We woke, grabbed food and coffee, and were off before sunrise, driving through the farmlands of Arrowtown toward our destination in Te Anau. The Kepler Track begins just outside of town, loops through dramatic and changing environments from lush fern covered forest to gusty exposed ridge lines. Sixty kilometers and over 1200 meters of elevation gain deliver you right where you began on this four day loop. What it lacks in productivity, however, it more than compensates for with stunning views, pleasant accommodation, and friendly camaraderie.
Day 1 looked to be a real slog on paper. Due to reservation limitations, we were forced to march the 30 kilometers and 1100 meters of elevation gain (and an equal amount of elevation loss) that most (sane) parties tackle in two days. Despite the statistics, by 2 PM it was not our tired legs that demanded our attention, but the epic ridge line and surrounding mountains that had been the setting of our afternoon. The weather report for the day called for gale force winds and rain showers in the afternoon. The rain never precipitated and the wind, though strong enough to give a rugged impression, never reached dangerous speeds.
En route we visited the Luxmore Hut, the name we noted sounds like a royal luxury hotel. Its picturesque location in a saddle overlooking Lake Te Anau and plush facilities (flush toilets cleaned daily, guided nature walks, spacious bunk room with large comfy mattresses, etc) preserved the preconception. The warden was on the trail doing maintenance work, and in typical Kiwi fashion, immediately turned and engaged us in conversation. His genuine interest and enthusiasm for our trip was very welcome, and impressive given that he encounters a steady stream numbering upwards of eighty hikers each day asking the same questions.
The following day featured amazing river-side hiking through a steep rocky canyon. The views were somewhat less brilliant than day 1 but our first experience staying in a hut that night was fantastic. We immediately started chatting with a group of Aussies on a whirlwind ten day tour of New Zealand. It was great to talk to such an excited group while standing around a fire crackling on a sandy beach on the shores of Lake Manapouri. When the rain began, we just walked back up to the incredible hut, made coffee and cocoa and chatted on the spacious benches.
We ate our final bits of food with a full two hours of hiking left to reach our Honda Fit on Day 3. We coped by describing the meals that we would eat when we made it out. The Aussie guys had told us that a pie shop in town was touted as the best in the country, so that was the obvious choice. V said that later that night she would bake an apple pie with the baking apples we had previously harvested and froze. A few minutes went by in silence before V stopped and quickly checked her watch. Being in the middle of nowhere, and having a maximum of one appointment per week anyway, it struck me as an odd thing to do. That is until she turned around and blew my mind by announcing that it was March 14th, Pi Day. We both marveled at the delicious coincidence and hiked on. The scenery of the day was mossy forest covered in ferns, reminiscent of the first half day of the track. Ferns covered the ground and gave the impression that we were in Jurassic Park. The important difference being that there aren’t any dangerous creatures whatsoever in New Zealand.
The three pies we ate at Miles Better Pies in Te Anau were such an amazing start to the usual post-backpacking rituals. Our hunger was quickly replaced by a content, sleepy state that made us glad the drive home was only a couple hours. It has been a week since we finished the track, and we have already met up with our new Aussie friends to bring them a big pot of curry just a couple hours after they finished their third great walk in only ten days. Although I do love secluded hikes where one might walk all day without seeing another soul, the Kepler Track definitely showed me that it can be a whole lot of fun even with a lot of fellow hikers.