The Kepler Track is one of New Zealand's Great Walks. This 4-day hike is a 60km circular track that takes you through the Fiordland National Park in the southwest of the South Island. There are a couple car park options near the track start, but I just walked there from the Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers hostel where I stayed the night before. Starting at sunrise, I walked along Lake Te Anau, the largest body of fresh water in Australasia, to the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre. Behind the centre is a 4.6km (2.9mi) path that leads to the start of the Kepler Track.
The first leg of Kepler is 13.8km. And it's basically all uphill. In just 4 hours, I gained 1,085m (3,560ft), which is nearly half of the total elevation [1,947m (6,388ft)] I would gain on the entire 4-day trek. I felt heavy the entire climb, and my 50lb pack wasn't making me feel any lighter. A couple hikers were taking a break halfway up to refuel while two other hikers whizzed by me talking casually as though they climbed mountains in their sleep. But I carried on with my slow and steady pace. And then came the top. I almost started crying when I stepped through the bush line. The view was worth 50 of those climbs with a 100lb pack.
Just under 1,100m from the bush line, is Luxmore Hut where I would be bunking for the night. Most of New Zealand's great hikes have well-kept huts along the trails. These huts are run by hut wardens who know their trails forwards, backwards, upside down, and sideways. The wardens are also excellent sources for weather predictions. Each hut has only so many bunk spaces which is why you need to book your trek well in advance. New Zealand takes the preservation of its parks and wildlife very seriously, so there is often a restriction on camping. The huts keep hikers from disturbing the land with campsites and off-trail tramping.
Once at Luxmore Hut, I dropped my bag on a bunk, and set out for Luxmore Cave. The cave is a short 10-minute walk from the hut and well worth the lunch delay. Wooden steps took me down into the darkness. My headlamp allowed me to take a couple decent pictures as I crawled deep into the cave, going as far as I could before it become too small to inch further.
Back at the hut, I munched on peanut butter crackers and gingernut biscuits (so many ginger food options in NZ) while playing card games with the other hikers. I came to befriend Cara and Erin, two Canadian women, a teacher and student turned ragnar relay partners turned friends, who were traveling around New Zealand together for 3 months, the longest a visitor's visa allows! (Because of them, I would visit Alberta just 8 months later.)
That first night was restless. I was sleeping right up against strangers, one of which snored quite loudly, and I was eager to get going on the second leg. But in the morning, I felt refreshed and ready for some amazing alpine views. Unfortunately, mother nature had other plans. When I sat up and looked outside, I saw nothing but gray. The fog was heavy and the hut warden said it would likely rain that afternoon. To avoid getting caught in a downpour later, I rushed to get back on the trail. I splashed cold water on my face and quickly pulled on my hiking clothes that had been drying out overnight. While shoving a PBJ in my face and walking into the fog toward the trail, I heard a helicopter coming in closer and closer. So, I stopped and stole a few minutes to watch the 'copter skillfully land with zero vision. The hut warden, who lives in the hut for 6 months at a time, is flown in supplies from town. I wondered what he needed so badly that a pilot would risk flying in such heavy fog. (Probably peanut butter.)
The second day on Kepler would take me 14.6km further along the track and over the highest point, Luxmore Saddle [1,472m (4,829ft)]. The night before, the hut warden shared horror stories from less than ideal conditions on the ridge: some hikers needing to traverse on hands and knees because of high winds and others getting lost in the fog and stumbling over the cliff's edge. I badly wanted to take the side trail to the top of Mount Luxmore, but the fog was so heavy I kept losing the trail and finding myself dangerously close to the edge. So, I decided to not be another horror story for the hut warden to tell and made my way back down onto the main trail which had slightly better visibility. I traversed the ridge in the clouds, knowing there was a steep fall hidden on either side of me, a whole different kind of breathtaking.
Eventually, the trail started to dip down. I emerged from the fog into a moss-covered fairyland. The air was thick and wet. Water droplets exposed the spiderwebs that had been built across the path overnight, and streams flowed down the mountain side through hollowed logs. I kept winding down further and further, losing almost all of the elevation I had gained the day before.
As the trail flattened, I arrived at Iris Burn Hut. I threw my pack on a bunk and rushed off to see the Iris Burn Waterfall before the rain fell. The waterfall was an easy, flat 20-minute walk from the hut, which felt good on my quads that were spent from all the downhill of the day.
The hut warden at Iris Burn Hut told us to listen for the call of the Kiwi birds after sundown. She said there was a pair that had been calling out to each other every night. The Kiwi is the national bird of New Zealand, and it is rare to see these secretive birds in the wild. They're nocturnal, so they come out at night to forage for food and to mate. That night, I heard their cries. We all laughed at how it sounded like the female was scolding the male.
It was raining the next morning as I set out for leg 3 of Kepler. So, I slid on my waterproof pants and pulled the waterproof sleeve over my pack. Day 3 would cover 16.2km, but the trail from here on out would be mostly flat, so I had a steady pace while tramping through the mossy wilderness.
But then the wilderness opened up and suddenly I felt so small. The second I stepped out into the Big Slip valley, I stopped and nearly cried. The mountains looking down on me felt like guards against a storm. And although the mountains demanded so much space, there was still So. Much. Sky.
The day ended on the shore of Lake Manapouri at Moturau Hut. With no side trail to run off to, I took my time choosing a bunk and snacked on gingernut biscuits until Cara and Erin arrived. We walked to the water's edge, sticking our toes into the freezing water. (New Zealand's water NEVER gets warm.) Cara and another hiker, Ingrid (I may be wrong on her name), decided to do a summer polar bear plunge and ran into the frigid water before they could change their minds. I think about this day often. Next time, I'm jumping into the water too!
The next day, the 4 of us hiked out together. It was nice to have company on the last leg of the trek, which was super flat but still so magical. I had 15.5km to finish on Kepler and then another hour of walking before I would arrive back at my hostel. They had all parked at the Rainbow Reach car park, so I finished the last 9.5km of the trek on my own, reflecting on my first New Zealand hike and trying to figure out how I could live in New Zealand forever.
I have yet to love a hike as much as I loved Kepler. <3