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Since my last update I've covered over 100km of New Zealand bush, walking the Rakiura and Kepler tracks. The Rakiura track on Stewart Island was a nice little warm up, being only 36km long and spread over 3 days. The weather was blessedly sunny and the path so well made it was a rare occurrence to come across a section of mud, for which Stewart Island is traditionally famous. The path is more or less all though native forest, very lush and green with ferns and moss covered trees. The wonderful New Zealand hut system meant that I didn't have to carry a tent with me; instead I stayed both nights in purpose built huts, each with a bunkroom and a cooking area with a pot belly fire - they even had sinks and running water! Very luxurious compared to a Scottish bothy. Tramping the route at the same time as me were a Belgian, a German couple, a Czech man and a Polish women - quite the European mix. Luckily for me, the only common language between everyone was English.
After flying back to Invercargill and taking a bus up to Te Anau I took a day's break to restock then set out on the Kepler track, a rather more difficult route going 65km and climbing 1270m (4167 feet) to the top of Mt Luxmore then descending all the way back down again and following a river back to Te Anau. Apparently, the record time for completing the circuit is an insane 4 hours and 37 minutes. I did it in a rather more leisurely 20 hours across 4 days. Again, I was incredibly lucky with the weather; it only rained when I was safely in a hut for the night.
The Kepler track is very popular and the first two huts were huge (taking up to 60 people a night) and at $40 they were the most expensive places I have stayed at in New Zealand! But then they did have gas stoves, solar powered electric lighting and flushing toilets, hardly your standard hut facilities. With so many people there it was easy to find a group to talk to and play cards with.
The first, third and fourth days are more or less exclusively though forest so not so interesting (although still quite beautiful). The second day, however, is simply stunning. Virtually the whole day is spent above the tree line, first ascending to the summit of Mt Luxmore (1472m - 4829 feet - in Scotland that would be a munro bagged for sure!) from which there were 360 degree views over cloud filled valleys to the snow capped mountains beyond then continuing along a couple of ridges, with views down either side; occasionally the clouds would part and you could catch glimpses of Lake Te Anau, glittering 1000m below.
I also came across a party of quite possibly the worst prepared walkers I have ever seen. Two Germans and a Canadian set off from a campsite just before you start climbing (at all) and arrived at the first hut just after I did on the first day. Only they were intending to make it to the campsite at the next hut, a good 6 hours away at their pace. So first they stopped for lunch and then an hour or so later set off, with only 4 hours til dark and rain descending on the mountain tops ahead. They ended up having to spend the night at an emergency shelter, soaking wet and with only one dry sleeping bag. Oh, and for one of the Germans it was her first ever hike and she was wearing jeans. She also got massive blisters on the back of her foot and twisted her ankle. I caught up with them at the end of the second day when I found them sitting round the fire in the second hut, warming up and drying all their clothes.
The last hut I stayed in was a little different to the first two. For a start it was 1/8 of the price. It was a tiny one roomed, 6 bunk hut slightly off the main track and not advertised much (the DOC would prefer you to stay in their $40 hut). Then again, it didn't even have running water, although Lake Manapouri was conveniently 10m in front and I ate dinner sitting on the shore watching the sun go down behind the mountains. I shared the hut with a group of 3 girls, two Americans and a Slovenian; they had been walking the same days as me but I hadn't bumped in to them before.
Tomorrow I'm heading up to Milford Sound. I'm going kayaking on it in the evening then staying the night and doing a cruise in the morning. From there I'll get the bus all the way to Queenstown, but I'm only going to stay there a day to restock and arrange transport to the small hamlet of Glenorchy, from where I have access to the Routeburn-Caples and Rees-Dart tracks - another week or so's worth of hiking in the mountains before I return to Queenstown to see it properly.