Once again, I was up early. Not at dawn, because that was shortly after 0500 this time of year, but early enough. Today was my first day of hiking the Kepler Track, the last of my multi-day tramps in New Zealand. This hikes starts and ends in the town of Te Anau, a small town on the edge of Lake Te Anau and Fiordland National Park. The park is the largest national park in New Zealand that takes up a decent chunk of the South Island. I knew I wanted to do a Fiordland-based hike, and was drawn to the Kepler Track for a variety of reasons. First, it is not as popular, nor as regulated as the Milford Track, which is both (and apparently part of the Milford Track was closed during this period due to heavy rains, so extra bonus). I did want to do a hike that involved some alpine hiking, and the Kepler Track is well-setup as a loop track, and came highly recommended for its scenic beauty.
Kepler Track is designed to be a 61 kilometer, four day hike. However, you can combine the third day of the hike and half of the fourth day’s hike (like I did) and leave the track at Rainbow Swing Bridge. This track, unlike the other two I did, has about a day’s worth of walking in an alpine environment, and the first night’s stay at Luxmore Hut is well above the bush line with panoramic views of Lake Te Anau, the Te Anau basin, and the surrounding mountains.
I started the trek at the Department of Conservation Visitor’s Center right on the shores of Lake Te Anau. The first four kilometers of the walk was right along the lake, and in fact, you can get transport to the Kepler carpark where the trail officially starts. But since I was cutting out the last 9.5 kilometers of the fourth day of the track, I figured I would make up a little of that distance by walking to the track start point.
The first two and a half hours of the day’s hike to Brod Bay campsite is flat and well-benched through a beech and fern-laden forest. The walk was easy, gentle and peaceful, since I pretty much had the trail to myself. From Brod Bay, the track started to ascend. What I liked about the track is that most of the ascent was not super steep, but gradual. Make no mistake though, it was not a stroll in the park, because I gained 800 meters of altitude in around three hours of walking time.
All the tall, thin and fit trampers (think of them as the Elves of Middle Earth) passed me early and I was left to myself and the quiet of the forest. In my head, I looked like a fat little Hobbit waddling up the track with my big pack on my back and two walking sticks. At least I did go faster than the suggested journey time, so that felt good. For this part of the journey, the trail was mostly well-maintained, though there were some definite muddy spots.
After about two hours of hiking slowly, but steadily uphill, I hit the limestone bluffs, which are ancient remnants when this part of the track was under the sea millions of years ago.
Less than an hour after passing the bluffs, I hit the bush line and was rewarded with spectacular views of the Te Anau basin, Lake Manapouri and surrounding mountains. Since I was ahead of schedule, and had less than 45 minutes of walking left, I figured this was a great spot for a lunch break.
The rest of the hike was along a windswept ridge line out in the open. Here, the wind gusts were rather rough and chilly at times. Taking in all the scenery, I occasionally felt like I was in Lord of the Rings, hiking to Mordor with the Fellowship. Overall, the hike was a bit easier than I thought it would be, considering the altitude gain was the greatest of the hikes I’ve done in New Zealand. Maybe I was a bit fitter after a couple weeks in country. Maybe it was the steady but generally not TOO steep track. In either case, I made it, and I had all afternoon to relax, read a book, take in the gorgeous view and listen to the wind rattling outside.
I could feel the alpine chill and had to put on my thermals. The hut was buzzing with activity of the 50 people staying there that night. All around me, I saw groups of people making food to enjoy, talking, playing cards. I either watched them from a dispassionate distance or listened in to select conversations for the hell of it, when I wasn’t engrossed in my book. When the only activity planned for the day was a walk, that left hours and hours of daylight to contemplate. There was no beach like at Abel Tasman, and the sharp alpine wind and occasional rain discouraged wandering about outside. It was just too much of a production to put all my clothes and boots on, only to be harassed by the cold, rain and wind, when I had a perfectly fine view from the large windows in the common area. I already finished one book and decided to save the next book for the next day’s afternoon at the hut. There was no Internet, and not much else to do after dark, but take a well-earned deep sleep. I had hoped for clear skies to enjoy the stars in that isolated environment, but it was not to be. I just hoped that the weather held out for the next day’s hike during the exposed alpine crossing.