islands; Rangitoto; Whangaparaoa Peninsula; and the Coromandel mainland were visible from here. On th3 way to the bunkhouse, high above a Kowhai tree, a single New Zealand Pigeon (kererū) displayed its colorful plumage.

Morepoke
Bell bird

After securing our bunk beds and lunch, I headed to explore Cable Track. However, some visitors advised on sightings of the native owl – the nocturnal speckled brown Morepoke (Ruru). Only a hundred meters on the East Coast Track, there were a couple – roosting. A short walk later, I encountered a pair of Red Crowned Parakeets (Kākāriki) foraging on the grassland. A mixture of trees included the Comprosma species and flowering kanuka trees. The track is under the tree canopy and well protected from wind. I had my first glimpse of a male Stitch bird (Hihi) and a North Island Robin (Toutouwai). The track eventually, like all track meet the main Ridge Road. The riots of bird calls is dominated and dictated by the Tui. They are territorial and disturb not only its on kind but all other resident birds. However, they are wonderful to observe.

Tui

My hike continued on the Totara Track and eventually connected with the Kawerau Track with a series of downhill board walks. A black and brown North Island Saddleback (Tīeke) was busy scouring the forest floor to feed, just two meters away. The birds do come close. Old twisted trees trunks of the Pohutukawa, barely recognisable, had the foliage above the canopy.

It was sunny as I emerged out on gravel Hobbs Beach. This is a swimming Flowering Pohutukawa and flax plants lined the shore. Seabirds foraging included the Southern Black-backed Gull and an Oyster Catcher. The ferry was still anchored at the wharf. Once again I followed the Wattle Track back towards the lighthouse. This track is exposed to the sun. Several Tui displayed their aerial skills to ward off intruders. I passed a clump of matured Nipah palms and paused at a water station. This is delightful site to spot birds as they swing in for a drink. The dominant Tui were a given, drinking and having a bath. It white wattle on its throat and the iridescent blue plumage shined in the light. A Bell bird couldn’t resist the opportunity in this hot day either. The crowds had thinned at the lighthouse. The sun was blazing across the grassland.

Foghorn Station

After dinner, I ventured out again hoping to see the rare Brown Kiwi. The ranger had suggested to walk along the Ridge Road and the side tracks. The cacophony of this afternoon’s bird calls mellowed. After two hours of walking, there was no sign of the illusive and shy Kiwi. I was already dark and quiet when I returned to the bunk house. Around 2230, I sat outside, perhaps optimistic, for a Kiwi to wander out onto the grasses. Suddenly, I heard the sharp and screeching call of the Kiwi somewhere inside the forest. I was satisfied.

The following day, I was out around 0530. no Kiwi in sight as I headed onto the East Coast Track which skittered along the cliffs. The Tui were busy and the calls heard throughout. I spotted a pair of Morepoke, heading home to roost. The Tui made sure the moved from that spot.  A few sea birds flew above the cliffs. Along the track, I saw three Tui confronting each other. They headed straight towards me. I ducked and heard their wings flap just above my head. That was too close. I had arrived at the craggy Fishermans Bay. Nearby is a small pond which reflected the dark sky.

I followed the Fishermans Bay Track back towards the Ridge Road. I heard an unfamiliar bird call. It was a handsome pair of North Island Kokako. it is a beautiful bird with a blue wattle under its beak, bluish plumage and a black mask! Unfortunately, a couple of Tui managed to disturb and the Kokako disappeared into the forest. I was lucky.

Kokako

I decided to wander again through the Totara and Kawerau Tracks. I became familiar with some of the birds including the Pigeon, Parakeets and Saddlebacks. A family of Quails, well camouflaged, darted in and out along the track margins. Throughout the two days, the only sound I heard was bird calls and the rustling of leaves. A tranquil environment. With well-established tracks and board walks, the whole island can be walked as ease. Guided walks are also provided. At the lighthouse, I managed to see one of New Zealand’s rare flightless birds – the Takahe. There was an adult pair with a chick. The adults had an amazing iridescent dark blue and olive-green plumage with a red beak (look similar to a pukeko). This is an open bird sanctuary with ongoing research. Imagine, this singing 220ha island is just an hour boat ride from metropolis Auckland. A must do when in Auckland.

 

 

 

Tiritiri Matangi photos

I recently explored Tiritiri Matangi Island, about 30km (an hours ferry ride) from Central Auckland. It is a rehabilitated island and restored into a bird sanctuary.  A birder’s paradise. A compact island packed with over 70 species of primarily native birds. This includes the rare Takahe, Kokako, Mopoke, Tui, Wood Pigeon, Saddleback and Hihi. There are wonderful beaches to swim. Numerous tracks and walkways make exploring easy. On an overnight stay, try spotting the elusive Kiwi bird in the evening. An amazing New Zealand paradise.

Hiking the Routeburn Track

Table of Contents

Track Information
Day 1 – Divide – Lake Howden via Key Summit
Day 2 – Lake Howden Hut – Lake Mackenzie Hut
Day 3 – Lake Mackenzie Hut – Routeburn Falls Hut
Day 4 – Routeburn Falls Hut – The Shelter
Suggested Food
Suggested hiking gear

Track information

Routeburn Track is located in the unique Fiordland in New Zealand’s South Island. It is considered one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. Read about my hikes in Abel Tasman Coastal Track and Kepler Track in previous posts. You can also see my Routeburn Track photos

The tracks and huts are managed by DOC (Dept. of Conservation). As such, registration and bookings are made through the Department of Conservation, Fiordland National Park. Booking is not only essential, book early as it is popular particularly between December and March. I suggest booking on the shoulder season – early November and April to avoid the crowd. All booking must be confirmed at the DOC offices either in Queenstown or Te Anau prior to starting the track. The Fiordland weather is unpredictable. Be prepared for mainly for rain and gusty cold wind. During my track in early November, we experienced heavy rain, thunderstorms and lightning in the last two days. Avalanche warnings are also high on certain stretches especially between Lake Mackenzie and Routeburn Falls Huts. Particularly near Harris Lake.

The 32 km track can be completed in two, three or four days. We decided to do a four day track to accommodate my injured thumb plus to take in the views. (Having done it, three days is ideal). It is a one way track that can be started from either end – the Divide from Te Anau or the Routeburn shelter from Glenorchy. Walking from the Divide offers an easier hike as the track climbs gradually. Plus, walk into generous views. Start from Te Anau and finish in Queenstown. Transportation to and from Queenstown and Te Anau to the Divide and the Shelter can be organised by Tracknet or Infotrack. For relocating cars between starting and finishing points, contact Trackhopper or Easyhike.


Routeburn track map

Day 1 (Nov 6) – Divide – Lake Howden via Key Summit (3.4km + 2km)

Will, my tramping partner, and I were picked up by Tracknet (transporter) at Te Anau at 0715. It was raining lightly. Soon after entering Fiordland NP, we passed through Elington Valley, grouched out during the ice age, covered with golden tussock grasses. The slow moving Elington River meandered through it. Soon after, we made a short stop at Gunn Lake. On a good day, reflections of the surrounding mountains can be seen mirrored on the lake. We arrived at the Divide, about 1.5 hrs from Te Anau on the road to Milford Sound, around 0830, starting point of the 32 km Routeburn Track with a side track to Key Summit.

At a shelter, we organised ourselves. The weather was very cloudy and it rained sporadically.
We entered Fiordland NP. Its distinct lichens hung from trees, lime green moss carpeted the forest floor with thickets of ferns. The air was crisp with clear visibility. I could almost see the individual leaves. However, clouds hung low above the tree top and mountains. We passed a few Kotukutu trees, the largest fuchsia in the world. It had a distinctive orange bark peels.

This is mainly a Silver Beech forest. We passed small waterfalls and crossed man-made bridges. The track was not too demanding at this stage. Furthermore, it is a short hike today. Secretly, I was hoping the rain clouds would clear when we approach Key Summit as we walked through the mainly silver beech forest. I was optimistic and excited. At the same time, apprehensive. How am I going to cope with my fractured thumb (sports injury just 6 days ago). Occasionally, icy peaks of the Earl Mountains emerged through the tree clearings. There were only three people on the track for now.

Once above the tree line, the Darren Mountains with the Hollyford valley and river stretched towards the horizon. My heartbeat jumped. I am always inspired by snowy peaks and high places. As hoped, the threatening dark rain clouds had thinned. The sun was out. The landscape was bathed in glorious morning sunshine and the sky blue. The flora here is mixed. Around 0930, we arrived at a junction, one descended towards Lake Howden Hut and the other, ascended towards Key Summit.

On this exposed section, we bumped into a bunch of school kids from Dunedin. The tranquility is broken with chatter and friendly banter among these kids. It was great to see these young ones enjoying the great outdoors. For a moment, the track was crowded. Eventually, once we arrived at the summit, the views were stunning. We were encircled but snowy peaks. I was mesmerised by the alpine tarns surrounded with yellow ground moss adorned with majestic peaks. On the west, the Earl and Darren Mountains. On the east – Humboldt, Ailsa and Livingstona Mountains. The clouds cleared, little cool wind and sun warm. I just had to sit and savour this natural beauty. In the background, laughter and chatter by the school kids.

Within minutes, the cold clouds partially reclaimed the mountain tops. This is synonymous with the Fiordland. There is an Alpine Loop Walk. Yellow moss surrounded an alpine tarn. It is a delicate environment. I was stuck like a magnet in this place. Continuing on further south on the trail, there is a viewing spot and rest area. With clouds almost covering the mountain, I was not sure what I was looking at. A small signage cleared that up. The school kids had also gathered here together with a guided group op. I was in no hurry and relished this magical environment. Several ice covered peaks with bare slopes appeared. Finally, I spotted the aquamarine alpine glacial Lake Marian, literally hanging off the slopes of Mount Christina. On the right is an aptly named Mount Crosscut. The Key Summit Track can be done as a day hike from the Divide (3 hrs return).

We retraced our tracks back to the mail trail and hiked towards, mainly downhill and under tree canopy, towards Lake Howden Hut. We arrived around 1130. The group of kids we met on Key Summit were, fortunately, to the next hut. Plus, a group of guided hikers were having lunch and also preparing to leave. Placid Lake Howden is surrounded by lush green mountains as a few icy peaks. The lake water flowed out just in front of the hut. It was cold though. Alert! Be prepared for sand fly. Soon, more trackers arrived and departed.

After lunch, as the sun was still out and bright, I walked along the lake on the Caples Track. It was all under the forest canopy. Bird songs filled the air. Trying to spot them is a different issue. Several streams criss-crossed the track. In an open valley, a small stream cut a grassy bog. The sky was blue and the weather warm. The hut was half full. I looked out of the window while sipping my miso soup, the sun was still out after 1900. Most people in this hut were mainly heading towards the Divide the next day. There were a few going in our direction. Dinner time gives us an opportunity to meet other hikers and hear their stories. Huts are never easy to sleep!

Day 2 (Nov 7) – Lake Howden Hut – Lake Mackenzie Hut (8.6 km)

I did not sleep well. Noises, snoring and movements of people within the hut is unavoidable. I was up around 0700 and the hut was completely engulfed by heavy fog. The surrounding rainforest were transformed into silhouettes. A thick layer of mist hung just above Howden Lake’s surface. After breakfast, we left the hut around 0800. We know there were three other heading our way.

The track ascended from the hut and lead into the forest. The air was still. The only sound I heard was my heavy breath and footsteps on the gravel track. Bird songs echoed through the misty rain forest. In the background, there is a constant sound, the roar of moving water. Either from the numerous streams that criss-cross the track and waterfalls. Synonymous with the Fiordlands, the forest is enriched with with lichens on tree branches and trunks, moss carpet on the forest floor and sporadic ground ferns. Similarly we crossed several fixed bridges. We met Richard, a keen birder making his way slowly. He explained that he had hip replacement just four months ago. Brave and determined man.

Loud roar resonated through the forest. Not long after, I could see a white column of water fall from a blackish cliff face. I felt the strong spray drift before witnessing the fall itself. This is Earland Fall (178m). Resulting from the night’s heavy rainfall, there was a lot of water. The track passed along the face of the fall. Be prepared to get wet. There is an alternative route just below the main track.

Strangely, past the fall, the ground seemed drier. Looking back at Earland Falls,it was even more impressive especially when the clouds disappeared. Snow covered mountains appeared. That brought some excitement. The canopy was thinner here. A signage said The Orchard. It is a flat area covered with grasses, thickets of ferns, flax and small ribbonwood trees. They look like apple trees. I ventured off the track towards a small pond flanked by beech trees. A couple of stunned hares hopped into the bush. In distant background, looming peaks glowed in the late morning sun.

The track zig-zagged along the slopes and the was a pleasant surprise – the Darren Mountains. The range was partially visible with clouds moving rapidly. As the clouds dissipated, the Hollyford Valley and river appeared. This is a perfect place for lunch. I was totally mesmerised by the icy mountains. While having lunch, I was hoping the whole range would open up. Optimistic perhaps. At times I could see the end of the Hollyford River which drained into the Tasman Sea. I dragged away from this fantastic view. The blue sky and sunny day was welcomed. Still walking along the slopes with the Darren Mountains on the west, I reentered the forest. With beautiful weather, I was really enjoying the hike. I am almost alone throughout the track. There were only about five hiker walking in the direction. That is a great feeling. Occasionally I caught up with Will. A. tiny green bird darted around tree branches (later identified by Richard, a bird enthusiasts as the Riflemen). The final part track ended on the flats covered with shrubs. The first huts were not for independent hikers. Its a lodge. Finally, around 1230 I arrived at Lake Mackenzie Hut. There were not other boarders yet.

It is an amazing site. I was attracted towards the emerald green glacial lake. Rough blocks of glacial rocks lay strewn on the west end of the lake. Two peaks loomed above, Ocean and Emily Peaks. With the sun shining, the views were stunning. After some hot refreshments, we headed out to explore Split Rock. There were great views of both Ocean and Emily Peaks. On the west, Christina and other Darren Mountain peaks gleamed in the midday sun. Bird calls echoed everywhere but hard to see. Near the hut, a couple of Kea made their distinct calls. Today is a fantastic day but we were warned of uncertain weather tomorrow. At dinner, we caught up with Richard. There is a sense of camaraderie amongst hikers.

Day 3 (Nov 8) – Lake Mackenzie Hut to Routeburn Falls Hut (11.3km)

Tried to get some sleep but quite unsuccessful. Late at night, the dark clouds that gathered earlier turned into torrential downpour aided with strong gusty wind. The storm lashed onto the hut with lightning and thunder. I was glad that I am tucked in my sleeping bag.

The weather forecast for today is not particularly good with potential for rain throughout the day. At breakfast, I was surprised there was no rain although dark and cloudy. We departed around 0730 hoping to take advantage of the weather. Kea calls echoed in the cold morning air from the nearby trees. I had my rain gear and thermals on. The track immediately entered the beech forest and skirted round Lake Mackenzie. The gravel track zig-zagged climbing steadily under the forest canopy. We soon emerged out of the forest and surprisingly with only a breeze. As we climbed around the slopes of Ocean Peak, there were great views of Lake Mackenzie and the surrounding mountains. The day was cloudy and rain was imminent. Above the tree line, the track passed through a high alpine plateau of tussock grasses and transformed into jagged rocky plateau. Unique hardy plants clung on to survive these harsh conditions. Then it began to drizzle.

The track progresses parallel with the Hollyford Valley flanked by the great snow peaked Darren Mountains. The wind picked up so did the rain. I struggled a little keeping my bandaged hand dry. Tussock grasses covered most surfaces. Icy peaks emerged as the clouds clear. At one point, the track is a narrow ledge with steep slope. Fortunately, a pipe handle, screwed onto the cliff face, provided some support. Sudden gusts of wind threw me off balance at places. On the west, Darren Mountains were almost invisible with the rain and thick clouds. Temperatures began to drop as we climbed higher. The hike was not difficult.

Finally we approached Harris Saddle, the highest elevation (1255m) of the Routeburn Track at midday. Hale swept through as I hurried into the shelter. I tucked in my lunch before continuing on. A few other hikers coming from the opposite direction also made a brief stop here. Unfortunately, my flimsy rain coat tore. There is no alternative rain top. Moments later, sleet dropped from the dark sky. The side trip to Conical Hill was inaccessible today due to avalanches. The views beyond the shelter was obscured by heavy mist and clouds. Fortunately, the orange track markers, provided guide and direction. These are invaluable during poor weather and visibility.

For hereon, we entered the Mount Aspiring NP. After a short walk over sandstone rocks, the dark hued glass-like glacial Harris Lake appeared. Although cloudy, raining and dark, the expansive views were amazing. Snow peaked mountains were almost silhouetted in the background. It was in black and white. Just past the shelter, in an tarn, was a rare blue duck (Whio). The narrow track skirted above and around the lake. With a series of wooden steps, I descended through a lump of ice. Continuous rain had made the track slippery in places. There are great views of Harris Lake and the drainage outlet. A river is formed and flowed downhill. In the distant, a greenish valley. Avalanche warning appear sporadically over this stretch.

On this rugged landscape of tussock flats and boulders , the beginning of Routeburn River cascaded down and meandered towards the rain mist covered valley below. The river splits into fast flowing streams. Various coloured stones including greenstones are strewn along the track. This area is rich in “pounamu” (jade like greenstone). Drenched in rain, the bush is green. As I approach the flats, a loud consistent roar can be heard. Aided by iron railing, I walked gingerly over sandstone rocks. There, the torrent Routeburn Falls tumbled into a deep canyon at three separated sections. Due to heavy downpours, aided by numerous ad-hoc streams, the river had swelled.

Below, a cluster of corrugated iron roof tops buildings. These included a upmarket accommodation and the humble DOC Routeburn Falls Huts. A helicopter landing pad is clearly marked. Drenched and cold, I was relieved to arrive. It was around 1230pm. A quick change, organising my bunk bed, I looked forward to a hot meal. Three Kea birds played on a nearby tree. From the balcony of the hut, the lemon green flats and black slopes of the Humboldt Mountain were barely visible. Waterfalls seemed to appear and disappear on the mountain slope with the ebb and flow of the rain. This hut is an enviable location.

A helicopter ferried passengers to the luxury lodge. It caused a flurry of excitement. Time to settle into hut life. We met fellow kiwis Mellisa and Marisa. along with Richard and formed a small dinner table group. All from different walks of life with a common interest in Hiking. Richard offered an emergency rain cover ( a bright yellow plastic bag). Perhaps, with bad weather forecast, I may have use for it.

Day 4 (Nov 9) – Routeburn Falls Hut to Routeburn Shelter (8.8km)

Left at 8am. Severe storm warning arrived at night. Gale force winds packed with rain, thunder and lightning. It was cold but once inside sleeping bag, warm. After 2 days of little or disturbed sleep, managed to get sound sleep. Next morning weather was uncertain. What time shall we depart? Play by ear.

Morning was cold but surprisingly the heavy early morning storm seemed to have passed. However, those heading towards Harris Saddle were warned of later bad weather – continued heavy rain and plunging temperature. Fortunately, we were heading towards Routeburn Shelter. A Kea just perched itself on a wire just above the ranger’s hut. We left at 8am and hoped to pass the imminent storm. Sky was laden with thick dark clouds. The nearby snow covered mountains were visible. Sound of the falls nearby seemed louder than when arrived. The Routeburn River must have been swollen with the big rainfall. The track was well laid with compacted gravel and the terrain level and descending. We entered the mainly Mountain Beech forest. Fiordland is living up yo its reputation – wet and unpredictable. Streams criss-crossed the track. In places, the track became mini-streams. We walked close to the river valley as the track meandered in and out of the beech forest. It began to rain. Out came the (torn) raincoat. The torrent Routeburn River entered a grassy flat valley and meandered calmly surrounded by the Humboldt Mountains. Numerous waterfalls of various magnitude fell over the mountain sides. The typical Fiordland forest emerged – moss covered forest floor, ground ferns, lichen hanging off tree trunks and branches. Birdsong echoed somewhere in the forest.

Later along the track, the river merged and with contribution from the numerous streams, it swelled and cut thunderously through narrow chasms and gorges. Under one bridge, I felt its volatile power as it cascaded over buried rocks. This morning’s heavy downpour certainly aided to the river strength. We forged through some flooded section on the track. Some via suspension bridges and one make-shift tree trunk bridge. We have now entered the mainly Red Beech Forest. On a nature’s walk trail, tree saplings sprouted out from rotting tree trunks. Fungus mycelium quietly eating away decaying leaves and other plant materials and converting them into organic matter and eventually nutrients to the living plants. The light rain continued. The storm held for now. We crossed a swing bridge and was relieved, from the weather, when we arrived at the Routeburn Shelter around 11am.

We were being picked up by pre-arranged transport (Track and Info) back to Queenstown. Some hikers were just beginning their track. Around 12pm, It poured. I am glad we were not out on the track. Overall, the track is not too difficult but the weather and bandaged fractured thumb was challenging. The Routeburn Track is worthy of a hike in this unique UNESCO Heritage Fiordland.

Suggested Food :-
Food takes a big part of your pack weight. For a three day hike, estimate about 3kg. Think light but sometimes comfort food
Breakfast – Coffee, Oats/Cereals, Roti (tortilla), Porridge
Lunch – Croissant, Cheese, Snack Bars, Nuts, Dried fruits, Dried Meat (jerky), dried fruits and nuts, chocolates
Dinner – Udom Noodles with Miso and boiled egg, Ready to eat meals including dehydrated (western and Indian), pasta with tuna (can)
Suggested hiking gear : –
My overall pack weight for this track was 10kg. However, my camera and filled water bottle is 4kg! I am comfortable with 14 kg.
Polypropylene thermal top and pant
Wind and Rain proof jackets and over-pants
Socks – three pairs (thermal and cotton)
Lightweight Back Pack – 50L – 60L (2kg or less)
Rubbish Bag – pack in, pack out
Cooking Utensils (stove and gas provided)
Inner liners for back pack – to keep dry
Clothing – one change for night use
Gloves – optional
Fleece/Jersey (woolen and lightweight)
Hat and sunglasses
Walking stick – if needed
Sleeping Bag – down with three seasons
Water Bottle – 1.5L/Bladder bag
Torch/headlamp
Toiletries – Toilet Paper
First Aid and personal medication- including Blister pads, plaster, pain killers, etc
Quick Dry Light weight Towel
Shoes/jandals(hut use)
Insect repellent – Deet
Sunscreen
Lightweight Swimming gear

Earthbound Travel Stories