I would not say that I am new to hiking. I remember with great fondness taking family hikes with my parents and siblings in various parts of the U.S., especially in Shenandoah National Park. I also am not new to hiking even in New Zealand; James, the kids, and I have done some pretty awesome “tramps,” including one our first weekend in country, the [epic can-we-make-it-before-dark summit of Mt. Richardson], and of course 46 kilometers on the Abel Tasman Great Walk before Christmas.
This hike would be different, though.
This time, on the 60 kilometer Kepler Track, I was going solo.
The Kepler Track is designated a New Zealand Great Walk. There are nine “great walks” that the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) has ordained as particularly of note, and most international travelers are shunted into them because the tracks can sustain higher traffic. Several of them–the Milford, the Routeburn, and the Kepler–are located in Fiordland National Park.
James and I decided to each do the track on our own. While our kids can hike pretty well, the elevations and distance of the Kepler track seemed a bit too challenging for them. The DOC huts booked up relatively quickly, as well, so it was easier for us to go solo and tag-team time with the kids back in Te Anau.
The Challenge: Moderate rainfall
The Reward: Views from Luxmore Hut
Hike distance: 13.8 kilometers
Elevation: 240 meters at Lake Te Anau to 1085 meters (3560 feet) at Luxmore Hut
On the first day of the three day hike, I awoke in our Te Anau house to the sound of steady rain on the roof.
That’s when I really started thinking about the challenge I had chosen for myself.
Because of hut availability, I was setting out to do two pretty reasonable hiking days and then needing to book it for 32 kilometers the last day, all while carrying a decent-sized backpack.
But, back to the rain. Thankfully James kindly loaned me his blue Columbia windbreaker with waterproof shell and I dressed in polypropylene layers.
After making a final check of my pack, I got in the car with James and he drove me to the Control Gates Kepler Car Park. He was sweet, encouraging, and promised to pick me up in three day’s time at the same spot.
I set out at 10:30am in moderate rainfall and cool temperatures. Going westward, the trail follows the shore of Lake Te Anau, the largest freshwater lake by volume in all of New Zealand. Its maximum depth is 417 meters (1,368 feet), twice the depth of Loch Ness. As I walked the fairly level path, I marvel at the rich green moss, vivid ferns, and stark white and silver beech tree bark surrounding me.
The first milestone I reached was the Brod Bay campsite, nestled on a sand beach.
Some hikers choose to hire a water taxi and start the Kepler Track here. I call that cheating.
I stopped for a quick snack and to stretch. A few other hikers walked up and also took a break under the pavilion. I heard snatches of Swedish, German, and English among the group before I headed out.
Leaving the Brod Bay area I saw a sign stating that the Luxmore Hut, my destination for the night, was 4 ½ hours away. A small parenthetical under that information stated, “Very fit hikers in fine weather” can complete the hike in half that time.
Well, I thought with a smile, I am neither very fit nor the weather fine.
My goal was to enjoy the beauty and quiet of the hike, but also to challenge myself. I wanted to find a pace that would push me but not punish my body. After all, this was just the first day of three, and not the most difficult in distance, terrain, or elevation change.
The track rose quickly from Lake Te Anau’s shores and up through beautiful green forest. Rain continued drizzling down on me, but my pack’s rain cover was doing a good job of keeping my gear dry.
I couldn’t stop smiling.
About an hour north of Brod Bay and after a lot of switchback climbing, some limestone bluffs sheltered the trail (747 meters or 2,451 feet): some of the only dry patches I would see all day!
I kept climbing after a quick snack and water break. The rain turned to more of a mist but lowhanging cloud obscured views of the lake and surrounding mountains. As far as the condition of the trail itself, I found it to be more rugged than any of the other great walks or sections of great walks that I have been on. There were very narrow passages, rooty spots, downed trees, and harder climbs.
I loved it.
The gray sky started showing through more and more so I knew I must be approaching the bushline, above which only tussock and herbs and small plants could thrive. While I had felt overly warm in the woods, when I emerged above the bushline the temperature dropped and the wind picked up, enough that I put on my warm hat and James’ wool gloves. A sign told me it was just 45 minutes to the hut, but I planned to beat that.
At just before 2:15 I came around a curve in the trail and saw Luxmore Hut. It’s probably the biggest hut I’ve seen, with 50 bunks and a huge common room.
It felt amazing to change out of my wet layers and into dry clothes. Someone had started a fire, but I could still see my breath in the air inside the bunkhouse. It took a few tries but I got the gas cook top going and made myself a cup of tea and a bowl of soup. Yum.
By 3:15 the skies and views outside the hut finally started clearing.
I ate tuna salad and couscous for dinner, then turned in early (around 8pm) to read and try to get some good sleep. I felt proud for having hiked in just over 3 ½ hours what DOC said would take between 5 and 6 hours. I guess “fit” and “fair” are in the eye of the beholder.