RTW Post #31: Cloud City

01/31/14 – 02/02/14: Kepler Track, Te Anau, New Zealand

Finding ourselves alone once more, without the distraction of parental guidance, Katie and I buckled down for a week’s worth of RTW trip planning. With year-long travel it’s impossible to map out everything ahead of time, you need to make room for research along the way. With this in mind, we rented an airbnb outside of Christchurch for a week-long sequestering, nothing but the internet and a fridge full of groceries to sustain us. It was a fruitful endeavor that ended with a rough outline for the rest of New Zealand and all of South East Asia. Thankfully, long walks and the large bay window in our studio apartment made us feel less isolated.

Planning, Planning, Planning...

During our confinement, Katie and I struggled with our next move. For the first time on the entire trip we were without a schedule. No destinations. No bookings. Every direction was a possibility. We wrestled with several ideas, but when Katie shouted out a Bilbo Baggins quote everything became clear: “I want to see mountains again, Gandalf! Mountains!”

How could we argue with that logic?

So, instead of rushing up to the North Island of New Zealand, we decided to stay put and attempt another “Great Walk” on the South Island. The Kepler Track was a very appealing option, and as luck would have it, there were still bunks available at all the huts. With a few clicks on the internet we staked our claim and by week’s end we were driving once again down to the Fiordland.

Eight hours of driving and a cheap hostel later, we were ready to start the Kepler Track. It was apparent that Katie and I had gotten used to the traveling life, because this rushed decision didn’t leave us anxious one bit. On the contrary, we were brimming with false confidence! That is, until we nearly forgot to pick up our hut tickets and a rented hiking pole collapsed at the head of the trail.  Half an hour of fussing later, hiking poles kinda working, we really were ready to start the Kepler Track!

Magical Mushrooms

Our first hour of hiking was along Te Anau Lake with lush trees flanking us on either side. Water lapped on the nearby shore and red mushrooms with white spots sprouted up from the undergrowth – some as large as my hand! A friendly bird even followed us down the trail, curious enough to float up to our faces. We later discovered it to be a New Zealand Robin. The bird life in New Zealand is unparalleled and especially enjoyable when they are so willing to say hello. 

It was tranquil and easy trekking until we started our ascent. For the next two hours we were sky-bound, pulling ourselves up switchbacks that felt cruel and endless. It was then that I said to myself: “Oh, yeah. That’s right. We’re hiking for days. Through mountains.” Obviously we’d done this type of thing before, so I wasn’t panicked by the epiphany, but the nonchalant way in which we’d begun our trek quickly gave way to the reality of physical exertion.

It wasn’t hard, per se, just exhausting. My backpack suddenly felt like I was hauling bricks, and the length of that haul stretched for miles and miles. To keep a slow and steady pace up the steep terrain I started playing a classical piece of music in my head by Satie called Gymnopedie No. 1. I had it on repeat, its dulcet tones reverberating through my mind over, and over, and over again. I dug in my poles and plodded along to the invisible orchestra. It was incredibly soothing and helped me reach the top with a smile on my face.

The trees grew smaller and we eventually broke free of the forest, releasing onto open fields of thick tussocks blanketing porous rock. Turning back the way we came, our eyes were treated to sprawling lakes and a patchwork of farmland. Worth the climb, I should say, and even better now that the trail had miraculously turned flat!

Reaching The Top

We moved along, enjoying the open air and sunny weather. Luxmore Hut was spotted 45 minutes later, and we were happy to find it a lovely hut, indeed! Spacious and clean, the accommodations appeared to be brand new, with long kitchen counters and large windows that accentuated the mountain views. There was even a sizeable deck that people stretched and sunbathed on after their long journey up. We joined in. (Well, if you consider stretching and sunbathing anything like napping, then we joined in.)

Inside Luxmore Hut

The tranquility of the amazing setting was soon lost in the din of young twenty-somethings being obnoxiously loud. For whatever reason, this hike had an unusually high number of young’uns. I can’t say why, but my theory was that winter break was over for the working class folks, leaving the “gap-year” kids to fill up the bunks. Katie and I, being aberrant middle-agers without full time jobs, were the “elderly” set on the trail. And we fit the role quite nicely, being thirty-five year olds with the mindsets of retirees. This was made all the more apparent by our dismay over the lack of respect a group of young men showed the hut warden. They were chatting boisterously during his hut talk, and he even had to scold them into silence. They were subdued temporarily. After dinner, however, the kitchen was so thick with sound that Katie and I retreated to our bunks, shoved earplugs in our ears, and read until sleep whisked us away. 

The next morning we decided to leave late since the hut warden predicted thick fog at dawn. He was correct. The clouds were so dense you couldn’t see beyond a few feet in front of you. In an effort to gain better mountain views, we waited for the moisture to break up, but that moment never came. We pushed off our departure as long as we could until we finally gave in and left at 10:45AM.

In The Thick Of It

The fog was as thick as ever when we headed up and over the ridge. Visibility only allowed a shallow view of the world around us. Clumps of grass and sheets of moss covered the alpine terrain, which dipped and curved and eventually dropped away into the white abyss. Clouds rolled over us, shrouding the trail in a mist that clung to our clothes and moistened each strand of our hair. We couldn’t see anything, but it was enjoyable, nonetheless.

Several switchbacks later, we saw a break in the white expanse. There, within a window of clear sky, waves of mountains rolled into the horizon. All at once we realized we were on top of the world!

On Top Of The World

The vistas only improved from there. While snaking our way up, the sun would split the fog, granting us spectacular visions of green ravines and jagged peaks. Just as quickly those visions would morph and blur and become enshrouded once more in wooly white. It was thrilling never knowing what magical perspective would open up in front of us, or behind. Every step of the way was a wonder. And when we’d break for a snack, perched on a rock with the world at our feet, it was like watching a movie unfold before our eyes – each scene unveiling, transforming, and vanishing in the wind. Just to think, a few hours prior we’d been disappointed by the weather only to discover it molding our hike into something absolutely breathtaking.

A Walk Through The Clouds

We spent hours enjoying the shape-shifting views, but finally reached an end to cloud city. Unfortunately, Katie’s problematic hiking pole had decided to call it quits right about then. Not the best timing since a downward path had just appeared, inviting us to begin our long descent.

Slip And Slide

Our dip into the valley was steep and merciless, reducing our thighs to quivering strands of muscle. Some trails are built cruelly, pitched at an angle that forces your quadriceps to wave a white flag of surrender. Such was this trail, and after so many hours of hiking it wasn’t appreciated. At one point we spotted an old tree slide that had obliterated the path and continued down the mountain in a mangled mess. You see what we were up against?! Even massive trees with thick roots couldn’t withstand that level of gravitational pull!

The next hut warden made an unexpected appearance as we were hiking down. He was shoring up a step on the muddy track and told us we were 45 minutes away from Iris Burn Hut. He said we could track our progress by counting the numbered stout traps along the way. “Keep a lookout for trap number 24. The hut is right after that,” he said. For the next 45 minutes we counted down the stout traps like we were praying for rain in a drought. When the number 24 finally did appear it only made that last stretch of trail feel endless. We did make it to the hut, of course, but only had enough energy for a pathetic moan of “Hooray.”

Looking For Trap 24

This chalet was much smaller than the previous one, so you can guess how loud it became at dinnertime. And wouldn’t you know it? Hut warden #2 was also horribly disrespected during his hut talk, which happened to be very interesting! He told us about the next day’s weather and educated us about the local kiwi, playing back both male and female kiwi calls. That’s “edge of your seat” information!! At least, it was for these two fuddy-duddies.

He encouraged everyone to go for a nighttime stroll to look for kiwi birds, preferably with red headlamps since the white light scares them away. Katie and I, despite our beaten state, decided to follow his advice. You may think that sounds crazy after all my complaining about physical hardships, but a tiny room filled with exuberant people screaming in your face can be extremely motivating.

At 9PM we took a twenty-minute walk out to a nearby waterfall. The light was already waning when we left. By the time we reached our destination there was nothing to see but a pale strip of white smeared across the darkness; the moist breeze and reverberant boom proof that a waterfall rushed before our eyes. Being the only two people fool enough to go kiwi hunting at night, we sat alone on the rocks huddled together, listening to the roar of the water. It would’ve been an eerie experience if we’d been anywhere other than New Zealand, but this country has zero dangerous beasts. So, despite being alone in the woods at night, we both felt perfectly at ease.

Kiwi Hunters

We switched our headlamps on and red bulbs glowed in the darkness. Right away we heard the distant call of a male kiwi bird. It was too far away to hope to see, but it renewed our excitement as we headed back down the trail. We moved as quietly as possible while our lights danced through the surrounding brush in hopes of spotting a kiwi in the wild. I let Katie take the lead since she has better eyesight than I do. Meanwhile, I was doing my best not to trip on any rocks or roots protruding from the ground. I tend to be a klutz in the light of day, so it seemed wise to be extra cautious in the pitch blackness.

A rustling in the nearby foliage made us stop short and stand still for a few minutes. Our lights traced the edge of the path, slow and silent. We waited patiently but nothing emerged. This occurred several times on our way back, but our wild kiwi never made an appearance. We didn’t feel any disappointment, though, since it was still a great experience. After all, how often do you have the opportunity to hunt for kiwi in the woods?

Valley Morning

As previously mentioned, the Iris Burn Hut wasn’t as roomy as Luxmore Hut, including the bunkhouse. Katie and I had to share a three-person bunk with a stranger. Everyone was asleep by the time we slid into our sleeping bags, and I prayed that our invisible bedmate would be a kind neighbor. Surprise, surprise, he turned out to be nocturnally challenging, ie: I was hit by a barrage of thunderous snores all night long. Nothing suppressed them with the exception of the stranger’s alarm clock sounding in the middle of the night for no reason, whatsoever. This woke him, along with the rest of our cabin. It did allow me to enjoy a brief post-alarm bliss where, for five minutes, Mr. Snores-A-Lot was dead silent. Then he revved back up.

Making Roots

Our final day on Kepler was flat and long. We left at 9AM, the morning filled with birdsong and sunlight. Our path led us through a ravine where, on either side, old tree slides had laid bare strips of white rock beneath emerald green. Kea squawked as they flew overhead and landed in nearby treetops. The open canyon was a welcoming sight and, sadly, short-lived. Soon, tall trees enveloped us, and we padded through shaded wood, sometimes hearing the susurrus of a nearby river. We approached that river at lunchtime, happy to sit upon a log and eat a small meal. Even better, I had a final opportunity to drink directly from the waterway. I doubted I’d be able to do that again on our travels, so I cheerfully toasted New Zealand and savored my last taste of fresh, clean water straight from the earth.

Knowing that we’d arranged a 5PM pick up at the end of our trek, we took our time along the way. This was good news considering our bodies were broken. The previous day’s stresses had left their mark, and the lack of sleep certainly hadn’t helped matters. Our feet were little more than pain points; our thighs, whimpering cowards. Thank goodness the way was flat! Since time was abundant, we pampered ourselves with multiple stops, never dreaming that our foot-dragging would result in us running to the end of the trail to catch our ride!

Luckily, we made it to the end with five minutes to spare. Phew!  There was no one around, and no van in sight, so we waited patiently for our ride to appear. Katie stretched her aching muscles while I sat on tree sap. It was a productive five minutes that stretched into twenty. Around minute twenty-five we got a bit concerned. Had we missed our pickup?

Will We Make It?

I pulled out our emergency cell phone which, up until this point, had barely been used on the trip and had been spotty, at best. As luck would have it, the phone actually worked! I called our ride service and discovered that, yes, we had missed the van. It had already come and gone without us. All that running for nothing! I explained our situation and they graciously sent the driver back to get us. It was only twenty minutes away by car, so it really wasn’t that much of an inconvenience. And, considering we had been there on time, I didn’t feel all that bad about it.

Upon our return, we checked back into our cheap hostel and were given a room that reeked of cigarettes. Our complaining resulted in an upgrade, providing us with more space and the stale scent associated with locker rooms and backpackers. We fell onto our bunks, our bodies sighing with relief.

We’d had quite a journey. One could say we’d lived a lifetime on that trail, starting with the passion of youthful vigor (“Let’s climb some mountains!”) and ending with the complaints of decrepit curmudgeons (“Those kids need to quiet down, and this place smells!”). If someone had thrown a crocheted blanket over our legs and placed thick-rimmed reading glasses on our faces, we could’ve passed as retired ex-pats out to ruin the lives of the locals. “My bones ache!”

Out of curiosity, do you think that disguise would allow us to stay in New Zealand longer? Because we can make that happen.