Postscript 1: Back on track on the Kepler Great Walk

March 23, Te Anau to 40 kms into Kepler Track

I didn’t want to to end on such a sour note, when last I wrote about my final days on the Te Araroa. The good news is that I took 2 days off in Te Anau and recovered from my stomach illness.  It felt so good to get back on the trails, after this! I felt like I hit the reset button and crushed the distances on several easy Great Walks. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

First, It was a fun and interesting series of hitches from Invercargill to Te Anau. It took awhile getting a ride out of town, standing in a gloomy downpour, but eventually Charlie with a cute dog picked me up. He was a tattoo artist and a very interesting character. My next ride, at an intersection leading to Te Anau, came pretty easy, although there were already a few other backpackers lined up. One was inside getting coffee at the cafe and the other guy was dubious about me adding to the backlog. But as I explained to him, I was improving our chances by adding the female element. And sure enough, a nice Dutch couple pulled over to pick us up within 5 minutes. We had a great time discussing lightweight backpacking equipment (my favorite topic!). The couple planned to hike the Kepler track the next day, which at the time, was my plan too.

In Te Anau, I checked in at Rosie’s Backpacker, which is a small (12 guests max) and welcoming homestay. Rosie and her husband Alistair provide fresh veggies and eggs for their guests, along with homemade bread in the mornings. On the first night, she baked a chocolate cake, with squash as one of the main ingredients, so it’s like it was healthy too. Even though my appetite had still not recovered, I ate a piece of the cake that night and the next day. So good! The price for a dorm bed was steep but the comfort and extras were worth it. I also had a great time talking boats with Rosie and Alistair. They both are accomplished captains/fishermen and are currently fixing up a 42′ cruiser in Dunedin. I sympathize with anyone having to fix up a boat! It takes a lot of passion and I wish them the best.

I was hoping to start the Kepler Track after just one day off, but my stomach wasn’t ready. I still didn’t have an appetite and hadn’t eaten much in the past 4 days. The weather was also quite bad, with rain and snow in the high country. The lure of the fireplace at the backpacker pulled me in, where I stayed doing a whole lot of nothing all day. At least I got a flight from Queenstown to Auckland booked for April 1st, a day before I was to fly back to the States. My plan was to hike a bunch of the trails in the area until then.

Finally on Friday, March 23rd, I was back on the trail. It was a very cold morning, with temps in the low 30’s F and a fresh layer of snow visible in the mountains all around. But what a beautiful day it was! I tried to hitch a ride to the start of the trail, managing to get one only for the last few kms. But the 3 km or so walk out of town was quite enjoyable.

Lake Te Anau with a clear view of Luxmore Mountain to the left, which I would later be passing. The track begins to the left, on the south side of the lake.

I started the trek from the main parking lot, going in a counterclockwise direction. The entire circuit is 60 kms (but I skipped the last 10 km in favor of ending at Rainbow flats and hitching back into town the next day). The Kepler Track is one of New Zealand’s 9 Great Walks, so you need to book huts and campsites in advance. That or find a campsite at least 500 meters off the trail (my plan).

I walked in the beautiful beech forests for the first couple hours. There were many day walkers hiking up to the treeline or Luxmore Hut and back. Trail conditions were superb compared to what I was used to on the TA. I even saw a maintenance crew using a small bobcat-like machine to grade the trail. Yeah, that’s how wide and smooth it is! Even the climb up to the hut was pretty easy and the views just grand. The Fjordland mountains elegantly complement massive Lake Te Anau, the largest lake in the South Island. No wonder this trail is so popular.

Look at this flat, wide, groomed trail!

I took a detour to the Luxmore cave, just off the trail from the massive and luxurious Luxmore hut (all Great Walk huts are pretty flash, but they’ll set you back $65 a night…no thanks). The cave had a nice set of stairs leading down into it and one can apparently go quite a ways inside. I donned my headlamp and went about 50 meters in, before sliding on the slick rock and landing uncomfortably on my hands and butt. I was clearly out of my element and feeling uncomfortable. Besides, with the extraordinary views outside, what was I doing there in the darkness?

I emerged back into the mountains, where I belong. I didn’t feel like backtracking to the hut, so I set off on a direct course to intercept the main trail from the cave. This took me up a nice slope of tussock, where I enjoyed a peaceful lunch next to a spring. Just getting a few hundred meters off a busy Great Walk still feels like you are in the middle of nowhere, all alone. It’s also nice to have the confidence in myself that I can just go bushwhacking anywhere I please. The TA really built up my NZ bushwhacking skills. It is, after all, about 30% bushwhacking or route-finding, which amounts to 1000 kms 🙂

I rejoined the main drag after lunch and continued to bask in the views. Some clouds were beginning to move in and I started encountering snow on the trail, leftover from the recent storm. Some trampers, that looked like they were on a guided tour, were really struggling with the slippery conditions but I felt a rock-solid grip in my new Altra’s. Oh, forgot to mention that I received my last set of spare shoes when I was in Invercargill. These are a departure from the 2 pairs of Lone Peaks that lasted me through the TA. I wore a pair of Superiors on the Colorado Trail but went with the Lone Peaks since they have more cushioning. I must say, I really like the feel of the Superiors, since they are much narrower and therefore fit my feet better. But the plastic heel cups cut into the back of my heels …the same problem I had on the CT. This pair is already starting to show signs of wear in the heel cup and gave me a fresh hot spot/blister. But at least I was back to having shoes with tread…a good thing in the snow!

Out with the old and in with the new. It’s hard to say goodby to a piece of gear that carried me through the entire South Island, plus the Tararuas on the North Island. Their journey sadly ended in the trash can of the Invercargill post office. The life of a thru-hiker shoe is hard and thankless.

At the turn-off to a side trail up to the top of Mt Luxmore, I stopped for awhile to be entertained by a cheeky Kea. It had already ripped into two daypacks, unwisely cast by the owners at the trailhead in favor of an easier summit bid. As the top of the peak was only 10 minutes up the side-trail, it was a costly mistake for so little of an advantage. There was also a pristine Osprey backpack, which was the Kea’s next target. I took advantage of its marauding to get some close-up pics, but then felt inclined to protect the backpack from its devastatingly sharp and curious beak. The owner was thankful that her pockets weren’t ripped to shreds when she got back. I myself will be more careful about ever leaving my stuff unattended in the high country. The nice thing about carrying an ultralight backpack is that you aren’t as tempted to leave it behind on short side-trips.

Bad Kea!

The trail continued along spectacular ridgelines. I felt like I was moving slow, stopping frequently to take pictures and just take-in all the views, but I was still flying past all the other hikers. My fitness for hiking is probably the best it’s ever been, plus I was feeling extra motivated to put to rest any notions of weakness lingering from my recent illness. I was back, in my element, strong and ready to crush some distance on this day!  

Is this walking bliss or what?

I LOVE hiking! Especially in this lovely little laying of fresh snow. Winter is coming!

I took this picture of the trail along the ridgeline, that turned out to be one of my favorites on the entire journey. It looks like a painting, the way that the snowy mountain tops blend into the clouds.

After having so much fun on the mountain tops, it was time to go down. I skipped happily down the ridge and along a million switchbacks, before finally arriving at the Iris Burn hut. I think it was about 30 kms to the this hut (plus the 3km I walked to the start of the trailhead), but I wasn’t ready to stop for the day. Not even close. Besides, I hadn’t booked a site at the Iris Burn campsite…which costs $20. Check out this flash hut with a nice fire already going inside…tempting, isn’t it!

But no, I had a hot date with my tent, somewhere in the wilderness, quiet and alone. I was so energized by this prospect…something I hadn’t experienced on the TA since before Queesntown. I walked for another 10 kms and finally decided to call it quits around 7 pm. I had done over 40 kms on this day and still felt great. It was one of the best days of the whole trip. It’s great to be back in action!





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