|You know how with the Lord of the Rings movies there were 3 episodes chronicling the journey made by Froto and Sam in order to save mankind - well the Kepler is something like that (OK, except for the mankind part). It's not that you find yourself using bursts of energy for immediate view results; rather it's more of an endurance game. A three and a half day endurance game. The fact that it's three and a half days makes it feel a lot like Lords, given that each of the days has it's own challenges and rewards. It was especially tough on the second day.
Before setting out from Te Anau, we were treated to New Year's Eve fireworks over the lake - quite impressive actually for this very small town. The combination hostel/campground we stayed at even had security for the night to handle all the boozers! We had decided to hire better jackets for the tramp simply because the weather reports were not good, and there was even an expectation of snow (Yes, beautiful summer in New Zealand)! The Gortex on our jackets is a little worn out, so they're not that waterproof anymore. We also hired a "billy" which is a single pot with a handle that two people use (you have to keep the pack weight down), one person eating from the pot and the other from the lid.
On the first day we had a 1000 m climb from the lake all the way up to first hut in the alpine called Luxmore hut. We tramped the day with a really experienced Kiwi family of five from Nelson. Even the kids had pretty big packs. It was a fun, but steep day. The hut itself is manned by a ranger who lives there during the tramping season, walking out only once every couple of weeks. The huts are fantastically set up, but basic. Gas cookers are provided in a large communal area that feels like a ski lodge. There's also a potbelly stove to help dry gear. Then there are a few bunkrooms where everyone sleeps side by side on large wooden bunks, mattresses provided. We went to visit a small cave nearby just before dinner where it was VERY, VERY dark with our lights off!
At 7:30 pm, after everyone had eaten, the ranger came to give us tomorrow's weather report. There was a good chance the track was going to be closed due to high alpine winds and the possibility of a fair amount of snow. Just our luck we thought. We all went to bed thinking we might be turning back in the morning. Things only got worse overnight as a HUGE storm came through with tonnes of wind and rain - the entire hut was rattling and shaking all night long - just a wicked storm! I kept waking up thinking the rafters were coming down on my head.
By morning the rain had subsided a little, and we were all told the track was open, but it would not be easy, and the decision to go ahead was ours. Hmm... Before we left, we borrowed a few Ziploc bags from another tramper and jammed all of our dry clothes and sleeping bags in them in an effort to keep them dry. Having a dry set of clothes and sleeping bag would be essential upon arrival at Iris Burn (the next hut) to prevent hypothermia, and since our packs had no pack liners, this was the way to go. Lots of reassurance there! We decided to leave fairly early to give ourselves lots of time and to have people behind us just in case.
The track continued to climb further into the alpine as the rain fell on top of us. Soon, the wind also came and the rain turned to hail. We trudged along, getting pelted in the face every time we turned the wrong way - it was getting cold too! The track itself climbed another 500 Metres before traveling for an amazing 12 km along a series of arêtes surrounding a beautiful valley. Looking down the other side of the arête, there were equally beautiful, but completely separate valleys. The views were stunning, but we have no pictures! Unfortunately, I was carrying the camera on an outer pouch of the pack and it got soaked and stopped working! Damn, I thought, we'll need a new one of those for sure and I was worried about the pictures already on the card!
It would have been next to impossible to take pictures anyway. Along the arête there were two emergency huts, equally spaced between Luxmore and Iris Burn that made it possible to cross on a day like today. Everyone crams into the huts just to have a small snack, or cut up a sandwich, and then moves on as quickly as possible. If you stop for too long, you feel like you might not be able to continue! Without the shelters, it would have been very, very tough to complete this section of the track. A couple of times along the arête we were forced to stop and brace ourselves as winds up to 90 kph would rise up the valleys and spill over the top of the ridge. Freaky stuff!
Eventually, we came off the arête, drenched and cold, the track falling into a series of very steep switchbacks back down to the tree line. The trees were a welcomed sight after being tossed around like a salad. The track continued like this for another three hours as the steep 1300 m descent eventually reaches a waterfall laced valley where the Iris Burn hut is located. Man we're we glad to get to that place! Slept well that night.
The next day was fairly easy for us - 6 hours over 16 km, but all along a river valley gently sloping toward the lake. Our packs were getting lighter as we had consumed some of the food, so life was grand. The night before, there were a few people going the other way who now faced a 1300 m climb plus 12 km along an arête before reaching Luxmore. The track remained open, but there was a lot of snow that had fallen overnight - we made it just in time! Fortunately, it started to clear a bit late in the morning up in the alpine area, so the others probably had a fairly good day, save perhaps have to walk through the snow.
Once we reached the Montrau hut, it was swimming time! Three long days without a shower made that a really good feeling, even though the water temperature was something below 10 degrees C. This was all fine with my polar bear wife of course - I don't know how she just walks in all the time - it takes me hours!
Our final day was just a 3 hour walk to Rainbow Reach, where there was an option to cut off the last 10 km of the track (we'd had enough after 52 km anyway!) by crossing a suspension bridge over to a dirt road for pickup. We had arranged to be picked up there at 5 pm, but we arrived at 12:30 not realizing when we booked the shuttle how short a walk we had on the fourth day. Fortunately, I was able to catch a ride into town with another few people to retrieve the car and then I drove back out to pick up Kristine, another tramper, and a guy's bag who had injured his knee. He refused to end his tramp at Rainbow because he wanted to "close the loop", but he couldn't do it with his pack, so we took it into town and dropped it at his hotel for him. That's the way everything works in NZ.
It was quite a sense of accomplishment to have completed the tramp - I'm told it's one of the longest and toughest in NZ, so that felt good. And really, tramping is one of the best things to do in this country, as it is so well set up. It's hard to go wrong, and the satisfaction is great. The only thing missing was an evil ring and a volcano to throw it into ;)