[continued from Kepler Track part 1: Tramping Solo]
I woke up next morning feeling quite lazy. I don’t know if it was the tiredness of the climb from yesterday or the comfort of my sleeping bag. It was freezing cold and the outside temperature was easily 3-4c. I wiped some fog away from the nearest window pane and looked outside to witness a beautiful sun rising through the mountains. I jumped out of my bag and putting on my hoodie I stepped outside. Immediately I felt a sense of calmness descend on me. The cool early morning air mixed with fragrance of dew covered tussocks was blissful. The early morning sun slowly rose in front of me, its rays flitting in and out of the fog surrounding the hut giving the landscape a very pristine look. Time seemed to stop and I felt like I was sitting on the very shoulders of mother nature able to witness the beauty of our planet. Alas, the chill in the air made me shiver and I quickly hurried back inside to pack all my gear. I had a quick brekkie of bananas and energy milk and after noting down my departure time in the hut intention book, damn it was already 8.45am, I left Luxmore Hut probably for the last time ever.
Upwards the track took me towards Mount Luxmore summit and high alpine ridges that traverse between the mountain tops before descending back into the valley eventually stopping at Iris Burn Campsite for the night. Since it was still early morning, most of the mountain side and valleys were obscured by low hanging clouds. It gave me a sense of walking above the sky towards heaven. The track made of loose gravel steadily climbed up frequently crossing small streams of water flowing down from the top. Within 45mins, I reached a point where a side track for Mt. Luxmore summit forked away. By this time the clouds had departed revealing marvelous views of surrounding valleys and mountains. I decided not to scale the summit and instead stayed on the track which now had become quite treacherous with loose rocks that would easily slip down. The track hugged very close to the mountain side with drop dead valley on the other side. I was trying to be as cautious as possible but my enthusiasm got the better of me and I eventually slipped landing hard on my butt, ouch! Fortunately, it was nothing severe and I was immediately back on my feet cussing under my breath for this little misadventure. More caution followed and after passing through some more fragile area on the track, I reached forest burn shelter. Forest burn is an emergency shelter for trampers crossing the ridge when conditions are hazardous during strong winds and extreme weather. Since today’s weather was quiet, my stop at forest burn didn’t warrant more than 5mins and I was off again on the track.
Again, the track ascended gradually and honestly it was becoming tiresome. 30mins past forest burn, I reached the side of a mountain where the track seemed to disappear and I was awe-struck seeing what lay ahead of me. The track suddenly jumped onto a really thin ridge joining the surrounding mountains. The ridge must be hardly 1.5m wide falling on either side into deep valleys. Some people would be frightened to death but walking on this thing stretch of mountain top was one of the best things I have ever experienced. The landscape around was simply beautiful with mountain ranges, valleys, forests and lake Te Anau. I was further helped by the fact that the wind speed was barely 5-10kmph otherwise the ridge would have been very difficult to cross. I walked with pleasure mixed with anxiety because not everyday you find yourself walking between the mountains on such a thin stretch of land.
The ridge kept on going with occasional reprieve at mountains where the track seemed to turn onto another branch of the ridge. After nearly 90mins, I reached hanging valley shelter, another emergency shelter guarding the trampers on this side of the ridge. I decided to break my tramp here for the time being and had some lunch. It had been nearly 4hours since I left Luxmore hut and though the beauty of the landscape on the track had captivated my mind beyond imagination, my body was tired and hungry.
While having lunch, I met this guy from USA who had started tramping in the wee hours of dawn from Brod bay and aimed to reach the end of the track today itself. Bloody hell, Insane! After chatting with him briefly, I decided I had enough of the break, and before my body started to cool down, I was back on track again. The track continued back on the ridge again but this time not for long. It descended down through well-built stair cases still a part of the ridge which now jumped down onto smaller mountains. Eventually the track winded down to the side of the mountain and back into the valley, changing into switchbacks.
Within no time, I was back in the bush line and among trees and birds again. The forest on this side of the track was fresh green and felt totally untouched with occasional cries of local birds. I passed the group of elderly women from Australia, the ones I met yesterday and then spuriously decided to jog down to iris burn. It wasn’t very dangerous since the track was shielded by mountain on one side and huge trees on the other. Yet I exercised caution and jogged down for what seemed like ages, before finally reaching the valley floor. I walked rest of the track feeling tired and reached Iris Burn Hut at 3pm.
Just past the hut the track continued and 100m ahead was the campsite where I was going to camp. I dropped my bag on one of the benches and went inside the hut. I toyed with the idea of taking a bunk inside since there were quite a few available but decided against paying the fare difference (nearly $40) and set up my tent between 2 huge trees taking precaution to stay out of the wind. Iris burn is located quite comfortably inside the valley with a small river and Iris burn waterfalls nearby. But the most annoying aspect of this place are the innumerable sandflies that try to suck the life out of your body. Every open nook and corner of my skin was gladly devoured by them.
Camping next to me was Andreas who came from Berlin. Both of us walked to the nearby river where we relieved our feet by immersing them in ice cold water. We were quite lucky to even spot a rare whio (blue duck). Later around 6pm we went to Iris burn waterfall 15mins away. We settled on the rocks looking at this beast of a waterfall which bounced of 2 rocks before landing in a huge pool. After a while we returned to the campsite for dinner and retired into our tents. We had decided to walk together tomorrow starting around 8am and needed all the rest that we could get tonight. Inside my tent I quickly drifted off to sleep, not bothered by sandflies anymore, which I later learnt was because they suffered from night blindness.
I woke up feeling a bit weary on the last morning. I had hiked nearly 35kms in last 2 days, and still had 22kms more to walk. As soon as I woke up, I started packing away my camping gear and after a very short breakfast, I met with Andreas who was raring to go and off we went. The track now led us through dense forest towards Moturau hut which was located on the shores of Lake Manapouri, 16kms away. We planned to cover that distance in 4hours since most of the track was now straight with few ascents and descents. We walked steadily for most of the way and Andreas set up a good pace for me to match, which helped me a lot. It is quite amazing, how walking alone can be invigorating yet tiresome but walking with someone else that we hardly know makes the experience worth remembering for a lifetime. Both me and Andreas, chatted away about a range of topics from sports to travelling to life and I must say, I was very glad to meet him. Meanwhile the track kept on pushing through iris burn forest full of mixed species until it opened up into a huge area called “The Big Slip”. This area was devoid of trees and served as a remnant of a huge landslide that occurred during heavy rains in 1984.
We arrived at Rocky Point Shelter in 2hrs since we had left Iris Burn Campsite. Rocky point shelter had a work camp for maintenance purposes on the track and few benches under a shelter for weary trampers. After a 5min break which I took to fix some straps on my rucksack, we started tramping again. The track now climbed over a gorge, coming out near the mouth of Iris Burn. Nearing Lake Manapouri, the track made through beech and podocarp forest skirting along the lakeshore. I was getting tired by this time and was starting to lag behind. I asked Andreas to continue without me and that I would meet him at Moturau Hut since he was going to stay there overnight. After slowly trudging along, I finally made it to Moturau hut in 4hrs. Moturau hut was located just a stone’s throw away from Lake Manapouri among a clearing of trees and had a beautiful beach which gave panoramic views of the entire Lake Manapouri and mountain ranges of Fiordland NP.
I met Andreas at the hut and we sat together talking while I had my lunch of nutbars, banana and milk. Bidding goodbye to a friend who was just a stranger hardly 24hours ago, I undertook the last leg. Initially my objective was to walk till Lake Te Anau Control gates. But now I realized that I was depleted on energy and walking all the way would be folly. I decided to walk till Rainbow Reach where regular shuttles took trampers back into Te Anau. This last part was killing, especially when the destination was only an hour away. I met a young German tramper who had taken a year off school to travel and we talked quite a bit till we reached a fork point where he continued towards the car park while I took the easy way out to rainbow reach.
After about 5mins, the track reached a pedestrian suspension bridge crossing over a river like water body joining Lake Manapouri and Lake Te Anau. The other end of the bridge opened into a beautiful campsite for day hikers with shelters and benches. This was Rainbow Reach and I had finally conquered the Kepler Track.
I waited for a ride to pick me up and even tried hitch-hiking back into town. After about 20mins, a shuttle taxi passed by and picked me up dropping me back to YHA for $8. Ideally, I would have liked to shout and scream in exhilaration but today I had none of those. Few hours later, sitting in YHA lounge after a hot and well deserving shower, I stared at the huge map plastered on the wall in front of me. My eyes quickly found Kepler Track and I exhaled with a smile on my face, a smile not just full of happiness and delight but one filled with satisfaction and contentment. It didn’t linger for long though, I quickly scanned the map towards Hollyford valley. There it was, between Fiordland and Mt. Aspiring national parks, described by many as the best great walk among the 9, the one that would lead me back into Queenstown in 3days time, The Routeburn Track!
This Blog is dedicated to Andreas Unterstein without whom I would still be lost somewhere in Iris Burn!