The Kepler Track

Date of Adventure: 22-25 March 2021

Standing as still as we could, our eyes darted back and forth through the pitch black underbrush; stars and glowworms blend together as we spot a long line of satellites meandering overhead. We finally detect what we were straining to hear: the loud, rising trill of the South Island Brown Kiwi!

While we were pining for adventure in our MIQ hotel, I knew there was one place I wanted to return: The Kepler Track. Though I had walked it once before, I wanted Kadi to have the unforgettable New Zealand experience I had enjoyed.

The Kepler Track is one of the newer Great Walks, having been built in 1989. Though it’s often overlooked for it’s older brother the Milford Track, the Kepler enjoys many advantages: you don’t have to take an expensive boat ride to the start, you have the choice of which direction to walk it, and you have an entire day above the alpine treeline! Bookings are still required though, and it often fills up early in the booking season.


The 60km (37 mile) walk is generally hiked in 4 days with 3 hut stays, but you’ll often see runners doing the entire thing in one day (another advantage to the Milford, which is more strict). There is even an annual race around the Track, called the Kepler Challenge, which takes place in December (summer here).

Kadi and I were able to get hut tickets for the middle of March. Still plenty warm, but starting to feel the cold of fall in the air. We spent a couple days in Te Anau preparing for our first trek, and finally departed on the morning of March 23rd!

Beautiful sunset the night before our start!
Packs all loaded up! This was the first real test of Kadi’s custom made backpack!
Start of the Track
Crown fern

The Track starts on the banks of Lake Te Anau, with lush underbrush and towering Red Beech trees as far as you can see. The crown ferns rise up above and around you as you hike within view of the lake for the first few kilometers.

Boardwalks covered in chicken wire, ubiquitous on NZ tracks

There are many introduced predators on the islands of New Zealand, including Stoats, Ferrets, Possums, and feral Cats, just to name a few. Trapping is a constant battle with these quick-to-breed mammals, since they pose a severe danger to the unique flightless birds endemic to these South Pacific Islands. Trap boxes were seen regularly throughout the track.

Spiky things!

Eventually the track departed from the lakefront, heading deeper into the humid podcarp forest. Our legs let us know that we were no longer on the flat part, as the path climbed steadily towards the blue skies above.

Elevation profile. We had just reached the big hill to Luxmore Hut.
Our incredible experience on the Kepler Track.
Our first view above the trees–Mt. Titiroa. Not snow, but a granite layer in the mountain makes it white!
Limestone bluffs on the way up the mountain

The tall, proud trunks of the Red Beech trees slowly gave way to the stout and twisted limbs of Silver or Mountain Beech, more appropriate for the whipping winds of the alpine. We knew we were close to treeline!

The trees started getting smaller
Into the alpine tussocks!

Most of the 900m elevation gain of the day was finished by the time we got above the trees, so we de-layered and wondered about what to expect at the hut.

First view of the Luxmore hut, with sunbathing hikers out front

We hadn’t been around such a large, social gathering in more than a year, so we were both a bit intimidated by the raucous crowd in the large hut. It fits 50 people max, one of the largest huts in NZ!

Boots off in the hut

We met a few people through the night, but many of the groups kept to themselves. In stark contrast to my previous time here, we were the only Americans and the demographics were largely kiwis!

Luxmore hut with Te Anau in the background

We decided to take an optional side hike to Luxmore Cave, a limestone cavern just 10 minutes away from the hut (you can see the path going off to the right ^).

Down into the depths
We didn’t go very far down, as it was getting dark outside, and our shoes weren’t quite the right footwear for it

When we got back from the cave, it was time for the nightly hut warden talk and warning about fire (which she did quite thoroughly). Many had already finished dinner by that time and started heading to bed! Our sleep schedule was much later than this, so we made dinner by ourselves, and I headed out to do some astrophotography.

Luxmore hut by moonlight
Mt. Luxmore, an objective for the next day
Sleepy Te Anau and surrounds

The next morning we woke up before sunrise to check out the beautiful cloud inversion in the adjacent valleys, one of the things the Kepler Track is famous for.

Sunrise cloud inversion
Ubiquitous aluminum-clad tables of DOC huts

After a quick breakfast, everyone started heading along the trail. Most people travel the Track Counter-clockwise, but there were a few who were heading back down to town that day.

Moving on
Alpine tarn with the path we took in
Mt. Luxmore: our next objective
Looking back from the top of the Mount

Though the hike to the top of Mt. Luxmore is an optional spur, we knew we had to hike to the top of the mountain. It was reminiscent of the last parts of 14ers back home: rocky and sandy, but this one wasn’t nearly as long or oxygen-deficient.

Classic Fiordland mountains
Emergency shelter with the Jackson Peaks in the background

The second day of hiking takes you along the shoulders of the Jackson Peaks, hanging on to the steep sides of actively eroding hillsides.

The trail is a small slash across the top of these bad boys

This day is almost entirely above the trees, so sun and weather protection is a must. We were lucky to have an entirely sunny day, but I got stuck in a rainstorm last time I had hiked it, resulting in a very cold Cameron.

Beautiful alpine tramping
Surveying the path we had taken so far, with Mt. Luxmore poking up on the left.

All too soon, the ridgeline starts to taper downwards as you see the dense forest approach from below.

Back down into the Beech
Saying goodbye to the hot, sunny ridgeline

Though the views are smaller, the shade of the woods were a welcome change after treking a dozen kilometers in the sun.

Old Man’s Beard on the Silver Beech
An example of the active erosion found in New Zealand

Walking through the wet, dark, south slopes of the valley felt much different than the forest we had hiked through the day before.

Descending into the Iris Burn Valley
The Iris Burn (Creek).

Our knees were thankful that we finally reached the valley floor, but the sandflies reminded us that not everything can be perfect. The Iris Burn hut sat welcoming in a large meadow, and we claimed our bunks for the night before going to the nearby Iris Burn waterfall.

Iris Burn Hut
Sunny meadow
Iris Burn waterfall

The hut ranger at this hut was a bit less strict about fire safety, but did give us the details of what would happen if you flush your wet wipes into the sewage system at the hut (not good things). Finally, she gave us some details on how and where to spot kiwi that night if you were so inclined!

Kadi and I were absolutely inclined, once it got super dark outside we grabbed our red headlamps and started walking back up the path we had come from.

Standing as still as we could, our eyes darted back and forth through the pitch black underbrush; stars and glowworms blend together as we spot a long line of satellites meandering overhead. We finally detect what we were straining to hear: the loud, rising trill of the South Island Brown Kiwi!

Handheld Starlink photo. Nice job Panasonic G9!

We saw SpaceX’s Starlink satellite array for the first time, a long row of lights lazily taking up the night sky between the steep valleys.

As we stood and listened, we saw another red light slowly bobbing along the trail coming back towards us. As it got closer, we realized it was our track mate following a kiwi walking down the path!

The kiwi didn’t seem to care that we were there at all! It walked right past Kadi, frozen on the side of the trail, and kept foraging for insects with its long beak. The kiwi breed that lives here, the  South Island Brown Kiwi, is one of the larger breeds. Even though this was a female (generally smaller), it still almost came up to Kadi’s knee! It felt very primeval to me, an ancient relic of New Zealand’s wilder times.

After this night adventure, we headed back to the hut for our new tradition; a cup of hot chocolate and Tim-Tams before bed (look up a Tim-Tam slam, it’s incredible).

The next morning a cheeky Kea was investigating the hut and it’s inhabitants. The weather was a far cry from the day before– it was foggy, misting rain, and all around dreary.

Kea – these alpine parrots are all around mischievous

We set off tramping down the Iris Burn valley. The cooler day made for nice hiking weather, and we made great time cruising downhill for most of the day.

Lush path through ‘The Big Slip’
More moss and lushness

Many of the birds of New Zealand evolved to not be afraid of things, since they didn’t have any land-based predators. This means that many of them will be very friendly, as you attract their lunch: sandflies.

Friendly Robin
Taking a break for lunch. I think I counted 30+ sandflies here alone! Be prepared for these guys, they bite!

With the cold and damp weather came hundreds of mushrooms! I had to stop and try to take pictures of all of them, of course. This certainly made the hike take longer, but it was absolutely worth it.

Tiny Mushrooms
Classic mushroom
Some sort of fungus, but probably not a true mushroom
Competing mushrooms

As we continued to lose altitude, we started seeing the familiar ferns we had seen on the first day, but in more abundance.

Fern covered forest floor

We were approaching Lake Manapouri, and the sun started breaking through the clouds. Looked like it was going to be a beautiful night!

The sun shining through
Manapouri in view
The final hut. Phew!

Though the Moturau hut has a prime beachfront lot, the sandflies there are as thick and big as we had seen (or have seen since). Kadi and I took a few minutes to walk down the beach, but ensured we were covered from head to toe with our long sleeve shirts, hoods, socks, and everything tucked in.

Beachfront views

That night was a great night of conversation and friendship. Most of the people staying there were the same ones we had been meeting and talking with for the last three days, so we could talk freely and joke with the others. I was able to get some free food that another large group didn’t have room for, and Kadi and I talked late into the night with a couple folks about New Zealand’s long pathway, Te Araroa. It felt a little melancholy; I wanted one more night with all these strangers turned friends.

The next morning was a little grey and overcast, but not raining like the day before. Looking at the map, it was a gentle, relatively flat walk back out to the van.

The tiny forests all around
Boardwalk through marshlands
Beautiful reflection

We caught up with a few people as we were hiking and had some good conversations with them, and many offered to let us stay at their place or property if we were traveling through. The generosity of kiwis is enormous!

Waiau river
The best signs
Big ol’ suspension bridge

The last few kilometers were also a little bittersweet, I kinda wanted to hike some more, and enjoy the simplicity of just hiking to the next destination. However, my feet were complaining, and I’m sure I smelled unpleasant enough to everyone around.

A friendly fantail, feasting feverishly on ferocious flies

We finally saw the signpost we had originally passed on the right fork, this time approaching from the left. We had made it! Kadi’s longest trip to date, and her custom backpack held up splendidly!

Not too worse for wear!

It was time to go back to our Holiday park in Te Anau and take scathingly hot showers to numb the searing itch of the sandfly bites. Yuck.

Sandfly aftermath

I hope I’ve convinced at least one of you that you should come tramp the Kepler Track, it is a world class track that takes you through some of the most diverse places New Zealand’s South Island has to offer. Let me know if you have any questions, and thanks for reading!


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