Hands down, The Kepler has been my favorite multiday trek here in New Zealand… which is interesting because I almost didn’t do it! Two of my housemates when I was working, both American, had done a ton of hiking their first few months in NZ, including all the Great Walks (of which the Kepler is one). When I asked them for suggestions, they pushed the Routeburn and the Greenstone (they loved the latter… clearly they have all the ligaments in their ankles still attached…) and said the Kepler was “boring” and “long” and “tiring.”
Thank God I didn’t listen to them.
The Kepler is long… with all the side trips and such, it’s about 70km (42 miles or so), done by most people over four days. Every year a group of crazy people run it, however, and the fastest time for that so far is under five hours. Sick.
Needless to say, I walked it.
You can take a shuttle from the lovely town of Te Anau to the start of the Kepler, but I decided to walk it since it was only 4km each way and skirted Lake Te Anau.
The first leg of the trail is a breeze, through mixed beech and podocarp forest on a beautifully level surface to a beach called Brod Bay. There were some ups and downs, very gentle, but the trail itself was almost entirely free of roots, rocks and other slippery twisty tricksy things. My ankles were happy, so I was happy.
I made great time from the trailhead to Brod Bay largely because the way was so easy but also because I was pushing it… I’d gotten a late start and I knew what was beyond Brod Bay. More on that in a moment… but first:
A bitchy aside
I passed a few hikers, including a pair that I thought was a man and his child as I approached. They both had packs but not huge ones, with no sign of a tent or sleeping pad or any of the other crap campers lug, so I doubt they were that heavy. (For the record, I had a full pack with tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, stove, food, three liters of water, etc.) The “kid” was about 5′ and skinny and dragging a walking stick in the pouty way kids have. As I blew past them, I realized it was a tall guy in his 20s and his very pretty, very petite girlfriend. She looked miserable. He had the tight smile of a man who is trying to be supportive but is deeply disappointed in his partner.
I said hello and asked if they were heading to Brod Bay, the campground. They said no, Luxmore Hut. I said “oh, me too,” and the chick said “maybe you can carry my pack?” in the kidding-unless-you’d-actually-do-it way that some women who are used to getting their way have. I just laughed and kept walking.
But what I really wanted to say was: Remember this. The next time you slide easily into your size zero jeans, the next time you sit comfortably in economy class on a plane, the next time some guy complements your “cute little figure,” remember this moment. Remember when Aquabear blew past you like a Panzer over the Maginot Line* without even breaking a sweat.
(*Okay, all my history geek friends, the Germans did not actually send tanks over the Maginot Line, choosing instead to go through Belgium I believe, but I’m jus’ sayin’ that was what I thought at the time.)
Anyway, I was in a push for Brod Bay because beyond it was the main ascent of the Kepler, an elevation gain of about 800 meters over three kilometers (to my non-metric friends, that converts to “very steep”). Turns out it wasn’t that bad, though. I made it to treeline well before I expected to, and to Luxmore Hut two hours earlier than I’d figured, in just over five hours from my start in Te Anau.
I am pleased to report that Luxmore Hut was far more pleasant than the Greenstone and MacKellar Huts, but then it should be… it cost $45 for a bunk bed platform in a large bunkroom with 31 other people. I would have camped, and I did the following two nights, but the Day One campground on the Kepler, Brod Bay, is really inconvenient… it’s only two hours into the trail and before the big ascent, so that means on Day Two you’d have not only the big ascent but the more minor ones too, plus the Mother of All Descents to deal with. But more on that later.
Luxmore was full, interestingly, of Israelis. In fact, I’ve run into way more Israelis than any other nationality on the trails here. Maybe ElAl and Air New Zealand are running some great flight deals. Or maybe they perceive New Zealand to be a safe vacation destination, where they are unlikely to be hassled or blown up or shot at. I was very curious but didn’t ask, largely because they were extremely insular and unfriendly. No, let me amend that statement. The guys were all laidback and friendly but the chicks. Jeez. I don’t know what their problem was, but I’d say “good morning” and they would glare silently. I said “Hello again!” to an Israeli guy I’d seen twice on the track the following morning (he passed me enroute to Luxmore Hut and then passed me again going back down… having dumped his pack at the hut, he was going to get his girlfriend’s to carry it for her…) and his woman stepped between us and gave me a look that suggested she would like to do horrible things to my intestines with a sharp instrument.
Sistah, please. Honestly.
So, anyway, given the unprovoked ice-itude from the XX element of Contingent Israel, I decided that asking “so, are you guys not afraid of being targeted in New Zealand or what?” would be ill-advised.
On a related note (not to Chicks with Issues but to New Zealand’s terror threat), right after the Christmas Crotchbomber incident in Detroit, there was of course the mad scramble to find a local news angle. The national New Zealand newscast did this big terror ramp-up about how flights from New Zealand to the US could be targeted by terrorists. They had a string of local “security expert” talking heads hand-wring over possible scenarios and just what kind of danger might lurk in Kiwi skies… then, at the end, they had an American government official (I was laughing too hard to remember whether he was TSA or FBI or what) on very briefly.
“Uh, yeah,” he said in a dismissive deadpan. “We’re not worried about New Zealand.”
Anyway, Day One ended with me and a blond guy (who turned out to be German) on the top bunks tossing and turning (separately) and trying to get some sleep while the four Israeli girls on the bunks below us bitched and argued and chattered and sounded altogether miserable well into the night.
Despite lousy sleep (what else is new?) I was packed and ready shortly after dawn. And I waited. A few people went running ahead on the trail, but I knew there was no point in hurrying. Day Two of the Kepler is, except for the very last leg, entirely above treeline. Totally alpine. And the dawn came with plenty of fog. I knew it would burn off in a couple hours, so I waited. I was rewarded with incredibly clear skies and views in all directions, including as far as the mountains around the Routeburn, nearly 50 miles away. And it was a beautiful trail. Yes, a lot of ups and downs as it followed the ridgeline across the mountains, and a few spots where the trail sidled sheer drop-offs, but no nasty tree roots (of course not, being above treeline and all) and the rocks were manageable. Bliss.
I took a side trip up to the summit of Mt. Luxmore and gazed down at Lake Te Anau, at the toothy Jackson Mountains, at South Fiord (actually a picturesque arm of the lake) and the mysterious Murchison Mountains, which are accessible only with a special permit because they are the last refuge of the severely endangered takahe, an indigenous, flightless bird that looks like an iridescent chicken. A funky, iridescent chicken.
It takes about five hours to make it across the alpine section of the Kepler, but I took seven, taking my time to enjoy nature on a scale for which there are no words, because the human vocabulary is too limited to express its vastness and its glory.
Also, I was kinda dreading the next leg.
After you walk the last ridgeline and reach the end of the alpine section, there is only one thing to do. Descend. The descent to Iris Burn Hut and Campground is a drop of about 1000 meters in elevation in just over a kilometer. To my non-metric friends, that is rollercoaster-steep.
The trail becomes an endless zig-zag of tight switchbacks stacked one atop another, the grade perilously close to knee-popping. Even with my trekking poles taking a lot of the impact, it was painful. A faster trekker who passed me groaned “this is killing me,” so I wasn’t the only one.
At the bottom of the Eternal Descent (which is, by the way, an excellent name for a black metal band), I hobbled into Iris Burn campground, which is apparently the training ground for the Brotherhood of the Angry Sandfly Jihad. The sandflies were swarming again. I got my tent up quick as I could and hid inside for the rest of the night. Still, totally worth it.
I got up before the sandflies and headed along the trail, which follows the Iris Burn to its outlet at Lake Manapouri. There’s no alpine grandeur on this part of the Kepler, but it was still scenic, crossing mountain-lined meadows that reminded me of Colorado and lush, fern-heavy forests that reminded me of, uhm, “Jurassic Park.”
New Zealand forests are fascinating, and different than anywhere else I’ve been, because they’re a mix of species familiar to me and crazy Gondwana* relics like the proliferation of ferns and 31 flavors of moss and lichen glistening on every rock and tree. The forests, even more than the mountains and waterways, feel alien, not in a bad way, but in a way that makes you believe you have left the Earth you know and gone somewhere else, where an elf or a velociraptor might turn up at any moment.
*The landmass that is more or less the current New Zealand was part of the supercontinent of Gondwana in the Jurassic, breaking off and drifting into its own little corner of the Pacific where, for a variety of reasons, ancient species survived and thrived for millions of years without evolving much, if at all.
Most people spend the third night on the Kepler at Motorau Hut, but they don’t allow camping so I pressed on to a side trail that led to Shallow Bay, a small hut a kilometer or so off the main track that’s used mostly by hunters and has a small campground. At first, when I got there, I thought ooh, scenic. It’s right on the wooded shores of Lake Manapouri and looks back on the Jackson and Kepler Mountains and Mt. Luxmore. When I peeked into the hut, however, I started to feel different.
It was just… creepy. The hut looked like something out of “Blair Witch Project,” with stick and stone “art” hanging on the walls and the smell of decay everywhere, a single red (why red?) candle half-burned on a metal sconce. There was no one else around. The spigot for water was broken. A mouse ran past me and stopped, fearless and inquisitive, to look into my tent as I was setting it up. It was just… spooky.
I set up my camping stove, which I was carrying for the first time in my trekking life, having just purchased it in Queenstown. I never saw a need for a camping stove, because when I’m out in the wild I just eat trail mix and muesli bars and drink water, but people kept telling me I needed one. So I found one on sale and figured I’d give it a try. Eh. I spent half an hour getting water from the lake to a boil and then cooking three-minute noodles. I remain unimpressed.
While I was dealing with the noodle cooking odyssey, other people started showing up and, in the end, the campground was nearly full but with quiet hikers who kept to themselves, so it was ideal. But had I seen a single red handprint, I so would have been out of there.
A lot of people who do the Kepler cut it short by exiting about 12km before the end, at a spot called Rainbow Reach, where shuttles whisk them back to Te Anau on a twice-daily schedule. But no, not me… I was determined to walk every meter of it. So I set out, covering the stretch I’d done in September when I spent a day in Te Anau before starting work. Back then, of course, I came to the area to see the LoTR location used for “The Dead Marshes.” Today I just enjoyed the scenery of more ferns, more trees, more Waiau River… more ferns, more trees more, uh, Waiau River. Okay, the last day is a little boring. But I did it, nonetheless. When I got back into Te Anau that afternoon, I got some fresh blue cod fish ‘n’ chips without a moment’s guilt and ate them on the lakeside looking back at Mt. Luxmore and the sprawling, awesome ring-around-the-mountains that is the Kepler.