Blown away on the Kepler Track

“That was quite a backhand.” So said Duncan, our Aussie hiking partner, on the second day of the Kepler Track. The wind had been blowing at our backs, pushing us into the hill the trail wound across, but in an instant, she came around the mountain into our faces, nearly knocking us both off the track and down the steep slope.

You could say nature threw us one big backhand that day, or a curve ball, or a bean ball. The day before had been too perfect. Overnight, calm, sunny weather turned to 100-kph winds that made the trek across the mountain tops memorable for Diane and me, and reminiscent of old times for Duncan, who spent years in the Andes and 87 days climbing peaks in Antarctica.

We met Duncan the night before, when we arrived at the Luxmore Hut, after a surprisingly easy hike up from Te Anau. The first hour was on a wide trail made soft by fallen beech seeds. It followed the shore of Lake Te Anau, New Zealand’s second largest. From there, it was up a gradual slope, then a series of switchbacks until we could see the lake a few hundred meters below — 545 meters below, according to the altimeter on a German hiker’s watch. Having recently climbed the Hump Ridge, which has about the same 1000-meter vertical ascent on the first day, I was ready for a struggle, but before we knew it, we’d reached a series of high limestone bluffs, and shortly after that, we were over the treeline. Forty-five minutes later, and we completed the six-hour hike in just over four.

We had plenty of time to visit the caves, make a leisurely supper, read a book, and visit with other trampers, including Duncan. The common room at the hut had a breathtaking view of the Fiordland mountain ranges to the north and west, Lake Te Anau to the north and east, and the farm country to the east.

The next day, which happened to be Thanksgiving, was a different story. Ten miles that should’ve been fairly easy were made stressful and hard by the wind and rain. We were soaked through a half hour into the hike, and cold, but still inspired by the incredible views of the Murchison Mountains, across the south arm of Lake Te Anau. Ten of us packed into the first shelter, smiling and shaking our heads, wondering if we were idiots to set out on a six-hour hike on such a day.

It could’ve been worse. By the time we left for the next two-hour stretch, the rain had stopped, but if anything, the wind had grown stronger. We could see the trail ahead of us, perched on knife-blade ridgetops. As we came to it, the trail was never so close to the edge that we felt in danger of plunging to our deaths, but it was a constant struggle just to stay upright. We walked with our feet at shoulder’s width, trying to keep our center of gravity low. At one point Duncan was blown off a stairway. Diane was knocked off her feet twice.

After lunch at the second shelter, we started our descent back down to the bushline. We could see the Iris Burn valley and the first of 87 switchbacks that would bring us down to the river and the next hut. As usually happens on these hikes, the downhill took longer than the uphill, our sore knees slowing us down. This day’s hike took us the full six hours predicted by the trail guide. Still, we were finished by 3:30 p.m., plenty of time for napping, reading, and eating, glad to be out of the steady rain that had begun falling. After supper, I took a side trip to the Iris Burn waterfall, which was thundering down the valley from the afternoon’s rain. On the way back, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye, and hoped briefly it might be a kiwi, which the hut warden said could be seen in the area. Instead, a huge stag with a velvet rack emerged from the ferns and crashed through the forest.

Looking down into Iris Burn valley

The next morning we rose early, determined to finish our 14-mile hike to the car in time to get a good lunch in Te Anau before heading home to meet the kids, who had been away at school camp while we were on the Kepler Track. We left at 6:20, hiking in the rain through “the Big Slip,” an area where a landslide had eliminated the forest along the Iris Burn. After that, the trail wound gradually down through the beech forest, with views of the boulder-strewn river and U-shaped glacial valley. It only took us four hours to make it to Motorau Hut on the shore of Lake Manapouri, where most people spend the third night on the track before hiking another ten miles back to Te Anau. We had left our car at Rainbow Reach, an hour and a half past the hut, and taken a shuttle to the start of the track in Te Anau, cutting off about six miles of the Kepler Track. By the time we reached the car, we were hobbling along slowly, Diane wincing from a blister, and I from sore toes that had been pressing against the end of my shoes on the long walk down the mountains.

The pain was worth it for both of us. We’d spent a memorable day above the treeline and challenged ourselves with a 30-mile tramp. We’d completed another of New Zealand’s Great Walks, enjoying every minute of the wide, smooth trails and stunning views. A bean ball never felt so good.

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