After my day lazing around in Christchurch, I decided it was time to get out of town. I rented a shitty old blue Toyota and and was determined to head south. There was only one problem–in this country, they drive on the left side of the road. Driving in a straight line wasn’t too bad, it was just anytime there was an oncoming car my instinct was to swerve into it’s path, and also turning and ending up on the correct side of the road was really hard.
Luckily, after I got out of Christchurch there were very few cars. It turns out that the biggest roads marked on the map of the South Island were little meandering 2-lane mountain roads like Route 100 in VT. I turned inland about an hour down the coast and started driving through amazing countryside. Think Rohan in Lord of the Rings–grass covered hills in really cool shapes. Eventually I got near the Southern Alps, and got an amazing view of Mt. Cook (tallest mountain on the South Island) over Lake Tekapo. I was going to stop driving before I got to Te Anu (about an 8 hour drive from Christchurch), but the driving was so beautiful and relaxing that I just kept going, and before I knew it I was there.
I checked into a backpackers lodge for the night and got online to reserve places in the huts on the Kepler Track. The Kepler Track is NZ “Great Walk” in Fijordland National Park. It is a 60km long hiking track and has 3 serviced huts with bunks, stoves, running water, and bathrooms along the way. The idea is to hike it in 4 days and stay overnight at each of the three huts. In the morning I picked up my hut tickets from the Park’s visitor center and drove to the start of the track with two german women who were without a car.
Day 1 is 13.8km and 883m of ascent. It took me about 3.5 hours to reach the bushline, where I came out of the forest to find strong winds sweeping accross the alpine tussock. After about another hour of walking, I came to the first hut on the track: Luxmore hut. The view from the front porch was of tall, steep mountainsides terminating in lakes 800m below.
Since it was only 3pm, I decided to check out Luxmore Caves, only a 10 minute walk down the mountainside. Apparently there are over 30 caves in the area. This one was 2 km deep and only required a small amount of ducking and squeezing to get to some really cool formations. Since I was in the cave by myself with only one light (stupid!), after about 500m I turned back. When I got to the hut, there was a Kea (alpine parrot) sitting on the picnic table entertaining tourists. At dinner I met a family traveling the track in the opposite direction and we played a rousing game of hearts before everyone got tired and went to bed.
I woke up around 9am to find the hut almost deserted (note: earplugs let you sleep through 50 other hikers packing their gear up). I wandered downstairs to find that the weather report was for 90-110 kph winds and drizzle. Day 2 was 17km and a full-on exposed alpine crossing before the track dropped down to a valley on the other side of the mountains. This was going to be a tough day.
I started out reasonably well, only to find that when I rounded the mountain an hour into the hike I could barely walk into the wind. When I stopped at the first emergency shelter for lunch, I could barely move my hands. After warming up a bit, I continued on, trying to stay upright as 100kph winds knocked me from side to side. An hour and a half of walking on narrow ridges later I reached the second emergency shelter that marked the beginning of the descent to Iris Burn Hut.After stopping to admire the amazing scenery, I poked my head inside to say hi to my fellow hikers and then headed off down the trail. That’s when things really started to suck.
A huge gust of wind hit me from the side, and blew my swix ski hat off my head (those things fit tightly!). I looked up in time to see it go sailing over the ridge like a kite. A second later, an even bigger gust of wind picked me up and threw me off the track. I heard a sickening crunch and felt a sharp pain in my ankle as I tumbled down the ridge. Luckily my pack caught in a bit of a depression and I stopped falling about 15 feet from the track. I lay curled up in pain as I weighed my options. There was no one on the track for 20 minutes in either direction. I could try to crawl the 300 meters up the trail to the last emergency shelter, but once there, I was stuck. Or, I could tie my boot laces really tight to keep the swelling down and try to limp my way down the mountain to Iris Burn.
I have no idea how I managed the rest of the ridge trail in the wind, but I have never been happier than when I dropped below the bushline that day. 2 hours later, I limped my way into Iris Burn Hut. Down here in the valley it was HOT, so I took off for the river where I soaked my ankle in the freezing water and took a swim. I got back to the hut just in time for it to start pouring out. At dinner, a Brazilian guy took pity on me and poured me a shot of his precious brandy. “You look like you need this,” he said. After yet another rousing game of hearts, I passed out.
I woke up around 9am to once again find the hut almost deserted. It was still pouring out and wasn’t supposed to stop all day, so I packed everything I had in plastic bags and got ready to set out. Luckily, the day’s hike was pretty flat and only 17km. There was one problem though, and that was that my ankle didn’t really fit in my boot anymore.
Long story short, I eventually managed to get going, only to be rained on for 5 hours straight. By the time I got to Moturau hut I felt like a drowned rat. The only upside of all the rain was that the waterfalls in the valley were amazing. I arrived to greetings of “We’re so glad you made it,” and we played yet more hearts to pass the time until the weather cleared for a beautiful sunset over the lake.
Today, (that’s day 4) I once again awoke to a deserted hut (do hikers ever sleep?) but to better weather. By this time my ankle was a purple and yellow swollen mess, but I still had 17km to go to get back to my car. Luckily, the hike was once again very flat through some beautiful (rain?)forest with moss-covered everything along a river. Things were going pretty well until hour three, when the effort of holding my ankle stiff caught up with an old knee injury and all but crippled me. I literally couldn’t walk. I sat down and took some Aleve and thought about what to do. I really didn’t have any options. I just had to keep going. The next two hours were excrutiating. When I saw the control gates I almost cried. My car was there!
This all sounds pretty dismal, but it was actually fairly awesome (other than crazy weather and painful injuries). Fijordland is beautiful and I met some really cool people along the track. Tonight, a bunch of us got together in Te Anau for beer and dinner. There were 4 kiwis, 2 Austrians, 2 Australians, and 2 Americans all from different walks of life, but hanging out together after a great experience.
Tomorrow: Sea kayaking in fijordland!