15 April 2014
I was up at 7, same as the previous day – a bit of a surprise given I was rather exhausted after crossing the Routeburn. J and E were still fast asleep, so I took my time washing up and having a bit of a read of the track notes for our upcoming hike.
A lot of consideration and gone into this trek – was it feasible to carry a 12kg toddler over 6 hours up 800m? Would E enjoy it? The weather forecast was crappy, indicating heavy rain – would this spoil the fun? What would we eat? In the end we decided it was something we enjoyed as a family before E came along, and there was no reason as yet to change any of that. It was just one night up in the mountains – not without risks, but those risks could be mitigated and managed.
The first leg of the Kepler Track begins at the Te Anau control gates carpark with a relatively easy 5km trek to Brod Bay, and then an 8km hike with 800m or so of elevation gain up to Luxmore Hut at 1085m.
I had planned for an early start for us – say around 9am, giving us plenty of time to cover the 13 or so km up to Luxmore Hut. This would allow us to have an easy stroll with ample time for breaks, and maybe give E a bit of time to do some walking (He takes ages to get anywhere. The little curious cat likes to poke around at everything along the way). However, right off the bat, I was foiled by my own team. Both Jas and E decided to have a nice big sleep in, and even at 8:30am, the gentle sound of snoring could still be heard in the silence of the motel room. I gave J a bit of a shake and told her essentially to get E up and meet me at the restaurant downstairs for breakfast, which would end at 9:30.
The buffet spread at breakfast contained the usual suspects – eggs, bacon, mushroom, beans etc, and a decent selection of cereals, breads and pastries. The hot food was impeccably cooked (for a buffet), and I sat by the window enjoying the view of the lake, thoroughly savouring a rather greedy three course breakfast (all the courses were the same – everything on the menu!). At the end of my third round of gluttony, I glanced at my watch. 9:45 and still no sign of the rest of the team.
Back up in the room, my fears were confirmed by a still persistent gentle snoring floating up from the cot, this time joined in harmony by a slightly rougher chorus coming from the bed. By the time I managed to get J’s feet off the bed and on to the floor, it was 10am, and we still had a fair few logistical matters to deal with! After all a frantic bit of fussing and a last minute stop by the supermarket, we were ready to roll, and arrived at the carpark at around 12:45pm, nearly four hours after the planned start time.
The walk got off to a good start and we strode through the lakeside forest towards Brod Bay at a fairly decent pace. The rocks and trees were once again coated with saturated green moss, accompanied by a smattering of bright green ferns, and even the odd mushroom right out of Super Mario. Everyone was in relatively good spirits, E was kept busy on my back pointing around in his usual enthusiastic manner with calls of “Leaf!”, “Tree!” and “Fern!”.
We made very good time and covered the 5 or so km to Brod Bay in 1hr 15 min, but I was still wary that the next 5 or so km of the walk would be the crux of that day’s hike. We broke out the sandwiches for lunch, and had a quick toilet stop. As we were munching our way through our simple meal of ham and cheese sandwiches, we were joined at the table by a swarm of the local sandflies, who also decided to have an opportunistic late lunch. The arrival of our uninvited guests prompted us into a frantic scurry to get our gloves and jackets back on, and break out the insect repellent.
Our lunch done, we moved on, with E deciding to have a bit of a walk himself. No complaints from me, as it took an instant 12kg off my shoulders, with the one exception that he can be really SLOW! He made up for that somewhat by being cute as ever in his oversized blue jacket, holding one of my collapsed walking poles and looking just like the little explorer he was.
Our late start meant that we were now left with approximately 4 hours of daylight to finish the 8km climb to Mt Luxmore Hut. 2km/h may seem easy, but when you consider that that 8km included over 800m of climbing, and that we were carrying between us around 25kg of gear, clothes and food, plus a 12kg baby, I was actually starting to think we might take closer to 5 or 6 hours to reach Mt Luxmore – leaving the last 1-2 hrs in darkness in low visibility conditions on an exposed mountain-top. We had packed headlamps, but hypothermia would be the main danger – especially for little E who would be just sitting in the pack and not generating much of his own warmth.
We began our climb in earnest, and after letting E toddle along for about half a km or so, it was back into the carrier for him. By this time, the nice weather had begun to depart, and a light drizzle began filtering its way down through the canopy above. It was just wet enough to be uncomfortable, without making it too cold just yet. This presented us with a dilemma – jackets on to stay dry, and possibly start overheating, or jackets off and get soaked, possibly increasing our chances of getting chills later on.
We eventually opted for jackets on, and took a short break to do so, about an hour into the climb. Progress was slow. The trail climbed upwards relentlessly, to the point where we became grateful even on the low-gradient portions.
We ascended up through the cloud lines, made apparent as a thick mist filled the forest around us, reducing the visibility beyond the trees on either side of the trail. We glanced upwards constantly, but all we saw was a never-ending canopy of trees and no hint whatsoever of how far we had to go or how far we had come.
By this time, the trip had taken it’s toll on E as well, and he started to nod off in the baby carrier, effectively becoming dead weight. To add to my discomfort, his head found its way into the cradle of my neck, forcing my head into a downward slouch. I tried several times to shift his head, but it always found its way back to that annoying resting position. I resigned myself to it, and endured the rest of his 45 minute nap with my chin tucked to my chest, staring at the four feet of ground in front of me.
Two hours into the climb, we came to our first break in the trees – a towering set of cliffs rose above the trail. We had reached Limestone Bluffs, and were now 2/3 of the way to the tree line. The Bluffs were a sight to behold, and certainly one of the more interesting things we had seen in a while, the clouds having obscured most of the other views from the mountainside so far. The landmark was also welcome, as we had to that point no way to track our progress.
The trail skirted under the bluffs for around 200m, leading to a steep flight of steps above the trail. We were pretty exhausted by this point, and opted to take a 15 minute break despite the relentless drizzle. We dropped our packs (E & all) and huddled together on a nearby log. J and I were delighted to have the weight off our feet, and E, having woken up just as we approached the Bluffs, was more than happy to get out of his little confined space in the carrier pack. We stuffed our faces with large quantities of digestive biscuits, and, when the break was up, reluctantly got our packs back on (or got back into his pack, in E’s case) and headed back up the trail.
The track notes said it was approximately 1 hour from Limestone Bluffs to the treeline. The time was 4:45pm, so we pressed on hard. By this point, the pack had begun digging into my hips, and was causing some rather excruciating pain. I compensated by leaning forward a little and tightening the shoulder straps to transfer a bit of the weight higher up onto my shoulders – definitely not a long-term solution, but at that point it was far better than feeling like someone was driving a blunt chisel into my sides with a sledgehammer on each step. By this time, the light was beginning to fade, partly due to the thick canopy and dense mist.
My crossing of the Routeburn the day before also took its toll. My glutes and quads were both somewhat sore, and with the weight of the pack (with E in it), I found my self having to take micro breaks every 10 steps or so. The hour long climb to the treeline felt as long as the entire walk from the control gates to Limestone Bluff. J was faring better than me, but only slightly – she plodded steadily on ahead, and I slowly fell behind until I could barely see her in the mist ahead. Then she called out “We’re at the treeline! 45 minutes to go!”. I experienced joy and dismay simultaneously – quite a confusing thing! I was glad to be out of the trees and back into the light, albeit fading away, but on the other hand, the thought of another 45 minutes of that massive weight on my shoulders made my stomach curl.
The heavy cloud cover reduced visibility to around 50m along the mountain top trail.
Both J and I were sorely disappointed at the weather – we knew that, somewhere beyond the swirling grey veil, was a view that would have made all the pain worth the effort. Instead, our only reward would be instant pasta and a roof over our heads, plus hopefully a bit of shut-eye in our sleeping bags. E on the other hand, didn’t give a hoot. He took a look around, and probably thought “Ah this is boring as,” and then nodded off to sleep again!
Not being able to see through the dense mist was frustrating, as it made the trail feel like a never-ending cruel joke. We trudged on. 45 minutes passed, but still no sign of the hut. Five more minutes – nothing. Another five minutes, and still nothing. Thoughts started playing up in our heads. Had we missed a turn? Should we go back?
As we considered that, I noticed a very oddly shaped shadow that was barely visible in the mist. It looked pretty much like most of the other outcroppings we had passed, but this one had a strangely flat top. It was almost perfectly flat. Could it be the hut? I squinted hard and traced the outline of the shape, and just in the lower right corner, I made out a very faint light. We had made it! We quickened our steps and in no time at all, Luxmore Hut emerged out of the abysmal greyness of the foggy twilight. 6:45pm – we had taken exactly six hours from the control gates, but it felt a whole lot longer than that!
Someone inside saw our approach, and quickly invited us in. We were glad to get our boots off, and pleasantly surprised to find that the main dining hall was heated by a very cosy log fire. There were over 20 other hikers spending the night, and all were in the process of cooking their meals. There were a variety of accents – Aussie, Kiwi, British, American, Japanese, and some European sounding ones which I found unfamiliar. All were equally friendly and helpful though!
E quickly made his presence known, and started pattering around the dining hall like it was his own playroom. He quickly became the main source of entertainment for the night, his every antic bringing giggles from various corners of the room. His best act? Counting the lights on the ceiling – “one, two, three, four, seven, eight, nine, ten!”. “Well, he got off to a good start…” I heard someone quip!
We made a few new friends that night. A group of two Aussies and a Kiwi were on a big hiking holiday. They had just completed the Abel Tasman track a couple of days before this. On completing the Kepler (a four day walk), they would take a day’s break to drive up to Milford, and then attempt to complete both the Routeburn and the Greenstone – Caples tracks together – a walk of around 5-6 days. These were serious hikers who had their act together – they came fully equipped with bacon, eggs, flasks of wine and even cognac! I also learned that, if given the option, they would probably have been camping outside in the freezing rain. The conversation moved from hiking to schools in Melbourne when I discovered that both the Aussies were based here, and had kids of their own.
On the next table, J struck up a conversation with a group of elderly hikers who were regular multi-day trampers from NZ’s north island. The atmosphere was vibrant right up until lights out at 9:30pm. The resident ranger, Pat, gave us a bit of a safety briefing, and noting E, offered to let us bring the padded mattresses down from the bunks to sleep in the dining hall, which had the log heater and would also minimise disturbance, both for E and the other campers. As the solar powered lights flickered off at 9:30pm precisely, we were grateful for having been given this option, as it turned out, E was still wide awake and clamouring for more fun and games! It took a full hour to settle him down, and Jas and I finally drifted off to sleep, thoroughly exhausted.