Day One of the Kepler Track saw me disappointed with the clientele at the otherwise beautiful Luxmore Hut. On Day Two things pick up. The people don’t really improve, but my skill at avoiding them certainly does.
I rise early and am pleased to find the common area at Luxmore Hut completely empty. Everyone else must still be snoring in their bunks, which means if I hit the trail now I should have it to myself until I start running into hikers coming from the other direction. The light is dim and blue when I put my boots on and head out the door. Low laying cloud has invaded overnight and covers Lake Te Anau like a thick wooly blanket. Everything but the mountaintops hides beneath the clouds.
Obviously there are downsides to losing the view, but strolling above the clouds is its own sort of magic and one that I’d trade for a postcard view any day. High up on the ridge lines, surrounded by majestic peaks that stand tall above the thick cloud bank below. As the sun rises the clouds roll up the mountainsides, engulfing the giants in their race up into the sky.
The change in altitude means I’m treated to new varieties of wonderful little alpine gardens. Everything that thrives here is like a land in miniature. The dew drops that sparkle in the sun dwarf the tiny flowers they rest on. Beautiful mountain daisies seem like giants next to their pygmy cousins. Further on the track descends into the clouds and the cushion plants and loose rocks transform into strange moonscapes in the fog.
I stop for a brief snack at a shelter along the traverse. It’s so nice to be ahead of everyone that I’m hesitant to stop at first, but given yesterday’s crowd, I’m guessing I would hear them a long way off if they were getting close. I rest quietly, listening to keas calling out to each other in the mist and depart with a satisfying silence at my heels.
The tracks curls upward with thick cloud obscuring all features until the last minute. Rock faces loom out of the fog so suddenly that I feel as though the landscape is trying to sneak up on me. The cloud bank has to end somewhere though and it’s not long before I break through to the surface again. The track meanders up onto a thin ridge line heading for the Hanging Valley. Clouds plunge down abruptly on either side. The fog may be obscuring some of the views, but it more than makes up for that with the atmosphere that it lends to the mountains. It really does feel like walking in the sky.
When I make it to the shelter at the Hanging Valley I run into some people coming from the Iris Burn Hut that are complaining about the cloud layer which is apparently ruining all their photographs. You’re walking in the sky people! I know it doesn’t look exactly like the postcard but have you looked around at all? Personally I’m more than happy to trade my vistas for an adventure in the clouds.
I’m a little sad to leave the mountaintops behind, but the descent down to Iris Burn is pretty magical as well. The beech forest up here has a wildness to it that is totally different from the shores of Lake Te Anau. The trees are scraggly with dangling bits of moss and the wonderful ferns at their feet have so much character compared to their perfectionist cousins. Tiny rifleman, who are quickly becoming my favourite New Zealand birds, crawl over rough bark and give me small heart attacks with their daring flight shows. When they fly they plunge straight down as if they’ve fallen off their perch and then somehow end up sitting on a branch at the last second.
Not far from the hut I meet another local character in the form of the hut warden from Iris Burn as he heads up the hill to do some trail work. He immediately apologizes to me for the weather and I’m quick to reassure him that I actually find the clouds very atmospheric and think the mountains couldn’t possibly be as amazing without them. Postcard views are nice, but they’ve got nothing on walking above the clouds! He brightens up and tells me excitedly that he totally agrees with me and it’s nice to finally see someone who appreciates real weather in the mountains. I’m glad I’ve made him so happy but a little disappointed that I’m such a rarity in this regard…
I’m the first person to arrive at Iris Burn so I take advantage of the quiet to read my book in the sun. The hut goers start to filter in after an hour or so but luckily they seem a lot less obnoxious than last night’s crowd. Maybe a lot of the people were only going as far as Luxmore Hut. Most of them still have a crappy attitude toward today’s spectacular weather, but a least they’re not so loud about it.
The hut warden gives a short talk just before bed and tells us that the next section walking down the valley toward Lake Manapouri is his favourite part of the track. He gives a disclaimer that it doesn’t have the wow factor of the mountain views but there’s something about the atmosphere of the place that is really special. I’ve been impressed with his taste so far, so I head to bed looking forward to the next leg of the journey.
Continue the next leg on Day Three…
Listening to: With Any Sort of Certainty – Streetlight Manifesto