Kepler Track – round #2 (24-27 December 2014)

A few years ago, Gerry and I did a similar stint: we ran the Fish River Canyon in Namibia, rested a day, then started walking the route again with my sister and her family the day after. I guess there is something zen-like about doing the same route over and over, especially in such a short timeframe.

After our one-day run of the Kepler Track two days before, we again started walking it with family after one rest day. This time with Johann and Nettie. Admittedly I was quite knackered after the 60km track, but the fall on top of the mountain probably made up for the biggest part of my muscle soreness. The 50 shades of green-yellow-purple egg on my arm was still prominent, very sore and always in the way. I kept on bumping it against everything.

As we were doing the route over four days, it made for a fairly easy stroll through the forest and over the mountain. We started at Rainbow Reach car park, camped at Brod Bay camp at Lake Te Anau, booked the hut at Luxmore on top of the mountain, and camped again at Iris Burn Hut in the forest next to the river before closing the loop back to the car. The distances were roughly 15km, 8km, 15km and 22km, making the last day quite long.

Before we set off, we reported to the iSite in Te Anau to get our hut and tent passes. The weather didn’t look very favourable, and we were expecting rain for the most part of the four days. I also clearly remembered how the sandflies spoilt our trip the previous time two years ago and decided to stock up good with mozzie repellant.

After a late start on the morning of day one, we could still take an easy walk on mainly flat terrain to Brod Bay. As my muscles were still extremely sore, I could only muster a very easy walk, especially on the downhill sections. Luckily the first two days don’t have a whole lot of downhills!

I was surprised to find how much I haven’t noticed during our previous two traverses of the track. Especially taking into account that the last run was only two days before! Lots of things still seemed new and distances between landmarks were often further or closer than I remembered. And some very prominent landmarks were altogether missing from my memory.

The camp was quite busy with other trampers, all celebrating Xmas eve in their own way before turning in. After tea we poured a tipple and watched the sun go down over the lake.

We had an early start on Xmas day as we knew the route follows an uphill stretch all the way to Luxmore Hut. And not being sure what the setup looks like at the hut, we thought it might be nice to arrive earlyish to “book” our beds and spent a relaxing Xmas day in nature, on top of a mountain – my favourite place in the world. Apart from some wind and a few clouds, the weather was still good and we didn’t have to worry about raincoats and splash covers.

Shortly before 11am we were above the tree line and walked the final two-three kilometres to the hut. A few other people had the same idea, but we were still spoilt for choice in terms of our sleeping arrangements. After coffee and Xmas cake we walked the short stretch to explore Luxmore caves. Quite a nice treat to be able to get up close to stalagmites and stalactites. Between the four of us, only Johann’s torch was worth his buck. Our little Petzls have fairly low lumins ratings, not helped at all by half-flat batteries. Scary to think that we were crawling inside a cave in an earthquake prone country!

We spent a relaxing afternoon reading, napping, watching trampers arrive and others passing through, as the crowd grew to a total of 56. The hut ranger did a walk and talk about the plant and animal life, and DOCs attempts to save the local bird life from rodents.

During the night the wind picked up and the noise of the roof had me laying awake for many hours, contemplating the intimacy of sharing a room with a whole bunch of strangers, listening to the grunts, snores and farts of people you’ve never met before while at their most vulnerable. How do you fart in French? Turns out exactly the same as in any other language. While we’re a mix of vastly different nations, we are all still one people.

We left early the next morning to walk the ridges on top of the mountain and be back below the tree line before the predicted gale force winds lashed the mountain. I was blown off my feet a few times by gusts, but we still had it quite good with winds averaging about 35km/h. One guy coming from the front, was trying to find his splash cover that had blown away – bright orange but nowhere to be seen. That night at the camp, Americans were telling us about the 70+km winds they had on the mountain in the late afternoon. Some of those ridges are on very steep sections, and I fear it would totally be possible to be blown off the mountain. Just one uncontrolled sidestep could result in a near vertical slide/fall to the bottom of the valley.

After a 4.5km downhill from hell, especially on very sore muscles, we reached the campsite at Iris Burn. With swarms of sandflies to contend with, we pitched our tents and walked the 20 minutes to the Iris Burn waterfall for some sundowners. It is a lovely little side outing and if you’re not afraid of cold water, a swim in the pool should rock your boat. That’s if the sandflies don’t skin you alive first!

Back at the camp yet another smokey campfire could not deter the pesky sandflies, but we had a great evening chatting to people from all walks of life until the wee hours. The weather was still favourable, but the strong wind coupled with light rain increased during the night.

We had a casual start for our longest day of 22km back to Rainbow Reach car park. Woke up to the lovely sound of rain on the tent and although covered by the trees in the forest, the constant drizzle finally had everything soaking wet making our lunch stop less than ideal. We ended up sitting on the wet tree roots in the path with rain still dripping and making sure nothing escapes being soaked. Even our cheese and salami cracker sarmies turned mushy. We can’t complain, however, as the forecast predicted rain for most days of our hike and we only got some on the last day.

We finally reached the car by 4pm and decided to go for a beer at a local pub, dirty and smelly as four people can be after four days of little to no proper washing up. A great finish to a wonderful walk with family who have become good friends. I will really miss them when they go back to South Africa.

After a third time, I’m still not at all bored with the track. Although a huge chunk of it is in beechwood forests with more or less the same undergrowth, the section above the treeline really is spectacular. We’ve been lucky all three times to have had awesome views while on top of the mountain. Being alpine terrain it can so easily be spoiled with sleet, rain, mist and harsh winds, turning a great outing into an ordeal.

I’m sure we will be back soon. If not for the hike, then for the official Kepler Challenge.

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