GREAT WALK: KEPLER TRACK
The Kepler Track in the south west of the South Island circles through magnificent Fiordland scenery, crossing the high mountain ridges between Lake Te Anau and Lake Manapouri and offering panoramic views.
Each day of this 3-4 day 60 kilometre walk offers a different perspective. The track starts on the shores of Lake Te Anau and winds up above the bushline to Mount Luxmore, through the glacier-carved Hanging Valley to Lake Manapouri, before following the Waiau River through some of the country's finest stands of red beech back to its starting point. The Kepler Track was designed to take the pressure off the other two Fiordland Great Walks, the Milford and the Routeburn, and is now almost as popular, with its well-graded track and well-spaced modern huts.
There is rich birdlife in the forested sections of track, where bellbirds, fantails, wood pigeons and parakeets can often be seen. Tiny native bats or pekapeka, weighing less than half the weight of a sparrow, inhabit the area, and are sometimes seen at twilight above the grassland sections of the track. There is even a slight chance that you may see a rare takahe, one of only 250 left in the world. These flightless birds live in the Murchison Mountains, which can be seen to the north from Luxmore Hut, and are thought to be expanding into the Kepler Mountains as their numbers increase.
The Kepler Track has the great advantage that it is easily accessible from Te Anau, starting from the Lake Te Anau/Waiau River Control Gates, five kilometres from Te Anau, and forming a loop back to its starting point. Don't be deceived by its accessibility, however. The Kepler is more strenuous than either the Routeburn or the Milford, and the second day is spent entirely above the bush line, where you can be exposed to severe weather, including wind gusts strong enough to blow you off your feet.
There are three Department of Conservation huts and two campsites on the track, and bookings are required during peak season, from late October to late April. The useful Kepler Track brochure can be downloaded from the Department of Conservation's website, and you can buy the Kepler Track map from the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre in Te Anau, or online from Clearwater Tarn or Craig Potton Publishing.
The track may be walked in either direction. This track description follows the Department of Conservation guide in going anti-clockwise, allowing you to make sure the weather is clear on the second day before setting off through the exposed Forest Burn Saddle. The downside is that you will be tackling a climb of almost 900 metres on the first day when your pack is at its heaviest.
Control Gates to Luxmore Hut (13.8 kilometres, 5-6 hours): The track follows the lakeshore through beech forest and tree fern groves to Dock Bay. It continues across Coal Creek Bridge and follows the lakeshore to the delightful sandy beach at Brod Bay, a good place to swim and camp. From here, it's all uphill, the track climbing steeply from the beach up to impressive limestone bluffs and then on up to the bushline, where there are views of Lake Te Anau and Lake Manapouri and the surrounding mountains. The route from here to the Luxmore Hut is marked by orange-topped snow poles.
Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut (14.6 kilometres, 5-6 hours): In heavy rain, strong winds, or wintry weather, wait at the hut until the weather improves. From the hut, the track climbs gradually to a ridge just below the top of 1,472 metre Mount Luxmore. There is a 10 minute side track to the summit, for panoramic views in fine weather. From the ridge, the track descends to a shelter and then crosses the Forest Burn Saddle, where there may be severe wind gusts, to the Hanging Valley Shelter. It then follows a long, open ridge towards the Iris Burn, and descends via a series of zigzags into Hanging Valley, and then down through forest to the Iris Burn Hut. From the hut, there is a 20 minute walk upstream to the Iris Burn waterfall.
Iris Burn Hut to Moturau Hut (16.2 kilometres, 5-6 hours): The track starts behind the hut and descends steadily through beech forest and riverside clearings beside the Iris Burn. There is a short climb over a low saddle, and then the track leads through mixed forest to the Big Slip, formed during heavy rain in 1984, and on to Rocky Point, the half way mark. Below Rocky Point, the track enters a gorge and sidles alongside the river before following the lakeshore around Shallow Bay to Moturau Hut, situated beside a beautiful beach with panoramic views of Lake Manapouri.
Moturau Hut to Control Gates (15.5 kilometres, 4-5.5 hours): The last day is an easy walk through beech forest. The track crosses a wetland where dragonflies hover and then crosses the Forest Burn just above its outlet into Balloon Loop, before following the river terraces to the swingbridge at Rainbow Reach. You can finish the track at Rainbow Reach, and catch a shuttle bus the 12 kilometres back to Te Anau, or continue on the track alongside the trout-filled Waiau River back to the Control Gates through magnificent stands of red beech.