New Zealand is unquestionably one of the most beautiful countries we’ve seen, especially the South Island, where every turn seems to uncover yet another postcard-worthy shot. Our favorite spectacular-scenery experience in New Zealand — or anywhere else in the world for that matter — was hiking the 60-kilometer (37-mile) Kepler Track. If you’re headed to NZ, do this walk. It’s breathtaking… and surprisingly underrated.
We reserved (and paid for) our 4-day, 3-night Kepler Track walk six weeks before we arrived – and because there’s very little information about the walk online, I spent much of that time worried about the experience. As we told people we’d chosen the Kepler, they seemed confused: “The Kepler? Why not Milford or Abel Tasman?” The latter two were fully booked. We chose Kepler entirely based on the advice of our friend, Maia, who’d be joining us on the walk. We trusted her advice, but it did seem weird that a) those familiar with New Zealand questioned our decision, and b) there was very little information about the walk online, other than the short description on the NZ Department of Conservation website. (Lonely Planet dedicates just a few words to the walk, with phrases like “can be treacherous” and “requires a good level of fitness,” neither of which helped my anxiety or proved to be true. And they included absolutely no commentary about the walk’s beauty!)
The goal of this post, then, is to give the Kepler Track some much-deserved online love and toss in a few tips/suggestions that will help enhance your experience. Read this as a supplement to info on the DOC site, which lists all the tactical stuff.
What to expect:
- Unbelievable scenery. Like seriously amazing, mind-blowing vistas and colorful, never-seen-before flora.
- Well-groomed trails with just a few scary sections. Most of the trail is pretty wide, but there are a few narrow passes on steep “if-you-slipped-you-could-die” slopes. I’m a wuss with heights, but I did this without freaking out. You’ll be fine.
- Very basic accommodation. The term “alpine hut” conjures up something luxurious, right? While set in amazing locations, these huts are not fancy despite the hefty nightly rate, $54NZD/person. You’ll be sleeping (in a sleeping bag) on a plastic mattress right next to a stranger. There are no showers. There is no hot water. There is no food. There are no lamps or lights. Come prepared.
- Some physical pain: You are probably walking 10 times the distance you walk in a normal day. You’re legs will hurt, but you’ll be fine. Take two ibuprofen when you end for the day, or when you start. I found the latter actually worked the best for me. Also, my skin was rubbed raw on my hips and collarbone from the heavy pack. I slapped on some Vaseline and kept going.
- Unpredictable weather: We hiked the track in late February. We had absolutely no rain, some wind, and lots of sun. However, the day after we crossed the alpine pass, it snowed. Again, just be prepared.
- Spotty cell service: I was pleasantly surprised to have cell service about 30% of the time. Point here is… it’s probably worth bringing along your phone for emergency’s (Instagram’s) sake. Plus, you can use your phone as a flashlight when you’re trying to find the loo in the pitch black at 2 a.m.
What to expect… in pictures:
Day 1: Beech forest, giant limestone rocks, a constant butt-burning incline, and an alpine meadow.
Day 2: INCREDIBLE vistas that GET.BETTER.EVERY.HOUR.
Day 3: A low-key march through a valley, around a river, and in/out of lots of beech forest.
Day 4: A two-hour long walk to Rainbow Reach, where we cheated and took a shuttle back to our car.
What to bring:
(Nearly all tips came from our hiking companions, Maia and Dave. You campers out there may already know all this stuff, but this was all new to me!)
- Hiking Pack: We are traveling with roller suitcases and day packs, so we needed to rent proper packs for the hike. You can rent packs, pots, and sleeping bags at Outside Sports in Te Anau. The packs were $30NZD/each for the 4-day hike. If you’re traveling with good pack, you definitely won’t want to carry all your stuff on the hike. We stored the rest of our belongings in a storage locker at Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park. It’s $5 (with an additional $10 refundable deposit) to store your stuff for the duration of the hike. (The lockers are huge — all four of us shared one).
- Large Garbage Bag: Use this as a liner for your pack to keep your stuff dry when you get caught in the rain. White bags will make it easier to see your stuff as you dig for those snacks inside, but black bags are totally fine and may be your only option (which was the case for us).
- Sleeping Bag: I assumed we’d have fresh linens on the beds inside the huts. I mean, we were paying $54/person/night! Luckily we were traveling with people who knew what they were doing and they made sure we each rented a sleeping bag.
- Sleep Sack / Sleeping Bag Liner: Since you’re probably using a sleeping bag that some sweaty guy before you slept in naked… You may want to bring along your own sleep sack. I was sure glad I had mine.
- All the food (and wine) you’ll need for 4 days of hiking: I assumed a “hut” would include a “chef” and “prepared meals.” Psych. What initially seemed like a terrible form of torture (carrying heavy veggies up a mountain) turned out to be one of the super fun experiences of the hike. Maia planned our four days of menus, then spent a few hours the night before our hike packing all the ingredients for each meal in big Ziplock bags. She labeled each bag — i.e. Lunch 1 — which made it easy to prepare each meal. (And since you have to carry out all your trash, you can just use the meal bag to fill it with the rubbish leftover from each meal). Both Maia and Dave insisted they carry 4 liters of boxed wine. Of course, I thought this was crazy. Of course, I drank it anyway and loved them both for it. Tip 1: We carried a bag of milk powder to add to our instant coffee and most of our meals. Sounds weird, but the powder made our cooked lentil dish and veggie/rice meal taste that much better. Tip 2: Bring a bag or two of spinach. It’s super lightweight and tastes great thrown into ramen or instant pasta dishes. You’ll be happy to have some greens.
- Pot, Utensils, Mug, Plate: The huts have gas stoves, but no utensils, pans, pots, plates, etc. You can rent a small pot from Outside Sports ($15 for duration of hike) or buy one there for $20. The pot rental came with a mug — another essential item for your morning coffee and evening wine cocktail. We had sporks too and a few small Gladware containers to use as a plate or a bowl.
- Wet Wipes: There are no showers in the hut. Again, our pro campers, Maia and Dave, came to the rescue with a box of wet wipes. It’s kind of amazing how clean you can feel after a thorough wipe down with wipes.
- Matches or a lighter: There are gas stoves in all the huts, but usually no form of fire. Carry matches.
- Rain gear: We lucked out with clear weather, but the hike can get quite miserable in the rain. Absolutely bring a rain jacket. I wore mine daily, not for rain but for wind. And if you don’t have rain pants, bring a poncho (or an extra garbage bag).
- Hut shoes: You can’t wear your hiking shoes in the hut. So if you don’t bring along any other type of footwear, you’ll be doing what we did: Traipsing around in socks on cold (and sometimes wet) floors. This is disturbing in the bathrooms. Maia and Dave both brought along Crocs — a great, lightweight choice.
- Head lamp: The huts have solar-powered lights that dimly light the main room from 8-10 pm. There are no lights in the bunk rooms. It is literally pitch black. A flash light or head lamp is a must. (Actually, if you just take along your iPhone, you’ll be fine.)
If you have any Kepler-specific tips or general NZ hiking pointers, please add them to the comments!
And for more photos, check our Kepler Track Flickr set.