The dawn sky had barely begun to glow a gentle blue as we pulled up at the Te Anau control gates a little before 7am. A quick prayer for good weather and safety, and off went J with the car, leaving me once again at the starting point of the Kepler Track. The goal for today was a little different though. Having been sorely disappointed by the weather two days prior, I had made up my mind to head back up into the mountains, and this time run round the track to the Rainbow Reach carpark, a roughly 53 km journey which would take me past the best that the Kepler Track had to offer.
The weather report once again had not been promising – light rain and 70km/h gale force winds had been forecast for the morning. However, at the time of departure, there was no sign of the sort, other than a dense, low cloud cover that obscured the mountains from below.
The full Kepler Track is a 60km loop around the Jackson peaks that starts and ends at the Te Anau control gates. It is another of NZ’s great walks, featuring the same well maintained trail and facilities as the Routeburn Track which I had completed just five days earlier. The highlight of the trail is the section from the Mt Luxmore treeline to the descent just after Hanging Valley shelter, which runs across the mountaintops, tracking several ridge lines with optional side trips to several mountain summits. My plan of attack was to clear the first 13 or so km to Luxmore Hut as fast as possible – given I had already seen this part of the trip twice earlier in the week, there would be minimal photo taking and I could just focus on the ascent. I would then be able to take my time over the scening mountain tops before making my way back down into the Iris Burn Valley and back towards the Rainbow Reach carpark, skipping the last 9km or so of the trail.
The dawn sky continued to brighten, but the sun was still nowhere to be seen, and as I slipped below the canopy of the forest once again, all was dark. I powered up my trusty headlamp, and settled into a steady jog towards Brod Bay.
The air was crisp and cold, a perfect running temperature, which meant I could step on the gas without tiring too much. Concentration was key – the deep brown trail was littered with dark grey rocks which, even by the light of the 700 lumen Ayups, were near invisible. A sprained ankle this early into the run would be quite the anti-climax.
I kept the steps light and quick, but made a conscious effort to stay well below my usual training tempo. This was sightseeing, not a race! The silhouettes of the trees flew past, and somewhere along the trail, about half an hour in, I took a glance at the sky through the trees. Then sun was still below the horizon, but was beginning dye the clouds a fiery red-orange, sharply contrasting against the pale blue lake and mist covered mountains across lake Te Anau. The sight was breathtaking. The trees in the way meant that it wasn’t really good photo material, so you will just have to take my word for it, and I will just have to cherish that memory for myself. Some good things just can’t be shared!
I arrived at Brod Bay in around 40 minutes – a fair enough pace, and definitely in good time compared to Tuesday. I took a minute to detach the hiking poles from my pack, and it was time to start the 9km 800m climb to Luxmore Hut – the memory of the pain from the hike just three days ago was still very fresh in my mind, but I felt strangely confident and excited, almost yearning to attack the slopes in payback for the five hours of torture we endured before.
My rhythm was steady, my feet and arms in perfect sync as the trail flowed beneath my stride. The forest was a different sort of beautiful – there was no rain this time, and the morning sun brought with it the cheerful symphony of birdsong, with countless tiny feathered creatures flitting across the trail as I made my way past.
One thing I took away from the climb on Tuesday was that trekking poles do make a difference, particularly on climbing. Whilst they did put a noticeable strain on my arms, they relieved the load on my legs slightly, and more importantly, forced me to maintain a good posture during the ascent, rather than slouching over with my hands pushing down on my knees. This time, without the massive pack on my back, they enabled me to keep up a furious pace as I hiked up the hill, breaking through the low cloud line in less than 30 minutes. Openings in the trees this time rewarded me with gorgeous glimpses of the lake, the hillsides iced with the fluffy white clouds.
In what felt like no time at all, I was running along under Limestone Bluffs. The sun shining warmly on my shoulders, spectacular views to the left, and mighty towering limestone cliffs to the right. What was not to love about this place! By now, all the suffering on Tuesday had faded to a distant, foggy memory, and I continued my relentless ascent through the alpine forest.
It wasn’t long before the trail ahead of me punched out through an opening in the trees, revealing alpine grasses rustling in a gentle mountaintop breeze – I had reached the treeline in exactly 2 hours – a far cry from the 5 it had taken previously. On top of that, I still felt strong, and more importantly, excited for what was to come.
The trees parted to reveal the glorious sights which, earlier that week, had been veiled by dense fog. To the south west, Jacksons peaks rose majestically up from a bed of pure white cloud – a distant drizzle partnering with the morning sun to throw a full rainbow over a perfect setting.
To the north east, the rising sun cast its light on the alpine grass covered spurs, the dark silhouette of the Murchison Mountains above South Fiord showing a different type of beauty. And of course, to the east was Lake Te Anau, still a spectacular sight as ever. This was what we missed! I was thrilled to be standing there, but at the same time I felt a tinge of regret – J & E weren’t there to enjoy the moment with me, and stunning as it was, it just wasn’t the same.
Ever the shutterbug, I paused frequently to capture the sweeping views – J would just have to enjoy them on screen. The gradient had levelled out sufficiently to run, so away went the poles, and off I went, merrily skipping across the mountaintop trail, with “The Sound of Music” looping endlessly in my head. Thank goodness we don’t have to pay royalties for that or it would certainly have been an expensive run!
By 9:24am, I rounded the bend revealing Mt Luxmore Hut. I had tackled the arduous 6 hour trek in under 2.5 hours. Definitely a good start to the day! The hut itself looked nothing like what we saw before. The misty shroud was gone, revealing the ascent to Mt Luxmore summit in the background, coated with golden fields of alpine shrubbery and grass.
In the distance I could see a long line of hikers who had just left the hut. No doubt I would get to greet each and every one along the way – for now, I checked in to the hut for a quick toilet break, and signed off in the visitor book. Pat the ranger was round the back of the hut, trying his hand at bird photography with a mobile phone. The local Kea were being quite cooperative! I stopped for a quick chat, and some advice on the crossing ahead, and then it was back on to the trail and upward ho!
The approach to Luxmore Summit was lined with breathtaking views – the trail curving round the mountainside with the summit looming ahead. To the right, a steep valley and views of South Fiord and the opposing mountains. To the rear, the trail snaking back towards Luxmore Hut and Lake Te Anau. I felt really spoiled – like a kid surrounded by widescreen TVs showing all my favourite cartoons.
As the trail neared the summit, the going became rather steep once again, so
out came the poles, and back to my steady rhythmn I went. My fellow climbers, fit and strong as they looked, were all struggling under the weight of their enormous packs, so they were all more than happy for an excuse to have a break, and politely stood aside to allow me through with a cheery wave.
The weather remained remarkable, and although rainclouds could be seen slowly moving in from the northwest, the wind was no more than a calm breeze, and rays of sun lanced through the gaps between clouds. The mountainside dropped away from the trail steeply, opening up jaw dropping views towards the South Fiord and the Murchison mountains. The rocky trail was generally well maintained, but narrow, and I nearly strayed off the path twice as my eyes were almost involuntarily drawn to the gorgeous landscape.
The trail rounded a spur and brought me to the base of the short side trip to Luxmore Summit, marked as optional in the track notes. A little silly if you ask me – optional?? how on earth could one come all this way up hear and not want to spend a mere 10 minutes or so to summit the mountain – particularly on a day as gorgeous as this. The five minute climb to the top was fun, a wee bit of rock scrambling but all in all it wasn’t anything technical. 19 month old E could probably have done it with a bit of crawling thrown in, though given his short attention span it would probably have taken him a couple of hours.
The view from the top was amazing. By now you must realise how highly I rate this trail, as I am beginning to run out of positive adjectives that adequately describe just how much eye candy you get as a reward for your climb – weather permitting of course! The summit gave sweeping views of the surrounding mountains and lake Te Anau, and also a glimpse of the trail ahead of me, snaking round a couple of spurs, then traversing what looked like a stunning ridgeline. A kind hiker helped me out with a couple of photos. Unfortunately his compositional skills weren’t too hot, so none of them ended up being publish worthy, but I still really appreciate the gesture!
I fought the urge to linger for a few more minutes, and hopped back down to the main trail which continued to climb slightly, before rounding a spur and beginning a short and sharp descent down the hillside to Forest Burn emergency shelter – the first of two of the mountaintop shelters in place for the safety of anyone who might be caught in nasty freak weather.
I approached hanging Valley shelter at approximately 10:37am to find a large group of hikers who had decided to take a bit of a morning tea stop. My tummy was rumbling – clearly the three nutella sandwiches I had had for breakfast were long gone, so I stopped for a bit of a chat with the group, and to down a couple of cream cheese sandwiches. The group was quite a mix – an age range of around 20 to 60, with mainly British and American accents – they were clearly having a good time and getting along really well. Quite critical given they would be spending the next three days with each other on the trail, and the next two nights sleeping in the same huts.
I stuffed the sandwiches into my mouth, picked up my pack and moved on. Just after the shelter the trail began to climb moderately, and the continuing views along the way did not disappoint. The characteristic sharp, jagged mountains of the fiord lands had steep, glacier carved valleys, which were mostly filled with a bed of low cloud that contrasted nicely against the rich green bushland and the golden grass coated mountaintops.
I was already 20km in and still feeling very strong. I felt light and comfortable gliding along the trail, hopping over rocks and flying down any descents sans brakes. The trail rounded another mountainside and then crossed over the top of an exposed ridge line. It was at this point that the wind picked up to what felt like a freshening gale. I paused to consider my options – keep the jacket off and potentially face severe wind chill, or put it on and risk being blown off the trail. The slopes down either side of the trail were steep, and it was a long tumble down – something I would really prefer not to have a taste of. I opted to skip the jacket, and set out running over the top of the ridge line.
The ridge line crossing was something in itself – no pictures or words can adequately describe the feelings and emotions produced running along that stretch of track, with stunning views no matter which direction I turned my head in. At this time, a slight drizzle began to accompany the howling wind, but I hardly noticed it, lost in a moment that I really didn’t want to end.
That section of trail went as most good things do – too fast. Before I knew it, I had arrived at Hanging Valley shelter – the start of a long descent down to Iris Burn hut. I stopped for a quick breather and had a short chat with a German man walking in the other direction towards Luxmore Hut, taking a bit of a break and munching on some sort of bar. As most small talk does, we started off with a chat about the weather and how it had been good so far, but that the rain was now starting to move in across the mountain. I felt a tinge of pity for him, as he would be crossing the most spectacular part of the walk in the rain and fog – a disappointment J, E and I had sampled just days ago. We wished each other well, and I started off down towards the Iris Burn valley.
The trail from Hanging Valley shelter descended down the top of a ridge for a short while, and I passed a couple more groups of walkers along the way – they must have started pretty early from Luxmore Hut to get this far, and a good decision that had been, as they had avoided the worst of the mountaintop weather. There was a small peak just at the end of that ridge, and I took a short side trip to check out the views down into the Iris Burn valley. From that point on, the trail descended in earnest, zig zagging steeply down to the valley floor below, and in minutes I was back below the treeline.
Though the views were now partly obscured by foliage, the trail in the alpine bush had its own magical beauty, with the shorter trees at high elevation coated with little whisps of moss and lichen. The trail, while steep, was mostly even and flat, and I was able to let fly and scamper down the trail without any hiccups or stumbles. I also felt some training benefits from the Routeburn crossing and our Luxmore hike earlier in the week – my quads felt fresh and showed little signs of fatigue for the almost hour-long descent.
As I continued to lose altitude, the forest changed noticeably, the short, shrubby lichen covered plants replaced by lush green podocarp forest. The trail ran alongside and crossed several streams – it was winding so much that I couldn’t really tell if they were all part of the same one. The proximity to the water also meant that, as I got closer to the forest floor, my good friends the sandflies were waiting with a very warm welcome. Not wanting to lose any precious blood or spend the rest of the week with a burning itch on all my limbs, I kept a move on , and it wasn’t long before I arrived at Iris Burn hut on the valley floor.
As I approached the hut, I noticed another side trip – a small signboard indicated a 20 minute walk to visit Iris Burn falls. It was just after 1 and I had time to spare, so I thought “why not?” and took the 3.5km return detour. I was not disappointed. Iris Burn Falls was in full flow, and with the now moderately heavy rain splashing down on the surface of its extensive plunge pool, it certainly was a sight to enjoy for a bit. Rather strangely, the sandflies were absent as well, so I sat there in the rain for a while and just watched the water cascading down.
A quick jog back down the way I had come, and I was back at Iris Burn Hut. I kicked off my shoes (no shoes allowed in all the huts) and popped into the main dining room for lunch. The Hut’s only remaining occupants from the night before were just hanging out and killing time, hoping for the now pouring rain to die out a little. I didn’t fancy their chances, but so far, Fiordland weather had been more unpredictable than our four seasons a day Melbourne weather, so hey, anything was possible.
Besides eating, I also took the opportunity to top up my water, and apply liberal amounts of insect repellant in expectation of the possibility of hordes of sandflies waiting ahead of me now that the trail would follow the Iris Burn river along the valley for the next 10-12km. I glanced out the window. The rain looked unrelenting, so I reluctantly put on my jacket and, after popping a quick note in the hut guestbook, trotted off down the trail into the Iris Burn valley.
Barely 200m out of the hut, the trail broke into a steep climb, zig zagging up a near vertical slope as it crossed over a mini spur, and then descended gradually down the other side, making for some good running. I passed three or four hikers heading in the same direction, as well as the two resident rangers from Iris Burn hut who were doing some trail maintenance work. “Morning!” I chirped reflexively as I ran past the first – and then, realising my mistake, “actually, afternoon!” I quipped to the second. They both had a laugh behind me as I disappeared down the trail.
The trail snaked through the forest for a couple of kilometres, and then broke out of the trees into the open, just as the rain began to die down. A quick break to remove my jacket, and I was soon running through the open fields on the valley floor. The sky was still overcast, and the mountains rose on either side, wisps of low hanging clouds drifting on their slopes. On the valley side, a massive scar on the mountain slope stood out like a sore thumb. Aptly titled “Big Slip”, its cause was a swath of trees brought down by bad weather – their shallow roots held to the rock by nothing more than a layer of lichen.
The trail soon left the open terrain and ducked back under the trees, roughly tracing the river meandering through the valley towards Lake Manapouri. It continued for what seemed like an eternity, gentle and undulating, crossing several tributaries to the Iris Burn river. Most of these were dry, save one, but even that one was so shallow I was able to rock hop across and keep my socks dry.
As the undulating trail wound through the greenery, my legs began to fatigue, having covered a good 40km by this point, not forgetting the 2000m or so of elevation gain. I slowed to a steady jog, resolving to maintain my steady progress through the forest. Every now and then, a break in the trees would allow me a clear view of the river running along side – a most welcome treat on what was quickly becoming a rather boring run through the trees. Don’t get me wrong, the forest was beautiful – it was just a case of too much of a good thing.
Finally, after what felt like eons, the trail veered out to the riverside, and in the distance I caught a glimpse of the river mouth, Lake Manapouri and the mountains beyond. With just 2km to go to Motaru Hut, I shut out the pain of fatigue, and picked put the pace.
The approach to Motaru Hut was surprisingly crowded, not with other hikers, but with anglers walking towards the river mouth. One of them cracked a joke, something about “Last one there goes another round!”. I was so focused on getting to the hut that the joke took around 5 minutes to sink in – by which point just wasn’t funny anymore. Minutes later, I arrived at Manapouri Hut, with its beautiful beach along the shores of Lake Manapouri.
A couple of quick photos at the beach, and I went up to the hut to replenish my water – to my surprise, I had nearly finished both bottles, having drunk more over those 14km than the 36km before. I took a seat on the bench outside next to a young lady who was enjoying a book. Certainly dedication to literature – lugging an extra paperback round the Kepler wasn’t something I would do, no matter how good the book! We had a quick chat whilst I rearranged my pack, and I set out to cover the final 6.5km to Rainbow Reach.
With almost 50km in the legs, there was no denying it – I was tired. It had been an amazing run, but I was ready for it to end, and sooner rather than later. I took almost every single slight upward incline as an excuse to walk, but surprisingly had enough quads left to run the downhills at around 4min/k. For the most part though, I plodded steadily through the flats, and burst out onto a long boardwalk that led to the middle of a bog, and stopped there, right smack in the middle of nowhere. A dead end! Confused as I was, I managed to remember to get a photo of the somewhat picturesque lake.
I doubled back to the beginning of the boardwalk and saw that the trail actually turned sharply to the right – I had added another 300 or so metres to my journey, but hey, I got a nice view so not exactly a waste. The trail led eventually to the side of the Waiau River, a rather majestic flow that also led to Lake Manapouri.
Fatigue had definitely set in as I struggled to clear the last 2km of the trip. It seemed like a never-ending plod, and although it was a distance I would normally be able to clear in under 10 minutes without breaking a sweat, this time it was starting to mess with my mind. I heard a very strange call echoing through the woods – almost like that of a dolphin or whale. “What a strange bird”, I thought to myself. My curiosity was soon quenched when I passed a family of five on their evening walk, the kids cooing to each other at the tops of their voices and giggling away at how ridiculous they sounded. I asked for directions to Rainbow Reach, and the dad said I had about 1km to go, and that the turnoff was to the right. He also added (for which I am truly grateful!) that while the turnoff was obvious, it wasn’t signposted.
I summoned all the remaining strength I had left, and took off down the trail, the smell of the finish line and the anticipation of reaching my goal and finally seeing my family at the end of a long day eroded any sensations of tiredness or pain. Ok, yes, the thought of a nice meal and copious amounts of dessert also had something to do with it!
I nearly bolted past the nondescript trail leading down to the river – had I not been told it wasn’t signposted I would have written it off as a wrong turn and would have been on my way to run the remaining 9km to the Te Anau control gates. I trotted down the rather steep path to arrive at the grand swing bridge across the Waiau river. Savouring the stroll over the bridge, and the soul soothing views of the mighty flowing waters leading to distant mountains, I was filled with a sense of achievement and relief, but also a deep gratefulness to God, just for the opportunity to experience and see such a beautiful place. With all the amazing architecture and beautiful buildings we’ve built over the centuries, none of that holds a candle to the untouched landscapes crafted by nature over thousands, even millions of years.
And so my journey was over, my legs exhausted, bottles empty, but my camera full of photos, and my mind full of memories that would last a lifetime. Beautiful scenes that no camera would ever do justice to, wonderful people met along the way and an unforgettable journey – the best souvenirs from our trip that I could ever ask for. And as I reached the other end of the bridge, I also contemplated one last fact – without the loving support of my dear family, especially J, who babysat E the whole day on her own just so I could have my own selfish little adventure, I really wouldn’t have seen what I had seen and done what I had done. Truly I had much to be thankful for!
Total Distance: 53.58km
Total Elapsed Time: 9:57:42
Total Elevation gain: 2130m