Emily and Sienna came down to visit me in the deep South and they timed it well for the Queen’s Birthday long weekend, so there is no excuse not to go to the mountains! Our first thought was to do the Humpridge track off-season (as normal pricing for freedom walk with two nights on a bunk bed and nothing more would be nearly $300, which I had difficulty justify for myself even though I know the track would be amazing). However after realising the humpridge is closed for maintenance this winter season in preparation of becoming the next New Zealand Great Walk, we had to look elsewhere in Fiordland. Kepler attracted our attention naturally, as it’s also off-season so no booking is required to do the Great Walk, meaning less money spent on hut stays but also less tourists and noises to cope with. As we only had two good weather days and none of us have much alpine experiences tramping on icy tops, we decided to do a return trip to Luxmore hut instead of doing the whole 3-day loop. The walk up to the peak turned out not so icy as we thought but we were content with the view we got during this overnight trip rather than risking tramping beyond our abilities.
The Kepler track starts just outside of downtown Te Anau, and in fact is one of the most easily accessible tracks without a vehicle – you can walk from town centre along the beautiful shore of Lake Te Anau to the track starting point which would take about an extra 50min. It was a quiet misty morning when we set off. Te Anau has become a half-dead town after the Milford Road flooding in early 2020 with the subsequent border closure that shunned overseas tourists away from the biggest national park in New Zealand. The nature guide on the Doubtful Sound cruise I did in January pledged to all the visitors to spend some time in Te Anau, not merely passing through, go enjoy the film of Fiordland and support the local businesses, which I took to my heart, as if Te Anau was looking at me with her big watery eyes asking me to just do this consumerism thing one more time.
The first hour was a very pleasant walk along the lake shore heading to Brod Bay, where visitors can actually boat in to cut the walking time shorter (how convenient). The track excellently maintained, wide as a highway, making me seriously consider the feasibility of bringing a friend who’s on a wheel chair here. The uphill grunt starts from Brod Bay and zig-zags through the peaceful beech forest heading to the bushline. This part I may not call wheel-chair friendly as the steady slope would definitely bring some sweat. After 3-4 hours of uphill, we came upon some short but evil stairways (those thighs!), which led us along side a stunning limestone rock face.
Sienna called out the first hungry howl so we stopped for some bites after the stairs and quickly needed to bring out the billy as temperature here was lower than our sweaty bodies would enjoy. At this point we were just above the fog that had been looming over the Lake the whole morning.
When Sienna was cutting pieces of organic tofu while I attempted to roast them over the meagre fire from the gas stove and only managed to burn the tips of her chopsticks, this silent powerful magnificent millions of rays of misty sunshine just exploded amonst the beech forest above us. I only managed to squeeze out a ‘wow, shit look at that!’, our jaws hanging. Absolute clarity was in that moment and we almost stopped shivering in cooled sweat.
This makes for an unbeatable lunch view and I was so glad we didn’t try to push through to the tops like I would have done if I was alone, always wanting to stick to a plan and time which is always an illusion anyways. Rather it is far better to just relax in the walk and feel what the forest is like, do what is good in the moment and not at 12:07 according to the clock. Well the only exceptions I would give to sunrise and sunset in the mountains, for those two things only I would allow myself to check and recheck the exact time and best places to be, almost like a religious ritual to be greeting the sun and kissing it goodbye.
Soon we entered the open tussocky tops, an abrupt change from the bush that was literally at the same level just behind us. The best moments in tramping often are when a great view suddenly appears and overwhelms you in surprise, and the others are sharing it with good company. Ice remained on parts of the track and it was fun to deliberately walk onto it, making crackling sounds and knowing that you are leaving a trace in where you’ve gone in life. Simple happiness like a child hopping in piles of autumn leaves or a dog taking off into a pristine lake. Strange thin black cloud looming over a tarn with a reflection of the deep blue sky. Kea calling in the distance. Te Anau township coming into view with the fog lifting off the Lake. Snow capped peaks extending beyond visibility. Tussocks looking golden crisp and still without the slightest wind. Sun. Walking became so light we were almost floating, and the hut soon appeared around the corner.
Here on the porch of the tidy spacious hut was a young male kea awaiting us, or anyone who he could entertain his inquisitive mind with. I could watch these cheeky smart as beings for hours on end.
But we also had another mission to do, to check out the Luxmore cave just 10min away from the hut on a well marked track. We were joined by Adrian, who ran up the mountain in just under 2 hours. Before going I didn’t read much into the cave, thinking it will be a short side trip. I was wrong. It kept offering the deeper we explored. Following a low stream down, with a sequence of squating, squeezing your belly and tip-toeing, crawling on all fours, boulder hopping, the exaggerated limestone tunnel just kept going. There is little concept of time when you are in a cave, at least for me. We got to an intersection where another stream joined in from the right-hand side. I was like a hound panting and ready to chase my prey and shot to the upstream side, while Adrian went to check the main way (continue downstream). I think I came to an end, where the stream trickled in from a few boulders that prevented a human from going further. There were many strands of dried tussock here next to the boulders, looking as if someone had been moving them in here to make a nest, but I don’t know who – a bird? Mammal? Or it could just be carried down by the stream when it was in flood. Adrian came to fetch me and we headed back out so he could run down the mountain before it got too dark, leaving the rest of the cave unexplored and mystical. We ended up spending nearly an hour inside, and according to the hut wardens people have spent 3 hours exploring in that cave.
When we re-emerged from the cave, the sky had a gentle rosy hue and the tussocks softened a touch. We waved goodbye to Adrian and enjoyed the evening pink sky before heading back to the hut for some dehydrated meals and reading under the headtorch. The hut wardens are welcoming and had good stories to share. The fire was so nice that Emily and I decided to sleep right next to it, as up in the bunkrooms was pretty chilly.
The next morning we were treated to a stunning sunrise which lit the inverted clouds on fire. Emily and I headed to the Luxmore summit which took about an hour from the hut. We walked through layers of fog, I picked up an earthworm from the icy track and warmed it on my palm a bit and left it in the tussock when the sunshine broke in, leaving us speechless with a double white rainbow over the lightly foggy sky. If you are doing a return trip to Luxmore hut, I would highly recommend you go that little bit extra way around the corner heading towards the summit side-track, even if you don’t get up to the summit. The rows of peaks floating above ever changing clouds, the perfect contours and wrinkles of ridgelines, the vast open space between the sky and your feet, it just felt wholesome to be present.
The 10-min track leading up to the summit was a bit icy in the morning but nothing technical. Emily nearly made it to the summit, overcoming her fear of slippery rocks bit by bit, and she was content with making it so far. I remember back in Tibet locals would not stand at the very top of mountains, since so many of them harbour deities – which make them holy mountains. One can stand on their shoulders, but not their heads, as that is not respectful. Tibetans were and still are puzzled by the peak bagging fever of people from outside. I wonder why I wanted to go to the summit. Was I trying to accomplish something? A mental checkpoint of ‘done this one, onto the next’? I’d like to think that it is for the most part the 360-degree view that always leaves me in awe, and fills me with more respect for the mountains. I feel we should sometimes remind ourselves that when we go visit their world.
We met two creative minds on the top – Tom and Adam who had been painting up there for over an hour. They expertly helped Emily down the slope, we headed back to the hut to reunite with Sienna and shared more dehydrated meals together. The way down to the carpark was fun and chaotic as the five of us were talking and laughing so hard that at one point Sienna was rolling on the ground with laughter. I don’t remember much of the 3-hour descent from the hut as our new friends were so hilarious, but I do remember there was some weird mushroom that puffs up a dust cloud and bounces back when you make a dimple on it. Nature is never boring.
Thanks mountains, for letting us enjoy your beauty.