|Author pauses on the shores of the Kepler Track's Lake Manapouri|
New Zealand is one of those magical places that demands unhurried exploration. Home to miles of jaw-dropping beauty, and water so pure you can drink it from the source, it begs to be explored on foot. Hiking, or “tramping” as the Kiwi’s call it, is my favorite way to explore. Not only does it offer a chance to experience natural splendors up close, but it provides an opportunity to meet like-minded folks who share a passion for the outdoors. With only two weeks to invest down under, the biggest problem is deciding where to start.
|Lake at MacKinnon Pass on Milford Track.|
|Swing bridge at the start of the Milford Track.|
|Mountain vistas along the Kepler Track.|
There are plenty of books and websites describing the natural features of the Milford Track—its spectacular river valleys, sky-scraping peaks, and breathtaking waterfalls. But what sticks in my mind isn’t found in these accounts. My memories fix on the day-to-day hut and trail experiences, those things you can’t Instagram: the 250-foot suspension bridge with just a little too much swing to it; hikers from around the globe chattering in a dozen different languages; the post-hike dips in glacier-fed waters; a late-night trip to the outhouse with an impromptu astronomy lesson when a stranger points out the Southern Cross and its pointer stars (Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri); the nocturnal call of a lonely kiwi desperate for a mate; the eery blue-green luminescence of glow-worms tucked among forest ferns; cheeky kea, alpine parrots working in tandem to steal your food in a choreographed performance where one bird cavorts in front of you while his co-conspirator sneaks behind to grab your lunch; rivers of liquid jade, so clear you can see not just the stones on the bottoms but the mile-long trout that call it home. Now we’re talking about the finest walk in the world.
|Kepler Track ridgeline.|
The Kepler Track opened in 1988 to relieve pressure from the over-subscribed Milford. The 37-mile loop offers trampers more flexibility than the Milford. It can be hiked in either direction, or to a single hut and back, and offers both DOC huts and camping sites. The whole loop can be completed in three or four days.
Like the Milford, you don’t have to search long for mile by mile descriptions of the Kepler Track’s beech forests, tussock grasslands, and mountain ridges. And again, the memorable moments are the unscripted ones: tramping through the towering, Suess-like fern forests; the ranger-led nature walks full of information about the local flora and fauna; learning to carve a shallow line in the dirt to attract curious robins for an up close and personal encounter; that top-of-the-world feeling when the clouds finally clear on Mt. Luxmore’s 5,000 foot summit; surviving the 90-plus knee-numbing switchbacks on the 3,000 foot drop to the Iris Burn Hut; the backcountry outhouses set in the most stunning scenery imaginable; intense quiet and air so pure it has no scent; inky nights lit only by the moon and stars; and looking back up the mountain to see what you’ve accomplished.
|The highest point on Milford Track.|
The Kiwis are a friendly bunch, and the hospitality did not stop at the end of the trail. A sparsely populated country with ten times more livestock than people, over the course of my two week visit I ran into the same bus driver three times. Soon we were on a first name basis. Like so many folks I’d met, Allan was a natural-born storyteller and added a new episode each time we met. After learning I had completed the Kepler, he asked me about the trail’s notorious winds. He listened to my report of 50 mph gusts, then launched into his own tale of a Swiss hiker who had encountered 110 mph winds on the Luxmore Saddle. The hiking group turned back, but this guy figured since he had summited both Everest and K-2, he could navigate the Luxmore Saddle on his own. Indeed, he completed the track but spent four hours on hands and knees traversing the two miles of exposed saddle. By now, it felt like Allan and I were old friends.
|Milford Sound greets us at the end of the track.|