Kepler Track - Walking in New Zealand 2013/01/29
On the edge of the Waiau River where the smooth fields of Southland
meet the ragged peaks of New Zealand's Fiordland National Park I
locked the car, tied my laces and started on my way on the Kepler
Over the next three days I would be following the 60km Kepler Track, a
journey that would take me from the shores of Lake Manapouri through
valleys and up into the heights of the Jackson Peaks, eventually
reaching the summit of Mount Luxmore a lofty 4800ft above sea level.
It being summer the trek began in shorts and t-shirt. Due to several
factors, like the clean air, UV levels in New Zealand are particularly
high, so SPF 30 was a must for this trip! The first day follows the
river west for a short distance before breaking away at the Balloon
Loop, a meander that has been cut from the main flow of the river.
The New Zealand Tui
The track works its way through beech forest, crossing many streams
along the way with the fallen trees and native ferns covering the forest
floor giving it a prehistoric feel. The New Zealand Tui and many other
unfamiliar birdcalls can be heard all through this section along with
the constant buzzing of insects. The forest is alive here and despite
the popularity of this track I barely met another soul for long
sections. Sphagnum Moss has lots of used from water purification to
making sterile wound dressings.Breaks in the forest reveal wetlands, one
of the protected habitats in New Zealands National park and home to many
more plant and animal species including Sphagnum Moss which makes up the
bulk of the wetland floor; eventually to rot down into peat.
I reached the edge of Lake Manapouri
and the beach at Moturau Hut gives you the first taste of the dreaded
Sandfly. Anywhere near the water at these low altitudes and you better
be wearing insect repellent and plenty of it!
After following the edge of the lake I turn northwards to follow the
Iris Burn up stream. Here you get your first peek of the mountains as
the track begins to climb; the next few hours saw me rise 1000 feet over
Following the river up you pass through short sections devastated by
the slips and avalanches that are so common in these mountains and
later you reach the "Big Slip" the sight of a natural slip in the '80s
that now is low bush and grassland. If you started the track early
enough you should arrive at Iris Burn hut by dinner time and after
setting up my tent in the designated camping area next to the river I
tucked into my dehydrated Roast Lamb, as fine a Christmas dinner as
anyone could ask for. I even had freeze-dried ice-cream for dessert!
Wild or Freedom Camping is prohibited within 500m each side of the
Kepler track and the Iris Burn Hut is one of the two areas on the
track it is possible to camp. A beautiful spot right by the river and
the weather was glorious but I was glad my tent had a bug screen as I
was able to sleep tight with a cloud of sandflies hovering in my
Even though it rained over night I was lucky enough to wake up to a dry,
albeit misty morning. Braving the cloud of sandflies that remained in my
porch I made a dash for a morning freshen up in the river. This water
comes straight down off the mountains and is just the trick to freshen
you up. Take care to avoid bites in delicate areas!
After packing up I prepared myself for
the toughest stage of the journey. Over the next few hours I would be
climbing the valley wall, following switchbacks and later steps to the
second highest point on the walk, Hanging Valley shelter. As I packed my
tent and left the other campers sleeping I knew I was in for a morning
There are several spots on your way up where you could see back across
the valley. However the low cloud made the journey an insular one. The
relief of breaking the treeline was soon damped by the discovery that
not only did the track still climb but the cloud still obscured any
view. At around 3500ft there is a short track that takes you to a
viewpoint and my heart sank to realise that I could see no further than
100m in any direction.
The misty climb out of the valley.
The pain continued without gain as the ridgeline continued to rise,
steps helping you up to each minor peak along the way and my trekking
pole helping keep me from the edge. Looking down you couldn't see where
a fall would take you.
No picture can truly capture the emotion of this moment. My hard work
had finally paid off and I was stunned by the sheer beauty of what I was
seeing. As I pushed over the peak at 4000ft I was treated to more views
down into the valley of the South Fiord, one of the three deep glacial
valleys that branch off from the giant Lake Te Anau.
From here the journey becomes a pleasure to walk. Dipping down into
saddles and rising again to peaks there is a gentle down slope over all.
At each peak I was rewarded with more snatched views through the clouds.
Walking alone along ridgelines it was only the well trodden path
reminding me that other people still existed in the world. Those groups
that I did meet along the way only served to reinforce my good opinion
of the outdoor types. I met people of many ages from many different
countries. They all cheerfully discussed the path ahead and their plans.
Being out in the backcountry is a great social leveller and it was
fantastic to meet all of these interesting people.
Heavy fog obscures the view North.
After corkscrewing around the side of one of the peaks I reached the
Forest Burn shelter. These shelters offer refuge for travellers stranded
by poor weather; even in summer it is not unknown for there to be
snowfall! As I rounded the next corner Mount Luxmore, the summit of the
trip, came into view. Breaking from the main track I followed the path
towards the peak. Consequently back into the clouds and over several
false summits until I finally reached the top. Despite the cloud that
covered my view my heart soared with the completion of my goal. With
little time to reflect I gathered my thoughts and headed down.
The track contours around towards Mount Luxmore.
With the temperature beginning to drop
I made my way down towards Luxmore Hut, my accommodation for the night.
As I descended the magnificent Lake Te Anau appeared. The largest volume
of fresh water in the whole of Australasia. As a result the largest lake
on the south Island of New Zealand Te Anau stretches 64km and flows down
through the Waiau River towards Manapouri.
The hut was something of a luxury. The
indoor kitchen but the fresh tarn water on tap and foam mattress in the
bunk room. In short this may as well have been a 5 star hotel and the
hut ranger Pat clearly had far more interesting information to give out
than my tired brain could manage.
First light is early this time of year. Despite my 0630 start the
sunlight was already well ahead of me. I followed the track over the
last section of hillside before descending into the forest again, with
another steep section straight back down to 500ft and the edge of the
From here the track stays at a steady
altitude, a welcome rest for my feet and legs. It follows the lake shore
around to the control gates. These manage the flow of water from the
lake into the river, 4 great slabs that are winched up and down
depending on conditions.
Along the final stretch of the track following the Waiau. I was lucky
enough to see one of the rarest sights, a bird the area is famous for,
the Takahē. A flightless bird indigenous to New Zealand it is so rare
that for the first half of the 20th Century it was believed to be
extinct until rediscovered in the Te Anau area. I was frozen mid-step as
I saw the outstanding creature sitting in the middle of the track. Its
beady eyes locked upon me. At each slight movement I made it would take
a hop further away and before I could draw my camera it had disappeared
into the woodline.
The Last Leg
A few more kilometres along the forest path returned me to the bridge at
Rainbow Reach and my parked car. The sense of satisfaction you get after
a trip like this is unparalleled. I feel exceptionally lucky to be able
to go out and enjoy experiences like this. I urge everyone reading this
to turn off their computer, pack their bags and get out there!