The Kepler Track is one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks,” and it was to be the culminating experience of my wife and I’s two week honeymoon. We chose this track because it was advertised as a 60 kilometer loop above the clouds through limestone bluffs and gleaming fjords. This was entirely accurate, except that we could barely see the bluffs or the fjords, and said clouds were saturated with a seemingly endless amount of water. It proved to be one of the most trying experiences of our young marriage, and for that reason one of the most fulfilling.
The night before the trek I dreamt that a New Zealand Department of Conservation employee asked me, “Who wants to take a hike in the rain on their honeymoon?” Perhaps this is what I had in mind as my wife and I huddled outside the Fjordland National Park Visitor Centre doors at 7:59 AM, waiting for it to open. The DOC would dissuade us from attempting the Kepler Track when the weather called for four straight days of rain and gale force winds. “It’s madness, certain death,” they might say, pleading with us to hole up somewhere dry with a good book and lots of wine. And begrudgingly we’d assent to their reason, drop our packs, and chill. Instead, Anja looked over our hut bookings and casually said, “Could be a little rainy and windy up there.” These turned out to be prescient words.
In blue skies above, with clouds winding their way through the mountain ravines, we started the Kepler Track on the south side of Lake Te Anau. We felt the first real heft of our packs as we strolled through beech forest, arriving at Brod Bay and then going vertical. Aiming upwards was a reckoning. We were instantly laboring up the hill with what felt like unsustainable effort. Our packs were monstrous compared to the adorable daypacks of the day hikers strolling down, not a drop of sweat on their brows.
It was mostly a silent ascent, save for our grunting and the birds. After a lunch on limestone bluffs we emerged from the treeline; the mountains, the valleys, the lakes, the glacial ravines opening up before us, the breadth of our view stunning. The proportions all seemed off—this was a land meant to be traversed by giants, not by humans with our wee little legs. The wind gusted with purpose. The path carried us over golden grass, the panorama unfolding on all sides. Ahead, a curtain of clouds seemed to be invading the mountains, and a particularly dark one was snagged on the peak of Mt. Luxmore, at the base of which stood our hut.
Everything was sore on the final approach, and my right quad was in danger of cramping. Courtney, with her green pack, blue pants, and pumping calves serving as a beacon in front of me, led the way. Over the next several days we’d each take turns as that beacon, urging the other onward when the ordeal was grim and rejoicing together when the endeavor filled us with wonder, hoping to set the tone for the next several decades as well.
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When I awoke the following morning and stood up to check on Courtney on the top bunk, she looked at me with frightful eyes and said, “I don’t want to do this.” The night was long and uncomfortable, with an active snorer in a hot, dank room.
With headlamps attached we made coffee and had porridge with honey. Never one to back down from a challenge, after our meal, Courtney was game to continue. We packed up and headed out to low clouds and drizzle.
With our rented rain gear on, Courtney said I looked like a New England fisherman. It was an apt description, with our oversized rubber pants.
“What do I look like?” Courtney asked.
“A New England fisherman’s wife?” I offered.
The aches and pains quickly announced themselves, as if I were taking roll call. There was an intimate feeling to it, a reminder of bodily connection, of what the muscles and joints and bones were allowing us to do. It made me think of a Zen retreat, how the pain can be so intense and unbearable at first, causing me to wonder how I’ll survive the next couple of days, and then blessedly it mellows into something that is just present. Knee pain? Here.
The path wound toward the ridge, the wind bursting over the rocks, the treeline somewhere far below. It was an otherworldly expanse, as mountaintops tend to be, featuring the first muted colors in all of New Zealand—grays and browns and hints of green enveloped by mist. Distant peaks poked through the clouds across valleys shrouded by fog.
At one point, Lake Te Anau was visible far below. Even though we weren’t getting the full panorama, the majesty of it was incredible, the lake nestled within a vast range of sky and rock. Or at least that’s what I said to keep our spirits up. It was hard not to wonder what the view would be like once it was before us. We were disconnected from everything up there, passing only a few other hikers, a New England fishing couple that got on the wrong boat.
The ridges tweaked Courtney out. It was eerie, being on a sliver of path with a plunging slope on either side. We trudged along from peak to peak, a new species of cloud people. I knew Harris Saddle was one of the last rises, so I kept saying, “That must be Harris Saddle.” It wasn’t. After an hour and a half we reached the Forest Burn shelter, a sparse hut where we could hang up our coats and have a snack. “Food is fuel,” I pointed out more than once, as if repeating this phrase was a necessary step in the conversion of food to fuel.
Our rented gear was surprisingly solid. We certainly didn’t look the part of the sleek backpacker, but our bodies were dry. If it’s strong enough for the ocean it’ll work on the mountain, we figured. The rain picked up as the day went on. It took an hour and a half to reach Hanging Valley shelter, at 1390 meters. We hung our coats and aired out our boots, Courtney pouring out a stream of accumulated water. “Food is fuel,” I reminded her as we snacked. Then, with much groaning, we geared up and ventured out again. Across the valley so many rivers burst from a peak that it looked like the mountain was crying. On the other side of the ridge a river cascaded down the slope, morphing into a waterfall.
We descended toward Iris Burn hut along switchbacks through a forest dangling with ethereal white and green Spanish moss. The river was well beyond its banks. A bridge took us over an immense section of whitewater, and a flash flood seemed like a real possibility. The descent was rough on the legs and we were thoroughly soaked. I felt like there was something hanging just below my bum, but couldn’t figure out what it was. I assumed it was my fishing pants, and kept hiking them up, but the feeling persisted.
Nestled at the base of the mountain, Iris Burn was a cozy wooden enclave amidst a sea of green grass. We chose bunks and hung our stuff to dry. Upon removing my rain pants I realized that the thing hanging just below my bum was my long underwear. They’d slipped down below my cheeks hours ago and remained there for the rest of the hike. The sheer hilarity of this lifted our spirits, as did changing into dry clothes.
Ranger Beatty addressed us twice in the evening, as we sat sipping tea and playing cards. The first time was to tell us that the rain had blown the water pipe from its source upriver, and with the current conditions it was too dangerous to fix. That meant we were on the reserve water tank, and the taps and toilets would be out of service. The Winter toilet, which was non-flushing, was just a short “pilgrimage” out in the rain and wind.
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The second time Ranger Beatty addressed us she gave us her ranger talk, full of practicality and wisdom. “For those of you that came over the top, it was a test of your body and mind, yeah? Well, tomorrow will be a day for your soul.” She proceeded to describe the beech forest, the massive landslide, the roaring river, and the blue whio duck and kiwi we might encounter along the way.
The wind howled during the night, rattling the hut. In the morning I made use of the Winter toilet, and filled up our pot with water from the rain tub. Courtney joined me for coffee and porridge. The rain continued relentlessly.
The path away from Iris Burn zigged through beech forest until it emerged at the Big Slip, a landslide that occurred in January 1984 and decimated the valley. Young beech trees were sprouting and the boulders from the landslide were covered in white moss. The surrounding mountains were discharging waterfalls, one in particular spraying prodigiously from the rock face. The landslide, our map ominously noted, was caused by several days of heavy rains.
As we reached the forest the first peal of thunder rolled through the valley. Even under the trees the rain accosted us, pouring down from the leaves above. Our spirits were sapping. We plowed on in mud and puddles and mud puddles. Intermittent lightning flashed, thunder growling through seven or eight seconds later.
The Rocky Point shelter consisted of a few picnic tables under a canopy. We inhaled trail mix and granola bars and chatted with a French couple. The guy was outraged that the DOC wouldn’t refund their money, and so they were basically forced, he complained, to undergo the trek in dangerous conditions. They were completing the trek out of spite, which seemed like a pretty awful way to endure the slog. “What an awful corporation,” Courtney joked about the DOC once we were back out on the trail. Preserving all this nature for us and not even offering to control the weather!
We encountered an ankle-high stream crossing. I leapt over it but Courtney had to wade through, getting further soaked, despite having already achieved maximum saturation. Then we hit the switchbacks carrying us over Rocky Point. Our blisters were rubbed raw. Courtney plodded along, eyes downcast. At the curve of each switchback I turned around and tried to cheer her up by dancing and shouting encouragements, which soon became unintelligible, as I no longer had any encouraging words.
The trail brought us along the Iris Burn River. We barreled down the liquefied path. We found the emergency detour for a collapsed part of the track, clomping through waist-high ferns. “This is the exact misery we feared when we were debating if we should do the trek,” I pointed out. Earlier we’d been decrying those who don’t understand hiking, who think it is pointless pain. They never get to feel the reward that comes from such endeavors. But now we felt pointlessly in pain, enduring simply for the sake of enduring.
“At least we had that first day,” said Courtney. Then, after a long silence, she said, “I’m still glad we did it.”
This statement filled me with joy because I was glad too. Despite the misery, there was a faint but underlying recognition of magic, of shared appreciation, unspoken but deeply felt, for each other and for this track, this journey within the journey. “Besides,” I said optimistically, “what would we have been doing?” But this was perhaps a bit too optimistic. It was all too easy to imagine being dry, warm, and nourished somewhere. We ambled on.
Eventually the path pulled away from the river and an ambiguous whiteness appeared through the trees. “Maybe that’s Lake Manapouri,” I said. “Or the end of the world.” Alas, it was the lake. We walked out to the beach and surveyed the biggest puddle of the day.
In the evening, the sun came out. It wasn’t just that the rain stopped but the sun, that long forgotten flaming source of light and heat, emerged. After days of rain and clouds, of cramped existences around hut tables, the outdoors became not just something to suffer through, but an alternative place to be and enjoy. People streamed out of the hut like the survivors of a natural disaster, the world destroyed and then remade in our absence, fresh and precious and tender all at once. Courtney and I gazed at the peaks surrounding Lake Manapouri, the sun igniting the distant cloud over. Or perhaps, not so distant. Though there were blue skies above, a light drizzle still reached us, but it was child’s play, a refreshing sprinkle compared to the earlier troughs.
I had the urge to frolic in the sand, but was too sore to do anything but stand and stare. “Maybe this is the soul Beatty was talking about,” I said. A nearby trekker, who had also come down to the beach, noted, “The only soles I felt were the ones on my feet.”
Courtney and I weren’t sure how to feel about the sun. On the one hand, it was luxurious to bask in. But I had developed a weather related Stockholm Syndrome. The rain was all I knew, and though it was punishing, it was reliable, it meant no harm. The rain’s sudden absence was strange. Not to mention it made us all too aware of what we’d missed out on the last few days. Standing there on the shores of the lake and drinking it all in, the sun breaking through, steam rising from the surrounding forest, Courtney said, “I can’t believe we got f*cked with this track.” Like with my drooping pants the previous day, the absurdity of her comment in the midst of such immense beauty succeeded in lifting our spirits.
Ranger Phil invited us to the lawn for his talk. He described his style as “rambly,” and told us he wouldn’t be offended if we wandered off to photograph the sunset. Weary legs resulted in a weary mind, so I wearily watched the sun dip behind the peaks across the lake as he spoke, but I tuned back into his closing words, a quote from Chief Seattle: “This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
We played cards with our hutmates by headlamp until darkness fell. Then Courtney and I excused ourselves and got ready for bed, hoping to get an early start on the final day of the track. On the way to the bathrooms we caught our first glimpse of the stars since we’d set out. We walked out onto the grass in front of the hut and looked up at the luminous dots in the inky night sky, the great web of which we were now a single united strand, so that each reverberation would from then on be deeply felt by the other. The last light was still barely visible beyond the southern hills. Courtney rested her head on my shoulder and said, “I love traveling with you. And I love you.”
“I love traveling with you and I love you too,” I said.