Walk 15 - Kepler Track 'Great Walk'


The Kepler Track is New Zealand's newest major walking track - purpose built in 1987 to celebrate the centenary of national parks and to take some pressure off the immensely popular Milford Track. As such, it has new 50-bunk huts placed almost equidistantly on lake, river and mountain and includes a long alpine crossing. Being one of the "big 3" Fiordland Tramps it is popular with overseas backpackers and forward bookings are essential to do it; hence you have to take your chances with the weather. After a week of rain on Stewart Island we badly needed a dose of sunshine. We were in luck - a large high pressure system had parked itself over the South Island for the time that we had booked in to do the Kepler.

Day 1: Control Gates to Luxmoore Hut - the climb

The friendly owner of Barnyard Backpackers gave us a lift to the Lake Te Anau control gates, official start of the Kepler Track. Crossing the large concrete structure, which controls the flow of water from Lake Te Anau down the Wairau River, we soon found ourselves back in fern-carpeted beech and kamahi forest, following a broad path around the pebbly edge of the lake. The sun was shining, the water was lapping gently on the pebbles, the birds were singing and, for the first time, we could hear the sound of cicadas in the trees above; summer had finally arrived in Fiordland.


Start of the Kepler Track

Summer arrives in Fiordland - Brod Bay on Lake Te Anau

Before we knew it, we had arrived at the sandy beach of Brod Bay, an excellent spot to stop for a rest and gaze out across the waters of Lake Te Anau to the snow-streaked mountains shimmering in the distance. It was tempting to stay longer, but a hard climb lay ahead, so we strapped our packs back on and headed inland on the first part of the climb up to Luxmoore Hut, 800m above us. It was a long, moderately steep 450m climb switching back and forth up a beech/kamahi forested ridge - the sort of pitch that, once you have found the right gear, you can just keep on climbing at a steady pace (I confess to having an inner smile as we steadily passed trampers half our age who had charged at the climb and then petered out - it was a day for the tortoises!).

Eventually, the track reached a large limestone bluff, flattening out as it edged along the base of the bluff in the cool of their shade. Sidling up to the top again, we found a spot of dappled shade in the forest for lunch, before taking on the second part of the climb. The track steepened as it wound up through the forest in increasingly shorter zig-zags, the trees becoming shorter and the canopy more open as we gained height.

Big tree down on the track

Glimpse of Te Anau through the trees

The base of the limestone bluff

Sun-dappled forest near the treeline

Climb over - emerging from the treeline

Suddenly we emerged at the edge of the tree-line on top of the tussock grass covered spine of the Kepler Mountains. Here was definitely a place to stop and take in the views, which swept in a broad vista to the east and north over Lake Te Anau and the township of the same name nestled on the lake shore, while in the west lay distant Lake Manapouri and the Takitimu Mountains.

Panorama over Lake Te Anau

Subalpine plant communities
We strolled along the broad ridge, with its tussock, cushion plants and daisies, scattered tarns and alpine bogs, gently climbing the last stretch. Rounding a small hump, we were greeted by the sight of split level Luxmoore Hut, perched in a grassy bowl overlooking Lake Te Anau and the Murchison Mountains with their hanging U-shaped valleys and cirques - the glacial origins of this superb landscape were visible all around us.

Hanging U-shaped valley in the Murchison Mountains

Luxmoore Hut in its dress circle position

South fiord of Lake Te Anau

The Kepler Mountains and Mt Luxmoore

Alpine contemplation

Tarn in tussock grassland

Our early arrival not only enable us to choose good bunk spots (window, lower level, individual), it gave us time to explore the vicinity of the hut and wander amongst the tarns, daisies, bluebells, small alpine shrubs and cushion plants.

Miniature subalpine bog

Opening of Luxmoore Cave
The limestone rocks here are riddled with caves and sink-holes, small creeks disappearing into cracks and reappearing further downslope. Some of these caves are quite large and, armed with our torches, we explored the one open to the public. It was small, but impressively active with a many small formations (stalactites and shawls) dripping wet from the cave ceiling. Our path was blocked after about 40m, but the small stream continued on down a steeply angled fissure into the darkness.

Formations in Luxmoore Cave

Looking back toward the cave opening

Returning to the hut, we found that many more trampers had arrived, and were relaxing on the deck enjoying the views or soaking up the sun on the hut's helipad. What a pleasant summer day it had turned out to be. I was going to write how surprisingly quiet the hut had been with 50 people sleeping in its communal bunkrooms, but the fair Nello assured me that the ears were the only orifice not to contribute to the nocturnal chorus - sometimes it is good to be hearing-impaired!

Trampers sunning themselves on the helipad

... ... ...

Day 2: Luxmoore Hut to Iris Burn Hut - the alpine crossing

What a great view to wake up to; above us clear blue sky, below us, as far as the eye could see, a billowing sea of cloud, brilliantly white in the early morning sunshine. Across from our island ridge, the peaks of the Murchison Mountains rose up from this white sea, while in the distance other mountain ranges appeared as long silhouettes above this immense white landscape. How glorious was it, walking along the tussock grassed ridge beside the cloud-covered South Fiord, the speckling of tarns on the flats below glinting in the sunlight, as we climbed gradually up to Mt Luxmoore. Our alpine crossing had begun.

Sea of cloud over Lake Te Anau in the early morning sun

Scree and boulder slope on Mt Luxmore
Soon we were circling around the scree and boulder slopes of Mt Luxmoore to reach a saddle on its eastern face where we left our packs for a quick scramble up to the top of the 1470m peak; time to stop and take in the 360º panorama of cloud and mountain. By the time we reached the saddle again, the warm sun had started to burn off the cloud layer and glimpses of the dark waters of the south fiord began to appear below us.

At Mt Luxmoore trig

Cloud starting to lift from the south fiord of Lake Te Anau

View over the south fiord

North-west face of Mt Luxmoore

Scree-binding cushion plants

Alpine daisies

We descended across steep slopes where the alpine daisies, herbs and cushion plants bound together the scree - just how tentatively indicated by the occasional slips that we crossed. The track wound around the side of a long ridge heading eastward from Mt Luxmoore, each bend revealing new aspects of this marvellous alpine landscape.

Heading west from Mt Luxmoore
A few more alpine plants

Checking out the route around Jackson Peaks

The descent from Mt Luxmoore stopped at Forest Burn Shelter, perched on a narrow saddle overlooking the steep valley of the Forest Burn heading off to the south. From here, the track started to climb again, rounding the northern slope of the Jackson Peaks to a magnificent viewpoint over the far end of the south fiord of Lake Te Anau encircled by snow-streaked mountains. The sun was now quite hot, but there was just enough breeze to keep us cool as we strolled slowly on - this was not the scenery to hurry through!

View eastward toward Lake Manapouri (under cloud)

Panorama of the south fiord of Lake Te Anau in its mountain setting

New alpine vistas continued to appear as we left the slope to follow a narrow ridgeline eastward, the tussock covered slopes plunging steeply on both sides into an enormous cirque on the south and down a steep valley to the lake on the north. The track continued to undulate and meander along this ridge before finally turning sharply south and arriving at Hanging Valley Shelter, whose narrow band of shade provided a good place for lunch.

Descent down from Hanging Valley

On the track along the ridge-line

Hanging Valley Shelter

View down into the Iris Burn clearing

Start of the descent off the ridge

At this spot we farewelled Lake Te Anau and greeted Lake Manapouri, whose northern shoreline now appeared in the distance to the south. The start of our steep descent to it had begun.

We followed the track down the southfacing razorback ridge, lined with alpine herbs and daisies, before dropping off on the western side down a steep series of zigzag bends, plunging quickly back into the cool shade of the beech forest.

As we descended the path, the beech trees framed a series of vignettes of Spire Peak on the far side of the valley. Soon we were deep in the forest, far below the ridge and following a sunlit babbling stream, as it raced down the narrow valley from the cirque above us.

Beech-framed Spire Peak

Sun-dappled mountain stream

Resisting the temptation to soak our feet, we pushed on, descending a second series of seemingly interminable zigzags to descend rapidly to the valley floor, where a short walk brought us out to the beautiful secluded location of Iris Burn Hut, set at the end of a grassy clearing under steep rocky walls, with the impressive outline of Spire Peak looming over the head of this glacial valley. There was only one bad point about this site - the sandflies here were the worst that we had encountered so far on our trip!

Iris Burn Hut

View from the deck of the hut

Waterfall - Upper Iris Burn

Spot the sunbather


It was positively hot in this sheltered valley and, after an afternoon nap, we covered ourselves in sandfly repellant and wandered down through the cool beech forest along a track lined with native violets to the waterfall at the head of the valley. The water surged foaming white through a gap before plunging into a deep green pool and flowing crystal clear down the shallow stony bed of Iris Burn.

Back at the hut again, we grabbed our bathers and wandered down to a small sandy beach on Iris Burn at the far end of the grassy flat. Surprisingly, no one else had found it, so we took the opportunity for a quick icy dip to freshen up and a relax on the sand in the pale evening light.

An icy dip in the Iris Burn

A quick trip to the rock overhangs of the valley wall after sunset to see the glow-worms switching on their luminous lures and it was time for bed again; time to dream peacefully of seas of cloud and seas of alpine daisies. Yes, it is good at times to have bad hearing.

Day 3: Iris Burn Hut to Moturau Hut - slow descent to the lake

Wetland reflections

Looking out of the bunkroom window, it was another beautiful day. I stepped outside and was immediately attacked by a horde of sandflies, forcing a hasty retreat to smother on the repellant.

Bidding farewell to this spot with mixed feelings, we went back into the forest, immediately climbing up a short series of zigzags to reach a plateau above the hut. From here the steady descent following Iris Burn on its course to Lake Manapouri began. Soon the track broke out into a large open area of sedges and regenerating trees, where in 1984 the "Big Slip" had reset the cycle of vegetation succession to zero.

Looking back up the valley over the Big Slip

Continuing on down the wide U-shaped valley, we re-entered the forest with its mossy rocks and fallen trees, the canopy leaves aglow in the morning sun, the floor covered with a variety of ground-ferns and sun-dapples. At various stages we followed the bank of the river as it babbled down its boulder-strewn bed, and at other times we left to go deeper into the silent forest. Eventually we reached Rocky Point and the start of a steep section where the valley walls closed in to form a small gorge. Leaving the gorge, the forest spread out across the broader flats of the lakeshore. The air was distinctly warmer here and the cicadas were singing again. Just before Iris Burn emptied out into the lake, the path deviated to cross a low rise and emerge at the sandy edge of Shallow Bay.

Beech forest opening

Stoney course of Iris Burn

A forested section of the burn

Iris Burn flowing into Lake Manapouri

Lunch stop in the forest

Shallow Bay - Lake Manapouri
A short walk around the tree-lined edge of the bay led us to Moturau Hut on its grassy platform in the forest a few metres above the white sandy beach, with stunning views out over Lake Manapouri to the Cathedral Peaks and mountains beyond. After three days of walking without a shower, the lake was too tempting in the warm afternoon sun. We leapt (or crept) in for an invigorating dip in the "cold but not as cold as we had feared" water. The afternoon breeze kept the sandflies away and relaxed trampers spread themselves out over the length of the beach (if you do the Kepler in three days and rush out to Rainbow Reach, this is what you risk missing).

A well-earned dip in Lake Manapouri

Moturau Hut

Relaxing on the sandy beach at Moturau

After an afternoon nap, it was time to get up, cook up a filling camp meal, and go back down to the beach to watch a brilliant sunset over the lake and mountains. It had been another great day on the Kepler Track.

Late afternoon sun - Lake Manapouri

A brilliant end to another day on the Kepler

Day 4: Moturau Hut to Control Gates - along the river

It was another sunny start to the day - at least for those trampers who spent the night at Luxmoore Hut and were awaking to admire the sea of cloud below them, as we had done 2 days earlier. Down on the shores of Lake Manapouri we were underneath the cloud and woke to a grey mist blanketing the lake and forest.

We were both a bit tired as we were in a smaller room this time and the phantom snorer, the nocturnal nose-blower and the five minute tosser and turner had chosen to join us, combining with a set of creaky bunks to keep even the hearing-impaired such as myself awake (NB a set of ear plugs should be added to camping gear in Great Walk huts!). It was a pity that the sandflies did not feel as tired, but, after a day of missed opportunities for them due to the wind, they were ready and waiting to attack anyone who ventured out of the hut in the early morning stillness to put on boots or whatever.

Beneath the cloud

We left hastily and once on the move, they left us alone. The track took us straight back into the beech forest on the flattish lake shore, where we had the first of several close encounters with robins; these bold little birds wait for trampers to stir up the path and then hop around your feet collecting the tasty invertebrates that were exposed. We wondered whether they could be trained to sit on your shoulder and pick off the sandflies.

Amoeboid Mire (glacial depression)
Soon, we emerged at a wetland clearing where a short boardwalked side trip took us to a viewpoint over aptly named Amoeboid Mire, a swampy depression created by the melting of a large block of remnant glacial ice. Leaving the swamp to enter beech forest once again, we wound our way through an undulating moss-covered rocky, pot-holed landscape, as the track cut through areas of old glacial morain before crossing a swingbridge over Forest Burn.

Soon we reached the steep high bank of the Wairau River which flows from Lake Te Anau to Lake Manapouri and beyond. The track followed this bank, with glimpses out through the forest silhouette of the wide, fast flowing river, until it eventually descended to a long wooden suspension bridge at Rainbow Reach. Those who had decided on an early finish to their tramp were able to cross the bridge and pick up a shuttle back to Te Anau. We who intended to do the whole circuit pushed on. The cloud had now dispersed and the cicadas had resumed their happy song.

One last rest-stop in the forest

The broad channels of the Wairau

Jetboat on the Wairau

Deep quiet reach of the Wairau

The track led us through beautiful sun-dappled beech and kamahi forest and the occasional grassy or manuka scrub clearing beside the mighty Wairau. At times we were high above the river, at times right next to it; the soft roar of rapids alternating with the silence of long deep stretches of the river. How quickly and quietly runs the the powerful Wairau through these deep green reaches.

Grassy clearing on the banks of the Wairau

Wairau riverscape

Nearing the end of the track
Finally, the sight of the Lake Te Anau control gates told us that our 60 km tramp would soon be over. The early afternoon sun was warming up and our thoughts began to turn to a nice cold beer when a miracle occurred; an angel in a red bandanna appeared and offered us a cold Monteith's with lime and lemon! What better way to finish our long tramp (thanks Liz!!).

Nello, the angel and the beer

One last spot to admire the Wairau
As we lay in the shade and watched a flock of seagulls riding the thermals above the Wairau like a sprinkling of white confetti floating in the summer air, while waiting for a shuttle bus to take us back to the backpackers, we looked back on the great four days that we had spent in the Kepler Mountains with their magnificent lake, river and, above all, alpine scenery. Sandflies and nocturnal noises notwithstanding the Kepler Track is a great walk in every sense.