February 2018 Another Great Walk in New Zealand

Kepler Track map. Source: DOC, New Zealand

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Tramping the Kepler Track in New Zealand

On the road to the trailhead in the Intercity Bus to the town of Te Anau, I took another glance at the weather forecast. So far for the summer of 2017-18 large parts of the South Island had recorded one of the hottest, driest seasons ever. Now however, an active front sweeping across the region was about to bring heavy rainfall and dramatically dropping temperatures. Generally the forecasts are rather accurate in this part of the world. It seemed I was going to witness firsthand what New Zealand’s climate is notorious for: the amazing rapidity with which its weather can change.

Starting another Great Walk in one of the best countries in the world for hiking, two questions came in my mind. Was the Kepler Track going to live up its reputation as a truly great tramp, even for an avid hiker? And as someone who has been working in an outdoor store for years, were the waterproof garments I brought along for this venture going to keep me and my gear dry in the weather to come?

The Kepler Track is one of the best planned hiking trails in New Zealand. It was built in 1988 to reduce pressure on the Milford and Routeburn Tracks (see text at the very bottom, New Zealand’s Great Walks), partly by connecting paths that already existed. It’s a 60-km (37 mi) circular tramping trail beginning and ending at the Control Gates, a kind of dam to regulate the water level in the region’s most important bodies of water. The gates themselves are situated where Lake Te Anau empties into the Waiau River (see the second text under the main body, titled Lake Manapouri). By starting out walking from and returning on foot to nearby Te Anau town, I changed the Kepler loop walk into a path resembling table tennis bat, thereby adding another 8 km (5 mi). I also explored some side tracks. As a result, I added another couple of kilometers. This explains why the distances mentioned in the headings exceed the total of 68 km.

Day 1 and 2: Te Anau town to Luxmore Hut, 18 km (12 mi), 6 hours. Plus rest day.

The good thing about accurate weather forecasts is that one can come better prepared. Whereas the day before I was sporting shorts and a tank top and enjoying 30-degree Celsius temperatures, today’s forecast was 110 millimeters (4.3 inch) of precipitation and a night temperature of minus 1 Celsius at the first sleeping place, the Luxmore Hut in the Southern Alps.

Before setting out, I packed my belongings in plastic bags and the more important items in drysacks before stuffing them in my backpack. Around the backpack I wrapped a rain cover. For myself, as an outer layer, I donned a Gore-Tex Pro shell from a Canadian brand as well as Gore-Tex rain pants. Would this - together with Gore-Tex hiking boots - suffice to keep me and my belongings dry on such a wet day?

The first two hours of walking were on a level track along Lake Te Anau, first to the Control Gates and then into Fiordland National Park. The moment you enter the national park, you’re in a native, old-growth forest. At the point where the track leaves the shore I allowed myself a short break to eat and drink. Despite non-stop rainfall, I noticed that apart from my face and neck I was still dry.

During the next section, the trail veers inland and climbs some 800 altitude meters (half a mile) up the flank of Mount Luxmore. About halfway this leg the only different feature breaking the woodland are a few towering overhanging rocks, some up to 60 meters (200 feet) high. Even though I enjoyed the cover of the forest, I was slowly getting wet inside around where the shoulder straps of my backpack were putting pressure on the rain jacket.

Quite suddenly the track breaks out of the forest and climbs above the tree line. Not so steep anymore, it gently undulates through tussock grassland to the first stop-over, the Luxmore Hut. Out in the open chilly high country in relentless rain and wind under a grey, foggy sky, I pressed on without a break, focused on reaching my destination without cooling off too much.

Once in the hut, I took off my backpack and assessed the damage: all the items in the backpack were still dry. However, the parts of my body where the backpack had been attached to me were rather wet. That is my shoulders, chest, back and hips. My belly and legs as well as my feet were still dry.

So it turned out under pressure of a heavy backpack in continuous downpour conditions eventually even the best rain coat is not 100% waterproof. Having said that, I believe my hike had been much more comfortable than some of the poor walkers who arrived in the hut the same day as me dressed in shorts and cheap ponchos. They were cold, wet to the bone with their sleeping bags just as wet as they were. I found them huddled around the hut’s stove, drying their belongings. I still remember their happy faces when the kind hut warden conjured up some dry sleeping bags for them for the night.

On virtually all the Great Walks, one needs to reserve accommodation in advance in the summer months. Luckily I had had the wisdom to book the first hut on the track for two nights. I reckoned I might need two nights in the same hut to recuperate from the climb on the first day, and I have come to like slow travel for the possibilities it offers to thoroughly explore a region.

Keas and Lake Te Anau, near the Luxmore Hut, Fiordland NP

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The day after the first night in the Luxmore Hut the weather had improved somewhat: not so windy anymore, not so cold, but still overcast and drizzly. Each time I left the hut for a longer walk, the weather deteriorated, pushing me back into the refuge. So I didn’t make it that day to the summit of Mount Luxmore, one of the side trips on the track. But I was able to join some fellow hikers I befriended in the hut to a nearby cave. The cave itself - another side trip on the trek - was fairly small and not very spectacular, as it lacked big stalactites or interesting wildlife. Two other outings that day were much more exciting. During my first attempt to ascent Mt. Luxmore and not far from the hut I spotted keas. These endangered endemic mountain parrots are among the cheekiest, cleverest birds in the world and seeing and photographing them was definitely one of the highlights of the trip (see text right under the main text, titled kea). It was also fortunate the weather conditions had improved enough for the hut warden to take us out for a fascinating afternoon field lecture on alpine plants.

Day 3: Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut, 17 km (10.6 mi), 6.30 hours

The next day brought better weather, with only clouds and no rain in the morning and sunshine for the rest of the day. All the better, as more than half of this section is above the tree line, offering panoramic views of Lakes te Anau and Manapouri and the surrounding mountains.

Views of Lake Te Anau from the mountain ridge, in between the Luxmore and Iris Burn Hut

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From the Luxmore Hut the track gently climbs and after over an hour I reached the junction to the side-trip to the summit of Mt. Luxmore (1472 m / 4828 ft). I left my pack near the junction and scrambled in half an hour to and from the highest point on the track. I was a bit concerned leaving my backpack unattended, not because of other humans, but as there were keas around. These inquisitive parrots are notorious for breaking into backpacks, but somehow they didn’t see my pack when they flew over. Later that day, at an emergency shelter where I took a break, I saw my cheeky feathered friends again.

After traversing a series of exposed tops the track descends steeply through a magical native forest. I love old-growth forests and the temperate rainforests with all their species of mosses and ferns and different shades of green everywhere are among my favorite. During the final section to the valley floor and the Iris Burn Hut the tracks levels out. Before settling into the hut, I followed a short side track that follows the Iris Burn River upstream to a waterfall. Again I was lucky to spot rare endemic birds, this time a pair of blue ducks.

Tree, temperate rain forest in between the Luxmore and Iris Burn Hut

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Once in the hut I was happy to see many hikers relaxing and basking in the sun outside on the deck and in the tussock-filled clearing in the forest next to the hut.

Day 4: Iris Burn Hut to Moturau Hut, 16.2 km (10 mi), 5 hours

The next leg of the tramp turned out to be a mostly flat, somewhat monotonous walk through lush beech and podocarp forest. For the first few hours the trail follows the Iris Burn River downstream. Thereafter the track gets closer to the banks of Lake Manapouri, leading eventually to the Moturau Hut, which is located at a bay in the lake.

South Island robin, Kepler Track, forests of Fiordland NP

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The hut itself is named after Moturua, a legendary Maori girl who died with her sister in the region, but not before their tears had filled a basin and created the nearby lake. As a lot of hikers skip this layover and walk out to finish the Kepler Track, Moturau has a more tranquil feel than both the Luxmore and the Iris Burn Hut. The hut is an enchanting spot to watch the changing sunlight on the lake and the mountains behind it. In the evening the hut warden entertained us with an interesting talk about Lake Manapouri and the long but eventually successful campaign to save it (see text below, Lake Manapouri).

The ever changing sunlight on Lake Manapouri as seen from the Moturau Hut

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Day 5: Moturau Hut to Control Gates, Control Gates to Te Anau, 19 km (12 mi), 5.30 hours.

The last section back to Te Anau ia a long but gentle walk through thick forest on easy tracks. A kilometer after leaving Moturau Hut the track reaches a wetland where the trees gave way to a small lake. This beautiful, somewhat eerie area is called the Sphagnum Moss Bog. The change in scenery was very welcome. A series of boardwalks helps you to cross this wetland, after which you’re back on sandy trails. Before returning to Te Anau the track follows the fast-flowing, wide Waiau River, the waterway between Lake te Anau and Lake Manapouri. At the end this takes you back to the Control Gates, and then to town.

Fern and fallen tree in a moss-covered old-growth forest, Kepler Track

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Having completed the circle what made this tramp worthwhile and stand out for me was the part between the Luxmore and Iris Burns Hut, walking along the ridges of mountains and hills, as well as the beautiful, almost pristine forest you go through again on the way down on that same day. Very special too was the chance to see rare endemic birds in their natural habitat. Birds such as keas, blue ducks and South Island robins. I also liked the enthusiastic talks from the hut wardens. Even though not every section of the track is just as spectacular, all in all it’s justly called a Great Walk.


Kea 'at play', Fiordland NP

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An endangered and cheeky parrot

Of the dozen species of birds in the parrot order in New Zealand, the kea stands out for several reasons.

Whereas this order of birds are best known from lowland areas in tropical regions, the kea is one of the few alpine parrots. Occurring only on New Zealand’s South Island, it prefers mountainous areas. It usually lives and breeds near the tree line, but also among snowy mountains tops. Striking, too, is its intelligence, lack of fear of humans and playfulness. It has a comical habit of sliding down windscreens of cars or the roofs of tents and buildings. It sometimes has a weird interest in rubber, pecking at rubber seals from windscreens or tires of vehicles.

Being an omnivore, its compulsive inquisitiveness nearly proved fatal for the species. When European colonists introduced sheep on the South Island from the second half of the 19th century onwards, some keas began jumping on the livestock’s back and dug their claws and beaks in the sheep’s flesh above the kidney, fatally wounding them or causing them to panic. As a result, it soon earned a reputation of being a sheep-killer. Thereafter, over a 150,000 keas were killed by men until the late 20th century. They were stoned, poisoned, or shot and some authorities even put a bounty on dead keas.

Nowadays, roughly 5,000 remain. Since full legal protection in 1986, their numbers have hardly gone up, however. The animal still suffers from lead poisoning and eating other poisons (such as 1080), as well as that their eggs and chicks get eaten and killed by exotic predatory mammals such as possums, stoats and rats.

Kea in snow and ice, Bonar Glacier, Mount Aspiring NP

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Lake Manapouri

A natural beauty saved

The southern section of the Kepler Track partially follows the banks of Lake Manapouri. The last sleeping place, the Moturau Hut, is also located on its shores.

Moturau was the original, Maori name for the lake, meaning many islands. The lake contains as many as 33 islands, with 22 of these being wooded. For some, their vegetation has remained virtually unmodified since the arrival of people in New Zealand and all the pests humans brought with them. Harmful exotic mammals such as red deer and brush-tail possum have never been present on these islands. In a sense this makes these tiny, isolated pieces of land unique and pristine.

Lake Manapouri was formed by glaciers during the ice age. Thick glaciers carved out the ground over which they flowed. After the last glacial period - due to rising temperatures - meltwater filled the basin that the glaciers had created. The lake is renowned for its high water quality and native fish species, such as the New Zealand longfin eel. After Lake Hauroko to the south, Manapouri is New Zealand’s second deepest body of freshwater, measuring 444 meters (1,455 feet) deep. It has a surface area of 142 square kilometers (55 square miles).

The Waiau River in the region Southland is both a natural inlet and outlet for the lake. It flows into the northeast of the lake from Lake Te Anau and flows out from Manapouri’s southeastern end. However, the outlet has been diverted due to the development of the Manapouri Hydroelectrical Power Station. Water now flows unnaturally west towards the sea via the Doubtful Sound.

The underground Manapouri Power Station was mainly built to provide cheap electricity for an aluminum smelter near the town of Bluff on the south coast of the South Island. Proposals by authorities and businessmen to fluctuate the water level of the lake and raise it by up to 30 metres (98 feet) to increase power generation, provoked strong nationwide protests, which lasted 10 years. In 1970 the so-called Save Manapouri Campaign organized a petition to the New Zealand parliament opposing such a rise of the water level. Over a quarter of a million Kiwis signed the petition, which was almost 10 percent of New Zealand’s population at the time. In 1973, the then Labour government, after having won the election one year before, honored the political party’s election pledge not to raise the levels of the lake. An independent body was created, the Guardians of Lake Manapouri, Monowai and Te Anau to oversee the management of the lake levels. The original six guardians were all prominent leaders of the Save Manapouri Campaign. In the late 1980s and early 1990s amidst fears of privatization of the Manapouri Power Station, a new successful campaign was launched to prevent the sale of the power plant to the aluminum smelter and thereby to possibly raising of Lake Manapouri’s water level.

The Save Lake Manapouri campaigns are considered by some to be the first environmental movement in New Zealand, similar to the Franklin River Campaign in Tasmania, Australia, a decade later. In July 2020 the aluminum smelter announced that it would be closing the plant in Bluff in 2021.


New Zealand’s Great Walks

The Great Walks are a number of trekking trails developed and maintained by New Zealand’s national agency charged with environmental protection, the Department of Conservation (DOC). They are considered to be among the best trekking experiences the country has to offer. Both the huts and the tracks are of a higher standard than other tramping trails in the country. Formally established from the early 1990s, there are currently 10 Great Walks.

List of routes and brief descriptions - from north to south

Red crater and Mount Ngauruhoe, Tongariro Northern Circuit, North Island

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North Island

Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk Located in the fairly isolated eastern part of the North Island, this 44-km (27-mi), 4-day linear walk follows the southern and western shoreline of Lake Waikaremoana, a large body of freshwater amidst native forests. It includes walking up and down a 500-meter high bluff. See the previous blog on this website for more details.

Tongariro Northern Circuit Is a 50-km (31-mi), 3- to 4-day loop trail that circumnavigates a volcano (Mount Ngauruhoe) in the south-central part of the North Island. It’s an alpine tramp, featuring volcanoes and small blue and emerald lakes. Located in Tongariro NP.

Whanganui Journey Doesn’t involve much walking as it is basically a river adventure along the Whanganui River in the southern part of the North Island. The whole route is 145 km (90 mi) long and takes 5 days to complete by paddling down the river in a canoe, kayak or on a paddle-board.

Active tramper, Abel Tasman Coast Track, South Island

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South Island & Stewart Island

Abel Tasman Coast Track A 60-km (37 mi) long linear walking trail along the northern seashore of the South Island inside Abel Tasman NP. Under normal conditions, it’s one of the easiest, mildest Great Walks. Some people combine walking with sea kayaking as huts and camp sites are situated by the sea. With one of the largest tidal ranges in the country, the coastal track has some crossings that can only be negotiated at low tide or else you have to walk around them, choosing slightly higher ground. It takes 3 to 5 days to complete this trekking.

Heaphy Track This 5-day, 80 km (50 mi) linear trail in the northwest of the South Island offers one of the widest ranges of scenery seen on any of New Zealand’s tramps. It’s a region to see native Nikau palms and since 2018 the rare endemic takahe (a species of flightless bird belonging to the rail family) roam freely again along the trail. The Heaphy track is located in New Zealand's second largest national park, Kahurangi.

Paparoa Track Added to the Great Walks network as recently as 2020, this mountainous, linear track is situated in the wet west of the South Island in Paparoa NP. The track and facilities can be used not only by hikers, but also by mountain bikers. To this end the gradient of the trail is not very steep. The 56-km (35 mi) track takes 3 to 4 days to walk and 2 days by mountain bike.

Routeburn Track Is a 3-day walk in the southwestern part of the South Island. It overlaps Mount Aspiring NP and Fiordland NP, with the border and highest point being the Harris Saddle. The area gets much less rain than either the Milford Track (see below) or the Paparoa Track. Covering only 32 km (20 mi), this linear track is the shortest of the Great Walks.

Milford Track Perhaps the most classic of the Great Walks, this 53.5 km (33 mi) is also in the southwest of the South Island. This linear, one-way, 4-day walk starts at Lake Te Anau and ends at the Milford Sound, traversing mountains and temperate rainforest in Fiordland NP. Camping is not permitted, only huts can be used. Hikers are only permitted one night in any given hut, so must keep moving. Ninety hikers are allowed to start the trail each day. Half of them are independent, the other half have booked (commercial) guided hikes, each group using separate huts.

Kepler Track Is a 60-km (37 mi) circular tramping trail that travels through Fiordland NP in the southwestern part of the South Island. The track starts and ends in the town of Te Anau, passes through native forest, over mountain ridges and offers views of rivers and lakes. Of moderate difficulty, it takes about 4 days to complete. Read the lead article for more details and a personal account.

Rakiura Track Is a circular 32-km (20 mi) tramping trail in Rakiura NP on Stewart Island. Walking the trail offers the unusual opportunity to see kiwi birds in the wild. Most hikers finish the trail in three days.

Humpridge Track This 60-km (37 mi), 3-day loop walk takes hikers along the south coast of the South Island in Fiordland NP through native forests and over hills and mountains. It’s due to be added as a Great Walk in 2022.