On the final day of my hike I felt nervous for the first time. I knew that the hardest terrains of the trail were behind me (the ascent and the alpine section), but I had only covered half of the length of the circuit.
I had 32 kilometers to go, and I needed to make it by 5pm to meet James at the Kepler Control Gates carpark. Of course, I knew that if, for some reason, I didn’t make that time, it wasn’t an absolute cutoff. 🙂 I was pretty sure that I would have mobile coverage to get in touch to tweak the pickup time.
The Challenge: Sheer distance
The Reward: The satisfaction of finishing the whole trail
Hike distance: 32 kilometers
Elevation: Start at 450 meters above sea level at the Iris Burn Hut down to 178 meters at Lake Manapouri, then back up along the riverbank
DOC anticipated time: 9-11.5 hours
I left the hut in cool and cloudy weather at 7:33am. The trail follows the Iris Burn River down its bed to Lake Manapouri. Of particular note along the way was what the DOC calls “The Big Slip.”
After heavy rains in January 1984, a huge section of mountain came sliding down in a landslide. It took with it a huge swath of old growth beech and podicarp forest. I have to say, it was pretty impressive and shocking to see how slow the reforestation has gone. The hut warden at Iris Burn Hut told us that DOC must heavily manage the area to ensure healthy regeneration.
I was on track to beat the DOC estimated time between Iris Burn Hut and Moturau Hut by over an hour (They said 5-6 hours, I thought it would take me just under 4). I got a little tired of the river valley, to be honest. It was pretty, but not necessarily more special than other riverside walks I’ve done in New Zealand.
One surprise along the way was a handwritten sign posted near this rock riverbed. It said, “There are two muddy pits ahead on the trail. Please help maintain the trail by picking up one egg-sized stone (two if you are strong) and carrying to the next sign on the trail.”
I picked up two stones (because I am strong) and continued down the path. The sign about 1 kilometer up the trail told me where to drop them and thanked us for the effort.
It was pretty cool to contribute, even in a small way, to such a fabulous track. I admire the work the DOC and trail volunteers do and hope to find ways to pitch in on local trails around Delaware when we get back to the states.
I was relieved to reach the shores of Lake Manapouri, Te Anau’s sister lake (the two are connected by the Waiau River and the Control Gates which help maintain proper water levels). Much quieter and smaller than Te Anau, Lake Manapouri was still and quiet in the late morning light.
I stopped for a snack at what turned out to be just three minutes from the Moturau Hut–a bummer, because it meant sitting on a rotting stump instead of at a picnic table on a sand beach. A small complaint: there were no distance markers for long stretches, so I had no idea I was so close to the hut when I decided to stop.
After a quick chat with the hut warden (who James, the kids, and I had actually met doing trail maintainance the week before), I walked the next 40 minutes with an Otago man named Vince. He’s a keen tramper and, with his wife, leads large group hikes throughout Fiordland and Otago. I don’t think I got more than 10 words in edgewise, but it was nice to have some speedy company for a part of my long walk.
By the time Vince and I parted ways, I had been hiking pretty solidly for more than 5 hours at a relatively fast pace. My feet felt like small pebbles were between a few of my toes; when I took off my shoes and socks to check, no pebbles fell out but instead I found several new blisters.
I ate the last of my tuna, a multigrain wrap, and some peanut butter near the Manapouri wetlands, then I was off again.
I had passed the halfway mark (16 kilometers or about 10 miles) and was feeling pretty good.
The wildlife and plants were significantly different than what I had seen the previous day. The beech trees gave way to more ferns and also to kahikatea and rimu, ancient and beautiful denizens of the South Island.
I saw my first tui since I left Te Anau and realized that the ubiquitous South Island bird must not live in alpine areas due to the lack of flax, its favorite food. I also spotted more kereru, rifleman, and South Island robins, including the little guy below who showed up quite friendly-like when he heard my crinkling snack bar wrapper.
The sun started coming out from behind the cloud cover and I heated up from the pace I was maintaining. I felt really excited and encouraged when I finally reached a familiar section of trail that James, the kids, and I had covered on a day hike previously. I knew that the end was in sight, but I still had about 12 kilometers to go… and I was starting to flag a bit.
I passed the Rainbow Reach car park, which is an optional end point for the trail. But in putting together my plan for the hike, I was insistant (perhaps stubbornly so) that I wanted to complete the entire track, not cut out early.
A few times I questioned my judgment and wished I had set the Rainbow Reach carpark as my final destination, but then I would remind myself of how strong I am and how far I had already come, and how good it would feel to finish and meet James and the kids having accomplished my goal.
The Waiau River, between Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri, was my companion along the final stretch, along with many, many day hikers along the trail. I enjoyed overtaking them. I guess even hiking can bring out my competitive drive.
I texted James to let him know that I was on track to finish the trail at 4pm. He replied with encouraging words, which was good because I definitely needed a positive message with how much my shoulders and back were starting to hurt.
The last hour wasn’t pretty. I felt a bit discouraged. I didn’t doubt that I would finish, but I was in pain for the first time on the hike–my left shoulder, in particular, which has a near decade-long injury with pain, weakness, and popping/snapping, was bothering me. I knew that nothing would stop it from hurting until I could take off my pack. And I wasn’t going to do that until I reached the end!
The last 3 miles or so I talked (out loud), reminding myself why I had done this, how far I’d come, how strong and capable I am. I also meditated on all the people and entities to which I am grateful for enabling me to have this amazing experience, including the universe, nature, my parents, James, the kids, the DOC, New Zealand taxpayers, etc.
I will never forget the relief I felt when I spied the control gates crossing the Waiau River, which was where I would finish. Tears sprang to my eyes and I felt a rush of thankfulness that I had made it.
At 3:55pm I walked across the bridge back to the carpark, and James and the kids met me there. It was an absolutely amazing feeling and I am so thankful that I had the chance to hike the Kepler.
Some overall concluding thoughts about the walk:
In my biased opinion, if you only have time for one Great Walk in all of New Zealand, this is the best. The alpine section is unbelievably beautiful and truly worth the hiking days on either side, which are also good but not as exceptional.
If you aren’t worried about bragging rights (like I was), skip the last 9.5 kilometers between Rainbow Reach carpark and the Control Gates.
If you can, book the Moturau Hut for a third night instead of hiking the last 32 kilometers in one day like I did. For me, anyway, that was tediously difficult and pushed my physical endurance beyond what was necessary. Others may find that it’s just fine.
If you love mountains and views and solitude, if you want to do a walk that doesn’t require excessive planning and expensive transport, and if you love birds, forests, mountains, and lakes, then you really must put the Kepler Track on your life list. You will not regret it.