Tales From The Kepler Track

This last week our team of 12 plus a new guide drove out in our van to the Kepler track, one of New Zealand's Great Walks. We spent the whole night previous logging and distributing gear and planning meals that can be carried for several days without going bad and figuring out which were the simplest to make and lightest to carry meals available in the super market. It basically looks like two packs of oatmeal every morning with dried milk power and then salami and cheese and crackers for lunch and some rotating meals for dinner - usually pasta or veggie chili.


Day 1.

We drive out there and put our packs on - the heaviest they will be all week. I am carrying so many clothes because it's freezing and will be all week and is likely to rain and/or snow. I am also carrying some group food, and a group emergency shelter, emergency communication devices, propane, sleeping bag, blow up pillow, water, whistle, compass, map, knife, first aid, toiletries. We begin in a tiny town called Te Anau right by the Dock Bay and we plan on taking the Kepler track and stay in the Luxmore hut that night.

If you are looking at your map and counting the contour lines that mean we are going from an elevation of 220 meters above sea level to 1050 meters above sea level in about 13.8 Kilometers. SO the math on that is, if we walk an average of 3K/ hour and add 2 minutes for every contour line of elevation that means we think this will take about 6 hours. The first day I really can't tell you about. I don't remember it, it was straight up and I was just trying to chase 18 year old boys up a mountain. My head was down and putting full concentration on putting one foot in front of the other and not look like I was within an inch of my life. For the record we did it in 4.5 hours and I was the last one to the hut.

It was full sunshine and gorgeous. So thankful for a hut, we make dinner and I just pass out. I have never felt my calves on fire like this before. I stretch, eat and sleep.


Day 2.

We wake at 6:45am, pack all of our things, go down to cook breakfast - two packs of oatmeal over boiling water that you collected from a tank outside that is just the rainwater from the roof collected that they tell me is safe to drink. You eat what you know will never be enough food to do what you are doing today and rush to brush your teeth outside and clean up before your group leaves.

Today it might rain we're not sure but it's going to be windy as hell. I am wearing two pairs of pants, a tank top, long sleeve shirt, vest, puffy jacket, water proof jacket, hat, gloves. super boots, and singular trekking pole. I have all the contents of my pack in a another water proof bag and have added a rain cover to the outside of my pack. We walk outside and check the map to coordinate our day.

Distance: 8.7K.

Elevation highest point: 1528m.

Number of mountain summits on the trail: 3.

Estimated time to do track: 2.9 hours for distance 3.4 for elevation.

Today is a very up and down day. We summited Mount Luxmore and two other nameless points that were so so high. This involved climbing razor point ridges of mountain, covered in snow so you don't know if that is actually the ground or not. If there was a mountain tip near by, we summited it. Track or not. It needed to be conquered. We arrive at the Iris Burn hut ready to die but full of pride. This hut does not have water in its rainwater tank. Two of us take all of our pots and water bottles to the river and fill them and begin to boil it for some hot tea and dinner. We made a massage train and everyone else stayed up but I went straight to bed. This hut instead of the usual bunk beds had a ledge with 15 sleeping pads just in a long line. We pile in like a pack of dogs and sleep indeterminable one persons bag from the other.


Day 3

Iris Burn Hut to Moturau Hut. Wake up at 7 am. It is still pouring rain and didn't stop all night. My body is burning in places is has never burned before. Last nights 30 minute stretch and massage has proven mildly effective. Today is going to be almost all downhill, Thank GOD! We have climbed all the mountains and our journey today takes us back towards the car, home, a shower, and a flushing toilet.

Distance: 16K.

Elevation from 550 to 200.

Time: estimated 6 hours.

Forecast, rain and snow. all day. Wonderful. We secure all of our rainproof gear and water proof bags and pray that our dry clothes remain that way. We wear all of our usual layers plus water proof pants and jacket, two pairs of socks because it is likely to leak through and the second pair may keep for feet dry for another 30 minutes and that is so worth it. My pack is now noticeably lighter from the food we have consumed.

We strap up and head out. I am thankful for my ball cap under my hood, I am one of the few with a dry face and I keep my hands in my pockets and prepare for the long haul. This trek is mostly through forest and is kind to be simple and downhill. We will cross 9 river run offs today and likely several others that have developed over the night. Our team turns to riddles to pass the time. Who knew people could know so many riddles.

I will leave you with one:

One has two. Two has three. Three has one. 

It's not a circle. Keep guessing. This kept us active for almost an hour. 

As we walk obstacles arrive, a few bridges have been washed out and even more run offs have developed over our path. This involves jumping or going off trek. I was successful in my first jump, relying on Mohonk rock jumping and long legs I make it across with dry feet. The second one left no hope for anyone. We all took a deep breath and muddled through accepting our fate.

Then not two minutes later there IS a shelter not on our map! what a welcomed haven! We stuff our face while bouncing to keep warm. Hydrate. Drinking water on the trek is always a delicate balance between getting your body what it needs but not enough that you will have to pee- stopping the whole group so you can pee in the rain is not exciting. As we are eating our celebratory salami and cheese under this small shelter, the rain turns to snow. In mere minutes the forest around us turns into Narnia. We heave on our packs and ask anyone with working fingers to clip us in and continue. 3 more hours till the hut. We are all running now, more riddles.

The first person saw the roof of the hut in the distance and sounded the cry and there was rejoicing in all the land. We are all sopping wet and frozen make it to the hut and have to strip all of our wet layers outside. We each hold up a towel for the other so we can strip down entirely and change into dry underwear. Dry underwear. I can't explain. It's just too wonderful. Once in dry layers we all jump into sleeping bags and dog pile on top of each other until we can feel anything again. The rain stops. We eat, have tea, and look at a beautiful smoky lake and tell stories of our suffering that are all folly now. I look around the table at the largest smiles of I have seen in years. Few people demand to know the unanswered riddles and we sleep.

Day 4

Moturau hut back to the car in Te Anau.

Distance 3K.

Forecast: clear skies and almost warm.

Elevation - all 200.

Estimated time: 1 hour. 

Translation: Guide takes opportunity to do several training drills. Today we are going to practice going of track. This involves your map and compass and going off the path and seeing if we can still get to where we need to go. We look at the map and she gives us a destination. We all take a bearing and removed 20 degrees because we are in New Zealand. Then we take off like a race all scattered through the forest following the compasses in our hands. This sounds like fun, except THERE WAS A HUGE STORM YESTERDAY! What was forest is now a bog and we are all Gollum going through the marshes! I am serious. We actually look like we are in that seen from the movie looking at dead people in the water and trying to find any path were we can pretend to keep our feet dry. As we do our first exercise it becomes clear there is no way around a huge marsh to get where we need to go.

There are huge patches of Tussock grass that I am trying to stand on top of to keep above the water, following the compass in my hand. I am hopping from bush to bush hoping to stay high and I see a branch that I think I can climb on to get further and map out a route. I climb up this branch and think I can make it to another bush and then one huge crack and the branch snaps in half and I fall thigh deep into water. I quickly scramble out and make it a few more feet and realize, I don't have my compass anymore. Crap. I walk back to my swimming whole and can't see it anywhere, the water is deep and brown and I begin to fish. After a few plunges I find it!

I continue through the muck carefree and splashing wildly until I come to my destination successfully. The rest of the group start to emerge from the bog also sopping wet and we all ring out our socks. We repeat this exercise a few more times across various terrains until we are all confident we can navigate. We then actually take a barring to the car and start the off trek walk home. I lead. We come to a small cliff and practice tying a rope around a tree and lowering ourselves down and continuing. We are covered in dirt and wet, but relatively warm and full of pride. We all feel like dirty forest mountaineering badasses.

We all sprawl out in the parking lot and consolidate smelly wet things into a dry bag, shed extra layers and remove our shoes which are steaming. We pile into the smelliest crowded van and head into Te Anau. We stop at a coffee shop and somehow they allowed us in. We snack and celebrate our success and regale each other with stories we were all present for but we laugh and remember them anyway. The plan for tonight is to stay in tents that were stored in the van and head into Milford sound in the morning. Weather permitting we are taking a cruise.


Day 5

We wake at 6:30am eat and pack as quickly and as frozen as possible. Jump in the car and drive through 3 avalanche areas into Milford. The tunnel is closed temporarily but wait for an hour hoping it opens up. It does! We drive through the worst of Narnia and then emerge on the others side of the mountain into a sunny warm clear skied paradise. It is green mountains full of waterfalls and we take a boat tour that is gorgeous and elegant. We wear enough layers hoping everyone else doesn't smell us. We finish and drive about 5 hours home. We haul in our gear, return all group gear and log it all in, spray down our boots, and store the food.


What an adventure it has been!

- Austin Rogers

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