One of New Zealand’s Great walks, the Kepler Track is a 60km loop walk right outside Te Anau, making it the most accessible of the Great Walks. As it is not as popular or famous as the Routeburn or Milford Tracks it can often be booked shortly before your trip. You should still expect that in the December/January high season that the huts will be full each night. The walk is all about the alpine ridgeline section on day 2 which, on a good day, provides views across Lake Te Anau to the Murchison Mountains. Of course to get to the ridgeline you have to hike a fair bit uphill – 800m on day 1 and the same again on day 2, albeit that on day 2 the path is more undulating.
Closest town: Te Anau, voted by the New Zealand Wilderness Magazine as the best town in New Zealand for outdoor enthusiasts. Te Anau can be reached by flying into Queenstown and taking one of the frequent bus services between the two towns. All supplies can be bought in Te Anau.
Getting to and from the walk: The Control Gates, where most people start the walk is a 2km walk from the centre of Te Anau. Alternatively, Tracknet offers a drop off and pick up service between Te Anau, the Control Gates and Rainbow Reach (an alternative start or finish point for those who don’t want to do the final 9.5km around the lake back to the Control Gates). Don’t get off the bus at Rainbow Reach, usually the second stop, unless you are up for a long day.
Accommodation: New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) huts. Camping sites are also available but as no camping is permitted on the alpine section the distances between camping sites are significant making camping an option for those of above average fitness only. DOC huts ($54 per person each per night) have bunks with mattresses, gas stoves, water and flushing toilets. All other gear must be brought in and any rubbish packed out.
Weather: The weather in the Fiordland region of New Zealand is changeable and at any time of year the track may be impassable due to bad weather. We spoke to another couple who had tried to do the track three weeks before we did at the end of November only to be turned back on day 2 due to a snowstorm. The enjoyment of the track is entirely weather dependent. Two years ago Rob walked the track for the first time in a rain storm unable to see more than a few metres ahead and crossed the ridgeline wondering if he was going to be blown off the mountain.
Best time of year: December through to April, albeit that the avalanche season can extend into December. DOC manages the risk to a low level in the November to April period by closing the track when the avalanche risk is high.
Duration: Whilst the fastest time to do the track is about 4 hours 30 minutes (by a runner in the annual Kepler Challenge), most normal people take 3 – 4 days.
Day 1 – Control Gates to Luxmore Hut (13.8km, 5 – 6 hours). Like most people we chose to walk the track in a counter clockwise direction from the Control Gates to Luxmore Hut. The track was flat for the first hour or so following the lakeshore through beech forest to Brod Bay, where there is a campsite and basic toilet facilities. We stopped here for a short break but didn’t stay long because the sandflies were voracious. From Brod Bay the track ascended through the forest through a series of switchbacks from an elevation of about 250m to an elevation of 1085m. The sign at Brod Bay indicates that the ascent to Luxmore Hut can take 4 hours, although fit people in good weather can complete it in half that time. By this I took it that DOC was not casting aspersions on the fitness of all those people who, like me, take longer than 2 hours but were attempting to give a better indicator to those of above average fitness. Determined to demonstrate to Rob that all this hiking in New Zealand was doing something to improve my fitness by coming in closer to the 2 hour mark than the 4 hour mark, I set off at what felt, at least to me, to be a cracking pace. An hour later and I felt spent – it was time for a scroggin break. It was at this point that we were passed by Marco and Mona from Hamburg who didn’t seem to be having any difficulty with the climb. Half an hour after our break we reached the limestone bluffs and worked our way round them across the wooden pathways and stairs before taking another break at the top of the bluffs. From there we continued on through the forest to the bushline where we again caught up with Marco and Mona (from the start of the bluffs to the bushline was about an hour’s walk). After taking a break to chat about important things like how to order beer in German, the four of us left the shade of the forest and followed the track across the tussocks. With the forest left behind there was nothing to impede the panoramic views of Lake Te Anau and the surrounding mountains. About half an hour after leaving the bushline we reached Luxmore Hut. The walk up from Brod Bay to the hut took 3 hours – so I figured that I’m not fit, but not completely unfit. After rehydrating, Marco, who had not had enough hiking uphill, took off to tackle the Mt Luxmore summit whilst there was good weather; Mona did a side trip to look at a nearby cave; and Rob and I went for a nap.
Day 2 – Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut (14.6km, 5 – 6 hours). The day for which nearly everyone does the Kepler Track because of its extensive alpine ridgeline walks. Although it doesn’t look like it from the elevation profile provided in the DOC brochure the undulating nature of the track, according to the ranger in the Luxmore Hut, means that you gain as much elevation as the previous day. Combine that with the final descent of about 800m down into Iris Burn Hut and most people who arrived in the hut that evening were ready for an early night. The day started with a climb up to a ridge just before the summit of Mt Luxmore – the track clearly snaking ever up hill. From the turn off to the summit (half an hour return – I didn’t bother, figuring I was already high enough) the track descended to Forest Burn Emergency Shelter (with a table and basic toilet facilities) losing all of the elevation that had been gained from Luxmore Hut. It took us about an hour and 45 minutes to reach that point. From the shelter the track sidled upwards again until the ridgeline section was reached. The ridgeline section then proceeded more gently upwards until shortly before Hanging Valley Shelter where there was a final short steep section. It took us about an hour and a half to make the crossing between the two shelters. After Hanging Valley Shelter the track continued along the ridgeline, this time descending with the help of a series of wooden stairs. At the end of the ridgeline the track descended through numerous switchbacks into the bushline, through the forest and towards Iris Burn. The DOC sign indicated that it takes 2 hours from the shelter to the hut and we took the whole of that period to complete the section. For those with bad knees the section was not much fun and there were quite a few people who, once at the hut, braved the sandflies and entered the freezing water of the burn to try and provide some relief for their knees. We spent dinner chatting to Marco and Mona and Livia (from Hungary now living in the Netherlands) and Tim (from the Netherlands). They were all fluent in English and German, the conversation mainly in English but switching seamlessly to German when English was inadequate. Tim and Livia also spoke Dutch, with Livia able to speak French and Hungarian. As an Australian you can only be amazed at the multilingual ability of Europeans. There are many advantages to living in Australia, but the development of an adeptness with languages is not one of them.
Day 3 – Iris Burn Hut to Moturau Hut (16.2km, 4 – 6 hours). The ranger at the Iris Burn Hut described this section as his favourite and said that he could not understand those people who had the attitude that it was boring. Yes, if birds flitting across a track following a clear, pure stream through a beech forest with moss covered logs and rocks doesn’t interest you then this section of the track will be boring. We found it pretty enjoyable, particularly given that, save for a couple of short climbs uphill, the track is mostly a gentle downhill. From the hut the track climbed over a low saddle and then passed over a large slip heading downhill for 2 hours to a work camp for the track and Rocky Point Shelter. After the shelter the track headed uphill out of the gorge, before descending back down to the burn. As the burn neared the lake the track headed away left, cutting through the forest before it came out at Lake Manapouri. From here the path followed the lakeshore until Moturau Hut was reached (about 2 hours from the shelter). For those wishing to do the track in 3 days it is a further 6km on to Rainbow Reach car park where the Tracknet bus does a regular pick up at 3pm.
Day 4 – Moturau Hut to Rainbow Reach or Control Gates (6km, 1.5 hours; or, 15.5km, 4 hours). The mainly flat track proceeded through the forest moving away from the lake until it reached a wetland (45 minutes). Apparently, on a clear day the viewpoint in the wetland provides a view back up to Mt Luxmore. Unfortunately, we did not have a clear day and so could not see anything other than cloud. After crossing the wetland the track cut across the forest to the Waiau River and climbed up to a terrace which followed the river. After a short walk along the terrace we reached the swing bridge to the Rainbow Reach car park exit. Most people, including us, leave the track here and catch the bus back to Te Anau (10am and 3pm; 20 minutes). The alternative is to ignore the exit and continue up the river for a further 9.5km to the Control Gates.
For more information: see our A Beginner’s Guide to Hiking in New Zealand post.