18 Hours on the Kepler Track
An account of my first long distance wilderness tramp, which took place in September 2016 in the Fiordland National Park, New Zealand.
The walk begins a day or so before we start. Standing on the eastern shore of Lake Te Anau and looking across to where still water meets a dark green forest which climbs up to disappear into the mists of Fiordland. The anticipation of the track, and the weight of the landscape here makes me excited to begin. It’s a heavy place, the mass of water, wood, rock and sky split neatly into quarters. Quiet and still, yes. But not the calm, rhythmic stillness of a sleeping dog or a cooling cup of tea. It’s a heavy, portentous stillness, a weight suspended by rope that’s barely able to take the strain.
A laminated sign in the hostel tells walkers to let staff know if they are planning to attempt the track, to enquire with the DoC about the avalanche risk, weather forecasts and hut availability on the 60km route. In July 2015 two Canadians left the hostel and set out to walk the track. When they failed to return a search was mounted and their bodies were found at the bottom of a gully. They had been killed in an avalanche.
In the Department of Conservation visitor centre we are told that avalanche risk is low, and there is little snow on the summit of Mount Luxmore or the mountain track known as the South China Wall. Avalanches are, of course possible, but unlikely. Carl and I plan a three day hike to complete the trail, which is a convenient loop from a car park in Te Anau. We rent some kit in town, sleeping bags, a rucksack, gas burner and grab enough food in the form of boil in the bag meals, jellybeans, bananas and energy drinks.
Because we plan a leisurely walk of the track, staying the DoC huts that dot the route, we set off in the late morning, around 11am. The walk to the carpark where the track starts takes us along the lake shore and past the bird conservancy, where we stop to watch a couple of Takahē grazing in their enclosure. Dark blue and green plumage, a thick red beak and stout legs, together with a slow but determined way of moving through the grass, gives these birds a weight and menace that matches them perfectly with the mountains they are from. But they are caged for their own protection. Outside the high fence and chicken wire, stoats, rats and cats, the ground predators that New Zealand birds never evolved to match, watch them from the shadows and lick their lips. We would see many traps set for these invasive predators throughout the route.
We reach the car park and begin the walk. My brother Ollie is with us. He will accompany us along to Lake shore and leave us when we begin our climb up to Luxmore hut, our finishing point for day one.
It’s hot in the woods, and we’re at Lake level, so the sandflies are a constant annoyance. They niggle and harass us, a jostling, rude crowd of them constantly hovering at head height. They say it takes about five thousand bites to develop an immunity to their constant, tickling presence. I feel like I’ve easily hit that number. In any case, the beauty of the woods helps us to forget them. This is old growth woodland. Ancient forest never managed by people, indeed parts of it never visited. Beech and podocarp ferns grow haphazardly and are mottled with the sunlight streaming through the canopy. Trees lie where they fall, blanketed by thick moss. Here and there the natural colours are interrupted by a pink plastic triangle nailed to a tree, indicating a nearby animal trap. The well kept track is obvious here, stray from it for a pace or two and you find yourself tripping over logs and risk turning an ankle in a hollow. Beyond the trees, away to our right, the sunlight reflecting off the lake backlights the scene, airing it out.
We make our way along the edge of the Lake for about 5.5 kilometres before the track reaches Brod Bay. Here there is a small campsite and the track turns away and begins to climb through dense forest up to Mount Luxmore. The further we move from the cooling breeze of the lake the closer and hotter it gets. The sandflies, mercifully, begin the reduce. Carl sets a strong pace and I am determined to match it as best I can. We zig-zag up the track, the closeness of the trees making it impossible to know how much of a climb we have. It seems steep, perhaps a short sharp section, but the sign at the Lake shelter where the track turned into the forest said that the walk to the Luxmore hut will take four hours and is about 8.5km. We are about 45 minutes in. Already I’m sweating through my flannel shirt.
Ollie leaves us, heading back down to the Lake and Te Anau. We are walking with our backs to the lake, but a break in the trees shows us how high we’ve climbed already. The lake lies below, about 3km off. A still pool mirroring the sky. Beyond it the shaped and managed sheep fields of Southland. This could be rural England, an idyllic view of pastoral land in Devon, or Shropshire, I half expect to see the low bulge of the Wrekin peaking through the distant haze. But I remember looking across the lake the previous day from the east shore. This is certainly not England. We are on the edge of one of the few real wilderness places in the world and I’m reminded of this a few minutes later when we pass under a towering rock face which emerges through the trees like the gateway to an ancient kingdom.
A fantail calls nearby. It’s cheek-cheek-cheek call sounding like shoes squeaking on a polished gymnasium floor. I spot the bird, a few metres ahead, clinging to a tree trunk, it’s tail spread wide and pressed flat to the wood, black and white tail feathers displayed and flicking side to side coquettishly. Fantails are unafraid of humans, and are rarely still. The bird flitted ahead of us for a while and bouncing from trunk to branch to rock it would pause, spin, double back on itself. A most erratic of birds, an excited child rushing around a playground. In Maori folklore it is said to have been a messenger of death, or to indicate that death was nearby. I wonder to myself whether the Canadians, heading up this track a year ago, were visited by one.
We climb steadily up, the air cooling and making the woods more pleasant than at lake level. The trees change, taking on a decidedly alpine appearance, and we suddenly emerge at the edge of the tree line. Ahead lies moorland, the heather and tussock, reds and russets, breaking from the brown earth, punctured here and there by piles of grey rock, like ink seeping through paper. We see the summit of Mount Luxmore (1472m) and the Luxmore hut, larger than we expected. It’s taken us 2 hours to get here from the Brod bay, and the sudden realisation that we’ve already hit our target for Day 1 invigorates us. We decide to push on and see if we can make the Iris Burn hut, about 15km away. It’s about 3pm.
Although we’re a little pushed for time, we decide to have a crack at the summit of Mount Luxmore. It’s a relatively small summit, and easily accessible. The Kepler track does not go to the summit, but runs close by, and its a short, 5 minute scramble up a scree slope to reach the top. As with any high place in the South Island of New Zealand, the views are incredible and, for the first time on the walk, I turned my attention away from the Lake and where we had come from, and gazed into the deep and brooding forest of Fiordland.
On our way to the summit of Mount Luxmore we bumped into the DoC ranger, who lived up at the Luxmore hut and whose job it was to check and maintain sections of the trail and speak to walkers about their intentions. His name was Richard and he cut an impressive figure, striding towards us with a hoe in one hand, for he had clearly been scraping one of the many rockfalls which blight the track on its higher sections. He was tall, lean and with the kind of weathered agelessness that comes to people who spend large amounts of their lives outside. His skin was bronzed and heavily cracked and crevassed. It was impossible to tell how old he was. If I’d met him in a supermarket in Te Anau, I would have guessed by his appearance that he was in his mid to late 70s, but his occupation and virility, his steady stride and presence, made me wonder if he was in fact nearer 50.
The ranger quizzed us briefly on our intentions, which were at that time to continue onward from Luxmore, towards the Iris Burn hut, crossing the scree slopes and ridge lines of the alpine section of the track before descending into the hanging valley and reaching the hut around, or just after, dark. The ranger, to his credit, merely commented on the lateness of the hour (it was around 4:30pm) but decided we looked strong and capable enough to carry this out. In any case, there are two emergency shelters on the route which we could have stayed in if we’d needed them.
The alpine section of the Kepler track is a mixture of gazing with awe outwards at the breathtaking beauty of the scenery and staring studiously at the ground in order not to slip and fall in places where the track is narrow and the sides steep. Adopting the correct approach to the track at the correct time was very important and Carl and I seemed to manage this quite well. Talking about the scenery,our progress and whether we might attempt other tracks after this during periods of easy going, and shutting up and concentrating on our immediate steps and there ground a couple of feet in front of us when the danger increased. Throughout the walk we had employed a method of taking a break for about 5 minutes every hour and this was a highly effective way of taking regular breaks to add or remove layers of clothing and take on food and fluid while still maintaining a good pace.
In fact, it was this pace and our subsequent conversation about an annual mountain Marathon which takes place on the Kepler Track and which has a record time of 4:33:37 (held by Martin Dent of Australia) which led to Carl saying, while we were walking the ridge line and approaching end of the Alpine section:
“Mate, feel free to say no, but do you reckon we could do the whole track in one go?”
It was a kind of off hand, casual remark that I could have easily dismissed with laughter, or pessimism. But I found myself instantly turning to him and, grinning with excitement, agreed that we could certainly aim to smash the whole track out in one sitting. The thought of following the pitted and scratched track on into the night, forgetting about time and not stopping until it was done, was a joy. From this point on the walk became less a study in the landscape of Fiordland, and more a study in endurance.
We began our decent into the hanging valley and the Iris Burn hut. The thrill of the challenge had given me a new lease of life, although I was dimly aware of a sharp pain beginning in my right heel, the beginnings of a blister. Once we were off the slightly tricky ridge and, knowing that we would soon be walking in darkness, I began to pay extra attention to my surroundings.
The decent to the Iris Burn hut passes through a hanging valley, a valley which runs perpendicular to a larger, deeper valley. A great trench of trees and rock which is suddenly guillotined, sheared of its moss, wood and rock, and we look out into the great trench of the Iris Burn valley. The track runs along the edge of precipice before dropping steeply down and we walk on the edge of this great space. The gaps in silver beeches give spindly and warped frames of the scene. Through one such frame I spy a great waterfall on the far side of the valley, too far to hear. A silent cascade which dives, spins and eddies when the wind catches it from time to time and splits it so that it dissolves and drifts out towards the east, a grey finger pointing the way.
We cross a tree avalanche path, a rip in the side of the valley, the broken limbs of trees littering its edges, remnants of the sudden shift. I imagine the moment that crushing mass of wood and rock came screaming and sliding down the mountain, twisting and whirling with anger. Unstoppable. The space they leave behind is a shock to us, like finding a full stop half way through a meandering sentence.
We meet the little tributaries of the Iris Burn, their presence announced by the burbling and chattering as we approach them, so we know what to expect when we suddenly reach them and have a welcome taste of movement which was lacking in-between the silent trees. The water rushing over and between our feet and the clouds (darkening now) jostling above.
The light is fading fast when we finally reach the large DoC hut of Iris Burn. We find it to be busy. There are several parties of hikers here, as well a few couples. Finding space in the darkening kitchen we cook our boil in a bag meals and eat by candle light. Slowly, as my body relaxes from what is now about 9 hours of more or less solid walking, I become aware that my feet hurt, my legs ache and I’d quiet enjoy a bit of rest. I’m also aware that we are now about half way around the trail, and have another 10 or so hours of walking ahead. I look at Carl, he is eating his meal. We discuss the route ahead and the equipment we’ll need close to hand for a night hike, but we talk hesitantly, reluctantly. Later, I spoke to Carl about this and we both agreed that if at this point one of us had suggested abandoning the challenge and bedding down for the night, the other would have certainly agreed. I learned out in that dark kitchen, smelling of butane and baked beans that the secret to achieving the challenges that one sets upon oneself is not to give voice to any hardships or discomforts unless absolutely necessary. Saying a thing gives it legitimacy, and if one of us had made any
remarks about fatigue or aches and pains the other would have had to have acknowledged it. Acknowledging the burdens you carry makes it easy for them to pull you down.
I looked around the hut. Many of the people in the kitchen were male and female couples, clearly out on the route together. They looked relaxed, content, discussing the walks they’d made that day and what they planned to do tomorrow. I must admit I also felt pride in the knowledge that while everyone in this hut would be sleeping with full bellies, we would be out in the darkness, pushing on. It was pure vanity, but welcome nonetheless. Carl, who’d done endurance walks like this before, warned me that there would come a time in the next few hours where we’d probably stop talking, probably stop caring about anything other than finishing. Indeed, we’d be sick of the walk, the trees, the darkness. I hoped this time would not come at all, or if it did that it would come right at the end of the tramp. I wanted to appreciate as much of the adventure as possible.
Lacing up our boots and adjusting our head torches out on the decking of the hut. An american woman, heading out to the toilets, notices us;
“You’re not going back out now are you?”
“You’re crazy! Good luck!”
Another small burst of pride in the knowledge that, while what I’m doing is by no means extraordinary compared to the great trials and treks undertaken by countless better adventurers, I’m doing something a little bit special, out here in the New Zealand wilderness.
The light is all but gone, and we leave the Iris Burn and begin our 3/4 hour stint to the Montrau Hut, about 16km away. At first we are worried we’ll loose the track, but the beauty of the Kepler Track is in its ease to follow, as I’ve said before. Any slight deviation from the path brought about by uncertainty and you find yourself stepping and snapping deadwood, or feeling springy moss under your feet instead of solid earth and stone. The forest ushers you back onto the path, like a mother might a wayward child.
We quickly develop a system of identifying potential trip hazards for the person behind, and our amiable chatting is regularly interspersed with “log” “rock” “hole” as our torches pick out potential ankle breakers, knee twisters and shoe soakers. I definitely have something wrong with my right heel now, I can feel a spike of pain if I push my heel into the boot, a sticky resistance as I try to pull it away. I know we still have a long way to go, so I try to block out the pain. Occasionally, out of some strange masochism, I return my mind to it, wiggle my foot around as I walk to test the pain again and see if it’s real. It is.
We walk on, the darkness deepens around us. The trees seem to wake up. They yawn and stretch themselves, slender and uncertain shapes which breach the edges of our halos of torchlight. It’s hard to tell them from their shadows. As night time condensation forms on their leaves, they shake like wet dogs. The sound of this steady dripping is incredible, so loud at first we mistook it for a constant, slow moving rain shower.
But what I notice most, compared to an English wood, is the silence of the fauna. There are no bird calls, no rustlings of nocturnal mammals, no distant noises of humans, of cars and planes. Such things have no place in this landscape, they have no power of retention here. Even when humans do pass through, as we are now, the forest does not remember them beyond the single, 2 foot wide track. They fade in and out of the thousands of individual tableaus that dot the trail, like a trail of ants crawling across a row of Constable paintings. They come and go. The forest forgets them.
Perhaps the forest is waiting for its real residents to return. The things which belong here. Many of the native birds of New Zealand have been wiped out by the stoats at rats introduced by people, and those stoats and rats are kept away here by the trapping and poisoning efforts of the DoC. But their damage has been done. We hear a single Morepork, a New Zealand Owl, calling somewhere out in the trees, the two pitched call that gives the bird its onomatopoeic name a distinctive echo around us. There is a Morepork in the bird sanctuary in Te Anau. A sign on its cage will tell you that she was transferred to this solitary pen because she did not get on with other birds. Although tests have shown that she is not deaf, she does not respond when other, wild Morepork’s call from the nearby trees, preferring to gaze out at the world in a brooding silence. I like this bird. I think we could be friends and I should like to visit her again.
The silent Morepork’s wild cousin is more than happy to vocalise its views on the comings and goings of humans, and the call seems to follow us for some time, heralding our arrival in a great clearing. I was worried that walking about half of the Kepler Track at night would mean we’d miss out on the great experience of the nature around us. But experiencing the track at night provides it own wonders. We were fortunate that the clouds had lifted and it was a clear night. Stepping out into the clearing, we turned off our head torches and marvelled at the night sky.
Above us, a cross section of the galaxy, like looking out of a car window as the scenery rushes by. A galactic star meadow, asteroids bursting out like insects skimming the flower tops. The planets of Mars and Saturn hanging in the sky like hovering Kestrels. The Southern Cross is clear and solid. The Maori name for it is Te Punga, The Anchor. It’s a fantastic thing, to walk unknowingly into a forest clearing and suddenly the Universe, to see the Milky Way smeared across the sky like a cautious brush stroke. I hope everyone gets the chance to see it like this, by accident. To not have planned it, or anticipated it, but to be greeted by it while on another journey. It catches you unaware, literally taking your breath away. You get a sense of your place in things.
Pushing on, through the meadow. The sound of the river away to our left growing louder. We cross a large bog, the track becoming a trail of raised wooden planks. It’s a ghostly place, tendrils of mist rising from the still waters, disturbed only by the ripples of insects on the surface. Below, a tangle of weeds, the water is black. Everywhere I look I can see small clusters of fluorescent green lights, like the constellations above me. Glowworm colonies, each light a deadly beacon enticing to any approaching insect which will become trapped in the sticky threads the worms (a larvae of the fungus Gnat) hang down from their hiding place. They make the place eerie, as though they’re will-o-the-wisps attempting to lure us from the path and into the darkness.
Suddenly a kiwi calls, away to our left. It scares the hell out of me. A series of shrill screams, like a car alarm, ending in a squeak; weeeaaaaaaao-weeeaaaaaao. Once I figure out what it must be I’m thrilled. Seeing a Kiwi is something many people have on their list of things to do in New Zealand. But more or less everyone who wants to see a Kiwi will have to visit a sanctuary. Just hearing a Kiwi calling out in the wild is special, and gives me the sense of hope in the survival of the species that a captive animal can’t produce, because it’s a reminder that these birds are out there, and can survive, albeit precariously. The Kiwi sanctuaries of New Zealand do a fantastic job and I hope that many more hikers will get to hear, and perhaps see, this beautifully odd little bird in its home in the coming years.
Reaching the Montrau hut was the last point on this tramp I can really write about with a fond memory. Brewing a welcome cup of coffee and finishing off what remained of our jellybeans. It was 01:40am and we still had about 15 km to go. This was the beginning of the period of the hike Carl had warned me of, the period of endurance, of a steady withdrawal of perception and a rising in anger, uncertainty and indifference.
Moving back onto the trail, we found we could no longer talk or notice much of what was going on around us. My torchlight became my entire world, like looking down the barrel of a gun at the start of a James Bond movie. The only sound I noticed, or remember noticing was the steady tramp of our boots, the occasional muttered “tree” or “rock”, and the burble of the river, as the track still followed its edge. I just focused on the trail, and tried to ignore the pain in my heel and the squelching noise my foot was making in my boot.
The hours ticked by as we plodded on. We came to a large tree fall which had wiped out perhaps 30m of the track and spent a bit of time clambering around on the branches, trying to find a route through. Every time the track rose up, even by a few feet, it felt like I was climbing up Mount Luxmore again. The track was widening, the trees thinning out and we suddenly spotted a pale orange glow through the trees. It was the lights of Te Anau. But we were still a few kilometres away from the car park and seeing the lights appearing and disappearing, not knowing how close we were or when we would break out of the forest was throughly demoralising. I began to tell myself as we approached a bend in the track that we were at the end, that this must be the last corner. Suddenly I realised we weren’t walking through beech woods anymore, but grass with short conifers dotted around. We were on the edge of the forest and sure enough soon stepped onto the hard concrete of the Kepler car park. The change in the firmness of the ground caused my feet to start cramping.
It was 5am. We slept for an hour in the information point of the carpark, which was probably our only real mistake on the whole challenge because it was freezing and almost impossible to start walking again, and then limped back into town for a morning pie and a hot shower. Once in the shower, I peeled off my bloody sock and inspected the damage on my heel. It was pretty severe. But I had a great time out on the Kepler Track, learned a lot about the beauty of the New Zealand Great Walks and about myself and endurance. I’ll definitely go back to walk the night section of the track in daylight, and I’ll always remember the 18 hours we spent out there, in one of the last great wildernesses of the world.
For information on the Kepler Track supplied by the New Zealand department of Conservation, click here.