One final check before I am on my way: sleeping bag, tent, mat, water, beans, cous cous, spork, camera and most importantly a HUGE chocolate bar. Just have to tape up the blisters I have contracted over the last couple of days and I am ready 🙂 For what? The next three days I will be hiking (or ‘tramping as they would say here) the popular Kepler track in New Zealands Fjordland National Park. A good opportunity for a photo report I think.
This 60 kilometer Great Walk runs from the gentle, beech-forested shores of lakes Te Anau to the tussocky alpine tops and grand Mt Luxmore. There are luxury huts along the track but they are quite pricy, plus camping is the real deal: D (but mostly it’s my Dutch tight-ass-ness influencing my decision in this case). The only downside of camping is that we will have to complete the track in three days since there are no good spots to pitch the tent on top of the mountain.
Day 1: Rainbow Reach-Brod Bay Campsite. 15.1 km
We start our trail at Rainbow Reach and will also finish here, making our loop a bit over 60 km. The first day is quite a relaxed stroll along the river and through forests of mountain- and red beech trees. After roughly 5 hours we reach our first campsite at Brod Bay situated at the beautiful Te Anu Lake. It is a warm afternoon and we seize the opportunity to take a refreshing dive. Rule number 1 in the bush-campers handbook: never turn down a free bath!
In the evening we get acquainted with our fellow-trampers: a Canadian, Swiss and Austrian. All mountain people so this should be peanuts for them. We snuggle up around the campfire and share some hot chocolate and travel stories. Around 9 p.m. everyone crawls into their tents, tomorrow we have a long day ahead of us. We will have to walk almost 23 km over the mountains, climbing up to 1400 meters, to reach the Iris Burn campsite in the valley on the other side.
Day 2: Brod Bay Campsite-Iris Burn Campsite. 22.8 km
The sun decided to disregard the weather predictions and against all odds it is a beautiful dry morning. After some tea and muesli we break up camp and before 7:30 we head out.
The first part of the track winds through the foggy forest filled with the muffled sounds of birdsongs that are unfamiliar to me. After that the track climbs steadily for 2 hours up to limestone bluffs before breaking out of the bush line. The weather has turned and the sun is obscured by some grey clouds that bring a light drizzle. From up here the panoramic views of the Te Anau Basin, Takitimu Mountains, and the Snowdon are spectacular. We even get treated to a rainbow!
After another hour we reach the Luxmore Hut. For many people the end station of today, alas not for us. Non the less it is a good spot to have lunch and enjoy the views of the Te Anau Lake from where we left earlier this morning, it already seems ages ago. From the hut you can do a small side trip to the Luxmore Cave which is not even 10 minutes away. We take our flashlights and explore the limestone formations inside the cave.
After the hut the track climbs gradually to a ridge just below the summit of Mount Luxmore. A 10 minute side trip to the summit (1472 metres) provides awesome views in good weather (according to the website). Unfortunately we are not that lucky and clouds obscure our view. There is a strong cold wind blowing and the rain makes it even chillier.
After passing the summit the track descends to Forest Burn Saddle, where there is a small day shelter. Encouraged by the prospect of getting out of the rain we run down the slope to get to the shelter. Once inside it appears we are not the only ones trying to escape the cold; a young kiwi couple have nested themselves in the corner of the shelter and are feasting on some home-made chocolate brownies. If we would like some brownies?! At this point I would trade my right foot for some of this delicious pastry (taking into account the amount of blisters I have this wouldn’t be a bad deal). The cacao-induced endorphin kick is just what I need to summon the strength to get back out there and finish the rest of the climb.
For the next few hours the track sidles and climbs following the ridge toward the Iris Burn and then descends through a series of zigzags into a hanging valley. The rain has subsided and wisps of fog cloak the landscape giving it a mysterious look. I intended to stay clear of the Lord of the Rings analogies, but I just can’t seem to help myself and as I am ploughing on with my overloaded backpack I have to think of Frodo and Sam. The ring was heavy, I get it, but as my pack starts digging into my shoulders I can imagine why Sam would offer to take the ring, as it might be a nice to carry for a change instead of all the camping equipment pots and pans.
An hour later we are back in the forest. The branches of the conifers are covered in a thick layer of lichen giving the trees a green hairy appearance. Because of its resemblance with facial hair this type of moss is also referred to as “Old man’s beard”. In my experience it also makes an excellent mustache (see picture).
After what seems to be an eternity, but in fact is closer to 10 hours, we finally reach the second campsite. I can see smoke rising up between the trees and catch a whiff of hot chocolate being boiled over a campfire. Our friends from last night have clearly arrived ahead of us . Zipping at my hot chocolate and soaking up the heat of the fire I quickly start dozing off and decide to crawl into my sleeping bag.
Day 3: Iris Burn Campsite-Rainbow Reach. 22.2 km
Today is a steady day’s tramp through beech forest and a gorge, generally following the Iris Burn. The track climbs over a low saddle and sidles through a gorge, coming out on river flats near the mouth of the Iris Burn. On our way we cross the wetlands where the scenes from LOTR’s “Death Marches” were filmed and New Zealand’s tourism industry knows how to exploit this to its full extend 😉
Near Lake Manapouri, the track turns left through lowland beech and podocarp forest. After that it follows the shore of Lake Manapouri to Moturau Hut. On the shores of the lake is a beautiful beach, although the swarms of sand flies make it slightly less utopic. So we make only a brief stop for a swim and some lunch.
After a couple more hours of dragging our feet, we are quite tired by now, the swing bridge that we crossed a few days ago appears in front of us. We made it! This shows that with good company, plenty of chocolate and lots of sports tape every mountain can be concurred.