A week prior to our flight to New Zealand, I checked the three days weather forecast for Auckland: rain, rain, and rain. Then I checked Queenstown, again it was rain, rain and rain. Since Milford region is known to be among the wettest in New Zealand, I had this ominous feeling that our trip plans may see significant modifications along the way. Then came an email from Department of Conservation in New Zealand (DoC) stating that due to avalanche risks, Routeburn Track would not be through hikeable unless we hire a chopper. An hour later, another email arrived to our inbox stating that due to flood risks, Milford Track may close temporarily. Yikes!
Five month prior to our departure– in the middle of June– registration for the Great Walks in New Zealand opened to the public. Tricia and I calculated the time difference and sat in front the computer refreshing the screen every few minutes to make sure we secure the booking. The rumor we heard was that these huts get booked up immediately after they open. We learned later during our trip that while the enthusiasm for these reservations are high– and these huts do get booked up within hours of opening during the peak Kiwi travel seasons like Christmas– they tend to have more vacancies during the shoulder season.
When we registered for the huts and got ready to pay, we were shocked by the sticker price. Overnight stay in these huts were NZ$140/night/person for summer camp style bunk beds! In addition to that, getting to and back from Milford Track required a bus and a boat transportation arranged by DoC which added another NZ$560. For Tricia and I to stay three nights on Milford Track, we needed to shell out NZ$1400! That’s almost US$1000! Routeburn Track offered camping options which kept the cost down to NZ$40/night/person. It was clear to us that this was not going to be a budget trip. What we didn’t know at the time was that our timing was unfortunate– DoC had bumped the price of these huts for foreign travelers from NZ$40-50/person/night in 2017 to NZ$140/person/night in 2018 as a test run to boost revenue and to allow more opportunities for domestic tourism. Alas, had we booked our trip last year, we would have saved a bundle.
It was a sunny fall day in Seattle when we flew to Honolulu on a layover, which was sunny and gorgeous as usual. When we arrived in Auckland, flying through thick rain clouds, we wondered if we made the wrong decision to vacation in New Zealand in this season. Fortunately, Auckland’s sky cleared up the next morning and Queenstown was partially sunny when we flew in. We picked up our rental car and drove directly to the DoC office in Queenstown.
Queenstown is probably one of the most beautiful cities I’ve visited. It’s surrounded by soaring mountains peaks dusted with snow and situated next to an enormous blue lake. The airport is about fifteen minutes away from the town center by car. We passed houses perched on the hillside and dotting the lakeshore as we drove towards the city. Tricia and I exchanged looks and each contemplated the likelihood of finding jobs in New Zealand.
Driving on the left side of the road was nerve wracking at first. Everything was reversed– left turn was the easy turn and I only had to check my right shoulder; right turn was the difficult turn that I had to cross the median; turning signals were controlled by my right hand lever behind the wheel while windshield wipers were by my left hand. When I change a lane to the left, my left middle finger habitually pushed down on the lever behind the wheel sending the windshield wipers into a squeegee frenzy. Driving like it was my first time behind the wheel, I was hugely relieved to successfully park my car in front of the DoC office in Queenstown. Did the back wheel run into the curb? Perhaps. It made a loud bang, but I chose to ignore it.
The guy behind the counter in DoC was patient with us. He explained that the Routeburn Track was still interrupted by the avalanche, which required a chopper lift ($90/person) through the problematic segment if the wind conditions allowed. We had two alternatives: one, since the avalanche occurred half way through the trek, we could still hike in from either trail ends and stay one or two nights at one of the huts without a chopper; two, we could hike a different trail. After a short discussion, we decided to hike the Kepler Track, which is a loop trail near Te Anau.
After cancelling Routeburn (and all the associated transportation bookings) and securing our new booking at Kepler (one night in the hut and one night camping), we hopped in our car and headed out for Te Anau. It was almost a three hour drive from Queenstown to Te Anau, which was another beautiful lakeside town. The sun peeked through the dark clouds, which sprinkled rain drops over the lake, and a rainbow hung across the sky. Across the lake, clouds hung low and drifted northward, revealing vague silhouette of snow capped mountains in the distance. A few sail boats and a sea plane bubbled in the waves of Lake Te Anau.
The town has a bunch of restaurants, two grocery stores, a couple outdoor gear shops and a lot hotels. We picked up food, a gas canister (the guy at the outdoor shop gave us a half-full one for free) and other miscellaneous items for the trek. We spent the rest of the evening exploring the town. I went to bed that evening wishing for the clouds to part by next morning.
Kepler Day 1
I woke up at 7:30 am before my alarm went off. Tricia was still sound asleep, so I drove into town to pick up a couple last minute items from the grocery store and to the DoC office for our hut tickets. At the office, the lady behind the counter stamped my printout reservation (only Milford Track required actual tickets).
Many trekkers (trampers in NZ) take 4 days and three nights to complete the Kepler Track, staying at the Luxmore, Iris Burn, and Moturau huts. We only had three days and two nights available so we decided to extend our third day of walking and exit the track at Rainbow Reach, then take a van to our car at Kepler Trailhead Carpark (instead of walking the last 10 km down a dirt road to fully complete the circuit). This meant that I had to arrange transportation to pick us up at Rainbow Reach before leaving. I called Tracknet, a bus company, and booked an one-way shuttle for NZ$14/person.
As Tricia pulled our car into the Kepler Track Carpark around 11 am, we saw another couple packing large backpacks, getting ready to head out on the trail. We exchanged greetings and made quick friends with them. Chris and Fran were from Auckland, taking a vacation down south. We ended up spending a lot of time picking their brains for New Zealand knowledge, and they generously shared.
The hike started by crossing a bridge over a damn on the lake. Tricia and I were so excited to start the trek that we neglected to read the sign which pointed us to cross the bridge. We followed a river, which drained the lake. The color of the water was stunning but the path soon led us onto a paved road. I pulled out of my GPS and found us going in the opposite direction of Kepler Track.
We turned around, read the sign and crossed the bridge on the second try. The trail started in a temperate rainforest with giant trees, verdant ferns and tortuous vines. Birds sang songs among thick foliage, through which rays of sunlight casted shadows on a well maintained trail. We arrived to Brody Bay around noon. I was pleasantly surprised to find a large water tank storing drinking water. Tricia and I carried 4L of water on this trip, which was always more than we needed, but we didn’t want to take any chances. Brody Bay had a beautiful beach front but the sand flies were vicious. Those tiny little pests bit through my long sleeve shirt a couple times during this trek.
From Brody Bay the trail became steep. The estimated time of climbing between Brody Bay and Luxmore Hut was 4.5 hours, but Tricia and I hustled up the mountain while the weather was good. Before 3 pm, we emerged from the dense forest finding ourselves on the exposed ridges. The clouds were low as if a storm was ready to move in. The world between heaven and earth was so narrow that we were barely squeezing through the crack. In the distance we could still see Lake Te Anau and the town to the northeast; South Fiord and Mt Lyall dominated our view to the north. If I squinted my eyes, I could convince myself that I could see Manapouri, a town bordering the south end of Fiordland National Park.
I don’t know why the Kiwi’s call Luxmore Hut a hut. It’s a large structure built on the mountainside overlooking South Fiord to the north. It had large windows, six long tables, a large cooking area with gas stoves and running hot water. No shower facilities but flush toilets. We were comfortable. We made more friends in the hut, most of whom were domestic vacationers.
By 5 pm, a group of 15 eleven year olds led by three adults arrived to the hut. They were on a field trip. Apparently, another group of twelve year olds were hiking in from the opposite direction. The two groups planned to meet at Iris Burn Hut tomorrow, which explained why we weren’t able to reserve a spot inside Iris Burn Hut and had to settle for a campsite. Their arrival also meant that the peaceful hut all of a sudden became a rowdy playground. But for such a large group of pre-teens, I was impressed by how disciplined and respectful they were.
The night concluded with the hut warden’s presentation on the hut rules, emergency guidelines and current DoC projects. We learned that New Zealand is facing problems with predator species introduced from abroad, including stoats, rats and weasels, that are threatening its native flightless bird species. As a result, traps were set every one hundred yards or so along the trail. We had noticed the traps but until the hut warden’s talk, neither of us had any idea how much the NZ conservation community hates stoats. A lot.
Kepler Day 2
I woke up to the low murmuring of a bunch of eleven year old boys in the bunk beds near mine. The air felt cold and crisp. The sun was not up yet. I was comfortably warm in my 25F graded sleeping bag. The low murmur got louder and laughter erupted among the boys. I turned over and tried to catch a few more minutes of sleep. Finally, someone walked over and told the boys to get out of the sleeping quarters if they can’t stay quiet.
When I woke up again, the sun was already up. Tricia had already packed up most of her belongings in the bunk below me. “I tooks some photos of the sunrise,” she said, “We should get going soon as long as the weather is good. A storm is supposed to move in later today.” From our experience yesterday, we wrongly assumed that we could probably make it to Iris Burn Hut in four hours. The trek today was six hours long.
We packed up, had a bit to eat and got on the trail. When we started off, the weather was perfect. The sky was still blue with a few clouds in the distance, the sun was bright but not too hot. But the wind gradually picked up as we got on the ridge and by the time we arrived to the base of Luxmore peak, the wind was howling.
I was ready to drop down my backpack to hike up Luxmore Peak when I saw a kea– a large, mischievous mountain parrot found only on the South Island in New Zealand– sitting by the trail patiently waiting for a victim of his vandalism. I knew that he’d have my backpack picked to shreds if I left my backpack with him. Tricia and I marched up towards the peak carrying our large packs. The wind continued to blow from south, carrying icy chills up from Antarctica. I had a hard time planting my feet because I was getting blown off balance with each step. I had Tricia taken the rain cover off my pack because it was dragging me like a sail. I tried to put down my pack one more time. And as if on cue, a kea flew by us and landed right next to the trail as if saying, “Go ahead. Try me.” Fortunately it only took us 20 minutes to the top of Luxmore. I was excited to have the panoramic view, but the wind was fierce and Tricia was ready to head down immediately.
After Luxmore peak, we hiked the next hour in what I considered the best part of Kepler Track. We hiked on a highridge with open views on both sides, including a fiord and snow capped mountains in the distance. I was totally in the zone clicking away with my camera and following Tricia’s lead on the trail. As we came down a section of zigzagging turns, one of my hiking poles supporting my entire body weight snapped. I bent down to retrieve a four-inch long piece of my hiking pole, which was stuck standing up in the mudd. It felt like an era had ended that day– these hiking poles had traveled with me around the world for years.
I adjusted the poles so they roughly matched in length, and we marched on. It turned out that the DoC’s hike duration estimation was fairly accurate this day. After a little over 4 and half hours, we dropped back down into the forest where the trail had several dozen zigzagging switchbacks. Finally, by 3 pm, we had arrived to Iris Burn Hut.
On the door of the Iris Burn Hut, a notice printed, “If you are camping, please don’t come inside the hut.” Uh oh, not a friendly tone here. Tricia and I inspected the camping ground which was about five minutes walk from the hut. The sky was dark and rain clouds hung low. It appeared to be another cold and rainy night. After talking with the hut warden, we decided it was worth paying another NZ$200 to stay in the bunks instead of camping that night. It turned out to be a good decision because as soon as we dropped down our bags, raindrops started to trickle and it later turned into a downpour.
Iris Burn Hut has a smaller common area than Luxmore and has three sleeping quarters. We took a bunk bed in the far corner of the largest room, knowing that the rest of the beds would be occupied by the two groups of kids on their field trip. With a smaller common area and a full house of hikers, the stoves stayed busy until late in the evening. We sat around a table and chatted with our new friends. Since it was Halloween, the kids decided to have a impromptu performance after the hut warden’s presentation. A group of boys and a group of girls each had a short skit with bad puns. It was cute.
The lights go out at 10 pm in the huts, and by that time most of the kids, exhausted from two days of hiking, were sound asleep. It
Kepler Track Day 3
The last day of Kepler Track was mostly in the woods. Tracknet has a regular a shuttle that does not require reservations going from Rainbow Reach to Carpark at 1:30, 2;30, and 3:30 pm with options to book additional shuttles later. Since I figured we’d start the day leisurely, I booked a 4:30 pm shuttle, figuring that we could always cancel it if we made the 3:30 one.
We left Iris Burn around 9 am. By noon, we had found Manapouri Lake, which was again enormous. Birds played in and around the lake. Chris had been excited about finding an endangered species called whio, or blue duck. Tricia and I had a glimpse of a gray bird with a white beak flying low over the lake. A blue duck, Perhaps? We made it to Rainbow Reach at almost exactly 3:30 pm. We had waited no more than a minute when a shuttle parked in front of us. The timing was impeccable!
I enjoyed Kepler Track. If we hadn’t encountered two large student groups, it would’ve been a quiet trek. The trail itself was quiet for us since we didn’t encounter any of the kids on the trail. I believe that the DoC’s limited permit system also kept the trampers down to reasonable number per day. The terrain changed drastically from a densely wooded rainforest to an exposed mountain ridge and back to the rainforest again. There were rivers, lakes, waterfalls and caves to explore on the hike. There were many interesting bird species in the regions, including rarely sighted blue ducks and kiwis. With that said, Tricia and I have had a hard time getting over this Great Walk’s price tag– NZ$140/person/night to stay in a large room bunk house.
What do you think? Is this trek worth the money? What were your experiences on this trek?