The First Great Walk - Keplar Track (over the mountaintops on the mountain sidewalk in perfect weather!)
When I wrote previously about tramping in New Zealand, I had been ill-prepared, and ill-equipped, and was attempting a moderately difficult track that required a moderate bit of perseverance to navigate, but was by no means difficult.
This time, I attempt one of the nine epic Great Walks of New Zealand: the Keplar track just outside of Te Anau, on the South Island. Again I have a partner in crime: (Jonas has since left us to return to Italy) Mike Gemmil, a fellow Canadian from Kingston Ontario, who I had met at couchsurfing gatherings in Christchurch. We blew some Kiwi minds on our first night camping when we got stuck in Kingston NZ for the night whilst hitching. We were of course in Kingston, NZ, and Mike was from Kingston ON, and when I asked where I was from I half lied and said Kingston NS, which does exist, and is literally attached to the village of Greenwood NS, (Google it if you don't believe me) where I spent the earliest parts of my childhood.
Stephanie is about four weeks away from delivering our third child so I cannot very well abandon her for the weekend with no vehicle, I have just left my job, and am unsure if my old job is actually going to pay me the rest of what they owe me, so I opt to hitch-hike down to Queenstown to meet Mike, where he will drive us the rest of the 171 km to Te Anau to start the track. I am looking forward to it. Hitch-hiking is always an adventure, and I had not done it in a while. On Monday, we suffer the first of many setbacks in our travel plans. Mike's truck craps out; the engine is "hooped" as we would say in Canada, and not worth the repair job. No problem, we will just hitch to Te Anau. Sadly, this would prove easier said than done.
I set off from CHCH, a little later than I had hoped after Stephanie drops me at the edge of town, and I get a ride straight away to Rolleston, and then another one, to the Geraldine turnoff, from a Swedish immigrant, who told me much of the changes in New Zealand in the last 30 years, including a 33% income tax rate (it is now at about 24%, dependant on your wage) Then I walk, and walk, and then walk some more, about 7km until I finally make it into Geraldine after a third ride. I then proceed to walk another 5 km or so out of Geraldine until I get my first long distance ride to the Wanaka turn-off, and finally a ride to Frankton where I meet Mike at McDonald's. All up it takes me about seven hours, not too bad for a drive that takes 5+ hours in normal situations.
Now the difficulty sets in. We are two unshaven dudes, with backpacks, which helps, as it means we look less likely to stab you and leave on the side of the road, but also hurts, because not every vehicle can accommodate such cargo, given that we are both over 6 ft, we are not the tiniest passengers either.
We hiked another 5 km out of Frankton, to no avail, and were scouting farmer's fields to crash for the night, when after about an hour we got a ride to Kingston, where we blew minds with our Kingston Kingston Kingston story.
We were up and on the go the next morning with two quick rides to Mossburn, but then our luck dried up and we sat, for 2.5 hours. We finally accosted a Dutch family who stopped to allow their kids to play at the park and asked if they were going to Te Anau? They were. And then asked if we could come? We could! I will never forget the expression on the two young boys faces as we sat facing them in the back of their campervan. Aged two and four years respectively, they just stared at us with a combination of fear and interest, not really sure what to make of these two hairy strangers who didn't speak their language. Not keen to play games, not keen to talk, but also not keen to look away ever. They engaged us in an awkward stare down the whole way. I was certain that the reason for this stemmed from a deep seated fear of what we might do to them. The younger one had been a bit fussy at the park, I dare say we scared him straight.
On the track finally - So we finally got started on the track at about 2 pm on Friday, which was about six hours later than we had hoped. We opted for the counter-clockwise route as it was less in your face uphill that way, but it was still uphill, to 1400m elevation, after first traversing beech forest at the base of the mountains.
Planning has never been my forte 100%, and I left Mike to make accommodations. He booked us two camping spots for the weekend, as the huts were already booked solid. You are not technically supposed to "camp" at the first hut, but we assumed that this was just a suggestion. Not so. More on that later. On the route up the to the first hut we passed a couple of hikers from France. They had just come from the opposite way, and had done so in two days. This buoyed me, because looking at the distances ahead, and the fact that we were starting so late, I was thinking we were going to have to push to do a similar feat.
This seemed more a reality to me in the back of my head, because I remembered the DOC brochure saying that camping at the first hut was strictly prohibited, and the next possible camping spot was another 10km beyond that, I had visions of 2 am hikes over mountain-tops dancing in my head.
The track up was amazingly easy, and having been in New Zealand now for almost a year, I was becoming desensitised by the amazing natural beauty that never seemed to be far from reach. The first thing I do remember being taken with was a veritable sea of ferns (see pictures attached) The fern sea was adjacent to the tranquil Lake Te Anau, which was surprisingly still given its size, and the calm passage through the fern forest was cushioned by a very well maintained, spongy yet firm peat moss addled trail. This trail would maintain its quality for the duration of the hike, and I came to refer to it as the mountain sidewalk.
Two or three hours of unremarkable rainforest trekking (unremarkable if you are used to being in rainforests all of the time. It is true I may becoming desensitised to New Zealand's natural beauty :( ), followed. We occasionally caught a glimpse of Te Anau as we zig-zagged our way up the mountain, but these were only fleeting glimpses, and always obscured partially by forest growth. Just before 6pm, we were finally out of the canopy of the forest, and were reasonably high up. We were by now being rewarded with nice wide open skies, and a diminishing sun that cast the perfect light on the red tussock fields we were now walking through.
As we neared Luxmore Hut, the Tussock fields were protected by wooden walkways, to prevent direct human contact. This was why we would be unable to camp, the whole area around the hut was covered in Red Tussock fields. We arrived to find all of the sensible hikers already in a state of relaxation, preparing their dinner at the various gas stoves provided by the DOC. It was essentially a low budget hotel at the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere.
The water supply was straight from the source mountain water run-off that was crisp and refreshing. Before being dispensed through the faucets of the hut, it was filtered by various layers of peat moss, volcanic ash and various other stones and elements. It was not purified, yet we were assured it was totally safe untreated. (not like that stuff I took a swig of in Morocco! *see adventures in Morocco under family travels for that one)
So we were in a bit of a pickle, since we booked camping sites and there was no camping at this location we hoped to find a spare bunk, and pay the difference. The trouble was that there were two school groups, one from Australia, one from Auckland doing some Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, as well as the usual tourists. This left by our count three beds, with the possibility of travellers still arriving from the trip up or across, depending on their direction of travel. As with everything in my life in New Zealand thus far (knock on wood) it just worked out, no more late arrivals, and beds to spare.
Day 2 - Over the Top I had only recently been made aware of the Keplar track. Our room-mates from the Czech Republic had done it previously, and had showed the pictures to me once we met. I was immediately enthralled at the prospect of literally walking over mountain tops, above the clouds, and while the journey so far had been good, I knew the best was yet to come.
On the second day, we knew that most of the vertical was now behind us, and what remained was the walk over the saddle, literally over the peaks of the Murchison Mountain Range. We awoke to another sun filled day, with a few wisps of cloud cover handing in the valley below us. This, is what I had hoped for. Clear skies above, but the definite experience of walking in the sky.
We had hoped to beat the rush out of the hut in the morning, but we got caught up with the Australian school group. This was not all bad, I shared some travel stories with a few of the students, and a good conversation with an American teacher about living abroad as a teacher.
We reached the Forest Burn Emergency Shelter, which had been the next possible shelter spot had we encountered any of the inclement weather, which is known to plague the region. My room-mates Jan and Zuzana, had warned us that along the mountain tops it can be extremely windy. When they had done their trek, they had traversed this portion of the track literally on their knees because the wind was so strong. This plus rain, made for a memorable experience for them. We were fortunate, we experienced nothing but crisp blue skies, and a light breeze. Heavy wind and rain had been forecasted though, and snow to 1100m, we were therefore well within the snow zone, and as we edged along the narrow edges of the mountain with nothing but canyons and majestic but deadly rock formations below I couldn't help but thinking to myself how thankful I was for the present pristine conditions. We broke for a proper lunch at the Hanging Valley Emergency Shelter where I enjoyed the quintessential Canadian backpacker meal of Canadian sardines in hot sauce, cashew nut based trail mix, peanut butter sandwiches, and Whittaker's Fruit and Nut Chocolate for dessert, and then, onward.
The section track that followed lunch on the second day was what I had come for. It was also the most treacherous if conditions were bad. This was the section my Czech friends had to complete literally on their hands and knees as gale force winds threatened to blow them off the mountaintops, and into the oblivious forest and rock blanketed canyons below. However, as I have already stated, we were fortunate weather wise, and we had nothing but clear skies.
The track from the shelter to the Iris Burn Hut went literally over mountain tops. Lunch had been at just under 1200m, and the summit of the range was at 1400m. This part of the track was known as "the saddle" because of the high mountain peaks on either side of our present location. This left a lower lying peak region, which from a distance would likely resemble a saddle. The trail in this section was a series of ups and downs along the very narrow path across the various peaks and valleys of the mountain range (see pictures inset below) The view on either side were of deep mountain forested valleys, and pristine alpine lakes, since we were not yet at the summit, there was also the ever present peaks piercing the skyline as we gradually made our ascent. As the path unfurled in front of us, I was reminded of images I had seen of the Great Wall of China, this then was an all natural version of the same (see if you agree with the pictures below).
About 90 minutes after lunch we reached the optional summit climb, a full 1400m above sea level. The detour was only 15 minutes so we made the short scramble and were rewarded with panoramic views of both Lake Te Anau, and Lake Manapouri, as well as the South Fiord, the Keplar Mountains, the Murchison Mountains, and the Te Anau town-site. The trail resumed in snakelike fashion over and around multiple peaks, with huge valleys carved our of rock sloping at drastic angles on either side of us, as we began our gradual descent. The weather held, and as the more altitude we lost the it got.
It was during the descent that fatigue finally started to set in. We had by this point done about 40km in just over 24 hours, this included out sleep at Luxmore hut. We stopped at Iris burn shelter to freshen up and have some food. Mike took the opportunity to change socks and dry off his feet, I did not. We were now down the mountain, and ahead of us was nothing but beech forest, as we entered the tree canopy. What we had come to do had been done. As remarkable as rainforest can be, I was by this point over it, and my thoughts shifted to the impending potential two day trek back to Christchurch. We decided it was best to take advantage of Sunday traffic, and try our best to finish this track and hopefully make it as far as Queenstown.
About an hour in to our beech forest walk, my pace really started to slow, my legs were screaming at me, and flashes of my Copland track adventure started seeping into my consciousness. I stopped to change my socks by a creek, and was instantly savaged by sandflies. I was left with about nine quality bites for the next three weeks. Sounds like nothing you say. You have obviously experienced the after effects of the notorious sandfly. The creature is silent, these are not mosquitoes. They swarm, and if you aren't paying attention, you will not know what hit you, but by the time you do, it will be too late. They are also slow, which means if you keep moving, you are generally fine, they physically cannot keep up. They are also easy to swat, but you cannot swat them all, and this was my issue. My unattended right foot was exposed for about one minute, and five minutes later I looked like contagious pox patient.
Fresh socks made all of the difference, for a while. It seemed we were walking forever to get to the next hut. And this time my body was really starting to shut down, I was done, I wanted out. I commend Mike for suffering through my griping during this stage of the hike. We were by now separated by quite some distance as my pace really slowed, legs stiff with exhaustion. Finally, we reached the lakeside, which was the cue that we were getting close. Not close enough it would seem. The next hut, was still another hour and a half. Mike eventually found me, sitting on the ground after he had first reached the hut and enquired abut a place to sleep, (as it was apparent by this point that we were not going to make it out in one day). No room due to a large american university group.So, onward, but Mike, my hero, stayed positive despite my outwardly irritable bitching, and shouldered my pack onto his back as we made our way to the hut for supper. The wardens there were a bit more strict, no place to sleep, and no place to use our camping implements, or the gas provided at the huts. They did however tell us of a "secret" hut twenty minutes up the track, where we could spend the night.
This hut was a fishing hut, and was more like an hour up the road, but we found it eventually, well off the beaten path, and on the shores of Lake Te Anau. We had dinner, and then attempted to pass out, as above us the skies opened up in a merciless downpour.
The night at that hut, was one of the worst sleeps in living memory. It was infested, literally infested with mosquitoes. The common insect scourge of my life, had been a forgotten pest since moving to New Zealand. They did exist, but they did not thrive as they did in North America. Apparently this was a holiday home for all mosquitoes of New Zealand, though I must say during dinner, they were surprisingly absent. as soon as we went to sleep however, the descended on what was the first human flesh in their presence in about two months ( this ascertained from the guestbook). It did not matter which way I folded my sleeping bag,blankets, or clothing. The incessant buzzing in my ears all night long was maddening. I even took to stuffing toilet paper in my ears, it made no use. Given that we were in a cabin without electricity, there was no light to confront the problem head on, it would not have mattered. There were thousands, and the room was small, yet tall enough to hide them from our reaches.
Day 3 Homeward Bound- We fell short of our two day trip, but we finished the track after a two hour hike in the morning, and miraculously caught a bus right to Queenstown, where my luck ran out with a connecting us to Christchurch. Hitchhiking was successful initially, I was able to coerce some British travellers to take me the long way to the Wanaka turn-off, and from there a couple Israeli girls took me over the middle of the island in exchange for gas money. My luck ran out on the main #1 highway, and I was heading to a farm house to ask if I could pitch a tent in their yard, when I noticed one car approaching on the horizon, I had been standing at the side of the road for about an hour at this point, and was losing sunlight. But, this final car turned into a ride to Timaru. A night in a hostel, on the road early, with a ride to my doorstep from a lovely opera singer from Montreal, and I was home.
Happily married to my beautiful wife Stephanie, and proud father of three beautiful girls, Aurora, Brynn and Clara. Master student, working in South America as a Social and English teacher: writing when I find time.