In the end I’m close to 500km away from where I need to be, which is fine. I have a couple of days to cover the distance. Wind whistles around the van, shaking not just the entire van but all of the individual components that make up the van. I lie wondering how strong the gale is that would knock the van over. Time to find shelter. The wind picks up water off Lake Pukaki, rainbows glow in the spray. Above the electric blue waters the dark green of trees reaches into the oranges and browns of the alpine tussock. The warm colours give way to black of rock, white of ice before returning again to the blue skies. I was told by someone, somewhere if the wind is coming out of the valley and you can’t see the mountain, don’t waste your time. I turn away from Aoraki Mount Cook, leaving the Misty Mountains for another day. I drive through the alpine desert wasteland of the Lindis Pass. A place so staggeringly beautiful I stop to take a near identical picture to one from last time.
The surroundings have been briefly familiar. Further down State Highway 6, after the vast sheep and cattle stations, the blue, green and black waters of Mata-Au become Lake Dunstan. Then Cromwell, the dizzying, narrow road through Kawarau Gorge. Queenstown comes, the Remarkables rising out of Lake Wakatipu. Everything reminds me of somewhere else. Iceland, Scotland, Norway. Familiarity fades. I don’t remember the repeating farm houses surrounded by vast empty fields. I pass the turn for Te Anau and stop in Lumsden. Home to a single bar, a single cafe, and one of the best freedom campsites in the South Island. Sinks, benches, WiFi. Toilets a short walk away. I get out to find the wind hasn’t relented. Perhaps the rest of the day is a go nowhere, do nothing day. I spend two nights in Lumsden. I join a zoom call with friends at home. Seeing their faces for the first time in months is a treat. I don’t feel much need to speak, just see them, hear them. Their evening, my morning I choose not to join them in a beer. I look forward to the day some way of in the future when we can do it again together, in person. All I manage to do with the rest of my day is go out for breakfast at the Route 6 Cafe and ask for the most amount of food for the least amount of money. I am obliged, the food is good.
I drive in to Te Anau to find it’s quiet. I’m still half-expecting to find the summer crowd has finally arrived but it still isn’t summer. In fact this far South I’ve found the temperature has dropped again. I don’t think I’ll ever be putting my blanket away. I head first to the Department of Conservation visitor centre to ‘check in’ for the Kepler Track. The woman in the visitor centre is the most helpful yet to the point that I even fill out the survey to confirm that this has in fact been a good experience. The chance of winning a $200 gift voucher is added encouragement. Next up the Fresh Choice supermarket. For whatever reason my brain has held on to both the colour blue and the name of the supermarket in Te Anau from over 5 years ago. I don’t remember anything useful, like where the eggs are. With supplies for the next four days, all I have left to do is pack. Before that happens I wander down to the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary to see the Takahe. I don’t see them. I do see some Whio ducklings, and the Kaka mama nesting with her four new chicks. Not a total disaster. I check in to the Lakeview Holiday Park. I sit out by the van, splitting pasta and oats into zip-lock bags. Right here, right now I think I’m getting good at this. I remember I need to pack toilet paper, just in case, and actually pack the toilet paper. Then comes the trouble, the things I need now but will also need then. Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth doubling up on these things, then I remember I can’t really afford a second Aeropress and another down jacket. The priority remains a new pair of boots. That $200 gift voucher would be real handy.
Summits are submerged beneath fluffy grey clouds. The sun is warm already before 9am. I don’t want to but I know the sensible thing is to carry more water. Start slow. No rush. A short drive to the trail head. The car park suggests a high volume of trampers. Others already pulling on packs, loading up, pasting on sunscreen. I cross the Control Gates, enter the forest. The trees are welcoming. I can feel my cheeks begin to push up into my eyes. The long absent smile returns. I’ve missed this, the forest, the green, the movement. Not so much the weight, but it’s good to be back. The light bounces off the mirror white surface of the lake, flashing through the green beech leaves like stained glass windows. The forest is quiet, broken only by the screams of the shelducks. I keep moving all the way to Bror Bay. Knees screaming, back squeezed. The extra water weight holding me down. I stop for long enough to use the toilet and take a photo for somebody else. In the time I stand still, camera in hand I have a line of sandflies above my socks. I brush them off to find I’m too slow. Beads of blood pool on my skin. From here the trail moves up hill. Things actually get easier, I’ve warmed up, accepted the weight. Keep going.
The Kepler Track drives straight up the face of Mount Luxmore. Obviously not straight up. Short, tight switchbacks flick back and forth. Other trampers have stopped on the corners, red faced, blowing out cheeks. The Kepler doesn’t have the luxurious gradients of a mountain bike track. Things are steeper, harder. At least the track is dry, the dark patches of earth show where the rain would run and pool. Ferns line the floor, moss clings to every surface, lichen hangs off tree branches like sheep’s wool on barbed wire. Height comes quickly, the shimmer of the lake appears through windows between branches. The farmland around Te Anau rolls all the way back to the wild mountains. The trees fall short, stunted and then stop all together. Open tussock with huge views. Lake Te Anau reflects the blue of the sky, the fluff of the clouds. Mountains rise ahead of the trail, big black peaks disappear into the clouds. The playful curls of tussock grass spin and twirl. There have been people all along the trail. Backpacks bounce along before disappearing over the a far ridge. Once over myself, I round the corner to find Luxmore Hut sooner than I expected. A Kea flies off from the deck, it doesn’t appear to have taken anyone’s boot along for the ride. The parrot laughs all the way to the trees. Time to get settled in, find a bunk, meet some room-mates, commence Operation Cup of Tea.
I grab a window seat while there’s still one free. All forms of weather are visible down the valley. The rain comes in closest, obscuring the views, hiding the world. There could be nothing else out there. My attention is caught by the deep U shaped valley of Mystery Burn. The thin strip of ground either side of a creek disappears into the trees, which disappear around a corner. I get to talking with my closest neighbour, Najda. She asks if I’ve been to see the cave yet. I haven’t, so let’s go. Another short walk to a black hole in the ground. Steps lead down in to the abyss where a muddy stream takes over. We walk a short way in, until the walls narrow, the ceiling comes down. You might be able to explore further, but we decide we’ve seen enough. Back at the hut, the population has exploded. Is it 50 bunks? Is that twice the number of people I’m really comfortable with? A crowd. Half that number are one group, which should make things easier for the rest of us. There’s no need for a fire, there’s so many of us. We’re all dry, kicking out heat. Someone has carried in a steak, the smell fills the kitchen. Mouths water all around. Most people have cracked open their lacking in appeal Back Country Cuisine packets. There are a handful of Radix meals and those of us who built our own bags of pasta. I think we all want that steak though. The Hut Warden comes in and gives a brief chat. Don’t leave the gas on, don’t wear your boots inside, don’t feed the Kea or give the Kea any opportunity to feed themselves. Last light plays through the rain. A rainbow dances across the South Fiord of Lake Te Anau. A stripe across the ridges, stream cut gullies, green trees glow gold. After dark, I crawl in to bed. The last time I slept in a room with this many people I was in my early 20s, catching trains across Europe. To my amazement, the loudest sound is someone’s slightly heavy breathing.
Somebody’s alarm goes off. I’m never sure if this is an “oops I accidentally forgot to turn off my alarm for work,” or “I’m worried about oversleeping in a hut full of people”. No reason for me not to get up and get on with it. A clear morning above the clouds. First light painting the hillside red, the clouds gold. The valley fills with the big white fluffy ones. Porridge with dried apple turns out to be a winner. The morning delivers the closest I’ve come to witnessing a cloud inversion. The pastel glow of day break sits over the Eastern sky. Endless blue above. The water spurting out of my hydration bladder mouth piece is a loser. An effective water pistol but another piece of kit firmly added to the replacement list. I step out of the hut on to the trail at 7:30am. The day is set to be a scorcher and I’m keen to beat both the heat and the crowd. The trail continues up, a line cut into the mountainside. Maybe four people left earlier than I did. Ants on the march. I join two of them at the summit of Mount Luxmore. Hunting & Fishing Vest offers me a shot of whiskey. I look at the time. Not even 9am. I’m not that hardcore, not anymore. No thanks, I say. Maybe later. They’re going to wait for the rest of their gang, have a party with all the booze they seem to have carried in.
The Forest Burn shelter has a scenic loo with a window in the door, although this does seem to be facing the wrong way. With others along the trail I exchange the stock list of phrases. “How good is this?”, “This is ridiculous,” and “Is this even real?” What a day. Everyone is enjoying themselves, the endless ranges, the lake in the valley below, the little mountain tarns, the spreading forest. A handful of people pass going the other way. A man who caught up with at the Forest Burn shelter undertakes as I crest another summit. He’s busting a massive sweat. I remind myself, this is not a race. I do not need to keep up with him. I carry on along the ridge line, blown away by the endless views on both side. I try to keep my phone in my pocket but in the end I’m sure I have 1000 photos of the same view from a slightly different angle. I get excited when the track turns a corner, a new ridge line, the promise of an actually different view. At the Hanging Valley shelter a Kea enters stage left. Sneaking out from behind the A-frame building. I’d left my bag unattended on the deck and leapt to defensive positions. I’d learned from my experiences with the Abel Tasman Weka. The parrot investigates where I was sat, looking for any dropped nuts or raisins. It comes round behind me, disappearing under the deck of the shelter. I later hear about how someone lost a packet of nuts through the slats, not knowing a parrot was laying in wait.
Stairs descend, my time above the bush line coming to an end. I’m not sure if they’re making the drop any easier. I stride up again, to the final look out for views down the length of the Iris Burn valley, an insight in to the journey of tomorrow. Then I’m back in the trees. The forest’s end is now the beginning. Bright greens on blue, the standard colour palette for the planet. My left knee fires a warning shot through my nervous system. The first time in a long time. I had begun to believe that maybe things were fine. This is not ok. I stop, stretch out. Swing both legs back and forward. Trying to figure out if it’s me, or if it’s the combination of a heavy pack and a relentless descent. I’ve still got to go down another 2km. I get a brief respite before it fires again, then it stops. Everything is fine. The gradient eases, I start to move faster and wonder if that’s been the problem all along. Resisting gravity, moving too slowly. I climb almost 1000 meters down through the forest. Through the trunks I see the metal roof of the Iris Burn Hut. Home, just in time for lunch. I drop my things on a bunk that ticks several boxes. Bottom. Away from the door. Free standing. Having brought my now standard Hiker’s Cheeseboard Plus, I couldn’t really eat on the go. Even if I’d stopped somewhere I was likely to have lost half an egg, a lump of cheese or everything to the crafty Keas.
I walk out to the river, the water doesn’t look deep enough for a swim. I manage to get my head under and let out a scream. There was nothing warm about that. I do feel as though I’ve just woken up from a wonderful night’s sleep. Fresh and alert. Back at the hut, I put my dry pants on. Hang out my towel and wet pants and walk down to the Iris Burn Falls with Nadja. Getting changed was a mistake. I should have kept my wet pants on. We reach the lagoon which appears to be the perfect swimming spot. I only go ankle deep. Nadja goes all the way in. In the time taken to get comfortable, the sandflies appear. Landing on bare skin, finding the tiny spot where you failed to apply adequate repellent. Bites appear on bites. The hut has begun to fill. Everyone a little more social after a day on the trail together. Having already had one night, we’re basically friends. The huts and the trail have thrust community upon us. I comment on someone’s second beer. The soups, tea, and hot chocolate are great on cold nights, after wet hikes. They don’t hit the spot on a hot afternoon. A hot afternoon needs a cold beer. I fall in with Lucy and Tom, Alexia and Michael. We discuss the merits of dehydrated food. Tom sing’s the praises of the Back Country Cuisine apple crumble. I’d never considered carrying a desert. Alexia grabs a pack of cards. The surprise here is the hut decks somehow always have the right number of cards. They’re a little sticky from sweat and probably tears but we make do. Tom teaches us a came of Nomination which as completely different rules to the ones I know. Every time I think I get my head around the changes I lose all my points. In a desperate act to prevent Tom from winning we decide whoever wins the next round gets 6 points, in the hope Michael overtakes. In the end, I take the final prize and the satisfaction of having a positive score. We’ve been dragging out the evening, waiting for dark to go on a kiwi hunt. We return to the waterfall, listening for the weird scream, or better yet rustling in the nearby ferns. With Tom and Lucy I get lucky enough to hear the Southern Brown Kiwi but nobody seems one. 30 or so people marching up and down the same stretch of track with headlamps on probably doesn’t create the most inviting conditions for a supposedly shy bird. We arrive back at the hut to spook a Kea on the deck, no doubt looking to cause some mid-night mischief.
I wake up surprised to find I’ve had a decent night’s sleep. Is that the first in a hut? It might be you know. Through the window I watch the red glow of morning on the distant peaks. I start slower. Not that there’s ever been a rush. A Kea sits on the windowsill. Pecking at the glass, everything interesting is happening on the inside. I chat with Jordan, who’s walking the other way. We both fall in to the small group of hikers who carry an Aeropress. We have a preference for a little more weight, a little more faff, and a decent cup of coffee to start the day. We share our stories. I don’t know how many times now I’ve told the tale of my good fortune. Of being here, the right place at the right time. Conversations close, people begin to hit the trail. I’m tired of waiting. Eager to get walking. Boots up, laces down. No ups, no downs today. The steady, easy going trail along the river. Only it isn’t a river, not a creek or a stream but a burn. My GCSE Geography has let me down here. I march into the forest, on the immediate tails of two others. They stop to make adjustments immediately and I hope to put some distance between us. I hear unusual sounds. I can’t work it out. The couple catch me, sharing their music. We do not stick together. I let them pass, preferring the rumble of the river over rocks, the chirps and chatter of birds in the canopy beyond. The morning light bounces off leaves, settling on trunks, dancing across ferns in a kaleidoscope of greens.
The Big Slip of ’84 reveals the fragile, temporary side of the epic, timeless, infinite mountains. A whole face collapsed beneath the pressure of relentless rain. The forest slow to regenerate, digesting itself, becoming new again. The open sky has edges of rock and wood. Water is still everywhere, I started to believe I would survive without getting wet feet. At least until tomorrow. Not to be. The squelch is underfoot, in the sock. It doesn’t last. The green of the forest is permanent, never ending, disappearing into a wall of trunks, branches, and leaves. The chatter of the Iris Burn disappears. The trail leads away. A few scrambles over tree fall. A short burst up and down. Friendly faces without names. “how was it for you?” So far so good. Cruising through, too easy. The sparkle of water at the at last end of the forest. Lake Manapouri appears with mountains all around. The final, easy stretch brings me to Moturau Hut which comes too soon. I still have over half a day left. At least today is cooler. Making it easier to consume vast quantities of tea, of hot chocolate. An opportunity after almost 8 months to finally put down War and Peace for the final time. A major life event if I’m ever going to have one. I have the benefit of another day and night of not needing to spend money. The cost is already covered, paid for long ago which more or less makes it free. The whole point of course is there I do not need to rush. There is nothing to be back for. No office for me tor return to come Monday. Whenever that is. The struggle I’m having now is I know I’m capable of more. I could have pushed myself, had I known. Another 3 or 4 hours then I’d be ready, desperate even to stop. To call it a day. Satisfied I’d pushed myself hard enough. I remember though, yesterday there was pain. Taking it easy is ok.
The rest of the evening’s guests begin to arrive. Someone asks me “have you tested the water yet?”, “I’ve only boiled it so far,” I reply. She was actually asking about the lake. I’ve cooled down too much already to be much encouraged to go for a dip. Stepping outside is an invitation for the sandflies to add to the already huge collection of bites between the end of my shorts and beginning of my socks. Besides, I only have to go another 24 hours before I can have a shower. A few people do go in, with the ambitious claims the water is not as cold as yesterday. I spot a round of Forbidden Island being played by Scott and Simon. I make my excuses to join their table and watch them both drown. Scott asks if I want to play and we have a go ourselves, collecting all the treasures and on our way to make an escape before we both drown as well. I thank Scott for making the effort of carrying in the table top game. Over the course of the evening he, Simon and their other buddy Johnathan all reveal they carried gas in, not knowing the huts came with their own. They can’t fly back to Auckland with it, so I kindly offer to take it off their hands. We have the hut to ourselves while the Warden takes the rest of the group outside for what might be a joke, a test to see how long they can withstand the sandflies, or it might be a really interesting talk on the local area. Nobody was willing to give us the brief overview before bed. As people retire to their bunks an unfamiliar face walks through the hut a few times. “Are there any spare bunks?” he asks those of us still awake. “I don’t think so, have you got a booking?” one of the others asks. The newbie heads off to find the warden.
A more usual night in a hut. Tossing, turning, tumbling. I went to bed with ear plugs in, hat and eye mask on. I wake up and they’re all gone. Hat next to my face. Eye mask under my bed. Ear plugs will hopefully turn up when I get up. I tried to stay in bed for as long as possible. I managed to wait until the late hour of 6am before I get up. Always, always the need to pee. Others are already on the move. Keen to get back into Te Anau and on the beers ASAP. I take my time, start with a coffee. Watch the hut come to life. Then breakfast around conversations. Last night’s late guest had walked in without a booking, without a sleeping bag and without food. Not sure what exactly they were expecting when they got to the hotel. Without the right equipment and with nobody else being mad enough to carry a second sleeping bag he walked back out again. Next on my to do list is the dishes, then a cup of tea. It’s only 7:30am. I drag out the packing away. Another cup of tea. I start to get restless. Time to go. 8:30am. Once more into the woods. I pass the hobbled, the injured. The ones with blisters so big they couldn’t put their boots on again. A short, 3 second shower rinses through the forest. Wind breaks across the canopy. I get caught in the rain on the beach, hoping for one final mountain view. While I’m down there the world is hidden behind a veil of cloud. A marsh harrier wings over a marsh. The first time I think I’ve seen on in its natural habitat rather than circling over the road like a red kite. Leaves fall like snow, drifting across the path. The first exit for Rainbow Reach comes as expected, right on time. The Waiau River flows fast and deep, green as the forest it flows through.
The trail remains the much same, a repeat of yesterday. Tall beech trees shelved with branches of bright green. I follow the river all the way back to the Control Gates, back to the van. The supposedly 6 hour walk is over in three and a half. Too early to check in anywhere for a shower. I drop in in at the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary again and finally get a Takahe sighting, with a chick as well making the wait more than worth it. I stop by the nest cam of the Kaka chicks again, and then a variety of ducklings in squeaking across the pond. Still early but I reckon I might get away with the “would it be ok if?” and it is fine. I cancel a transport booking I made for the Routeburn track, now fully committed to walking out via the Caples track and completing a loop. I cut my hair, have a shower. Put my washing on, sunny and windy so everything should dry without the dryer. Only, the wind is too much. I can’t get any big items to stay on the line. Better to spend the $4 than risk losing everything. Finally I walk into Te Anau, the 25 faces I recognise make up most of the Friday night population. I’m glad to have gotten in before the crowd. I enjoy a beer and a burger at the Fat Duck and then return to camp to lie down in the relative quiet, the relative comfort of the foam sponge mattress in the back of my van.