Back from Queenstown, I spend the weekend at my dairy farm, enjoying my last moments with the cows. Barbecue evening (my first Kiwi barbecue) to celebrate my departure. Chloe, the seven month old girl is about to start walking on her legs. He has a few hours left before my departure to succeed! Monday September 26, Julie brings me, accompanied by the three children, to Te Anau in the house of her parents, Jill and Alan. I will spend the night there before going on a multi-day hike on the Kepler Track. We go shopping for hiking equipment (stove, gas bottle, pan, cutlery and rental of a ski pole in case I meet snowy parts on the way). I also raid the only supermarket in the village to get food for the four days. My clothes are ready. It remains to put everything in the bag. A good two hours will be necessary to package it all. Corned beef and canned beans will have to stay at home because they are too heavy.
So here I am at the end of the morning, Tuesday September 27 for a hike through Fiordland. Jill, Julie’s mom, accompanied by Isla, Carter and Chloe, drops me off at the start of the trail, just outside the village at the end of Te Anau Lake. I greet the children and off I go, crumbling a little under the weight of the bag. The Kepler Track is one of the Great Walks. These are long hikes of several days considered famous in the country. There are nine of them in the various national parks of the archipelago. The Kepler Track is the most accessible hike of all since it starts a few minutes from the village of Te Anau.
The first part of the hike is a leisurely stroll along the shores of Lake Te Anau through a forest of New Zealand beech trees. The ground is covered with moss and ferns. It looks more like a tropical forest than my French beech forests. It is a little cloudy and damn humid. A good hour later I arrived at Brod Bay, an area by the lake where it is allowed to camp. Toilets, sinks and barbecues are available. I have lunch on the beach enjoying the scenery. The lake sparkles and rays of the sun appear among the clouds warming the atmosphere. Not many people in the area, it is really calm. Little birds come see me to try to grab a few crumbs from my meal.
I start on the second stage of the day, a climb of about 800 meters above the forest to reach the mountain meadows where the first hut of the hike is located. It is hot and I found the climb painful. Three hours of ascent through the forest without meeting many people. I appreciate the absolute calm and the melody of the birds which accompanies my progress. My mind wanders to the rhythm of my steps. The landscape is slowly changing. From a forest filled with Silver Beech, I pass to a forest filled with Mountain Beech covered with impressive green moss, to finally cross during the last thirty minutes of the climb, a forest of trees covered with lichens. It is very impressive.
After three hours of climbing, I finally reach the top. The forest gives way to meadows of yellow herbs and the landscape becomes more alpine. I see Te Anau in the background and the snow-capped peaks of Mount Luxmore which I will follow tomorrow. Forty minutes to follow the ridge and appreciate the landscape and the hut appears in a bend, sheltered in a small hollow. Not having met many people, I expect little company. But it is the opposite. About thirty people are already present and a dozen will appear after me. While the official season (October to April) has not even started yet, the 54-bed hut is already almost completely full! Groups of Chinese, English speakers, French …
I sit in the quietest corner I can find (which is all relative in dormitories) and go down for a walk around the hut to have my meal. A resident guard tells us what not to do in the house and about the condition of the trail at the peaks. Some areas are still covered with snow and require vigilance. Listening to the discussions, I learn that half of the people will continue the trail and the other half will return to Te Anau. Good news because tonight is not my idea of a quiet mountain hike.
Despite the large number of people in the dorms, I sleep pretty well. Lying down at 10p.m. and waking up at 8a.m. Long night’s rest! In the morning, the mist engulfed the landscape. We do not distinguish beyond ten meters. I pack my things, swallow my breakfast and go on the way. Quite a few people seem discouraged by “bad weather”. Good, it will make fewer people at the next refuge. I start, hoping that the fog disappears with the altitude. The path climbs to reach the ridges. Higher up, the mist dissipates and I see the snow-capped peaks appear in front of me as well as the crests of the Murchison Mountains in the distance just above a sea of clouds. A puff of wind brings back the mist which hides the landscape from me and I continue my ascent between fog and meadows.
A circus appears with a tiny snowfield and I take my first steps in the snow. Indeed, some areas of the trail are still covered with snow and I must therefore proceed with caution. I reach the first ridge and the landscape becomes truly aerial. I overlook the sea of clouds. The view is fabulous. Especially the ridges of the Murchison Mountains in front of me (separated by the South Fjord from Lake Te Anau). The peaks are covered with small clouds that seem to rise in the sky. It is absolutely magnificent. I continue my hike on the ridges, alternating between land and snow and marveling at the landscape. Two hours later, I arrive at the Forest Burn emergency shelter. The mist has almost completely lifted and the valleys are now visible. The South Fjord of Lake Te Anau sparkles in the distance. Meal break at the pass next to the shelter.
A group of six Kea (New Zealand parrot) flies through the air with cries that curiously resemble the moaning of children. Keas are very inquisitive birds and little frightened by humans. I watch my bag behind me, knowing their tactics: one that catches the eye with funny jumps while another takes care of crumbling the bag left unattended. I turn around several times: nothing. A fourth time: a Kea is placed on the bush just behind me! I didn’t even hear it arrive. A little scary! The others are gathering and I hurry to put back my things in my bag. I do not want them to steal my food! Six Kea land on the bushes three feet from me. They forage for seeds while getting closer. Many seem to be yawning! We exchange looks. Getting a little too close, I retreat to the shelter. Given the size of their claws and beak, I do not want to try my luck. The birds follow me and land on top of the shelter. Their claws make a lot of noise when they walk on sheet metal. I continue on the path followed by the hopping parrots which finally end up losing interest in me.
The next two hours are extremely aerial since the trail follows the fine ridge of the Kepler mountains. The landscape is magnificent, but the mist has turned into clouds that at times obstruct the sun. Every 200 meters are traps to catch pests with the slogan “Challenge Kepler”. (In the evening at the refuge, I will understand the meaning of the slogan: every year in December, the “Kepler Challenge” race is held where participants run the 60km of the trail! Each participation ticket purchased is used to finance the purchase of traps placed along the way and their maintenance. In New Zealand the biggest predator of native birds is the ermine).
At the second emergency shelter begins the descent into the Hanging Valley where the second hut is located. The first part of the descent is done on the ridge and better not to get dizzy, it descends vertically on both sides. The sun is strong. Like yesterday, the vegetation changes gradually as I descend. I appreciate the shade of the trees but my knees and thighs are starting to be tired. Taking advantage of a short break, I find myself face to face with a Tomtit (or Miromiro of its Maori name) a few centimeters from me. It spins around me. Superb tiny bird with a yellow throat. Below, they are Rifleman, the smallest New Zealand bird of eight centimeters, green and without tail, who appear in front of me. Their tit tit accompanies my descent which seems to be endless. Around 6p.m. the Iris Burn Hut, located in a meadow, appeared. The place is very nice. There is an area for camping right next to it and a small river with green water with a small pebble beach a hundred meters away. Only five people are already present when I arrive and only eight people will arrive after me. Quiet evening, only disturbed by the presence of the Sandflies (half-flies, half-mosquitoes), well decide to feast on my blood. I go to bed accompanied by the ouhh ouhh of the Morepork (New Zealand owl) who is starting its day.
Wake up and quiet breakfast before heading for a waterfall twenty minutes from the hut. Most hikers have already left, the atmosphere is peaceful. I go up the valley to the waterfall, very pretty, pouring into a green water pond. A small rainbow embellishes the scene. Back at the hut, I attack the path to reach the next stage: the Moturau hut on the shores of Lake Manapouri about 16km from here. The trail is mainly in the forest today. With some passages in swamps or meadows. The forest is extremely beautiful. The ground is lined with incredible green mosses and ferns and the trees are covered in lichens. Lots of trees felt during storms or simply because of age. The whole looks alive, luxuriant, old primary forest and with the exception of the path, appears untouched by man. Short break in an open air area where a big landslide took place in January 1984. It allows me to appreciate the landscape of the valley and the clouds on the tops of the mountains which surround me.
In the middle of the afternoon, I arrive on the shores of Lake Manapouri at Shallow Bay, a small bay slightly set back from the main lake. I take a short break on the banks to rest before reaching the hut but it is a bad idea. Sandflies throw themselves on me in a bloodthirsty cloud. I leave immediately. Forty minutes later, the hut appears on the banks of the lake and I find some of my companions with whom I have been traveling for two days already. The rain begins to fall about twenty minutes after my arrival. A superb sunset with clouds tinged with red is offered to me. In the background, a large cloudy mass tinged with dark is approaching from second to second. And torrential rain accompanied by lightning soon fell on the hut.
The next day, I wake up in a dormitory full of people! About six people arrived overnight. They must have been soaked in the rain because their clothes and bags are hanging above the stove in the common room. I have breakfast quickly so as not to leave too late. The last part of the hike to return to the starting point is normally done in 4-5 hours. The weather is cloudy this morning. I make a detour to go see Shallow Bay Hut located in another corner of the bay. The location is superb. The hut contains only four beds and it seems possible to bivouac. At the edge of the shore, wild geese chat with ducks in a beautiful concert.
I continue in the forest and the swamps. This is the least beautiful part of the trail. A whole area of the path at the edge of a gorge has collapsed and a new path has therefore been created recently. But the traces of excavator and damaged ferns dot the path. It is not very beautiful. The Waiau river flows into the gorge below. It served as the backdrop for the film The Fellowship of the Ring Uruk-hai chased members of the Fellowship along the banks of the Anduin River. Indeed the very green waters of the river remind me of the movie. I arrive two hours later at Rainbow Reach where there is a parking lot. The Kepler Track can start or end from this parking lot. I continue in the forest to finish my loop completely and return to my starting point at the Kepler Track parking lot 2-3 hours away. The last part seems very long and it is with relief that I see the borders of Lake Te Anau appear. I have completed the loop, about 60km on the Kepler Track! It is 2:30pm and I still haven’t eaten. I sit in a quiet corner by the lake for a lunch break. The sun pierces at times and “only” about twenty Sandflies annoy me. A seaplane flips over the lake.
A little rested, I leave for the last stage of my hike. Unlike four days ago, where Jill, Julie’s mom dropped me off at the parking lot, I have decided to walk back to Te Anau. I walk along the lake enjoying the rays of the sun and marveling at the view of the snow-capped mountains in the distance. At the Te Anau Visitor Center I call Alan, Julie’s dad who works at Lakeview Holiday Park to come and pick me up. The Kepler Track turned out to be a very nice surprise despite a slightly less interesting last day. Exactly what I needed before I started working as a housekeeping lady at the Lakeview Holiday Park of Te Anau.