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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.
Day 1 (01/04/19) – Te Anau – Control Gates to Luxmore Hut (13.8km)
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.
Day 2 (02/04/19) – Luxmore Hut – Iris Burn Hut (14.6km)
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?
Day 3 (03/04/19) – Iris Burn Hut – Moturau Hut (16.2km)
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.
Day 4 (04/04/19) – Moturau Hut – Rainbow Reach (6km)
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.