The Kelper Track is another one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. It’s a 37.5 mile long loop track that starts/ends in Te Anau. It can be hiked either direction. We set out to do it in two days and booked a night at the hut which sits at about the halfway point. We had planned on doing the hike counterclockwise, so our first day would be the mountainous part and our second day the relatively flat part. However, when we went to pick up our hut tickets the night before, it was strongly recommended that we do the hike the other direction due to the weather. There was a storm that had started and would run through the night and following morning, bringing snow to the mountainous section. Conditions were expected to improve on day two of our hike. Although we didn’t like the idea of doing the harder part of the track on day two, it made sense given the weather. Better to be on the exposed high altitude stretch in more favorable weather conditions. So, we made the decision to do the track in the clockwise direction instead.
The night before, Jay prepared all our food. Here’s a typical list of the food we packed for an overnight hut trip (one night with two long days of hiking):
-Breakfast (x2): Egg, ham & cheese sandwiches
-Lunch (x2): PB & J sandwiches & an apple
-Dinner (x1): A pre-made rice or pasta dish (pre-made since we did not pack pots or pans to cook at the hut); an alternative dinner was cans of tuna fish with crackers & cheese.
-Snack: Bags of GORP trail mix…a special, calorie-packed treat we reserved only for hut trips. We made our own as it was more affordable and tastier than buying the pre-made stuff.
Jay would also pack a can a Coke, which was his substitute for morning coffee. Doesn’t seem like much, but everything was in pretty big quantities and food can get surprisingly heavy when added to your pack. Now, what can really get heavy is carrying drinking water. Thankfully, on our overnights we only had to carry enough water for the first day, as we were able to refill our water bottles at the huts.
We started the track just before 8am. The skies were cloudy, but the rains that poured down all night long had stopped.
The first couple of hours were pretty easy – a relatively flat trail through wetlands and beech forest covered in moss. It provided a nice warm up for our legs.
About two hours into the hike we reached the swing bridge at Rainbow Reach. It’s a beautiful bridge over the Waiau River. From the bridge, we could see mountains peaking out from behind the clouds.
The next section was through more beech forest and again, pretty flat. The miles were going by quickly. We reached the Moturau Hut around 11am and spent a few moments on the beach, enjoying the views of Lake Manapouri.
Next, the trail went along the lake, then started moving inland, following the Iris Burn river through the forest.
About seven hours into the hike, we reached a large slip, which was formed during heavy rain in January 1984. After being in dense forest most of the day, it was breathtaking to walk into the openness of the slip and see a panoramic vista of waterfalls and snow capped mountains in front of us. And, the sun was shining! I was ecstatic that we had made it this far with only having to endure a couple light showers along the way.
After the slip, we re-entered the forest and were followed by a piwakawaka (fantail) bird. At first, I thought it was begging for food, but later learned that these birds are known for following hikers along the trail. What I found funny was how the bird was chirping to get our attention while going from branch to branch following us.
Just before 4pm, we reached the Iris Burn Hut – where we would be staying the night. Getting there had taken us almost exactly 8 hours of hiking, covering 20 miles of trail. We were definitely ready to get off our feet by the time we reached the hut, but overall felt pretty good. I just wondered how the legs, and just as importantly the weather, would hold up tomorrow on the harder part.
That night at the hut, the park ranger was especially talkative. The hut meeting lasted almost an hour. He shared some great stories about his experiences over the years. He also shared insights on the wildlife, the flora, and the crazy weather in this part of the world. The Kepler Track is notorious for high winds. The ranger said there are two things about the wind – the noise factor and the fear factor. For me, the noise of the wind howling outside did bring on some fear about having to hike in it the next day. Especially the section where we would be hiking for miles along the top of a mountain ridge. It was the ranger’s opinion that there’s no such thing as bad weather, there’s only bad preparation.
Toward the end of the talk, the ranger told stories about NZ’s beloved bird, the kiwi. The birds are nocturnal and notoriously shy, so it’s rare to see them. We never did see one during our time in NZ. We did, however, see signs of them (they borough through dead trees) and we did hear them a couple times. They typically call out about a dozen times in a row, and their call sounds like “cree, cree, cree…”. I guess the fact that we did not see a kiwi gives us another excuse to go back to NZ one day.
The following morning, we got up before sunrise to start hiking. It was dark & cold, but we warmed up quickly as we made our way up the steep ascent.
Once on top of the ridge, we were rewarded with alpine views in all directions. It was some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen.
The trail follows the top of the ridge for miles and miles. It’s very exposed and it was windy and cold, but it would have been much worse (stronger winds and snow) if we had done this section a day earlier as originally planned.
The scenery was absolutely breathtaking along the ridge. And as we started to descend toward Lake Te Anau, the views just continued to awe.
That day, it took us 8.5 hours to hike the 17.5 miles from the Iris Burn Hut to the carpark. In total, it took us 16.5 hours over two days to hike the 37.5 miles of the Kepler Track. This Great Walk is referred to as “an adventure above the clouds” – yes it was, indeed!