Near the bottom of the South Island, nestled at the end of Lake Te Anau, is the stunning but potentially punishing Kepler Track. 3-4 days of breathtaking vistas, fantastic huts and the odd swim in pristine mountain rivers and lakes sounds pretty idyllic and I can see why tourists and residents flock to the area en masse. The track is incredibly well maintained and very achievable for a variety of fitness levels if you give yourself adequate time but in this part of the country the weather can also be absolutely brutal which will be our main memory of the loop for some time to come!
Driving down from Christchurch the day before, we stopped just out of Queenstown for the night before continuing on to Te Anau early the next morning. This is one hell of a long commute by kiwi standards but if you're from a slightly bigger country I'm sure the 7-8 hours will just fly by. I had a weekend free from parenting duties and was teaming up with a long time friend who was temporarily stuck back in the country (thank you Covid) and my brother in law's small group of tramping buddies. We met at a cafe in town for a leisurely breakfast before finishing the drive out to the start of the track. You have a few options to complete the loop which includes an almost 10km section between two possible car parks. Most people start at the Kepler Track Shelter and walk up towards Luxmore Hut as their first day (keep in mind people run this whole loop in one go while you're plugging your way up there!). You can leave a car at the Rainbow Reach Shelter if possible and cut out the 2-3 hour walk between these two spots. Alternatively, shuttle services from Te Anau will come collect you and return you to your accommodation.
We were walking out of season so the huts were going to be first in first served. With this in mind we decided to walk in the opposite direction to Iris Burn Hut the first day and have the option of tenting if the huts were too full. Our next day to Luxmore Hut would give us the choice to keep walking all the way to Brod Bay for the same reason. Two of us were nominated to drop a car back at the Kepler Shelter while the rest of the slower members of the group began the walk into Moturau Hut. By the time we returned and began giving chase, they had a 30 minute head start and were only caught at the hut itself. This first section takes you over a large swing bridge from the car park, before heading straight into beautiful native bush. Just before Moturau Hut, you'll emerge out onto a wetland area with large boardwalks directing you towards Shallow Bay. A fork in the track will take you to Shallow Bay Hut which is a short detour away at the mouth of the Waiau River or on to Moturau itself.
Moturau is a large 40 bunk hut right on the shore of Lake Manapouri which means it's full of charm and full of sandflies. We stopped to regroup here and have a snack before continuing the long but mostly flat meander up towards Iris Burn Hut. Although this is easy terrain, 22km is a long first day when you haven't eaten any of your food or drank any of the beers yet. We were 6.5hrs including a few stops along the way for what was a fairly fit and experienced group. Although Iris Burn wasn't completely full, a few of us opted to tent at the almost deserted tent site a short walk from the hut. You'll need serviced hut tickets for these locations in the off season and a booking for each bed in season. It was around dinner time that I realised there had been two distinctly different trains of thought when it came to packing between the males and females in the group. One half had gone for lightweight, minimalist cuisine that looked as though it had been dredged up from the bottom depths of the pantry. Whereas the others had planned 3 course cooked meals for each night of the trip and were debating the best way to cook a pizza in a billy.
Once the beer supply had been diminished on the first night, I quietly offloaded some of our excess rations into the other packs to make the climb up to Hanging Valley Shelter a little more equitable. After an interesting night where I'm fairly confident there was some untoward behaviour taking place in the bunk across from us, we woke to ferocious winds ripping mercilessly through the trees around the hut and a not inconsiderable amount of rain. I'll continue on in most sorts of weather if I'm confident my gear is up to the task and I have back up options in case of emergency but this was getting a little borderline. I had never been up on the ridge before so at this point I didn't know if we would be encountering any steep drop offs which would in turn make the high winds much more dangerous. We had some breakfast and discussed our options as we could always head back the way we had come and no one in the group was interested in putting ourselves in real danger.
With the tents as a back up should we get stuck on the ridge for some reason, and full waterproof gear, we decided it was worth walking up to the ridge below Hanging Shelter and reassessing when we got there. I have to recommend that if you're a beginner or haven't spent a great deal of time in seriously bad weather, the best decision would have been to turn back at this point as cold wind and rain are the perfect combination for hypothermia. The walk up from this side is quite steep and most groups who had come down it the day before had commented to us that it was extremely difficult. I'd have to preface that it's difficult for a great walk but essentially still a really nice track that happens to be a massive climb. The only thing that will cause you issues here is if you're carrying too much weight in your pack. Drink all the beers the night before.
After following the switchbacks up to point 1167 we sat in the howling gale and had another impromptu meeting. The ridge was actually nice and wide with no steep drop offs that we could see so the worst case scenario of being blown off your feet was winding up in a tussock slightly off the track. It wasn't ideal but the risk was low so we decided we'd make a go of it. We paired up to help with the not ending up in tussocks thing and worked our way up to the shelter in between the stronger gusts of wind. It was actually really hard work just moving and by the last 200m we ended up dropping off the track and picking our way along the slope just below the track to stay vertical. We finally reached the first shelter and piled inside for a cuppa and a break. Being inside a tiny building on the side of a cliff while it's being buffeted by gale force winds is a little unnerving but we were seriously considering just stopping there for the night. That was of course until about 20 other trampers coming from the opposite direction came charging in to escape the weather 10 minutes later.
We had a quick chat with a couple of them and ascertained that the remainder of the trip to Luxmore was achievable if we could stay warm. Not wanting to sit around any longer we grabbed our gear and headed back out into it for a few hours of the most interesting conditions I think I've ever walked in. It was important to check in every 15 minutes to make sure no one was getting cold but for the most part we just had to put our heads down and try not to get knocked off our feet too many times. By the time we reached the Forest Burn shelter, the conditions hadn't improved even a little but we were comfortable with how fast we were moving and knew we'd be alright to get to the hut in one piece. It was one last push around the summit of Mt Luxmore and then we were dropping down to the hut and finally out of the weather.
Luxmore Hut is a huge 54 bunk complex with two bunk rooms and one main living/kitchen area. The hut wardens here were fantastic and after initially being a little surprised to see us emerge out of the rain, they gave us the grand tour and had us settled in for the afternoon. The flushing toilets were a massive novelty for me and the fact that I didn't have to go outside to pee in the middle of the night was enough to cement this as one of my favourite huts of all time. After getting out of all of our wet gear we set about eating everything we still had in our packs which was pleasingly still quite a lot. We opted for the other bunk room to the large group of Scouts who were ensconced in the building when we arrived and I had one of those amazing sleeps that follows a mentally challenging day.
The following day started with a quick side trip to the cave about 5 minutes walk from the hut. I'm not much of a spelunker so I waited for the other adventurers at the mouth and contemplated how desperate I would have to be to actually take shelter in one of those things. Very, just for the record. The walk down to Brod Bay Shelter is again on exceptionally well groomed paths with convenient staircases anyplace where the gradient becomes unfavourable. The two designated vehicle movers were once again sent ahead from here and we arrived back at Kepler Shelter exactly 3hrs after leaving Luxmore. The rest of the group had just emerged from the track when we returned with both cars in tow a little while later. I'm sure that last 10km of track is still very nice but mentally I can't fathom walking past a perfectly good carpark after three days in the bush when I'm that close to procuring a decent flat white.
The drive to Wanaka was broken up with the obligatory stop at the Cadrona Hotel for some liquid refreshments and chips which were pretty well deserved on this expedition I think. 10 out of 10 for adventure but will have to go back to experience the actual views one day.
Day 1 Rainbow Reach to Iris Burn Hut: 6.5hrs
Day 2 Iris Burn Hut to Luxmore Hut: about 6-7 hours but could be much faster in good weather
Day 3 Luxmore Hut to Kepler Shelter: 3hrs
Lessons learnt: The Kepler is a fickle mistress, don't be fooled by the Great Walk label!
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