Hiking New Zealand’s Kepler Track, Part 3: Iris Burn to Queenstown

Make sure to read Parts 1 & 2!

All the huts along the Kepler Track were stunning, but if I had to choose one for an extended stay – it would be Iris Burn. New Zealand is forever famous as the filming location for the Lord of the Rings movies, and I’m positive that if Middle Earth was real, the elves would be living in the very same valley as the Iris Burn hut. Flanked on all sides by temperate rainforest-ed mountains, we fell asleep in our bunks on the valley floor to the sound of water falling – from where we did not know exactly. It wasn’t until the next morning that we would discover the beauty of that place and it’s tall, slender waterfalls.

Day 3 was a joy. Our clothes still damp from the previous day’s deluge, we set off on our walk to a familiar grey sky that quickly cleared to blue. The walk was bleesedly gentle and flat. We followed the valley away from the mountains we had traversed the day before and towards the beautiful, glistening Lake Te Anau, whose shore we followed to our last hut of the journey.

The Motourau Hut is the smallest of the Kepler system’s shelters, and after the previous 3 day’s walk felt like a true beachside holiday resort. Situated right on the shore of Lake Te Anau, the occupants of the hut’s 40 bunks have the beach to themselves. Tom and I immediately took our boots off to cool our swollen feet in the crystal waters. It was not a surprise to me that the lake felt ice cold to my Caribbean sensibilities. It was also not a surprise to me that Tom could not resist a swim.

Happy Kiwi in his natural habitat

Finishing off the last of our dehydrated dinner near the lakeshore that night, the ranger told us of a shuttle that would pick up weary hikers at Rainbow Reach – just 6km away – no reservation required. Our party of 4 did not have to converse long to come to a decision. The shuttle would save us 9.5kms of walking, and upon further questioning the ranger recommended it. Those 9.5 ks were flat walking along the lake. It was lovely, she said, but the views wouldn’t change much. It was decided. Tom would hike out ahead of us in the morning to catch the shuttle, then pick up the car and circle round to collect we last 3 weary walkers.

Despite my bruised toe and swollen feet, after 3 long days of walking, knowing we only had 6ks to go at the start of our walk on day 4 made me feel light and strong. I walked by myself for most of this time, as my pace did not exactly match any of our walking companions’ – Tom was working at a clip to meet the shuttle, while Jacob and Ursula had enjoyed a longer breakfast. The trail was flat and green and lovely, and before I knew it I was crossing the bridge to Rainbow Reach, then sitting in a loaded car for a long drive, then lying clean and dry on a couch in Queenstown.

Our second of NZ’s great walks, we found the Kepler Track to be much more challenging than the Abel Tasman. While the Abel Tasman felt like a lovely beach holiday, the Kepler asked more of us. It was dramatic and beautiful and varying, and I think in the end it’s my favorite walk I’ve ever done. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt colder or wetter or closer to being blown off the edge of the earth as I did on that second day on the Kepler. But I also don’t know if I’ve ever felt more strong.

It would take a few days for the soreness in my muscles and the damp stench on my gear to subside, but visions of tussock-covered mountain peaks, gusty winds on sharp saddles, elven-like valleys, flowing waterfalls, and crystal lakes… that I’ll take with me forever.

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