Of the thousands of hiking/walking trails in New Zealand, the Kepler Track is one of New Zealand’s Nine Great Walks (those voted to be the most beautiful, challenging, etc.) All of these trails are well marked and maintained by the Department of Conservation (kind of like our DNR). There are hundreds of day-walks but many of the hikes delve deep into the mountains and forests. In order to complete these lengthier hikes, you must (pay to) book a space in the cabins along the trail with the DOC. Most cabins contain bunk beds, running water and toilets, kitchen tables/chairs and gas stoves. This means you must carry your clothing, sleeping bag, food, and cookware all on your back. Though we packed only essentials, lugging all our crap up a mountain seemed damn near impossible for these two novice outdoorsmen. If we had also managed to drag our diary along with us, it might have read something like this:
Day One: The DOC estimates a 6-hour hike to the first cabin. We begin around 11 am. It is a beautiful, sunny day and we are feeling optimistic. The first two hours follow the shore of Lake Te Anau and the land is mostly flat. We are constantly adjusting our enormous backpacks but we quickly learn that trying to make them comfortable is futile.
The ascent to Mount Luxmore begins and doesn’t let up over the next 2-½ hours. We begin shedding layers down to our shorts and t-shirts. Minutes later our shirts are drenched in sweat. We take several short breaks to catch our breath and sip water. We stop for lunch as we near the bush line – where the forest ends and reveals an incredible view of the surrounding mountains and lakes. Once we’ve reached the edge of the forest, the cold wind whips around us and the trail flattens. A half hour later we reach the cabin and cannot wait for dinner. Tonight’s menu: a packet of instant chicken noodle soup and a bag of dehydrated chicken, veggies and rice (astronaut food, anyone?). We crawl into our sleeping bags around 10 pm.
Day Two: We wake up to the sound of other hikers packing up around 7 am (sadly, the earliest either of us has been up since arriving in NZ). Our calves are stiff as we climb out of bed and eat our breakfast of granola bars and fruit. The cabin is busy as hikers hustle to start today’s hike in hopes of beating the rain that should be here by early afternoon. We follow suit and are soon out the door.The first step of today’s hike is uphill. I am immediately sweating under the multiple layers I’ve piled on to combat the wind at Luxmore’s peak. Just ten minutes in we’re stopping to catch our breath and shed layers. The view is ridiculous and gets better and better as we continue hiking. About an hour in we’ve reached the peak and have thrown the first snowballs of the day.
The trail winds around to the other side of Mount Luxmore where it is cold, windy and beginning to drizzle. Layers go back on. Hats and mittens make first appearance. We welcome the small decent leading to a narrow ridge that leads to another mountain peak. We cross several of these ridges throughout the day. The view is spectacular – miles and miles of seemingly untouched nature. If you forget about the handful of other hikers you’ve seen that day it feels as if you’re the only person in the world.
After a stop for lunch, we begin descending. We’ve been looking forward to going downhill all day. Boy, were we in for a surprise. Turns out going downhill is just as difficult, if not more, than going up. After about 45 minutes of steep decline, my legs feel like jelly. And hour later and my joints are aching. I know Cody is sick of hearing me whine, but shouldn’t we be to the next cabin by now?
We finally reach the river valley where the next cabin is located after 6 hours and 45 minutes of hiking. We lie down for a nap before dinner and pass out almost instantly. My muscles are unbelievably sore by dinnertime. Soup and dehydrated beef and rice are not enough to fill us up but we have to make the rest of our food last. My stomach growls as I climb back into my sleeping back and try to count how many calories we burned today.
Day Three: I’m in pain from the moment I open my eyes. Absolutely every inch of me hurts. My collarbones are sore and swollen where my backpack rests. My hands and neck are covered in sandfly bites (perhaps the only bugs worse than mosquitoes, these suckers don’t make any noise to warn you of their presence, they don’t move when you swat at them, and their bites last for weeks). I wince in pain and catch a whiff of myself (yuck) as I make my way to breakfast. Granola and fruit is incredibly unsatisfying to my battered body.
Today’s hike is the longest but it’s also the flattest. Honestly at this point my body can’t even tell the difference. Every step hurts and with my last ounce of optimism I tell myself, “Mind over matter.” I force Cody to talk to me about anything and everything in order to distract me. He does his best but there’s no way of ignoring the physical pain and exhaustion we’re both suffering.
For about the last 3-1/2 hours we’re surround by forest and the scenery is, quite frankly, boring compared to the breathtaking landscape of yesterday’s alpine hike. We’re both pretty miserable but have no other option but to forge on. When we reach the edge of Lake Manapouri, we find a beach, sit in the sun and relax for a few minutes. It is the highlight of our day.
With an hour and a half left of the hike, we tease each other about all the delicious fatty food we will eat when we get back to Te Anau. If anything could make us move faster at that point it was the promise of burgers and beer. After 7 hours and 15 minutes, we arrive at Rainbow Reach. We’ve hiked 32 miles in the 3 days. We take a bus back to our car in a parking lot at the beginning of the track. We drive straight to a bar/restaurant and indulge.
The Kepler Track was an experience like we’ve never had. We walked with limps for the next week. And we’re still scratching at a dozen or so sandfly bites. But all of the pain and suffering was worth it. It always is.