FIORD­LAND

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RJus­tine Ty­er­man learns to love snakes on the Ke­pler Track.

anger Robbie mea­sures the wind at the top of the Ke­pler Track based on the re­ports of trau­ma­tised tram­pers as they stum­ble into the Iris Burn Hut in vary­ing states of shock and re­lief. If the gusts are so strong, tram­pers have had to crawl along the ridge on hands and knees, Robbie es­ti­mates the wind at 90kmh, or if they have lain down on the track for fear of blow­ing away, he reck­ons 100kmh or so. We only roped our­selves to­gether, lost a pack cover over the edge and stag­gered from one war­ratah track marker to the next, so the gusts were prob­a­bly a mere 70 or 80kmh. Dur­ing our five hours on the bru­tally-ex­posed ridge with drop-offs on both sides, the warn­ing from Ranger Fay the pre­vi­ous night at the Lux­more Hut kept forc­ing its way through more pleas­ant thoughts about who to throt­tle for choos­ing this tramp in the first place. ‘‘Plant your feet firmly,’’ Fay said, af­ter telling us about a young chap who had been blown clean off the ridge a few days ear­lier. The 18-year-old had both feet off the ground at once, ap­par­ently run­ning or jump­ing, when a wind gust threw him on to rocks be­low the track. He suf­fered se­vere lac­er­a­tions and had to be he­li­coptered out . . . but he was no doubt count­ing his bless­ings that he did not end up in a free fall to Lake Te Anau 1400 me­tres be­low. So I mas­tered a new shuf­fle-style of tramp­ing which in­volved keep­ing both boots in contact with terra firma at all times. This made progress rather slow but en­sured I did not get air­borne. To keep me plod­ding — or shuffling on — in such grim con­di­tions, my hus­band dan­gled snake lol­lies just be­yond my reach. It worked! I toyed with thoughts of turn­ing back but my tramp­ing mates man­aged to con­vince me it was all a grand ad­ven­ture . . . and those snakes were pretty damn good. Amid the swirling mist and hor­i­zon­tal rain which stung any skin left ex­posed, there were tan­ta­lis­ing glimpses of alpine cirques left by an­cient glaciers; foamy

water­falls tum­bling off sheer cliffs; deep, steep-sided fiords, and quite in­con­gru­ously, the oc­ca­sional bril­liant rainbow. We were sadly de­nied the ul­ti­mate tram­pers’ re­ward for two days’ trudg­ing up­hill — a stun­ning alpine panorama of Mt Lux­more, and lakes Te Anau and Manapouri — but af­ter all, this was Fiord­land where wind and rain reign. The des­cent was as long, steep and ar­du­ous as the as­cent with steps fol­lowed by 97 tight zigzags which turned al­ready tired legs to jelly. But once safely be­low the bush line, we had the shel­ter of the tall, mossy for­est to pro­tect us from the el­e­ments and we could push back our jacket hoods and re­gain pe­riph­eral vi­sion. A near-de­mented soul fi­nally called out ‘‘Hut ahoy’’ as the Iris Burn Hut ap­peared like a beau­ti­ful mi­rage in an oa­sis of beech trees. Down­ing our packs, strip­ping off wet weather gear, dry­ing our­selves by the roar­ing pot belly fire and eat­ing our de­hy­drated pasta with chopped up chorizo made us deliri­ous with joy which raises some se­ri­ous ques­tions about the san­ity of those hooked on this tramp­ing thing. The evening passed com­pan­ion­ably with tall sto­ries about the force of the wind, eru­dite de­bates about the rel­a­tive mer­its of merino, Gor­tex and polyprops, and ex­am­in­ing the weight and type of food peo­ple were car­ry­ing. It’s hard to ex­plain but wrestling all day with the el­e­ments and push­ing one’s phys­i­cal lim­its seem to strip life down to sim­ple but sweet plea­sures — food, shel­ter, dry clothes, good com­pany . . . and a smug sense of achieve­ment. The last two days were a gen­tle am­ble down­hill in warm dap­pled sun­shine through beech for­est along­side the pretty Iris Burn stream. Our packs, now lighter due to the food we had con­sumed, grew heav­ier again as we peeled off lay­ers of clothes. A breath­tak­ing sun­set over Lake Manapouri on our fi­nal night

al­most made up for the spec­tac­u­lar views we missed on the Ke­pler ridge. The evening was mild and long — so armed with Fiord­land-strength in­sect re­pel­lent, we ate the last of our sup­plies by a mir­ror lake as the fad­ing light turned the lay­ers of moun­tain ranges into card­board cut-outs and the sil­ver-gold path­way of the set­ting sun grad­u­ally shrank to noth­ing. Bliss...

• The Ke­pler Track, like the moun­tains it tra­verses, is named af­ter 17th Cen­tury Ger­man as­tronomer, Jo­hannes Ke­pler. It is a 62km three-to-four day loop track from Lake Te Anau over Mt Lux­more to Lake Manapouri and back to Te Anau. One of nine Great Walks of New Zealand, the Ke­pler was opened in 1988 to take the pres­sure off the hugely-pop­u­lar Mil­ford and Route­burn tracks. How­ever, as tramp­ing fever takes hold and the quest for more re­mote ex­pe­ri­ences in­creases, the Ke­pler’s bunks are fill­ing fast... be in!

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