Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The Kepler Track : Part II

The ranges peeping through the clouds
When we woke up the next day we saw that the forecast was for showers.  That was unfortunate as we were about to walk the rest of the alpine section before dropping back down into the river valley.  This was a 14 km stretch with about 300m up and 1000m down.  I have to say by the end of the day I was much preferring the ups.

Even though the day was cloudy and the views were obscured this was still a fantastic day.  In fact the mist seemed to make everything more mysterious, and I will refrain from referring to any Misty Mountains here.  Though when I was back in Queenstown I noticed whole sections in bookshops devoted to Lord of the Rings locations.  In fact you could even go on Lord of the Rings tours from Queenstown where they would visit the nearby locations.  There were a few on the Kepler track.

The view from Mt Luxmore
We climbed to the top of Mt Luxmore (1472m) constantly holding out the hope for seeing a Kea (the cheeky alpine parrot with a reputation for destruction) but I think they like cloudy weather even less than humans.

Freaky NZ alpine plants, hiding in the mist
There were a lot of sections were you were really walking on the edge of ridges, with the ground falling away very sharply on both sides.  In high winds this section would be scary stuff.  That night in the hut we had another ranger entertainment talk.  Attendance at this talk was compulsory which was funny, I think the ranger in this hut is more isolated than the other two huts, being 2 days walk in both directions and with not much radio coverage.  So everyone had to gather in the kitchen at about 8pm and listen to this guy crack jokes and tell anecdotes.  I think he was a frustrated entertainer.

He was commiserating with us for the cloudy weather and telling everyone that they should be thankful that it wasn't windy.  Occasionally they get groups of teenagers doing the walk and one of these groups had to do the alpine section on one of these high wind days.  They set out early and the ranger followed them up after about an hour to make sure they were OK.  He found them all huddled in a shelter at the very start of the alpine section, so they still had about 10km of ultra-exposed walking to do.  He got them all roused up and they set off, every now and again though one of the kids would just freak out and curl up in a fetal position on the ground. 
Narrow ridge tops with the mist flowing up the valley on one side

That is one disadvantage with doing these great walks.  You can't wait a day for the weather to clear, you have to keep moving because you've only booked the huts for a night in each spot and the following night if you don't make it to the next hut there's nowhere for you to stay as people are coming up behind you.

Out of the alpine area, back into the forest

This second hut was a bit strange compared to Luxmore hut.  One thing I really disliked with the one hut I stayed in on the Overland Track was the absolute darkness overnight.  So in Luxmore I made sure to chose a bunk right next to the window.  The next night I again nabbed another good bunk.  But whilst I was checking out the different sleeping options I noticed one separate room full of bunks, but the beds were all behind a wall, so even though there were windows in the room there would have been no light.  Plus there was a passage-way of only about half a metre to walk past all the beds and it seemed that some beds were jammed right up against the roof, claustrophobia anyone?  Strange design, but as the hut was full that night, people would have had to sleep in them.  I'm just glad I walked fast enough to not have to suffer that.

The mix on the trek was a lot different from Tasmania, which was almost exclusively Australians.  Here it seemed that the vast majority were Europeans with a few Americans and some Kiwis thrown in, but no other Australians.  In Tasmania it also felt that people were much more self-sufficient, and though they may have bought their boots and camping equipment the week before starting, they did at least have camping stuff.  Some of the Europeans though carried kitchen saucepans with them, and glass bottles of pasta sauce.  One group were eating the dehydrated meals and yet they had also brought about 3 bottles of wine with them.  Unfortunately they had forgotten their corkscrew.  The Kiwis suggestion was that they probably didn't need a corkscrew as most wine has twist tops nowadays.  But that particular group was French and I don't think they had ever drunk out of twist top wine bottles in their life.  It seemed a bit incongruous to be so concerned with weight that you eat dehydrated meals, and yet you're happy to carry out 3 glass bottles with you.  But perhaps they ate the dehydrated food so they could drink the wine, it's all about priorities really.

The final day was a bit of a forced march.  We had decided to finish the walk in 3 days rather than take the usual 4, as that way we would have an extra day to explore around Te Anau.  It did mean we had to rush though if we wanted to walk the 22.2km and catch the 2pm shuttle.  So there are a lot fewer photos from this section of the walk.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

The Kepler Track

The first day was 13.8km with almost 800m of elevation gain, but it still felt easier than the days in Tasmania.  I think it had something to do with the lighter packs, cooler weather and incredibly smooth surface, no falling in mud puddles here.
Takahe at the Wildlife Centre in Te Anau

There are 10 great walks in New Zealand, the Kepler Track being one of them, and there is a world of difference between these walks and anything in Australia.  For one thing we felt like we were in the height of luxury as we stayed in huts every night.  But these were so well organised, when you arrived at the hut you would pick your bunk, with individual mattress already laid out for you, get changed, go to the toilet, which was flushing and inside the hut!!!  There were even washrooms with running water (no showers but I think some of the more popular routes may have had them).

The abrupt treeline

Then it was into the kitchen/dining room where there would be heating on and gas stoves provided, before the hut ranger would emerge to tell stories.  It felt a bit like being on a cruise ship, where there is entertainment provided every night.  It was at this first hut which we learnt about the Takahe and the Murchison Ranges.  These are the mountains on the other side of the fiord from Luxmore Hut you can see them in the below photo.

Murchison Mountains opposite Luxmore Hut
This is one of the last places on mainland New Zealand where there are still Takahe.  I think there are something like 200 remaining in the wild, and for quite some time they were thought to be extinct.  Until they were rediscovered in these mountains.  Now nobody except researchers and department of conservation workers are even allowed in those mountains to try and protect the birds.

The reason why everyone thought these birds were extinct are the stoats.  I think these were introduced to New Zealand to keep the (introduced) rabbits in check.  As is always the way with these stories the stoats decided that rabbits are a bit tricky to catch but large flightless birds are really easy. 

Overcast on the second day
The first day's walk was slightly overcast with a little bit of rain, but it cleared up once we got out of the trees, so we got a bit of a view over the ranges.  The alpine plants are really different here in NZ than the ones in Australia, you kind of think that all alpine plants would be roughly the same, and I guess they are if you include short and stumpy in the description, but other than that they had some really freaky plants out there.

Another thing which was different was how abrupt the treeline was, you literally stepped out of the forest into the grasslands of the alpine.  In Australia the trees just get smaller and smaller and then there always seems to be a wide swathe of dead trees that have grown higher than they could survive.

The second day was the main alpine section and it was a little cloudy that day.