Posted by: cousindampier | 4 April 2011

The Kepler Track, Day One

We started late.  Really late, in retrospect.  T and I decided to hitchhike from Queenstown to Te Anau, figuring it would be easy to do. From there we were to hike 45 minutes to the start of the Kepler Track, then anywhere from 5 to 7 hours to the first hut of the night.

We’d left our jobs a few days before and made our way to Queenstown.  We were there with a couple of friends, and they dropped us off outside the city before heading north on Highway Six.  Bags were stored and sleeping bags packed.  The tent was strapped to the outside of my bag.

We stood at the roadside, our thumbs stuck out and cardboard signs in hand.

And waited.

And waited more.

The clock crept past noon.  We’d been standing for about 30 minutes, and were on the verge of switching sides of the road and trying to catch a ride back into Queenstown to find the bus, when an old Toyota sedan pulled up, and we hopped in to meet Bernardo, from Portugal, and Matthias, from Italy.

They were very friendly.  They were both consummate hitchhikers themselves, having met at a hostel in Nelson.  Toying with the idea of travelling together, they decided to go their separate ways.  A few hundred miles down the road, they were dropped off at the same point, met again, and decided to hitch together.  A mattress was poking out of the trunk, and gave me only a few inches of headroom, between it and the window.

Two hours separates Queenstown and Te Anau.  We drove for twenty or thirty minutes before Matthias and Bernardo stopped for a smoke break, overlooking the lake.   T and I sat in the wind, overlooking the lake and its few whitecaps, the brown mountain rising on the other side.

We chatted about the common things – where are you from? What are you doing? – before lapsing into silence.  Matthias and Bernardo figured out what they were doing in Milford, where they planned to go next.  T pulled out the Lonely Planet, to look for things to do in Te Anau.  I started out the window at the countryside surrounding the road.

It was beautiful, and I stared for a long time, until we got close to Te Anau and a purple car drove by.  I didn’t see it precisely, but could tell it was both very purple and very old.  Then a green, 50’s-looking Chevrolet drove by.  Which was odd, because Chevy has almost no presence in New Zealand, and as we drove into Te Anau, revealed to us was a true American Car Show.

The Ford Falcon is the car of choice for roughly half the people in New Zealand. But before us, in the parking lot we drove past, were Chevy’s and Fords and a good number of Dodge Chargers, people milling around, American flags flying from bumpers and radio antennas.  Shirts read “Americarna,” with pictures of Ford Thunderbirds.  Steering wheels were on the correct side of the car.  We’d driven out of New Zealand and into the middle of Americana.


The Department of Conservation office sits on the side of Lake Te Anau, just out of town.   The lady at the counter seemed to be counting up, when we approached.  Or she was distinctly distracted and unhelpful.

“Here are your tickets for tomorrow,” she said.

“You mean today,” I pointed out.

Her response: “Oh, you’re going today?”

We asked her where the shuttle picked us up, because we were running late.  One can walk from the office to the trail head in a DOC-estimated 45 minutes, but it was near 2:30.

“It’s behind us, to the right.”

Of my many habits, one is to take directions at face value, and head out to attempt to orient myself and discover what they are saying.  Out behind the office, I stood staring at a motel, and found myself saying, “the fuck?”

It was in the motel, which was really a Holiday Park.  We arrived in time to catch the shuttle, and make it to the track by three.

By 3:10, we were on the track, hiking the DOC-estimated 90 minutes to Broad Bay.  It was flat, mostly, through lowland forest.  The lake was somewhere on our right, as we hiked generally northwest.  The bush surrounding the trail, at the time, seemed green.  Vividly green, and I thought, “Wow, New Zealand is beautiful.”

I would not regret these words as much as wonder if fate overheard and laughed and said, “Green! You ain’t seen no stinkin’ green!”

My pack felt heavy.  I thought little of it, figuring too many years and too many beers had passed since I’d put one on my shoulders and set off into the forest.  We walked quickly, through fresh air and big trees, seeing only two other people, a couple, who were headed to the carpark, having hiked the track in the other direction.

The guy was waiting for the girl, who had fallen behind.  We passed him and saw the girl, who was hiking with a stick she’d picked up somewhere off the ground.

“I like your stick,” Trace said to her.

She responded, “Do you want it?”

T was gleeful.

We reached Broad Bay in an hour twenty. Took a five minute break and had a snack.  Were attacked by sandflies.

Then we climbed.

Day one on the Kepler track, going the way we did, is hard.  Broad Bay to Luxmore Hut is an estimated 3.5 to 4.5 hours; the DOC estimates fit walkers can do it in as little as half of the time.  But the trail rises from approximately 250m above sea level to just below 1250m.  There is little variation in the style of track – switchback after switchback after switchback – or the scenery around it.  The same general style of forest surrounded the track – red beech.

Huge limestone cliffs await one about two hours up, but those two hours, when one hasn’t backpacked for much of the past few years, are grueling.  T and I chatted for a while, but it faded quickly.  Birds chirped, and for a while I could hear the lake.  Like any long activity, when one has to repeat the same motion, my psyche shut down, retreating into a corner of my brain as my legs and back exerted effort.

Before me was the trail and the rocks and curves in the path.  I was aware enough to avoid them and not walk off the side of the mountain.

My hips and legs started to burn from the pack.  I tightened the straps.

I wished for a walking stick.  I was holding onto the straps with my hands, and my arms wouldn’t move for twenty or thirty minutes.  I’d forget about them until they started to go numb, or until the knots in my shoulder ached so badly I walked swinging my arms back and forth.

We reached the limestone cliffs in two hours, sitting underneath them, sipping Gatorade purchased from the Asian market near our hostel, which were comprehensible only to someone who reads Mandrin.  Gatorade is nearly impossible to find outside of America, which is only partially atoned for by the slightly better quality of Powerade sold overseas.

Just after the cliffs we met two guys, headed down the mountain from the hut.  We asked them how long we had.  “About an hour and fifiteen minutes, maybe?  Probably 45 minutes until you get out of the forest and 30 more to the hut.”

Only after we left them – it was around 6:15 at this point – did I wonder where they were headed to.  It was late to try and get to the carpark, they had no gear, and there were no tents set up at Broad Bay.

We kept climbing.  The dirt and bark path turned more rocky, and the trees started to become more sparse.  This was fortunate, because we felt the early rain drops before the clouds really opened up.

I’d purchased a waterproof cover for my pack.  For the daypack, T bought a drysack, which fits inside the pack.  With a remarkable amount of foresight, neither of us had thought to pack everything in it before we left.  It was still in its box.

We stopped under a tree and dumped the pack, pulling out the green bag and stuffing everything back in it, with no order, somehow fitting it all and getting the pack shut again.  We put on our rain gear, expecting a torrent of rain, only to get little.  The forest thickened again, and we were kept more or less dry.

We reached the bushline just before 7 pm.  The sky was getting dark, but the sky was also gray and cloudy, and pouring down rain.  The track went from wet to muddy as the trees disappeared and the path became exposed.

“Abe, I need to sit.  I’m sorry,” Trace said.

In a moment of brilliance, I responded, “can you make it?”

As if we had any other choice.

She gave me the look I deserved and sat down below a tree, staying dry as possible.  I pulled out a little chocolate and we sat for ten minutes.  Neither of us wanted to confront the rain.

According to the guys we met – who were now under rain themselves, right? – we had thirty minutes more to hike.

So we stood up and walked out onto the ridge.  This last section ran through yellow scrubgrass, and the path narrowed and was largely dirt.  Which, currently, was mud.

On a nice day – or even just a less rainy day – this part of the track would be beautiful.  The next morning, I could see how high up we were and how pretty the track was.  But in the dimming light, through absolutely pouring rain, it was awful.  The kind of awful which makes you laugh at yourself, for being in such a ridiculous position.  My boots were long soaked, and my wool socks were becoming heavy and my pants – some sort of waterproof or quick dry – were weighing down on me.  My jacket was wet both from sweat and from the rain.

And the fucking hut was nowhere in sight.

The track is mostly straight.  I kept looking at my watch, thinking it had to be close.  And just as I was starting to swear at whomever designed the track, it dipped, turned around a bend, and before me was a scene from a movie: A tall evergreen tree sitting before a beautiful hut, brown with big bay windows, looking down over what had to be a gorgeous scene.  I could see light in the window and smoke escaping from a chimney.

And I turned around and T was walking, head bent to the wind, encased in a red rain jacket.  I hollered out and pointed to the hut and took a couple of steps towards it and then walked faster than I had the entire trip.  All that pain and soreness was gone; the cramps which had threatened me for the past thirty minutes disappeared, and the rain seemed to go away.

Only seemed, because I could focus on something else.  It was still pouring.

We made it to the hut at 7:45.  By 9 I was in bed, falling asleep.  It is the earliest I’d been to bed in years.



  1. Abe, what an engaging piece. I felt as if I experienced the walk with you and T. It’s interesting to juxtapose the two stories- yours and the one of T’s- of the same adventure. One day, I think these entries will make a fascinating book.

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