Where: Te Anau, Fiordland
Distance & Time: 60km loop plus some side trips, four days
Take: Everything needed for a multi-day hike in all weather
Amenities on route: DOC huts + camping grounds (must be booked in advance) with fresh water, gas cooking, bunkrooms and bathrooms
Cost of the walk: Cost of huts over three nights in peak season, $195
We lucked out big time with this walk – a few days before we were due to start walking the middle section of the track was closed due to snow. And two days after we came off that section it closed again due to bad weather. Which is completely understandable as there is no way I’d want to be on top of those ridgelines in windy and/or snowy conditions!
We stayed in Queenstown the night before, so before we could even start walking we had to drive two hours to Te Anau. Before starting you have to call into the DOC office to pick up your hut tickets and the final weather report before heading into the mountains. Make sure you do pick up the tickets as they are collected in the huts by the wardens each night.
We had been a little bit worried about leaving our car with no security in the car park for four days, but it ended up being absolutely fine – there were lots of other cars and when we arrived and left there were quite a few people around. Once we’d finally stuffed the last of our things into our backpacks (mine being the smallest, and Wes’ being an absolute beast of a thing) we were off !
The great thing about the Kepler Track is that it’s a loop track. We walked it the way they advised – along the lakefront first before heading up to Luxmore Hut for our first evening. There are plenty of people who do it the other way but once we did the downhill on day two, we started to think we did it the best way (you’ll see the photos further on as to why!)
The relatively flat walk around the lake is gorgeous – take it easy because what is to come is a tough slog 1000m above sea level. Take advantage of the picnic tables and freshwater before the hill starts. There’s a great sign at the bottom saying that it will take four hours, but those who are super fit could do it in two. That definitely wasn’t us!
Thankfully the five of us all had relatively similar fitness levels (and everyone was keen for lots of mini breaks!) so we handled this first mountain (calling it a hill doesn’t seem to do it justice). Wes had this awesome little gadget that told us exactly how high above sea level we had climbed and we’d cheer once we made it a quarter of the way, a third, half way – you get the idea!
Amy’s Advice – take a walking pole. They are absolutely worth their weight in gold on the descent on day two – especially along the ridgeline staircase that has no handrails!
We were walking in the final days of the busy season, so there were a few signs of work that DOC were undergoing on the track, with workers filling in holes on the track, and lots of big white sacks of gravel + sand placed along the track, ready to be shoveled out to ensure the tracks remain a pleasure to walk on!
If there’s anything that is going to deflate your ego somewhat, it’s trudging uphill and having to take a mini breath-in-lungs break every 5-10 minutes, and then having runners overtake you. Uphill. A few of them were training for the Kepler Challenge (where you run the entire 60km in one day – look up the winning time. It’s actually insane)
We stopped to have a wee snack and as Murphy’s Law always dictates, a woman came down and told us that five minutes on were the Limestone Cliffs and some incredible views. Isn’t that always the way?!
I’d read on the DOC site that after we emerged from the bushline it was only going to be 45 minutes to the hut (and we’ve found that DOC tends to overestimate walking times, so we felt confident it’d be much shorter than that) Hooray – I could get rid of this backpack for the next few hours (I always find the first day of carrying a pack the hardest as it’s when it is at its heaviest, and my shoulders and back aren’t used to it)
A couple of DOC workers were doing maintenance on the track, so we stopped to have a chat to them (and to catch our breath!) It was also a good opportunity to finally get a photo of the five of us, including MVP hiker Sacha (second from left) who had never done an overnight hike before, but we managed to rope her into her first ever one – and one that’s rated as one of the toughest Great Walks too!
I liked these final 45 minutes of walking as we came closer to the hut – the views were absolutely stunning down over the lake, it wasn’t too windy, and I felt on top of the world!
Rounding a corner, and there was hut situated in the middle of a plateau, with a view + isolation that many people would pay millions of dollars for! We arrived around 3pm and thought we might be some of the last ones to arrive (which means we get stuck with the worst bunks) but we were one of the first groups to get there!
We briefly threw around the idea of doing the short side trip to Luxmore Caves but the moment we got to the hut and took our boots off I knew that wouldn’t be happening until the boots went back on the next morning!
I think Luxmore Hut was my favourite of the three we stayed in on this trip. The view was spectacular, it had nice bunkrooms + bathrooms, and a good common area to hang out in. The best thing? No sandflies! The only thing that would have made it better was if there were kea (but that’s ok, we got them at the next hut!)
At 7.30pm we all gathered in the common area to be given our talk by the Hut warden. It was a combination of history, weather, and random stories. The story that got the most laughs were the things that had been left behind by hikers – think laptops, ipads, phones – someone even managed to leave behind one boot. How do you leave one boot behind? I’ve been thinking about it since then and I still haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer. I think we were all in bed by 8.30pm that night – a trend that we’d stick with over the following nights too!
The next morning the boys and I took the ten minute side trip to Luxmore Caves which is when I came to the realisation that I don’t actually really like caves/dark spaces. I got about five metres in and then stopped and waited while the boys kept going until I couldn’t see them anymore.
Day two was my favourite day on the track. The terrain was challenging, the views were spectacular, we were at snow level, and we got up close to a kea. It was pretty rad!
After thinking that we’d climbed pretty high yesterday I was in for a rude awakening today when I realised we were going higher. And then higher still. I don’t know about you, but I can handle going uphill until I can see the track going up way in the distance in front of me and realise just how high I still have to climb. Which pretty much summarises most of the first half of the walk on day two!
The great thing about being this high up in the mountains is that the water running from the streams is pretty safe to drink. We all drank from them at one point or another on this walk and none of us were sick, but don’t take this as gospel that all rivers in New Zealand are safe to drink from because that certainly isn’t the case!
We soon started to come across avalanche zones – some that looked as though they’d happened fairly recently, and others that showed signs of recovery after having happened years previously. It was a place we definitely didn’t want to linger!
At our talk the night beforehand the warden had told us that it’s possible to cross the ridgeline in up to 60km per hour winds. I don’t know what we crossed it in, but there is no way in the world I’d want to be attempting to cross it in 40km per hour winds, let alone 60km! There were a couple of surprise gusts that came along while we there and caused us to stumble – and trust me when I say there wasn’t a lot of room either side of the tracks for stumbling!
And there was snow! I’ve written about my newfound love of snow before and even though there was only a little bit, it was easy to imagine how glorious these mountains would look in the midst of winter. And yes, before you ask, I made everyone write our names in the snow before we kept going!
Trust me when I say the track was steeper than what it looks like in this photo! We were heading for that peak on the right – once there, it was all downhill, woohoo (we didn’t know that yet, but once we realised, we were stoked!)
Even though this was a great walk, it was surprising how few people we saw while walking however once we reached the shelters, we found everyone congregating there having their lunch! Because most of us were walking in the same direction, we’d criss cross the same people throughout the four days, and then see them at the huts that night, which was neat.
After conquering the ridgeline we got the best surprise at the top. Puffing up the hill towards the shelter we noticed we had a wee guest waiting for us!
One of the things about going bush for a few days is that personal hygiene starts to become something you’re not too concerned with, and same with privacy (sharing a bunk room with a dozen other people will do that to you) So a toilet with no door was no issues at all (although I did ask Sacha to stand guard and not let anyone down the path while I was there!)
After a quick lunch break at the shelter it was time to start our descent. This is actually the part I found the trickiest of our entire trek, and where the walking pole paid absolute dividends. Coming down the stairs with no railings and a sharp fall either side meant it was slow-going for me. But on the other hand I was incredibly grateful that we were going down these stairs rather than climbing up them! This is the view we had while doing so:
Coming down from that we had a fantastic vantage point of the huge amount of slips and avalanches that scar the landscape around here – even walking through the remains of a few of them!
There was a short side trip up to a lookout point which I did purely so that I could take off my backpack and walk for a bit! But the view was worth it too (I’m wearing a good five layers here, it was cold)
It was also an opportunity to look back on where we’d come from. This was the point we became rather happy that we’d chosen to walk this way as looking up I think I would have had a wee tantrum knowing I had to walk up that!
Just after this side trip we found ourselves back below the bush line which meant the hut couldn’t be much further away…famous last words. I’m sure it wasn’t actually that far but when we heard the whoops of Loretha and Warren ahead of us, we knew they’d sighted the hut and I think we all started to walk a bit faster at that point!
When we arrived we quickly staked out our bunk spots – I thought I was being clever choosing a spot with a bit of privacy but what I didn’t count on was the annoying beam that I constantly seemed to knock my head on without fail. There were definitely a few thousand brain cells lost at this hut, due to that damned beam!
Our boots and clothing had to be hung up high as there were signs everywhere saying that there were kea about and sure enough, within an hour of us arriving there they were! They really are cool birds, super intelligent and incredibly cheeky.
There was a side trip to a waterfall but again, once I took my boots off I knew they weren’t being put back on that day! The boys and Loretha decided to go and check it out while Sacha + I stayed back at the hut to relax (and eat, hiking is hungry work!) After a couple of hours they finally returned, cold (the water was freezing) but proud of themselves for having gotten in. Admittedly they did look refreshed so I started to wonder if perhaps I should have gone, but giving my feet and legs a much needed break was much more appealing at the time!
While they were off at the waterfall, Sacha + I were back at the hut, trying to stay warm and avoid the damned sandflies (seriously though, why do they even exist?), which is when I finally realised that maybe it would help if I started the fire! One of the perks of staying in a Great Walks hut in the high season is that you don’t have to worry about finding or cutting wood – it’s all there, ready to go! The pressure was on though as there wasn’t much paper but thankfully I’d bought some firestarter in my pack, so used that to get it going. It was touch and go as the flames didn’t catch immediately but once it got roaring, we had an awesome fire on our hands, as evidenced by my proud photo below!
I’d introduced everyone to Phase 10 and it became our ritual each evening to stake out a table in the communal area and have cups of tea and a round of Phase 10 – once we finished the round we’d all start making our dinner while we waited for the 7.30 hut talk. I didn’t make it to 7.30 for tonight’s talk unfortunately, I was exhausted and tucked in my sleeping bag by 7.15pm! Which turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it meant I got a couple of hours of good sleep before the loudest, most annoying snorer in the world decided to keep the entire hut awake most of the night. There were definitely a few grumpy people at breakfast the next morning!
The next morning the team filled me in on what I’d missed (apparently he was super funny, and told good stories – dammit!) and that today the walk was pretty easy with only three hills. Our job was to figure out when a rise in the track actually warranted being called a hill or not to know how much more uphill we could expect!
It was actually quite nice starting our day of walking on the flat, especially as we were in a valley so could look up at the mountains surrounding us and know we’d walked in them. Although we weren’t entirely sure what mountain(s) in particular we had actually walked on, but I think we gave it a good guess!
The boys also pointed out the moss on the side of the tracks that looked like it had been dug through, and told us they had learned from the ranger that this was a sign that kiwi were in the area. Which is very cool!
Once we left the valley it was all bush walking, we knew that once we came to the lake that we just had to follow the shoreline to our last hut on the track.
To be honest, nothing really stands out for me on this day on the track. It was one of those connecting days – one you just have to do!
There were a lot more waterfalls on this day of the walk, and the rivers were raging. It was easy to imagine how powerful they would be after a lot of rain, or when the winter snow was melting. Bonus was that there were plenty of places on track to fill up our water bottles.
We stopped on route at a basic shelter for our lunch. I don’t know how DOC do it, but there always seems to be a shelter right when your tummy is telling you that it’s time to eat! We timed it well, nabbing one of the two picnic tables available before everyone else turned up. That’s one of the weird things about being in the mountains, you can feel as though you’re the only ones there but as soon as you arrive at a shelter or hut, there’s another 20 people arriving within 15 minutes of you and you wonder how in the world you haven’t seen them in the last few hours! Day three is also the day when you do the food survey to figure out how much food you have left to last and you can either start to eat more at each meal, or start to ration. One takeaway from this trip is that I need to take more chocolate on hikes, my block was finished by the end of day two!
Finally we glimpsed Moturau Hut in another stunning location, right on the lakefront. I can imagine in the height of summer this is a glorious spot with lots of people cooling off in the lake – there were the remains of a campfire on the shore, so would be perfect for an evening picnic and a couple of drinks!
With Moturau Hut you’re competing for bunk space with those who have had the easy walk in from either Rainbow Reach or the control gates at the start/finish. We knew that we didn’t want to get stuck in the same room as the dreadful snorer from the night before, so the big bunkroom was out, and in the smaller ones it was only top bunks that were available (which require some gymnastic moves to get in and out of, especially in complete darkness). However, it would be worth it to have a relatively peaceful night of sleep!
Warren + I both took fire-making duty this evening and almost ended up having to admit defeat. The five us had a wee table in the corner to ourselves, so we did what we’d done the other two nights – played Phase 10 until it got too dark to see (even with our headlamps) while we waited for the hut talk to start at 7.30pm (why is it soooo hard to stay up late, and 7.30 isn’t even that late, when in the bush?) There was an offer following the main talk to stay on and chat about the history of Lake Manapouri. I listened in for a few minutes but the pull of my sleeping bag was too strong.
The next morning I dragged everyone down to the lakefront for our final day group shot before we started walking. At this point, both Sacha + Wes had huge blisters on their feet, I’m still not entirely sure how they managed to keep walking! They did incredibly well to keep going as I know how much it hurts to keep walking when you’re in pain, especially while you’re carrying a heavy backpack!
There are a few side trips on offer on this day of walking and we decided to do all of them as none of them were more than 10 minutes long. The first one was to a bay on the lake where in clear weather you get a view of the mountains you’ve just come over…unfortunately we only had a view of mist/clouds!
We also did a side trip to our first and only bog of the trip, featuring the best information board on route so far, titled ‘Not Just A Bog’. It was full of ducks, no doubt taking shelter as duck hunting session kicked off a few days later.
We all started speeding as we sensed Rainbow Reach coming up as we all needed a bathroom. Big mistake heading here if you’re eager to finish as if you’re anything like us you’ll look at all the fresh faces just starting their journey, or those who had the foresight to book a pick up from here, and wish you were one of them! On the upside, there was a bathroom, picnic tables, and a shelter.
From Rainbow Reach it was another 90 minutes or so back to the car. At this stage I think we were all over it, and Sacha + Wes’ blisters were starting to wreck havoc, so we started to tell each other random facts and stories that we knew to keep each other distracted. I learnt so much about science, space, and the history of Lake Manapouri that they’d heard at the talk the night before, and they all got told far more than they ever wanted to know about Hamilton (the musical, not the city!)
After our last food stop to finish off the rest of our supplies, perched on the side of the track (we couldn’t be bothered waiting for a scenic spot), we had our friendly robin come to say goodbye to us. These birds had been prolific throughout our time on the track, and they had no qualms about coming to say hi!
Just before the end we came across a volunteer who was here to check the bait boxes. He told us that he’d been doing this for ten years, and the birdsong and native wildlife was much more prolific back then than it is now. Hopefully in another ten years, with all the work that is going on now with predator trapping and information programmes for visitors, the birdsong and wildlife will be flourishing again.
And then, finally! We reached the end of our four day loop walk, and thankfully, the car was right where we left it, untouched (honestly, I had been a little bit worried that it wasn’t going to be there when we got back!) I have to admit to being rather envious of a couple of others at the finish who had organised cold beers and bag of chips to celebrate- now that is some good foresight! Ah well, along with bringing custard to make for dessert, and making sure I pack extra chocolate, it’s a good lesson learned for the next trip!
The photos mostly taken by me, with a few from my super cool walking buds, who were also excellent walking models – Sacha, Wes, Loretha + Warren – thanks team!
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