There are a number of "Great Walks" in New Zealand, and it had been our plan to take in a couple while we're out here. The Kepler Track (yes, physics fans, that Kepler) is a 60 km track in the Fjordland area of NZ that starts near Te Anau and takes in lakesides, forests, rivers, and alpine areas. It climbs from sea-level up to 1472 m at the top of Mount Luxmore. Here in NZ they call hill-walking, "tramping". Which still tickles me. Tramping has 3 association with me, only one of which is remotely appropriate: homeless people drinker super-strength cider under bridges; Supertramp, the band my knowledge of which comes exclusively from The Simpsons; and Alexander Supertramp, the name taken by Christopher McCandless in Into The Wild.
What's strange to someone like me is that you must make reservations at the official campsites (and pay for them) before setting out. I tend to side with Ray Jardine on this topic - minimal impact camping is best achieved by responsible wild/stealth camping. Official campsites make you pitch on bare hard ground that's had hundreds of tents on before. They put you shoulder-to-shoulder with people who pack beer and noise into the wild. They almost encourage littering by giving the impression that someone will pick-up after campers. And they concentrate toilet usage, causing a larger impact. Camping alone and leaving no trace seems infinitely superior for those who can, but this time we went along with the grain and paid our fees ($15 each per night!).
Rant over, we took to the trail mid-afternoon at "Rainbow Reach" - a swing-bridge access to the trail that gave us ambitious but achievable mileage targets each day. It's a lot of fun to set off with everything you need for the next 2.5 days on your back, and we whizzed along happily. The trail was very well groomed and marked, following along the river but taking ups and downs now and again. We walked in the gentle green light that filtered through the trees and were glad of the protection from the sun. Despite NZ's reputation we have had weeks of unbroken heat and sunshine!
I'd packed my gear pretty light with no changes of clothes, only a few extras to put on top if the weather did come in. Food-wise, however, we'd gone for luxury. On the Alaska Ultrasport I had made the mistake of judging food too much by calories per gram and not enough by variety and taste. This time I was going to use the relatively short trip and kind weather to experiment with going the other way. We packed pre-cooked flavoured rice with seeds to be added, tortellini in sauce (rubbish calories per gram, great taste so great for improving your mood). I had muesli bars, corn chips, and licorice (vegetarian alternative to outdoor staples such as Jelly Babies or Haribo) as snacks. So meal times were fun and pack-weight-shedding.
Our first camp-site was Brod Bay, on the shores of Lake Te Anau. We were glad to dump our food-heavy packs and cool our feet in the water. This was, however, our first introduction to sand flies as a scourge rather than a nuisance. They are stupid weak little creatures that can drive you completely mad. They fly so slowly that they can't keep up with walking, or overcome anything more than a gentle breeze but, when they do catch up with you, the bites swell up and itch for days. They'll go for any exposed flesh: hands, feet, face, lower back if you're sat leaning forward. Complete buggers.
Despite the sand flies, though, we had our tasty dinner and soon dropped into conversation various other "trampers" at the camp-site. It turned out that there is only really one schedule around the Kepler Track if you want to stay in camp sites instead of huts (expensive). So, we had our first of many meetings with (I'm terrible at names the first time) French-Canadian Couple, their French Friend, and Super-Speedy Guy. All of which we'd see in camp and on the trail for the next few days. I had to admire French-Canadian Couple's tarp skills, and they turned out to be very friendly.
Tent-wise, Emily and I were back in my 1+ racing tent i.e. practically on top of each other. As I started to put it up, though, a problem emerged. Some essential stitching had come out and one end of the fly was unsupported. To make matters worse, for once in my life, I had no gaffa tape! Eventually, I figured out how to bodge the tent, leaving one end of the fly open, but the rest of it reasonably secure. Getting in, we performed what was to be the nightly ritual on Great Walks - lie down and relax while squashing all the sand flies that came in while you did. Mmm... romantic!
Day 2 took us all the way into the Alpine section of the Walk and up to the top of Mount Luxmore. We set off pretty early with minimal faff and it was a blessing to get a good deal of the 1000m of climbing out of the way before the full heat of the day. Switchback followed switchback, and the effort spent in building this track was clear as we crossed bridges over high drops and occasional steps up the rock faces. Emerging from the trees onto open dusty landscape of the tops, we could see scenic bush-plane flights below us and Te Anau far away. Seeing the trail wind ahead, it was like I had been transported back to the PCT but this time with more knowledge and no crippling knee pain.
We wound around the peaks and ridges, along the heat of the day. Things were going well and we dumped our packs for the diversion to the summit of Mount Luxmore where we found Super-Speedy Guy making a cup of tea. We're English, that's our job! Continuing along the trail, we were to follow the tops for a while before descending down to camp by the river at Iris Burn. I experienced the slow magic of walking once more as the far off features sneaked forward imperceptibly. These slow movements would be punctuated by sudden transitions, as I realised that I was standing on the far-off peak which had seemed so distant.
Coming down, the construction of the trail was, once again, apparent. Steps took us down quickly and easily, only to hand over to an unbelievable number of switchbacks down to ground-level. By camp-time we were both well-finished for the day, and had a nice dinner with French-Canadian Couple. Early nights are easy when you're walking all day and we were in bed before nightfall.
Day 3 was back out along the river and aptly summed up by a Korean tramper we met. We asked him if he was enjoying the trail, and replied "Here it is boring and too long". To tell the truth, it kind of was. The river-following terrain was just as in Day 1 and our tired feet really just wanted rest but had 6 hours of walking to beat out. As we got closer to Rainbow Reach, though, we started to see fresh-faced day-trippers with small packs. This was a good sign, but I carefully managed my expectations. If someone who has just come from their car says it's 5 minutes away, don't believe them. You're not there until you're there, and I didn't let my feet anticipate release until I could see that final swing-bridge. It did come, though, and we had made it round 60km in about 2.5 days of tramping. We hadn't seen an awful lot of animals, but we had met some characters and seen some views.
To put some humbling perspective onto it, consider The Kepler Challenge. An ultra-marathon around the same track that we walked where (locals tell me) the record is 4 hours. Unreal.