Posted by: cousindampier | 7 April 2011

Kepler Track, Day Two

I awoke warm at around 7:30.  This would be the last time I would be warm all day.  The sleeping bag – my first real sleeping bag, purchased by myself – kept me warm throughout the night, and moving out of it was difficult.  Sleeping in a small wooden alcove, on a decent mattress, helped.

Luxmore Hut is a wonderful place, and not just for the dramatic way it introduced itself the night before.  The hut sits on a mountainside, overlooking two different lakes.  Upon entrance, after taking one’s boots off, a small door to the left reveals a set of wooden stairs (again, to the left), which lead up to a floor of toilets and bunks. Two bunk rooms are separated by a set of toilets.  One room is the regular series of double-bunks, somewhat secluded in a cubicle fashion.  The other room is seemingly built for groups, because it is a set of four large bunks, but each bunk holds three to four people.

We stayed in this room, getting a lower ‘bunk’ to ourselves, falling asleep in pouring rain.  The morning was gorgeous.  The sun was rising generally behind the hut, illuminating the mountains and lakes which the hut faced.  We were nearly 1200m above sea level, and the lakes were covered in white clouds, with blue-gray water revealing itself only further away towards the far mountains.  The area around the hut was covered in a light fog, making the morning feel chillier than it was.

After breakfast and a complete re-packing of the bags, I went to put on my clothing to find it was wet.  And cold.  The shoes, especially, were still moist, inside and out.  In a moment of oversight, I’d only brought one extra pair of socks – dry, but the pair from the first day were not going to dry out stuffed inside my backpack.

So, wearing a base layer this time, T and I put our cold clothing on and headed out of Luxmore Hut, towards the Iris Burns campsite, a five to six hour DOC-estimated walk.  We were out of the hut at nine, hoping to catch the good weather and stay out of the rain.

This lasted approximately eight minutes.  The trail winds away from Luxmore Hut, up the side of the mountain the Hut sits on, before crossing and rising along adjoining yellow-brown mountainsides to Mt. Luxmore, about an hour and a half or two hours away.

It is rather a gorgeous walk.  Walking above the clouds is provides for constant sublime sights, and the horizon consisted of layers of mountain-tops.  Every now and then a stream would appear, flowing down the mountain, and as the walkers spaced out, turning around revealed a muddy-brown trail cutting a line through yellowed grass.

The beauty held, even in the pouring rain.  The rain in Fiordland is like a thunderstorm, just without the thunder and lightning. T zipped and velcroed up her red raincoat; I zipped my jacket and put on my hat, and we lowered our heads and walked.

The DOC warns of the wind on this part of the hike, somewhat deservedly.  After Mt. Luxmore, on the ridge, the wind is worse, but it was difficult at times on the walk up to the mountain.  It came at us from the front-right, but not strong enough to move my pack, nor to make the rain blow sideways.

And then, about forty minutes later, it stopped.  And though it threatened for much of the rest of the day, it never opened up as badly again, and for the rest of the day we were provided with gorgeous views, interspersed with the occasional drizzle.

The wind continued to blow, drying my clothing, and every turn of the path provided another shocking view.  Mt. Luxmore seemed to appear quickly; I saw the sign pointing to the ten minute hike to the top and only then realizing we’d been walking around the mountain for the past twenty minutes.  The path turned from dirt into rock as we brushed the peak, and, after nearly 6 hours of climbing hills in the past 18, we began to descend.

The path changed back to a thin dirt line, running along the ridges of mountains.  We stayed higher than nearly everything around us, tramping over the Kepler Mountains, looking down and deep blue lakes and forest-covered hills, more tall than fat, as some of the ones on the drive to Queenstown.

There are two emergency shelters on this route, for day use and emergency night use, if one finds themselves caught in terrible weather with darkness setting in.  We reached the first of them around 11; stopping just for a snack.  Setting off for the second, we reached it in just over an hour, and only after some mind-numbing uphill trekking and blustery winds.

We sat for lunch at the second hut – tuna and mustard and bread.  With us was a girl from Wisconsin, who had reached the hut fifteen minutes before us.  We chatted about the trail.  She told us about a trek she’d done near Kaikora, during which it rained for three days.

“I never want to see mud again,” she said.

T mentioned her desire to see a rainbow, having hiked over valley after rainy valley, with the sun peaking over our shoulders the entire time.

“Me too!” she said.  Then, standing to peek outside, “I wonder if we can see one now?”

I started to dig through my bag for chocolate when I heard, “Guys, come here! There is one!”

And, stretching over the valley which connects with the Iris Burn River, was a rainbow, and all I could think of was ‘double rainbow,’ which annoyed me to no end.  I was an ocean away from America, overlooking a green and gray valley at a beautiful rainbow, and running through my head was some dumb youtube clip gone viral.

I broke off three pieces of chocolate, and shared one with Wisconsin Girl.  She thanked me and hoisted her backpack, covered in a big, yellow rain protector, and headed off.

The Kepler track was the first time I was around a large number of Americans.  In addition to Wisconsin girl, there was a guy from Chicago and another fellow from somewhere in the states – we arrived too late to really chat the night before, overhearing snippets of their conversations.  In Franz, I’d been one of three Americans, and the accents I overheard in the hostels in Wanaka and Queenstown were mostly British and German.  Talking to someone about the States, even about a place I’d never been, was comforting.

Distance tends to shrink differences.  I tell people I’m from near Seattle here, because four hours east of that city means nothing to them.  But to anybody from the area, or who at one point travelled through the Northwest, those four hours are important.  Talking to Americans about America makes the geographic and cultural differences matter hardly at all.  The lakes of Minnesota become something a Minnesotan and I can chat about easily, because I know of them.  One doesn’t have to explain how many there are.

From this second hut, the trail continues along a ridge for a while, before starting to descend through the forest.  Then, much like the first day, it becomes physically and psychologically painful.  Switchback after switchback, with the same set of trees and brush, occupied my vision, and though I’d complained about the pain of uphill the previous day, downhill was – and always will be – worse.  My hips and legs and knees started to hurt with every step, forcing me to readjust my pack to put more weight on my already numb shoulders.   The beech forest changed into more of a rain forest, with ferns and moss and a heavier tree cover.  And just as I was starting to go insane, the trail flattened out and Iris Burns hut appeared and then the Iris Burns campsite.

The campsite sat half in the forest and half out on an open valley plain.  The view was incredible, as the valley spread far into the distance, with mountains rose quickly on either size, roughly the same size we’d been on earlier in the day.  It was flat, with thicker brush, but the campsite we took was just back into the forest.

The fear of rain still very much dominated my thought.

The tent was set up quickly – a little two or three person job, depending on how comfortable one is with people – and we walked to a nearby waterfall.  The evening was nice.  I managed to be less wet than I was on the mountaintop, putting on long underwear – though the rain had never really opened up again, my jacket never fully dried and I’d remained somewhat chilled the rest of the day.  Down in the valley the wind was nearly non-existent, and without a pack on my shoulders and having arrived at the campsite at 3:30 rather than 7:45, for a few hours I could relax

And then a quick dinner on the small gas cooker of rice and beans, coupled with a Guinness, and we crawled into bed to find a night of no rain.  Only sandflies.

A short digression on the sandfly:  it is either the spawn of some evil and far-thinking deity, or it is an accident of evolution, serving only to test the sanity of man, weeding out the weak by its constant harassment, immunity to any sort of prevention, and bites which are painfully received, constantly irritating, and leave a spotted scar.   Often, hiking the west coast, one stops to admire a view, forgetting that sandflies pounce whenever a person ceases to move.  Then they are on all forms of clothing, having a knack for finding the wrists and neck and sock line.

Never have I sworn at anything as much as I swear at sandflies.

Both the open valley and the forest were covered with them.  It was our doom to deal with them for the evening.  By moving around quickly and shaking the tent slightly, I could open the zipper and get inside without any following me.  But due to the way the tent was set up – with a rain tarp covering the top of the tent – a number were caught in between the tent and the tarp, and they sat there throughout the night, sounding like raindrops as they took off and landed, and as I was falling asleep, I realized I was not in a tent, just a glorified mosquito net.

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