Tātou Araroa – Episode 15 : Nau mai o Te Wai Pounamu (Welcome to the South Island)

Progress: 1881.5km – 62.55%

Great Walks and great walks. Kepler, Routeburn and Kinloch to Mavora Lakes

The glorious Lake McKenzie

With the North Island complete, we headed south, not however, like many Te Araroa walkers, to Picton and on to Ship Cove to continue their journey southward, but to Queenstown for reasons I will explain. Before we knew we wanted to walk Te Araroa we had booked our spots on two of New Zealand’s Great Walks (capital G, capital W) the Kepler and Routeburn Tracks. As bookings on these amazing trails are rare as hen’s teeth (the entire 5 month season of one of these walks sold out in 90 minutes when they went on sale), we couldn’t not do them. Fortunately for us, the Routeburn Track finishes very close to the Trail so we decided when we finished that we’d jump back on the Trail and complete the 300km or so from where you rejoin the trail to Bluff, the Southern Terminus of Te Araroa. It’s a bit messy but it works for us!

We flew into Queenstown on 22nd December and met an old friend, Renee who is currently a Department of Conservation Ranger based out of Wanaka. We did some errands, had a good lunch and then we stayed at another old friend’s,(she lived with Bill at university) Christy. We set off for the Kepler Track early on the 23rd.

Obligatory Queenstown picture of Lake Wakatipu

The Kepler Track is a 2-4 day (we did it in 3) circular route with tremendous alpine walking bookended by amazing forest. Our walk started with a gentle but consistent climb up from the track start on the shores of Lake Te Anau. A brief stop 30 mins in for a snack provided us with a stark reminder of what will eventually become our nemesis on the South Island – Sandflies. Sandflies are a vicious omnipresent annoyance down here, Ian Mckellen (AKA Gandalf) said they were New Zealand’s punishment for all the beautiful landscapes we are treated to. Sandflies will make you itch, make you bleed and generally ruin any stop longer than 3 minutes. Needless to say, it was a short stop by the Lake.

We pushed onwards and upwards, passed some very exposed and imposing rocky cliffs and decided to have a little break for lunch. This stop however was also curtailed by the local fauna. This time it was the Kea, the world’s only alpine parrot. A wonderfully smart and cheeky bird, they hunted in a pack of 3 to try and distract us so they could steal our tuna sachet lunch. We gobbled down our food and pressed on, revelling in our fortune of experiencing these rare and majestic animals.

The majestic Kea

Eventually the vegetation thinned and we poked up above the bushline into the tussock. The cloudy conditions unfortunately limiting our view and denying us the full panorama that this track is famed for.

30 minutes through the glorious red sea of tussock and we spot the gigantic 50 bed Luxmore Hut, our home for the night. A warm and rowdy hut was incredibly very quiet overnight with not a single snorer in our midst.

We awoke the next morning to awful awful weather, it was smashing it down and the viability was negligible. We spoke to the Hut Warden who advised us to wait. So we waited.

From the top of the world on the Kepler

We were so glad we did, because the rain cleared and the system moved southwards leaving impeccable conditions. Calm, sunny and almost cloudless, the phenomenal 360 degree view presented itself. With the jagged peaks of the Murchison Range to the North and the rich sapphire depths of Lake Te Anau below, it was an incredible experience and a humbling privilege to be there at that moment when it all cleared.

Fortunately it remained clear all day as we sidled Mount Luxmore before a short detour to the summit. We continued along jagged but well formed ridgelines basking in the ever changing beauty of our surroundings. A full 3 hours later of the most spectacular walking we’ve ever done (not hyperbole), we said a sad goodbye to the views and dropped down below the bushline toward Iris Burn Hut.

Sarah on the Kepler

We awoke next morning, Christmas Day morning, at Iris Burn Hut to the excitable sound of the children in our bunks whose, incredibly generous, parents had lugged their presents around the whole track. A pleasant and festive atmosphere filled the Hut as we ate our breakfast and headed off. Our ultimate motivation today was dinner we had booked at The Kepler Restaurant in Te Anau. We made swift progress, got the shore of Lake Manapouri, took a little lunch break in the tinsel adorned Motorou Hut, and caught the shuttle into Te Anau at 3PM.

Dinner did not disappoint, it was South American themed and delicious. Three courses of cheese empanadas, a big platter of meat and vegetables and a Uruguayan cream and fruit meringue were wolfed down hungrily.

Postre Chada — traditional Uraguayan dessert

After a Boxing Day break we caught the bus to the trailhead of the Routeburn Track “The Divide" on the 27th. We started out and immediately were treated to sneak peeks of snow capped mountains across the Hollyford Valley. These sneak peeks became full views when we took a side trail to the Key Summit. Looking down the spine of the white capped Darran Range we were in awe of the sheer size of these behemoths.

We continued upwards, pausing on occasion to turn around stare at the view behind, until we reached Earland Falls which would not have looked out of place in the Garden of Eden. A tranquil lunch by its splashpool followed.

The Darran Range from the Routeburn Track

Earland Falls

We carried on and reached our campground at Lake McKenzie in the early afternoon. Lake McKenzie at 1050m is both stunningly clear and azure, but also decidingly chilly. We had a long nap by the Lake and absorbed the view of imposing mountains circling the water.

Sarah at Lake McKenzie

After a sleep shortened by the large family camping nearby us deciding to shout at each other from 6am to 830am, we began our gradual climb up the southern shore of the lake towards the Harris Saddle. We took the time to absorb the 360 view of crystalline water, snowy peaks and jagged rock formations in the valley below and again thanked whomever it may be for the glorious weather we were being treated to.

A view down on Lake McKenzie on our way up the Harris Saddle

We passed a number of people on our way, including some guided walkers who were paying upwards of $2000 for the luxury of 2 nights in the very fancy serviced huts, we were told by one that dinner the previous night was steak, chips and beer.

Bill above the Hollyford Valley

We sidled the mountain for 2 hours whilst being treated to expansive views of the Hollyford Valley below stretching all the way to the turquoise water of the Tasman Sea. A stunning vista.

We crossed over the busy saddle, as a natural lunch spot for walkers coming from both sides there were perhaps 40/50 people at the saddle, which sadly broke the illusion of remoteness that the rugged peaks and valleys had created.

Soon after dropping down from the saddle we saw Lake Harris and it’s spring high up in the mountain above. The view from above only further emphasizing its blues and greens. We followed the Route Burn, which flows from Lake Harris, down the hanging valley, passed the cascading Routeburn Falls and continued downstream.

A view down the Route Burn just off Harris Saddle. Lake Harris to the left.

Looking down on Routeburn Flats, we camped by the river

Eventually we hit the valley floor, the Routeburn Flats Campground, and set up our tent in the most majestic location staring right down the barrel of the valley of the northern branch of the Route Burn. We were joined for the evening by an old friend Morgan who had finished her rotation as Hut Warden at Greenstone Hut and had walked up to meet us.

Our camping spot for the night at Routeburn Flats

She also bought treats. We talked at length with her about her experiences working in this paradise whilst we gratefully swigged the ciders she had hauled in. Being far south and being close to the Summer solstice we were treated to light beyond 10pm.

We awoke the next morning, again to mainly blue skies, and walked the last 6km of the Routeburn with Morgan. She drove us then to Kinloch at the Southern end of Lake Wakatipu and we parted ways.

Morgan with us just before the Routeburn Shelter

As the Te Araroa trail proper didn’t restart until the end of 12km gravel road between us and the start of the Greenstone Track, we quickly hitched and saved at least 2 hours exposed walking in the harsh summer sun.

From the Greenstone Track carpark we quickly entered the bush and followed the glistening emerald waters of the Greenstone River. A pleasant and stream-filled 4 hours later and we rolled into Greenstone Hut. A well maintained (it had flush toilets) and beautifully situated Hut, we had some good chats with other trampers and slept in the warm embrace of the bunkrooms.

The impossibly clear Greenstone River

Very well looked after Greenstone Hut

The next day was a big unknown, we had become so use to walking on the fantastically well maintained Great Walks trails and the very popular Greenstone Track that we were slightly concerned about the comment in the trail notes that read “the trail degrades massively after Greenstone Hut" alas, it was actually very pleasant and we made good time.

Looking back down the valley from Boundary Hut

After 2 hours or so we came into the most gigantic and imposing U-shaped valley we had ever seen. With snow and cloud topped Thomson and Livingstone Ranges on either side, we had a strong feeling of insignificance.

A mix of walking followed with marshy but well marked valley floor and more rocky and undulating trails, when required, to avoid the wetter sections. The one constant was the awe and the astonishment that, even 1700+ kilometers into our great odyssey, Te Araroa could once again cause our jaws to drop and our astonishment of our tiny nation to redouble once more.

The rugged but beautifully situated Careys Hut

We reached first the tiny 6 person Taipo Hut, had a spot of lunch, crossed a rickety bridge and pressed on down the valley. Boundary Hut some 10km later passed by and, eventually, some 28km from our start, that morning, we arrived at Lake Mavora and the wonderfully positioned Careys Hut. Rumours of its mice infestation proved inaccurate but its charm was dented somewhat by the rubbish, the holes in the gib roof and the general lack of care its users had taken to preserve this haven throughout the years. Nevertheless it was warm and had a stunning view across the rich blue lake. An early bedtime followed and, after a 12 hour (eyes closed to eyes open) sleep we headed off on our path alongside the lake.

A moody looking South Mavora Lake looking back down the valley we came from yesterday.

We spent much of the previous night devising a plan, the weather forecast was looking awful, with heavy rain forecasted for New Years Day and most of the next five after that. We decided we needed to get ourselves to warmer and drier places. A quick tempo march for the 10km into the busy Mavora Lakes Campground followed. It is here where the lake narrows before widening to the south into the South Mavora Lake. We crossed the bridge past the campground, walked the well made beech forested track on the opposite side of South Mavora Lake and took a break for lunch. We had decided we would let fate decide our next step. It was New Years Eve and we had two options: head to Kiwi Burn Hut for a quiet night and risk the weather deteriorating the following day leaving us cold, wet and far from civilization, or hitch. We said we’d walk the road and if a car stops we’ll take it. 2 spoonfuls of our lunch, sundried tomatoes and couscous tuna sachet, a car pulls up and, lo and behold they’re heading to Te Anau and thus so were we!

A well earned beer in Te Anau

A sunny and hot afternoon in Te Anau followed, featuring a much needed burger and beer at The Ranch, a lakeside stroll and a, considering the size of Te Anau, not insignificant fireworks display at midnight.

As we reflected on our own personal achievements and journey in 2020 and take pride in them, we cannot look past the struggles of our families and friends less fortunate than us. From Bill’s parents' inability to see their grandchildren, to the incredibly tough year our health care working friends in London are having, we must remind ourselves that, whilst in New Zealand we have such freedoms, that the struggle for many is far from over.

We awoke on the 1st to a blanket of rain, a vindication of our decision to stop when we did. Our friends Chelle and Gareth (The 5 Star Trail Angels of Cape Reinga and end of North Island fame) and our friend Jess were finishing the Kepler themselves this day so we met up with them over brunch and shared our collective experiences on the wonderful walk.

It brings us to now, at Mossburn Country Park. A working farm with alpaca, chickens, goats, cats and dogs aplenty, it will be our home for at least the next 2 days whilst this huge system of rain passes.

Seeing out the rain at the Mossburn Country Park

What’s next?

We head South from here down into the Takitimu Ranges, onwards into the Longwood Forest and eventually hitting the south coast of the South Island at Colac Bay before following it to Bluff and the South Island’s southern tip.

Bonus pictures:

From Top to Bottom:

Lake Wakatipu from Kinloch

Swingbridge over the Greenstone River

View of a tarn and the Darran Range from Key Summit

Radioactive Spider at Lake McKenzie

Bill looking down on Lake Te Anau from from Summit of Mount Luxmore

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