The little town of Te Anau is home to DOC's headquarters for Fiordland National Park, and it's also the start and end point of the circular Kepler Track, which I thought would be a good introduction to New Zealand's longer treks. Stocking up for the Kepler was pretty easy, as it's one of the more mollycoddled walks in the country, with relatively luxurious huts, gas cookers, plenty of beds and a very high standard of track. I decided to take a leisurely four days over the walk, which is about as long as you can take, so I bought all the provisions I needed, and after exploring Te Anau and its various points of interest, I headed north to Ten Mile Bush, the nearest DOC campsite to town, and settled in for the night. I never really got to see Ten Mile Bush because it was dark when I arrived, but when I woke up and saw that it was little more than a normal rest area, I popped up to the next one, Henry Creek, and spent Saturday unwinding and packing in preparation for the walk.
In comparison, Henry Creek was a divine stop. Te Anau town is on the southernmost tip of Lake Te Anau, and up the eastern side of the lake are quite a few DOC campsites, all primitive, but all situated in beautiful scenery. Crashing out on the lakeside, sunbathing and swimming, reading and sleeping... it was the perfect preparation for a long walk.
It helped that the weather was excellent, which was a relief as Fiordland is renowned for its serious rain; Milford Sound, for example, gets between 7m and 9m of rain per year, depending on which book you read, but whatever the figure, that's an awful lot of precipitation. By the time I set off for Te Anau early on Sunday morning, I was about as ready for the tramp as I was going to get.
The Kepler Track
I'd chosen the 67km Kepler Track as a gentle introduction to real tramping; the walks to Mueller Hut and Ball Shelter in Mt Cook National Park were both 'real' tramps, but neither required carrying serious provisions (although we managed to pack a fair bit in for our Christmas Day celebrations, naturally). The Kepler, on the other hand, is one of the country's eight Great Walks, which are slightly more expensive than other walks (or much more expensive in the case of the Milford and Routeburn tracks) but which are reckoned to be the classic Kiwi walks. Of course, all this has a whiff of marketing claptrap about it, because there are plenty of astounding walks in New Zealand that aren't classified as Great Walks, but the scheme is a useful way of focussing tourists on those tracks that DOC has put money into maintaining, and the classification indicates that the walks are worth doing, which is handy if you're visiting New Zealand on a short holiday and don't have the luxury of time.
The Kepler Track is a round trip, beginning and ending just down the road from Te Anau, so I parked in the car park and set off early on Sunday, my pack bulging and muscles as yet pleasantly ache-free. Day 1 took me from Te Anau to Mt Luxmore Hut, climbing up the mountain along 14.1km of track. To be honest I found the rainforest section slightly tedious after a while, but during a stop for lunch at the limestone bluffs about two-thirds up Luxmore, I fell into conversation with another tramper, Jo from Sydney, and we fell in step – even though her's were shorter than mine – and the rest of the day flew by.
We arrived at the hut in early afternoon after breaking through the bush-line to wonderful views that made the long, slow climb worthwhile; we picked out our bunks, and decided to explore the area. The first stop, the Luxmore Cave, was well worth it; the cave is just a big slit in the ground, down which you can crawl with a torch, and before long Jo and I were stuck in pitch darkness, with only a couple of Maglites to guide us.
That's when I remembered the guide on the tour that I had taken in the Bungle Bungles, who had taken us into one of the Bungle caves, turned off his torch, and made us stand there for about five minutes, while our eyes got used to the gloom. Slightly spooked, we did the same in Luxmore, and sure enough we could see all sorts of strange shapes and shadows from the tiny amount of light seeping in through the cracks; Jo had never experienced it before and was suitably impressed.
To round off the day and expend our excess energy we decided to hoof up Mt Luxmore itself, as the weather was clear and the views would be stunning. We were right; there, 1471m above sea level, the views were awe-inspiring, looking over Lake Te Anau to the northeast, towards Mt Aspiring in the north, and over Fiordland to the west and to the south. The climb also helped me build up an appetite; pasta, tuna, tomato purée, cayenne pepper and mixed herbs never tasted so good.
Into the Bush
Day 2 was a gorgeous trek through the mountaintops, made all the more beautiful by the continuing good weather. After 18.6km and a seriously steep descent through more rainforest – but this time a rainforest filled with babbling brooks, squawking birds and wonderful waterfalls – I arrived at the next hut, Iris Burn, in time for lunch. This points out one of the delights of easy tracks like the Kepler; the scheduled time for a day's walk is normally five to six hours, but as with most DOC times, I ended up doing them in about three to four hours, so even with a lie in I'd make it to the next hut for lunch, leaving ample time for exploration.
Iris Burn sits in the big glacial valley through which the Iris Burn River flows, and just down from the hut is a powerful waterfall that's created a clear swimming hole that would be perfect if the water wasn't so cold; I went in up to my knees before realising that I couldn't feel my toes any more. The ferocious sandflies were also a bit too hungry for my taste, so I headed back to the hut, where the night culminated in a search for a kiwi, led by the hut warden's husband, but without success; we did, however, get to see lots of glow worms lighting up the forest canopy like the night sky.
Day 3 awoke to cloud covering the mountaintops, which just goes to show what luck I'd had in deciding when to do the track. Ahead of me by a day was a huge group who had met another huge group coming the other way, which meant there had been 76 people in the Iris Burn Hut the night before I arrived; and if I'd been a day later I'd have missed all the views on the mountain path. The 17.2km track from Iris Burn to Motarau Hut was, however, low level, so before long I was tucked up in Motarau Hut on the edges of Lake Manapouri, watching the world go by from under sandfly-proof clothes.
That night, being New Year's Eve, I cracked open the 250ml bottle of port I'd been lugging for the last 50km (how's that for dedication?), and the other English speakers followed suit with a bottle of gin and tonic, a bottle of bourbon and a small bottle of champagne to complete our makeshift minibar. We all managed to stay awake until midnight, when we went out on the veranda and sang 'Auld Lang Syne' at the tops of our voices, much to the bemusement of the Germans in the hut who were seeing in 1997 with some comparatively staid celebrations of their own.
Day 4, New Year's Day, entailed a rather uneventful 17.1km walk through more forest, before I arrived at the car. The Kepler Track had turned out to be easy walking and a very pleasant introduction to the Great Walks, but it only served to whet my appetite; I now couldn't wait for the next challenge.