Okay, this is it. We’ve laboured up the slopes of Mount Luxmore, trekked across the peaks, and descended back into the realm of beech forest and sandflies. Day three of our Kepler journey dawned just as sunny as ever, and so it was once more time to head out on the trail.
We set off along the Iris Valley, eroded by ancient glaciers into a mercifully flat-bottomed furrow between towering ranges. 18,000 years ago, when glaciation here was at its peak, the ice would have filled this valley up to about the 900m mark. Standing here at the bottom of the depression, that seems like an absolutely absurd amount of ice, and yet this was merely a tributary to the larger glacier that flowed through the Manapouri basin.
But all that is long past, so we followed the river – a dainty trickle in comparison – down stream, crossing one or two of her tributaries as we went.
We soon drew level with the “Big Slip”, a humongous natural landslide that occurred during heavy rains some time around 26 January in 1984, the same rain storm that caused devastating floods in Invercargill and required many people to abandon their homes or to be rescued from roof tops. One estimate suggests that on that day the site of the slip experienced approximately 300mm of rainfall. The resulting 300,000m3 cascade of falling earth not only raised the valley floor slightly, but caused a large wave in the flooded river that uprooted much of the surrounding vegetation.
Even though this happened years before I was born, the huge gash in the landscape remains highly visible with its surprising lack of regrowth. I could only be grateful that today’s weather was about as different from the extreme conditions that caused this epic avalanche it was possible to be.
What was extreme, in our opinion, was the amount of sandflies buzzing about Rocky Point Shelter. So prevalent were the beastly bloodsuckers that we stopped only for a moment before being chased on our way.
I must confess, I don’t have many clear memories of this day’s walk. While yesterday I’d been able to begin the day’s journey with fresh feet, today I had no such grace and the throbbing started up not long after we set out. So I retreated into my head, hoping to find the wellspring of mindfulness and tenacity that my yoga instructor kept telling me was somewhere in there.
What I actually found was a replay of a few arguments from years ago that until this time I’d forgotten. “Where the mind goes the body will follow,” My instructor is fond of saying. Well, my mind was going, “I’ve gotta finish this walk so I can get home and give several people a piece of my mind!”
Nevertheless, it seemed to work. It was a lot easier to keep going when my mind was focused somewhere else. Perhaps I should found a new philosophy: reverse zen.
When we reached the shore of Lake Manapouri I thought for sure we were almost there. And yet the trail seemed to go on and on. I was now lagging far behind the others, with only Tim patiently keeping by my side as I was forced to sit down and get the weight off my feet every few hundred metres.
At long last I finally staggered into the clearing where Moturau Hut – Moturau being the original name of Lake Manapouri – presided over the shore of Shallow Bay.
I limped up the stairs to claim a bunk on the upper level, pulled off my shoes, then gingerly made my way down to join the others on the fine sun-warmed gravel of the lake shore. Hwee had set up his wood-fired water boiler and was busy running “Hwee’s Coffee Shop” making hot drinks for all of us, which we sipped while gazing across the brilliantly blue waters.
Then, while the others went for a dip, I laid back and relaxed.
By the time the light began to fall I figured it was time to limp up to bed, drifting to sleep in my bunk as I anticipated the next and final stage of our epic walk.
After a quick breakfast of porridge, we set off yet again into the beech trees. About half an hour in we met with a quick detour which took us along a board walk that snaked over boggy ground to the Spirit Lake viewing platform.
Looking out over the reflective waters, I spotted some waterfowl in the distance. For this I needed my alternate camera with the mechanical zoom. I reached for the pouch I carried around my neck only to grasp at thin air. My camera was still at Moturau Hut!
This was a dilemma indeed. Today my feet were giving me no mercy and we still had something like four hours to go. I felt sure that if we added another hour to that by going back for my forgotten camera, I’d never make it! I declared that we must simply go on without it.
But Emma would have none of that! She dropped her heavy gear and offered to run back and retrieve the camera herself. I was a little reluctant to put her to the trouble, but she insisted it would be fine. So I sat down while Emma ran back down the trail in search of my carelessly abandoned belongings.
Only half an hour later my hero was back, and not much out of breath. She handed over not only my camera but my head torch as well. Whoops. But with that we could finally continue, though our little trio lagged long behind the other half of our group who had not been delayed by my foolishness.
From Spirit Lake we cut through the forest to the mighty Waiau River, a worthy stand-in for the River Anduin in Peter Jackson’s famous Lord of the Rings films.
It was about here that our forward party offered to pick the rest of us up at the Rainbow Reach exit, cutting off three hours from our journey and leaving the loop open. Though weary and footsore, I steadfastly refused. I’ll finish this track even if my feet fall off!
We eventually passed from the long-familiar beech forest into scrubbier terrain, with open grassy patches and spindly young mnuka trees. This is the regenerating forest that is slowly replacing the inroads made by the last of the farmers who tried to make a living west of the river.
Yes, I told you we’d eventually get back to this! The last man who attempted to scratch out a living here was John Beer, known as Jack Beer, starting in about 1890. Legend says that he was jilted at the altar and threw his wedding ring into the Waiau (meaning we could have a real Lord of the Rings incident on our hands should someone manage to fish it up).
Jack was a little less ambitious than the previous farmers who had tried to make a great run out of Mount Luxmore. He cut a trail up the mountain to graze his 400 sheep in the summer, and would shear them in the field wherever he could catch them.
Jack died alone in his hut in 1930, at the age of 70 – the newspaper headline read “Lonely Man’s Death”, though only Jack can know if he was truly lonely or not. The last of his now-wild stock animals were hunted to extinction within the decade. Apparently the foundations of his house can still be seen somewhere between here and the control gates, but I was far too focused on simply finishing the track to wander about in search of Jack Beer’s homestead.
Finally we came around the last bend in the Waiau, and spotted the control gate far ahead. Slowly but surely we shuffled closer until at last we reached the spot where we’d started a long, long three days ago.
We paused only for a victory photo…
…and then we limped the final few paces back to our vehicle.
Do I regret this adventure? Not a bit! Now I have proof that I can manage a multi-day walk, even if I do insist on complaining most of the way. And as J.K. Rowling would say, “there are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other [and a Great Walk is one of them]”.
Exulted from our victory over the Kepler, we eagerly discussed our next grand tramp. Greenstone? Routeburn? One thing’s for sure, as long as my friends will have me, I’ll be limping along somewhere behind.
The 1984 Iris Burn slip : a geological appraisal by R Thomson
Kepler Track by Dennis Brett