The Kepler Track, in Fiordland National Park, is a 67 kilometre, moderate walking track that takes three to four days to complete. It traverses lake edges, beech forest, alpine mountain tops and a U-shaped glacial valley.
Reasonable fitness is required to complete the full circuit and trampers must be well equipped. During winter and spring the alpine section of the track can be closed by snow and ice. Sections of the track are suitable for day walks.
Rakaihautu, legendary leader of the Maori canoe Uruao, is said to have named the great lakes while exploring the interior of the South Island. During a period of wet weather his party found a large and beautiful lake which they named Te Aria Au, meaning cave of rain, and just south of it another lake which Rakaihautu named Roto Ua, the lake where rain is constant. Today we know Roto Ua as Manapouri, a corruption of Manawa Popore (lake of the sorrowing heart), the original name of North Mavora Lake.
People seeking food from the forests, lakes and rivers of the area followed these early explorers. Evidence of seasonal Maori occupation has been found around the bays of both lakes and in the valleys which provided a link to the Fiordland coast.
Assisted by Maori guides, European explorers Charles Nairn and William Stephen found the lakes in 1852.
Richard Henry, Fiordland's first ranger, lived at the southern end of Lake Te Anau for many years and often explored the Kepler Mountains. Surveyor James McKerrow named the range after the 17th Century German astronomer Johannes Kepler.
Early tracks up onto Mt Luxmore were cut by runholder Jack Beer to provide summer grazing for his sheep. The Kepler Track was built with funding from the New Zealand Tourist and Publicity Department and opened in February 1988 in time for New Zealand's national park centennial celebrations.
The Kepler Mountains are built of metamorphic and plutonic rocks formed deep in the earth's crust. Resting on this basement material are younger sediments like limestone. Impressive limestone bluffs are found just below the bushline on Mt Luxmore. Glacial deposits dating from the last Ice Age mantle the lowlands around Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri. Glaciers scoured the Fiordland landscape for tens of thousands of years, carving the fiords, lakes and deep U- shaped valleys so typical of the area.
Beech is the main forest tree of the Kepler Mountains. At lower altitudes mountain, silver and red beech grow alongside kamahi, and podocarps such as miro, rimu, kahikatea and totara. Toward the tree line and in the Iris Burn, silver beech dominates. A feature of the forest is the abundance of ferns, mosses and perching plants. Between Lake Manapouri and Rainbow Reach a wetland dominated by wire rush and sphagnum moss provides an interesting contrast. Manuka shrubland alongside the Waiau River between Rainbow Reach and the control gates marks the site of Jack Beer's farm. Around the lake shores kowhai trees provide a splash of yellow when flowering in the spring.
Above the bushline snow tussocks dominate. Dracophyllum, mountain daisies , native bluebells and gentians are also commonly seen.
Bellbirds, tomtits, grey warblers, fantails and chaffinches are common throughout the forest. Look for yellowheads and robins in the Iris Burn and yellow-crowned parakeets along the Waiau River. The tiny rifleman and flocks of brown creepers are most evident in the upper forest. At Mt Luxmore and Upper Iris Burn huts listen at dusk for the hooting of morepork and the brown kiwi's shrill whistles.
High tussock slopes are the haunts of pipits, a few kea, and in summer, skylarks, redpolls and yellowhammers.
The upper Iris Burn is the home of a few pairs of the rare blue duck. Paradise ducks, mallard and grey ducks, scaup and black-billed gulls are seen on the lakes. Little shags, larger black shags and kingfishers are often seen along the Waiau River.
Red deer, possums, stoats and rodents are present in the forest. At dusk you might be lucky to see bats (New Zealand's only native land mammal) fluttering across a clearing or out over the Waiau River.
The Kepler Track starts at the Lake Te Anau outlet control gates, 45 minutes walk from the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre in Te Anau. Te Anau itself is easily accessible by road and has a regular bus service and a full range of accommodation options.
There is a shuttle bus service to and from the track ends, and boat services from Te Anau to Brod Bay.
Times are approximate only and will vary according to fitness, pace of group and direction of travel.
Most trampers start with a night at Mt Luxmore Hut. They are then in the best place to assess the weather for the next day's walking across the open tops and have most of the climbing behind them.
Control Gates to Brod Bay 1½ hours, 5.6 km.
The track follows the lakeshore through mountain and red beech with kamahi and some scattered rimu and miro. After passing an attractive grove of hard tree ferns and crown fern Dock Bay is reached. Continue on across the Coal Creek swingbridge and follow the lakeshore to Brod Bay. Brod Bay is a delightful place to swim, and to camp if you had a late start.
Brod Bay to Luxmore Hut 3½ to 4½ hours, 8.5 km.
The track to the bushline starts about halfway along the beach and climbs steadily for about two hours to limestone bluffs; an ideal lunch stop. After another hour's climb the bush line is reached providing panoramic views of the Te Anau basin, Takitimu Mountains, and the Snowdon and Earl Mountains. The Mt Luxmore Hut is about 50 minutes' walk from the bushline.
Mt Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut 5 to 6 hours, 18.6km.
In heavy rain, strong winds or wintry weather, wait at the hut until the weather improves. From Luxmore Hut the track climbs gradually to a ridge just below the summit of Mt Luxmore (1471 metres). It then descends to a shelter close to the Forest Burn Saddle. Beware of wind gusts when crossing the saddle.
The track sidles, climbs and then follows a ridge system for about two hours to the Hanging Valley Shelter. It then follows a long, open ridge toward the Iris Burn and descends via a series of zig-zags into Hanging Valley. The track continues down through forest, and provides a view of a large natural slip. The Iris Burn Hut (497 metres) is sited in a large tussock clearing with brilliant views up the valley. For a pleasant evening stroll head up the valley for 20 minutes to Iris Burn Waterfall.
Iris Burn Hut to Moturau Hut 5 to 6 hours, 17.2km.
A steady day's tramp down through beech forest, riverside clearings and a gorge. The track climbs over a low saddle and wanders through mixed forest to the large slip formed during heavy rain in January 1984. About 2½ hours from the Iris Burn Hut the track reaches Rocky Point, a work camp for track maintenance and a good place for a lunch stop.
Below Rocky Point the track sidles through a gorge to come out on river flats near the mouth of the Iris Burn. Nearing Lake Manapouri the track turns left through lowland beech and podocarp forest. It follows the lakeshore around Shallow Bay to Moturau Hut, situated beside a beautiful beach with panoramic views of Lake Manapouri.
Moturau Hut to Rainbow Reach 1.5 hours, 6.2km.
The last day is a gentle stroll through beech forest to Rainbow Reach. The track crosses a wetland and then the meandering Forest Burn just above its outlet into Balloon Loop, an old part of the Upper Waiau River. It then follows the Waiau River terrace to the swingbridge at Rainbow Reach. In summer trampers can catch a shuttle bus service from Rainbow Reach to Te Anau.
Rainbow Reach to Control Gates 2½ to 3½ hours, 10.9km,
The track up river from Rainbow Reach is well worth walking for the variety of forest and river views. This section provides good opportunities for trout fishing.
Between late October and late April the three Department of Conservation huts on the track are provided with heating, gas for cooking, mattresses, running water and flush toilets. Cooking utensils are not provided and there is no food for sale on the track. Over the summer the huts have conservation staff in residence. Trampers are expected to leave the huts clean and tidy and to carry out what they carry in.
Camping is permitted on the Kepler Track only at the designated campsites at Brod Bay and adjacent to Iris Burn hut. Camping outside these areas is prohibited because of the fragile nature of the area and high fire risk in summer. Campers should carry a portable stove
Hut and Campsite Passes and Bookings
In the summer season a Great Walks Hut or Campsite Pass for the Kepler must be purchased before entering the track and be displayed at all times. There is no booking system and a hut pass does not guarantee a bunk and there is a two-night limit on staying at each hut. Passes are available from the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre in Te Anau. A surcharge applies to passes purchased at the huts. Outside the summer season the huts have no heating or gas for cooking. Visitors need Backcountry Hut Tickets or an Annual Hut Pass to use the huts during this period, and should be well equipped to cope with winter conditions.
Brown and rainbow trout are found in the main Waiau River and Forest Burn. The Iris Burn is a small river but ideal for fly fishing. A current fishing licence is required.
Have a safe and enjoyable trip. The Kepler Track includes an alpine section and mountain weather can be harsh at any time of the year. Make sure you are properly equipped and well prepared.
Make sure your group has a capable leader and that everyone is carrying a sleeping bag, cooking utensils, sufficient high energy food (with some extra for emergencies), a waterproof raincoat and overtrousers, gloves, a hat, and several layers of warm (wool or fleece) clothing. Please check at the visitor centre for up-to-date information on weather and track conditions. The alpine section of the Kepler Track may be impassable in winter and spring due to heavy snow, ice and avalanche danger. Complete an intention form at the visitor centre, use the hut books on your trip, and notify the visitor centre when you return. Know the symptoms of exposure. React quickly by finding shelter and providing warmth. Keep to the track. It you become lost stop, find shelter, stay calm, and try to assist searchers.
And please remember:
All native wildlife in the park is protected.
To protect ground - dwelling birds no dogs or other domestic animals are permitted on the track or in the park.
All rubbish must be carried out of the park.
Fire is a major threat and open fires are prohibited - please use portable stoves for cooking.
Smoking is not permitted in the huts and shelters.
A permit is required before a firearm can be carried into a National Park.