Kepler Track in Winter

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Kepler Track in Winter

Every four years the Olympics come around and this means just one thing, go somewhere remote, without media, without internet connections; in short, go to New Zealand, go to Te Anau and head out into the mountains.  The difference for this trip was that I was taking my dad on what was his first overseas trip in fifteen years.

We flew out on a Saturday evening, mainly because I’d arranged it so that I could play cricket during the day.  The match was only notable for Marlon dislocating his finger and requiring time at the hospital.  The flight was uneventful and we arrived in Christchurch after midnight.  I’d booked at the YMCA with a bus out of Christchurch at 0745 from the makeshift terminal.  It took most of the day to arrive in Te Anau where I’d booked two single rooms.  There was some rain about on the bus ride into town but the South Island in winter is always a great place to be.  The Lakeside would be our base over the next two weeks.  Dinner involved a brisk walk into town and finding a decent café.

In the morning we shopped at the supermarket and camping store.  We would only be doing the Kepler track so there wasn’t a great need for supplies.  We checked out by 1000hrs and made our way to the DOC Centre.  I bought a six month hut pass which would cover the length of our trip.  I asked about intentions forms to be reminded that such things no longer existed, the service having been outsourced to locally based friends or family.  In our case a PLB would have to suffice.  I knew it wasn’t DOC’s fault, the Christchurch earthquake meant funds were tight.

Ever since we’d arrived I’d been contemplating the weather report that indicated that there would be high winds on the tops for the next two days as well as some rain.  This made the decision about what direction to walk reasonably simple, we would stick to the forests of Lake Manapouri and the Iris Burn for the next two days before doing the day long ridge walk on the third day.  If conditions turned out to be worse than imagined it would be easy enough to retrace our steps.

We were ready to commence the short walk to the control gates which marked the official start of the track.  When we had a brief stop for morning tea an American who’d been fishing scrambled up from the banks for a quick chat.  He had a tale to tell about how he’d turned his back on a career on Wall Street to embark on a great adventure in New Zealand where he was hell bent on fishing every river and lake.  We chatted briefly about what a great place New Zealand was and then we hauled on our packs.  Imagine having done so well out of the economy as an individual that you no longer had to participate?  It’s tremendous to see the wealthy rewarded with lives of endless recreation.

 Waiau RiverIt was a slightly rainy day so despite the benign shelter provided by the forest we still needed to don wet weather gear and pack covers.  Eric had not gone too far when he complained about the pack cutting into his shoulders.  This surprised me as the pack was extremely light.  Even so we swapped packs early in the day after re-distributing the weight.

I never tire of the walk along the Waiau River.  It had a majesty that is hard to define.  Perhaps it is just that its function as the conduit between Lake Te Anau and Lake Manapouri, along with the control gates at the head of Lake Te Anau make it one of the most somnolent rivers in New Zealand.  There is never a hint of white water or irregularity.  It may well be the flattest rivers in New Zealand barely wavering from its general gradient.  Two hours into our walk, an on an early lunch break I scrambled onto the banks of the Waiau to take this photo.  It currently serves as my screen saver at work, in other words it provides great solace when I need it most.

After another two hours walking we arrived at the swingbridge over the Waiau River.  For some walkers undertaking the Kepler Track there is the option of being picked up or dropped off at this juncture.  To do so would be to miss one of the most enjoyable and spiritually rewarding parts of the track.  Nothing compares to the grand walk along the stately Waiau River.

From here it’s no more than an hour and a half to Motarau Hut.  There is a diversion to a scenic section of swampland which a number of duck and geese have colonised as their home.  DOC have created a loopwalk called the Balloon Loop which provides an opportunity to drop the pack and to also appreciate the wetlands.

Further along the well graded track is the turn off to backcountry Shallow Bay Hut.  We’d visited it on our previous trip in 1995, and I’ve still got the photos, so with the rain still specking down it didn’t take much prompting to continue along Shallow Bay and aim for Motorau Hut.  The walk had taken six hours, a respectable first hit out.  The only other occupant was German traveller Svenja Mayer, who’d been at a Yoga Retreat in Golden Bay for the last five months and who was soon to be leaving in order to visit a retreat in India.  Svenja hadn’t done much tramping in New Zealand while she had been here, this was her opportunity to correct this.  Despite being located in the one region for much of the last six months Svenja was extremely fit and Eric was much impressed with her.  We would see much of Svenja over the next week or so.

There wasn’t much to do at the hut other than to prepare firewood and visit the beach.  It remained an overcast and cool winter’s day, so thoughts of swimming were not entertained.  Preparing a decent fire was also beyond us, the wood too damp to burn properly so that after an hour or so of lingering around the stove fire I retired to bed.

We left at roughly the same time as Svenja so that invariably we would often bump into on the track, when either party was having a break or walking speed varied.  The days’ walking was extremely uneventful.  If the promised high winds were occurring on the tops all we were experiencing was low cloud and relatively still conditions.  Two hours after leaving the hut we reached Rocky Point and began a series of switchbacks.  This was the first time that any effort was required while walking and it offered some relief from the general ease.  I explained to Eric that while the switchbacks seemed like an unwelcome feature their presence made the ascent onto the forest plateau much easier than it would have been.  By way of reward we had lunch on a fast flowing section of the Iris Burn shortly after.

From Rocky Point the track occasionally made an interesting descent but all side streams of note were bridged and the “Big Slip” of 1984 offered no impediments to our progress.  It did offer our first view of mountains for the trip and allowed a brief contemplation of the day to come.  Further switchbacks just before the hut took us to the elevation of 497metres.  We wouldn’t be breaking out the oxygen masks just yet.

Because we’d left at a reasonably early time in the day, approximately 0900hrs and with a travel time of six hours we were at the hut by 1500hrs.  This was quite a novelty for me, to have the day over so quickly, but again I was reminded that successful tramping involves the daily completion of achievable distances rather than remaining hut bound because the imagined task is beyond the capabilities of the party.

Having arrived so early in the day we turned our mind to the evening’s fire.  The source of wood is fifty metres into the forest, a beech tree that has been felled by DOC and cut into chunks.  Utilising the heavy axe we’re able to hack into the trunk and scythe off chunks.  The greater task however is making the wood splints small enough that they will create enough heat to burn, their moisture content being extremely high.  We have a pile and all we can hope for is that we’re able to get it burning.  There’s unlikely to be timber in the alpine hut the following night.

While we carry out this task Svenja takes a walk to the waterfall that is twenty minutes away.  When she arrives back we set off on our own walk.  There’s no rush, there’s a few hours yet to dusk.  The bush here is lush, much of the vegetation is covered with moss.  It is the most arresting thing about the landscape.  The waterfall is momentarily diverting but I’ve never been a big fan of the aesthetics of white water.  We take some photos and begin the walk back to the hut  With just the three of us the hut is once again a big, spacious area.  As we prepare evening meals we huddle about the stove fire and attempt to get a fire going.  It proves to be tough going, the saturated wood is hard to burn and little heat is emitted.  A sleeping bag offers much more warmth.

We speculate about the day ahead, how long it will take, what the conditions will be like, both overhead and underfoot.  It is one of the great walks in New Zealand, six hours of ridge walking with a combination of water and mountain views in all directions.  It has the potential to be scenically spectacular during winter.  As we dine on our meal darkness descends on the hut, the forest, whatever wildlife is out there.  It feels distinctly wintry.

It’s Wednesday, the 1st August.  We are up at first light, or rather at first gloom.  To wait for light would be to waste time and we have little to spare.  We begin the first series of switchbacks, wending out way through lush forest, crossing moss-covered boulders and mountain streams.  We have 900 metres to climb which can only be done by methodically eating up the metres.  Eric manages to keep up reasonably well and we are rewarded with our first glimpse of the Kepler Mountains peaking through a small break in the tree-line.  Soon we are ploughing along a snow laden track, this side of the mountain receiving very little sunshine.  A thick mist cloaks the snow laden beech trees.

After several hours we finally reach the lookout at the start of the ridge line leading up to the Hanging Valley Emergency Shelter.  It seems obvious that the thick mist that has been hanging around for most of the morning is being burnt off by an unimpeded sun.  The weather forecast seems to have been accurate and it appears that we have timed our walk perfectly.

We break at the lookout and take a few photos looking down valley to Manapouri Lake.  Svenja has been walking slightly ahead of us and we encounter her at the lookout.  I don’t usually like having another party lead the way through virgin snow but there’s little I can do about it.  Given that I’ve carried snow shoes for two days I decide that this is where I’m going to use them.  After walking for about ten metres I decide that they are completely unnecessary and have to take them off again.

The snow level is simply not deep enough to justify their use.  Instead the series of wood stairs that have been built into the ridge are well define and make for a straightforward climb.  The mist continues to hang around but it is clear that it is dissipating and that by the time we reach the shelter it will be fully burnt off.  It provides motivation to keep climbing steadily.  Svenja’s swiftly moving silhouette on the ridge-line provides the other motivator for keeping up our pace.

The track is in pristine conditions and the views are increasingly magnificent, a blanket of snow on the mountain flanks, with the earthy browns of the fauna doggedly breaking through icy cover.  Eric concentrates on maintaining a methodical pace, giving me plenty of time to take photos and soak in the sights.  There’s nothing more enjoyable than a ridge walk, the rate of ascent is only ever steady and the objective is always within view.  The winter’s snow in New Zealand is always pure in its colour and containing a multitude of textures.  Animal tracks often provide intriguing hints of unseen activity occurring before and after one’s own arrival.

Svenja has arrived at the shelter as we reach the final climb to the 1390 metre peak.  From here we can see the deeply etched line of the track cut into the mountain side as it makes its way towards Mt Luxmore.  Again the track is shaded and if there is any section that I have doubt about it is this.  To step on unyielding ice could result in a significant slide down the mountain flank.  I am yet to rule out the use of snow shoes.

When we arrive at the shelter Svenja is preparing to leave.  She kindly offers to take a few photos of us together before she goes.  I take the opportunity to photograph her several times as she makes her way along the ridge.  From the shelter we are finally able to view the South Fiord of Lake Te Anau which gleams brightly underneath the sun.

The shelter has several water tanks but the taps for these are frozen.  There is a small trickle of water coming of the roof of the shelter but I’m wary about using this as a source of water given that kea use the shelter roof as a resting and shitting place.  I turn my mind to using my billy to boil snow down to drinkable water.  Unfortunately I take my eye off Eric and do not stop him from filling his drink bottle with the water from the roof.  I will come to regret this often over the next week.

Conditions could not be better for undertaking the ridge walk.  It is still, sunny and clear.  The wind, ice or fog that could make progress difficult are all absent.  But it never pays to take these things for granted, far better to get moving and take advantage before a change arrives.

As we make our way along the ridge we encounter an Australian who has come from Italy and has made his way from Mt Luxmore Hut.  His presence provides assurance that the route is open.  We meet him just before we commence the icy underside of the mountain.  Given that Svenja and the Australian have already successfully undertaken the icy section I decide not to break out the snow shoes.  There is enough soft snow to provide a sureness of footing.  Svenja has essentially cut steps for us.

The next section of the walk leaves the ridge on the sunny side of the mountain range and is straightforward walking.  We begin to get a sense of the frostiness of the storms that have swept through over the last couple of day by the ice that clings to all foreign objects, signs, poles and bridges.  It must have been extremely cold for an extended period for the sorts of formations we are seeing to have formed.  Stems of tussock grass have tubes of ice four times their thickness wrapped around them.

It takes about ninety minutes to travel from Hanging Valley Shelter to Forest Burn Shelter.  Eric is much taken with the outhouse set just above a sheer drop to the valley floor; Svenja, less so as she has already commenced on the next ridge sidle.  We take a short break and contemplate how far we’ve come so far.  We are within an hour of Mt Luxmore and from there the track descends quickly to the large hut.  It is mid afternoon and the day is at its warmest.  On a summer’s day one might be tempted to linger but the winter reality is that there are only a few hours of sunlight left and the temperature will start to drop before too long.  Already much of the valley is under shade as the sun continues to dip.

Having made good progress to the sign marking the point at which to start the climb to Mt Luxmore, not too much encouragement is needed to lose the packs for the 30 minute side trip.  The snow on Mt Luxmore Ridge is probably the deepest we’ve encountered on the trip but again Svenja’s footsteps offer easy to follow guidelines.  After a ten minute slog we are on top and looking down onto Te Anau and its lake.  The marker sign is twice its normal weight with its chunky coating of ice.  The visit to the high point brings home that it is a very light season for snow.  The snowline is above 1,300 metres and most of the surrounding countryside is bare.  The snowline is well above Mt Luxmore Hut.  Six years ago the snowline had started 200 metres below the hut and I’d been unable to travel too far beyond it.  It was apparent that this would be the only day when we’d be spending most of our time walking on snow.  This was a slightly disappointing revelation but it did emphasise how lucky we’d been with the weather breaking for our crossing.

Conditions were benign enough that we probably could have descended straight from Mt Luxmore to pick up the track below.  Instead we had to backtrack to collect our packs.  The walk to the hut took just over an hour, with us arriving comfortably before sunset.  Luxmore is like a chain hotel.  It has very little character but it does have an excellent viewing platform in the large kitchen/dining area.  It is an excellent spot to watch the sunset.  The full moon came up over Lake Te Anau and set off the pink hue of the sky.

As the afternoon concluded we were joined by about 4 couples.  Svenja had found a boy who spoke German so that was the last we saw of her for the evening.  The most amusing moment came when Eric started speaking to one of the passing tourists as if he thought it was me.  There is very little firewood at Mt Luxmore Hut and the dining room is cavernous so it doesn’t take much to retreat to the sleeping quarters.  Because the hut caters for so many trampers six parties were easily able to select their own room.

In the morning we were greeted by one of the more reliable regional phenomena, the thick cloud sitting on top of Lake Te Anau.  From above it looks spectacular, a rolling ocean of cloud, almost sculpted in the precision of its swells.  I had been haunted on my first visit when I’d run out of film and had been unable to photograph the incredible play of light and shape.  Subsequent visits have never replicated the conditions of the first, it’s never as dramatic or well defined as it was demonstrating the power of memory to recreate something far more impressive than the actuality.

While the cloud on the lake looks fantastic from above it’s a constant reminder of how miserable it must be to live in the town.  It is constantly swamped in thick, clammy mist.  It can be late morning before the sun finally breaks through, leaving the sunshine hours for Te Anau in the abysmally low category.  I have a friend who constantly reminisces about his one visit to Te Anau, imagining it as a scenic wonderland that would be a great place to live.  This doesn’t accord with the reality that is beamed through the town’s webcam, that it is more often than not overcast, drizzling and cold.  One must have a mind of winter to want to live in Te Anau.

The other attraction near Mt Luxmore Hut is the limestone caves.  These are located ten minutes away from the hut on a well marked trail.  It does take some care to enter the caves as they are steep and slippery.  The images never change, crenulated walls, a slick stream slithering down the centre of the cave and darkness at the edge of one’s torchlight.  Eric was not keen to venture beyond the bottom of the wooden steps so I was on my own.  I went further than I usually do, stooping low to scrunch into the ever-lowering tunnel.  Only when it would be necessary to get on my hands and knees do I retreat back to the light.

The walk back to Te Anau shouldn’t take longer than six hours.  The descent from the hut to Brod Bay is well graded so that the strain on the knees is easily ameliorated by walking at a springing pace.  We enter the forest long before we enter the clouds, following the zig-zag line past limestone bluffs and through the lower bands of towering beech trees.  We reach Brod Bay in about two hours, pausing for a snack before following the shoreline and arriving at Dock Bay three hours after leaving the hut.  Soon after we arrive at a sign outlining that we’ve come full circle; it’s five hours to Moturau Hut and six hours to Luxmore Hut.  More relevantly it’s one hour to Te Anau.  True to form the fog has been burnt off leaving a beautifully sunny day, the lake beaming opaquely under crisp blue skies.

The walk back takes us past the Te Anau Wildlife Centre which has Takahe in its enclosures, a large flightless bird with blue markings.  Back at the Lakeside Park I book us in again to single rooms.  I collect the gear I have in storage and enjoy a warm shower.  We walk into town and have a meal at a log cabin style place with wood fires and the Olympics on the television.  Over a decent meal we consider our options for another walk, deciding to delve even deeper into the park.

1 Response

  1. The clouds look like waves

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