Oh boy! Another long hike! The longest yet! Clocking in at sixty kilometers and with the most significant elevation change of any of the other Great Walks we’d done, the Kepler Track had us (Alana) feeling pretty nervous during the week we spent in Invercargill leading up to the hike.
Our first day was no indication of what was to come. We woke up pretty late, heck it was practically noon, and took our time packing up and getting lunch at a nice cafe in town. We then spent a little while hunting down some candy canes because we’d be doing the hike over Christmas. The feeling wasn’t really much different than Christmas back home, except that it’s summer here. Christmas in summer does feel a little strange. It was Christmas Eve and the stores were all packed with people running around doing last minute shopping. It seems there’s no escaping 24/7 commercialized Christmas, even in the farthest corners of the world. Unless of course you isolate yourself in the middle of the mountains on Christmas day! And that is precisely what we were going to do.
Being in New Zealand on the working holiday, we tend to move around from place to place pretty frequently. We’ve made some friends along the way, but most of the people we know well are in places we’ve already visited and have since moved on from. We didn’t really feel like staying at an AirBnb. It felt weird imagining that we’d be hanging around someone else’s house while they went about all of their holiday business. Doing a long hike over the holidays seemed like an ideal solution. We’d be by ourselves in our tent and anyone else we ran into would probably be in a similar situation.
So back to Christmas Eve. After successfully finding some candy canes, we set off on the two hour drive to Te Anau. We stopped at the Fiordland National Park Visitor Center to pick up our tickets and then drove down to the parking lot for the hike. Alana suggested we park at the Visitor Center and thus add 45 minutes to the start (and end!) of or hike but I managed to talk some sense into her and so we went to the closer parking lot. We slowly put our boots on and pulled our packs from the trunk, Alana looking with dread towards the trail and the mountains to which it led. We started walking around 3:00 and it actually only took about an hour to get to the first campsite. The trail was pretty level and wound its way through the forest on the edge of Lake Te Anau. We sighed with relief that it was easy.
As soon as we got there and began pitching our tent I was assaulted by the largest swarm of sandflies I’ve seen in any of the campsites we’ve stayed at so far. I immediately zipped on the bottoms of my pants and threw on my rain jacket, but not without taking some hits on my legs and arms first. These Kepler sandflies were on another level. I swatted as many as I could, but my futile efforts were rendered useless by their superior numbers. That’s what I get for not putting on bug repellent before we started. Remember, when it comes to these Great Walks (or any other lengthy nature excursion really) be prepared!
Our tent was among some trees just beyond the beach. We were on the opposite side of the lake from the town and could still see all of the buildings. We were so close to civilization that we still had cell phone service! It didn’t feel quite as remote as the other Great Walks. The past two, the Milford and Routeburn, were one way tracks that required transportation to and from at both ends of the trail. This one, the Kepler, was a circuit, and the trailhead was easily accessible from Te Anau.
We spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the beach. I was ready for dinner as soon as we arrived, but Alana insisted on waiting. We had the same combination of boil-in-bag rice and super grain/bean pouches, but this time we brought sauce! The first night was pad thai sauce. It tasted like salt. A lot of salt. It added some flavor to the food and we cooked it all a little longer, but it s till got cold really quick. I thought these grain/bean pouches were the cat’s pajamas on our last hike, but this trip would test my devotion to them.
After dinner I retired to the tent as the wind had started to pick up. The tent was nice and warm, but full of sandflies. Fortunately these sandflies had grown used to the comforts of living in our tent. This life of luxury had dulled their instincts and slowed their reflexes compared to their more feral relatives still outside, making it much easier to take care of them. I must be getting better at multitasking as I was able to simultaneously write all of this in my journal and exterminate our burgeoning population of indoor sandflies. I can see more sitting patiently on the outside of our screen door. No doubt when Alana comes in they will attempt to sneak in alongside her, but I will be waiting.
By the time we went to sleep, the wind was howling over the lake and through the trees, buffeting our tent. There was heavy rain in the forecast for the next morning. Tomorrow would also be the toughest day of the hike. We had an estimated 10 hours of walking ahead of us, up and down the steepest sections of the trail. We went to sleep hoping that Santa would bring us a nice sunny day.