Highs and lows on the Kepler Track, Fiordland NP, New Zealand

We have a hard time explaining our travel choices to our friends.

When we landed in Queenstown, Fiordland National Park was in the middle of an extreme weather event. The Kepler Track had only just reopened after an unseasonal dump of snow the week before. The snow had since melted but heavy rain now fell instead, brought on by the smoke clouds that were drifting across from bushfires back home in Australia. Fiordland weather is unpredictable at the best of times, and this added an extra layer of nerves to my normal pre-trip jitters.

The weather forecast for our four days of walking was all over the place. The first day seemed fairly likely to be clear, but after that it was going to be somewhere between rainy and dismal. At times like this, far from meeting the challenge with stoic resolve, I am more often thinking what have I done. In any case, we were booked, so unless the rangers closed the track, we were doing it.

The first day was, in fact, perfect, with clear blue skies and mild temperatures. We set out feeling rusty, unfit and certain we’d forgotten stuff, but still chipper because of the blue skies above us. It was a lovely walk around the lake under the tree canopy, with ferns and other greenery to soothe our worries.

After this easy warm up, the track started to climb and didn’t level out much before we got to Luxmore Hut, 8.2km and around 1000m elevation gain later. It was a slog up that mountain, I’m not going to lie. Unprepared hip flexors started to lock up, lungs and quads strained and it was a painful afternoon. It’s usually around this part of a trip when I start wondering why I put myself and my mostly-willing but often-suffering husband through this stuff. It’s also when I resolve to train more before the next one.

Our friends definitely don’t get it. What the hell is wrong with you two? and Why is that fun? are common questions when we explain our holiday plans.

Heading up through the greenery and popping up above the tree line gave the answers to these questions. The views across Lake Te Anau with the mountains all around were why we’d busted our arses up all those switchbacks. Walking gets you to places that you won’t otherwise see, and the exertion involved makes it all the more satisfying to soak up a rarefied view.

On the way to Luxmore Hut

Unless you take a helicopter. We soon figured out was an option after a bunch of day walkers passed by looking very fresh and heading downhill. I was conflicted by my moral superiority for having walked up and by my jealousy. I was over it soon enough though, as the euphoria of taking off my pack for the day kicked in and we settled into the superb Luxmore Hut for the evening. Perched on a scenic mountainside, it offers 270 degree views and both a large deck and a well appointed kitchen area to enjoy them from.

The view from the deck at Luxmore Hut

Hikers are kept busy and amused here by keas as they fly in and out, destroying whatever they can get their beaks around. I was entertained by several as I did my stretches on the deck and defended my hat and other possessions. They are relentless, very sure of themselves and not easily deterred by human presence. Such naughty, endearing birds!

By the early evening, light rain started falling and we heard the grim weather forecast from the hut ranger. The following day was expected to be wet and windy, with falls up to 50mm and gusts up to 70km per hour. Yuuuuuuck. We decided to not get ahead of ourselves given how changeable mountain weather is (meaning I agreed not to get ahead of myself) and reassess in the morning. We could always go back to Te Anau if it looked like it would be awful. My main concern was getting wet and cold: I’m a tropical girl so I have a healthy respect for hypothermia.

Morning came with heavier rain but less wind. We picked a small break in the weather and set off amidst the cloud. It was beautiful, even in bad weather, which sums up most of NZ. If it’s sunny, I’m often a bit disappointed to be honest.

Day 2 is an alpine crossing and though technically there’s less ascent, it was still a tough day. There’s a lot of up and down, and the weather made stopping for rests less than ideal. Water seeped through our jackets pretty quickly and once we were wet, we didn’t want to stay still for long. Thank god for Icebreaker, they really are the best base layers. I stayed relatively comfortable even though I was soaked, and once I realised I was ok, my anxiety subsided and I could enjoy the day.

Ridgeline views

There are a couple of ridgelines which are fairly exposed. In high winds they’d be treacherous, which is why they close the track when gusts are around 100km per hour. As we started up the first of them with little wind, we noticed a kea on a rock below. We stopped so I could take photos and before long realised there were perhaps five flying around in a little gang, their distinctive cries echoing around us. I nearly walked straight past another two who were sitting track side, thoroughly committed to destroying a rat trap, due to being blinkered by my rain hood. Another two jousted nearby. I lingered as long as possible before the wind picked up and my fingers started to numb, enough time to enjoy these young delinquents and their antics up close.

We got to the shelter in good spirits after our little wildlife encounter, quickly ate and headed back out. The next ridgeline was a downhill section with wooden stairs, sans railings. We chatted about how hairy they would be in gusty weather and thanked the weather gods for their blessings. As we descended the stairs, the cloud lifted around us and gave us a jaw-dropping view of steep mountains either side, running with ephemeral waterfalls all around. Our timing was perfect as we arrived at a lookout with this expanded view and less wind gusts, and we lingered for some time enjoying the moment while it lasted.

Cold, wet and happy

We left this beautiful spot feeling well rewarded for our toil, and quickly hit the treeline where the sheltered mossy downhill was ours to enjoy through to Iris Burn Hut.

Another lovely view at Iris Burn hut

The rain had continued to fall and rising creek levels had flooded the side track to Iris Burn Falls from the hut, meaning no walk to the waterfall and more time to stretch, drink tea and swap tales of the day’s adventures. Iris Burn is a smaller hut than Luxmore and we were sharing our hut with a big school group of teenagers. (kudos to their two teachers). Thankfully, they were so well behaved and politely left us a cosy spot with our own private window facing the forest.

The ranger had told us to listen out for kiwi at that night as a solitary female called Grandma often wandered past the hut and called out as she went. I woke briefly in a blur, hearing something in the night which I think was her call. I settled back to slumber and we both had a good night’s sleep, knowing the hardest graft was behind us.

We didn’t hurry off on our third day but dragged our feet, enjoying the quiet of the empty hut after everyone else departed. The day was predicted to be another wet one, and as it had already started raining there was no need to rush to beat the weather. River levels were rising and we were told to expect to walk through a lot of water.

This day was a long, green, somewhat muddy one. It’s amazing to be in these glowing mossy forests, especially for someone like me who has lived in the dry tropics all my life. The rivers had indeed risen, and we sloshed through a few deeper sections along the way.

Just before the hut, the lake had risen high enough that we found ourselves stepping off a wooden bridge that had been over a small creek. Now though, the lake had subsumed the creek, and the bridge walked us into the lake itself. We walked in, thigh deep, emerging later with nicely cooled and cleaned legs. Our boots were soaked anyway.

Despite being a relatively flat day it wasn’t without pain as my hip decided it had nearly had enough of walking. My poles got me through and I made a mental note to consider using them more.

Our last day was going to be wet again – still? – and there was an option to cut 9km off by getting the shuttle at Rainbow Reach. We considered it, and then realised that we wouldn’t get access to our accommodation until 2pm so there was little point to finishing early. It didn’t quite sit right with me to ditch the last bit anyway.

It turned out to be a beautiful walk beside the rising Waiau River, with several sections where we were knee-deep in water, more in the river than beside it as it continued to rise. Even so, the weather had eased as we were no longer in the mountains, so this made stopping for breaks not only possibly but pleasant. Finishing this last section and seeing the track sign again was very satisfying, and I was pleased with our decision to skip the bus.

The rising river floods part of the track

We had a personal, up-close experience with kea in a magnificent landscape and I might have even heard a lonely kiwi calling out in the forest at night. We saw a weather system in one country drive a system in another; we experienced the power and unpredictability of mountain weather and what it can look like when it’s bad, and then the amazing reveal of clouds lifting to show waterfalls all around us. It might seem surprising, but bad weather is an incredible experience too, if you do it with relative safety.

There were many times on the walk where we weren’t having fun and I questioned my choices, but hidden views, remote wildlife encounters, fewer people, are all compelling reasons to do a hike. Discomfort and suffering is sometimes a necessary trade off. The next time a friend asks what’s wrong with us, I’ll laugh as I usually do, because I know they have a point. It’s not the easiest way to have a holiday. After it’s all done though, it’s hard to pass up the experience.

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