April 25, 2004

Ridge-walking in Fiordland

I managed to get away from Australia a few days before Miriam did -- she must be working harder than I am -- in order to tramp (hike) the Kepler Track, a four-day, 60-70km* track in Fiordland. Incidentally, aren't "tramp" and "tramping" wonderful words? I find "tramping" to be perfectly evocative of the hiking experience; the word manages to communicate a lighthearted "Don't mind me, I'm just wandering about exploring" sort of sentiment without letting you forget that the rewards of tramping often demand a good, hard slog.

But I digress. Right. The Kepler Track is one of New Zealand's "Great Walks" and, located in New Zealand's Te Wahipounamu - South West New Zealand World Heritage Area, it didn't disappoint! The track took me through stunning beech forests, high across alpine ridges, and alongside beautiful fiords, rivers, and lakes.

If you want to jump straight to the pictures, just click here. If you're a tramping keener and want to read about the track in some more detail, keep reading!

The Kepler Track was completed in 1988 to celebrate the centennary of New Zealand national parks. It is thus very cleverly designed -- a loop that starts and ends in the small, tramping-crazy town of Te Anau in Fiordland.

The track profile gives a pretty decent idea of what the track is like. The first day is a very pleasant walk through beech forest to Brod Bay followed by a very steep ascent through a seemingly endless series of switchbacks up to the treeline. There, the track levels off somewhat for the remainder of the walk to Luxmoore Hut (and the nearby Luxmoore Caves, which were pretty cool!). I somehow managed to pull a Mehmet and beat the DOC times for the day. Weird.

The second day began with an absolutely spectacular sunrise. I'm not often that excited to be awake at 6:30 a.m., let me tell you, but this was worth it. Softly lit clouds blanketed the serene waters which were visible about a kilometre below the hut.


The weather had been kind to me on the first day, so the only disappointment of the track came when clouds followed me on the second day's ascent up to Luxmoore Saddle and, after a hopeful ascent, the peak of Mt. Luxmoore. The reward of clambering up to the peak is supposed to be 360-degree views; instead, I got visibility of about 5 metres.

But no matter! The rest of the day was beautiful. The ridge-walking section of the track is supposed to be the most impressive part of the Kepler Track and was, with the weather clearing up to reveal views of South Fiord.


You spend most of the second day above the treeline, and I had little inclination to leave the stunning views. I lingered around the Hanging Valley shelter for as long as possible before crossing the final ridge-walk and descending back into the bush, enduring a long and knee-numbing descent to the Iris Burn Hut.

The third and fourth day were more easy-going. They are longer but with minimal and much more gradual ascents and descents. Highlights included walking through the valley changed by The Big Slip (a 1984 landslide caused by heavy rains) on the third day and following the very green Waiau river on the fourth and last day. The forest on the fourth day also featured a mind-blogging plethora of fungi.

You can do the track in three days by pushing on past the last hut and leaving the track early at a bus pick-up, but then you miss not only part of the track but also a night at Moturau Hut on the edge of peaceful Lake Manapouri. Sitting on the beach munching on banana chips and watching the sunset was a nice, relaxing treat after three days of tough tramping.

The other really great part of the track was meeting other trampers. I tramped most of the third day with two Germans and a South African who I had met on the track. At Moturau Hut, the four of us and three others we had spent time with (two from England and one from Scotland but living in Perth, Australia) had a communal dinner, making potluck-style contributions out of freeze-dry meals. Together, the seven of us met up in Te Anau after completing the track to celebrate with dinner and an exchange of e-mail addresses.

And so, not surprisingly, I would highly recommend the Kepler Track to anyone making it over to New Zealand who enjoys multi-day hiking. The track is very challenging but not insane, and the views -- typically, for Fiordland -- are something else.

[*] The Department of Conservation or DOC website lists the Kepler Track at only 60km, but if you count the track's side trips and if you walk -- rather than bus -- between Te Anau and the track's start/end (about 4km each way), you're at about 70km.

Posted by anatole at April 25, 2004 06:07 PM

Congrats Anatole! Looks like you made an awesome trip of it. So sorry I couldn't be there too; There will have to be a "next time."

I like the idea of "a mind-blogging plethora." Also, Schtroumpf is written with a p (as you can see!).

Beautiful photos. The ridge-walk looks perfect. I haven't read yours and Miriam's joint entry yet, but I'm curious, if you don't address it there, to hear your thoughts on how the Kepler compares to our Pyrenean experience. Were you more fit, or was it an easier trail, or did you suffer about as much physically? How did the mountain flora compare? The grass certainly looks similar. And the peak looks less extreme, but the vertical climbs sound savage. Analyze, analyse! (Oh Lord, help us dual citizens).

Posted by: George at April 26, 2004 08:21 AM

Ummm, just for the record, it's not 8:30 am. It's actually 5:27 pm here. Your Movable Type is smoking something... :)

Posted by: George at April 26, 2004 08:32 AM

Wow - awesome photos especially that ridge walk! Maybe I'll have to watch this lord of the rings show....

Posted by: Lana at April 27, 2004 04:27 AM


The only thing MovableType is smoking is the East Australian time zone. :)

As for Schtroumpf, you are quite correct. Miriam had told me this but I forgot to change it. Oops.

Missed you (and the others who almost made it to NZ) on the track, and I'm sure there will be a next time (both in general and in NZ).

As for analysis (analyzis? ;) ) ...

Kepler and the Pyrenees were comparable but definitely had their differences (I suggested counselling, but...).

1. I definitely felt more fit. Part of it was psychological, I think. The Pyrenees trip was confidence-building ("Oh, so I can hike for six to ten hours a day. Interesting."). But also, before Kepler I hadn't spent a whole year at grad school confined to a chair. The combined sporting (tennis/soccer) and outdoor (hiking in Australia) lead-up to this trip had put me in better shape. That's not to say that there was no suffering, as you put it. ;)

2. The Kepler Track, while rigorous, was not quite as intense or challenging as the Pyrenees for a few reasons:
- The tramp was not as long (four solid days for Kepler vs. six solid days plus a half day for the Pyrenees).
- The track itself is generally much better graded and "benched" (a term used by the Department of Conservation which I've come to gather means taken-care-of, well cut, and smooth). This comes down in large part to the Kepler Track being a Great Walk. The Great Walks are not only especially scenic but also accessible to a reasonably broad tramping population (the Department of Conservation's line is usually "any fit person can walk the [ ] Track"). So, during the regular tramping season at least (October - April, typically), there's no need for crampons and ice-axes, for example. There's also generally no scrambling over boulders or scree, as there was in the Pyrenees. Kepler is, for the most part, shockingly well-maintained. The only terrain difficulty, really, was mud. The challenging part was the steeper climbs (up and down) and the length of the days. On Routeburn, which Miriam and I did together, the track was less well "benched" and did actually involve some more rocky sections. Ditto for the one-day Tongariro Crossing.

3. That said, the Kepler Track had several notable (some, Pyrenees-comparable) challenges:
- Some of the sharp ascents/descents were pretty serious (essentially the first two days) and therefore hard on the knees.
- The distances covered were generally longer than anything we did in the Pyrenees (roughly speaking, 14/15/16/16km not counting side trips and in/out of Te Anau), although as you'll recall it was difficult to measure our distances in the Pyrenees given the meandering and ups-and-downs. Apparently the ridge-walk is supposed to be pretty savage in heavy winds, but luckily I didn't experience this (Miriam and I likewise lucked out with some more moderately wind-exposed sections on our other tramps).
- One of the biggest differences was food. I had to carry my own breakfast and dinner on Kepler -- the huts didn't serve any food. Coupled with some ludicrously foolish packing on my part (note to self: 200-400MM lens unnecessary on mountain tramps), this meant that I carried over 50lbs over the track. This made it harder. On the plus side, after Kepler, Routeburn, and Banks, I feel like I've got the hang of both food planning and packing more generally. I think I know what I would leave behind (i.e. sacrifice) for a longer/more remote trek where you need to carry more food and tramp for longer hours -- i.e. you need as little other crap in your pack as possible.

4. With this being a Great Walk, the track is a well-marked path. So ...
- Generally speaking, it's almost impossible to lose. Other walks in New Zealand require what the Department of Conservation calls "route-finding skills" (i.e. what we did in the Pyrenees sometimes: using the maps, compass, and landmarks to find our way around).
- You generally don't make your own way to whatever peaks you want. On the Kepler Track, the peak was a quick 15-20 minute trek from the main track at the saddle. On Routeburn, Miriam and I ascended Conical Hill, a peak which is supposed to take one hour (round trip). In that case, the peak was marked (a poled route to the top) but snow had fallen and ice had formed, turning the trip into a 3-hour affair with some scrambling, slipping and sliding, etc. Our Canadian instincts prevailed in these Northern conditions. :) (Some other trampers, though not all, had turned back from the peak, citing an "impassable sheet of ice". No such sheet materialized, as we suspected.) On Tongariro, you could ascend either Mt. Tongariro or Mt. Ngauruhoe. The latter was an unmarked and difficult (3h return) scramble to the top. In any case, with the day already taking 7-8h, we wisely attempted neither.
- To summarize, you follow the well-sign-posted track. There are other tracks (and "routes" -- where you have to find your way) in New Zealand where you can do what we did in the Pyrenees: plan your own itinerary, park yourself at a hut for a few days, and make your way to saddles/passes or peaks, taking most of a day to do so because of more substantial elevation changes.

5. The scenery was comparable at times (both Kepler and Routeburn to the Pyrenees), although Kepler had little snow on display when I did it (as I said, no crampons/ice-axes involved except in the winter season).
- We'll describe Routeburn once we put the pictures up, but as for Kepler the Fiord views and the ridge-walks were quite unique and a key differentiator from the Pyrenees. So was the forest, of course. On Kepler you only spend the second day entirely above the tree line, whereas most of our Pyrenees trip was treeless. A lot of the alpine flora seemed to be vaguely similar (grass tussocks and such), but a lot of the flowers had disappeared by the time I did Kepler (fall rather than summer).
- The huts were quite similar, I should add, again with the exception of the food situation. One nice thing about the Great Walk huts we stayed in is that the wardens typically gave a "hut talk" which included a history of the track, information about the area (geography, wildlife, conservation work, etc.), humorous anecdotes about the track and the hut, etc.

Hope you're not sorry you asked, George. :)

(If you're reading this and wondering what -- beyond the mountain range in general -- George and I are referring to by the "Pyrenees", check out http://neon.polkaroo.net/~papadop/pyrenees ).

Posted by: Anatole at April 28, 2004 03:43 AM

Thanks Anatole! That was about what I was looking to hear (and don't ask how one does that). I'm waiting for a render to finish so this is a good little break.

Damn, it's finishing. Final review tomorrow! Much, much work to be done. Situation NOT, surprisingly, too bad.

You know where there are also great ridges? The CAnadian Rockies! Check out this shot:


God, my photos are so disorganized, I can't make them all accessible online right now. Anyway must run get Chinese and Bubble Tea.



Posted by: George at April 28, 2004 08:32 AM

Right, right -- great photo! Speaking of the Rockies, I forgot to mention that I was berated quite a lot in New Zealand for not having done any similar tramping in Canada.

So one of the "next times" had better be back home. :)

Posted by: Anatole at April 28, 2004 11:59 AM