I had recently (early November) hiked the 32km Routeburn Track in New Zealand’s South Island. This track located in the Fiorldands, a unique heritage site. Please read details of my track in the next posts.
I had recently (early November) hiked the 32km Routeburn Track in New Zealand’s South Island. This track located in the Fiorldands, a unique heritage site. Please read details of my track in the next posts.
Table of Contents
Day 1 – Divide – Lake Howden via Key Summit
Day 2 – Lake Howden Hut – Lake Mackenzie Hut
Day 3 – Lake Mackenzie Hut – Routeburn Falls Hut
Day 4 – Routeburn Falls Hut – The Shelter
Suggested hiking gear
Routeburn Track is located in the unique Fiordland in New Zealand’s South Island. It is considered one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. Read about my hikes in Abel Tasman Coastal Track and Kepler Track in previous posts. You can also see my Routeburn Track photos
The tracks and huts are managed by DOC (Dept. of Conservation). As such, registration and bookings are made through the Department of Conservation, Fiordland National Park. Booking is not only essential, book early as it is popular particularly between December and March. I suggest booking on the shoulder season – early November and April to avoid the crowd. All booking must be confirmed at the DOC offices either in Queenstown or Te Anau prior to starting the track. The Fiordland weather is unpredictable. Be prepared for mainly for rain and gusty cold wind. During my track in early November, we experienced heavy rain, thunderstorms and lightning in the last two days. Avalanche warnings are also high on certain stretches especially between Lake Mackenzie and Routeburn Falls Huts. Particularly near Harris Lake.
The 32 km track can be completed in two, three or four days. We decided to do a four day track to accommodate my injured thumb plus to take in the views. (Having done it, three days is ideal). It is a one way track that can be started from either end – the Divide from Te Anau or the Routeburn shelter from Glenorchy. Walking from the Divide offers an easier hike as the track climbs gradually. Plus, walk into generous views. Start from Te Anau and finish in Queenstown. Transportation to and from Queenstown and Te Anau to the Divide and the Shelter can be organised by Tracknet or Infotrack. For relocating cars between starting and finishing points, contact Trackhopper or Easyhike.
Will, my tramping partner, and I were picked up by Tracknet (transporter) at Te Anau at 0715. It was raining lightly. Soon after entering Fiordland NP, we passed through Elington Valley, grouched out during the ice age, covered with golden tussock grasses. The slow moving Elington River meandered through it. Soon after, we made a short stop at Gunn Lake. On a good day, reflections of the surrounding mountains can be seen mirrored on the lake. We arrived at the Divide, about 1.5 hrs from Te Anau on the road to Milford Sound, around 0830, starting point of the 32 km Routeburn Track with a side track to Key Summit.
At a shelter, we organised ourselves. The weather was very cloudy and it rained sporadically.
We entered Fiordland NP. Its distinct lichens hung from trees, lime green moss carpeted the forest floor with thickets of ferns. The air was crisp with clear visibility. I could almost see the individual leaves. However, clouds hung low above the tree top and mountains. We passed a few Kotukutu trees, the largest fuchsia in the world. It had a distinctive orange bark peels.
This is mainly a Silver Beech forest. We passed small waterfalls and crossed man-made bridges. The track was not too demanding at this stage. Furthermore, it is a short hike today. Secretly, I was hoping the rain clouds would clear when we approach Key Summit as we walked through the mainly silver beech forest. I was optimistic and excited. At the same time, apprehensive. How am I going to cope with my fractured thumb (sports injury just 6 days ago). Occasionally, icy peaks of the Earl Mountains emerged through the tree clearings. There were only three people on the track for now.
Once above the tree line, the Darren Mountains with the Hollyford valley and river stretched towards the horizon. My heartbeat jumped. I am always inspired by snowy peaks and high places. As hoped, the threatening dark rain clouds had thinned. The sun was out. The landscape was bathed in glorious morning sunshine and the sky blue. The flora here is mixed. Around 0930, we arrived at a junction, one descended towards Lake Howden Hut and the other, ascended towards Key Summit.
On this exposed section, we bumped into a bunch of school kids from Dunedin. The tranquility is broken with chatter and friendly banter among these kids. It was great to see these young ones enjoying the great outdoors. For a moment, the track was crowded. Eventually, once we arrived at the summit, the views were stunning. We were encircled but snowy peaks. I was mesmerised by the alpine tarns surrounded with yellow ground moss adorned with majestic peaks. On the west, the Earl and Darren Mountains. On the east – Humboldt, Ailsa and Livingstona Mountains. The clouds cleared, little cool wind and sun warm. I just had to sit and savour this natural beauty. In the background, laughter and chatter by the school kids.
Within minutes, the cold clouds partially reclaimed the mountain tops. This is synonymous with the Fiordland. There is an Alpine Loop Walk. Yellow moss surrounded an alpine tarn. It is a delicate environment. I was stuck like a magnet in this place. Continuing on further south on the trail, there is a viewing spot and rest area. With clouds almost covering the mountain, I was not sure what I was looking at. A small signage cleared that up. The school kids had also gathered here together with a guided group op. I was in no hurry and relished this magical environment. Several ice covered peaks with bare slopes appeared. Finally, I spotted the aquamarine alpine glacial Lake Marian, literally hanging off the slopes of Mount Christina. On the right is an aptly named Mount Crosscut. The Key Summit Track can be done as a day hike from the Divide (3 hrs return).
We retraced our tracks back to the mail trail and hiked towards, mainly downhill and under tree canopy, towards Lake Howden Hut. We arrived around 1130. The group of kids we met on Key Summit were, fortunately, to the next hut. Plus, a group of guided hikers were having lunch and also preparing to leave. Placid Lake Howden is surrounded by lush green mountains as a few icy peaks. The lake water flowed out just in front of the hut. It was cold though. Alert! Be prepared for sand fly. Soon, more trackers arrived and departed.
After lunch, as the sun was still out and bright, I walked along the lake on the Caples Track. It was all under the forest canopy. Bird songs filled the air. Trying to spot them is a different issue. Several streams criss-crossed the track. In an open valley, a small stream cut a grassy bog. The sky was blue and the weather warm. The hut was half full. I looked out of the window while sipping my miso soup, the sun was still out after 1900. Most people in this hut were mainly heading towards the Divide the next day. There were a few going in our direction. Dinner time gives us an opportunity to meet other hikers and hear their stories. Huts are never easy to sleep!
I did not sleep well. Noises, snoring and movements of people within the hut is unavoidable. I was up around 0700 and the hut was completely engulfed by heavy fog. The surrounding rainforest were transformed into silhouettes. A thick layer of mist hung just above Howden Lake’s surface. After breakfast, we left the hut around 0800. We know there were three other heading our way.
The track ascended from the hut and lead into the forest. The air was still. The only sound I heard was my heavy breath and footsteps on the gravel track. Bird songs echoed through the misty rain forest. In the background, there is a constant sound, the roar of moving water. Either from the numerous streams that criss-cross the track and waterfalls. Synonymous with the Fiordlands, the forest is enriched with with lichens on tree branches and trunks, moss carpet on the forest floor and sporadic ground ferns. Similarly we crossed several fixed bridges. We met Richard, a keen birder making his way slowly. He explained that he had hip replacement just four months ago. Brave and determined man.
Loud roar resonated through the forest. Not long after, I could see a white column of water fall from a blackish cliff face. I felt the strong spray drift before witnessing the fall itself. This is Earland Fall (178m). Resulting from the night’s heavy rainfall, there was a lot of water. The track passed along the face of the fall. Be prepared to get wet. There is an alternative route just below the main track.
Strangely, past the fall, the ground seemed drier. Looking back at Earland Falls,it was even more impressive especially when the clouds disappeared. Snow covered mountains appeared. That brought some excitement. The canopy was thinner here. A signage said The Orchard. It is a flat area covered with grasses, thickets of ferns, flax and small ribbonwood trees. They look like apple trees. I ventured off the track towards a small pond flanked by beech trees. A couple of stunned hares hopped into the bush. In distant background, looming peaks glowed in the late morning sun.
The track zig-zagged along the slopes and the was a pleasant surprise – the Darren Mountains. The range was partially visible with clouds moving rapidly. As the clouds dissipated, the Hollyford Valley and river appeared. This is a perfect place for lunch. I was totally mesmerised by the icy mountains. While having lunch, I was hoping the whole range would open up. Optimistic perhaps. At times I could see the end of the Hollyford River which drained into the Tasman Sea. I dragged away from this fantastic view. The blue sky and sunny day was welcomed. Still walking along the slopes with the Darren Mountains on the west, I reentered the forest. With beautiful weather, I was really enjoying the hike. I am almost alone throughout the track. There were only about five hiker walking in the direction. That is a great feeling. Occasionally I caught up with Will. A. tiny green bird darted around tree branches (later identified by Richard, a bird enthusiasts as the Riflemen). The final part track ended on the flats covered with shrubs. The first huts were not for independent hikers. Its a lodge. Finally, around 1230 I arrived at Lake Mackenzie Hut. There were not other boarders yet.
It is an amazing site. I was attracted towards the emerald green glacial lake. Rough blocks of glacial rocks lay strewn on the west end of the lake. Two peaks loomed above, Ocean and Emily Peaks. With the sun shining, the views were stunning. After some hot refreshments, we headed out to explore Split Rock. There were great views of both Ocean and Emily Peaks. On the west, Christina and other Darren Mountain peaks gleamed in the midday sun. Bird calls echoed everywhere but hard to see. Near the hut, a couple of Kea made their distinct calls. Today is a fantastic day but we were warned of uncertain weather tomorrow. At dinner, we caught up with Richard. There is a sense of camaraderie amongst hikers.
Tried to get some sleep but quite unsuccessful. Late at night, the dark clouds that gathered earlier turned into torrential downpour aided with strong gusty wind. The storm lashed onto the hut with lightning and thunder. I was glad that I am tucked in my sleeping bag.
The weather forecast for today is not particularly good with potential for rain throughout the day. At breakfast, I was surprised there was no rain although dark and cloudy. We departed around 0730 hoping to take advantage of the weather. Kea calls echoed in the cold morning air from the nearby trees. I had my rain gear and thermals on. The track immediately entered the beech forest and skirted round Lake Mackenzie. The gravel track zig-zagged climbing steadily under the forest canopy. We soon emerged out of the forest and surprisingly with only a breeze. As we climbed around the slopes of Ocean Peak, there were great views of Lake Mackenzie and the surrounding mountains. The day was cloudy and rain was imminent. Above the tree line, the track passed through a high alpine plateau of tussock grasses and transformed into jagged rocky plateau. Unique hardy plants clung on to survive these harsh conditions. Then it began to drizzle.
The track progresses parallel with the Hollyford Valley flanked by the great snow peaked Darren Mountains. The wind picked up so did the rain. I struggled a little keeping my bandaged hand dry. Tussock grasses covered most surfaces. Icy peaks emerged as the clouds clear. At one point, the track is a narrow ledge with steep slope. Fortunately, a pipe handle, screwed onto the cliff face, provided some support. Sudden gusts of wind threw me off balance at places. On the west, Darren Mountains were almost invisible with the rain and thick clouds. Temperatures began to drop as we climbed higher. The hike was not difficult.
Finally we approached Harris Saddle, the highest elevation (1255m) of the Routeburn Track at midday. Hale swept through as I hurried into the shelter. I tucked in my lunch before continuing on. A few other hikers coming from the opposite direction also made a brief stop here. Unfortunately, my flimsy rain coat tore. There is no alternative rain top. Moments later, sleet dropped from the dark sky. The side trip to Conical Hill was inaccessible today due to avalanches. The views beyond the shelter was obscured by heavy mist and clouds. Fortunately, the orange track markers, provided guide and direction. These are invaluable during poor weather and visibility.
For hereon, we entered the Mount Aspiring NP. After a short walk over sandstone rocks, the dark hued glass-like glacial Harris Lake appeared. Although cloudy, raining and dark, the expansive views were amazing. Snow peaked mountains were almost silhouetted in the background. It was in black and white. Just past the shelter, in an tarn, was a rare blue duck (Whio). The narrow track skirted above and around the lake. With a series of wooden steps, I descended through a lump of ice. Continuous rain had made the track slippery in places. There are great views of Harris Lake and the drainage outlet. A river is formed and flowed downhill. In the distant, a greenish valley. Avalanche warning appear sporadically over this stretch.
On this rugged landscape of tussock flats and boulders , the beginning of Routeburn River cascaded down and meandered towards the rain mist covered valley below. The river splits into fast flowing streams. Various coloured stones including greenstones are strewn along the track. This area is rich in “pounamu” (jade like greenstone). Drenched in rain, the bush is green. As I approach the flats, a loud consistent roar can be heard. Aided by iron railing, I walked gingerly over sandstone rocks. There, the torrent Routeburn Falls tumbled into a deep canyon at three separated sections. Due to heavy downpours, aided by numerous ad-hoc streams, the river had swelled.
Below, a cluster of corrugated iron roof tops buildings. These included a upmarket accommodation and the humble DOC Routeburn Falls Huts. A helicopter landing pad is clearly marked. Drenched and cold, I was relieved to arrive. It was around 1230pm. A quick change, organising my bunk bed, I looked forward to a hot meal. Three Kea birds played on a nearby tree. From the balcony of the hut, the lemon green flats and black slopes of the Humboldt Mountain were barely visible. Waterfalls seemed to appear and disappear on the mountain slope with the ebb and flow of the rain. This hut is an enviable location.
A helicopter ferried passengers to the luxury lodge. It caused a flurry of excitement. Time to settle into hut life. We met fellow kiwis Mellisa and Marisa. along with Richard and formed a small dinner table group. All from different walks of life with a common interest in Hiking. Richard offered an emergency rain cover ( a bright yellow plastic bag). Perhaps, with bad weather forecast, I may have use for it.
Left at 8am. Severe storm warning arrived at night. Gale force winds packed with rain, thunder and lightning. It was cold but once inside sleeping bag, warm. After 2 days of little or disturbed sleep, managed to get sound sleep. Next morning weather was uncertain. What time shall we depart? Play by ear.
Morning was cold but surprisingly the heavy early morning storm seemed to have passed. However, those heading towards Harris Saddle were warned of later bad weather – continued heavy rain and plunging temperature. Fortunately, we were heading towards Routeburn Shelter. A Kea just perched itself on a wire just above the ranger’s hut. We left at 8am and hoped to pass the imminent storm. Sky was laden with thick dark clouds. The nearby snow covered mountains were visible. Sound of the falls nearby seemed louder than when arrived. The Routeburn River must have been swollen with the big rainfall. The track was well laid with compacted gravel and the terrain level and descending. We entered the mainly Mountain Beech forest. Fiordland is living up yo its reputation – wet and unpredictable. Streams criss-crossed the track. In places, the track became mini-streams. We walked close to the river valley as the track meandered in and out of the beech forest. It began to rain. Out came the (torn) raincoat. The torrent Routeburn River entered a grassy flat valley and meandered calmly surrounded by the Humboldt Mountains. Numerous waterfalls of various magnitude fell over the mountain sides. The typical Fiordland forest emerged – moss covered forest floor, ground ferns, lichen hanging off tree trunks and branches. Birdsong echoed somewhere in the forest.
Later along the track, the river merged and with contribution from the numerous streams, it swelled and cut thunderously through narrow chasms and gorges. Under one bridge, I felt its volatile power as it cascaded over buried rocks. This morning’s heavy downpour certainly aided to the river strength. We forged through some flooded section on the track. Some via suspension bridges and one make-shift tree trunk bridge. We have now entered the mainly Red Beech Forest. On a nature’s walk trail, tree saplings sprouted out from rotting tree trunks. Fungus mycelium quietly eating away decaying leaves and other plant materials and converting them into organic matter and eventually nutrients to the living plants. The light rain continued. The storm held for now. We crossed a swing bridge and was relieved, from the weather, when we arrived at the Routeburn Shelter around 11am.
We were being picked up by pre-arranged transport (Track and Info) back to Queenstown. Some hikers were just beginning their track. Around 12pm, It poured. I am glad we were not out on the track. Overall, the track is not too difficult but the weather and bandaged fractured thumb was challenging. The Routeburn Track is worthy of a hike in this unique UNESCO Heritage Fiordland.
My family and I had just returned travelling in Japan. This time we traveled to another part of Japan – it was a a journey through the Northern Japanese Alps and Onsens. The weather was as expected rainy (late June through to mid-July). These are our photos.
I made this journey into Vietnam in January 2005 (winter).
I made this journey into Vietnam in January 2005 (winter). It was amazing to see the dramatic changes taking place after a devastating Vietnam war. From the airport towards Saigon (Ho Chi Minh), billboards advertisements were my insights into Vietnam’s economic drive. In town, everyone was keen to do business be it books, pencils, food and so on. I did not see a single street beggar. I was pleased. However, the legacy of the war was not far away – in people minds. They are using it to motivate themselves to move forward. I was certainly impressed.
The cities are colorful, both in dressing and food. Yes, amazing food. I traveled from Saigon – Nga Thrang – Hue – Hanoi – Halong Bay and Sapa. Transport was so convenient with the Hop- on and Hop-off bus. The history, architecture, people and landscape are enticing. It was during the Chinese New Year season. Everywhere there were paraphernalia associated with the upcoming festivities. Flowers, paper decorations, potted kumquat plants loaded with fruits, banners, etc..
Saigon was booming with economic development while Hanoi was keeping the past alive, traditional and cultural. Historic Hoi An is a scenic, quaint, laid back and atmospheric while coastal Nga Thrang is upbeat with sea food and beach lovers. Like the waves in Nga Thrang never ceases, the sewing machines in Hoi An spinned through the late night. Halong Bay was a scene of tranquility amongst limestone karst while ethnic and mountainous Sapa was lively welcoming the new year. Hue and Myson are the keepers of the old with ancient architecture and a lost history.
Don’t miss the delicious and memorable local food, basking on a boat in Halong Bay , water journey in Mytho, the iconic Water Puppet Show in Hanoi and relieving history in Hue’s exquisite palaces; haggling in Saigon’s markets and sipping Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk. People watching is a bonus, but not while on the road. Look out for the ‘millions’ of motorbikes.
I was in Sapa on New Year day. Everyone in the hotel were invited to participate at around 11 pm. After welcoming the New Year with shouts, greetings and lots of food and alcohol, the contingent went on to neighboring hotels and ushered in the New Year. This went on for a couple of hours and at 2am, they all decided to got the temple for prayers. I did not drink, but most just closed their eyes and tried to stand straight. It was certainly a warm, fun and welcoming experience on a cold night. Chúc Mừng Năm Mới.
Table of Contents
Kepler Trek is in New Zealand’s south western corner of South Island – the Fiordlands. It is a 2 – 4 days hike. The 60km Kepler trek can be walked in either direction as it is a loop. The starting point is at the Control Gates near Te Anau. We decided to hike up to Luxmore Hut (in the anti-clockwise direction). This would tackle the hardest climb earlier and would give us a ‘gentle downhill’ trek for the following days. Plus, the views on day 2 in the morning at Luxmore Summit and beyond would provide the best views, weather permitting. In the opposite direction, one would arrive here late in the afternoon and high possibility of ranges drenched in mist and clouds.
It is a stunning part of New Zealand and this trek has one of the most wonderful scenery created by glacial ice and water, weather permitting. It encompasses mountain ranges; high lakes or tarns; alpine tussock grasses; boggy and endemic wildlife including Kiwi and Takahe; boardwalks and wooden walkways; waterfalls and rivers; glacial cut valleys; large fresh water lakes and much more. However, in these parts, the weather is unpredictable, and all four seasons can appear in one day. Mountain paths can be obscured by dense clouds and mist and strong cold prevailing winds are common. This can be complicated with snowfall even in summer! A good selection of wind and water proof clothing is a must. Water proofing your pack and broken-in hiking shoes are essential. All rubbish must be packed and brought out back to Te Anau. The mountain huts have no facilities to dispose these.
All booking for the huts or camping sites must be booked through Department of Conservation (DOC). Their websites give detailed information on all requirements. Cooking gas is provided but you must bring all utensils and food. Starting and finishing points is scenic Te Anau. Local transport to and fro the starting points can be organised online or in Te Anau. We used Track Net. Transport from Queenstown is easily organised by the same people. Storage facility is available at the Holiday Park near the DOC office for a small fee (Track Net office is located here as well). It is best to collect all your booking documents at the DOC office early before the trek pick-up.
When we returned, it was bliss when we soaked ourselves in a spa pool at our hotel. Time to reminisce on our experience in a stunning part of New Zealand – the Fiordlands.
Two friends, my wife and I went on this trek. We obtained our booking tickets from DOC office around 0800. We had organized transport to pick us up from Te Anau to the starting point of the trek at the Control Gates. Left Te Anau at 8.30am and departed from the gates around 9am. It started to drizzle and the sky cloudy. Once past the Te Anau Lake overflow control gates, we entered the native Beech forest. The trek followed the shores of the Lake Te Anau. Under the canopy of the Beech forest, the drizzle was kept a bay. However, it was muggy and the forest floor wet. However, the trek was well laid. It was quiet, and the walk was accompanied with sounds of bird songs. Fantails came bravely close to inspect. Soon they lost interest and disappeared into the wooded forest. Sunlight struggled to penetrate through the canopy. Occasionally, when visibility improved, I could see Te Anau Township across the lake. The forest floor was covered in dense moss and a variety of ferns.
In open areas, I realized that the drizzle this morning had turned into light rain. We reached Brod Bay. To save a 5.6 km walk (about 1.5 hr), there is a water taxi service from Te Anau to Brod Bay. Beyond here, the trek began to ascend. A Kea bird hopped along the trek. It was not intimidated and came close to us. Kea is the only alpine parrot and native to NZ. As we climbed through the forest, unexpectedly, the trek passed on a narrow ledge along limestone formations. Under one of these limestone bluffs, we stopped for lunch. There were uninterrupted views of the valley below, although through hazy weather. Later, we climbed higher along the trek assisted with a series of wooden steps. Lichen and old man’s beard appeared on tree trunks and branches. It created an eerie forest-scape. We emerged out of the forest and passed the tree line. I was taken by surprise but was ecstatic to see the golden tussock grass field. I felt uplifted as the sun shined amidst the light rain. Strong cold wind began to blow in this open field. Wind speed up to 80km per hour. Temperature plummeted to about 5 degrees C, I thought. As I ascended, Te Anau basin in the valley came into view. Another delightful surprise, a beautiful rainbow had formed. Lee Cheng and I felt like kids running around and admiring the beauty before us. The weight of the pack seemed to have dissipated. As we progressed, bog fields began to appear. The path turned into wooden board walks to get us across without getting our feet wet. After one final turn, we could see Luxmore Hut (1085m) perched on the hill. As we approached the hut, it began to snow lightly intermittently. Temperature further plummeted to below zero.
I enjoyed the views of the South Fiord of Te Anau Lake and beyond it the snow-covered Murchison Mountains in the north. On the east – the Snowdon and Earl Mountains. Within minutes of arriving in the hut, it began to snow heavily. Some, including myself rushed out to feel it on our skins. It was probably the ‘icing’ on a ‘mixed’ weather today. Half an hour later, I was out of the cold wind but not the views of the wonderful golden tussock grass field. The dining room was a hive of activity with hikers having a hot drink, some getting into their dinner and like us, just wanted to rest a while. The warmth from the fire place aided to our well-being. We have had rain, sun, snow and icy wind. We had walked 13.8 km in 6 hours, as estimated by the DOC. This only day 1.
I got out of the bunk bed around 0730. I did not bother getting my boots on. With a woolen socks and slippers, I ventured outside. It was freezing. However, the low clouds were bright and the sun still below the horizon. I walked away from the hut and climbed a series of wooden steps to get some elevation. The South Fiord of Te Anau Lake was gleaming like a sheet of glass with glowing clouds reflected off it. A crescent moon and a satellite glowed in the dark sky. The Murchison Mountain was just a silhouette. Around 0815, the sun broke above the eastern mountains and the lit up the tussock grasses to a golden hue. The peaks of the faint lightly snow-covered Murchison Mountains glowed with a pinkish hue. The panoramic view was very uplifting indeed. Kea birds call could be heard when a couple flew past the hut.
After breakfast, we packed up. We decided to check out the nearby Luxmore Cave. I walked up the wooden steps and noticed that the water was still frozen. At the top of the mountain, the expansive views of greenish Te Anau Basin emerged with the Snowdon and Earl Mountains in the background. In the nearby valley, small water bodies, tarns, gleamed in the morning light. It was wet inside the cave and only spent a few minutes. The walk here was the highlight.
Back at the hut, a helicopter had just delivered a few passengers and quickly returned to Te Anau. This is an expensive way to get here and save walking in the rain, snow and wind for six hours. Where is the fun in it? Our next stop is Iris Burn Hut, an estimated six hours away. The wind had died down and the weather promised to be good. I find that the wind and cold can be managed but the rain can be depressing. We left around 1000 and the walk was uphill but not steep as the day 1. The low clouds started to move upwards as the warmed up. The South Fiord and Murchison Mountains was still visible amidst the moving clouds. We came across a tarn surrounded by golden tussock grasses.
The trek now was cut on the slopes of mountains and ridges. Avalanche signage advice on the eminent dangers during the winter and spring (between May to October) seasons. I could see the trek snaking along the slopes on a golden carpet. However, the trek itself was well laid with crushed gravel. Orange markers indicate the trek paths. The winds started to pick up. Around 1130, we reached the base of Luxmore summit. We dropped our packs and climbed up a steep mountain with loose rocks and gravel. At the rocky summit (1472m), there were fantastic 360 degrees views of the lakes, glacial gauged valleys, snow topped mountain ranges including Jackson Peaks, Kepler Mountains and Murchison Mountains. We seem to be floating surrounded by dense hanging clouds. Pocket of tarns reflected dimly on this partially clouded day. The wind here was cold and had a little bite, but manageable. Kea birds hopped around the base of the mountain fluttering their colorful wings as they flew.
The tops of the mountains were now covered with short golden tussock grasses and flowering alpine plants hugging onto the windblown slopes. Evergreen trees grew abundantly on the lower slopes just above a no name lake. Winds up to 20 km per hour began to blow. Today’s trek is quite exposed. This can be a dangerous area when strong winds and rainfall combined with snowfall. Particularly walking along steep slopes and high ridges. It can become extremely cold and poor visibility. We are lucky today. The views of the lake and surrounding mountains was fantastic. We reached Forest Burn Shelter around 1245. This is an emergency shelter and perhaps a good place for lunch. It was crowded and a little noisy for our liking. We continued and found a great spot on a rock overlooking a blue lake surrounded by evergreens and snowy peaks. Time, 1315, for some lunch.
From here-on, the trek was on narrow ridges with steep drops on both sides. The immediate landscape was mainly shorter tussock grasses complimented with small hardy flowering shrubs. The mountain looked like a beige and sometimes golden carpet, depending on the light. We walked with the ebb and flow of the mountain ranges. From here-on, the trek now cut across narrow mountain ridges. I can understand why walking on the ridges with strong winds and poor visibility can be dangerous. We are completely exposed to the elements. Fortunately, today the winds were ‘gentle’. It was cloudy but no rain. The temperature however was still low. Information given by the ranges on weather conditions must be heeded. Turning back may be the only option sometimes. Again, the importance of proper gear.
At every turn, there were panoramic views of the both Jackson Peaks and Murchison Mountains. We are actually trans versing Jackson Peaks. On the south west, the snowy peaks of Kepler Mountains rose majestically. We arrived at Hanging Valley Shelter around 1515. In case of emergencies, this shelter is in valuable. Fifteen minutes later, we walked along several tarns (alpine lakes). Finally, I could get glimpses of Lake Manapouri in the distant valleys. We descended one ridge assisted with a series of wooden steps. This led us to a lookout point, around 1600. It was still cold but with a gentle breeze.
The tree line was just below this point. On the open slopes, long beige grasses swayed in the breeze while hardy green shrubs clung onto the rocky slopes. We had now left the mountain slopes and ridges and entered the forested areas. We were greeted by beech trees draped with old man’s beard and lime green lichens. Green moss dominated the forest floor. However, my knees took a beating from the zig zag steep descent. I had to slow down. Fortunately, there were interesting spots to take my mind of the demanding trek. The trek followed a fast-flowing stream. With increased humidity, tree trunks and branches were covered in moss. I felt like walking through a primordial forest. My aches forgotten for a moment taken over by imagination. Perhaps, the now extinct Moa bird, might just run past the stream. Perhaps, I am just plain tired!
There were tracks of fallen trees damaged from storm or landslides. It looked like a strong force. Only sounds of the water flowing and gently rustling of the leaves was heard. Suddenly, I heard flap of wings high above. They were from a couple of Wood Pigeon. The feathers were colorful and was perched on a beech tree branch. I finally arrived at Iris Burn Hut located on a grassy filed around 1800. I was more relieved than delighted. No more walking for the day. Fortunately, the sun was still shining through a clearing in front of the hut. I had walked 8 hours on this leg (estimated as 6 hours). I was exhausted and normally would be happy to explore the area. A small path led towards Iris Burn River and another towards a waterfall with prospects of seeing the iconic Kiwi bird. Not today. Kea birds are notorious for investigating anything left outdoor. So, the ranger advised us to tie up our boots and hang them on hooks provided. The dining room was warm, although the fire place was not lit. A hot cup of coffee and boots off, I rested my weary legs. What’s for dinner?
It was a “warmer” night compared to the freezing temperatures at Luxmore Hut. My boots hung on hooks remained undisturbed by the naughty Kea birds. We left the hut around 0830. The air was still and cold. The morning sun was just touching the top of the nearby mountains. Immediately we entered the mixed forest. it was slightly dark under the tree canopies. A few birds were busy forging on the moist forest floor. In an open grassland, the sun lit up the nearby mountain peaks. Lichen dominated the rocks scattered around on the narrow valley floor. Frost covered the grasses surfaces. Together with the lichen, long grasses with flowing inflorescence added some color to the otherwise green landscape. Tall beech trees dominated the mountain slopes while a dense cold fog hung just above the ground. A tomtit bird surveyed the area from a shrub, common in this area. Interestingly, numerous white silk nest of an unknown resident was bound onto these shrubs. I reckon it was the work of spiders.
We re-entered the forest. Moss grew abundantly onto tree trunks, branches and the ground. The trek continued along the Iris Burn River. Some of the scenery were amazing, the combination of structural beech trees, some in autumn colors, and the Iris Burn River in the foreground. The rocks on the river covered in green moss. It looked like a painting. Along the trek, I found a variety of fungus – red, orange, purple and beige. Some on tree branches and mostly on the moist and spongy sphagnum moss that seem to dominate the forest floor. Sweet birdsong accompanied us most of the way. Sunlight penetrated through the dense canopy creating shafts of light. This created an interesting and dramatic effect in the forest. I was just happy to get some light on my skin to warm up in the still cold and moisture laden air.
We reached a shelter around 1145 along the river. This was our lunch stop. A signage indicated the there is another 3 hours to Moturau Hut. Not to despair as my legs were still strong. As we progressed, the mossy forest floor gave way to ground ferns. A mixed forest began appearing. Broad leaf’s and shrubs with red and orange fruits appeared sporadically. Our hunt for diminutive fungus continued. Through a board walk, we emerged out of the forest onto the shores of Lake Manapouri. Half an hour later, we arrived at Moturau Hut around 1530. The sun shined brightly onto the lake and the hut.
I later ventured onto the shore and into the cold water. It was an opportunity to wash up after going two days without a shower. Within minutes, I was out and sunning myself. It was bliss. Time for a cup of coffee and put my feet up. Lee Cheng was yearning for some hot and spicy noodles. A fellow hiker was just cooking some up. She approached him and was just happy to share as he was trying to finish up his food stocks. Happy to help mate! In trying times like this, little experiences are blissful. I returned to the shores of Lake Manapouri to catch the last rays of the day. Later, we settled down for dinner and a talk by the local ranger. He gave us a passionate talk about the incidents, accidents and people whom contributed to the well-being of Lake Manapouri. Thanks to them, we can appreciate its beauty today. Still no screeching calls of the elusive Kiwi bird.
Sleeping in huts are usually uncomfortable for me. Being a light sleeper, every movements, snoring, conversations in close proximity and opening and shutting of door keep me awake. All the huts in this trek is no exception. Yes, perhaps it helps to invest in a set of ear plugs. However, today, most of the hikers including us got up early. The reason, to catch the 1000 bus at Rainbow Reach that would transport us back to Te Anau. This is one option on the final leg of this trek. The full trek would take us all the way to the Control Gates and thereon to Te Anau ( an additional 9.5 km, about 4 hours walk). This extra 9.5 km is mentioned as ‘uneventful’ as it hugs the Waiau River and the scenery is monotonous. Personally, we thought after walking 52.6 km, it was enough for the weary legs!
We left early at 0730 and the hut was a hive of activity. I think nearly all hiker had similar plans. It was still dark and had to turn our head torches. We immediately entered the wooded forest. Only the trek was lighted as we walked past silhouettes of trees. Half an hour later, we arrived at Shallow Bay on the shores of Lake Manapouri. There was a 180 degree views of mountains and islands including Kepler Mountains, Jackson Peaks, Mt Luxmore, Iris Burn and lots more. Paradise ducks swam peacefully in the cold water. The sky was laden with thick dense swirling clouds. We took in the cold beauty of this bay. It really is a sight to behold. Suddenly, streak of filtered sunlight burst through and hit the peaks of the cold mountains. The natural beauty now was further enhanced. We were just mesmerized by the natural beauty before us today. The lake, however, remained calm. There were no sand flies here like the beach at Motorau Hut. Insect repellent is definite essential on this trek especially on the lake’s shoreline.
There was another 1.15 hours to Rainbow Reach. It was 0835. The trek soon exited the forest into a wetland – Amoeboid Mire ( an interesting and new word for me). It is a bog dominated with sphagnum moss and a variety of shrubs. A board walk took us towards the large tarn (pool of water) in the middle of a mire (or marsh). Part of the Lord of the Rings was short here – the Dead Marshes!
The barren summit of Mt Luxmore is quite visible from here. Back on the main trek, is a large and a sapling of a Rimu tree. This is certainly a mixed forest including Podocarps, Beech and broadleaf. It varied from the forests at the beginning of the trek at the Control Gates. Here, with the assistance of a elder trekker, he identified Miro, Beech, Lancelot, and Totara trees. The forest is further complimented with lichens, moss and ground ferns. A solo female runner zipped past us with just water bag strapped to her back. These are the hardy runners training for the Kepler Challenge – a tough marathon that starts and finishes at the Control Gates ( 60.1 km race). I saw a couple on day 2, near the summit of Mt Luxmore. Hardy souls! This year’s challenge is on December 7 and the race completed just under 5 hours!! Amazing, a testament of human endurance.
We crossed a dry stream via a wire suspension bridge. soon after, the trek followed the terraces of the fast flowing Waiau River. We had finally reached the swing-bridge at Rainbow Reach. Time was 0950. The transport shuttles were already waiting for the last few trekkers to arrive. We lingered on for a while, unloaded our packs off our weary bodies and we were off back to Te Anau promptly at 1000.
Back at Te Anau, the weather turned from cloudy to light rain. To our delight, our accommodation had a spa which we indulged after dinner. Great for the tired legs and time to reminisce on the 52.6 km trek we had completed. Te Anau is a great place to unwind. Kepler Trek is an iconic trek in the Fiordlands for its unique environment, varied landscape, wildlife and flora, and its unpredictable weather. It is indeed a great privilege to witness the magic of New Zealand for those whom venture.
Recently, I had just completed a 60km hike in one of the most beautiful landscapes – The Kepler Trek, Fiordlands, South Island, New Zealand. It has one of the most diverse environment with rain-forest, alpine tussock grasses, high mountain lakes, mossy forest floor, beech forest, limestone bluffs, waterfalls, icy cold winds sometimes combined with snow, cozy huts, wildlife with opportunity see the iconic and endemic Kiwi and Takahe birds, huge fresh water lakes, mountain ranges and much more. All this in a 4- day trek. Beware, the fiordland is unpredictable – all four seasons in one day plus icy cold winds without request.