The Kepler Track
The Kepler Track in Fiordland National Park in Southland is one of New Zealand’s most accessible ‘Great Walks‘. It begins near the small town of Te Anau and boasts beautiful forests, unique wetlands, waterfalls and alpine mountain scenery. It is a 60Km loop track (although we found out the mileage varies depending upon which brochure you read) and you’ll climb to 1400m at the highest point.
DoC classifies it as a ‘moderate/easy’ 3-4 day tramping track. We walked it in two days with one-night camping. Blair had walked The Kepler track a few years ago in an anticlockwise direction, so this time we went clockwise.
We hiked the track in mid summer towards the end of January, and as usual, I was very glad to have packed clothes for all weathers. The alpine section of Kepler is very exposed, and we were absolutely freezing with the cloud and wind chill on the tops. It was the first time I’ve ever needed to wear a puffa jacket hiking. Be warned – even if it isn’t raining the wind makes things bitterly cold up there, so come prepared.
Day 1 – Lake Te Anau control gates to Iris Burn campsite – 31.7Kms
We started the Kepler from the large car park by the lake control gates, a 15-minute drive out of Te Anau towards Lake Manapouri. We left the van at the car park for the duration of the trail. Note that there is strictly no freedom camping at the car park. Someone came around to check all the vehicles while we were there. If you didn’t have transport you can walk or arrange transport from Te Anau. The cheapest option would be to hitch, as it’s a pretty busy road.
Control Gates to Moturau hut
We left the car park at the Te Anau control gates at 7.20 am and headed to our left, along the true right of the Waiau river.
The trail was well graded and wide – we certainly knew we were on a great walk track, it was like someone had swept it for us that morning! The first 25kms of the trail were pretty flat and fast going. It wound through lovely beech forest, with the Waiau river to our left. It glistened in the soft morning light.
The Waiau river connects Lake Te Anau with Lake Manapouri. This part of the trail would make a superb trail run, as you have great lake views at each end of the river.
We passed through areas of peat wetlands, and a short boardwalk section, which offered views of a large bog and swampland. It was nice to stop in the morning sun for a micro-break and a little something to eat.
We reached Moturau hut (40 beds) on the shores of Lake Manapouri at 10.35 am, and left at 10.50 am. The views across the lake couldn’t keep us there any longer, as we were being driven mad by the huge swarms of sandflies!
Moturau Hut to Iris Burn Hut
We continued on through the forest. Over the next 15kms, we found ourselves climbing a little (Iris Burn hut sits at approximately 450m) but it was nothing strenuous.
Shortly after leaving the hut, we saw a couple of ducks on the track ahead of us. We immediately recognised them as the very rare Whio (Blue Duck) – what a treat!! Unfortunately, the photo didn’t really capture their unique pale colouring.
We have been so privileged to see some rare birds this summer – having seen the rare Takahe bird on the Heaphy track just a few weeks ago.
Shortly before the Iris Burn hut, we came out of the forest into an open valley. There was a waterfall tumbling from the rock to our left. It was nice to be out of the confines of the forest, but we could see the mountains we would climb tomorrow! We arrived at Iris Burn hut and campsite around 3 pm.
Accommodation on a Great Walk
Note that because the Kepler track is a ‘Great Walk‘ you have to book your accommodation in advance. You can’t use your regular DoC hut pass on Great Walks. In addition, the huts and camping are more expensive than the average DoC hut/camps, because they are managed by wardens and the facilities are better e.g. they have running water, nice toilets, and gas in the kitchens.
Iris Burn campsite was lovely, but absolutely swarming with sandflies. I think I’ve said it about each of the multi-day hikes this season, but this was by far the worst sandflies I’ve ever seen.
We set up the tent under the trees as advised by the hut warden. Apparently the sandflies aren’t as prevalent in the forest. This turned out not to be entirely true. We had fully set up the tent, sleeping mattresses and emptied out our packs by the time we realised just how bad the sandflies were. Also, it was really stony under the tent, and we weren’t happy with the lumps and bumps. We packed up again and moved to the large expanse of open area – where at least there was the occasional breeze to chase away the sandflies.
Having moved, we went for a walk about 1.5Kms away to visit the waterfalls.
When we returned from our walk I realised that my Thermarest inflatable sleeping pad had deflated. I blew it up again but it immediately deflated. There was definitely a leak from somewhere. I searched for the leak on both sides of the pad and couldn’t find anything – so I assumed the valve must have gone 🙁
We ate dinner then had a reasonably early night to try to escape the terrible sandflies.
Blair offered me his sleeping pad for the night – but I politely declined. It’s every man (or woman) for themselves in the backcountry. My gear broke, so I had to suck it up and deal with it.
I had probably the worst night sleep of my adult life, with only a non-inflated sleeping pad between me and the cold, hard ground. I found my emergency blanket, doubled that up and put it underneath me to see if it would provide a layer against the cold, but it made no difference at all. Despite wearing all my clothes (including my puffa jacket) I couldn’t get warm all night. I couldn’t find a comfortable position either. The ground was so hard it hurt my hips if I tried to lie on my side, and if I was on my back or front, then too much of my body was in contact with the cold ground.
I spent the next 24 hours in an absolutely foul mood.
Day 2 – Iris Burn campsite, Luxmore hut, Te Anau control gates – 28.4Kms
The following morning we got up at around 5.30 am. It was still dark, so the sandflies weren’t swarming yet. We had a coffee and OSM bar breakfast, then left the camp at 6.30 am.
I was still pretty stroppy after a terribly cold, uncomfortable, restless night on the ground. It was good to get stuck into the 900m climb through lots of switchback turns in the forest. Apart from the relentless up, the trail was lovely.
All of a sudden we came out of the forest and found ourselves on a magnificent ridge. Turning right, there was a small peak to climb, offering wonderful views in all directions – including this morning’s ridge walk up to the Hanging Valley emergency shelter and beyond.
Kepler Track – Alpine section
It took us two hours to reach the Hanging Valley shelter from Iris Burn hut, and we arrived at 8.30 am. On the ridge, on the way to the shelter we passed a group of 4 lads, who had obviously stayed in the shelter overnight (which you are not supposed to do).
From the Hanging Valley shelter it was an easy track with a 250m climb to the Forest Burn emergency shelter. It was a very exposed track and the clouds began to roll in. I was glad we’d seen the views before they were obscured by the clouds and mist. As the cloud came over a strong wind got up and it got VERY cold. We donned our jumpers, puffa jackets, waterproof/windproof layer, hat and gloves.
It only took an hour to reach the Forest Burn shelter and we were there by 9.30 am. Even on this mid-summer morning, we were so grateful to get inside the little shelter and out of the wind. It gave our hands the chance to thaw out a little bit. You can only imagine the relief a shelter like this would bring if the weather really deteriorated while you were up on these mountains.
Towards Luxmore hut
From the Forest Burn shelter, the trail continued along the exposed mountain track before dipping down to Luxmore hut (50 beds). On the way down to the hut we heard the load whirr of a helicopter, which swooped around and landed at the hut. A bunch of people got out, no doubt heli-hiking.
We arrived at the hut at 11 am and spent 45 minutes there for our lunch. Given it was late morning we were surprised at the number of people at the hut. We made soup and ate some pb wraps for lunch.
Luxmore hut to Lake Te Anau
We left at 11.45 am. The views from the hut were still great, and the next stretch was completely downhill. It was considerably less steep than this morning’s climb and began over some gently undulating grasslands.
As we descended we came back into the beautiful forest. We passed some interesting overhanging rock features along the way.
We reached Brod Bay campsite on the shores of Lake Te Anau in good time. It is a beautiful campsite, but the same can’t be said for the toilets – they were absolutely terrible! The sandflies were prolific here too, so we didn’t want to hang around. From here the track was flat through lovely forest all the way back to the car park. Our Kepler track experience ended back at the Lake Te Anau control gates at 2.30 pm. It had taken us 8 hours from Iris Burn campsite including breaks.
My verdict on the Kepler Track? It is easily accessible, and the views are good (they would be even better with a dusting of snow on the mountain tops!). But I think I’ve been spoiled over this wonderful summer of hiking, and have seen better views on some of the more remote tracks. If I had to compare it to the Heaphy track which I also walked this season, for me, the Heapy wins hands down. But the Kepler was definitely a nice way to spend a couple of days.
** UPDATE: Upon closer inspection of my sleeping pad (at a later date) I found a neat little tear and fixed it up nicely in about 5 minutes 🙂