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This taste of the Kepler Track distills all the Great Walk is renowned for - towering beech forest, mossy logs, lakeside beaches and massive alpine views.
This is a spring - summer - autumn walk, although snow can fall any time of year. Check with DoC before embarking on this walk if you see snow on the summits.
The start of the track proper is through the Control Gates at the entrance to Fiordland National Park. By car, follow SH 95 2.3 km from the junction with SH 94 at the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre and turn right into Golf Course Road (Kepler Track is signposted). After 2.3 km turn right along a short road which leads to the carpark. You will need to head upstream for 5 minutes to reach the Control Gates.
There are a few cheats ways to shorten the track. Kepler Water Taxis http://www.keplerwatertaxi.co.nz/ run a daily shuttle service to Brod Bay, which cuts out the first (and last) 1 ½ hours.
Control Gates to Brod Bay 1 ½ hours 5.6 km
First taste of the beech forest is a welcome of towering silver and mountain beech with a few examples of red beech, depositing their litter of recently decaying leaves on the track surface like a walkway of confetti. The track is wide and even. Mountain beech is conspicuous on the lakeshore margins, taking advantage of the cool air which sinks to the lake level and forms a cooler band below the inversion. A toilet is situated on the left near the start.
An opening in the forest looks straight up the guts of Lake Te Anau, the dark line of Centre Island contrasting with the misty tones on the snowy peaks at the northern end, most prominent being Mount Anau. The bright gravels of Dock Bay are where you’re heading, reached after 30 minutes of weaving through bird-filled forest. Paradise ducks make a noisy accompaniment out on the lake.
Take a short walk up Dock Bay around the point (just past the toilet, barbeques and picnic tables).
Shortly after Dock Bay, cross the footbridge over Coal Creek. The forest floor is smothered in a collection of delicate mosses, which subdue the contours of the rocks, windfalls and roots. Occasional glimpses of the lake peer through the languid beech branches.
Brod Bay is a delightful spot of soft sand with a sympathetic curve of beach arriving at a gently protruding point. The southern point clearly shows the lakeshore vegetation sequence from turf communities through oioi rushes, manuka and finally beech forest. Toilets, barbecues a picnic and camping area (between yellow pegs) are also there at the arrival point of the Water Taxi. Fill your water bottles from the lake, as this is the last easily accessible water source before Luxmore Hut and tastes better than the Te Anau town water from the tap.
Brod Bay to Luxmore Hut 3 ½ hours 8.2 km
The steady climb to the bushline is relentless but never steep. At first you cross old terraces deposited by the retreating glacier from Te Anau South Fiord between 14 and 7,000 years ago. On the lower slopes mountain and silver beech predominate with a few tree ferns in the understorey. As altitude increases mountain beech drops out of the mix for a while with silver beech partnering red beech. The moss cover is profuse, sometimes dripping from the vegetation in mats.
After approximately 1 ¾ hours the shielding cloak of vegetation is temporarily abated with a small clearing in the canopy. The delicate architecture of beech branches frames a view of Te Anau township and the fertile dairying plains retreating behind. Its’ patently obvious the town was sited by a northern hemisphere settler, seemingly unaware that north is where catches the sun in the southern hemisphere, not like back in Blighty! A small rock gives room for one person at a time to rest and snack while taking it all in.
It’s a further 20 minutes to the limestone bluffs, which suddenly fill the uphill view. A huge overhang, notched and with a natural seat sculpted at the base, rises so steeply you have to crane your neck to see the top. Some significant bridges and structures line the base of the cliffs, which have small rivulets trickling down and are mantled with a dense mat of moss, taking advantage of the abundant moisture.
A zigzag section continues towards the bushline, reached after 45 minutes. Tell-tale signs of impending arrival include the concentrations of silver beech, which become more stunted. A covering of hairy pale green lichen, like its name old mans beard suggests, adheres to branches and twigs.
The transition into open views at the top is sudden and immediate. The twin peaks of Mount Luxmore loom ahead, while a glance behind reveals Lakes Manapouri and Monowai closing off the distant southern horizon. Shortly after the view north also opens up, as you reach the domed apex of the ridge. The length of Lake Te Anau leads to the innumerable peaks of the (working south) Livingstone Range, Eyre Mountains and Takitimu Mountains.
Boardwalked sections have been constructed to protect the fragile peat bog communities, which have formed on the poorly drained soils of the tops. These slopes were also used as a ski field in the 1970s, with keen amateurs lugging a rope tow up the track you’ve just walked. The operation didn’t last long.
This section from the bushline undulates only gently on its way to Luxmore Hut, which only becomes visible after rounding a corner into the shallow gully in which it nestles. The true Mount Luxmore peak, distinguished by the discernible trig at the summit, comes to view. Looking over the South Fiord and Murchison Mountains, Luxmore Hut commands magnificent views.
Luxmore Hut (1085 metres) is 40-bunks in 2 rooms with large communal area looking to the north-east over the South Fiord and Murchison. Day walkers should remove boots if you want to shelter inside.
On the lakeshore, the beach terracettes are formed by wave action at higher lake levels, pushing up a barricade of stones to form a low platform. Take note of the multi-patterned pebbles, which give clues to the geology of the surrounding rocks. Hornblende and mica flakes in the lighter coloured granodiorite pebbles are most common. The relative hurly-burly of happenings in Te Anau pass on the opposite shore, the sound travelling effortlessly over the calm waters. Wavelet ripples concentrate the light into oscillating reflections of themselves on the shallow bottoms of the clear waters.
The limestone first viewed on the ascent is in fact gabbro, a greeny tinged mudstone, a hard compaction of rock fragments formed around 250 million years ago. The limestone a little further on is more distinctly white and the coral and shell fragments take on a sandy consistency.
Caves such as those near Luxmore Hut are formed like most other limestone caves. The limestone here, as elsewhere, is the compacted remains of a reef system which once lay in shallow warm waters. Subsequent tectonic uplift has resurfaced the rock, which is mainly composed of calcareous matter, derived from the shellfish, fish and coral organisms. Limestone is susceptible to dissolving once water passing through it has an acid makeup, usually derived from absorption of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This percolating groundwater decomposes the limestone, creating fissures and cracks streams can later exploit to form cave systems.
The Murchison Mountains opposite the Hut are characterised by truncated spurs. These point to where a ridge has been severed to form a triangular face. The apex of the triangle gives a good approximation of the height of the glaciers as they bulldozed their path down the valley, before fanning out and depositing their load as extensive terminal moraines to fill the plains behind Te Anau. A classic example of a hanging valley, graphically sculpted to a U-shape, is perched high above the main valley and is hemmed in by the pyramidal peaks and ridges of the accumulation zone above.
Following the end of the last ice age, the shallow soils created hollows where water accumulated and specialised plant communities developed. The darker blobs of water mottle the pastel vegetation colours and appear in places on the flatter parts of the tops, sometimes around slumps.
Ice ages were also responsible for the Hidden Lakes, so named because they remain concealed from view until you are above them. When glacial ice flowed out of the South Fiord, its erosive powers scooped out softer rock, smoothing over the harder rocks. Water then collected in the hollows and forest recolonised the mountainside, advancing to the edges. Look also for the prominent small ridges following the contour line below Mount Luxmore’s east peak. This is a kame terrace, deposited as the final moraine feature of the dying glacier on the slopes of the peak.
Closer examination of the myriad mosses reveals some are like lace, some hairy and others resemble caterpillars. Don’t worry about the botanical names, it’s just as fun to notice similar mosses throughout the area and invent names according to their intricate details. Sprays of crown ferns (Blechnum discolor) decorate the forest floor, but the understorey continues to be sparse, giving the forest an open and airy feel.
The alpine vegetation on the tops makes an interesting mosaic. Most prominent on the way to Luxmore Hut, include the mountain daisy (Celmisia traversii) with its large leathery leaves sprayed around the base of the flowers, which sometimes appear in multitudes around the same plant. Note the hairy tomentum on the back of the leaves, a special adaptation evolved to trap a layer of air close to the leaf to conserve moisture, rather like hair on our bodies is used to trap a layer air for insulation. On hot summer days, you understand why this feature has evolved. The overwhelmingly prevalent tussock is the mop-like spirals of curly snowgrass (Chionocloa crassiscula), a favoured coloniser of peaty soils of snowy regions.
The Dracophyllum genus prevalent is a brownish rusty plant with spiky leaves and red tips. Also known as turpentine plant for the prevalence of turpent in its leaves, it burns well when wet and dry. More diminutive and less noticeable are the presence of mountain buttercups, mountain violets and St John’s wort.
With the arrival of the first Polynesians came the kiore or Polynesian rat and the kuri, or Polynesian dog. These predators hunted by smell, thus easily sourced their flightless prey. European arrival however spelled the near end for takahe and extinction for many other New Zealand endemic bird species. As rats, cats, mustelids, deer and mice invaded the forests they competed for food sources, predated chicks and hunted adults.
The annihilation was rapid and comprehensive, so that by 1948, when Dr Geoffrey Orbell dramatically rediscovered a remnant population in the Murchisons, the only record of the takahe was a few skins in museums. Had Dr Orbell not rediscovered the population when he did, the species would now be extinct.
Takahe’s main enemies are deer, who compete for the snow tussock, the takahe’s staple food source, and stoats, who predate chicks. Deer were shot by helicopters in the 1970s, a practise that is now uneconomic, as choppers cost around $20 per minute and deer are now wary of them. Keeping numbers down now is an exercise in population minimisation rather than complete eradication. Stoats are now controlled with trap lines latticing the mountainsides.
In November DoC’s takahe team visit breeding territories, locate nests and candle eggs, a process which involves holding a light source to the eggs under a dark hood to determine their fertility. Infertile eggs are removed to ensure takahe expend their full efforts on eggs that are likely to hatch. If a nest has two fertile eggs, one egg is flown by helicopter in a portable incubator to Burwood, a rearing facility near Te Anau, where it is cared for until hatching.
Young chicks are fed with puppet heads that resemble their natural parents and played bird calls to familiarise themselves with their true identities. Foster parents also teach the young how to find the Hypolepis fern, an important component of their winter diet. Any traces of a human imprint the sociable chicks might adopt is thus removed. At the end of September, Burwood chicks are released back into the wild, some wearing transmitters.
These are worn as backpacks with a glued piece of wetsuit rubber in contact with plumage to provide extra insulation in the winter months. They weigh 50 grams and have a 5 year lifespan. The signal can be detected up to 10 km away. These devices have dramatically increased the ease with which DoC staff can capture birds to study them and monitor their wellbeing. Trained dogs are the only other means of efficiently locating birds.
DoCs efforts have been rewarded with a total population approaching 200 birds in Fiordland, and a further 100 birds on predator free offshore islands. The takahe is one of New Zealand’s success stories in bringing a species back from the brink of extinction.
A few star birds are housed in the Te Anau Wildlife Centre 1 km south of Te Anau along SH94.
Brod Bay was named after Thomas Brodrick, skipper of Te Uira, an early passenger vessel on Lake Te Anau. He lived at the bay and had his own jetty. By all accounts he was a character and used to make his passengers disembark to cut firewood to fuel the boilers. He also has a boat named Ripple, which kept breaking down. One night a jocular local painted the letter ‘C’ in front of the name. Brod hadn’t noticed until several trips had been completed and the whole town had a laugh. He lay low for a few days after the prank.
The popularity of the Kepler Track has slowly escalated, spurred along by the annual Kepler Challenge, usually held in early December. The event now involves around 400 competitors running the 67 km circuit. Many come from overseas and around New Zealand, but a healthy number are Southland locals. The winning time? Under 5 hours!
South Island ▷ Fiordland ▷ Te Anau
Katharina and Matthias
We did a one day trip to Mt Luxmore and back. Exhausting, but worth it. Spectacular view over Fiordland. Well prepared track.
Thanks to all the good people working for the NZ Department of Conservation - for all your hard work - making NZ more beautiful, accessable and healthy! Cheers 😍