Since the Kepler Track opened in 1988, it has gone from raw rookie to seasoned veteran as it has found its place among Fiordland’s canon of Great Walks.
It was 1988.
The Department of Conservation was just one year old, New Zealand was mired in the stock market crash and Fiordland had a brand new track. Not just a track, but a great one. With tops, forest, rivers, lakes, wetlands, views – the whole gamut. And three large, purpose-built huts.
Fiordland’s other two premier tracks, the Milford and Routeburn, both had a pedigree dating back more than a century. Unlike those through-tracks with their complicated access, the bespoke Kepler Track formed a neat loop, beginning and ending near Te Anau. From the shores of Lake Te Anau, it rose onto the tops, east of the Kepler Mountains, then cut a surgical line past Mt Luxmore, with views over South Fiord towards the Murchison Mountains of takahē fame. Then the route descended into the Iris Burn, which it followed to Lake Manapouri – saved by a huge conservation campaign back in the 1970s, and reputed to be the country’s most beautiful. Finally, the track followed the Waiau River back to Lake Te Anau, ending a logical, 60km circuit.
DOC opened the track in February 1988, as part of that year’s National Parks Centennial.
The following summer, two university mates sent me pictures of the track, showing them sun-tanned and shirtless, standing next to blue tarns, posing with sunglasses on and stomachs sucked in. I got the message. This track is cool and you aren’t here.
The next summer I walked the track with two other friends. The weather was bad, the tarns were grey, not blue, and I felt no inclination to take my shirt off. Murk obscured the South Fiord. Despite being February, the wind blew glacially cold. We wore full storm gear. Three Japanese hikers – wearing cotton business shirts and with handkerchiefs wrapped around their blue ears – carried their food in plastic shopping bags. The wind tore at their shirts like a demon. We worried they would die.
The track itself, still raw from where miniature diggers had cut into the hillsides, looked a little industrial. The Iris Burn waterfall was scenic enough, but it was nothing on the Sutherland Falls.
Overall, I found the Kepler underwhelming.
It was 30 years before I returned. This time in winter. The passage of decades had softened the track, which was now nicely bedded down in the landscape, its hard edges softened by moss and ferns. We climbed above cloud, which lay in the South Fiord like a glacier, to find snow lying thickly over the tops. Fiordland’s uniform-height mountains stretched to infinity; ranks of peaks aligned like a great white army.
From Luxmore Hut, we snow-shoed over the tops, and despite the aid of these clever devices, sank to our knees. We gloried in the sparkling, windless day. After a brew and lunch at the Hanging Valley Shelter, it was down the stairs into the shadowy, frigid Iris Burn, which hadn’t seen sun for weeks. Hoar-frost covered everything, lacing the ferns in delicate white filigree; coating the hut with ice needles. The thermometer inside read -12℃. It felt colder.
The next day, we strolled down the Iris Burn, out of the snow, past the colossal landslide of 1984, to reach Lake Manapouri. On this day, it was the country’s most beautiful lake. Mound-like islands protruded like beehives from the glassy water. Winter reflection perfection.
One last day, past the Forest Burn wetlands. Burn – Scottish for stream, pronounced with a rolling Southland ‘rrrr’. Then a cheater’s exit to Rainbow Reach – missing the last few beechy kilometres because we had planes to catch.
Winter and time had restored the Kepler’s reputation. The track had gone from raw rookie to seasoned veteran. Found its balance in the landscape, and earned its own place in Fiordland’s canon of Great Walks.
- Shaun Barnett is the former editor of Wilderness and the magazine’s current editor-at-large.
Meet the warden: Janine Martig
Janine Martig was a hut warden at Iris Burn Hut for the 2018/19 season, then at Luxmore Hut for the 2019/20 season. She will be back at Luxmore in 2020/21.
Best wildlife encounter: Both Iris Burn and Luxmore are popular stops on kea flight paths. Apparently some people find them annoying but I never tire of their company and antics. My most surprising kea encounter – and one of my most memorable days – was at Luxmore when I was lounging in the grass just off the track to the caves, when an adult male kea hopped closer and closer, then extended his beak and began grooming my head. It kept grooming for a couple of minutes, mostly gently, before pulling on a few strands of hair and disrupting my stillness.
What’s something you recommend walkers do: In the last light of the day, it’s nice to walk up the track to the Luxmore Caves, whether or not you actually feel like exploring them. It’s a great time for taking photos – all the plants are looking their best and you get a clear view of the final approach to the hut through the open tussock area. Tussock is underrated, I think, especially when light is playing on it.
What’s in tramper’s packs? Some people pack strange things. One of the oddest was a heavy pressure-cooker, though the spicy smells coming from it were to die for. They shared their dinner with me, which made a silly item into something pretty special! But I know for a fact that they’ll switch to lightweight cookware in future.
Best time to walk the Kepler: Any time from late October to early May is equally as awesome. The weather can be kind or testing at any time. The secret is to be prepared for all conditions – sun, rain, snow and wind. And for goodness sake, make sure your footwear has good tread and is not on its last legs – it’s a 60km walk, so don’t use it for your footwear’s last stand!
In the neighbourhood
Alternative track: Experience southern Fiordland on the soon-to-be Great Walk, the Humpridge Track.
Since you’re already here: If you haven’t got your fill of lakes, take a stroll on the Te Anau Lakefront Walk.
Just got a weekend? Spend a night above Te Anau in Luxmore Hut, with a sunrise at the summit.
Where to stay: Te Anau has multiple accommodation options, including backpackers, hotels, campsites and lodges.
Where to stock up: Outside Sports, Fiordland Frontier Supplies or Bev’s Tramping Gear Hire in Te Anau.
Walking the Kepler Track
One of just two Great Walk loop tracks, the Kepler can also be walked from Te Anau township.
Kepler Track car park to Luxmore Hut
The track hugs the shore of Lake Te Anau to Brod Bay, where it begins a steep switch-back ascent. Above the treeline, stunning views over Lake Te Anau are revealed from amongst the tussock and the hut is then reached within an hour. Side tracks to Luxmore Cave and Mt Luxmore are worthwhile.
Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut
The day begins with a climb to a ridgeline which provides staggering views across the south fiord of Lake Te Anau and the Murchison Mountains. The tops travel in this section is marvellous – perhaps the best of any Great Walk. Two shelters – Forest Burn and Hanging Valley – provide good spots for a snack or break from the weather before the steep descent into the Iris Burn. A 20 minute walk leading to the impressive falls is a must-do side trip from the hut.
Iris Burn Hut to Moturau Hut
The track follows the river down a glacial valley beneath beech and podocarps to the shores of Lake Manapouri. Sidling around Shallow Bay, the track soon reaches Moturau Hut – home to many sandflies.
Moturau Hut to Kepler Track car park
The final day begins in the forest before emerging into a boardwalk section crossing a wetland. Before long, it returns to the forest and follows the Waiau River to Rainbow Reach, where some trampers may wish to shuttle back to Te Anau. Those who continue follow Waiau River for another 2-3hr to reach the car park.the Kepler Track car park.
- Total Ascent
- Moderate / Difficult
- 3-4 days. To Luxmore Hut, 5-6.5hr; To Iris Burn Hut, 5-6hr; To Moturau Hut, 5-6hr; To car park, 4-5hr
- Luxmore Hut (54 bunks), Iris Burn Hut (50 bunks), Moturau Hut (40 bunks), Iris Burn Campsite
- Kepler Track car park at the Control Gates, Te Anau