I began my trip to South Island in February with the Kepler Track. This was my first multi-day hike, and I’d started planning for it in late September last year. I’d wanted to do one of the great walks in NZ, and so I began with researching on the Department of Conservation(DOC) website(very useful by the way), narrowed down through the various trails by hike duration, browsed through pictures of the scenery and decided to do this one. I had initially planned to do all 3 hikes — Kepler – Routeburn – Milford track one after the other since they were all nearby, but I was being too ambitious. The Milford Track, being the most popular, was fully booked months before my desired dates, whereas I got too tired after the Kepler to continue on with the Routeburn, which I’d, in fact, booked and planned to do then. I always seem to leave behind unfinished business on each trip I take, and with this, I will endeavour to complete these 2 Great Walks, or even make it a trio with the Kepler again on the next to Kiwiland!
I’ve been longing to share about this amazing Great Walk ever since I came back, and was finally done with the pictures yesterday night. So here we go!
Click here to read my Kepler track packing list!
I flew from Singapore to Christchurch, and took an 8 hrs direct InterCity bus to Te Anau at only NZD30. The bus ride was long, but we had several stops along the way, including Dunedin and Omaru, and it was quite nice to have a glimpse of how those cities looked like, despite not having time to explore them fully. Dunedin reminded me of a bigger version of Akaroa, a small harbour town in Banks Peninsular. The scenery along the bus ride was beautiful, so it really wasn’t a drudgery at all. Same reason why I love train journeys!
BOOKING THE HUTS AND STAY IN TE ANAU
The Kepler Track is a 60km loop hike, which starts and ends off at the Kepler Track carpark, located in Te Anau. The complete hike takes about 3-4 days, and I took 4 days to complete. For accommodation, you can choose from campsites or huts along the way. I’d wanted to experience camping out, and so I had 1 night out, and the other 2 in huts. During the Great Walks season(Summer to Autumn), bookings for both types are required, and it is recommended to make your bookings as early as slots open on the DOC website!
By the way, I left some of baggage in a coin locker in YHA Te Anau, where I was staying at the night before starting the hike. Good to reduce any unnecessary weight from the pack!
DIFFICULTY AND ELEVATION PROFILE
Picture credits: Department of Conservation, New Zealand
Overall, I find this hike suitable for people looking to experience their first ever multi-day hike, given that accommodation at huts are available, and camping out isn’t a must. Also, the elevation gain is mostly one 1 of the 4 hiking days, so it allows one to try and test our limits for a long distance thru- hike! The views are guaranteed, so it’s deinitely a must- do even for seaosned hikers as well.
Since this is a loop track, you can start either left to right, or vice versa. I took the reverse way, starting from the carpark, going towards Rainbow Reach, Moturau Hut and onwards as I couldn’t find accommodation on my desired hiking dates going on the usual direction. I am actually quite glad I did it in reverse. As you can see, the most elevation gain would be on the 3rd day for me, from Iris Burn to Luxmore Hut, which was the most scenic part of the track. This gave me quite a bit of motivation on the first 2 days. Plus, I got to enjoy a lot of solitude during the hike, and also avoid potential crowds. In fact the only times I saw more than 2 people at each time were at the huts/campsites at the end of the day. Every day was an average of 7-8 hours of walking.
ACCOMMODATION IN HUTS, CAMPING & FOOD/WATER/COOKING
The DOC website provides a direct link to the accommodation booking page, and everything can be done and paid for online. The huts provide basic drinking water, but some would still prefer to filter with pills or any handy filtration system. For me, I tried the water from the tap and was fine. If you wish to cook, Moturau Hut and Luxmore Hut have gas stoves provided, but just remember to bring your own ignitor to start the fire. There were several others who brought their own camping stoves as well. Bunk beds with basic mattresses, as well as toilets are available at huts. At campsites, tap water is provided, as well as portable toilets, but without sinks. So do consider bringing along a hand sanitiser. Other than that, the wide open field is free for you to set up your tent to rest for the night.
Food wise, you can cook if you stay at huts. For me, I brought peanut butter crunch energy bars, and had one for each meal. Needless to say, I got quite sad while watching people whip up hot tomato sauce pastas in the hut while I munched on my piece of rock… just kidding. The peanut butter bars were actually pretty good! Water wise, I only brought with me a 500ml vacuum flask, as I was prepared to drink water I find along the trail, with water pills.
Day 1: KEPLER TRACK CARPARK TO MOTURAU HUT
I began my day by walking to the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre to collect my tickets for the 3 accommodations as well as the map for the hike. The lady at the counter also shared on the weather conditions for the next few days, and recommended me to get more warm accessories such as a wool beanie and gloves. I was so glad I made that couple of last minute purchases, as the weather was indeed quite erratic throughout each day in the hike, with temperatures ranging from less than 10 degrees in the morning, and going up till about 26 degrees sunny in the noon.
Along the way I met Kerstin from Germany, who was on her way to Rainbow Reach for a short day hike. It is always nice to have some company and be excited about the trail together!
The forest wetland tracks along the Waiau River. Soon, we arrived Rainbow Reach, and parted ways, as Kerstin took a shuttle back to Te Anau. After which, it was another 3 hours of solo hike.
While the sun was shining brightly, I took a break along the beach at Lake Manapouri and charged my batteries with my new toy for the trip — a portable solar-powered USB charger! Worked pretty nicely I would say!
I took my time to take quite a bit of photos along the way, and reached Moturau Hut, my first hut.
Most people were already in the hut by the time I reached, at about 6.30pm. It was quite full, it seemed. At night the hut warden shared with us on the weather in the next few days on the track, and shared some background of the area. It was nice for some face- to- face interaction! Nobody on phones at all as there was nil reception. It feels so different but in a nice way!
Used my cooking gear for the first time to boil some hot water. Didn’t know the gas stoves required an ignitor, so thankfully someone had one to lend! Bought a freeze- dried meal from one of the outdoor stores in Te Anau, which was really simple to prepare — just add water! It was a beef pasta. Tasted pretty good for meal like that!
After dinner at about 9pm, many people went up to the bunks to rest for the night, and so did I.
Day 2: MOTURAU HUT TO IRIS BURN CAMPSITE
Woke up at about 7am in the morning and went out excitedly to catch Lake Manapouri, sitting still, in the peaceful glory of the morning light, the entire panoramic view slightly shrouded by a thin layer of mist. It was gorgeous. It was cold, I think, at about 8 degrees. Took my down jacket, gloves and wool hat out of my pack and started the day in the flat forest, walking alongside the lake.
As I went on, I gradually got used to the backpack’s weight, which I think was about 9kg. Met with a lot of flat forest terrain as well.
I reached Rocky Point Shelter at 12.30pm, just in time for lunch break. Finished the energy bar in about half an hour, and continued through the forest and some exposed regions. The trail continued with more forest, and soon, I entered The Big Slip, which was like a small valley, caused by a heavy rain in 1984.
I ran out of water along the way, and chanced upon a stream of water. Just in time to use water purifying tablets for the first time! The water becomes a brownish yellow after adding in the pills, but tasted normal. I only wished the waiting time was shorter!
This was the shortest of all days, as I reached Iris Burn Campsite at about 2.30pm. A bunch of Austrian guys were there first, playing cards on the benches under the really hot sun. The grass was quite sandy, and it was probably on this day that I got unknowingly bitten by numerous sandflies, which only became full-blown days after. Remember the long sleeves and lots of repellants guys! I was so exposed, only wearing a short sleeved t shirt with my Zip- Off pants unzipped half the time due to the heat. Yikes. And both were black in colour. Flies are most attracted to black! Yikes. Anyway, the sandfly bites took more than a month to recover, so this was quite a lesson to remember forever.
I began the afternoon setting up my tent and started chatting with people at the campsite as more arrived. I really love meeting people and chatting with them on the trail, especially since all of us there were all there doing this for the same reason! We all love mountains and nature. It was particularly nice to be able to hear from those who did the trail in the opposite direction from me, so we could exchange some tips and a hint of what each of us will see as we move on the next day. My camp mate kept telling me that Day 3 would be extremely difficult for me, as the terrain will be much steeper. I got a little worried, given that my shoulders were already aching from the backpack weight as of Day 2…
As the sun started to dim in the evening, the famous playful Keas started to appear. I wasn’t aware of how ‘playful’ these birds were, until someone pointed something shiny about a distance away from my tent. It was my ziplock bag which kept all my food wrappers/ rubbish! I then traced towards my tent and realised my camera bag was even flipped upside down! I then found out that the Keas did it and that we should keep all out backpacks and shoes inside the tent to avoid this.
At about 10.30pm, I went back to my tent, got into the sleeping bag and slept so well that night. I’m still very thankful that it didn’t rain one bit.
My 1P, 3- season tent from ALPS Mountaineering . Love how easy it was to setup!
Day 3: IRIS BURN CAMPSITE TO LUXMORE HUT
This was the most challenging day of all, as the elevation gain was about 1000m, and it was just steep uphill all the way. It was also the most anticipated day of all because of the open ridge walking in the mountains! So my feelings were really, truly mixed. I kept telling myself to push through the fatigue from my shoulders and think about all the wonderful sights I could see. And on some points, distracted myself from the pain and thought about all the wonderful food I could eat after all this was done. Coca Cola. Fried Chicken. Fries. And etc, etc. Walked through several suspension bridges, and a nice waterfall!
This entire day took me the longest, about 10 hours in total. Started at 8am and ended at 7.30pm, just before sunset. I took several breaks in between walks, resting on fallen tree trunks, which were my absolute saviour. I believe I would have been in much more pain if not for the trees.
I got so excited once I was out of the forest, when I started walking on the open bushline. The surrounding mountains were finally in sight! Chatted up with some hikers along the way (in the opposite direction) and while I said to one of them, “I’m so glad I got through the hardest uphill part (forest)!”, all I got was a worrying reply, “Hmm no not really… heh heh…” I didn’t believe them.
It started to get steeper moving forward, and there were a number of wooden staircases to get through, before reaching Hanging Valley Emergency Shelter. The staircases were the hardest to get through. But yet, the view each step up only got better one after another, so the only way I’d wanted to go, was just Up and Up. Dig deep!
First glimpse of the amazing open- ridge tracks! A dream come true! Beautiful panoramic views of the surrounding Murchison Mountains.
And I’m glad for times when the head just refuses to listen to the body.
Once I reached the shelter, I immediately placed my bag on the bench and just breathed. I don’t know why, but when I saw more people at the shelter, the experience just felt human for me again. There’s this quote by Christopher McCandless which says, “Happiness (is) only real when shared”. i think this probably explains that feeling then. It was also nice to chat with this group of ladies who looked in their 60s (mad respect!) as well as this young backpacking couple while resting our tired feet on the shelter. Thankful for them as well, as we helped each other take pictures to remember moments for life!
The second half of the open ridge track, the best part of this entire tail, was just waiting in front of me while I rested for about an hour. I couldn’t wait to get on it, but the body was so shagged out. It was truly an epic mix of emotions. I think I started leaving at about 2pm. The ridge experience was just indescribable. On this part, the orange trail markers becomes very important to follow, as the path turns quite rocky and trail appears less obvious at times. There was one particular point when I missed a marker and ended up at a really slippery point filled with little dry rocks, with no visible markers ahead. I froze in my steps not knowing what to do next as I thought I’d really slip off the ridge. Thankfully I was back to the marked path again after a few minutes of making stealth-like footsteps. Urgh... That was quite a freak scare.
For scale, can you spot 2 hikers on the trail?
The next stop was Forest Burn Shelter, where I took another half hour break again. And some self-timer shots on a nice bench. That little compartment behind the bench is actually a toilet with the world’s best view.
I continued onto the never-ending ridge line and soon, the views of the South Fiord of Lake Te Anau became more exposed under the later afternoon sun. It was gorgeous. The lake and everything else was so still, and it was just me, and my shadows. At the same time, I became worried about not reaching the hut before sunset, and began hastening my steps.
I swear, the moment I saw Luxmore Hut, I was so relieved. Not trying to be dramatic and all, but I felt instantly energised to continue that last stretch down to put down my backpack for the night.
Day 4: LUXMORE HUT TO KEPLER TRACK CARPARK
I woke up at about 830am, rolled up my sleeping back, packed my pack(kind of feeling nostalgic already at that point), and slowly walked across the golden tussock land. Soon, the cold wind swept in as soon as I was back into the deep forest again. I was so relieved this was a day of downhill through the steep forest, and hiked past beautiful limestone bluffs. Along the way, I saw many people going uphill, supposedly on their first day of the hike, their most challenging one. I felt a total, utter relieve! The hiking sticks came in useful here, to avoid straining my knees.
At the midpoint, I heard a crowd in front of me, and saw a bunch of about 10 excited hikers just starting their hike. I shared my experience with them and was almost proud and relieved that I was done and I’d just came down from the beautiful open ridges. They were so friendly and even did a Guard of Honour when it was time for me to go. So funny! Would have been so fun to do a hike like this with them.
I continued the trail downwards, moving across Brod Bay, and finally saw the sign which says, Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre again. I was so happy to have completed this!
Sandfly bites started to appear at this point…
I immediately went to the nearest chop house, got a huge bowl of mussel chowder, a gigantic beef burger and a really nice organic apple- blackcurrant fizz and chow I went.
I almost finished everything and I’m not ashamed to tell.
Almost felt like a contestant on Day 29 of Survivor. Hahaha!
For those who have been asking, here is my packing list for the hike! 🙂
And my quick post- hike report written the night after completing the hike!
I got really emotional reading this! My first solo overnight hike was the Routeburn and I remember feeling everything you described. What an amazing experience. I’m going back to do the Kepler in a few weeks and you have me so excited! Thank you for sharing.