I was a little underwhelmed by the Milford Track. It's not that it's not scenic, in fact it has some absolutely spectacular scenery, but it's predominantly a walk along two river valleys, with a short alpine pass to cross between them. The Kepler, on the other hand, spends a full day above the snow line with some pretty impressive ridge traverses, which ended up being quite an adventure given the weather!!
On my first walk on the west coast this spring I discovered that my walking boots were on their last legs with the stitching falling apart on some of the seams. Not surprising given the amount of use they've had, most of it on unforgiving backcountry in NZ. Using my beacon's logs of my walks I reckoned they had done over 70 days of tramping, which is pretty good going really.
I tried glueing and duct taping the seams together, but the glue would crack after a couple of days of use, though the duct tape kept them together a bit longer. Sometimes I'd look down and realise some of the duct tape had ripped off (the rocks are pretty rough on your boots) and was somewhere out on the track. I'd worry that an inquisitive Kea had helped themselves to it.
I'd tried out a few boots at the local stores in Wanaka, but wasn't happy with any of them, so I took a punt and ordered a new pair online. I wanted to buy identical boots to those I had, but that wasn't possible due to planned obsolescence in the retail industry. Instead I purchased an updated model of the same brand, which would at least be the same fit. When I left Wanaka the boots were yet to arrive, so I planned to head back to pick them up. But instead, my friend Dean, who runs a fishing business in Te Anau brought them down for me.
Whilst waiting for my new boots I decided to tackle another Great Walk that you can do from Te Anau: The Kepler Track. Not part of a traditional Maori Greenstone trail, it was developed as a walking track in 1988 to take some of the pressure off the Milford and Routeburn. It is also one of the very few true loop tracks in NZ!
The Kepler is a magnificent walk, with varied scenery, great huts, and some memorable hut wardens. Being a Great Walk the huts set you back $65 a night, or twice that if you aren't a local. Because of the prices, many people do the walk as a three day, two night trip, which is totally doable with a long third day, but they miss out on the beauty of an evening on Lake Manapouri, and the epic story of its history told by the Moturau Hut warden.
I began my walk from Te Anau. I left my car at Dean's house and walked down to the DOC visitor centre on the lakeside to begin my tramp. Some people take transport to the Control Gates a few kms out of town, others take a launch across to Brod Bay, or you can just use your legs and walk the whole thing! It was a lovely sunny day and the trail is right alongside the lake. What's not to like?
In less than an hour I was at the control gates, the official start of the Kepler. These gates control the flow of water out of Lake Te Anau and are part of the huge hydroelectric scheme that involves both Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri in electricity generation for Fiordland and Southland.
The track follows the lake around to Brod Bay, but mostly within the beech forest. Brod Bay has a pretty beach, and a campsite, and it's a good spot for a lunch stop before tackling the hill up to Luxmore. It also has a few pesky sandflies!!
From Brod Bay the track ascends a ridge. It switchbacks its way further skyward until levelling out to skirt under some impressive limestone bluffs before climbing again to the tree line.
Once out on the alpine tops there are magnificent views down to the lake and all around. The weather has turned windy and bad weather is rapidly approaching. I am fortunate to get to Luxmore Hut before it really closes in.
The Hut is in an awesome location, well above the tree line with magnificent views. The nearby Luxmore Caves can be explored with appropriate light sources; they extend a long way so you need to be prepared. I stayed in the Hut as I didn't fancy getting cold and wet, but a couple of the guys said they spent more than an hour exploring.
Because of the bad weather our hut warden didn't take us on his usual nature walk, which apparently is a real highlight. One of the added extras you get on a Great Walk are the hut talks which the warden gives each evening. There's the usual fire safety talk and the weather report, but also each warden will have developed a unique story for the lucky hut residents. Many of the wardens have been manning their huts over the Great Walk season for multiple years, some even decades!
The weather worsened. The clouds were low, the wind was blowing, the rain was going sideways, and then it was sleeting and even snowing. Even though it's a fairly modern hut, the fire in the main living area doesn't warm the bunk rooms above, but I am quite snug in my sleeping bag despite the freezing temperatures and the wind shaking the building all night.
I emerged from my warm cocoon next day to brave the cold. The weather was as bleak as the previous afternoon but we were assured by the warden that the weather would clear by lunchtime. Most people gave up waiting and left. I was one of the last to leave at 11am. The weather was still atrocious.
When walking across alpine areas it pays to be well prepared. Good warm layers and suitable wind and waterproof shells make all the difference. This is where those waterproof pants come into their own! The wind was blowing sleet sideways, so sunglasses and my buff protected my face from sandblasting. A beanie under the hood of my jacket kept my head warm, and polypro gloves helped a little to keep my hands warm, though putting my hands in my pockets worked better!!
The track is amazing. It sidles along the side of numerous peaks, with a short detour to Mt Luxmore (I didn't bother given the poor visibility) then later traverses a number of knife edge ridges. The views came and went and slowly the weather did clear. I would not want to do this walk with heavy snow cover as it would be both treacherous and extremely avalanche prone. In fact numerous avalanche deaths have occurred on the Kepler.
There are a couple of alpine shelters along the way, refuges from the weather but not for routine overnight use. They come with inquisitive Keas!
The walk across from Luxmore Hut to when the track descends to the tree line for a very steep descent to Iris Burn, takes 4-5 hours, depending on how often you stop en route. Just before the final descent there's a small lookout where you can see all the way down the valley to Lake Manapouri.
The descent is brutal. It's a well benched track with lots of switchbacks, but it is unrelentingly steep. I cannot even imagine how runners do this section on the yearly Kepler Challenge race. Their knees must suffer...
My knees were fine, helped of course by walking poles which take a lot of the strain off your knees when walking down hill. The weather warmed up considerably, as the sun had at last come out just before I left the tops. I soon arrived at Iris Burn Hut and settled in for the evening.
The next morning I headed up to the waterfall a half hour upstream from the hut. Iris Burn has a number of Whio families and these are rare birds and also unique as they prefer fast flowing water to still water. They are the whitewater paddlers of the duck world! I failed to spot any however.
Back at the hut I donned my backpack and headed down Iris Burn. The track follows the river all the way down to Lake Manapouri, and then along the lake for a few kilometres to Moturau Hut. Many people keep going and walk another couple of hours to Rainbow Reach, where you can pick up transport back to Te Anau, but I, and a small group of exclusively Kiwi trampers, stayed another night on the track at Moturau. I suspect that the price hikes for overseas trampers may have influenced those decisions, and I can understand that. Three nights on the track for Kiwi trampers is still cheaper than 2 nights for overseas trampers.
In case you wondered, I am both a Kiwi and Australian citizen, as my father was born in New Zealand. Overseas citizens who live in NZ and can show proof of residence for longer than 6 months are also eligible for the cheaper Kiwi prices on the Great Walks. There is no differential pricing on all the other back country huts in New Zealand, and the current system is said to be a "trial", to see whether it improves availability on Great Walks for local trampers, and whether the increased prices will cover the costs of maintaining the tracks.
Anyway, our little band of Kiwis got treated to the most magnificent talk by our hut warden. Although originally British he's a Te Anau local these days and a bit of a history buff. So over an hour or more he told us the whole story of the building of the hydroelectric scheme and how they originally planned to significantly raise the water levels in both Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri before a band of locals formed a committee to prevent this happening. One of the earliest environmental campaigns of its kind and quite a story. I guess the tourists missed out....
The final day involves a continued stroll along Lake Manapouri before heading upriver back to Lake Te Anau. The track comes out at the control gates, so it's only the final walk back along the lakeside that is a repeat of Day 1.
I walk back to Dean's place in Te Anau, where I will stay for a few days. He has brought my new boots down from Wanaka, so the old ones get thrown in the bin.
The weather comes in cold and rainy again, and over the weekend there is a considerable dump of snow on the peaks. I'm glad I didn't have to walk in that. I'm snug in Dean's place, getting supplies together for what is my most ambitious tramp yet: 13 days on Stewart Island!