With her tussock-clad hills, snowy peaks, glistening lakes and native forest, Fiordland National Park is easily one of my favourite areas of New Zealand. It’s beautiful, it’s remote, and it’s like no other place I’ve ever been. The park was established in 1952 and is the largest of New Zealand’s National Parks. It’s a major part of Te Wāhipounamu, a World Heritage Site which encompasses a very precious area of the South Island.
Exploring Fiordland was an absolute must for us – how could we leave the country without seeing those spectacular views? We went kayaking in Doubtful Sound and stopped at every waterfall and lake on the Te Anau- Milford highway, but we knew we wanted to explore Fiordland even deeper: we wanted to get away from the crowds and spend a little longer in the park.
There are many hikes you can do in Fiordland National Park, including three Great Walks – the Milford Track, the Routeburn, and the Kepler. We chose the Kepler because it’s a loop track, meaning we were able to leave our car in the car park – we did not have to catch a bus or pay to have the car relocated at the end.
The Kepler Track is a 3-4 day tramp which begins close to Te Anau. Some (very fit!) trampers chose to hike the track in three or even two days; we chose to spread the walk over four days as we wanted time to do some of the side-walks and take photos of everything.
Here’s how we got on.
Day 1: Kepler Track Car Park to Luxmore Hut
This was a tough day, as mostly it was the ascent up Mount Luxmore. That said, it was only difficult because we had our backpacks on, full with four days worth of supplies!
Kepler Track Car Park to Brod Bay Campsite
The Kepler track begins with an easy stroll through the bush beside Lake Te Anau, until you reach Brod Bay campsite. This took us around an hour, though you should allow 90 minutes. Although picturesque, the campsite was completely overrun by sandflies. We stopped for a loo-break – just a couple of minutes – and I got bitten on my hands!
Brod Bay Campsite to Luxmore Hut
Leaving Brod Bay, the ascent truly began – luckily the track is through the bush meaning you’re sheltered from the sun and/or rain. It was tough! We followed the track through the trees, passing impressive limestone formations, until we reached a clearing. This took us around 3 hours (allow 3.5).
Above the bushline, we were rewarded with stunning views of the landscape as we trekked through the tussocks. These were the views from the Kepler track leaflet! It was a 45 minute walk to Luxmore hut, the first on the route, however the track was so exposed that the wind made a simple walk much more difficult!
Side trip: Luxmore Caves
I was so pleased to have reached the hut before the average time limit (6 hours). After getting changed and having a cup of tea, we took a short walk to Luxmore caves, enormous and truly incredible natural structures that you can explore at your own will! We didn’t delve too far into them because I got too freaked out (mainly because there might have been spiders or cave wetas) though by all means you can do as you please. Take a torch!
Back at the hut, we had dinner (instant noodles, yum…) before the DOC ranger hosted an evening talk, telling us fascinating information about the area. Then we were greeted by a friendly face at the window!
Day 2: Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut
Stepping out of the hut, feeling the early morning fresh air on our faces, we were momentarily stunned – we felt truly lucky to be waking up in such a beautiful place. However my positivity soon decreased when we continued our steep ascent to the ridge-line of the mountains. For me, day two of the Kepler was the most difficult day.
Luxmore Hut to Forest Burn Shelter
There was only a small amount of snow on the track (which we obviously had to take a photo of!) however, the real danger were the avalanche zones. There are nine avalanche paths that could potentially cross the track. They are all marked, however these areas should be crossed as quickly and as carefully as possible.
Side trip: Mount Luxmore Summit
Climbing to summit of Mount Luxmore only took around 10-15 minutes from the main route. We left our bags on the track and hiked up quickly. The weather was interchangeable (as always in Fiordland) but we were lucky to get some sun at the top and the panoramic views were incredible!
Next we tramped over the mountain tops. This was easier said than done: although we are quite fast walkers, the track was often unstable due to the avalanche paths and the wind was very strong. The rain started, but the views were just too incredible to make us grumpy. It was mostly a descent until we reached Forest Burn Shelter.
We had a quick lunch break at the Forest Burn Shelter, where we had to dodge the friendly/scavenging Kea, the world’s only alpine parrot that can only be found in New Zealand. They have beautiful green feathers and a vibrant red underwing, but they were often too quick to photograph! You mustn’t feed them because human food can kill them, and they come to rely on humans for food instead of hunting – meaning they won’t teach their chicks to hunt!
Forest Burn Shelter to Hanging Valley Shelter
After lunch, the sun came out for a good few hours, and our moods improved accordingly. But then I noticed I had a teeny, tiny, problem… The seal of the sole of my boot was coming loose. I stopped walking. James came to take a look and a flicker of worry crossed his face. Shit, I thought. We brainstormed what to do: we couldn’t turn back now as we were already on day two of the walk, however I would need to repair my boot to make it to the end of the track. The only other shoes I had brouht with me were flip-flops – hardly suitable for climbing mountains! We improvised: we used some of James’ medical microporous tape and some fabric plasters to stick the sole back to the boot, and I tied around it the drawstring from the bag for my sleeping bag. Classy.
We continued on, and the views were quite something as we walked across the tops of the mountain ridges. We took a LOT of time to get to the next shelter; partly because of the boot incident, partly because of the wind, and also because I was taking so many photos! Again, the track is very exposed at this point, so it felt even more challenging than it should have done! Later, when we reached the hut, the ranger advised that sometimes the wind is so strong that trampers have to crawl on their hands and knees!
We reached the shelter and two kea were waiting for us. These ones were much more tame and approached us to within a metre away. They were curious when I opened my rucksack to get a snack, and a fellow tramper told us she had had her apple stolen by them… They are naughtier than they look!
Hanging Valley Shelter to Iris Burn Hut
Leaving our naughty green friends to approach the next lucky trampers, we began the descent to Iris Burn Hut. It felt like it went on forever as we zigzagged down the side of the mountain. We headed back into the bush and passed some beautiful waterfalls. Without the wind, the sun was quite warm, so we were thankful for the shelter of the trees once again. And fortunately my boot held out until we arrived at the hut!
Day 3: Iris Burn Hut to Motorau Hut
The third day was fairly easy – even with a broken boot! The ranger at Iris Burn hut had given me a pair of socks that had been left behind so I put one over my whole boot. It did a great job of holding my boot together but my foot was very hot!
Iris Burn Hut to Rocky Point Shelter
The walk was mostly flat to Motorau hut, the weather was beautiful, and the only complaints we had were from our sore shoulders from the backpacks. We only spent around four hours walking on our third day, so I do think we could have probably skipped the final hut (Motorau) and walked for an additional 4-5 hours to the car park.
Rocky Point Shelter to Motorau Hut
We took a little longer than we needed to, stopping to admire at the river, listening out for the birds and looking at the native plants. We continued through the trees, and the track eventually approached the lake once more, so we stopped on the banks to admire the views.
We arrived at Motorau hut in the early afternoon, relaxed on the beach and paddled in the lake before the sandflies won their battle and we retreated to the hut to cook dinner. We took another stroll along the sand after dinner and watched the sun set into the horizon.
Day 4: Motorau to the Kepler Track Car Park
The final day of the Kepler was not very challenging at all and we began to regret having booked a night in the final hut! However, we decided to make the most of our experience and enjoyed the scenery.
Motorau Hut to Rainbow Reach Car Park
It only took us about an hour before we were a Rainbow Reach car park. This s a popular spot to begin a day walk. We were surprised at how many trampers finished walking at Rainbow Reach car park and caught a minibus back to Te Anau, especially since they had also stayed in Motorau hut!
Rainbow Reach Car Park to Kepler Track Car Park
The terrain didn’t become any more challenging – we even saw a couple running the 10km between the two car parks (and back!) because they felt guilty for catching the bus from Rainbow Reach the day before! The forest is very pleasant – ideal for a short walk. We were back at our car after a further 90 mins or so.
Back in Te Anau…
Before we knew it, we’d reached the end of the Kepler track! I wish there had been some sort of recognition or even a finish line after a 60km tramp! Nevertheless, we proudly strolled back to our car feeling accomplished.
After the short drive back to Te Anau, we each bought a well-deserved pie from the Miles Better pie shop and enjoyed them in the sun looking at the mountains that we had just been climbing.
The Kepler was physically challenging for me, plus I had a broken boot – but it was probably tougher for James who carried most of our food and had to put up with Yours Truly for the entire experience! It was an incredible experience, spent in the heart of one of the most beautiful areas in the entire world – I would love to do it again.
It’s completely free to hike any of the walking tracks in New Zealand, however you do need to pay for your accommodation on the Kepler Track. You can choose whether to bring your own tent and camp in designated campsites, or stay in backcountry huts, which are large, wooden chalets with bunk beds in dorm rooms, toilets, sinks, gas stoves and a fireplace.
Huts cost $54 a night during the high season (October – May) or $15 outside of it, which is payable using backcountry hut tickets. Campsites cost $18 per night in the high season and just $5 a night in the low season.
It’s not necessary to stay at every hut or campsite along the track; consider how long the walk will take you and whether or not you can afford to skip one! However it should be noted that huts and campsites must be booked in advance during the high season. Many of the huts and campsites on Great Walks book up very quickly, so be sure to make your reservations well in advance! You can book your huts and campsites through the DOC website. Note that camping in unauthorised areas risks a $200 fine.
We chose to stay in the huts because the region is extremely cold and because we didn’t own a tent!
When to go
A big factor when choosing to do the Great Walks hikes is when to go; during the high season the huts are considerably more expensive. Bookings aren’t required in the low season. However, if you are considering to go in the low season (winter) which is around May – October, please be aware that facilities in the huts are reduced considerably: gas is turned off, flush toilets are replaced with long-drops, running water is turned off, there’s no emergency radio, and there are no DOC rangers based at the huts. In the high season, rangers will double check that people who have made a reservation do turn up, and if not, they will raise an alarm. Also to note is that during winter, risks of avalanches are greatly increased and backcountry experience is required. For more information, see this page on the DOC website.
Have you hiked the Kepler Track or any of New Zealand’s Great Walks? What do you think of the Kea – friendly or scavengers?
Thanks for reading,
Note: All information is based on our experience on the Kepler Track on 10th to 13th November 2015. All photos are my own.