If you told me when I was 16, or even 24 that I would willingly choose to hike the Kepler Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. I would say you were crazy.
I may be an avid hiker now but this wasn’t always the case.
I remember on school trips being forced to do eight hour hikes that I absolutely hated. What the hell was the point in just walking for no reason for hours on end? I did not even remotely get the attraction of hiking then.
It was only during my first visit to Hawaii when I was 26 that I finally ‘got’ hiking. It has been a passionate love affair ever since.
So because my love of hiking was late blooming, I haven’t actually done a lot of it in my own country. New Zealand has got to be one of the best countries in the world for hiking and I have barely scratched the surface of what is on offer.
It’s about time that changed.
There are nine Great Walks in New Zealand and I want to do all of them in the next couple of years. The Great Walks consist of a system of well-maintained huts with wardens in the hiking season that are linked by well-formed and easy to follow trails. They are dotted around the country, all of them through spectacular scenery.
With one of my besties Kurt keen to join me, we decided on the Routeburn track for our first Great Walk. I had heard from a lot of people that have done them all that it is one of the most beautiful and I do love beautiful landscapes. To marvel in the beauty of nature is one of the main reasons I adore hiking after all.
We booked the Routeburn track huts and were all ready to go when a couple of weeks out there was an avalanche which meant that part of the track would be closed for at least a few weeks. We were given the choice to either pay $100 each to catch a short helicopter ride over the avalanche, or to receive a refund. Being the budget traveller that I am, we went with the refund.
So with our accommodation booked on either side of the trek, we didn’t have a lot of choices for an alternative Great Walk or multi-day hike. We decided to go with the nearest Great Walk to the Routeburn, the Kepler Track, another trail that I had heard great things about.
Our schedule was tight and we only had three days to do the usually four day Great Walk. Luckily there is an option to cut it down to three, which just meant missing the last 10km of hiking through the forest. As we were being dropped off and picked up by Dad it didn’t matter if we did the full loop anyway.
The morning of day one of the Kepler Track, when we were set to drive to the beginning of the trail from Queenstown, I woke up with my sinuses blocked and a hacking cough. Great timing as per usual.
The drive out to Te Anau where we picked up our passes and were dropped at the beginning of the Kepler track was spectacular. The sun shone down on the bright blue waters of Lake Wakatipu as we followed its windy shoreline. I was bursting with excitement to get started.
Happiness comes so freely and naturally to me when I am hiking.
Dad dropped us at the Kepler Track carpark control gates on the outskirts of Te Anau just as the clouds began to sweep in, threatening to disrupt the morning’s sunshine.
From here we began our first Great Walk.
Day One on the Kepler Track – Kepler Track Carpark to Luxmore Hut 13.8km
The wind whipped up the waters of Lake Te Anau, churning it into an angry fury of waves that lapped the rocky shore of the lake.
Along the forested track we hiked 5.6km from the carpark to Brod Bay where we stopped for lunch. The skies were darkening further by the minute and it was very windy and cold. We didn’t linger long.
From Brod Bay it was entirely uphill with switchbacks through a native forest of beech and ferns to Luxmore Hut where we were spending our first night.
The forest canopy was thick and we only caught a couple of glimpses of the dark waters of the lake below from viewpoints along the trail.
Emerging from the forest, the trail opened up into alpine tussock land with stunning views over Lake Te Anau. The wind was still blowing a gale.
On the other side of the saddle the views were even better, with a commanding vista of the south fiord of Lake Te Anau and across the water to Mount Lyall and the surrounding peaks. It’s just a shame that we were fighting the wind just to stay upright.
We found sanctuary in the spacious Luxmore Hut. After claiming bunks, we warmed up by the fire, reading, sipping hot chocolate and talking to some of our fellow trampers (that’s what we call hikers in New Zealand. Yep, we are a quirky bunch), while the wind shook the building with ferocity.
The Ranger talk in the evening told us two things, one: that the Ranger spends a large deal of time alone (he was an unusual guy), and two: snow and high winds were expected the next day.
Unfortunately hiking so early in the season meant that the weather could still be quite wintery. And it was always unpredictable no matter what the season.
I was envisaging my Abbot Pass Hut experience all over again and I was more than a little nervous about the prospect of hiking in a blizzard again. It wasn’t meant to start snowing heavily until late morning so we decided to get up early and hit the trail, hoping to avoid the worst of it.
So after cooking dinner on my little stove, we collapsed into our bunks for an early night.
We survived our first day on the Kepler Track and found it surprisingly easy, even though it was uphill most of the way with our backpacks at their heaviest.
Little did we know, day two was going to present some big challenges.
Day Two on the Kepler Track – Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut 14.6km
While I went to sleep with the howling whine of the wind outside, I awoke to silence. The wind had stopped and there was no snow in sight. Maybe the forecast had been wrong?
After a quick breakfast we set off. The air was chilly and the skies were dull and overcast. A thick and soupy mist swirled around us.
Day two of this Great Walk is meant to have incredible views over the valley below but we couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of us. After about an hour, a light snow began to fall.
I love snow. I didn’t see much of it growing up and I only saw snow falling for the first time when I was in my twenties and living in London. Hiking in snow is generally a magical experience for me. A novelty.
I was really enjoying it until we rounded a corner and were hit with the wind we had been warned about the evening before. Suddenly it wasn’t so fun anymore.
I felt frozen to the bone when we stopped for shelter and to refuel at the Forest Burn Saddle Emergency Hut. The hut’s interior was as cold as outside and our body temperatures dropped even more in the time it took to eat a sandwich and drink some water. We probably shouldn’t have stopped at all.
The next two hours were hell. The weather was very, very bad and we were battling through high wind and driving snow the entire time. And with no trees due to being in an exposed alpine zone, there was no escaping the harshness of the elements.
Icicles formed in my hair and on one side of my woolly hat. Chunks of ice formed on Kurt’s eyebrows. My left cheek froze and I couldn’t talk properly. The trail was very narrow at points and slippery from the layer of fresh snow. The wind was so strong that I worried I could literally be pushed off the track, and it was so cold that it took my breath away. It was unrelenting.
I started to get scared that we were in an increasingly dangerous situation, the second for me in a couple of months. It reminded me to never underestimate the mountains and what they can throw at you.
After the Hanging Valley Emergency Shelter, which we didn’t stop at, there was another narrow ridge where we were buffeted head-on by freezing wind and then finally we were heading down into the shelter of the forest, finally escaping the cruel gales.
I should have been relieved, and I guess I was. But I was also soaked through, freezing cold and utterly exhausted. I felt downright miserable, but also happy we survived. I just wanted to get to the Iris Burn Hut as fast as possible.
What we encountered during our descent down to the valley did manage to put a dent in my dark mood. A peaceful, green forest being coated by silent drifts of snow. I had never seen it snow in New Zealand before and it was magical watching it fall on native tree ferns.
After the deafening wind, the silence of the forest was very welcome. It was a freaken’ winter wonderland.
As we descended the snow turned to a gentle sleet until there was nothing left at all.
Arriving at the bottom of the switchbacks the hut was in sight, finally. Set in a peaceful valley and protected from the bad weather raging above us in the mountains, the Iris Burn hut was a sight for sore eyes.
Only one other couple had arrived at the hut so we took advantage of the roaring fire to dry, well, everything we had with us. Unfortunately I hadn’t realised but when my brother and I did our epic Abbot Pass adventure a couple of months earlier, my brother had been using my backpack and he must have lost my backpack cover when we slid down the mountain.
My bag was soaked through along with everything in it. My camera was wet but thankfully still working, although the viewfinder was fogged up. Luckily it cleared once it had been near the warmth of the fire.
After lunch we spent the afternoon reading and chatting to people in the hut. Kurt went for a walk to a waterfall, hoping to spot one of the rare native blue ducks and, bless him, he actually saw a family of them which he was really excited about. That guy loves birds.
I didn’t have the energy to do much of anything. I was shattered and stuffed up. I barely stayed awake for the Ranger talk at 7.30pm and as soon as it was done, I went straight to bed. It was still light outside.
I wish I had been able to get some photos but it was too hard to get my camera out and my hands were too cold to operate it anyway!
Day two on the Kepler Track was one of the hardest days of hiking I have ever done, even though there wasn’t much elevation gain. It was solely because of the challenges that the abysmal weather presented.
Day Three of the Kepler Track – Iris Burn Hut to Rainbow Reach 22.2km
Day three was a biggie: 22.2km, the longest I have ever hiked in a day before. Luckily it was also the easiest day with a bit of gentle downhill through the forest followed by mostly flat terrain. It was just what we needed on our last day.
The day dawned bright and we could finally see the exalted peaks surrounding the hut. We followed the picturesque valley north before entering the forest, where we would stay for most of the day.
Being ensconced in the trees we were treated to a chorus of native birdsong from tomtits, robins and my favourites, grey warblers.
At the Rocky Point Shelter we stopped for an early lunch and were nearly eaten alive by sand flies, vicious little buggers. We ate then dashed.
Hiking on we reached the gentle shores of Lake Manapouri where we stopped at the Moturau Hut. This is the hut where most four day Kepler Track hikers were spending their last night on the trail.
It was a glorious afternoon of sunshine and calm weather: Starkly different than the day before. After a quick snack break we hit the trail again for the last section of the hike.
I really started to hurt the last six kilometres. My joints ached and my back tweaked from carrying my pack for three days. The near endless forest started to bore me. It all looked the same. From the lake we passed a duck pond and marshland before following the Waiau River for the last stretch.
Then the finish line was before us. A swing bridge leading us over the river to the Rainbow Reach carpark.
We did it! We survived our first Great Walk!
Sitting at a picnic table in the sun, we took off our shoes and basked, waiting for Dad to pick us up. We were done. Our bodies may have been (slightly) broken but our spirits were soaring.
I hiked 50.6km over three days in increment weather while battling a bad cold and yet we still managed to be faster than most of the others that were doing the same track as us. That felt pretty damn good.
Once Dad picked us up, we celebrated with Southland cheese rolls at the Sandfly Café in Te Anau, then we were Queenstown bound to meet up with my brother.
My experience on the Kepler Track turned out to be much different than I had planned and pushed me to the limit both physically and mentally. But its experiences like this that make us stronger.
And you know what, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Getting there: To reach the Kepler Track car park you can either walk the 3.5km pathway around the lake from the Te Anau Visitors Centre, or drive there. If you do the trail over four days you will finish at the same spot you started at otherwise you can finish at the Rainbow Reach carpark. You can organise a shuttle from there if you don’t have someone to pick you up.
Length: The classic Kepler Track is 60km/37 miles over four days but we cut off the last 9.4km and hiked 50.6km/31.5 miles over three days.
Elevation Gain: 885 metres/2900 feet on the first day. Day two and three have minimal elevation gain.
Difficulty: I would rate it as Intermediate to Difficult, especially if you are tackling it over three days. Also, if you are unlucky enough to have bad weather conditions on day two, it will be even more challenging, and possibly quite dangerous.