Maori trails across the Southern Alps/Ka Tiritiri o te Moana
The Greenstone and Routeburn Valleys were both routes used by Maori from earliest times, as they crossed the mountainous divide to search for, or trade, pounamu (greenstone). Pounamu, particularly the grey green variety found in the mountain at the head of Lake Wakatipu, was highly prized for weapons and ornaments. The importance of the Route Burn and hollyford valleys as a good route to Martins Bay and the West Coast is reflected in the many references to 'whakatipu' in the Maori names of the main geographical features traversed in the journey from the Dart River to Martins Bay. From Te Awa Whakatipu (Dart River) it was necessary to cross Ka Mauka Whakatipu (Humbolt Mountains) via Tarahaka Whakatipu (Harris Saddle) before descending to Whakatipu Ka Tuka (hollyford River). The river was followed down past Wawahi Waka (Lake Alabaster) to Whakatipu Waitai (the 'tidal waters of the Whakatipu', Lake McKerrow and the coast.
European explorers, prospectors and settlers
The First Europeans to visit the Greenstone Valley and look down on the Hollyford Valley were the pastoralist explorers, David McKellar and George Gunn. In June 1861, they crossed from the Mararoa to the Greenstone, continued upvalley to skirt what are now Lakes McKellar and Howden, and then climbed up onto the panoramic viewpoint of Key Summit. Two years later, the lone prospector Patrick Caples reached the hollyford after an arduous icy crossing of Harris Saddle/Tarahaka Whakatipu, and continued down the Hollyford to Martins Bay. Caples was responsible for the first European sketch-map (and many of the new names) of the route - such as Harris, Hollyford, Pyke and McKerrow. Later in 1863 James Hector, with his Maori guide Henry Paramatta visited Martins Bay and traveled into the interior after enjoying the hospitality of the local chief, Tutoko (after whom Hector named the remarkable peak which so dominates the skyline of northern Fiordland). From Key Summit, Hector and his party followed the Greenstone and Mararoa back to Lake Wakatipu.
The discovery of gold on the West Coast in 1865 heightend the desire of the Otago Province for access to, and settlement of, Otago's remote west coast. The ill-fated settlement of Jamestown was established in the early 1870's as a consequence. The risk to supply ships navigating the bar at the mouth of the Hollyford River/Whakatipu Ka Tuka meant that Hector's idea of a road linking Lake Wakatipu and Martins Bay remained a very live issue. It was not until 1935 that the Milford Road eventually reached the upper Hollyford Valley, a decade after the last of the Martins Bay settlers, Malcolm and Hugh McKenzie, sold out their valley cattle-raising operation to David Gunn. So, for 60 years packhorses were still used to carry supplies to Martins Bay through the mountain valleys and passes from Lake Wakatipu - and this led to the gradual improvement of the tracks through the Route Burn and Greenstone Valleys.
Development of the tracks, and national park consolidation
Attempts to build a dray road up around the gorge in the lower Route Burn were abandoned by the mid-1870's and instead a pack track was cut, leading over Harris Saddle/Tarahaka Whakatipu and descending to the Hollyford Valley by what is now known as Deadmans Track. The Glenorchy climbing identity Harry Birley began guiding tourists into the upper Route Burn in the late 1880's and he pioneered the route to Lake Mackenzie with the idea of a track linking the Route Burn with Lake Howden. This was completed in 1914, giving the opportunity for a more direct Routeburn-Greenstone tramping round trip, avoiding the need to drop into the Hollyford and climb back up to Lake Howden by the Pass Creek pack track. By 1934 the Routeburn Track was completed to The Divide, allowing access from Te Anau via the new Eglington Valley road.
A major historical event which greatly improved access to the Routeburn, Greenstone and Caples Valleys was the launching of the S.S. Earnslaw on Lake Wakatipu in November 1912. This graceful steamer provided direct access from Queenstown to Elfin Bay and Kinloch for track walkers, until Glenorchy was linked to Queenstown by road in 1962. Throughout the 1950's and 1960's, a generation of track walkers was transported from the steamer berth in Kinloch to the Route Burn in the 'open air' buses operated by Harry Bryant and his family. This golden era of leisurely steamer and bus travel to the tracks largely ended when the Dart bridge was opened to road traffic in early 1974.
The forested upper Greenstone Valley and the Hollyford section of the Routeburn Track were included in Fiordland National Park when it was formed in 1952. The Route Burn section did not become national park until Mount Aspiring National Park was formed in 1964. However this did not stop the Southland Progress and Queenstown's rapidly growing tourist industry using the bridging of the Dart as justification for dusting off the old dream of a road through the Greenstone and Lake Howden to the Hollyford and Martins Bay (as well as a more direct route to Milford West Coast). Such a road was vigorously opposed by the Federated Mountain Clubs of NZ and both park boards, and the controversy of a possible Greenstone road link (and the more recent concepts of a monorail, or an aerial cable-way) has continued to bubble on for the past 30 years.
The number of walkers on the Routeburn Track has grown steadily in the past 30 years; in the mid 1970's only 2000 walked the full track per annum but the number is now around 13,000 ( with day visitors doing the return trip from Routeburn Shelter to Routeburn Flats pushing the numbers to 15-20,000 for this section of the track). The Routeburn Track achieved international recognition as one of the world's places of 'outstanding universal value' when UNESCO listed Te Wahipounamu - South West New Zealand World Heritage Area in 1990. The Conservation land in the Caples catchment was also included, while the Greenstone Valley and most of the Ailsa Mountains act as a buffer to the world heritage site.
A History of the Routeburn Track by Date.
Pre 1860 The area was used by Southern Maori as a source of Pounamu (Greenstone) and a route to the West Coast.
1860 Charles Cameron, J McGregor and F Foote reach the headwaters of the Routeburn North Branch exploring routes to the West Coast.
1860 The same year Patrick Caples explores the Routeburn and names Lake Harris and Harris Saddle after the superintendent of Otago - John Hyde Harris.
1870 Martins Bay settlement goes ahead (Jamestown) and 3000 pounds was provided for in provincial government for the 112km Kinloch - Routeburn - McKerrow _Martins Bay road. However progress on the road was slow and arduous. By 1873 it was realised that the idea to construct a road over Harris Saddle was impractical, largely due to winter snows and work slowed. Efforts for land links to Jamestown were directed into a pack-horse track from Wakatipu to the hollyford via the Greenstone Valley.
1880’s The Routeburn became renowned for it’s tourist potential with tourists being taken into Routeburn Flats by horse back from Kinloch. The venture continued through the 1880’s and 1890’s.
1903 The tourist department liberated 8 red deer into the Routeburn.
1909 The Tourist Department under the Minister of tourism Thomas MacKenzie allocates funds for repairs to the track and for two bridges to be constructed at the lower Routeburn and at Routeburn Flats, plus a tourist lodge at Flats. Harry Briley was employed as a Tourist Department guide and was also commissioned to investigate the continuation of a walk above bush line between Harris Saddle and Lake Howden. Thus he discovered and named Lake Mackenzie.
1913 The Public Works Department began construction on the track. Two gangs, one from either end, began work with picks, shovels and wheelbarrows to link Harris Saddle with Lake Howden.
1914 The section from Howden to Mackenzie was completed, but with the announcement of war, work halted as men went off to fight.
1926 The Cook family began saw-milling in the lower Routeburn and Sylvan area.
1929 Harry Bryant began operating a bus service from Kinloch to the Routeburn.
1952 Fiordland National Park Gazetted.
1953 Harry Bryant builds first road end shelter.
1961 First Mackenzie hut built. (Fiordland NP) and new Howden Hut built replacing old historic hut.
1963 Two school children, on a school trip, perish in bad weather on the zig zags just above Lake Mackenzie.
1964 Mount Aspiring National Park Gazetted.
1967 Routeburn Falls Hut built. (Mt.Aspiring NP)
1968 Routeburn Guided Walks hut built at falls.
1968 Harris Saddle shelter built.
1976 Routeburn Flats hut built - replacing old Tourist Department huts.
1978 New Lake Mackenzie hut built, replacing 1960’s hut.
1982 Existing Howden Hut built, replacing 1961 hut.
1990 Official campsite constructed near Mackenzie Hut to allow camping in the Mackenzie Basin, which was until then prohibited.
1992 New Harris Saddle shelter built and work done to realign the track on Harris Saddle to minimise environmental damage.
1992 Major renovations to Mackenzie Hut, and New bunk-room, toilets and SQ built.
Jan 1994 Floods destroy all bridges between Routeburn road end and Falls Hut. Rain brought down huge slip between Falls and Flats and hundreds of metres of track between Flats and Road end destroyed. Army was brought in to replace bridges and sections of track. It was 2 months before the track was reopened.
1995 Heavy snow over the winter months causes damage to Howden (roof collapsed), Mackenzie and Falls huts.
1996 A booking system is introduced to reduce overcrowding in huts.
1996 New Falls Hut completed, replacing 1967 hut.
2007 New car-park and Shelter built at Routeburn road end.
2012 New Routeburn Flats Shelter Extension built onto main Hut.