Very little of my journey has been planned out more than a day or so in advance, so it came with a little relief that a plan was successfully hatched for the days of my first Christmas away from home.
The Kepler Track situated in Fiordland National Park, is one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks” and takes you up and down over 1000 meters from the start of the track on its 60km loop. Although known as one of the harder “Great Walks,” the track is very well maintained and is easy to follow & manage for anyone with previous hiking experience. They make it very easy for you during the high season, with gas cookers and heated huts to sleep between 40 and 60.
My travel partners Dasha (Poland) Keith (Scotland) & I decked our bags for holiday spirit and set off as we started our easy trek along Lake Te Anau. Past Brod Bay, the track is all switchbacks for a couple of hours in the forest. My merino shirt was too hot so I swapped it out for a cooler & lighter poly T along the way. After about 2-2.5hrs you reach the tree line where the wind picks up and it’s only about 30-45min to Luxmore Hut. There is a short side trek to the Luxmore Caves, a limestone cave that is accessible with just a short walk from the hut. I had a great time here squeezing through the passages and checking out the formations.
The hut has a great view of the valley below, and as it turns out, great people. After choosing our bunks, we decorated our home for the night. A delicious (for what it is) dehydrated dinner was followed by several games of Pass the Pigs, a game which transcends (almost) all cultural boundaries. Four countries were represented as we played until nearly midnight. (3.5hrs total for the day)
On day two (Dec 25th), we were in little hurry to continue on, but were herded out by the hut warden warning of bad weather to come. We took off shortly afterward in high winds and intermittent rain. This section of the track follows a ridge for much of the time, occasionally with steep drops on either edge. The wind isn’t your friend.
There was a little snow on the trail, and we took a moment to think of home where snow right now was the rule rather than the exception. We took a side trip to the top of Mt Luxmore, though not for the view. We were completely covered in the clouds with no views but nonetheless at 12:02pm reached the summit. There are a couple of emergency shelters along this section of the track, and we used them for a bit of a food and water break when we happened upon them.
Spots of blue sky began to tease us and as the sun began to peek out when we arrived at what would be the trickiest section. 90km gusts were coming across the ridge as we heading across and down. The winds were so intense that more than a few pack covers were whisked right off their packs, and mine nearly followed. When the gusts picked up, you needed to crouch down to avoid being blown across and down. Past the worst of it, we took another side trek to a lookout that gave some amazing views of the Kepler Mountains & their valleys, as well as a reprieve from the wind. If it wasn’t before, now it was a great day.
Following the trail down, you lose the altitude gained the day before while trying to protect your knees from the punishment that your weight+pack+gravity gives them. The Iris Burn hut had all of the amenities plus sunshine and Xmas dinner was dehydrated Lamb, vegetables, rice & mashed potatoes. This was followed by an encore game of Pass the Pigs and some chocolate, candy & drinks to celebrate. (6hrs total for the day)
On day 3 we awoke to rain, and the news that it was only to get worse. We set off in the muddy and slippery track through the forest for the inevitable downpour. This section is mostly flat, and we powered through it given the weather. Unfortunately the rain was so relentless that most of the time was spent with my head down to keep the rain off, and to avoid slipping in a pool of mud. It was with great relief that we arrived to Moturau Hut on Lake Manapouri. Dinner and a final Pass the Pigs marathon ended the day. (3.5hrs total for the day)
Day 4 brought us great weather and the track gives you two options to exit. The first is Rainbow Ridge, less than 2hrs from the hut, or back to the Control Gates at the beginning of the track. Again the track is relatively level and follows Lake Manapouri and Waiau River for an easy day. Though my feet were giving me a little grief, I decided to finish at the control gates, and walk back to town to pick up the car for good measure, not to mention necessity. This added another 1.75hrs to the total for the day, and a much needed rest was had at camp with some celebratory ice cream. (3.5hr+1.5hr total for the day)
Kepler Track Review:
The Kepler was a great trek, giving you New Zealand’s renowned views, and a New Zealand mix of weather to go along with it. Each day was very different, and the huts & track were well maintained. Being in the Fiordlands, expect rain and come prepared for it with waterproof clothing, as well as a pack liner and pack cover (if you like redundancy like I do).
I found my light sleeping bag much too hot in the huts, and would take a sleeping bag liner instead the next time on a “Great Walk.” In the summer months, gas cookers are provided so you only need to bring your own pot for cooking which is an excellent bonus. The second day gives the best views and makes the whole trip.
One of the reasons I chose this track because it was a loop, which when in a car make the most sense. Parking is available at the control gates, and more secure parking is available in Te Anau for $8NZ/night.
Kepler Track Information:
Originally created in 1988 to take a bit of traffic off of the Milford & Routeburn tracks, it covers 60km in the Kepler Mountains in a wide variety of terrain. Unlike other tracks built on Maori trails, the Kepler was built from scratch.
The Kepler Track offers a 3 tent sites (free to $15/night) and 3 serviced huts ($45/night) that require booking in advance in the summer high season. These can be booked online, and the passes picked up at the Department of Conservation (DOC) office in Te Anau. Costs are less for the low season.