Posted by: cousindampier | 10 April 2011

Kepler Track, Day Three

Voices awoke me in the early morning.  It was still dark outside, and the sandflies had stopped their jumping, giving the morning a much calmer aura than the previous evening.  Three other campers were at the same site, all headed up to Mt. Luxmore and to Luxmore Hut.  A pair of guys were packing up to go, by the sound of it.  Another guy, travelling by himself, had set up his tent in the valley.  He lucked out; the threatening rain of the night before never appeared, and he awoke to a mist and a perfect valley floor spread out before him.

I know this only because as I was getting water, about an hour after the two guys left, I saw the valley and it stopped me still.  It looked like an ad from a backpacking magazine.  A lot of Kepler looks like ads from backpacking magazines.

Another breakfast of oatmeal and raisins, this time with a banana thrown in.  The gray sky, so pretty in the morning overlooking the valley, was becoming ominous, and we hoped to beat the rain.

Everything went in the tent the night before, in hopes of our body heat somewhat warming them – semi-wet pants, sweat-soaked base layers, and mostly-soaked jackets.  It didn’t really work.  It was just too cold and wet to do anything about it.  I’d hung the clothing up the afternoon before, but they felt no drier after a few hours, and any attempts to get a fire started in the large, stone fireplace proved pointless.  The wood was wet, and for all my efforts, I made the wet wood smoke for a little while.

So, once again cold and wet and looking to beat the rain, T and I donned our clothing, hoisted our packs, and headed out.  Like the previous day, we’d not gone far when the skies opened up and it started to pour.

This time, it wouldn’t stop for four hours.

The last day of the Kepler Track, the way we were hiking it, is mostly flat.  The initial part rises over what can be described kindly as “this stupid sonofabitch hill”, then it descends into a valley, where one pops in and out of forest, catching glimpses of wide open spaces, before diving into the forest full tilt.  In fact, here is what the DOC describes this walk as:

“A steady day’s tramp down through beech forest, riverside clearings and a gorge. The track climbs over a low saddle and wanders through mixed forest to The Big Slip, formed during heavy rain in January 1984. About two and a half hours from the Iris Burn Hut the track reaches Rocky Point, a work camp for track maintenance and a good place for a lunch stop. Below Rocky Point the track sidles through a gorge. There is a slippery and tricky section of track here that needs to be negotiated – extreme care is required.

Nearing Lake Manapouri the track turns left through lowland beech and podocarp forest. It follows the lakeshore around Shallow Bay to Moturau Hut, situated beside a beautiful beach with panoramic views of Lake Manapouri.”

Total, masterful, incredible, understatement.

The track is forest.  Reaching the Big Slip is nice – giving one the impression of an easy day’s walk, a little tree cover followed by a pretty valley view.  But the initial section is what most represents the track.  It is a barky dirt trail, tall trees, and moss-covered rocks.  After the Big Slip, the track becomes the same rocks; the same trees; the same moss.  The same color green, everywhere one looks.

And we hiked through this rabbit-hole world of green, rain pouring down on us, a few banana chips and bad-tasting peanuts to see us through.

I’d put my headphones in at the start of the trek, pretty much as soon as the rain started, and I trekked through this world of green and mud and rain listening to the New Hope soundtrack in one ear, while chatting with Trace.

After the hill, it was nice going for a bit.  I was actually rather proud.  Hot food awaited me that night, somewhere in Te Anau, and I’d camped all on my own.  I was not worried about it before I started; rather it was a realization which jumped me while trekking by the Slip: “I just did that.  Cool.”

We reached Rocky Point, the workers camp, in two hours.  A large roof covered three picnic tables.  I sat my bag down, took my hat off, and was attacked by sandflies.  The bug spray was gone, having been used up the evening before.

T and I had some chocolate and a few sips of water.  The rain poured.  We zipped up, hoisted up, and started again.

And we hiked and started going crazy.

The path detoured up and over a hill, We climbed again.  Yoda’s theme came on, and I felt amused about listening to a theme about a jungle and walking through, essentially, a jungle.

The path bent down.  Dirt disappeared and for three or four switchbacks, we walked downward along wet rock.  But the mossy trees seemed to never move.  The path would rise and fall, turn left and right, but we seemed to hike through the same scenery for hour after hour.  I started to wonder if the trees would ever break.  I waited to see what was going to inevitably jump out of the trees at me.  I imagined the argument I would have with the fellow who decided where this track would go, and how idiotic he must be for putting it through a goddamn rain forest for hours.

Trace broke the silence we’d been hiking in.   I was on the start of Jedi.  “Do you think it’s stopped raining?”

I looked up.  The water was less, but it was still coming down.  Drops were hitting the puddles.  “I don’t know.  Maybe it is a drizzle now?”

“I think it is stopped.  We’re just in this forest and it’s falling on us from the leaves,” she answered.

She turned out to be right.  We reached a clearing about two hours in, and the rain was gone.  Heading back into the forest, I had to put back on my hat.

The depth of the trees was never-ending.  I felt I would be lost five feet off either side of the track.  The walk in places was rather eerie, as we were all alone in the middle of a deep forest, and I sort of expected to see some big mammal walk across the path in front of us.

We reached the next hut in about two hours and forty minutes, as compared to the DOC-estimated three.  I sat for five minutes and changed my socks from the soaking ones I was wearing to the less-soaking ones in my pack.  T used the hut to change her base layer.  Sandflies attacked us.  Neither of us felt hungry.  We just wanted to end it.  T told me she spent the last half hour wondering if she could just sit down and refuse to move.  How long it would take the chopper to come get her.

I’d thought about the same thing, if only for a few seconds.

The last section of the hike waited.  The Kepler Track has an early exit point, at Rainbow Reach.  We were taking it.  It was 90 minutes away.

We traded stories.  I told her about camping in my youth.  She talked about her friends at home.  Thirty minutes in, the path branches right, and a viewpoint extends left.  It was a wooden-planked path out to the middle of a bog.  I wasn’t paying attention and walked out to it, before realizing the path took a curve and we were supposed to follow the dirt.  This dead-ended.

We walked back and went to our right, off the viewpoint track.

Thirty more minutes passed and we came to another sign.

It was our starting point, just off the hut.

After the viewpoint, we’d gone to our right, when we should’ve gone to our left.  We’d walked back across the same ground, wasting an hour. We’d crossed the same bridge twice – which I thought was interesting at the time, because it has a unique sign talking about bogs and wetlands, and when I passed it the second time I thought, ‘I wonder why we cross this bog twice?’

So we turned around and we hiked again.  Past the same big hole in the ground and across the bridge and when we came to the viewpoint we followed the path correctly and soon enough we could hear the river and crossed a swing bridge.  And even then the path continued, with less moss and greenery and more sunlight, but another short climb and our clothes were still wet and cold and it smelled bad and I could not tell if it was the decaying forest or myself.

The large swing bridge at Rainbow Reach came into sight, but one more obstacle waited.  Just before the bridge, the path seemed to branch into three parts, with no clear sign.  For a few seconds I felt crushingly defeated.  I was done.  I wanted out.  But one path dead-ended, and the other two eventually met up, and I crossed the swing bridge, with a beautiful sunny view of the river, with farms in front of me and forest behind me.  A hut and a bathroom sat at the end of the track, and I changed and we waited for the shuttle bus to pick us up and take us back to Te Anau, where we showered the grime off and walked barefoot to an Italian restaurant, La Toscana, where we split pizza and pasta and juice.

And as the wind picked up and we walked back, I noticed a street sign by the grocery store.  There was a small road, which just ran down the side of the warehouse-type building, which most grocery stores tend to be.  There was nothing at the end, and brick walls and tall chain-link fence lined the road.  It was a road to nowhere.  And the name of the road was ‘Wong Way.’

**

Paul Theroux, in his book Happy Isles of Oceania, states, “There is an intense but simple thrill in setting off in the morning on a mountain trail knowing that everything you need is on your back.  It is a confidence in having left all inessentials behind, and of entering a world of natural beauty which has not yet been violated, where money has no value, and possessions are a deadweight.  The person with the fewest possessions is the freest: Thoreau was right.”

And though I’d not achieved that perfection – stuff was brought which I did not need, and I gave away a few things based on tramping through Kepler – I found that tramping was in its own way, more freeing than backpacking around the rest of New Zealand, or any country.  The only temptation is to stop and admire a sight for a few minutes too long.  The only challenge to get to the next place.  The sleep is earlier.  The air is better.  The tiredness is more real, the kind of physical toughness, not of mental stress.  The temptation – of buying another coffee, of having recourse to “oh, we can just go out tonight” is gone.   It is, even if for a fleeting moment in one’s life, a feeling of total self-sufficiency and a small test of endurance.

Though, as a friend pointed out to me later, Thoreau was also crazy.

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