To Hell and Back
Trip Start Sep 09, 2004
394Trip End Ongoing
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After the overnighter in Milford I was told at the information office early the next morning that there were no dives available until the following day, if I was lucky. Contemplating another long night without insect repellent, I decided to make the dive in the Milford Sound another time - when I return to do the treks. Instead I drove back to Te Anau. As it had been a few days since the original track warnings, I thought I'd pop in to the DOC to see if there had been any changes to the current situation. As coincidence would have it there had, and someone had just backed out of taking on the 'Kepler Track' which was otherwise fully booked. It was to be started the very next day and DOC lady asked if I wanted to reserve a place in the huts (which is basically what you pay for - a space to sleep.) The track is still damaged in parts but also still achievable. I knew that I wasn't fully prepared (with equipment) and also that this was a rare opportunity under the current circumstances. I accepted.
The Kepler Track is one of New Zealand's great walks and one of three located around the Fiordlands.
'This 67km, four-to five-day walk in Fiordland National Park is a medium to hard tramp. It climbs to the top of a mountain and includes alpine, lake and river- valley scenery.'
- Lonely Planet
Well apart from the timescales, they weren't far off. I've just got back, unpacked and had a shower. It's been one hell of a few days and I'm totally, totally minced. I feel like I've been to hell and back and can only imagine and dread how I'm going to feel tomorrow morning.
The reason for my whimpering is purely because the pain I'm in was totally self-inflicted. The Kepler track is a fantastic few days hike, covering many terrains and exposing some fantastic wildlife. The views are magnificent and I'd highly recommend it to anyone. I was just a very silly boy. I over packed. But not just over - way over. 'Four days' I thought, 'couple of changes of clothes, socks most importantly, with something warm and dry for the evenings. Food for a good four days, cooking utensils, energy snacks, water supply, couple of books to read, emergencies supplies...' and so on. I left the van in storage at the holiday park and set-off on foot just before 11am on Thursday 17th. It's about one and a half hours walk from the campsite to the lake's control gates (the start of the track) so I'd given myself plenty of time to get to the first hut by nightfall. The first ascent takes around six hours. Just twenty minutes in to the walk from the campsite I lost all feeling in the top of my arse. My legs felt under extreme, unnatural pressure and I started to become really concerned. Half an hour later I was knackered and every step was a chore. I couldn't believe it. As funny as this is, I wasn't laughing at the time. I was actually debating going back. Half an hour later, just before the start of the track I found a bench table. I stopped there and totally unpacked everything before re-packing it more efficiently in a desperate attempt to make the huge, unnecessary load sit better. It didn't. The damn thing felt like it did when I left England. It was ridiculously heavy and may as well have contained another person cos' that's exactly how it felt - as if someone were lying across my shoulders. I became a 'real' idiot the moment I continued up the track instead of turning back. The problem was that it was already too late to turn back. It would mean abandoning the trek and I couldn't under the rare coincidence that found me here on the track in the first place. So I carried on. Silly.
I'll never know how I made it but I did. I hardly stopped en route. If I did it was to reach for a snack while I carried on walking. If I'd have stopped for any length of time I wouldn't have been able to carry on. I instinctively knew that much. Some of the scenery however was incredible. Brod Bay was stunning and felt completely isolated. It was like standing on your own private beach, looking out over the huge lake. As I passed through the huge limestone bluffs, there was a lot of track damage. Trees had been ripped from there roots and had avalanched from the rock face, smashing straight 'through' the track footing beneath it. It was ferocious. The last three hours of the climb ascended through the bush line and became almost unbearable on my shoulders, back and arse which were taking all the weight through every painful step. Above the bush line, the view was just magnificent. I could see right over Lake Manapouri and over at the Takitimu Mountains and the Snowdon and Earl Mountains. In the opposite direction I could clearly see the entire township of Te Anau and much further beyond. The skies were completely clear. It couldn't have been a better day.
I made it to Luxmore hut around 5.30pm and found a wooden bunk. Cursing myself, I dumped my stupid, hefty pack, got changed, set up my sleeping bag and sat outside on the balcony to eat dinner. Back in the kitchen I watched as everyone else made banquets out of expensive, miniscule packets of freeze dried adventure food, cooked in pots and pans that folded neatly away in to a shirt or trouser pocket weighing little more than a bread roll. At the other end of the kitchen was me - standing like a numb-nut with my huge stainless steel saucepan that weighed a ton cooking up water to make enough instant soup that would warm me for the night. What a difference the right gear makes. I may as well have brought the kitchen sink. My legs and most of my body was shaking as I ate which worried me a little but the view from the hut balcony more than compensated for it. There still wasn't a cloud in the sky and I could see right out over the South Fiord and the Te Anau basin. It's so vast and so wild - just mind-blowing. It's hard to comprehend how the whole thing was once gouged out by a huge glacier. Again, my limited vocabulary lets me down and I just don't have the words to describe it, other than simply, breathtaking. I sat there for ages in complete awe as the sun gradually set. As it did, the magnificent view beneath us changed its mood by the minute. It was incredible to watch.
What was really good was spending my first night in a long time in a hut on the side of a mountain. No heating or lighting, just a gas supply to cook with and a sink with a cold tap. The toilets were basic but sufficient and the bunks consisted of a few planks of wood knocked together. As bad as it sounds there is still a certain magic about 'roughing it' in the remoteness of the mountains while everyone else is spending the evening in pure luxury by contrast, completely unaware. At that moment, I knew some of them would be looking up at the mountains whilst we would be looking down from it in complete awe of what we could see around us for miles - the very thing that they couldn't see. That was our luxury.
The next morning the weather was the exact opposite and we were completely encased amongst the clouds. My back side was completely sore - sore to the touch, so the thought of another seven hours with that hefty pack exerting its eye-bulging pressure wasn't a nice one. I ate, packed and set off around 11am, grimacing into the clouds as I headed up the slopes. Looking at the overhead map of where I was and was heading, if it had've been a clear day I just know I'd have been blown away by the scenery. I had to cautiously pass over and through the alpine sections of the track before nearing the summit of Mt Luxmoore. I left my pack briefly to take the optional climb to the summit. It was twice as steep and even more dangerous but without that sodding pack I felt like the bionic man - I just shot up right to the top. The difference was amazing. It was a great shame but I was still surrounded by clouds and mist at the summit so the view was.....well, just clouds and mist. If it had been like yesterday, I can only imagine the magnificent views. But that's what I love about nature - 'it' calls the shots. You never know what you'll be presented with, especially in these parts.
The last three and a half to four hours was sheer hell. In that time I had to descend well over a thousand metres almost back to ground level - back down the other side of the mountain I mean. And it was steep. With the weight constantly grinding me down, every step was agony and I was really feeling the pressure through my knees. At one point I passed a Canadian guy who had strained his knee so much on the steeps, he could hardly walk. Then I realised I'd got four more hours to go of this steep descent down in to the Hanging Valley and out through the forest to the Iris Burn hut. I got there around 6pm after a few close calls. As well as steep it was very slippy and I spent a lot of the time side-stepping my way down just to get used to a different kind of pain - anything to alleviate the pressure on my back and legs. I must have looked a right tit. The scenery changed dramatically in the bush and I could hear a constant chorus of bird banter in the trees - some of the strangest calls and whistles I've ever heard. After dinner I must have been knackered cos' I was in my bag and fast asleep just after the sun had gone down around 8.30pm.
And that brings us to today. I finally awoke at 7am, this morning. My right ankle was killing - I couldn't move it inwards or upwards but I could still just about walk with minimal pain to it. The whole of my body ached but I'd slept enough and got up nonetheless. It was still dark and the two next to me were fast asleep so I got my things together in torch light. I had a quick breakfast, re-packed and set off about 8.30. The inclines weren't as steep as the last two days but there were parts where the track had been roped off due to weather damage and detours were in place which sometimes meant 'climbing' over huge mudded roots of trees that had fallen, to get over to the other side of the damaged track. On the final approach to Moturau Hut I was numb and on auto-pilot. My hands and arms were swollen and painful from over-tightening the shoulder straps on my pack, which I'd done intentionally, desperate to take the pressure off my back side and to restore some feeling and freedom of movement in my legs. I got there at 1.30pm and there were sandflies everywhere. I dumped the huge, looming body from my back and poured the tiny stones out of my boots as they all swarmed in, landing nicely on my face and neck to take their places at the banquet. By this time I'd developed two blisters and my back and arse were quite positively shot. I was finished. And I was 'finished'. I'd got all day and night to relax before the final haul back tomorrow. I ate my lunch in the hut and decided there and then not to stay and finish tomorrow as planned. It made much more sense to finish lunch now and just battle through it all the way back completing tomorrow's part of the trek today. I knew instinctively when I awoke this morning that staying one more night would finish me completely and as much as I wanted it, resting was not the option. I needed to see it through and rest afterwards. I finished my lunch and set off for the last part of the trek. It took me right along the Waiau River to Rainbow Reach where I crossed the long swing bridge and caught a shuttle bus back to camp. Even then it didn't really register that it was all over. I got the keys to my van back, collected it from the back of the campsite, parked up on my little pitch, unpacked and I've just had the shower of my life. Just now. Thinking about it I suppose I've had the time of my life too. As physically 'beating' as it was and as bruised and battered as I am, the feeling I have now makes up for it. I feel great inside and I'm still buzzing and glowing all over - the sense of accomplishment is so rewarding. What an intense, three days. I know in my soul that tomorrow morning will be very, very different, but I'm not going to think about it. For now, I'm due a hearty meal, a couple of cold beers and a warm bed. I'll deal with tomorrow when it comes - if it comes!