Hiking The Kepler Track: one of New Zealand's Great Walks
The first time I ever stepped onto the Kepler Track was during a trip around New Zealand’s South Island with Women Want Adventure last year. Toward the end of our trip we spent a couple of hours wandering the first section of the track on the shore of Lake Te Anau. I wondered, if I were to keep walking, where would this track lead? A little research and I was enamoured with the view that was just a few hours’ walk from where I’d stood… if I carried on walking I’d reach Luxmore Hut, perched on the mountain top overlooking the lake and the mountain ranges beyond.
Hiking the Kepler Track
I recently returned from another visit to New Zealand — this time to see for myself what was beyond those initial stretches of the Kepler Track I first walked last spring. Despite some wild weather on day two, and a backpack that never quite made it at all — the journey was nothing short of spectacular. This 60km multi-day hike through Fiordland National Park is a dreamscape of mossy green forests, sweeping lake views, golden tussocked mountaintops, epic ridgelines, running rivers, and waterfalls too.
New Zealand Great Walks
New Zealand has designated ten tracks it deems ‘Great Walks’. These are walks that are well-formed and easy to follow, “premier tracks that pass through diverse and spectacular scenery”. Kepler certainly lives up to this promise.
I chose to hike in February for a couple of reasons, including that February is during New Zealand’s Great Walks season (the next season begins 29 October 2019 and runs through to 30 April 2020).
The season goes through spring, summer, and into autumn. This period of the year is the optimal time to do hikes like Kepler. Outside of this time the winter brings challenging conditions and safety hazards. Inside of Great Walks season however the huts are staffed by Department of Conservation (DOC) rangers, there is flush toilets, running water (no showers), and gas on for the stoves in the communal kitchen. You can learn more and book your hike over on the DOC website.
No gear? No worries
A minor mishap involving the airline losing track of my backpack somewhere between Australia and New Zealand meant that despite having been in the country for four days, this hadn’t been sufficient time to be reunited with my pack.
It was late in the afternoon the day before I was due to start Kepler that I found out my pack definitely wouldn’t make it to me in time. I was embarking on a multi-day hike, minus my pack full of gear.
A few hours of panicked list-making and last minute planning and I was sorted (the transformative power of a few pints with a view of Lake Wakatipu… and wifi).
Bev’s Tramping Gear Hire in Te Anau would come to my rescue with a Great Walks Special (“everything you need except boots & food”) ready for pick up en route to the track. I was good to go.
The Kepler Track 3 Day Itinerary
There are many ways to approach the Kepler Track. Some hikers take the leisurely four days, three nights approach, staying at each hut along the track. Others are enthusiastic trail runners who knock it out in less than a day. Many of us are somewhere in between. My hike was over three days and two nights in February.
Day 1: Te Anau DOC office to Luxmore Hut
The first day of my Kepler Track hike the sun was shining and the sky was blue — full-bore summer. A quick stop into the grocery store for food, Bev’s for my gear and then on to my final stop before getting on track: the Department of Conservation on the lakefront in Te Anau to collect my hut passes.
From the DOC office it’s about a 45 minute walk around the lake to the Control Gates where the Kepler Track begins. The first day of Kepler is a fairly decent climb (about 860m of elevation). It starts lakeside winding through a lush green forest with dappled light through the trees, water lapping on the sandy shoreline, and fairytale-like areas of ferns, funghi, and moss on fallen logs.
The track passes a camp ground at Brod Bay before the climb up to Luxmore Hut. When you come out above the tree line, you’re less than an hour from the hut, final destination for day one. I arrived at this spot just as the sun was beginning to dip and the tussocked mountain top was glowing golden in the warm light. My skin was glowing too, though a less attractive shade of sunscreen and sweat slicked pink. The view out across the lake, mountain ranges, and Te Anau is breathtaking, and a worthy reward for the sweaty walk up. I loved this part of the track, being up so high at such a pretty time of day was awesome.
I arrived at Luxmore an hour or so before sunset, enough time to get a bunk, cook up ramen, and meet some fellow hikers before heading out to watch the sun sink behind the mountains and the sky turn pastel pink.
Day 2: Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut
After a picture perfect summer’s day, the weather, in true Fiordland style, switched it up to wet, windy, and wild for day two. This is the day where the track traverses the mountain ridgeline. On a clear day you’ll get views of Lake Te Anau to the Murchison Mountains. On the day I had, I got mountain glimpses as the clouds swept across the sky — but that made the views all the more special. And the gusting wind and rain? Well, that was to keep me moving. No dawdling lest I freeze and blow right off the ridgeline!
But no day of wet weather hiking should be done on an empty stomach, and so before heading off toward the summit of Mt Luxmore and beyond, it was time for porridge and some last moments of warmth inside Luxmore Hut.
Once on track it was another big walking day with some challenging climbs. The rain was intermittent, sometimes heavy, but mostly not so bad, and the gusting wind came and went. The wet weather gear I was wearing made it much easier to deal with (it’s not so bad hiking in the rain so long as you’re still warm and dry under the wet weather layers). Some of the women I met who hiked it in tights were freezing cold and had a hard time enjoying the day (lesson here: take rain pants even if the weather forecast is ☀️).
The clouds swirled across the mountain tops for much of my hike on the second day. At times I was walking into complete white out, only able to see a few metres in front of me. Other times, the rain would slow to a drizzle, and the clouds would clear to reveal the surrounding mountain peaks… (!!)
The rain and wind never let up quite enough to drop pack and get my proper camera out so all of my pictures from this day on the track are from my trooper of an iPhone that held up through the rain remarkably well — constant wipe downs with my buff (and hiding it up the sleeve of my rain jacket) saw it through the downpour along the ridge lines and safely through to the dry warmth of the Iris Burn hut.
Speaking of Iris Burn, coming off the ridgeline, it’s a sharp descent of switchbacks and a change of scenery as you walk alongside a river and through more lush, mossy forest to get to the valley where Iris Burn hut is located. I arrived into Iris Burn in the afternoon and as luck would have it, the sky was beginning to clear. This meant an opportunity to dry off and get warm before enjoying another pretty pink sunset and evening in the hut with fellow hikers swapping stories of our precarious mountain top adventures.
Day 3: Iris Burn Hut to Rainbow Reach
The third and final day on track and the blue sky and sunshine was back. This section of track is almost entirely flat, which is very welcome after a couple of days of steep hiking. I started walking at first light, and walking through the forest with dappled morning light peeking through the trees made for a particularly magical morning.
As I walked across the bridge at Rainbow Reach, the end of my hike, I was sad my walk was ending but super proud for having made it. It was an incredible journey. Now I just need to decide which Great Walk to try next… maybe a bit more Fiordland exploration: Routebourn? Milford?
Kepler Track Gear List
With my own gear hanging out with other lost luggage at Queenstown airport, I hired almost everything from Bev’s in Te Anau. I took with me:
Macpac (~60L), pack-liner, rain cover
Sleeping bag and liner
Rain jacket, over-trousers (very much needed!)
Shirt x 2 (one for hiking, one for hut)
Leggings (for hut)
Neck gaiter (worn as a headscarf mostly)*
Sunscreen, insect repellent*
Toothbrush, toothpaste, lip balm*
Basic first aid kit
Kitchen kit: pot, cup, fork, spoon, torch, tiny sponge
Food: porridge (breakfast), noodles/veggie stew (dinner), snacks including nut bars, chocolate, crackers, hot chocolate, tea bags *
1L Water bottles x 2*
ID and cash cards*
Battery pack to charge phone*
Camera (plus extra batteries and memory cards)*
* my own, not hired
Things I considered but didn’t take: walking poles (I never hike with them but plenty of people do, and there were certainly stretches, particularly descents, where I could understand the appeal).
What I wish I took: extra socks (particularly after the wet second day). With my pack (including my extra socks) off on its own adventure, this was the one item I forgot to buy before leaving Te Anau.
Hot tip: if you find yourself in need of additional clean dry clothing when you get off track at Te Anau (or before you begin), there is a Hospice op-shop in the town centre (nearby the FreshChoice grocery store)… it even has a rack of hiking gear including jackets and thermals.