Rewalking the Honeymoon Phase
Our Track Story
Last time I walked the Kepler Track I was on a honeymoon. It was not my honeymoon but our friends who asked us to join them. While it might seem strange now, traditionally centuries ago honeymooner’s bridal tours were sometimes with friends to visit those who were not able to attend the wedding. So in part, we were keeping up with that tradition. That trip was a lot of fun with the inevitable quirky moments of joining a newly married couple. I remember the huts being full, the tops being outstanding and the forests of the valley floor being just mystical.
Some 20 years have passed since I last visited the track. Before heading out again on the Kepler Track I wonder whether it’s going to be as good as I remember especially as it was the honeymoon period of my first backcountry walks; or whether my recent expeditions on other NZ Great Walks and Rides would now overshadow its grandeur. I was about to find out!
I arrive in Te Anau in mid-October after a few false starts. The spring trip is later than I would have liked with winter snowfalls coming late to the Kelper Mountains with snowdrifts still metres high. Finally, a warmer weather period arrives and the snow melts which is my invitation to visit the track just outside the hut booking season. I start at the control gates and park up beside Lake Te Anau. I decide to walk the track clockwise, partly because this is the opposite direction from the honeymoon trip (the most popular way) but also by heading up the Iris Burn would gently gain me 300 vertical metres before climbing to the tops the following day.
After entering Fiordland National Park I swing south and head downstream through the beech forest on the fringes of the Waiau River. This section is often skipped by hikers who elect to get a pickup/dropoff at Rainbow Reach. That’s a shame because this stretch of track is beautiful as it follows the clear river offering chances to spot trout on the Yerex, Queen and Rainbow Reaches.
On reaching the suspension bridge at Rainbow Reach the track becomes more trodden. This is where the track leaves the river and begins to head directly to Lake Manapouri and the Iris Burn. The first point of interest I reach is the expanse of a wetland where the beech forest circles a ‘strong bog’. A strong bog you might think is best avoided, but I enter this one and take it all in. I walk out of the dark forest and onto a snaking boardwalk that leads to a viewing platform.
Before me is neither a backcountry long-drop nor a muscular wetland but a pretty mire. These types of wetlands are also known as string bogs, strong mire or strangemoore – the latter sounds more like some fictional villain to me, yet it’s the most extensive wetland pool system in the country. Here the water is low in nutrients because it’s all derived via rainfall. The bog has neither an inlet nor outlet. With the morning sun’s rays warming me up I watch the wildlife about the round lake. It’s a pleasant spot but with time drifting, I record a GPS point to mark our country’s strongest of bogs before I return to the forest and continue along my way.
The next interesting feature is a quick detour to Shallow Bay Hut on the edge of Lake Manapouri. While it’s not officially on the Kepler Track, my sense of discovery urges me on. Here perched above the shallow and sheltered bay is a cute backcountry hut. The hut not only comes with an incredible view up toward the Iris Burn where I am heading but comes with its own swing hanging from a giant beech tree. The main 40 bunk Department of Conservation (DOC) hut is only minutes away on the main track, yet if I were overnighting in the area I would pick this six bunker every time.
The little hut has charm with its idyllic swimming beach, swing and ‘oh the serenity peacefulness. I enter another waypoint for the Great Hikes App – which acts as a sort of trip diary and my reminder to flag this spot for my next mapping trip. Back on the main track, I begin to take photos of the large Moturau Hut – Motu-au translates to ‘rainy lake’ as it’s pretty wet here towards the hydro-electric powerhouse. Some will know the hydroelectric scheme was controversial in its time but few probably know of the scheme’s interesting origins.
While a hydroelectric power scheme at Lake Manapouri that releases water via a tunnel to Doubtful Sound had been envisaged decades earlier, the beginnings occurred in the mid-1950s. Then an NZ geologist Henry Evans was sent to Weipa, Australia to look for oil deposits. What he found was not oil but bauxite, a valuable alumina-containing mineral. He found the world's largest source of this ore and it still remains the largest mine of aluminium ore today. Australia had no affordable power supply to process this newfound resource so ore was to be shipped to Tiwai Point near Bluff where a smelter was built to be powered by a new Lake Manapouri hydroelectric scheme.
To maximise the power station’s output the lake would be raised by 30m. In doing so, the lake would have joined with Lake Te Anau creating NZ’s largest super-lake; capable of generating one gigawatt of electricity … same output as the entire Waikato River hydro-electric scheme of eight dams . That’s almost enough to send a DeLorean back to the future! There was much opposition. It erupted into NZ's largest environmental battle and the 'Save the Manapouri' campaign was born. After a petition that collected signatures from 10 percent of the country’s population the Labour Party pledged to leave the lake level alone, and after a change in government; the campaigners won and the natural lake level remained.
I soon leave the ‘rainy lake’ with its nearby strong bog and unflooded wilderness behind as I head up the Iris Burn feeling the valley walls close around me. It has been a gentle walk so far and before the next hut I cross a large open clearing formed by a gigantic 1984 slip. Here the valley walls were carved sharply by ancient glaciers, the ice flow is no longer here and now the over steepened side walls are weakened. Without the support of the glaciers to hold them up these sheer sides are prone to slipping. The rockslide here devastated nearly half a square kilometre of the forested valley floor.
The track winds its way around the rock debris now covered in mosses and scrubland. As a trail designer and kiwi trail worker, this slip is monumental workers, as it’s the beginning of building entire tracks utilising machines. The Kepler Track was envisaged in 1984. Back then the parks authority wanted a suitable project to celebrate the approaching centenary of national parks in 1988 and to ease pressure on other popular Fiordland tracks.
The new Kepler Track was to be built traditionally by hand, however a mechanical excavator was permitted on this rock-strewn debris field. Once the slip was tracked the excavator continued to move up the valley towards the site of the Iris Burn Hut; the digger use was so successful that it primarily built the entire track. Today it seems inconceivable to build a new multi-day walking track entirely using hand tools. Oh, how times have changed!
Just beyond the slip, the track leads me to the Iris Burn Hut and on arrival, I am equally famished and tired. Coincidentally the only other person at the hut when I arrive is a former DOC colleague of mine who is on a recreational trip. We catch up and stop to visit the impressive waterfall just upstream. Once stationary the sandflies swarm us which brings back memories from the honeymoon trip. Some things don’t change. I sleep well with a half-full hut that’s only half snoring. Tomorrow becomes today and I get up early to walk another long day.
It is cold out and it’s hard to determine whether the heavens are grey from the morning’s dim light or it is foreboding cloud. With the GPS units powered up, I power up the hill just behind the hut. I’m only a few minutes along before I encounter today’s first tramper. This lad trudges downhill and I feel obliged to question him to find out where he came from at this early hour. His was a 4 am start from Luxmore Hut; the overcrowding meant a sleepless night so he elected to walk the alpine section in the dark. What a sad thought; walking for several hours in darkness and missing one of the track highlights.
I climb higher. For a moment it looks like I might not see much either as the clag descends with snow flurries. Yet at the top of the range, the weather clears and I reach the ridgeline shelter. Here there are the most outstanding views over Lake Te Anau’s southern arm. I rest at the shelter after climbing 900 metres and refuel. As I begin to get cold I leave the shelter and work my way along the undulating alpine tops. I’m loving this alpine section, in part for the views but also how prolonged this explorative path takes me as it weaves between the rocky outcrops above the bushline.
After passing another shelter I take the short side track to Mt Luxmore (1,472m) – the highest part of the track. After scrambling up for a few minutes through the snowy patches held in a boulder field I reach the summit. Here the views are a full 360 degrees with the track I have yet to walk far below leading to the next hut with a backdrop of the Lake Te Anau basin. A kea joins me here on the top, perched, preening and peering at every movement I make as I map for the app.
Back on the main track I soon reach Luxmore Hut. By now it's early afternoon and it seems from looking at the boots outside like the hut is already full. I pop inside to the kitchen/lounge area and it seems like everyone has gathered for a meeting. They watch me enter and curiously gazing as I take photos and GPS points for the app. It’s probably a strange sight to see a new arrival’s first actions of taking photos of inside the hut rather than finding a bunk.
I don’t linger long. Next stop is the caves near the hut where I delve into darkness as my GPS units lose signal, and I find myself enriched from the underworld. Back on the surface, I rise to where the main track drops in gradient and enter the forest again. As I descend I pass many a weary tramper climbing to the hut that surely will be overflowing again. Reaching the lake at Brod Bay is a relief for the knees and relief that it’s only a flat and short walk back to the carpark.
On driving home I conclude that on my last Kepler trip I wasn’t on a shared honeymoon high, as this most recent walk is an outstanding journey. This Great Walk deserves its ‘great’ status and is one of the most accessible backcountry loop tracks in the deep south. The track seems so well built and offers hikers easy access into the wilds. It winds its way around waterways of rivers, lakes, and waterfalls before ascending the valley walls to traverse the heavens. For me, the Kepler Track seems to be a happy marriage between the ease of walking and the wilds of the wilderness.