Week 7 in New Zealand: Kepler Great Walk
We finished up our six week class, let the adventure begin!
Now that we are free to move about the country, our first stop was to explore the Kepler Great Walk. Over 40% of New Zealand is owned and managed by the Department of Conservation. If you ever look at a map of New Zealand you’ll see so much of it is covered in green DOC land. Within all that green space are 9 Great Walks, easier tramping trails with some of the best views in New Zealand. In addition there are millions of miles of tracks to walk, from quick one hour day walks to multi-day hike to one of the 800 backcountry huts run by DOC. These huts range from large 50 person huts with running cold water, bathrooms, and cooking stoves on the great walks to 6 bunk single room huts with a wood stove for warmth. You could spend your entire life tramping in New Zealand and never have to do the same trail twice. For the thru-hikers, there is the 2500 mile Te Araroa trail which goes from the top of the North Island all the way to the bottom of the South Island. I definitely have my eye on it, but I’ve got a date with the AT I first need to attend to.
Anyway, back to the Kepler! The Kepler is an amazing 60km circuit hike through the southern portion of Fiordland National Park. It can be hiked in either direction and takes anywhere from one very long to hike up to 3 nights/4 days. Maria and I set out to do the trail in three nights, but felt strong enough to finish it in 2 night/2 days.
The first day started out fairly easy, with a 1.5 hr walk along the Lake Te Anau. Hiking through the forest was beautiful, especially since hiking through forests is not as common on the South Island. It felt comfortable, like some part of me was back home. After the breezy first bit the trail starts to climb, and climb and climb. For 3.5 hours we climbed up switch backs with not much to look at save a very cool limestone wall about half way up the mountain side. It’s on the climbs that I always start to doubt my ability to do the AT. The AT is all climbs, it’s hard to imagine doing it day in and day out. Our hard work paid off when we broke through the tree line to a golden meadow with fantastic views of the lake and surrounding mountains. It’s in this kind of moment, when I take in my first big view, that I get filled with a feeling of joy. The splendor of of it all spreads from a smile across my face all the way down to my toes and I practically skipped the last half an hour of the hike to the first hut: Luxmore Hut.
The thing about big huts is that it’s very hard to sleep. The bed and cooking facilities are great cause it means less weight in your pack but dear lord, the snoring, door opening and head lamp use at 1 am are enough to make a girl crazy. I’m so glad I’ve decided to use a hammock system for the AT, I can be close to people if I want, but I can get far away from the snoring. I’m not a happy hiker when I’m tired.
After a long night, day 2 greeted us with sunshine and the most epic views so far. Which is saying a lot cause the glacier views from the Mueller Hut are ridiculous. The first 1.5 hours continue climbing up and over the side of the mountain. The views of the fiord kept me happily distracted and taking a photo is always a good excuse to catch my breath. We took the 20 minute side trail to the summit Luxmore Mountain, the views where good but not much different from the bottom of the summit. As we passed the summit the best part of the trail starts, 4 hours of ridge line hiking. I’d never walked on an extended ridge line before, it’s my new favorite thing to do! Knowing that it would be near impossible to really experience the breathtaking views of the ridge line in a day hike made me finally start feeling like a real backpacker. Well that and the temperature dropped 20 degrees, the wind kicked up strong and the trail became precarious in lots of places. We actually stopped in the windbreak made by Luxmore Summit to put on more layers of clothes. An awesome test of my AT gear and almost everything passed with flying colors. My Patagonia Cap 1 leggings didn’t want to stay on, so I’ll need to find something else, but everything else held up great.
It’s easy to see why you need a good to hike day 2 of the Kepler. The track is narrow and the slopes are steep in lots of places. The weather can change fast and leave you stranded on the mountain. There are two emergency shelter along our 4 hr route, any one going up on the Kepler should bring winter clothing with them and be prepared to turn around if they need to.
I was sad to start the decent off the ridge line to Iris Burn Hut, I didn’t want this part of the trail to end, but I was also super hungry and cold, reminding me that there is beauty and reason to both the ups and the downs on the trail. The Iris Burn Hut was more than I hoped for. It sits in a valley nestled up against the mountains we spent the last few hours hiking down. The valley is full of tall grasses and trees, which hundreds of birds sign and fly around in. My tired feet found respite in the coldest stream I have ever felt, going numb in just 20 seconds after being submerged. We also had some great company in a group of American from the Vermont/DC area who where kind and fun to talk with. We always meet good people on the trail, but this group was special. One couple lives close to where the AT and the long trail meet and gave me their contact info so I could reach out to them when (hopefully!) I make it up there this summer.
After a better nights sleep we continued our decent back to the carpark. Maria and I both had enough of the huts and decided to push ourselves to walk farther and faster than we had to catch a 3pm shuttle back to our car. We kept up a pace just over 3 mph for close to 20 km, stoping just twice for snacks. The challenge was fun, I enjoyed seeing how much I could push myself physical over a long period of time with my pack on. The scenery, though still nice, was more forests, which gets monotonous after a while, so I didn’t mind spending less time talking it all in. there is a fantastic, lake front hut we had to cruise past rather than stay the night at. That’s the downside of hiking for miles, you miss the chance to experience some of the things the trail has to offer. It’s a good lesson in trade offs I hope to keep in mind during my thru-hike.
We made it to the car park with 15 minutes to spare, sweaty, tired but happy by our accomplishment. A couple from the UK who looked stunned at our pace as we passed them on the trail offered to give us a ride back to our car, rather than have to wait the 15 minutes for the shuttle. We gladly accepted and soon after found our way back into town for a real, and well earned meal.
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