A real alternative: the Kepler Track
SOME OF THE BEST multiday hiking tracks trace along ancient footpaths, routed via village-to-remote-village, connecting people and places over wild mountain ranges. Their sense of place and experience are intricately tied to the layers of human history that have coursed along them in the context of grand landscapes. The walking is often tough, the accommodation, if any, rough.
Equally, however, some of the world’s best walks actually boast little heritage, being custom-built to service the demands of the growing itinerant community of recreational trekkers. And there’s a growing feeling amongst that wandering multitude that, you know what, nighttime resting places need not be so rudimentary and it’s kind of nice to have trails that while still natural, have been subtly massaged for better walking underfoot.
New Zealand’s Kepler an iconic destination
It is in this context that New Zealand’s Kepler Track can rightly claim to be an iconic destination for walkers, boasting as it does a well-maintained path dotted with comfy, shared huts and travelling through the still-wild and very much majestic mountains of Fiordland National Park, on New Zealand’s south island.
Where other walks in New Zealand meander along ancient Maori trading tracks or European pioneer trails, the Kepler has a relative short and mundane history. In 1985, the Fiordland National Park Board decided to celebrate the centennial of National Parks in New Zealand by creating a new track. This was partly to celebrate the milestone and partly as a solution to the overcrowding taking place on two other popular walks, the Milford and Routeburn Tracks.
Essentially, the Kepler began with park personnel looking at a map and pencilling in where potential tracks could go based on shorter walks and topographic interest. The pencil line that made it into print and eventually fleshed out on earth was a track starting and finishing at the outlet to Lake Te Anau.
Of course, there is some walking history in the bones of Kepler, with parts based on the old walking tracks up Mount Luxmore and into Shallow Bay on the edge of Lake Manapouri. It is also the region that lays claim to being the wellspring of the conservation movement in NZ with the Save The Lake campaign centred on Lake Manapouri evolving here in the 1960s.
The building of the Kepler Track
Two years after the first whisperings of a new trail were heard in departmental boardrooms, and $1.5 million in grants later, the 60km track, featuring many kilometres of new pathway plus upgraded bridges, boardwalks and three spacious huts, was realised. And from the moment walkers – and all too soon, runners – stepped along it, the Kepler was regarded as an instant adventure icon.
“A couple of things stand out about the Kepler,” says Grant Tremain, Conservation Services Manager overseeing recreation and historic facilities in Fiordland.
A Te Anau local, Grant has worked on the track and its huts for more than 10 years.
“Being the most eastern of the Great Walks in Fiordland, the Kepler is quite different in feel to the others. Firstly, the length of time on the top between the Luxmore and Iris Burn huts is one of the longest alpine sections of any New Zealand Great Walk.
“Secondly, because it is a relatively new track, more modern construction techniques have been used, meaning the gradient and standard are much more user-friendly, even though there are some long climbs and exposed sections.”
“The views over Murchison Mountains, where the Takahe (an endangered flightless bird indigenous to New Zealand) were rediscovered are particularly impressive, as well as the section around Lake Manapouri,” says Grant.
“Being the first purpose-built multiday tramping track in New Zealand, it was able to be designed to suit its purpose as a circuit [making logistics easier] and its location close to Te Anau gives a great diversity on the more accessible parts – runners, picnickers, boaties and fisherman are regular users alongside trampers,” says Grant.
Trail running along the Kepler Track
The mention of runner may raise eyebrows, however since the track’s inception, running, as much as walking, has been entwined in its unfolding history. Indeed, Grant himself spends plenty of time running on Kepler “training for a local event, the Luxmore Grunt.”
At 27km out and back to Luxmore Hut, the Luxmore Grunt is but the baby brother to the Kepler Challenge, which takes in the entire circuit. And while walkers finish the loop in three to four days, Challenge runners smash over the total ascent of 1350m, topping out at a highest elevation of 1400m, in little more than four and a half hours. The current record held by Martin Dent stands at four hours 33 minutes and 37 seconds.
The genesis of that astonishing record was in a teacher’s staff room at nearby Fiordland College, where three running-addicted colleagues set about a plan to run the Milford Track in celebration of its centenary. Quickly realising that the logistics of running an event on the end-to-end Milford were prohibitive, they cast eyes to the not quite finished Kepler. A mountain challenge was then born when, in 1988, 150 competitors lined up to tackle the fresh track that was barely trodden on in parts. Conservation Ranger at the time, Ken Bradley, described it as “aligned but not formed – the surface was rough and uneven and basically runners would be jumping over tussocks and choosing their own paths.”
This was adventure running in its early days, and free forming the route – indeed helping add early layers to its foundation – was considered just fine by these hardy men and women. Even back then, the time taken by Russell Prince to win the inaugural event was impressive: five hours 17 minutes 34 seconds. Today, the race sells out in 10 minutes and hosts 450 runners.
User-friendly huts along the track
Of course, for most who venture along the Kepler, the idea of running it would be anathema, or at least viewed as ‘a bit of a rush’. Most walkers take the more genteel option of covering the 60km in up to four days, taking advantage of the excellent network of three huts: Luxmore, Iris Burn and Moturau. For many, the communal and social nature of staying in the huts is as much a highlight as the more introspective moments enjoyed walking, with travellers huddling around tables, discussing the finest view of the day while savoring a hot, re-energising meal.
“The huts can be busy, but they are pretty user friendly,” says Grant, who notes that while the huts are excellent refuges for weary trampers, they remain long shots in any architectural award stakes.
“Luxmore Hut was once called the ugliest hut in New Zealand, but we have worked at improving this, extending the kitchen area and improving the insulation, making it much warmer and user friendly.
“All three huts are in great locations, with plenty to do for people who still have energy on arrival. There are caves at Luxmore, the waterfall at Iris Burn hut, as well as a swimming hole in the river. Moturau, located on the edge of Lake Manapouri, is also a good place for a dip, or just a lounge around on the beach.
“The bunkrooms can be busy, but it adds to the general atmosphere. Knowledgeable and enthusiastic hut staff are also able to interact with visitors, giving people a better feel for the areas around the huts.”
While a cuppa and conversation around tables appeals, it remains the grandeur of nature that places the Kepler up there with the most memorable wilderness experiences.
Grant nominates the Iris Burn valley section as “one of the nicest valley walks in the country.”
Fond memories of the Kepler Track
Having worked on the Kepler for more than a decade, there are a few other memories he has stored away, representative of the kind visitors can also come away with.
“Walking across the ridge tops in a foot of snow with my parents (in the ’60s) is a favourite,” says Grant. “Camping over winter in the hut working on the kitchen extensions, being woken by Kiwi calls at Iris Burn hut, watching red deer feeding in front of the hut, working with a range of staff all over the sections of the track, having blue ducks swimming around me when crossing the river…”
And like anyone who has experienced the Kepler Track, Grant, of course, could go on.
Prior booking is required for the use of huts and campsites between late October and late April (summer season). Bookings can be made online at www.doc.govt.nz/ or at the Te Anau Department of Conservation office.