Who: Just me!
Where: Fiordland National Park, New Zealand
Mileage: 35 miles
Elevation gain/loss: +5,200ft/-4,900ft
More photos: here
I kicked off 2018 with my first ever backpacking trip in another country! I used airline miles to snag a flight to New Zealand, which is an absolutely spectacular, unreal place to visit if you like to be outside. Fiordland National Park on the South Island is quite possibly the most stunning area in the country. There are a handful of “tracks” (trails) that New Zealand has fully developed in its Great Walks program. These have perfectly maintained trails, outhouses here and there, and even huts you can book to sleep in. Quite a change from my usual Sierra program, but it was incredible.
Control Gates to Brod Bay
3.5 miles, flat
I spent New Years Eve soaking in a hot tub at an AirBnB in Cardrona, trying to adjust to the 20-hour time difference which meant that when I began my hike around 5pm on Jan 1, 2018, it was still Hellyear Two-Zero-Seventeen back in California.
I parked at the poetically named Control Gates, hoping my car would be ok for the few days I’d be away. I’d read varying reports about whether or not this was safe to do, but most of those reports linked to a secure parking lot and shuttle you could purchase with dollars, so I was skeptical.
The Kepler Track is a loop that you can start at a few different places, and I chose the Control Gates to give me a short first day of hiking so I could do other touristy things during the day and still have a cheap place to sleep. The trail from the Control Gates to Brod Bay is basically flat and easy through the forest. I got my first taste of the spectacular species of plants that evolved in isolation in New Zealand, my favorite of which is tree ferns. Yes, TREE FERNS. Ferns, but make it
fashion trees. Later on my trip I’d see more impressive guys as tall as and very reminiscent of palm trees, but just stick a fern up there. Walking along a trail under them gave me the feeling of being a very small, prehistoric creature, maybe a little turtle with my house on my back scuttling under the ferns, watching out for dinosaurs.
The trail is mostly through the forest, but it cuts over to Lake Te Anau here and there.
After about an hour of walking, I arrived at the Brod Bay campsite area. There were lots of other campers set up already, seeing as it was evening already, and there were plenty of day visitors on the beach polishing off the last of their picnics and loading up their kayaks and little motorboats to set back for the town of Te Anau not far across the lake. It’s also possible to hire a shuttle boat from there that will drop you off at Brod Bay, in case you aren’t in the mood for the flat 3.5 mile walk.
I pitched my tent, made dinner, and walked on the beach a bit before tucking in to read and fall asleep.
Brod Bay to Luxmore Hut
5.2 miles, +2,900ft/-0ft
The island nature of New Zealand means that the weather is quite changeable and I’d heard that forecasts are somewhat unreliable. Still, the forecast predicted potential thunder storms in the afternoon, so even though I only had a bit over 5 miles to hike (though with nearly 3k feet of elevation gain), I set out on the earlier side, around 8am.
The trail shoots straight away from the lake and through a marshy, mossy, boggy area before it begins its climb. The Great Walks are very well-developed and maintained and there were solid boardwalks (wood with chickenwire over top for grip) to keep you out of the boggy areas. What luxury, I thought! In the Sierra where I spend most of my time, you’re lucky to get a bridge across a stream, let alone a lovely boardwalk to keep you from getting muddy.
I encountered even more strange and unusual plants as I continued down the trail. Check out this curtain of tree fronds.
After a mile or so, the trail begins to climb. It’s on the steeper side of moderate as far as climbing goes, but it’s shaded even if muggy and moist compared to what I’m used to. This does, unfortunately, obscure the views down to the lake save for a few peek-a-boo spots. The trail makes up for this later, though.
About three quarters of the way up the trail hugs some cliffs, and I again admired the luxurious and sturdy trail construction, which even included a set of stairs!
Once atop that last steep push, the surreal ferny forest immediately gave way to clumpy grasslands. The bushline was so abrupt well-defined it seemed almost sculpted—bush here and no bush there, ready for swimsuit season.
Being above the bushline rewarded me with spectacular views in every direction. Down to Lake Te Anau, across to farmland, and to the rugged mountains to the west.
The trail flattens out and again there’s a well-constructed boardwalk, this time to protect fragile grasslands.
I rounded a corner and all of a sudden there was the spot I’d sleep for the night: the Luxmore Hut perched on a flat spot with spectacular views.
It was only 11am, so after claiming a bed and dropping my pack, I decided to head off on a little side trail to check out a nearby cave. It was… a cave. Damp and wet.
More interesting than the cave was the outrageous plants I encountered on the walk over. There’s this cute li’l clumpy bottle-brush shaped guy called hebe.
And this grass that curls itself into spirals to conserve moisture when its windy. Even though it rains quite a bit, the soil is awful at moisture retention, so plants tend to dry out. The curls prevent the grasses from swaying as much, so they don’t experience as much evaporation. What even. Aliens!
After marveling at how weird every little plant was, I headed back over to the hut.
This was my first ever hike-to-hut experience and let me say it was indeed Lux and More. In addition to bunk beds with mattresses and heating, there were sinks (!) and flush toilets (!!) and dozens of gas-top cookers (!!!) you could use. What.
It was still early in the afternoon, so I hung out at one of the tables in the lounge/dining area (!!!!), puzzled and read Octavia Butler. I had just started the first book by her that I ever read (Lilith’s Brood) and um well let’s just say that I read seven books by Octavia Butler in 2018. Do yourself a favor and pick up Lilith’s Brood if you haven’t read it. No questions, no googling, just go read it. I did manage to bring my eyes up from the book now and then to enjoy the view, though, so don’t you worry.
After a couple hours of reading, more and more hikers began to trickle in. They choose their beds and then scuttled about the kitchen cooking outrageous things I’d never consider putting in a backpack: steak, eggs, fresh ravioli, SALAD. I looked down into my pot of ramen and slurped with sadness. Next time there will be salad and maybe even an avocado. Next time.
After dinner I sat on the deck (yep, there’s a deck too) and got assaulted for the first-but-not-last time by a couple of Keas. They’re a species of especially naughty parrots that will go after any morsel of food they can spy. They are not shy. You have been warned.
After a couple more precious hours reading Octavia Butler and enjoying this outrageous view, I climbed up to the sleeping area, brushed my teeth, stuck in my earplugs (absolutely necessary when sleeping in a 48 person bunk room), and socked out for the night.
Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut
11.6 miles, +1,800/-3,400ft
Today was an uncertain day, due to the changeable New Zealand Weather. I knew that my plan for the day was to trek from the Luxmore Hut to the Iris Burn area, nearly 12 miles away and with a bit of ascent and quite a lot of descent. The weather predicted storms coming and going throughout the day, and I wasn’t sure if it would be better to start early or late, or wait somewhere for the weather to clear. It’s impossible to know, so sometimes you just have to go for it.
I left around 8am, suited up in my rain gear. It was humid and I was walking through clouds until it started to rain proper. The weather indeed lived up to its only reliable prediction of changeable and I ascended the gentle trail along Mount Luxmore through fog that might beat San Francisco’s in a shifting competition. I passed a couple people here and there, surprised that my chubby American ass could easily pass those slender Europeans (as they almost all were), but then I recalled that they were probably carrying quarters of cows and a full rack of ribs and pounds of fresh ravioli.
I unzipped my rain gear to let the sweat out as I continued to climb, and sometimes the weather was nice enough to open up and give me some views.
One of the options for side trips from this section of the Kepler Track is to ascend Mount Luxmore proper, all the way to its true summit. You can drop your pack along the main track and climb an additional 1,400 feet to the summit. This can be absolutely fantastic or a total bust, given NZ’s unpredictable weather. If the weather is good, your efforts will be rewarded with an impossibly beautiful 360 view from Te Anau right round to the high country and back again. When I started my ascent, the weather was absolute shit. It was just ridiculously horrible—slummy rain and foggy clouds that made it impossible to see much more than a few dozen yards in any direction (forget forward and back, I’m talking into the sky as well!).
But, I thought, when will I be down here again? When is the next time I’m likely to be in the position to ascend Mount Luxmore? Like probably never. And the thing stopping me isn’t SAFETY, since it was just rain and fog rather than thunder and lightning, it’s the probability of the views being “worth it.”
So, up I went. The only thing I had to lose was… um… literally nothing, and what I had to gain was glutes, quads, and this view: (?)
On the summit the weather was quite shifty, and it did indeed mush itself around here and there enough for me to feel good about the ascent.
Once I was back down to the Kepler Track, however, I knew I needed to get along going quite quickly, since I had an upcoming exposed ridge that apparently people get blown off of if the wind is too strong. So off I went, definitely not distracted by any of the absolutely amazing zillion different types of mosses I encountered along the way.
After descending and picking up my pack, I hiked along at a decent pace along the shoulder of a mountain high above a valley. Along this stretch, a friendly hiker noticed I was hiking alone and offered to take some pictures of me hiking down the trail.
The moody weather and cloud-filled valleys really brought out the Lord of the Rings aspect of this part of the trail. It was really rather dramatic.
After a bit of a climb and a bit of descent, the Forest Burn emergency shelter came into view. This is an emergency-only shelter, intended to provide protection for hikers caught on this exposed ridge in inclement weather. It’s not meant for sleeping in and you can’t book a spot here.
This was my first encounter with these quite outrageously placed pit toilets along the Great Walks. Poo-with-a-view, I deemed it. This one is perched quite on the edge of an incredibly steep slope. I made use of it, though not to poo (you needed to know that, surely), chatted a bit with the dozen or so people hanging out at at the shelter, and then continued on my way.
This next part of the hike was what I was most looking forward to from the research I’d done. The trail ascends gently as it follows a ridgeline with gorgeous valleys dropping off each side. I was a bit bummed that the clouds obscured the view of the higher mountains beyond, but as I said before, they did provide quite a bit of drama and mood. Each corner I rounded, I had to pick my jaw up off the ground. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves here.
It wasn’t long before I reached the Hanging Valley shelter, where a couple of Keas were hanging out, molesting people as they tried to eat their lunches.
And again, what would a shelter be without a loo like this? I die.
From the Hanging Valley shelter, the trail drops quite steeply, first following along a ridgeline then cutting down into the bush in an impossibly long sequence of switchbacks.
And again the trail construction is rather remarkable, with sequences of stairs along the ridge. Coming up in the other direction from Iris Burn must be quite the climb, as this set of stairs comes after an already heavy lift of 2,500 feet or so. Descending was no big deal with trekking poles, and I sure was glad I had them.
At the end of the ridge, the trail turns left and there’s a bit of a spur trail that goes all the way out to the summit peak to look into the valley. I went out there, but by the time I reached the tip, clouds had accumulated and completely blocked any sort of view. So, I headed back and descended the many many switchbacks through the damp forest. The beech trees were super spooky with moss growing all over them, and sometimes there were little views across the valley.
Along this section I also encountered a section of trail washed out by a tree avalanche, which is basically a New Zealand landslide. The soils are really crap and shallow on top of rock, and if one tree falls, its momentum can begin a cascade event that wipes out entire sections of the forest.
I kept descending down down down into the valley floor, where the Iris Burn hut is.
The huts are quite expensive (about $60 USD at the time I was visiting), so I had brought my tent to help the budget a bit. Some of the huts have campsites associated with them but some don’t. Luxmore doesn’t, but Iris Burn does. When I arrived at the Iris Burn area, there were plenty of unwelcoming signs directing us lowlife campers off to a separate area, firmly instructing us that we are *not* allowed to use any of the hut’s facilities. The campsite area consisted of a bunch of sites clustered quite close together in the trees. Many of the sites were occupied with what seemed like people either taking a zero day or getting a *very* late start as they waited out some rain. It’s not advised to begin the climb from Iris Burn if the weather isn’t good, as it takes quite a while to ascend to the top and then once you’re there it’s very exposed for quite a while. Anyway, I saw a little path cutting off towards the river, so I headed down it to see if I could find a more secluded place to pitch my tent. Being used to camping in the Sierra, finding a quiet place to be alone when I sleep is super important to me. I managed to find a perfect spot just big enough for my 1p tent and I finished pitching it just as the sky opened up and doused us for a few hours. Oh boy, an excuse to lay in the tent and read Octavia Butler!
After the rain cleared up, I had a poke around the facilities. While the campers aren’t allowed to go inside the hut area, there is a separate covered cooking area that is very convenient. It was here that I fired up my little soda can stove that I’ve been using for 10 years and nearly burned my face off when 2 foot flames came leaping out of it. I guess the type of denatured alcohol I got was… um… not the same (?) as what I used in the states. Whoops. Well this little experience motivated me to buy my first little stove after this trip, since I’d have more cooking to do on my upcoming trek on the Routeburn Track. Anyway, I didn’t burn down the soggy rainforest and only two Germans got to laugh at my plight, so all in all a pretty ok deal.
After dinner I set out to walk to the Iris Burn waterfall, about a flat mile away. Everything was soggy and damp from the rain, and it smelled so lush and organic and peaty. There were ferns everywhere and the river was straight up green.
The falls themselves don’t photograph well, but were quite impressive at about 50 feet tall and with quite the volume of water spilling over into a wonderful pool. I bet swimming here on a hot day would be spectacular. As it was, I just hung out on the polished river rocks. And although I’d passed a couple people heading back as I headed out to the falls, I had them to myself!
Back at the hut, the weather had turned decidedly worse and I decided to call it a night. In the time I’d been gone, a bunch more campers had arrived and pitched their tents on the meadow. The camping conventions in different locations are always interesting to me. In the states, Leave No Trace principles say you should always camp on durable surfaces (bark, duff, gravel, rocks, etc), rather than living surfaces and good god for fucks sake never in the middle of a meadow.
Iris Burn Hut to Rainbow Reach
14.6 miles, +500ft/-1,500ft
It rained most of the day, so I had my camera put away for most of the time. Most of the trail is through the forest, including some absolutely stunning fern canyons where waist-high ferns carpet the entire forest floor.
I basically booked it out this day, leaving Iris Burn at 9:30am and had a lunch snack at Montrau Hut at 12:30pm, was at Rainbow Reach by 3pm. There was a bus, whose exact schedule I’ve forgotten since it’s been over a year since I hiked this, that I could have taken to get back to my car at the Control Gates, but I arrived two hours before it would get there, so I accosted a nice family in the parking lot at Rainbow Reach to ask if they’d give me a ride. They were super duper nice and wouldn’t even let me throw a few dollars their way as thanks.
Want to do this trip yourself? You’ll need to make reservations for huts and/or campsites through the New Zealand Department of Conservation website. Have a look at the Kepler Track brochure and read the latest details and regulations at the national parks website.