It’s Saturday morning, April, autumn quietly deepening in the southern latitude. In New Zealand’s high alpine, the wind is swaying the tussock into rolling waves of grass that glint like strands of copper in the sun.
This striking image replays itself at least weekly for Magellan and me, reviving the memory of our day on the Kepler Track. And this weekend seems like a good time to share that experience. Runners have just completed the 2015 ASICS Kepler Challenge, a 60 kilometre marathon—and its sister race, the Luxmore Grunt, which covers the 27.6 kilometres we hiked.
New Zealand has nine “Great Walks,” multi-day “tracks” as they call them. Unlike many tracks that follow Maori or pioneer trails, Kepler, which opened in 1988, was custom planned to showcase the features of Fjordland National Park. And to take pressure off the world-famous Milford Track and the increasingly popular Routeburn. Its name comes from the German Renaissance astronomer, Johannes Kepler, renowned for his work on planetary motion.
We parked Kohanga, our campervan, and started the hike to Mt. Luxmore Hut at Te Anau, the largest lake on the South Island and one of the prettiest with its fjords, mountain ranges, islands and sandy beaches. However, with the mercury barely reaching 6°C, we weren’t too eager to linger in the sand or go for a swim when we reached Brod Bay.
After following the lakeshore, Kepler Track, bronzed with fallen leaves, climbs through hobbit land, a forest of mountain beech draped in moss and crown ferns. Magellan and I were just starting to think, “I’ve had enough of bush walking,” when we met a couple of twenty-something girls. “See, you’re almost at the limestone bluffs,” they pointed out on their detailed map of the trail. Before charging on ahead.
Most everyone we saw on the trail had yet to celebrate a thirtieth birthday. Many were women hiking alone—something we were a bit shocked to see (and pleasantly surprised: you go girls!) so often in New Zealand. Unlike hiking in Western Canada, there are no bears, cougars or wolves to fear in this country. A lot of hikers on Kepler were couples and there were a few groups of fifteen to twenty young people heading up at the end of the day. “I hope they have reservations,” Magellan said, “Luxmore Hut probably doesn’t hold more than 50 people.“ Fit and lithe, a few people were running the trail, perhaps in training for the Luxmore Grunt.
Along the edge of the path, we spotted wooden boxes with wire-meshed entries. We wondered what they were all about and the next day on our trip to Doubtful Sound, we found out: traps for stoats and possums. A huge problem in New Zealand, these pesky vermin have destroyed millions of songbirds. “If you see a possum on the road, drive straight for him and run him over,” was the advice of Cat, the bus driver on our Doubtful Sound Tour, whose every sentence relayed her sharp wit and comic timing. Magellan did his bit: In Queenstown, he bought a navy sweater made from possum wool.
The steep area on Kepler Track around the limestone bluffs offers panoramic mountain views for the eyes and built-in stairs for the feet. After that, an hour’s well-graded climb through the silver-beech forest leads you into the open alpine.
For the big WOW. Spectacular 360° vistas of the south fjord of Te Anau, a deep U-shaped glacial valley and the distant mountain ranges. The trail weaving through knee-high hummocks of burnished tussock—thick and luxuriant and bowing to the wind. An indescribable exhilaration best described by the novelist Denis Johnson: “I’ve been looking for that feeling forever.”
It was almost dark by the time we retraced our steps and arrived back at the Te Anau Control Gates. We opened the door to Kohanga, stored our boots under her bed and motored her toward Possum Lodge Campsite, arriving as the first stars appeared in the night sky.
UPDATE: Predator Free 2050 Ltd has marked an important milestone in the ambitious programme to rid New Zealand of rats, stoats and possums.
Want to trim 10 kilometres off this hike? Book the Cruise Te Anau. They’ll drop you off in the morning at Brod Bay and pick you up in the afternoon.
Here’s info on the Kepler Track. When you’re just day hiking like Magellan and me, you don’t need to book in with the DOC (Department of Conservation).
If you’re interested in running the Luxmore Grunt or the Kepler Challenge or seeing this weekend’s results, have a look.
New Zealand has problems with its 30 million possums and concerns with stoats, a kind of weasel, are even more of an issue on the Kepler Track, where there are five traps per kilometre to try and catch these vermin, predators of many of the nation’s birds.
The Possum Lodge is a good place to camp for its proximity to two major attractions: Doubtful Sound tours and the Kepler Track.
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