Kepler Track & Fiordland National Park
As Tongariro Crossing – and the summit of Ngauruhoe – was the literal and figurative peak of my personal experience in New Zealand, the Kepler Track was the climax of my first two weeks, which were spent with my dearest bestest friends Howard & Gene. This is a four-day, three night trek from hut to hut; in high season the huts have gas burners so you don’t have to carry your stove, just your cooking eqiupment; they have bunks so you just bring your sleeping bag and no tent; and they have – oh luxury – flush toilets! Day two, as we hiked it, is almost all above the tree line, while day one is hiking from the western shore of Lake Te Anau (a long and many-armed mountain lake of classical proportions) up a steady and well-made trail to the higher reaches of Mt Luxmore. Day three is along a verdant river valley, into which one looks at the very end of the alpine section before a steep and many-zigzagged descent; and day four is peaceful and pleasant stroll along the river which connects Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau. Even in clear weather, the alpine section would be otherworldly — much of it is along steep ridgelines with sharp drops on both sides, and if some of this looks like Middle Earth, it’s because various scenes from the LOTR films were shot in this area. For good reason, obviously. It was an extraordinary hike, and the fact that much of our alpine crossing was made in snow and ice, in high summer, made it even more extraordinary.
A ridge or two down from the summit of Mt Luxmore — which is only at about 1500m or so, not really that high, but it’s well above the tree line at this southern latitude — is a large system of caves which we explored along with two nice guys we met in the hut, Jamie (aka Luther, with me above, a mighty fine bass player also I might add) and Bob. The Luxmore Hut is situated on a ridge above the tree line, surrounded by small alpine ponds and stunning views over the lake and the Murchison Range to the north. I’m nearly certain this shot below captures the ridge on which Luxmore Hut sits, if you look at the tallest notch (that being summit of Mt Luxmore, where I’m photographed in snowy fog a few shots down) and just come down a bit. I took it from a boat on the lake the night after I finshed the track.
Above and below, clearly the same view (south arm meets main body of Lake Te Anau, looking across from Mt Luxmore toward the Te Anau town side) and shot almost the same time but with very different fog or cloud cover, when Howard & I took a break from our card game with some of the folks at the hut to check out the apparent break in the clouds and nice sunset views. Throughout the day and a half or so of alpine (above tree line) crossing on this track, we’d have periods where dense clouds and fogs or snows would suddenly part to allow a glorious glimpse of just amazingly beautiful vistas on all sides…and we’d all rush our cameras out, knowing that soon it would be fogged over like the shot of me at the summit of Mt Luxmore, a few down from here.
As you’ve seen, this track includes strolls through lovely verdant valleys and clambers along dramatic alpine ridgelines with sharp, breathtaking drops on either side. Since it’s quite far south and in an area of rapidly changing weather, small changes in exposure (the south face is the colder, darker side down here) or elevation can lead to radical changes in vegetation and micro-climate. Below, a small green mossy trickle on a hillside barely a hundred meters below the treeless alpine zone that, when I crossed it, was characterized by icy plants — and yes, these shots were taken within less than an hour of each other but at different elevations. That bird up there is one of the world’s few alpine parrots, the Kea: NOT people-shy and rather mischief-prone if one’s careless enough to leave a backpack lying around; and as you can imagine that beak is sharp. Mercifully I only heard stories and didn’t directly experience a Kea raid on my own pack.
…the number of different mosses found in fiordland staggers the imagination. I heard the number — was it many dozen, or many hundred, I just can’t remember; but I do know they’re all mighty beautiful to look at and enjoy, and I’m sure they’re very enviornmentally beneficial.