Day 1: Te Anau To Luxmore Hut

Will today be the day we get rained on? Will this hard 800m climb take us forever? Uh yes and no. It was a straightforward and very steady climb from the Kepler Track trailhead at Lake Te Anau to the hut, with just a few sprinkles of rain.

We slept in. Yay! We shopped at the grocery store. I ate a bao and had the best coffee so far at a little food truck across from the supermarket. And then it was wait for the bus, which is a bit silly; the start of the track is something like 3km from town, but hey, we were feeling lazy.

That laziness ended up being a good thing, too—the Met Service updated the forecast (see this URL at xxx !) and tomorrow it’s supposed to have a few mm of rain but 50kph winds and wind chill a few degrees below freezing... so we asked our kindly bus/taxi driver if she could stop at the Outdoor Sports shop so we could get a canister of gas. Yay. Hot meals and coffee for the long alpine section tomorrow between Luxmore and Iris Burn Hut.

We were dropped off at the outlet of the lake, walked over the control gates (it’s semi-dammed up as part of a curious hydro scheme) and walked and walked along the south edge of the lake. Pretty soon the wind dropped off, and it was just us and the beech and the ferns underneath, with the lake waves sloshing off to our right hand side.

A short stop for lunch after 5km at the boat dock—I would’ve stayed longer, but damn sandflies—and then the trudge uphill, supposedly 4 1/2 hours, but we took an hour off of that. The track was wide and fast and smooth and curiously designed with no waterbars or anything at all, though it did have a nice ditch dug on the uphill side for continuous drainage. Just steady up and up, to treeline. We hoped to make it to the hut before the blustery rain.

Once at treeline, it was just too cold for t-shirt and shorts, so I put on the rain jacket and just decided it was time to stride it out, being both wet and cold isn’t my thing. It went really quickly, and I did wonder where the hut was—near the peak? In a gully? I turned a corner as the bush line crept up, and boom it was there, yay, we had made it, and ten minutes later the big drops of rain splattered on the plastic sheeting outside the bunk rooms. We choose bunks 11 and 12 in the ‘sardine’ bunkroom, settled in for the evening in a corner of the common room.

I do feel a need to describe the very odd vibe we felt at Luxmore hut this evening... and what a crowded little hut up, filled with so much whinge and so different than any hut we experienced on the Routeburn or Milford tracks.

After I finished a bit of writing around 5pm, I took inventory of our fellow walkers there in the large communal space at Luxmore hut. We sat in a corner overlooking Lake Te Anau, looking down on a few buildings across the lake. While much of civilization wasn’t visible, there was one certain sign, a good three bars of service from Voda NZ, or perhaps Spark, with one woman intently consuming Internet whatnot on her cell phone. Her companion was busily assembling a jigsaw puzzle, asking a couple of times “Helfen mich?”, while Cell Phone Woman would occasionally screen present an Instasnapbook something... then wait a few minutes complain about learn-English-app on the cell phone, and forlornly moan that it’s so boring here in the hut; not bothering to realize that she has dozens of native English speakers to talk to that are just as bored as she is, but they're not as compelling as her phone. Puzzle Woman was almost done putting together the 1000 pieces, despite the lack of help from her companion, grouping all her remaining puzzle pieces by bumps and sockets, going through systematically. The Puzzler really couldn’t be bothered with some remote Moment or distant Story, she was focused and determined to assemble the sky.

There were two dudes from California or Italy, one with a cotton Golden State Warriors hoodie, the other with camo leggings and a bright orange long sleeve jersey that said “JERKINS”, were moving around the room, chatting up the young ladies, nicely and earnestly in a brash American accent. A stylish looking potential H&M model enjoyed or tolerated the attention for several minutes and nodded her pompom beanie. It was kinda cute yet seemed blatantly desperate. An Australian couple, older, arranged a sprawling stacking set of cooking gear, yellow and red, like a Tupperware party, tiering them carefully, then putting them in lines, I don't know what that aws all about. Two shorter women were attempting to throw up their gear onto the drying rack above the firebox, not realizing a bench that was next to them might be helpful. They were having a gleeful time, playing a little game; I wanted them to win. They were the only ones that seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Dinner came and went, Peter-the-Warden came out, and we all listened to his warnings about fire and keas. We went to bed listening to the tinny sounds of someone in the upper bunks rocking out to Spotify and whispering loudly about what a great sound that is. Damn internet ruins everything.

We’ll see how terrible it is tomorrow--we have internet we’ll have an updated weather report before we head out in the morning. And I might even post a picture or three on that Instagram feed that I neglect now and then.

Day 2: Luxmore Hut To Iris Burn Hut

A decent day walking through the snow flurries to Iris Burn hut across the spine of the Luxmore mountains.

We woke up at 6:05am to someone’s iPhone alarm vibrating, grrrrr, after a long night of people going in and out using the toilets and shuffling gear around and rustling crinkly things at 2am. OK, note to self: do not choose the platform sardine bunks again. I had pre-staged my pack, all ready to go, so I woke up, shoved my sleeping bag in my pack, and took all my gear to the kitchen and made coffee.

Our plan was to just go when we’re ready—it’s supposedly a 6 hour walk to the next hut (which we did a bit quicker than that), and while there’s not much rain forecast there are gale force winds in the afternoon.

We enjoyed a quick walk over to the Luxmore Caves--which were slippery and steep inside and cold--then headed up the ridge. It was scenic, but the fog closed in, and the wind blew, so it was more trudging than enjoyable. I bet it's great on a clear day, but that day isn't today. We spotted a kea, and it snowed on us a bit; and the track was a bit annoying: it didn't just go up then down, but kept on vacillating. We did stop at some huts to warm up, but it was just around freezing, sometimes +2 degrees, sometimes -2 degrees, so the hut stops did more to chill us down (we weren't moving!) so we kept them super-brief.

The walk down a hillside spine to Iris Burn was pretty enjoyable, though; the lower we got the 'warmer' it became, all the way to +5C (balmy!) and pretty rainbows appeared. Very scenic.

At the hut, we were pretty much the first walkers, and found a small bunkroom off the kitchen--score! It had gloves and such on three of the beds, and just one guy on another bed--we asked if these were taken, and he said, yes, they're for his friends which will show up sometime later today. Uh, that's not how this works, guy--this is first come first serve, so we went over to the clipboard and signed in for two of the bunks he had 'reserved' and told him. He reluctantly took his stuff off the bunks. Stop squatting, dude.

A couple of hours later, his buddies did arrive when I was all bundled in my puffy sleeping bag taking a nap. He didn't realize I was in the room and he said we were mean and stole the bunks from him so they couldn't all sleep together, to their credit his hiking buddies said "uh that's not how it works". He said he saw no reason not to take all the good bunks, because he could always give them up. Jerk. I didn't let him know I was there. No point in having a squabble.

Other than that irritation, it was a generally mellow afternoon. We read, I discovered how beech masts increase invasive mammal populations, and that's about it. An early dinner and bedtime, and we prepped for a long 25km walk tomorrow.

Day 3: Iris Burn Hut back to Te Anau

So much for sleeping in today: the millennial rooster went off at 6:00 again, a buzz of cell phone alarms from two or three other bunks--the squatter and the French couple having a domestic dispute. Grrr, could you just shut them off and enjoy the day? We were annoyed, too bothered to gently wake up, so we quietly hauled our packs and sleeping bags to the kitchen, tripping over the backpack that the squatter dude had placed in the walkway between the bunks--made our coffee, packed, and scooted.

The 16km walk down the Iris Burn was fast to the next hut, without many highlights save some playtime with a South Island robin who took an interest in us passing by. I spotted it on the track, and remembered a trick the hut warden had suggested if I wanted to get a nice closeup picture: scraped your heel on the trail, and stand back and wait for the bird to investigate. Yep, it worked, the robin came over to check out my scratching, like I was some big dumb moa that was pecking at the soil for grubs, and the robin swooped in for the leftovers. Got a few pictures, and remembered to do that next time I saw a robin or three.

We made it to the next hut at 11:30, in about four hours, and made a hot lunch and enjoyed the mostly sandfly free lawn... that is, until enough of the (ahem) younger crowd showed up. We listened to the inane chatter of two male primates trying to lure a receptive blonde German female; they started out with “where are you from” and “how do you like the track” and then said “we are French-Canadian from Montreal” which led to me raising an eyebrow. They followed her into the hut where they made hot lunch with a copper-bottomed kitchen pan they brought—must’ve weighed a kilo or more (what are they thinking??). After they figured out how to turn on the hut gas stoves (uh, flip the supply valve to on before lighting), the silly smalltalk turned to food: “do you like pasta?” “Yes I like pasta!” Replied the German blonde, “But I enjoy other things. I ate so much rice and sandwiches I was so full I was not hungry anymore!” More eyerolling commenced on our part.

The Canadians decided to turn up the heat a bit, oddly, and asked bluntly “How old are you? Are you twenty yet?” The German woman said “Why not yet, but my 20th birthday is this week”. The very next follow-up question next was “How do you find being a single woman out here? Aren’t you afraid for your safety?” She said “Not at all, smany friendly people here!” Errrrrrrrr, eek, but she seemed to enjoy the attention, though both Chris and I found it creepy that the Canadians both wanted to know if she was a teenager and if she wasn’t afraid of getting raped. Yuck.

We left the hut soon after, as some dancey woman be-bopped up to the hut; she was sporting wireless over-the-ear Beats by Dr Dre headphones along with a humongous pack for the three day journey, fully blissed out as she tramped along no doubt. Birdsong isn’t for her, that’s for sure; she’s fully in control and has carefully curated her Personal Soundtrack for hours, even days, of walking. Anyways, immediately after leaving the hut we forgot about the Mrs Dr Dre Woman, when we had an engaging encounter with a fantail that really wanted to peck my hiking poles for insects. Got a few pictures I hope.

Nothing else much before the car park, except the track got messier with Wet Wipes and plastic candy wrappers and facial tissues every couple hundred meters, and surly “international visitors”, sometimes having some squabble, glaring at us and our cheery greetings. I did startle a native pigeon, which shocked me, and we did have some fun with another robin. This one tried to peck the zippers on Chris’s trousers.

Back at the car park, we chatted up some bus driver with an REI Adventures logo all over his van (really? That’s kinda like going on REI Adventures to, oh, Yosemite. This isn’t that foreign of a country) and he gave us a couple of Halo tangerines from, yep, California. Then a quick shuttle, cleanup and laundry, some really tasty beer at the Fat Duck (beer courtesy of Invercargill Brewery)... a last repack... and we’re ready for Stewart Island tomorrow.