It starts with Manaporui Lake on the eastern most edge. The landscape inflates in grandeur. The mountains take up more space in the landscape. The lakes get a little larger. Farmland seems to slip away and thick forest is the only prevailing landmark. This is the point where moss covers everything and the clouds never burn off. This is what I have been waiting for. My trip has been patiently building itself up to this point. I am in the midst of a big exhale because I finally made it and at the same time I am holding my breath because this is where the hiking gets serious. Three big tracks at your fingertips and not a single reservation at a hut site. All of my hikes would have to out-and-back day hikes which is not appealing but technically this is just supposed to be a taste to help discern which track I would be most eager to do next spring.
I can’t help my enthusiasm though. The Kepler Track is just sitting there on the side of the road. I park and opt to do one short leg of the track, from Rainbow Reach Carpark to the Kepler Car Park. 6 miles round trip through a forested track and along the river. If I do this leg one day and continue with the flanking tracks over another two days I can cover 70% of the whole track. Day one is a test. How many miles can I complete in what sort of time frame? They say it could take 3.5 hours to go one way. I keep a good pace and manage to cross in 2.5 hours. If I run back I can shave off even more time so I tested my totally undeveloped trail running skills and shaved off another 30+ minutes.
For some reason I didn’t figure that the next morning my legs and energy were not going to match my determination to dominate the next leg of the track up the mountain to the top of the ridge-line. I was on the trail by 9:15 am but I felt like Wall-E before he solar charged his batteries. Nope, no running today. It was a slow trek, but consistent, and I was eventually rewarded with some good views above the clouds.
Some people manage to complete this loop track in a single day so it was difficult for me to step off my high horse and turn around rather than continue all the way around. At the end of the day though I was glad to have turned around because instead of an extra 14 miles of trail time, I was able take an afternoon picnic on the lake. 18 miles, 8 hours and 3300 feet up. I gave up on the 3rd leg of the track because my knees were shot and I could tell that the scenery wasn’t going to be any different from what I had already seen. Day 3 was dedicated to multiple expensive coffees, a fancy breakfast and free WiFi at the library.
I prepared for the for the next leg of the journey to the Milford Sound. For 240 km, there is no gas, no food, no flush toilets and definitely no service. On the way down I stopped at all the little lookout points and spent the afternoon driving slow and taking pictures. I took one trail up to a Summit Peak which took about 3 hours and then had the good fortune to meet a group of Americans at the DOC campsite that night. We shared some beers, talked about our travels and enjoyed an evening of stargazing. It was the first night for all of us without clouds and away from city lights so the Milky Way was in full force.
Sunday was Routeburn, another one of the Great Walks. I figured that I should be able to reach the second hut and therefore 1/3 of the total track before having to turn back. I told myself the day before to focus on the journey, not the destination which was actually some arbitrary mileage point but old habits die hard and and there I was again pushing myself without reason. Luckily, I must have been already half dead because I hit a nice waterfall on the way and decided that I was satisfied for the day. Instead of hiking until 7:30 pm, I was checked into my next campsite by 4:30 pm.
Gunn’s Camp is an old public works site from the 1930’s depression era. It has been re-purposed for tourism and has developed a great little character with cute signs and a one room museum of artifacts and historical highlights. I thought I would spend the evening reading by the fireplace but a retired English couple had so much to share that I actually only got one or two articles in. I would have to try again the next night.
Day three in Milford was actually a half day. I finally internalized the message to take it slow and enjoy the ride. The hike up to Marian Lake is estimated to take 3 hours. I took 4 hours to go 1,300 ft up and apparently only 1.5 miles. People passed me every step of the way and I was feeling accomplished because finally I didn’t care. The lake was covered in clouds but I still had plenty of great photo opportunities as full cloud cover seems to be the most natural of states here. I learned that when the weather forecast says sunny with a chance of showers, it actually means rain with full cloud cover and a chance of sun. I did actually spend the evening reading by the fire and enjoying the warmth while it rained sideways from 5 o’clock on.
The next day I took a drive over to Milford Sound but because a boat taxi is required to access both sides of the Milford Track and rain was the only type of weather that was happening that day, I wandered my way back to Te Anau. On the way back, I came across the biggest sheep herding operation that I had seen to date. I had time to take pictures, video and still had to wait for a few minutes. It was fun.