Hiking the Kepler Track – better than The Routeburn?
Lesser known than the epic Routeburn Track but perhaps not less impressive is New Zealand’s Kepler Track. Located in Fiordland National Park, this trail has in the past proven to be a good alternative for trampers who were unable to get spaced on the huts for the Routeburn Track. However if you ask us, it may even be the better one. In this blog, we’ll tell you all about experience and why hiking The Kepler Track is perhaps even better than hiking the Routeburn…
The Kepler Track, which is also famous for the Kepler Marathon, is a four day tramp that we’d describe as medium difficult, as does the Department of Conservation, who are in charge of this trail. It’s one of New Zealand’s so called “Great Walks” maintained by DOC who also takes care of reservations for the huts and campsites. The start and end of the tramp are in the town of Te Anau, located on the shores of the same name lake. The 60 kilometer long Kepler Track takes the adventurer deep into the Kepler Mountains, where you will be treated to some 360 degree panorama’s, at least if it’s a nice day…
While in Queenstown recovering from our Routeburn Track hike, we had a look at the weather forecast in Te Anau for the upcoming week and it did not look too promising. We seemed to be out of luck as over the previous four weeks we have had gorgeous weather pretty much every day. Therefore we decided to only bring our small camera and prepare for rain, as that is what Fiordland National Park is well known for after all. Hiking the Kepler Track was bound to become another adventure, most likely with more rain than on any other track before.
Day 1 Te Anau – Luxmore Hut (13.8 km)
The Kepler Track starts at the the Lake Te Anau Control Gates, just outside of town. The first part of the tramp takes you along the southern shores of the lake and skirts through fern forests. After about an hour you reach Broad Bay which we were told is a great place for a first stop. However, the sandflies were horrible there so we decided to walk on. After about an hour and a half a long ascent starts, all the way up to Luxmore hut, a 883 meter difference in altitude. The trail zig zags up into the mountains and after about two hours we meet some impressive limestone bluffs, a great place for lunch.
Despite the weather forecasts it’s still dry yet very humid. By the time we get at the bluffs, we are sweating like crazy. After that, it’s a bit further up and slowly the woods are getting less dense and we reach the tree line. Way below us is Lake Te Anau and only shortly after reaching the ridge, it starts pouring with rain. No surprise, since we’re hiking the Kepler Track in Fiordland National Park after all… Luckily we reach the hut shortly and warm ourselves up there. Close to the hut are some caves that can be explored, however only with headlights. Clouds cover the area and we can only hope that tomorrow it will at least clear up a bit. By then, we are really hitting the mountains and will hopefully encounter the panoramic views people are raving about.
Day 2 Luxmore Hut – Iris Burn Hut (14.6 km)
During the evening talk given by the hut warden we have been told not to leave loose items outside of the hut as the keas will steal them. Shortly after sunrise something wakes us up … it’s a kea picking his beak onto the window. As we slowly wake up and peek outside the window, we notice that the clouds are gone and that there’s nothing but blue sky. Time to get up as fast as we can and enjoy a new day! The view down into the valley from the hut is incredible, so high up in the mountains and so far away from the rest of the world, yet only one day of walking…
Our second day of hiking the Kepler Track is a ridge hike, taking us all the way to the next valley. The first couple of hours are all about climbing higher and higher, until we reach 1.472 meter high Mount Luxmore. It can easily be climbed and the promised panoramas do not disappoint us. However, in the far distance, clouds are setting in and we decide to make our way down again. The next couple of hours take us across ridges, a simple yet sometimes very steep path, partly covered in the snow, with stunning vistas all around us. We are in a non-stop battle with ourselves, to push on before it starts storming, instead of sitting down and just gaze.
But it’s a battle with the kea too. They have made Hanging Valley Shelter (our choice for a lunch spot) their home and when we don’t keep an eye on our food, they will grab and eat it. And harass us for more. Then, after about five hours of hiking, the descent into the Iris Burn valley starts. We say goodbye to the amazing panoramas as we know it will just be bush from here. The tramp down seems endless and we end up counting switchbacks (we forgot exactly how much, but there were at least 50). Finally, after 2 hours of hard work on the knees, we reach Iris Burn Hut, a quiet place for the night. A great evening walk will lead you to the Iris Burn Falls and if you are lucky, you may encounter glowworms on the way back …
Day 3 Iris Burn Hut – Moturau Hut (16.2 km)
An easy one for today, which is quite good after the intense last days. The clouds have set in again and it’s humid and rainy. Time to get the raingear out. The trail takes us through a lush and green rainforest, and all of a sudden it does not seem such a surprise anymore that there’s so much rainfall in Fiordland. It’s green all over and streams are all around us.
The track is not too difficult and we manage to set a high pace, within a couple of hours we reach the Moturau Hut, located on the banks of Lake Manapouri. The views are stunning but its once again the sandflies that aim to kill us here, so the safest place to stay is inside. Here we hide, read a book and chat with other trampers about their adventures.
Day 4 Moturau Hut – The Anau Control Gates (15.5 km)
Today it’s a matter of hours only. The weather still isn’t good, however we can’t be bothered anymore since we got good weather on day two, the most important day on the tramp. We leave early and pass the Amoeboid Mire, a bog that was used for filming Lord of the Rings, as the Dead Marshes. We are wet and tired, so instead of walking all the way to the end, we decide to catch the hiker’s bus back to the car which will save us quite some time and we can drive down to Invercargill the same day to prepare for our tramp on Stewart Island. Plenty of other trampers have the same idea and before we know it, we’re back with our car, leaving the Kepler Mountains behind…
Some useful tips and tricks when hiking the Kepler Track
– When considering hiking the Kepler Track, keep in mind that reservations are necessary: the huts are often booked up well in advance in the high season (Dec-Feb).
– On day 1 you can make a side trip to the Luxmore Caves from the hut, a 10 minute walk away. Only go here if you have a minimum of 2 light sources (per person) with you, they can be killing in the pitch dark.
– The sandflies were relentless on this tramp, especially at Moturau Hut. Don’t forget to bring some good repellent, yet they may still bug you, like the bugged us.
– We did this track in December yet there still was some snow in places. Always check with DOC in Te Anau before setting out if the track is open.
– You need to bring all your food and if possible cooking gear. Plus a sleeping bag as well.
Curious if staying at a mountain hut is something for you? Here you can read our “Mountain hut do’s and don’ts“.
Many people we met along the way asked us which we liked most, hiking the Kepler Track or The Routeburn Tracl. In all fairness, the Routeburn is a bit more striking because of the diversity in landscapes. However, the most stunning vistas were those over the Kepler Mountains on day two, nothing on the Routeburn could beat that. It just takes a full day walking to get there, and two days to get out. But that effort was very much worth it!
Hiking the Kepler Track was part of a six week walking trip we made in 2011. We have previously written about the Routeburn Track, Tongariro Northern Circuit and the Abel Tasman Coast Track. New Zealand is true trampers paradise and we have been incredibly lucky to only have five days of rain in six weeks. However we have learned that weather can change just like that and that tramping these trails is not for the unprepared hiker.
Also, we’d like to point out that it’s so incredibly annoying to find people camping illegally on these tracks. We met plenty of them along the way and to us and many others, it felt rude and without respect to the rules that have been set to keep these trails from overflowing with tourists damaging it. So if you read this and consider doing that, just think again. If you want to camp illegally, go back to your own country and don’t spoil the fun for those who paid to be there.
Want to read more awesome New Zealand stories? You may enjoy these, too:
– The best hikes in New Zealand
– The ultimate New Zealand itinerary for outdoor fans
– Cool things to do in New Zealand that don’t involve hiking
– All you want to know about hiking in New Zealand
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