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Tramping the Kepler Track

by Pamela Blalock and John Bayley

When we starting telling friends and family about our plans to pack up and move to New Zealand, most were astonished but quite a few said they would come visit. Well, our friend, Susan Lowery was the first to make the trip. Susan gets more vacation time than anyone I know and takes full advantage by travelling lots. In fact if you poke around the web site, you will see that we have travelled a bit together. We always have a great time on these holidays. So shortly after we broke the news that we were moving away, Susan told us she was planning to travel to New Zealand to climb Mt. Aspiring, and would come see us as well. She suggested we could all do some tramping (that's backpacking in kiwi-speak) to get her in shape for her climb. She was planning to come over in mid-January. There is a classing system in New Zealand for hikes and huts. There are huts practically everywhere, and they vary from very basic with dirt floors up to large modern facilities with flush toilets, gas cooking stoves, coal heating stoves and large bunkrooms. The Department of Conservation rates the huts and sells tickets and annual passes for using them. The very nicest huts are found on so-called great walks. The great-walks tend to be the best known and among the most popular. There is now a booking system in place to control numbers and ensure folks who book will get a bed on the great walks. Since January is kiwi school kids holiday month, as well as being the middle of summer, and a popular holiday time for lots of folks, the great walks tend to fill quickly for that time. So in October, we booked huts on the Kepler track for the January trip.

The Kepler is the newest of the great walks. The track was reworked a few years back. Trails were graded; steps were added in the steeper places, and of course these marvellous, luxurious huts were built. The route takes in beech forests, and high country with magnificent views along the open ridgeline of surrounding mountains and lakes below. The idea was to take some pressure off the best known great walk, the Milford Track, but now both of these get plenty of traffic.

The Kepler is a rarity in New Zealand, in that it is a circular route, starting and finishing at the same place. Many of the other routes (and organised bike rides too) are one way affairs, with a bit of added logistics and travel time getting to start and from end points. The Kepler is also conveniently located for day hikes from Te Anau. Many folks do a day hike up to the first hut and back out again. One can make faster progress without a heavy pack with 4 days of food and sleeping bags and clothes and such! And some folks even do the 70ish km route in a single day. There is an annual foot race that has folks run the entire route in less time than we would take to walk 1/4 of it. The trail is pretty smooth and wide in most places, but one section has about 300 steps, and some parts are a bit steep, so running the route must be a bit of a technical challenge. Anyway, we planned to do the route in 4 days, doing about 17 km per day, taking plenty of time to take in the sights, gather photographic evidence of our trip, and simply enjoy each others company.

On Susan's recommendation, John and I had bought some Limmer Boots back in August. We had slowly been trying to break them in, first on short walks, and gradually longer and longer day hikes. We likely should have broken them in more, and should have done more walking in general to prepare for this trip, but by the end, both our boots and bodies were well broken in. (Yes, we like the boots.) We also got new backpacks. Having moved to a country where backpacking presents such great opportunities, we knew that we would be doing lots more. We did a fair amount of research and chose the local manufacturer, MacPac. Given all the huts, we would not need a tent (We already have two, but we do actually plan at some point to get another one for cycle touring). We also picked up some trekking poles or walking sticks. These are great for taking some pressure off the knees, especially when carrying a load down hill, and provide some assistance uphill too. It takes a little practice to use them, and we'd tried them out on some walks around Nelson, but their first real test was on the Kepler. We already had most of the other required gear, like sleeping bags, good warm wool clothing and rain gear.

After our long drive down to Queenstown at Christmas, we decided to fly down for this trip. We arranged our flight to get in around the same time as Susan's, so we could meet at the airport in Queenstown. We, of course had not just changed 17 time zones, nor spent 24 hours getting here, so were fresh. Susan did remarkably well, but still wanted some time to get over the jet lag, so we planned a couple of days before the actual start of the first tramp. I also drove the rental car the first day to save her from having to think too much about driving a manual transmission car on the left, while sleep deprived and jet lagged. We enjoyed a great lunch at a local vineyard and then did a bit of shopping in Arrowtown and Queenstown. Both have numerous shops catering to the outdoor enthusiast and merino wool is found everywhere. Susan had a grand time buying woolies for herself and her family. We also picked up food for the trip. I had brought along some home-made cookies, but we also wanted real food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Tramping can be a great weight loss program, since you have to carry everything you eat, including the trash that's leftover. It's a real art to bring the right amount. So after all this shopping and a dinner in Queenstown, we turned in for the night. The next day we headed down to Te Anau and picked up our hut passes from the DOC, so we could start hiking first thing the following day.

We had spectacular weather and views for all four days.

The Luxmore Hut - what a view!

Day 2 Kepler