We were in the Fjordland National Park Visitor Centre in Te Anau looking for a good walk to do when we thought we would check the online booking system for the Great Walk huts and campsites. Normally the Milford, Routeburn and Kepler tracks, all three of them in Fjordland National Park, get booked up well in advance – the Milford Track as far as a year out. We found that there were several vacancies for campsites on the Kepler Track starting the next day (13th February). We knew people were cancelling because of the weather forecast, but decided we were hardy Brits, were not about to let a bit of rain put us off, and booked up.
We set off from Rainbow Reach carpark under clear blue skies, crossing the Waiau River and walking through the bush to Lake Manapouri, just in time to see the lake before the rain closed in. By the time we reached Rocky Point shelter, around 13km into our walk, we were drenched, and had seen little to qualify the Kepler Track as a Great Walk. We saw glimpses of the grandeur to come as we followed Iris Burn for a further 9km, but were generally feeling pretty underwhelmed and very wet when we arrived, around 2pm, at Iris Burn campsite. We constructed our tent under the cooking shelter and hunted around for an un-submerged patch of ground to pitch it. During occasional brief respites we were able to see up the valley through our head-nets (the sandflies were out in force), but after a very early dinner we spent most of the evening reading in our tent.
The next morning the rain was lighter. We had a quick breakfast and packed up the tent, all the while trying to scare the quite unflappable keas away from our neighbours’ tents. As we set off the rain stopped and we had good weather to start our climb, around 1000m up to the Hanging Valley Shelter. After around an hour and a half’s upwards slog we broke through the bush line. Snow was still lying on the ground from the previous night, and as we emerged on an exposed ridge, it started again. The surrounding mountains, with their cover of fresh snow and cloudy tops, look mysterious and majestic, but with the wind picking up and the snow getting heavier we did not hang around, and continued along the ridge to the welcome shelter.
From the Hanging Valley Shelter the route continues along a ridge with, we are told, stunning views across the south fjord of Lake Te Anau. We were going in the opposite direction to most, and everyone we met was looking cold and miserable, and had the same question: how much further? The wind was howling by this stage and many had packed for a summer stroll.
On the basis that we could barely see our hands in front of our faces, when we reached the side-trip to the summit of Mount Luxmore we decided to give it a miss and continue down off the tops to the Luxmore Hut. As we dropped out of the clouds we were rewarded with the view of Lake Te Anau, and we sat outside the hut and ate our lunch.
A further half hour down the ridgeline took us back into the bush line, from where it was two hours’ slow descent to the lake, and the Brod Bay campsite. Luckily, as we arrived, the sun came out and we were able to partially dry out our kit and, after a very quick swim, ourselves, in time for our Valentine’s Day dinner.
The final leg of our journey took us from Brod Bay back to Sam, patiently waiting at Rainbow Reach campsite. The forest and river banks were pretty, but not ‘Great Walk’ pretty, and the morning’s walk seemed to go on forever. But at least it wasn’t raining.
The 60km Kepler Track loop was included among the Great Walks to relieve pressure on the massively oversubscribed Routeburn and Milford Tracks. Parts of it were undeniably beautiful, and on a clear day the view from the tops must be stunning; and we cannot complain about the weather, since it caused the drop-outs which allowed us to go! We would, however, recommend to anyone thinking of doing the Kepler Track that they cut out the section between Brod Bay and Rainbow Reach by taking advantage of the water taxis and shuttle buses that run from Te Anau town – you will see enough forest on other sections of the walk, and will be tired after your day on the tops! The section between Iris Burn and Luxmore more than qualifies this as a great walk – the rest is access.