It's a controversial statement, but the Kepler Track is our favourite of the three Great Walks of New Zealand we've done so far (edging out the more popular Routeburn and Milford). Granted, we had much better weather on this track than the other two, but the views on the ridgeline were unlike anything we've seen. For some of day one and all of day two you're surrounded by panoramic views of Lake Te Anau, Lake Manapouri and the Kepler Mountains that take your breath away.
It wasn't all rosy though: we were soaked to our core on day three, had sandflies trying to eat us alive every time we stopped and had some pretty low moments on the track. But the low points only made us realise how good the high points were.
Want to know why we loved it so much? Well here's our account of the trail. If you're interested in the logistics and practicalities of the trail, we've also written a post on everything you need to know to hike the Kepler Track.
Day 1: Kepler Car Park - Luxmore Hut
3 hours 52
Apple Watch Says:
After the Milford Track we enjoyed a four day gap with just the one trip outside of chilling in the hotel (a brief but very cold kayaking trip to Doubtful Sound). The first two Great Walks had been almost back to back, so we decided to chill in Te Anau taking in the not so great food but well needed rest.
By the time it came to the start of the Kepler Track, we were ready to get on the trail again. The sun had come out (the first time in a week) and we were buzzing about the prospect of this hike. The walk was originally created to take pressure of the extremely popular nearby tracks, the Routeburn and the Milford. This didn't really work and the Kepler became popular, albeit less so, in its own right.
However, this being the third hike, our preparation was a little bit more relaxed than before. I forgot to pack my lunches for all three days (meaning they consisted of snacks) and we nearly drove all the way back to town from the car park after struggling to find our pack rain covers (and oh how essential these were to become). Preparation really is everything! You would think three down we would be getting better and better but alas...
The start of the trail
Having had a minor meltdown in the carpark, we set off in the sun to the start of the trail. The track almost immediately goes into the beech forest we've become very fond of in NZ, winding round the trees and ferns whilst following the edge of Lake Te Anau. It was pretty flat, we got some pace up and all was good in the world. We'd met a couple in the car park who had just finished the track and had had an awful experience in high winds on the ridge. This made us feel even luckier that we were hiking into our first sunny day in a long while.
Within 1 hour 30 we'd hiked the 5.6km to Brod Bay and the beautiful shoreline. From here we could see the snow capped mountains that appeared through the bush line - something that's unusual for the summer! From here the track began to ascend.
Although it never got overly steep, the next 6 km were relentlessly uphill with almost no flat sections. Added to the 20C heat Fiordland surprised us with and large backpacks, and we had the new sensation of beginning to sweat (something we'd left behind in Australia). The forest ferns followed us all the way up the hill as the track switched back several times for the next hour and a half.
By the time we reached the Limestone Bluff, the track began to flatten out. Not completely flat, this wouldn't happen for another day, but enough to give our legs a break. Within a short time, the track opened up to the million dollar view.
Our first glimpse of the ridge
The trees parted and soon we were on the ridge seeing Lake Te Anau on one side and Lake Manapouri on the other. It's hard to really explain just how stunning this area is, especially when you luck out with a clear day like we had.
This section should have only taken about 45 minutes to the hut, but we kept stopping every five metres to take in the view. We were surrounded by mountains, many of which now had a fresh dusting of snow on the top.
At this point we knew the trail would be special and it kept on delivering.
Luxmore Hut in itself is a pretty incredible place. Precariously balanced on the ridge, it has 5 star panoramic views of Fiordland. It's definitely the best DOC hut we've stayed in so far and I can't imagine any others knocking it off its perch. At sunset it gets even better with the landscape basking in soft light.
We also managed to get lucky with the sleeping situation, having secured spots in the smaller bunk room, meaning we only had eight other people to share with. Chances of snorers greatly reduced. : ) The toilets are also inside the hut, no more trying to work up the courage to brave the freezing outdoors at night! They also have lots of benches where you can sit outside and take in the spectacular views.
We met some really great people on the Kepler Track from day one and it turned out they were all heading in the same direction as us over the next four days so as with the Milford Track we shared the same huts for the next three nights.
We decided after a couple of hours that we had the energy to go on the 5pm nature walk with the hut ranger. An hour and a half later and we were still climbing further and further away from Luxmore Hut to learn more about mosses, daisies, tussocks and everything Peter knew (which was a lot). Bit by bit people started to sneak back to the hut. As we started to go quite far up the hill we wanted to join them, but by that point there were so few of us left we didn't have the heart. It was really informative and we learnt a lot but be prepared that once Peter gets talking he really gets talking! Bring your stamina for this one!
Day 2: Luxmore Hut - Iris Burn
5 hours 20
Apple Watch Says
Day two started with us learning we had very different experiences from those in the other bunkhouse. We were lucky enough to have one of the best night's sleep you can have in a DOC hut: quiet, comfortable and warm. Granted, we still had some interrupted sleep from people moving, but it was pretty good.
The others were far from happy. It was clear early on that some of the people who were doing their first ever multi-day hike in a DOC hut and didn't quite get the experience they were expecting!
At breakfast we overheard what would become some people's favourite subject for conversation for the next four days: snoring. We'd heard about the main bunk room having snoring from some people so loud that others were pouring water on one guy to stop! This became an obsession to the extent of one person hiking the second day at break-neck speed (one of the most beautiful hikes we've ever done) to ensure they could get to the next hut first, secure a small bunk room and then grill anyone going near on whether they snore or not. I guess it explains a lot when the same person described the Kepler Track as boring and couldn't wait to go home.
We hate the snoring too, but these hikes are spectacular and getting your full nine hours sleep can wait until you're off the track. Otherwise listen to music or buy some headphones!
Starting day two
The day started early and we were excited about the prospect of the ridge walk to come. What wasn't so welcome was the immediate steep climb to start the day! The clouds had begun to roll in and they obscured the top of Mount Luxmore and the other surrounding mountains.
My favourite part of the whole of the Kepler Track was the fact that you could see the defined trail you will be walking for the next few miles in front of you. Winding over ridges and switchbacks to climb up and down hills. From the start we could see the trail wind through the barren landscape and up and around Mount Luxmore. It's an awe inspiring way to start the day.
The path continued upwards and we soon had a deja vu of our experience on The Routeburn, it was time to walk in the clouds again. Every time Cat walked more than five metres ahead of me I lost all sight of her. Once we turned the corner virtually all vegetation died. The path turned into scree on either side and the drop became precarious.
We also saw patches of snow..... SNOW! In the middle of Summer! Fiordland weather really is unlike anywhere else. To commemorate the first snow we'd seen in years we sung a few Christmas carols and moved on.
The Ridgeline continued to wind up and down until the junction for Luxmore Summit. On a clear day we would have gone for it, but as we could only see a few feet in front of us, we thought it would be some extra climbing to see some more cloud. Onwards we went.
The trail began descending and before we knew it we arrived at Forest Burn Shelter. After feeling good about how the day had gone so far, we soon realised that we were going to be ascending again! As we gradually trudged uphill once more things were put into perspective as two runners flew past us. These guys were running around the world, a pretty epic mission I'd say.
On a side note: running hiking trails has become very popular in New Zealand and they really begin to make the hiking times look very slow. The record for the Kepler Track (a trail that's 60km long and has steep ascents and descents of nearly 2000m) is 4 hours 30... Let that sink in! We were taking four days....
Anyway, back on the trail. We soon reached another epic, but precarious ridge on the way to Hanging Valley Shelter. As soon as the runners zoomed past us, we saw four Kea swoop and play ahead of us.
These are the only alpine parrots in the world and they love nothing more than to steal stuff and pester people. We zipped everything up safely and admired their cheekiness as they tried to eat Cat's walking poles.
Hanging Valley Shelter
After three hours hiking we'd reached Hanging Valley Shelter, another emergency shelter for anyone caught in wind, snow or usual NZ weather. The wind had picked up, so it was a good place to escape for a while. Even those that attempted sitting outside for a while eventually had to come in as the Kea were all over the packed lunches!
Sadly, we soon had to go back out into those winds on another precarious ridge. I say sadly, but it's probably the most spectacular part of the whole trail.
This section was especially beautiful as the ridge leads into a valley with the mountains in the background. However, the icy wind made this pretty fiddly, blowing us around the trail and steep stairs. At times you can't actually move due to the huge gusts, you just have to stay put and wait for it to pass. After half an hour we were disappointed to be leaving the incredible views but keen to head back down to the bush line and evade the wind. This day was definitely the best ridge walking we have ever done, simply spectacular.
The bush line was a respite from the wind, but no relief from the gradient. This whole section was incredibly steep and made our knees sore for a while after! The diversity of the forest was fascinating though.
You start with lichen lined beech trees which gradually changed to moss, then to ferns and then back to moss. Over the 900m descent, you really saw how different the plants are at each altitude.
The home stretch seemed to continue on for quite a while. A motivational sign told us there were only 20 traps between the sign and the hut. The reality was that this was over 3km! Ended up a motivation killer but anyhow!
Every time we saw a trap, we felt like we were getting closer, but the traps seemed to be few and far between.
The trail picked up the Iris Burn river and soon started crossing back and forth over it. The path levelled out for a while before heading steeply down hill once more and to our hut for the night: Iris Burn hut otherwise known as the home of the sandfly.
Before embarking on these Great Walks, we knew we would encounter sandflies, but we didn't realise that they would be everywhere. However, Iris Burn hut was definitely the worst so far! No matter where we went, in the rooms, kitchen, outside the hut or the waterfall, we were preyed upon by 50 sandflies at a time. Ugh. Luckily they seemed to disappear at night so we were relieved not to be tormented as we slept.
If you have the energy we would recommend taking the side trail to Iris Burn Falls. It only takes around 20 minutes each way and it's a gorgeous spot. If you can handle it the ice cold water would make a great swimming spot. The track is also a great place to spot kiwi after dark.
Day 3: Iris Burn Hut - Moturau Hut
4 hours 11
Yep, you guessed it, day three rained continuously. Not that kind of drizzle you get in the UK, but hard fat rain ALL DAY! We were warned in the morning and knew it wasn't good when the hut warden couldn't tell us when it would stop.
There was some solace in knowing that if we'd started the trail a day later we wouldn't have completed the track at all. The winds on the ridge picked up to an astonishing 130 kmph, meaning that no one was allowed to go on this section that day.
Everyone who had walked up to Luxmore hut the day before would have to head back to Te Anau. I can't imagine how disappointing that would be.
So we put on the waterproofs and ventured out.
Starting the track
The heavy rain didn't dampen our spirits at first. The trail climbed up straight away, but it stuck to the forest which provided a little cover. We ploughed through the first few kilometres quickly and before we knew it we arrived at the Big Slip, a huge natural landslide which cleared a massive area of all trees and vegetation.
This was where we started to get soaked. The lack of trees left us very exposed and the wind threw the rain straight at us. It was here that my boots filled up with water and stayed that way for the next three hours! After 10 minutes in the open the track went back into the forest, but the damage was done.
Within an hour and a half we reached Rocky Point Shelter, 30 minutes quicker than the signs suggested we should. Goes to show how the rain motivates you! We had a quick break, wrung the water out of our socks and poured it out of our boots. After a few minutes contemplating that we'd have to go back in the rain we headed back out again. it's worth noting that this trail wound through spectacular forest, but the conditions made it difficult to truly enjoy it.
Powering through to Moturau Hut
Back on the trail once more and the rain gradually got heavier and heavier. The forest began to thin and there was no escaping it, we just ploughed on. We came across a section with thousands and thousands of ferns that covered the floor. For at least a kilometre, this spectacular stretch of forest had nothing but trees and endless ferns. More than we have seen on any other section of trail, Cat christened it 'Valley of the Ferns'.
On the ground tiny mushrooms like the ones you see in Super Mario were growing. Even in the depressing gloom of endless rain there were little things to pick you up. You can see from the blur on the photo that keeping anything dry at this point was impossible!
The track soon started to run alongside Lake Manapouri. On a clear day this would have been an idyllic place to be with rugged mountains in the distance, trees lining the beach, driftwood on the shore and no one else in sight. Despite a few quick glances, we were just focused on getting somewhere dry and warm.
After four hours on the trail we made it to Moturua Hut, a haven from the monsoon that we had endured all day. Here we faced a tough choice: stay in a DOC hut for a day with soaking clothes and a bunk room with 30 people in it, or head back out into the pouring rain for at least another four hours to end the trail. It was a difficult choice, but we couldn't face the rain anymore.
We decided to stay in the hut and at first it felt like a bad choice. We were stuck in the huge bunk room, the room in the kitchen area was cramped and dark, and our spirits deflated. However, things soon picked up. A cup of tea, some Whittakers chocolate (something we've become addicted to) and a couple of hours dry and we felt a lot better. As mentioned earlier we also loved the people we met on this track so it was nice to have one last night with everyone.
Another quirky hut talk
You know how we said that some hut wardens like to perform? Well Moturua Hut was no different! In some huts you receive a safety talk about the track, what to do in the event of a fire and maybe some information about the local flora. In this hut, the warden decided to change it up with a quiz to check if we'd been listening!
Now I don't know about you, but I didn't realise we'd be taking a test to see if those hut talks had sunk in. Luckily we were on a table of Kiwis and a ex-DOC employee so it was a breeze! In fact we beat the best score ever, yesss!
However, the talk didn't end there.
Next the guitar came out...
Yep! Rachel the hut warden at Moturau Hut wasn't done yet. Being a keen historian of women in the 19th Century in New Zealand, she'd written a few songs based on the court records she'd studied. Before we knew it, the whole hut was clapping along and Rachel was in full swing, giving Edith Piaf style renditions of Barbara from Hokitika. It was absolutely brilliant and we wish she'd sung more.
What had originally begun to feel like a bad decision ended up turning out really well. The rain stopped, we had a few laughs with the others about this unusual evening and we retired to a dorm that was shockingly quiet. Things were getting better.
Day 4: Moturua Hut - Kepler Car Park
3 hours 38
Can you say you've done all the 9 Great Walks if you cut off the boring section back to Kepler Car Park? This was something I was debating in my mind on day four when the tiredness had fully set in. Cat's answer was unquivicably no. I however was tempted to skip the flat bit through the forest and make an early exit to the coffee shop!
However, Cat's argument was persuasive and I went for the whole 16km to finish the track (you can't shortcut at track three can you?!).
The last day
In the morning we put on our soaking wet boots (hiking boots take at least two days to dry out) and prayed that there'd be no more rain. We got lucky with not just blue skies, but warm weather to help dry the boots out on the track.
The path was pretty flat, taking us round and over the Waiau River in beautiful golden light. The forest was alive with birdsong and our spirits felt lifted once more (it really doesn't take long for them to be deflated or re-invigorated!). Crossing a few bridges and a couple of hills, we quickly made it to Rainbow Reach, the car park where you can check out early.
The group of women who we'd been hiking with certainly deserved a check out early pass for what they had endured! The blisters started on day one and only got worse as the track went on. By day four, one of them decided it was preferable to hike the 6km to Rainbow Reach in flip-flops! This was no mean feat with uneven terrain, kudos to her. They were the nicest people who - in the face of blistered feet, painful knees, torrential rain - just sung songs and stayed incredibly chirpy all the way along. Kiwis are definitely made of stronger stuff.
The final stretch
As tempting as it was to leave at Rainbow Reach, we carried on. Two and a half more hours of hiking through the forest lay ahead before we finished the track. Feeling the effect of 50km and three days hiking, I put my headphones in and just kept going.
The track rose up to some stunning views of the river running alongside us, with clear skies and plenty of day hikers reappearing once more. Before long we saw the control gates, the entry to the track and knew we were nearly there.
Within a blink of an eye (or two podcasts) we were at the car park. We took off our boots, threw our bags in the car and sat down to contemplate the last four days. However, it wasn't long before the stench of soaking wet clothes and boots made us put the windows down and drive into town!
The Kepler Track Overview
Despite the tough weather on day three, we'd have to say the Kepler Track is one of the greatest walks we've ever done. That ridgeline is unlike anything we've ever seen before and in the right conditions it's a breath-taking hike.
It can be pretty tiring, but mainly because of the three nights sleeping in DOC huts and the accumulation of kilometres in your legs. Day three and four in isolation are straightforward and easy, however they become harder because of the climbing and distance in days one and two.
If you're looking for a challenging multi-day hike with spectacular views, then this is the hike for you. We loved the Milford and Routeburn, but there's something very special about the Kepler.
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Would you hike the Kepler Trail? Would you check out early at Rainbow Reach or force yourself to hike all 60km to say you'd finished the entire circuit? Let us know in the comments below.