Ever since I started trekking few years ago, it had been my dream to tramp alone. To walk in the woods on my own and embrace nature. But I guess till now I lacked the courage to do so. I always wondered how will I do it? What if I get lost or worse get myself hurt with no one to help me out? I guess that fear comes to most of us naturally and all it takes is a bit of willpower to step outside our boundaries and expand our horizons.
Kepler track was tailor made just for this kind of stuff . I had slowly been convincing myself to get out there on my own and test myself. Kepler track is one of the 9 great walks managed by department of conservation(DOC), NZ. It is a 60km loop track nestled in the Fiordland national park traversing mountain ranges above Lake Te Anau and Lake Manapouri. As one the great walks with impressive landscapes and jaw dropping views, a lot of trampers choose to walk this track during the high summer season from December to February. DOC therefore has made it compulsory to buy tickets for the track which might allow one to stay in a hut or campsite.
With tickets booked in advance, I reached lakeside village of Te Anau a day before my start and gathered resources for the next three days that I was to spend in wilderness. I woke up early next day, ate a healthy breakfast and finished packing my travel sack. I bid goodbye to a lovely Australian couple Laurie and Tom whom I had met last night, dropped my excess luggage with the hostel (YHA Te Anau) and made my way to DOC visitor centre to collect track tickets. DOC visitor centre was at the southern end of the town which is the only way out towards Queenstown and Dunedin. I made a brief halt at the centre to collect my tickets and track guide. A whiteboard in the centre had a weather forecast for coming days and much to my delight, it said clear and sunny!
I had planned to walk entire 60kms loop and back to te anau which added extra 12kms over the span of next 3 days, something I was going to regret! From DOC visitor centre a rough path set out towards Kepler control gates which was the official start point for the great walk. This path led through Te Anau wildlife centre which was home to local bird species like Takahe and Kaka. Past the wildlife centre, the path was sandwiched between SH95 heading to Manapouri and Lake Te anau for some distance before skirting off along the shores of Lake Te Anau towards Control Gates. After an hour since I left DOC, I reached Lake Te Anau Control gates which are marked as official start point for the Kepler Track. These control gates regulate the flow of water between Lake Te Anau and Lake Manapouri. They also had a small shelter with benches and huge informative boards describing the track conditions, hazards and native flora and fauna. I stopped here for a brief moment just taking in the feeling that I had anticipated for last few months. I had expected myself to be nervous and fidgety but on the contrary I felt nothing but determined. This was it, I was on the Kepler Track, alone!
For the convenience of trampers, Kepler track was divided into 5 different parts with their individual walk timings. The track could we walked either ways since it is a loop and has 3 huts and 2 campgrounds to stay overnight. I had decided to walk the track over 3 days heading to brod bay and luxmore hut and finishing it via rainbow reach.
Starting at Control gates, my destination for the day was Luxmore hut. It was a 13.8kms walk which when combined with my walk from Te Anau was nearly 20kms. The moment I left control gates, the track dived straight into the forests which was dominated my huge mountain and red beech trees. The track was fairly straight and well made with occasional ups and downs. The morning sun was just getting higher and the air around the trees was quite pleasant and refreshing. Along the way I met quite a few trampers, most of whom were finishing the track. A silent nod of acknowledgement or an occasional “Hey” came from either side as a ritual. There is something about a fellow tramper, they somehow make me feel comfortable and let me know that we are all one family. Soon I reached an opening where the trees became sparse and were replaced by ferns, mainly hard tree ferns and crown ferns. They dominated the forest all around occasionally interrupted by trees. Within an hour’s time I was past Cross Coal Creek bridge and as the track kissed the shore of Lake Te Anau again,I reached Brod Bay.
Brod Bay has a campsite, one of the two on the track and also serves as a start point on the track for those who wish to arrive here by a watertaxi from Te Anau. I took a 5min break to quickly stuff down a banana and a nutbar. Annoyingly, the campsite was filled with sandflies, whose only task in life was to sting and suck blood. And even after covering most of my body except for my face, they somehow managed to get into those unmentionable parts, giving me a run for life. I got back to the track immediately and continued from where I had left. Luxmore Hut was hardly 8kms away but the most challenging the part was that the track now ascended steadily up to limestone bluffs passing through thick dense forest. It was a tiring climb and nearly broke my back. I had to stop on multiple occasions to catch my breath. At times I even had to dive into my reserve food for nut bars to keep me going. See, the thing is when you are climbing up on a track, keep your head down and admire the view around you and keep yourself going. The more you look up trying to search for a break in the climb, the harder the walk.
After approximately 80mins of walking, I reached Limestone Bluffs. These were huge cliffs or bluffs of limestone naturally carved into the mountain side. The track around them is made of wooden bridges with huge boulders to sit and rest on. At the bluffs, I met this group of women, most of them past their 60 just finishing their lunch. They offered me their resting spots which I gladly took. There were little streams of water trickling down the bluffs and an unusual chill could be felt around the limestone rocks. Within a minute of sitting down, my skin suddenly felt very cold and I had a shiver run down my body. It was probably the dampness of the rocks and the lack of wind along with loss of heat from my body due to intense climbing, but I decided to be wise and put my hoodie back on. My watch showed me half past noon, and if my calculations were anything to go by, I was very close to the bush line and could reach luxmore hut by 2pm. It was a tantalizing thought, and so hurriedly I ate some more nutbars and an apple and filled myself up with more water before being back on track again.
The track now courted very treacherously around the bluffs occasionally going around trees jutting out of the bluffs. But to the credit of DOC, they had done a good job of maintaining the sturdiness of the wooden bridges and I smiled knowing our money was being used wisely. The track soon climbed up a series of staircases and opened up on top of the limestone bluffs back into the forest. The climb became less difficult now and I soon caught up with the bunch of elderly women that I had briefly met at the limestone bluffs. I started talking to one of them and discovered that these women were all healthcare workers from Woollogong, Australia. It felt good to meet fellow health workers and talk about something common. It somehow made walking easier. Within no time we reached the bush line, where the forest abruptly came to a halt and opened into huge sub-alpine zone of the mountains which were filled with tussocks. Till now, all I could see on the track was trees and ferns and local bird species, but the moment I stepped above the bush lie it felt like the secret had been revealed and my eyes opened up to a stunning view of Fiordland national park.
The panoramic views of the Te Anau basin along with surrounding Takitimu Mountains and Snowdon and Earl Mountains was enthralling. I immediately had my cellphone out clicking pictures. At this point, I met 3 girls, whom I had met at my Dunedin hostel few days ago. Though their names now are faded from my memory, I remember them being from Germany, Belgium and Norway each. I chatted with them on the way and found out they were climbing this part of Kepler track just as a day hike and were going to return the same way, unbelievable! While they engrossed themselves in clicking pictures, I kept on walking knowing I was going to stay overnight at luxmore hut and could always return for more pictures. I did stop occasionally to enjoy the views and I was always met with a sort of self-contentment, for what I saw with my eyes is something pictures can never describe.
After approximately an hour above the bush line, I turned around a corner and came to a sudden halt in disbelief. Luxmore Hut stood there or rather hung from the edge of a mountain. It is till date the most stunning accommodation I have ever seen in my life. It looked more like an industrial workshop with dark grey walls and huge windows, but the very location of the hut was unbelievably stunning. I overcame my surprise and walked into the hut with glee!
The hut was divided into 2 floors, the lower one has a common room with cooking stoves and tables while the upper floor has two dorms full of bunk beds and toilets. The hut also had a small sundeck and a separate room for Hut Warden. I went upstairs to reserve my bunk bed and set my backpack down. After arranging everything, I came back down again to bid goodbye to those 3 girls I had met and lounged around the sundeck lazily watching a cheeky Kea trying to open a hut window. The day was bright with light breeze and the views from the sundeck over lake Te Anau were amazing.
I returned to the hut after a while and ate a little bit before settling down for a quick nap. Slowly the hut filled up with trampers most of whom were staying overnight. The hut warden had put out a notice for nature walk at 5pm and enthusiastically I joined the walk wherein the warden explained local flora and fauna and how DOC tried to maintain the national park and how we can contribute towards it.
Later we headed in for dinner and I cooked some veggies with rice and also boiled couple of potatoes for my lunch next day. Over dinner I found out there were couple more doctors in the hut, a fresh med grad from Bern, Switzerland and a German Pediatrician. I talked to them for a while before settling myself on a table for dinner. After dinner, the Hut warden collected our tickets and gave us necessary weather and track information.
It was nearly 8pm and the sun had started to sink behind the mountains. Dusk came in rather quickly giving the clear sky a beautiful appearance. I sat in the common room admiring the beautiful views and changing colors of the landscape with each dimming ray of light. I felt fortunate to be staying on the hut and seeing this beautiful dance that dusk played on the landscape. Slowly night wore on and the hut became cold and chilly I was tired and there were 2 more days of tramp ahead of me. I snuggled into my sleeping bag and soon fell asleep, my heart content with happiness!
To be continued…