Hiking the Kepler Track
Updated: Aug 7, 2020
Instead of hosting a house party that got me evicted like last year, I decided that turning 26 meant I should branch out and do something a little more unexpected...unusual... 'un-annie' like... something off the beaten track. Like hiking 60km through wild and rocky terrains with 10kgs on my back in the mud and rain...
The Kepler Track is one of New Zealand's 10 Great Walks and rightly so - it is SPECTACULAR and though challenging, I would do it all again. Here's our journey...
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Full hike length: 60km
Time to complete: 3-4 days
Accommodation options: Pre-booked camping or bunk beds in shared huts
Difficulty: Intermediate / hard
Terrain: Steep ascents and descents including steps. Track is well marked,
I know a handful of people that did the track in 2 days, one night - however, for ease and leisure (you still want to enjoy the scenery and not be rushed!) I would highly recommend taking 3 days and 2 nights to complete the Kepler. According to the doc website most trampers take 4 days and 3 nights - though anyone of moderate fitness can keep it to 3 days; walking for between 6-8 hours a day. We met a staggering number of hikers aged 60+ who all smashed out the track in 4 days!
Because the Kepler is a loop track, you can begin walking from either end, however, I highly recommend the most common route which is starting at Brod Bay and finishing at Rainbow Reach. This ensures your final day will be mostly flat. As we were hiking we met people walking the opposite way to us and we sighed with relief that we had chosen to follow the majority.
The huts were freezing in March! Especially Luxmore which is perched 1085m above the bush line on Mount Luxmore. Ensure you take enough lightweight layers and comfies to sleep and chill in.
You're going to be STUNNED by the views so a light camera or smart phone is a must - there are so many incredible views and you're likely to encounter a cheeky Kea bird! I am so grateful I was able to capture these moments. I just took my iPhone so that I wasn't carrying any heavy camera gear and it's all I needed.
The Great Walks season this year runs from 27 October 2020 – 30 April 2021, if you are walking the trails outside of this season, you must be experienced and be fully equipped to tramp in the snow (facilities are reduced and this is not recommended).
Sleeping arrangements MUST be booked prior to arriving if walking within the Great Walks season. There are limited spaces so as soon as the bookings are open GET IN THERE FAST! Some people wait for years to be able to do these hikes. I booked late November ready for the early March slot.
You must carry with you everything that you will need, including taking your rubbish with you as there are no disposal facilities. Take enough food and water, layers of clothing and ditch anything you're unsure about. See packing tips below.
Further official info: https://www.doc.govt.nz/keplertrack
In the Great Walks season
40-54 bunks with mattresses in communal rooms.
Water supply, flushing toilets, wash basins with cold running water (no showers).
Heating with gas available, and solar lighting in the main area. Bring a torch for night time.
Cooking facilities with gas, tables and seating (no cooking utensils or matches).
A friendly conservation ranger - they like to chat, they know the area well and can tell you about the environment and weather, or help out should an emergency arise.
I was actually really impressed with how we managed to downsize our packing! I'm not usually a light packer, but I had gathered ideas from others that had already hiked the trail and formulated the following list so that everything we carried served a purpose.
Our bags weighed a total of 10kg which is certainly enough for 3 days, 2 nights when you're staying in the huts. How people hike with their tents and stoves over their shoulders I do not know, but kudos to them for their strength and stamina!
We received a lot of comments from other hikers during our journey regarding the conciseness and small/light appearance of our backpacks; "what did you even bring?", "and you have enough food in there to last THREE days!?", "wow, you guys are minimal aren't you?". It felt good to be the one not struggling with their luggage for once...
When packing, consider taking the lightest options. Collapsible cups, lightweight bamboo cutlery instead of silverware, thermals and mix'n'match clothing options etc. Remember that your food is going to be the most hefty component in your bag, but as the days go by and you eat into your inventory, it'll ease off!
The packing list will differ depending on whether you are solo hiking or doing it with others. Because JJ and I completed the trek together, we were able to evenly distribute the weight of the food, pots/pan and essential toiletries. Because we were each others entertainment too, we had no need for our books or iPads... but once again, this is all subjective to the individual.
We both took a standard 30L backpack each - next time though I would take a larger bag so that my rolled sleeping bag was on the INSIDE. Due to lack of space, we had ours strapped to the outside which wasn't practical at all. I also carried a little satchel (a bum bag would also be ideal) across my body for easy access to sweets, my phone, the info packs, lip balm, gloves and tissues.
Lighter or matches - the huts have gas stoves but you'll need your own 'fire'
Power pack and charging cable
Ear plugs and Sleeping mask (I praise the universe that I packed these)
Wet wipes (there are no showers or hot water)
Thick hiking socks + spare
Sportswear - I took 2x sports bra's and 1x pair of cropped training leggings to wear underneath my waterproof layers. The weather alters fast so it's important to dress so that your layers are accessible.
Comfies - I took a pair of long jersey leggings and an oversized tee to hang around the hut in and sleep in
Thermal long sleeve tee / long johns
1x warm jumper or hoody
Waterproof trousers and waterproof jacket (do NOT go without these!)
Quality walking boots that you KNOW are comfortable and have broken in
Flips flops or slipper socks for wandering around the huts in (you must leave muddy boots at the door)
Backpack waterproof rain cover (it's likely going to rain in the Fiordlands, so be prepared to protect your stuff!)
All Seasons quality sleeping bag
Sun cream and bug spray
Beanie hat and lightweight gloves
tooth brush / paste / toiletry bag
zip lock bag for rubbish (you are expected to carry your waste around with you)
Water bottle / tea flask
Food and cooking oil
Small frying pan / pot / cooking utensils (only take what you need for the meals that you have planned!)
$14pp cash if you wish to get on the shuttle bus back to Te Anau
Avoid taking tins / cans or anything heavy that you cannot crush down as you are expected to carry all of your rubbish around with you. There are no waste disposal units except for sanitary products in the toilets.
We had planned to take plastic lunchboxes but in the end left them at home as they took up too much room. Instead we wrapped all our sandwiches in reusable tin foil or put them in my silicone zip lock bags to keep them fresh.
I am vegan and my partner is a vegetarian, so our meals were pretty much plant-based between us. This helped keep things light and healthy, though we made sure to eat loads of slow-energy releasing carbs to keep us going! Pasta is great for this.
Nuts and seeds are great sources of protein and make perfect savory snacks over trying to cart around packets of crushed crisps!
Don't be stingy with yourself; when you're using up that much energy and struggling under your aching body you're going to need some little pick-me-ups. Do not deny yourself sugary goods! Pack chocolate (we took dark mint choc) and some sweets to keep you buzzing (2 x packs of sour skittles were my saving grace).
Breakfast: we ate smashed avocado on toasted ciabatta with tomatoes, spinach, seeds and nuts for breakfast before we left the house on the morning of day 1, filling us up ready to begin the hike! On the other mornings we had vegan sausages with left over pasta (actually very tasty) and my homemade oaty flapjack bars.
Lunch: we prepared sandwiches before hand that would last us the full 3 days. I had vegan cheese, branston pickle, salad leaves and cucumber on thick ciabatta rolls. These were ideal for when we stopped off at view points for a quick picnic.
Snacks & Desserts (for the 3 days): Salt & Vinegar snack crackers, apples, blueberries, breakfast bars, bliss balls, homemade oat and berry flapjacks, dark chocolate, pot noodles, pre-cooked vegan sausage rolls, skittles. Not super healthy but definitely filled the bellies of two tall energetic adults! It's important to have a variety of little snacks to keep you inspired- we ate different treats at check points in order to motivate us to get there!
Dinner: we made pasta with vegan bacon, pre-chopped courgette and broccoli which we sealed in a silicone zip lock bag (great idea to chop large veggies beforehand to save on space and time), a veggie stock cube, salt and pepper to taste. On the second night we cooked vegan sausages and chopped them into our BACK COUNTRY vegan pasta packs (you can buy these hiking meals from Pack'n'Save for just $7 and they're actually quite yum, the only one I found which was vegan was the Italian style pasta).
Before you begin, you are recommended to sign in to the DOC office in Te Anau - this let's the staff know who is walking and who to expect at the huts that day. They also give you an info pack and hut passes.
As mentioned above, I recommend you begin the trail at Brod Bay and end in Rainbow Reach. If you are driving, I suggest parking your vehicle at Rainbow Reach and hitch hiking to the Kepler Track car park. This will cut out 2.5 hours from your hike which takes you on a long boring road (nothing to see). We were advised to do this by friends who had done the same and we were super grateful for the heads up. This way, when you finish the hike at Rainbow Reach, your vehicle is already waiting for you!
Once you arrive at the Kepler Track car park you can begin your trek to the first check point in Brod Bay...
DAY 1: LUXMORE HUT
From the Kepler track car park we walked 5.6km to Brod Bay. We began our walk at 2pm which was a lot later than we originally planned, but it didn't hinder us at all - I would just suggest not starting any later than that due to it going dark.
From Brod Bay to Luxmore hut it was a challenging steep ascent of 893m. This section was 8.2km but we managed to smash the whole 13.8km in just 3.5 hours! That didn't make it any more pleasant though - it was tough.
We reached the hut after a grueling 23,682 steps through the rain and rejoiced at being able to drop our backpacks on the floor! Aching shoulders and sore feet were going to be a painful reality over the next few days. At 7.30pm the lovely hut ranger gave everyone an extremely informative talk regarding the local flora and fauna whilst we ate our pasta, laughing at her stories and listening intently to her vast wealth of environmental knowledge.
Ideally we wanted to visit the Luxmore caves which were a 20 min return trip back to the hut, but sadly we missed out due to the now heavy rain.
After a game or five of cards, we cuddled up in our sleeping bags and attempted to sleep in a room with 30 other guests... JJ can sleep through an earthquake so had no trouble, me on the other hand, struggled to shut out the snores. I was extremely grateful for my ear plugs.
First day entertainment involved a lot of talking to myself whilst JJ raced ahead...
I also found a great big stick (Gandalf staff) that aided me around the whole track! Honestly who needs expensive walking poles when you have Mother Nature providing tools...
DAY 2: IRIS BURN HUT
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME! Today I turned 26 and celebrated by trekking a hefty 6 hours over some of the most jaw dropping terrain I could have imagined. I felt like Jeff Goldblum on the film set of Jurassic Park. We originally set our alarms to wake for sunrise but typical, the cloud was so low that we couldn't see ANYTHING out of the hut windows.
The weather was pretty bad from 7am-11am so we hung around the hut until it looked to clear, hoping that our late start would mean clearer views and less rainfall. Besides, we weren't in a hurry - you have the whole day to trek and once you arrive at the next hut there's little to entertain anyway.
Walking cautiously along the ridge lines was unnerving to say the least - especially when all you could see either side of the pathway were clouds blanketing what appeared to be a bottomless sky. It rained lightly on and off all day, though the eerie weather made for some excellent photos. We were at an elevation of 689m and completed 16.64km on this leg.
We were lucky enough to meet three Kea birds along our journey - if you don't know anything about Kea's, the most important thing to remember is to zip your bag up and leave nothing unattended in their pesky presence! The Kea is the only alpine parrot in THE WORLD and they are curious little creatures - infamous for their ability to entertain and then quickly snaffle your snacks.
Our journey on day 2 consisted of constant uphill-downhill tramping, a lot of "woahhhhh" 's and some spectacular forestry. Once we had ventured over the ridge lines (which honestly seemed to take forever), we descended steeply into the most magical woodland I've ever seen.
Now I felt like Bilbo Baggins.
Luminous green shrubbery camouflaged the entire forest floor, extraordinary tree trunks twisted and intertwined to form natural archways whilst unusual vegetation sprouted from every crevice. Although the vertically declining route absolutely pounded my knees and crippled my already aching shoulders, this section for me was the most magical and otherworldly.
We reached the Iris Burn hut after once again smashing our 6 hour target in 4.5 (including lunch and breaks!). We excitedly bounced into the kitchen to whip up our dinner and play cards with another young couple we had befriended. One of the older ladies we ended up sharing a dinner table with, presented me with the only gift she could find in her backpack as a birthday present. I have never been happier to receive a passion fruit!
DAY 3: FINAL LEG
The final leg was the longest, but it was the most flat - so despite our more leisurely pace, we were motivated to power on through the grassy woodlands and soak up the sun that peered in through the leafy canopy.
22.2km later we get to Rainbow Reach car park and hitch hike back to our van at the Kepler Track starting point (note: we recommend doing the hitch hiking at the start of your trip so that it's done and out of the way, we were super lucky to find a generous American couple with an RV who picked us up after 15 minutes of walking in the searing heat). We high five, strip off our sweaty clothes and lie breathless in the grass next to our van.
We smelt like Shrek's swamp and were waddling like fat penguins as our muscles began to seize, but celebrations were called for! We drove into Te Anau to down a pint of cider at a local cafe before heading back to Queenstown to relax in a hot tub at Onsen Hot Pools.
It was the most physically challenging thing I had ever done, so stargazing with a glass of bubbly in a hot tub was definitely a great way to end our great walk.
WALKING FOR CHARITY
Before we completed the hike, we created a birthday fundraiser through Facebook and managed to raise $600 nzd to donate to charity: water. It was important to me that this journey benefited more than just our own physical achievements. Water is crucial to our existence, and it resonated deeply that though during our walk our own supply would be limited, that billions of people across the globe are without clean sanitation and drinking water EVERY DAY. Being neglected of this basic human right to hydrate brings unfathomable suffering.
Charity: Water is a non-profit bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations. In just ten years, they've funded more than 51,000 water projects in 28 developing countries. When complete, these projects will provide clean, safe drinking water for more than 11.2 million people. So although my personal fundraiser has ended, please if you can, donate to their incredible mission: https://www.charitywater.org/
Thank you for reading and please feel free to reach out if you have any questions regarding the trail!