We couldn’t leave New Zealand before hiking one of the nine popular trails the government has named “The Great Walks“. The Great Walks typically take a few days and have basic lodges along the way to stay in. There is a Great Walk season during the summer months in New Zealand, when you need to book all of the lodges (they call them huts) or campsites on the track in advance, and the prices more than triple compared to off season. After reading about a few different Great Walks on the South Island, we decided that we’d do the Kepler Track.
The Kepler Track is located in the Fiordlands and can be done in three or four days. The hike stretches over a total of 60 kilometers and is a circuit that starts and ends near the town Te Anau in the Fiordlands. Being a circuit, it is a lot easier and cheaper to do then some other trails like the Milford Track other the Routeburn Track, which both start and end in locations miles apart from each other and require you to organize transport back to the start or for somebody to relocate your car at a high cost (Milford requires boat trips).
As we were luckily still just before Great Walk season, we didn’t have to book any of the lodges on the Kepler Track in advance, but instead just had to buy Backcountry Hut Tickets for $15 pp/night at a Department of Conservation center. We brought gas for cooking, a camping stove, sleeping bags, and the food we’d need for the four days we planned to take. During the season there are gas and stoves supplied, as well as running water in all of the lodges and flushing toilets, but outside of season those amenities are not provided.
After preparing our bag and getting a good night of sleep, we drove out to the DOC Kepler Track parking lot and set off from there to the first hut we intended to stay on the track, Luxmore Hut. According to what we read online, the hike to Luxmore Hut was around 14 km and should take us about 6 hours, with quite a bit of elevation gain – about 750 meters. The first hour-long section of the trail to Brod Bay campsite was flat and easy going through the forest along the shores of Lake Te Anau.
Shortly after that the trail started to climb up through the forest, and although the path wasn’t very steep, it was still quite hard with our big backpacks on. The trail lead us past some huge rock formations and after about 2 hours the forest gave way to alpine grassland with views over Te Anau on a clear day.
When we reached the end of the forest we saw a sign indicating that Luxmore Hut was only another 45 minutes away. We were quite surprised since we had been expecting another three hours or more to go. It took us another 30 minutes to reach the hut, hiking along through light snow that had begun to fall. Luxmore Hut, with 54 bunk beds, is the biggest on the Kepler Track and turned out also to be the nicest with great views over Lake Te Anau. It had a big common area with a firewood stove and two rooms with bunk beds and a bathroom inside the hut. As we were quite early, we still got two beds in the smaller of the two bunk rooms. It was really cold in the rooms and still snowing outside, so we spent most of the day in the common area meeting some new people and reading.
After a while it cleared up outside, so we headed out to do a side trip and explore Luxmore Cave, which was only a ten minute walk from the hut. The limestone cave is pretty wet and narrow, leading down into the mountain. Shorty after entering the cave it got really narrow and we had to squeeze under a low point to get any further, but it was worth it as the path opened up again. We walked a couple hundred meters deeper into the cave before it got really narrow again and we decided to head back. Our trip into the cave took about a half hour from the mouth and found us in a shallow stream most of the way. Although Luxmore Cave isn’t among our favorite caves we have explored in New Zealand, it is definitely worth the short trip from Luxmore Hut, especially when you get there early with time to kill. After exploring the cave we headed back to the hut and spent a pretty cold first night on the Kepler Track.
We woke up early on our second day into the trip and after a quick breakfast we packed our bags and set out on the trail. The second day of the Kepler Track is supposed to have the nicest views, and we woke up to a perfectly clear sky. We felt pretty lucky after having experienced New Zealand’s mostly wet and grey spring weather to that point. The track to Iris Burn Hut, the second hut we planned to stay in, would be almost 15km and would take us up another 300 meters in altitude.
Shortly after starting the track we reached a turnoff to Mount Luxmore summit, it was only a 10 minute detour, so we dropped our heavy bags at the fork in the trail and headed up toward the summit. Some people advised us not to leave our bags there as kea birds might come and pick at them. keas are the only alpine parrot in the world and call the Southern Alps and the Fiordlands their home. They are known to be very and inquisitive and like picking at rubber on cars or anything the can get their beaks on. Sadly the government paid a bounty for locals to kill keas until 1970, which lead to 150,000+ being killed and for them to become endangered. There are estimated to be 1,000-5,000 keas left, so we were excited to hopefully see them, and hopefully not eating away at our backpacks. The walk to the summit was short and gave us great views in every direction.
After the detour to the summit we followed the main trail along the mountain ridges, with amazing views over the surrounding areas and a lake down below.
When we reached one of the shelters along the trail, we finally got to see some keas up close. They weren’t at all shy and loved posing for our cameras. We continued hiking along the trail, which was mostly flat and some small uphills before it started to descend down toward Iris Burn Hut.
As we descended we soon were heading back into the forest, and we were sad to leave the nice alpine views behind. After an hour of descending and hiking through the forest, we reached Iris Burn Hut. While they had nice views over a valley, they weren’t close to as nice as to Luxmore Hut. Shortly after arriving we learned that there was no running water in the hut and saw the horrible state of the long drop toilet (outhouse). On top of that, we were welcomed by the usual swarms of sandflies we had experienced all along the west coast of the South Island. We debated for a while if we should push on to the next hut, but as this would have meant another 16km of hiking, we decided against it and tried to make the best of the rest of the day.
Iris Burn Falls was a short hike from the hut, so after resting a bit, we decided to check that out. It was a nice small waterfall, but thanks to the sandflies we only sat there for a short while before spending the rest of the day inside the hut.
The next morning we woke up early again to start the hike toward Moturau Hut. The hike was 16km of mostly flat forest, so we weren’t as excited for it as for day two. The hike was really easy and we enjoyed it more than we expected. After four hours we reached the Lake Te Anau shore and shortly after that, the hut.
The hut was beautifully located right at the lake, with nice views. Again we debated on pushing on as the last day of the Kepler Track would be flat again, but as we had already bought the hut tickets anyway and weren’t in a rush, we decided against it. We enjoyed the rest of the day sitting at the lake shore (until the sandflies found us) and playing card games with fellow hikers. We had gotten to the hut pretty early, so we didn’t have troubles getting a bunk bed, but the hut ended up getting really crowded and quite a few people had to sleep on the floor in the common area.
The fourth and last day of the Kepler Track lead us along swampland and through the forest for another 15km. It was easy going again, so we only needed another 4 hours to make it back to the parking lot. Quite a few people decide to do the Kepler Track in only three days, cutting the last hut out and heading straight to Rainbow Reach, another parking lot just 6 km from Moturau Hut and hitchhike back to Te Anau from there. The last day wasn’t a very exciting one and we were anxious for a shower, so we were quite happy to get back to our car.
Overall we really enjoyed the Kepler Track. It was a nice hike with nice views, pretty good huts to stay at, and some great extras – such as the Kea parrots, the Luxmore caves, and Iris Burn Falls. Being a loop, the Kepler Track is also easier and much cheaper to organize than some other great walks. If you have the option to do the hike just before or after the great walk season it may be good to look into since the price is less than a third of in season, however remember the weather in New Zealand is generally harsh and changes constantly. One of the many stories of deaths on this particular great walk should be a reminder not to go when there’s much snow down and to bring an emergency locator outside of the season.