All I could hear was the rain. A torrential deluge from the heavens. I looked up from under the hood of my jacket and glimpsed stormy skies and quivering branches as raindrops stung my face. No point in stopping, I thought, as I continued hiking uphill. This was not what I had imagined my first day on the Kepler Track on New Zealand’s South Island would be like.
New Zealand’s Great Walks are world renowned for their dramatic natural beauty and diverse of landscapes. Hikers and backpackers come to experience the grandeur of glacier-carved valleys, dizzying mountain ridges, and tranquil blue lakes. The most popular of the nine designated Great Walks is the Milford Track, for which huts have to be booked several months in advance.
The 60-kilometre Kepler Track loop was introduced in 1988 to ease pressure on two other walks—Milford and Routeburn—in Fiordland National Park. However, Kepler is so stunning in its own right that it is now ranked among the most picturesque Great Walks in the country.
Hiking and backpacking in New Zealand is called “tramping.” I tramped the entire Kepler Track over four days and three nights, ploughing through beech rainforests, balancing on foot-wide paths atop alpine ridges, and scrambling through valleys gouged by ancient glaciers. I was looking forward to being in the wilderness, away from the modern world and its incessant need for connectivity. I craved solitude and introspection. I found this and more, along with surprising bonds of friendship on the trail.
The starting point for the Kepler Track is the car park on the southern end of Lake Te Anau in Fiordland National Park. But due to the downpour, I took a 15-minute water taxi ride from the town of Te Anau on the eastern shore of the lake to the western shore, where the boat dropped me off at the Brod Bay trailhead.
The one thing I quickly learnt is that the weather in New Zealand is utterly unpredictable. Clouds gather and disappear with alarming capriciousness. After hiking past limestone bluffs, panoramic views opened up as I ascended above the bushline (treeline). Taking in emerald green fields of the Te Anau basin, cerulean lakes, and tussock-covered montane forest slopes, I shed my waterlogged jacket with joy, the dreary rain becoming a mere memory.
The 8.2-kilometre trail from Brod Bay winds through a red and silver beech forest, climbing resolutely to Luxmore Hut at an elevation of 3,560 feet with views of the Takitimu Mountains. Intrepid hikers aspiring to finish the Kepler Track in 2-3 days often forego staying at Luxmore and continue on the alpine crossing to Iris Burn Hut. But that is not the best thing to do, especially if your goal is to enjoy New Zealand’s majestic natural beauty at a leisurely pace.
The huts established by the Department of Conservation are one of the greatest things about New Zealand’s Great Walks. They are basic but homely accommodations with heating, a common area, kitchen, bunk beds, and toilets. Backpackers have to carry their own sleeping bags and essentials like utensils, matches, and food. Drinking water and cooking gas are available, but there is nothing for purchase. At Luxmore Hut, I met Pat, a passionate and endearing resident ranger who gave us a tour of the premises while sternly reeling off the dos and don’ts. On his suggestion, I hiked 15 minutes to the nearby Luxmore Caves. They are a great place to applaud the handiwork of time while admiring fantastic stalactites and stalagmites.
The next morning a forecast of blue skies meant clear views around the lakes. The weather played an important role on the second day of the Kepler Track because the trail is entirely above the bushline and boasts unobstructed views of sweeping sierras in all directions. I was ready to be blown away and I literally was. Braving wind speeds of 60 kmph, with the snow-capped Murchison Mountains ahead, the south fiord of Lake Te Anau on my right, and grassy slopes on my left, I was on top of the world. The 14.6-kilometre scenic alpine crossing from Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut has two emergency shelters, the Forest Burn Saddle and Hanging Valley. The restrooms with jaw-dropping views are possibly the most panoramic toilets in the world.
New Zealand is a birdwatcher’s paradise. With no natural predators (bats are the only native mammals), there is a thriving bird population. On the Kepler Track, you can see bellbirds, warblers, fantails, robins, and chaffinches. The diminutive rifleman and brown creepers are often seen in the lowland beech forest. While hiking, I encountered many keas, the world’s only alpine parrot. Bright green in colour, keas are known for their intelligence and curiosity. They boldly approach humans and are often found investigating unattended backpacks and tents. At Iris Burn, the brown kiwi’s ear-piercing whistles can be heard at dusk.
Back on the alpine crossing, I gazed at the horizon taking in the Jackson peaks and Kepler mountains as they stretched to eternity. Standing on an exposed ridge above the clouds, all other sounds were drowned out except for the howling wind and my own ragged breathing. The wind whipped at my exposed face but I was oblivious to its biting tenacity. All around me was surreal beauty, raw and intense. A two-foot wide trail disappeared into the mountains, criss-crossing alpine pinnacles with sheer drops on either side. Mustard green and yellow tussock grass grew densely on the slopes as patches of snow nestled amongst piles of rocky rubble. I might very well have been in a scene taken directly from the Lord of the Rings movies.
After the arduous crossing, I was happy to be hiking downhill towards Iris Burn, even though my knees begged for mercy. After what seemed like hours of walking, Iris Burn Hut finally made an appearance in a large tussock clearing. Seeing the hut in the distance was a welcome sight. It was even more satisfying to walk in and spot familiar faces from the previous night and exchange high-fives with shouts of “You did it!” I met many travellers from all over the world on the Kepler Track, all seeking something beyond the routine of everyday life. We would pass each other on the trail and exchange a thumbs up, a smile, or words of encouragement. At night, sitting around dining tables, a warm glow pervaded our small community of hikers as we swapped anecdotes about fickle weather and feisty keas.
By my third day on the Kepler Track, I felt like an old hand at this tramping business. The 16.2-kilometre trail from Iris Burn to Moturau gently meandered through a rainforest of beech, podocarp, and myriad ferns, framing picturesque waterfalls and lakes. Ranger Beatty at Iris Burn Hut summed it up perfectly, “Yesterday, you hiked rugged peaks and summits, braving high winds and pushing yourself beyond your physical limits. Yesterday was for your body. Today, you will hike through gentle woodland full of birdsong. Today is for your soul.”
And so it was. Walking through the beautiful forests, I forgot the arduousness of backpacking and enjoyed the shaded trails, admiring ferns lit by dappled sunlight. The earthy smell of moss tickled my nostrils as I stepped lightly on spongy turf. The previous night’s rain had washed every blade of grass, leaving behind a hundred shades of green. Hiking past a large slip near Rocky Point Shelter, I continued to Moturau which would be my third and final hut on the track. Situated on the placid shores of Lake Manapouri, with stunning views of the surrounding Kepler mountains, Moturau is the perfect site to take in impossibly high peaks while marvelling at how far you’ve come.
The fourth and last morning on the Kepler Track dawned bright and clear. The six-kilometre trail from Moturau Hut would lead me along the Waiau River to the swinging bridge at Rainbow Reach, where a waiting shuttle would transport me back to civilization. Recalling the words of naturalist John Muir, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks,” I realised I had emerged stronger and happier despite the challenges on the walk. Back on the trail one last time, I walked joyfully under towering tree ferns, as misty sunlight filtered through silver beech trees, lighting my way. All I could hear were the birds.
Kepler Track is one of New Zealand’s most popular Great Walks, traversing 60 km in 3-4 days. The route forms a loop starting and ending at the Kepler Track Car Park on the southern shore of Lake Te Anau, making it convenient to plan your entry and exit point. The season typically lasts from late October to late April. It is possible to hike the Kepler Track in the opposite direction starting at Rainbow Reach Car Park and staying at Moturau Hut on the first night. The section of the trail from Rainbow Reach to Moturau Hut on the shores of Lake Manapouri is popular with families who want to experience a shorter part of the track.
Each hut on the track where a hiker intends to stay at must be booked online in advance (booking.doc.govt.nz; NZ$54/₹2,451 per adult per night). Backpackers typically spend one night each at Luxmore Hut, Iris Burn Hut, and Moturau Hut. There are two campsites as well, which can be booked for NZ$18/₹812.
Tickets for booked huts are available for pick up two days prior to your starting date from Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre at Lakefront Drive in Te Anau. Check with the rangers at the Visitor Centre before starting the walk to get current information on weather and track conditions. More information is available at www.doc.govt.nz/keplertrack.
Day 1 Hike 5.6 km/1.5 hr from Kepler Track Car Park to Brod Bay and continue 8.2 km/4 hr to Luxmore Hut. An alternative is to take the Kepler water taxi from the dock in Te Anau and cut across the lake to Brod Bay, shaving off 1.5 hr from your first day’s hike (www.facebook.com/keplerwatertaxi; +64-27-249 8365; NZ$25/₹1,135 per person).
Day 2 Cover the 14.6 km/6 hr alpine crossing from Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut with stunning views of the fiords of Lake Te Anau and the Murchison mountains. There are two emergency shelters along the trail, one at Forest Burn Saddle and one at Hanging Valley.
Day 3 Walk 16.2 km/6 hr from Iris Burn Hut to Moturau Hut along the shores of Lake Manapouri.
Day 4 Hike 6 km/1.5 hr from Moturau Hut to Rainbow Reach Car Park or continue another 9.5 km/3 hr to Kepler Track Car Park. You can arrange for a pickup from Rainbow Reach Car Park via Tracknet (www.tracknet.net; +64-03-2497777; firstname.lastname@example.org; NZ$12/₹545 per person).
Appeared in the March 2016 issue as “Wilderness for Heart and Soul”.
Trupti Devdas Nayak is a writer and photographer who loves sharing stories about her travels and adventures. She has trekked in Machu Picchu, backpacked in the Grand Canyon, and snorkelled with sharks in the Bahamas. She tweets as @TruptiDevdas.