Another enjoyable Kepler Great Walk – Fiordland National Park

Getting to Te Anau

Our flight arrived at Queenstown Airport at 12.20pm. We took a local bus into Queenstown, using a Bee Card for the group, to get lower bus fares (you can buy a Bee Card at Paper Plus at the Airport, but the card must then be registered online to get discounted fares). At the DOC office we asked whether we could leave our packs there for a couple of hours to avoid having to lug them around – unfortunately, no. Then we asked at Southern Laughter Backpackers, which we’d booked for Day 4, and they kindly allowed us to use their luggage store room.

Some of the group had a late lunch at Fogo Brazilian BBQ Restaurant, which was delicious and good value. The free time was also useful for picking up last minute food items or buying anything we’d forgotten to bring, and to just walk around and enjoy some time around the lakefront. The 4.35pm Tracknet bus dropped us off at Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers just after 7pm, and we then had dinner at The Ranch Bar & Grill.

Day 1, Te Anau to Luxmore Hut – 13.8 km

A lovely sunny day for our first day walking the Kepler Track. We hired a locker to leave small bags with things we didn’t want to take on the track ($5 per day). Tracknet picked us up at 9.15am (an early pick up for the 9.30am regular service to the Lake Te Anau Control Gates). At 9.40am we began walking the 5.6km lakeshore track around Lake Te Anau to Brod Bay. After a short break at the Brod Bay campsite, we began a steady climb through forest to Luxmore Hut, another 8.2km. The walk from the Control Gates to Luxmore Hut usually takes 5-6 hours.

Control Gates start

Our lunch break was at the limestone bluffs. It proved quite a chilly spot, as we sat in deep shade, but we were getting hungry and weren’t likely to reach anywhere warmer until much later. If you can hold out for a bit longer, there’s a good place at the top of the bluffs.

Limestone Bluffs

Once you reach the open tussock lands, there’s another 45 minutes to get to Luxmore Hut (we arrived around 3pm). There had been a light snowfall a couple of days earlier and some was still visible on mountain tops around Te Anau, with patches uphill of Luxmore Hut. At 4pm some of us visited the nearby Luxmore Cave, while the others relaxed in the hut and enjoyed the view. Because of the snowfall, we thought the bunkrooms might be quite cold overnight (as they were during the April 2023 Kepler tramp), but they were not too bad. We heard a few keas calling as they flew overhead, but there didn’t seem to be much risk of items left outside the hut being tampered with (there’s a sign on the door warning trampers not to leave gear outside).

Approaching Luxmore Hut
Luxmore Cave

Day 2, Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut – 14.6 km

Sunrise at Luxmore Hut

Our group left Luxmore Hut at around 8am in fine weather. Eight of us took on a side trip to Mount Luxmore (approx. 30 minutes total: 10 mins up; 10 mins taking photos; 10 mins back down) but two people stayed to fend off any keas from the packs – there was one bouncing around looking for opportunities. Higher up, there was a little more snow. With the weather still fine, it was definitely quite cool in exposed parts, particularly on the ridges. The view in all directions was magnificent. Further along the ridges are the Forest Burn and Hanging Valley shelters, both with long-drop toilets. We picked Hanging Valley Shelter as our lunch stop, and afterwards headed down the spur to Iris Burn Hut.

Climbing away from Luxmore Hut
Kea landing
Snowy ridge

We thought the descent to Iris Burn might be slippery or icy on the stair sections. Thankfully they weren’t too bad, but the warden at Luxmore Hut had told us to be aware of cross-winds. In very windy conditions you’d need to quickly drop low to avoid getting blown sideways. The warden had also advised us to take care on the steep downhill into Iris Burn, because in the previous week four people had been helicoptered out after falling.

Downhill to Iris Burn
On the way to Iris Burn Hut

The track is a bit rougher once you reach the forest section. We spread out a bit on the downhill, with half the group arriving at Iris Burn Hut at around 3pm and the remainder about half an hour behind. Our day’s journey took longer than DOC’s suggested time because we kept stopping along the ridgeline to enjoy the spectacular mountain views.

We noticed the voracious sandflies as soon as we arrived at Iris Burn Hut. This meant we couldn’t relax outside the hut (pity any campers), but the easy side trip up to Iris Burn Falls was still a pleasant walk before the light fell.

Iris Burn Falls

Day 3, Iris Burn Hut to Moturau Hut – 16.2 km

Due to a very rainy forecast, we left Iris Burn Hut early (7.10am) using head torches. Shortly afterwards, the sole of one of Rory’s boots started flapping loose, and Debbie bound it securely with tape (electrical tape to start with; later, strapping tape). Daylight soon took over the valley and head torches were stowed away.

DOC’s Kepler Track webpage warned of a bridge wash-out near the half-way point, Rocky Point Shelter, and that walkers should take advice from the hut warden on how to cross safely if there had been a lot of rain earlier.  Under dry conditions, the stream can easily be crossed by boulder hopping. This was how we encountered the washout. No problem at all, because our day’s rain started later and was lighter than first forecast. We had a hasty food break at Rocky Point Shelter, hasty due to the swarming sandflies.

The Iris Burn Hut hut warden had also mentioned ‘Heartbreak Hill’ further along the track. But when we got there, we thought it a bit over-hyped, because it wasn’t that hard. Overall, the rain wasn’t too bad, just occasional drizzle, but once we arrived at Moturau Hut (on Lake Manapōuri) the predicted rain fell steadily and soaked others who’d left Iris Burn Hut later in the morning.

Since it was raining, most of us were content to eat, drink, and relax in the Hut, apart from hardy Amelia, who had two quick dips in the lake. Before preparing our dehy dinners, we had two lively games of ‘Farkle’. The hut warden’s talk that night was the final one for the season. Next morning DOC staff would remove their gear, as well as all the extra facilities of the summer season.

Break time

Day 4, Moturau Hut to Control Gates (15.5 km) and on to Te Anau (another 4.6 km) – the early group; and to Rainbow Reach (6 km) – the later group

For the walk out from Moturau Hut, we split into two groups. One group wanted to walk to the Control Gates and then back to Te Anau via the lakeside path. They left just after 7am and stopped for a quick break at Rainbow Reach (9am), powering on to the Control Gates (11.45am-12pm). Apart from a brief pause to watch a black fantail/pīwakawaka, the only other stop was for lunch at the Control Gates. To get back to Te Anau, they walked a 4.6 km section of the Te Anau to Manapōuri ‘Lake2Lake’ bike and walking trail, taking around 45 minutes.

Outside Moturau Hut and Lake Manapouri
Lake Manapouri

The later group preferred to exit at Rainbow Reach, on the Waiau River, for the 3pm Tracknet bus back to Te Anau, with a lie-in and relaxed breakfast followed by a deliberately leisurely amble via the side trips to Shallow Bay Hut and the wetland. For the second group, this also meant a two and a half hour wait for the bus. This day being the first day of the winter season, DOC staff turned off the lights at Moturau Hut at 7am, and the gas and water at 9am, and prepared all their gear for helicoptering out later in the morning.

Rainbow Reach

Both groups headed back to Lakefront Backpackers for showers ($3 for a towel + $5 for a shower), but the early group also had time to go to a café. We took the 5pm Tracknet bus back to Queenstown, checked in to Southern Laughter Backpackers, and went out in search of dinner (Fergburger, Patagonia, and The Cow were popular choices).

Heading back to Wellington

In the morning it was breakfast, bus, airport, and a late morning flight to Wellington to conclude another enjoyable Kepler Great Walk.

Group comments:

Debbie: A repeat of last year’s Kepler for me; just as epic as the first. Great to come back as a co-leader supporting less experienced trampers to enjoy an incredible awe-inspiring part of NZ. Great weather/company and majestic views.

Jane: Bring insect repellent – the sandflies are bad at Iris Burn and Moturau Huts.

Charlotte: We were very lucky with the blue skies, so the wee 10 minute climb to see the view on Mt Luxmore was fabulous. Doing the extra 9 km back to the beginning of the walk was also a bonus, with lots of flora and fauna to see along the way.

Mandy: Day 2 was definitely the highlight for me; the amazing sunrise at Luxmore Hut, being greeted by a kea on the summit of Mt Luxmore, and the spectacular views as we travelled across the tops.

Amelia: I really enjoyed the snow and the number of birds and mushrooms we saw. Something I didn’t expect was how warm I was, although my hands did get very cold sometimes. (Cold hands from throwing too many snowballs, I expect.)

Lisa: An amazing trip, it was just what I needed. Some tips: take two beanies, one for the track and a dry one for the hut; down hut slippers are excellent; use gaiters to keep your legs warmer and prevent small stones getting into your boots; Great Walks and EM trips still require hill work, so train for the trip and you’ll have a more enjoyable experience; for an end-of-season Kepler, prepare and pack for the cold; it’s Fiordland and rain is inevitable; soup or hot chocolate is great to have at the end of the day before the evening dehy meal.

Rory: Views on the climb to Mount Luxmore were beautiful, and the track was not as steep as I expected. It’s a good idea to bring tape, like strapping tape. It helped keep my boots together when one of the soles suddenly peeled off.

Madi: The Kepler is a well looked after track. Take your time on the second day, as there are lots of incredible views, as well as lots of bottom bunks at the hut. Also remember to put some toilet paper in your pack, even though the huts are well stocked and have indoor flush toilets; the long drops on the track aren’t always as well maintained.

Amrita: The most memorable parts of the Kepler trip were: 1) The gorgeous views while hiking through snow on the ridgelines on day two; 2) Watching the sunset and sunrise at Luxmore Hut, with the bonus of two keas for company; 3) Playing ‘Farkle’ on a wet, lazy afternoon in the hut with our wonderful WTMC whānau; 4) The snowball fights that Amelia and Madi kept us company with. We couldn’t have asked for better company and better weather for the tramp, and it was really special to hear the hut warden’s last talk on the last night of the Great Walks summer season. I really enjoyed the pace and challenge of the whole walk, and I’m also very glad we got to walk out the whole way on day 4 – I was tired but it was such a beautiful lush stretch to end the walk with.

Kat: Apart from the views from the top, I really liked the last day when we were last to leave the hut, and after the bustling hut we walked into a blanket of green and it was so peaceful and felt like a different planet.

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