Since this post ended up being longer than I anticipated, it will be broken up into 2 parts. Once I started typing it just kept getting longer and longer, so hopefully it’s not too much of a beast and you get some laughs out of our misadventures on the Kepler Track
Ok, so we technically weren’t planning to do any multi-day hikes when we originally planned our trip to New Zealand. But we caved to temptation. It’s hard to resist when you are in a country that in itself seems like another world entirely. That’s how we ended up hyping ourselves into hiking the Kepler Track in 3 days. The mileage seemed doable, we had pretested the weight of our newly borrowed packs, and we were no couch potatoes. We felt ready. Just a preface here; even though it was only an “intermediate” level track, it wasn’t necessarily a stroll through the park, and 3 days turned into 4. Oh, and it’s only 60km, not 67 km, but I’ll explain that later.
Here’s how our trip went:
First, we drove further north to check out Milford Sound. It’s perhaps New Zealand’s most iconic natural wonder. We go there early after camping one very chilly night at a campsite about an hour away from Milford Sound. Our advice, try to book the first boat going out for the day, usually a 9am departure depending on which tour company you go through. The reason to get up at the butt-crack of dawn and catch that first boat is because it’s less crowded (who wants to wake up that early?) and some of the tour boats offer free breakfast with your ticket. We are all about free food and fewer people, so we booked the 9am tour with Go Orange. Check out what they offer here.
We enjoyed a 2 hour boat ride through the Sound with plenty of room to move around on the boat while we listened to the boat captain tell us cool facts about the area. For example, he told us that they get so much rain throughout the year that they don’t measure it in millimeters or centimeters but in meters! They get on average over 15 meters of rain a year! That’s around 50 feet a year for those of you still using the Imperial System 😉 Since the mountains over on the west coast are sheer rock with little vegetation, all that water cascades off into myriads of rivers and waterfalls back into the ocean. A bonus was getting insanely close to some of the waterfalls while on the boat and he stopped near a huge boulder where fur seals were taking a snooze.
After Milford Sound we drove down to an area called Manapouri to stay at a tiny cabin we booked through Airbnb. The cabin was at a small campground called Possum Lodge and gave us the chance to sleep in a warm bed and take a hot shower before embarking on our trek. Besides the tiny cabins, there were also powered sites for small RV campers and plenty of tent sites. Like most campgrounds, there was a kitchen and lounge area with free wifi, and the bathroom/shower facilities were nice and clean. Definitely a cool little campground to check out if you travel to the area.
Ok, now on to the good part…
Day 1: After having a bit of a sleep in on Wednesday, we packed up our stuff into the car and headed off for the Rainbow Reach carpark. We arrived around 10am and triple checked that we had everything we needed, locked the car, and started walking. It was a chilly morning until the sun was a bit higher, and when you are carrying a heavy pack you warm up pretty fast. Leaving out of Rainbow Reach gives you the chance to walk across the Waiau River on this long suspension bridge which was cool. Our first day was a 15.1km (9.4mi) hike through mostly flat forest along the river to the Brod Bay Campsite that sits on the shore of Lake Te Anau. Shortly after a lunch of apples and trail mix, we passed through the Kepler Track Carpark which is a more common place for people to start/end their hike. It was here at the Kepler carpark that we noticed the discrepancy in kilometers between our trail guide and the signs posted. Apparently, back when the trail was newly built there wasn’t an accurate way of measuring the distances up in parts of the alpine section. In addition, parts of that section of the trail would change due to rock slides and avalanche activity. So it wasn’t until somewhat recently that the actual kilometers were accurately measured, making it a 60km loop instead of the 67km that it said on the Kepler Carpark sign.
Our first day was fairly easy-going, except for the nagging discomfort starting in our shoulders, but nothing we couldn’t block out mentally. We reached Brod Bay campsite by 2:30pm so we had kept a pretty good pace on that first day. After setting up camp in the treeline we went down and lay out on the beach fully clothed to relax. I say fully clothed for 2 reasons. First, because it was still chilly to us and definitely not “beach weather” despite it being a beautiful, sunny day. Secondly, us and the other campers hanging out on the beach kept our clothes on, unlike the 2 girls from France who thought it was totally fine to strip down and go skinny dipping in broad daylight. Talk about a culture shock! Anyways, after taking a nap in the sun we finished setting up camp, had an early dinner so we could get to bed early and escape the sandflies. We brought natural bug repellent but they can be persistent and their bites itch worse than mosquitoes. Poor Michael didn’t sleep well that night due to little mice climbing on our tent trying to get to our food. The park rangers advised us to keep food and trash in our tent to prevent rats and mice eating our food. Ha! Michael ended up throwing our trash bag outside the tent to appease the mice.
Day 2: After a not-so-restful nights sleep, we got a slow start on our longest day of walking. All the other campers were getting an early start, but most of them were stopping at the next hut, Luxmore Hut, 8.2km (5.1mi) away. We would stop at Luxmore Hut for lunch, but our final destination that day was Iris Burn Hut 22.8km (14.1mi) away. Not only that, but this section has the most altitude change and can take hikers 8-10 hours to complete. I tried to get Michael to move with a little more urgency, but he hates being rushed, so we didn’t start walking until 9:30am. Once the trail turned inland from Lake Te Anau it started going up. And up. And up some more. We steadily climbed for the first 2 hours taking small breaks to gain 700m (2300ft) in altitude in the first 4.1km (2.5mi). One of our breaks was at the end of a particularly steep climb under limestone cliffs and I spotted a lone walking stick. I already had one, but Michael didn’t. Many of the hikers had their fancy trekking poles for the steep climbing sections, so I figured we may need them sooner than later. After the limestone cliffs we had a nice surprise on this part of the trail. We came upon two juvenile Kea parrots trying to destroy a bit of drainage pipe. Kea are large alpine parrots that are unique to the South Island and can be quite destructive. They are not scared of hikers, very curious, and will not hesitate to destroy whatever they can get their powerful beaks on. So after snapping a few pictures we left them to their destructive activity and kept walking. At this point, our backs and shoulders were really starting to feel the bite from the straps on our packs.
The #1 rule when hiking with heavy packs is to make sure you have the weight distribution packed in your bag correctly, with the heaviest stuff up against your back and the middle of your pack. Also to have most of the weight on your hips and not on your shoulders. It’s important not to over pack when you need to be self-sufficient on a multi-day hike, but you also need to be prepared for all weather conditions in New Zealand, which meant we shoved our heavy winter coats into our packs. And no, we never used them once. We made sure of all of this, yet no matter how I adjusted my shoulder straps when I would tighten them they would bunch up, creating a fold in the straps. This fold, along with the terribly placed plastic D-ring, would dig into my shoulders, especially the left one. I shoved Michael’s beanie hat under the left shoulder strap to ease some of the pain, but it never went away completely.
We made it to Luxmore Hut around 12noon to have a hearty lunch of tortellini pasta. How good it felt to relax and stretch our strained muscles! Most hikers were stopping there for the day and would check out the Luxmore caves, which we had to skip since we still weren’t even halfway to our final destination. It was beautiful up there above the tree line and we made sure to take it in and enjoy as much of it as we could while walking along.
We left Luxmore Hut at 1:30pm. The second half of this second day was probably the toughest thing we have ever done. After leaving Luxmore Hut, we walked along ridgelines and mountain saddles exposed to sun and wind. Thankfully, we had amazing weather and the winds weren’t strong. At times, the wind speeds can reach hurricane force and blow you right off the trail. Parts of the trail were pretty sketchy with loose slag rock and uneven terrain, and this is were those walking sticks came in handy to steady ourselves. Up there in the alpine crossing is where we met our first adult Kea. Adults don’t have any yellow around their eyes or beaks we found out later, so it’s easy to tell the adults apart from the juvenile delinquent teenage parrots. We stopped and entertained him for about 10 minutes but since it was already after 4pm we needed to keep pushing on while we still had daylight.
There are 2 emergency huts up in the Alpine crossing section, but they only offer a long-drop toilet and a place to get out of the elements if the weather turns. We used them as checkpoints because when you are walking for hours along mountaintops you need that checkpoint to keep you moving forward. With such strenuous terrain, you can’t hold long conversation so you are mostly left with the string of thoughts running through your head. At some point on our alpine crossing we hit the highest elevation on the track of 1400m (4600ft). We met a few people up in this section walking the other way to make it to Luxmore Hut before sundown, but it always a brief friendly “hello” before setting your eyes to the trail again and pushing forward.
We were starting to get a little worried at this point because we had run out of water, even though we had refilled back at Luxmore Hut. There weren’t any streams near us at this point. It was after 6pm, we knew we still had a good 3 hours of hiking left, and stopping for dinner wasn’t even on our minds. We were looking for the treeline, which meant we would have descended low enough to reach the series of switchbacks that we knew would take us to Iris Burn Hut. Thankfully, the treeline wasn’t much farther which renewed our hopes that the Hut wasn’t too far off. We were wrong. The thing with ascending/descending is that it totally screws with your concept of actual distance covered. So even though we were walking down switchback after switchback for what seemed like forever until our knees were screaming at us, we hadn’t gone far. One good thing is that we managed to find a fresh stream to get a drink of water, and boy was it refreshing! Once the sun went down behind the mountains it became increasingly dark as we kept walk/running down the switchbacks. It finally became dark enough that we put our headlamps on. Thank goodness we brought headlamps! When your shoulders, back, calves, knees, and feet are screaming at you it becomes increasingly difficult to block it out. But I was able to block it out enough to notice how profound the silence was around us as we kept descending looking for the lights of the hut. It was kind of cool to be alone on the trail in the dark and not worry about being stalked by a panther or stepping on a snake in the dark.
It was finally around 9:30pm that we saw the light of Iris Burn Hut. We had prepaid for our tent sites but we wanted to see if we could upgrade to bunks since we were exhausted and just wanted to stop moving. Luckily we caught the ranger before she went to bed and after seeing us in our pitiful state let us do a last-minute upgrade. Why not just get bunks from the beginning, you ask? Because it’s $54 per person per night for a bed compared to $18 per person per night for a tent site. But at this point we were desperate to just throw down our gear and sleep. So Michael paid for our bunks, we washed up real fast, and I grabbed my sleeping bag while Michael made himself a late dinner. The beds are literally vinyl covered cushions inches away from each other, along with a few bunk beds for the lucky ones. Yep, $54 for no privacy and a crummy mat. The silver lining was that Michael and I ended up on the top bunks of two beds at the end of the upstairs room. Amidst the snoring, the farting, and the incessant rustling of some idiot in their sleeping bag who couldn’t hold still for 5 seconds, we were able to get a little sleep. I’m naturally a light sleeper so it was a challenge to fall asleep. I’m not even joking about the farting part by the way.
Check out Take A Hike – Part 2 for the rest of our Kepler Track misadventure!