(Updated post about the glow worm caves here)
The Kepler track is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, situated between Lake Te Anau, (the “cave of rain,” as named by the Maori), and Lake Manapouri. It’s a four-day 60 km (37 miles) trek with three huts stationed along the way: Luxmore, Iris Burn, and Moturau.
Day 1: We headed out early, wrapped in thick fog as we wound through moss covered beech trees and ferns along Lake Te Anau. After about an hour, the track took a sharp turn and we began our 3,560 ft climb to Luxmore. The valley’s earthy smells began to thin out as we ascended up and up. We made our way through the cloud layer until it burned off to reveal the mountain peaks and rivers below.
Luxmore Hut was far bigger than I expected, with massive bunk rooms and a spacious communal area that showed off the startling view. Having made good time, Nick and I had the afternoon to explore some caves. I don’t know what it is about caves, but I’m obsessed. It makes me feel like I’m a six-year-old discovering a secret passageway.
We descended steeply into the caves and squeezed our way through narrow cracks and slithered beneath lodged boulders, guided only by Nick’s headlamp. After what felt like about 20 minutes, we came across a mini waterfall, drank from the source (no need to treat these waters here in Fiordland Park, which blows my mind), and decided we’d go around just one more bend. The cave opened up into a cathedral like dome, sporting stalactites and stalagmites! Their color was the purest white I’ve seen, hardly touched by humans. So we continued onward for another 20 minutes and made our way through a maze of these crystal-like limestone formations, the older ones imposing themselves like giants in our pathway and the newer ones hanging like delicate chandeliers from the cave’s ceiling.
The darkness ignited a sense of magic that was both awing and terrifying. “Okay one more corner . . . hm, okay, just one more . . . one more? Yeah, one more . . .” until eventually we decided to turn around.
When we returned to the hut, five others had arrived from Germany, France, Czech Republic, and Singapore. That evening we played a game of pigs, which basically entails throwing two little piggies onto the table and depending on how they land, you earn a certain number of points. The first to 100 wins. The loser, we decided, had to go “caving” through the open cupboards lining the wall of the kitchen. And so after game one, the girl from France and guy from Singapore slid through the cupboards, banging their heads on the piping and cupboards walls. Inspired, we turned this game turned into a race, which only led to more injuries. Eventually we collapsed.
Day 2: So intense! The climb wasn’t too steep — we made our way up to 4,600 ft — but it was along Luxmore saddle, a steep open ridge, with the fastest winds I’ve ever felt in my life. It knocked me head first into some rocks at one point and loosened any moisture from within my body into a steady stream of snot. After blowing my nose like twenty times and realizing that I was running out of toilet paper, I looked to see how the guys ahead of and behind me were dealing with this problem and saw two simultaneous snot rockets flying through the air. So be it.
While we didn’t have to traverse any avalanche territory fortunately, there were still some pretty deep snows along the crest that we had to wade cautiously through. The ice-axe was put to use, but no crampons were necessary.
We sought shelter in a lean-to for lunch and shoved down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before pushing onward. Eventually we rounded a mountain and the winds died as we began our descent, zigzagging through a moss-covered forest, past a landslide, and into the valley floor where we threw down our sleeping bags at Iris Burn hut.
Too lazy to cook, we tossed back some coffee, bread, and nuts before relaxing on the porch with a view of the mountains, which began to glow a soft blue as the moon rose. I dangled my legs over the side, swinging them as the German and French guys passed a cigarette and Nick and I passed the SoCo, all of us playing two truths and a lie.
The people you meet trekking come from so many walks of life. The German is a 19-year-old who decided school wasn’t for him. He set out for New Zealand to grab a job and do some exploring. The French guy is a professional rappeler and award-winning climber. The Czech and French girls are “professional travelers,” going wherever they can find work.
Days 3 and 4: Nick and I decided to do two days in one, hiking 21 miles total, through glacier-carved valleys and more fern-adorned forests. Nick has taken to calling me a figment of his imagination. Somewhere between conversing about the beauty of love and loss and swinging across rope bridges this farm boy turned engineer turned world traveler discovered an awakening these last few days that he didn’t realize he was seeking. 28 years of words have been tumbling out. While I may provide the pathos in our friendship, he brings the logos. It has been his knowledge of the mountains, proper gear (when my backpack strap broke on day 1 he offered me his carabiner to fix the problem), and ability to make strong coffee 🙂 that have enabled me to focus on the pathos element.
Amazing, how quickly we each can grow when we embrace the right experiences and people at the right time, as challenging as they may be.
Before day break we set off through the soft forest floor, covered completely by moss. Periodically, we crossed over crystal clear rivers, moving thick and slow, via swinging rope bridges.
At lunch, sitting on a white sand beach before a turquoise lake at the foot of the mountains we had climbed, I told Nick that a series of cramps had begun to hit. (I am fortunate to be able to count on one hand the number of times this has happened. Between their infrequency and having grown up in a household without pain relievers, the thought of bringing Advil hadn’t crossed my mind). Nick looked at me like I had just told him I had cancer. Kindly, he got up to go refill my water bottle. For the rest of the afternoon I asked to plow ahead solo. Other that a lone shout from deep in the woods behind me — “hauling ass girl!” — we trekked on in silence.
At the end, we celebrated with a beer and bar of chocolate. I’ve never tasted anything so good.
We grabbed groceries for a stir fry, cooked up a good meal at the hostel, and chilled with a few of our other fellow backpackers for a hot second. The next morning Nick said, “Well, you did exactly what you said you’d do — drink some wine, not talk to anyone, and pass out.”
One of these days I’ll sleep longer than a few hours. The last few nights in particular have been interrupted by my own excitement about the trek (and some dude in the dorm room making dying animal noises), freezing my butt off in the huts (SoCo fail), and/or the loud winds that shook our shelter to the point where I thought the wicked witch of the west was going to spin us off the mountain tops.
No rest for the wicked.