Kepler Track

(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Live like you mean it

You never know what life is going to ask of you. Last week, on the cracked desert floor that lay out beneath me like millions of disjointed puzzle pieces, I was its student. This week, summiting its snow capped mountains, I found myself its teacher.

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Te Anau: glow worm caves

Bused it to Te Anau at the crack of dawn today and went straight to the DOC to get intel on the Milford track — whose trailhead is accessed via ferry. The woman behind the desk just stared at me. The ferry isn’t running, she said. Amazingly, no one I’ve spoken to was aware that the ferry doesn’t run in the off season — nor did Lonely Planet mention this. In fact, there’s been very little info about the Great Walks in general — even the avalanche sight says there’s insufficient information. In any event, out the window went the Milford track.

Registered for the Kepler Track instead; another Great Walk.

After DOC, I found another incredible hostel (Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers) on Te Anau Lake at the foot of the Fiordland mountains — and was once again given a room with a deck and a view. After dropping off my stuff I set off to explore the glow worm caves — which were so surreal!!!

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Updated info on the glow worms: Arachnocampa luminosa is the fancy name for the glow worms, which are unique to New Zealand. They live in limestone caves that are thousands of years old. The cave that I visited is 12,000 years old! To get there, I had to take a boat across the lake and hike half a mile through a forest of beech trees. The caves are of course pitch black and you need a headlamp to wind your way through its passageways. Eventually you reach a little canoe that will float you through an underground river to where the glow worms hang out. It’s an eerie feeling, floating in darkness and trusting the waterways. After a few minutes, you turn a corner and slide beneath what looks like a blanket stars. Across the cave’s ceiling stretch tens of thousands of glow worms! Unlike stars, however, which are so far away, the glow worms have a dimension and depth of character to their twinkling lights.

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The life cycle of the glow worm is 11 to 12 months. In their larva stage, the glow worms spend 8 to 9 months in a cozy nest of mucous and silk. These gooey little sticks show off a glowing bum! How do they DO that? To the students reading this post, look up the word “bioluminescence.” How funny and fascinating is science??

The glow worms’ main job as larva is to eat, which they do by dropping long sticky fishing lines to ensnare insects, which are drawn to their flashy bums. The hungrier the glow worms are, the brighter their lights glow. (Sometimes, if they are really hungry and another larva gets too close, they will attack and eat each other!) Up to 70 fishing lines are let down by one larva; the lines vary in length from under 1 cm to 50 cm. Each fishing line consists of a long thread of silk which has a series of mucous droplets giving the appearance of a string of beads. After the trapped insect is entangled, the glow worm hauls up the fishing line and consumes its prey by sucking out its juicy insides!

When they are done eating for 8 to 9 months, the glow worms then spend a few weeks in a cocoon, after which they emerge as adult flies without mouths. Their last job, which lasts only a few days before they die, is to mate and lay thousands of baby eggs.

Pretty amazing! Let me know if you have any questions :).

——-

When I returned to town, I met up with Nick, who decided to forgo his interview today to be a shepard and, having bought a car for a grand just yesterday (that’s how most folks get around NZ if they opt not to hitch hike), drove to Te Anau to join me for Kepler. We spent the remainder of the evening getting gear, food supplies, and organizing for our departure tomorrow.

Kepler is a four-day 60 km trek in New Zealand’s Fiordland Park (a World Heritage site) that starts at the beech-forested shores of Lake Te Anau, continues up to alpine vistas, and loops past waterfalls back through glacier-carved valleys. For three nights we’ll stay in huts that are adorned with slabs of wood for beds and that’s about it, given that it’s the off season (gas is turned off and the wood is wet so we bought SoCo to stay warm — whoo).

Each day is about six hours of hiking with the second being the most challenging not only because of the steep climb, but also because of the snow and avalanche risk (it’s also bound to be more rewarding given the views). This will be my third time using crampons and an ice axe — fortunately Nick has far more experience. If we get there and it looks too treacherous we plan to turn around and do the other half of the hike from the other direction.

In the words of my grandfather, who has been much in my thoughts these days, Onward and Upward!

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Queenstown

Saturday: It is gay ski week in Queenstown and today is the closing party. I had one of those moments as a longer-term traveler when I had to remind myself that I can’t do everything that sounds like a once in a lifetime opportunity because I’d be broke before I know it. So I declined the $50 ticket and decided, after listening to EDM on the bus, that dancing was in the cards anyhow.

When we arrived in Queenstown, I showed a shy French engineer student, who had asked to sit with me on the bus and practice his English, the way to our hostel. After settling in, I explored town and stumbled across Fishbone, where I had an amazing dinner of scallops with bacon risotto (only time I’ll be eating out in a while).

Later in the evening, as I was crossing the street to a club called The Find, wondering how this was all going to go down, I ran into the kid with the MP3 player from the bus. Nick is his name. He’s an oil and gas engineer who grew up on a farm in Alberta, Canada, and spontaneously decided last April to quit his job and escape to NZ for a year. (And he’s 28, so not actually a kid at all.) He recently finished up a tree-planting gig on the North Island and is now taking some time to travel around the South Island.

The DJ was killing it — mixing 90s beats that I had long ago forgotten — and everyone was boozing from teapots. It was a hilarious sight: people dancing with teapots cupped in their hands and pouring themselves shots of Long Island Iced Tea, most of which found its way to the floor instead.

I told Nick about my plan to do the Milford trek this week, and like everyone else, he looked at me like I was crazy. By the end of the night, though, as I was leaving the club, he said I had inspired him to do the trek too.

Sunday:
This morning, I hiked the Time Walk up Queenstown Hill, a spiritual sanctuary for the locals. A 90 min climb through pine forest (not native to NZ, they were brought over for the forestry industry) until I emerged on top, struck breathless by the jagged mountains surrounding me 360 degrees.

So, hahaha, confession: I consider it to be a magical feat that I somehow managed to accidentally summit the same mountain twice. Hopefully my generally good sense of direction isn’t lost here because I’m going to be needing it this week…

Post hike I checked into a new hostel –Bumbles — since my sweater had been stolen at the other place. Bumbles is a wonderful spot, located on the water at the foot of the mountains. I lucked out with an amazing view. The girls I shared the room with were in NZ for the week on “break” from their study abroad program in Sydney. All from the States, one goes to the college my sister will be starting in a few weeks and lived in the same dorm my sister will be moving into. Shout out to my sis: she LOVED it and said you’ll have a blast!

I spent a few hours resting up (been battling a not-so-fun cold for the last week) and travel planning/getting some life things in order (had a cuddle sesh with Google to troubleshoot electronics issues — Spotify prob solved!, grabbed some new boots and thermals for the Milford trek, and bought tomorrow’s ticket out of Queenstown).

In the evening, I caught some live music at 1876 — a fun bar that sits alongside a babbling creek.

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New Zealand: Christchurch to Queenstown

 

Lunch at Lake Tekapo

Lunch at Lake Tekapo

Winding past Mount Cook on my way to Queenstown via Naked Bus whose nine hour ride is responsible for this long post.

Although I’m comfortable riding solo in life, I had forgotten just how far random acts of kindness go when that’s the case. Yesterday, as I boarded my flight to Christchurch, NZ, a furry fellow a few rows back asked me in a loud yet warm voice to come sit next to him. Because he pegged me for a Californian and the plane was only half full, I said what the hell. Missionary work is initially what called 29-year-old Matthew from Minnesota over to NZ a few months back. Now, he’s off to WOOF for a while to figure out if he is cut out to be a farmer in MN.

With a contained wild look in his eye, he played 20 random questions with me (Are you able to be your whole self at your job? What’s your middle name?), gave me the contact info for folks in his religious organization who would host me for free, and then talked me through the do’s and don’ts of NZ. “I don’t know why I called you over,” he said, amused with himself. “That was weird. I’ve never done that.” He repeated it a couple of times throughout our conversation.

Before the customs line in NZ separated us, he told me that over the course of the flight, God informed him that my missing middle name is Skylar (meaning: fugitive, scholar). He then asked whether I believed in Jesus. That was the last I saw of him.

It was past midnight, and so I was fortunate to stumble upon the last shuttle to my hostel. The driver, a fatherly figure who took immediately to calling me “Love,” and after asking where I was from, concernedly touched me on the shoulder about not having enough layers to stay warm in NZ (which, having been here less than 24 hours, is now a shared concern).

As I entered the hostel dorm room at 1 a.m., worried that I’d wake the others up, a group of women welcomed me and then sat me down to show off pictures of the wedding dresses they were shopping for in Christchurch — a fitting (and helpful) conversation in light of the fact that just last week one of my dearest friends asked me to be her bridesmaid and another asked me to be her maid of honor.

Small and strange moments, but they all brought smiles.

Now for my first rookie mistakes and lessons that I promised to share with you all:

1. Apparently I needed a departure ticket from NZ in order to board in Sydney (somehow United allowed me to board in SF, which was a mistake on their part). This caused me to have to buy Lonely Planet in the airport (dumb expensive) and plot out a rough idea of what I wanted to do in NZ and for how long, AND decide where I wanted to go after NZ–all within 20 min. It’s likely that I’ll have to change the ticket after giving my itinerary more thought.

2. Another useless cost, which I’m embarrassed to admit, having traveled enough to know better (my excuse, which isn’t a good one, is that I’m accustomed to traveling in developing, cash-driven countries): I exchanged currency while in Sydney and then having used none of the cash, had to exchange the remaining currency for NZD upon my departure. I lost money through these totally unnecessary transactions. You can use a cc virtually everywhere (my card has no foreign transaction fees which is another thing to look out for).

3. I failed to sync my downloaded Spotify lists with my home computer before I left and as a result I haven’t been able to listen to music virtually the entire time. Killing me! But today, a sweet kid on the bus lent me his MP3 player, apologizing for the Death from Above (?) album it was currently set to…I managed to track down some Daft Punk. Always a silver lining.

4. I forgot my world converter at home…time to make more friends.

5. The same problem that happened to me on virtually the same day last year as I was hiking the Pacific Crest trail is happening again: the soles of both boots are falling off. Last year’s consequence was that I had to hike six days in gas station sandals. This year I’ll be trekking through snowy passes so looks like I’ll have to buy a new pair, which doesn’t exactly fit into my budget…

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Snagged the west side of the bus this morning to catch the stunning sun that I’m now watching set into the mountains. Until next time, friends.

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Sydney!

Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House

In Sydney for 12 hours. Just enough time for the opera house and botanical gardens. Ducked into a coffee shop for some brief shelter from the misty rains. Can hardly contain my excitement about tomorrow’s adventure!

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Day 13: SFO to…?

These items made the international cut. Boarding now for the next destination…

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No Fun at Black Rock

This gallery contains 16 photos.

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Days 2-10: Black Rock City!

Heading off to my home in the desert for some soul time. Catch y’all on the other side.

-Dee

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Day 1: Chicago to…?

Boarding now: A bitter sweet departure.

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