The next morning we’re set to get another early start. It looks like the weather is going to hold out for us, but we’re not about to risk it by lallygagging. Wendy, Lara, and I have decided to hit the trails together today, though our destinations differ. For Lara and Wendy, today is the last day of the Kepler Track. For me, it’s my second to last day. Wendy and Lara will hike with me to the Moturau Hut, have lunch in the comfort of the hut, then hike the last hour and half to the Rainbow Beach bus stop. Tomorrow, I’ll wake up from Moturau and hike the five hours back to the Kepler Track Car Park.
Since I have much less distance to cover today, I decide to get up before the rest and hike the thirty minutes out to Iris Burn falls. You only hike the Kepler Track once, you know? (Well, hopefully not, I really would love to try Luxmore to Iris Burn with better weather one day, but I digress.) Anyways, with plans to see the falls, I stumble out of the bunk above Lara as quietly as possible (read: not nearly quietly enough), grab my camera(s) and my rain jacket, and slip outside. It’s only 7 a.m. but it’s still half dark outside. I keep my headlamp off in the hopes of seeing some neat birdlife and just strain my eyes in the half-light as I traipse through the cool, humid morning air.
The woods around the hut are absolutely gorgeous. The fairy-tale like woods from yesterday have become even more fantastical since descending from elevation: every inch of spare rock, tree, and earth is carpeted in the softest, greenest moss you’ll ever see. There’s probably a million different types of moss that surround the trail, but to my untrained eye there seems to be two distinct ones: one looks like millions of itty, bitty little ferns all joined together, and the other looks like the fluffiest down (only, you know, greener). I march along solo, enjoying the flashes of brightly colored wings and the wary chirps that accompany them in the canopy above while the remainder of last night’s rain patters softly onto the soft ground underfoot.
Just when I’m starting to wonder if I’ve perhaps overestimated my hiking speed, I realize what I’m hearing isn’t wind through the leaves but the sound of flowing water building with each passing step. Five minutes more and the trail disintegrates abruptly into a minefield of big, slippery stones. Grinning madly, I hop from rock to rock until the falls come into view in their full splendor.
Iris Burn falls are not particularly large, or powerful, or really particularly renowned, but they nevertheless take my breath away. Gleaming white water plummets down the rock face wedged between impenetrable walls of lush green vegetation. The majority of the water (a large portion of which likely dumped on our heads yesterday on our way here) surges across the flat rock face before shooting through the broad channel between an enormous boulder and the edge of the falls before finally landing with a roar in the river below. What remains of the water slips urgently through smaller gaps in the rock face, trickling through algae-coated stone channels until finally tumbling into the frothing surface of the river below. The water at the foot of the falls flows seamlessly into the gurgling river that runs alongside it, creating ripples that lap against the rocks of the shore where I stand.
Riflemen — the smallest birds in New Zealand which are exactly as cute as you might expect — chase each other around the stones in little hops and flaps. Riflemen are an almost perfectly round ball of fluffy green feathers with bright yellow patches beneath their wings and a soft white belly. They have the cutest little chirps and look exactly like the kind of bird you’d expect to see in an enchanted forest such as this. I watch them flit back and forth among the rocks and then nonchalantly check the time. Agh! It’s already 8 o’clock! Turning my attention back towards the falls one last time, I zip my jacket up against the cold and find my way back to the trail.
The light is finally making its way through the canopy to light up the trail, making the trek back faster and even more beautiful than the way in. Though I’m in a bit of a hurry to get back, I can’t help but stop to take some pictures…and to make a friend.
When the ranger gave his safety briefing last night, he also mentioned some of the birdlife in and around the hut. Though I sadly hadn’t seen any kiwis this morning, I did find myself face to face with a cute little South Island robin on my way back to the hut, and couldn’t resist trying out a trick the ranger had mentioned. South Island robins are cute little black birds, about the size of a smartphone, with long black legs and a curious disposition. According to NAME, if you paw at the ground with your foot, step back a few feet, squat down, and stay still, the robins will come down to inspect what it was you were digging for and then, if you’re lucky, come inspect you.
Finding myself staring into the eyes of this famous little creature, I dig at the ground with my foot, step back, squat down, and wait — never taking my eyes off it. Sure enough, it swoops down to the ground from its branch and pecks at the slash I made in the mud. Eying me suspiciously, it takes a big flapping leap until it’s right in front of me — no more than a foot away! Then, hop, up onto the rock to my left so that we’re quite nearly eye to eye. Cocking its head this way and that, it continues to watch me in a confused, suspicious sort of way, as if asking how on earth a bird my size could be so dumb as to think there was something on the ground there. Laughing, I watch it disappear as it hops behind me. I try to turn to sneak a peek at it behind my back, but at this point, it decides it’s had enough of me now, and flies off onto a nearby tree branch. It’s just as well, I figure, since I’m running later by the second.
I get back to the hut and am in luck — Lara and Wendy are just getting ready and I have plenty of time to get packed up and hork down a quick breakfast of (you guessed it!) granola bars. My rain cover is starting to look awfully stressed (read: holey) after yesterday’s escapades, so I don’t bother with it at all today and am even so brave as to hang my camera around my neck as I get dressed for the day. On my walk this morning, I discovered that if I tilt the lens straight down, I can fit my whole DSLR beneath my rain jacket and keep it safe from any lighter drizzles on the trails…it also has the added stylistic benefit of making me look like I’m pregnant with the weirdest baby ever.
We planned to leave at nine and we only wind up being a little bit late — we just couldn’t resist running downstairs to watch the Kea frolic and play with each other on the deck of the hut. Kea, for those of you just now joining us, are the giant alpine parrots native to New Zealand. When I say giant, I mean giant. Though they’re not the largest parrot in New Zealand, they are the largest ones capable of hoisting their hefty masses into the air and in all are about the size of a six-month-old baby or a full-grown French bulldog, depending on your preference. Not only are these birds as smart as your teenage son, they’re also as mischievous. We all had to hang up our boots last night so the Kea couldn’t reach them and those who slept in tents at the campsite by the hut last night had to keep a constant ear out for Keas seeking a good time. The birds are notorious for their love of tearing things completely to shreds. Their sharp beaks can tear through anything — even thick leather hiking boots and enforced metal tent poles.
Eventually, we do set out, and it doesn’t take long for us to run into more of our feathery friends. Two enormous Keas are sitting right in the middle of the path and, upon seeing us, hop closer, eyes bright with mischief. Wendy drops her pack and takes out her phone to take pictures. I’m armed with all my camera equipment on hand, so I keep my pack on as I take out my phone to snap a video of the two birds tussling. It turns out to be a good idea: one Kea waddles slowly up to Wendy’s pack, placing each cautious step like a toddler who knows you’re watching it do something it’s not supposed to.
It waddles forward.
“No…what are you doing…?” Wendy says to it.
It waddles forward.
“Don’t you touch my pack…” Wendy warns.
It waddles forwards, brazen as ever, its friend looking on approvingly. It stretches its neck out slowly towards the pack…
“No!” Wendy shouts, stepping forward indignantly.
The Kea turns and waddles away quickly, not looking even remotely put off, and cackles to its friend, who’s found a stick to gnaw on. The first Kea hops over to it and grabs hold of the other end of the stick. They tug back and forth, chattering playfully, until First Kea decides it’s had enough and jumps onto its friend, knocking it to the ground with a squeal and taking the stick triumphantly. The two tussle some more before separating and returning to eying us and the path separately.
We could stand there and watch them all day but Lara and Wendy have a long day ahead of them, so before the Kea have a chance to inspect Wendy’s bag again, she hoists it back onto her shoulders and we hike on, enjoying seeing the bright scarlet feathers under the Keas’ wings as they flap into the trees on either side of the path to watch us pass.
Not long after our lovely Kea show, the stretch of the magical, lush alpine forest drops off behind us and we exit into a huge open clearing ringed with imposing, cloud-kissed mountains. Every inch of ground is covered in softly swaying gold grass or otherwise taken up by small trees, freshwater streams, and lichen-coated boulders. With the clouds shrouding the mountains we climbed yesterday (some things never change) and the sun just barely battling its way through the clouds, the whole of the world around us is a dream-come-true for little old photography enthusiast me.
In minutes a cycle is established: I lag behind snapping pictures, Lara and Wendy get way ahead, and — despite my encouraging them to please don’t worry about leaving me in the dust — they’re angels so they wait for me anyways.
Sadly, our gorgeous trek through the valley doesn’t last forever, and in no time we’re back in the dense, mossy forest so common to this region. It, of course, is not nearly as dramatic and impressive as our views yesterday, but with the light falling softly on the endless expanse of soft, fluffy green moss and ferns so green they practically glow, I’m not about to complain.
I’m enjoying myself so much, in fact, that as we traipse along, I mention that maybe — since we’re making good time and will likely arrive at Moturau quite early — I might just hike all the way back here to see that grassy, valley area again. Wendy finds this both shocking and hilariously unlikely, but I’m feeling pretty smug about my hiking abilities and stamina (after all, I feel great right now…albeit one hour into the hike) so I shrug and smirk and stick to my guns.
The further we trek into the same glowing green forests, the more I start to change my mind about adding 30 km onto my day today. It’s all gorgeous, of course, and I don’t bring it back up to Wendy and Lara, but internally, my afternoon hike keeps getting shorter and shorter.
Oh, this is beautiful! Maybe I’ll just hike back to here later…
Hmm, okay, so this will be where I hike back to. This is a neat place to revisit.
Yikes, my right ankle isn’t doing so hot…or my knees. That hike yesterday was brutal. Maybe I’ll just hike back to here later.
Elevation gain? Wasn’t today supposed to be flat? Well…a little bit won’t be so bad to hike twice more.
…okay this is kind of a lot of elevation gain to do twice more in my current state of exhaustion…and I’m not sure how interesting this forest will stay if I hike through it twice more…hmm…
Ooooh, but look at this river! This is gorgeous! I’ll hike back to here, yeah.
Wow…how much further to the hut…?
When we’re about an hour out from the hut, we stop for lunch at a little emergency shelter near a riverside meadow (ooh okay, maybe this is where I can hike back to…). The river is beautiful and the picnic table are quite comfortable, but the sand flies? Not so much. Wendy — forever my savior — has bug spray and I douse myself heavily in it before plopping down on the bench to kill some granola bars.
Before long, we’re joined by a pair of fellow hikers and some old friends of mine…
…the famous Kepler mice.
The cute little guys are just as ravenous, it seems, as they were the first night I met them (and by “met them” I mean probably accidentally touched them in my panicked, half-asleep attempts to scare them away three nights ago). They scurry right up to us and our packs, eager to try to snag a bite of granola bar…or plastic wrapper…or perhaps more of my tent. They’re awfully adorable, and I don’t if that makes me angrier at them for chewing a hole in my tent and half my food items, or if it makes me less angry.
The sand flies are getting unbearable, even with the bug spray, so once our hunger and thirst are reasonably satiated, we shoulder our packs and hit the road again. Most of the rest of the trail carves through the same verdant, moss-blanketed woods, but lucky for us, about halfway to our final destination, we start to come across some pretty gorgeous breaks in the monotony of moss-painted boulders and towering beech trees.
We trek on, slowly but surely reaching the usual state of, “How are we not there yet?” that plagued the last few kilometers of forest hiking yesterday, too. We make a turn through the trees though, and there, shimmering stoically before us, is Lake Manapouri.
“Finally!” Lara says. “Something interesting!”
Wendy and I laugh and shake our heads and I step off to the side of the track to take pictures. At this rate, with us undoubtedly quite close to the hut, Lara and Wendy press on. Though even I’m starting to feel ready to kick my feet up and relax for a little while, I’m glad I decided to stop (again). In classic New Zealand style, we’ve been blessed with another rainbow.
I follow what remains of the track to Moturau and, finally, the trees fall away and I find myself in a clearing with the Hut off to the left and the lake off to the right. Feeling relieved (I hate to sound like a grumpy old man, but my knees and ankle were really starting to cause some problems…), I turn to trudge up to the hut, but am distracted by the sight of three of our fellow hikers sprinting all out towards the water, stripping off items of clothing as they go. Laughing, I follow them down to the water — I’m looking forward to them realizing exactly how cold that water is.
Sure enough, it’s frigid. Expletives in an exciting number of languages float above the idyllic mountain-ringed lake as I snap pictures, laughing as they hobble out of the lake looking…erm…refreshed?
“Come in and swim!” Harry shouts, shaking and convulsing from the cold.
“Tempting!” I call out, laughing. “But no thanks…”
Realizing that I’m still (rather unnecessarily) carrying my 30-pound pack, I head up to the hut, drop my stuff, and change, then break out my truly heinous Kiwi peanut butter and dig into another PB-and-chocolate tortilla wrap.
The rest of the afternoon passes in a happy blur of snacks, chats by the fire, and jokes about how I seriously thought I was going to hike all the way back to Iris Burn, just for fun (in my defense, I might have done it if the track had a greater diversity of sights for its second half…maybe…). Around three o’clock, Wendy and Lara have to hit the road so they can make it to Rainbow Beach in time for their five o’clock shuttle back to town. We all trade numbers and Facebook names and then they hit the road. It’s a sad goodbye, but we all promise to stay in touch.
Something tells me that, knowing us and our crazy thirst for adventure, we just might.
As night falls and the hut starts to fill up, I head back down to the lake to take pictures of the sunset and reflect on what has been a truly spectacular past four days. The sun is setting behind the clouds behind the hut, so while there’s no dramatic display of light on the horizon as I walk down to the lake’s edge, the fading light mixed with the silken, low-lying clouds that hug the mountains makes for a pretty spectacular sight.
I feel like no matter how much time I spend in this country, it never fails to take my breath away. After snapping pictures along the shore, I climb up onto some rocks off to the left-hand side of the beach and stand for a while, just taking it all in and thinking about life.
I’m sure I’m beginning to sound like the sappiest person on earth, but I can’t help it: standing there in front of this spectacular panorama of water and woods and sky, I get emotional…again. I just can’t believe I’m here, seriously here…in New Zealand, hiking and backpacking and making new friends. This was a big leap of faith for me, coming here alone, and it has paid off unimaginably well. As hairy as life can get — and it has had its moments of horrifying hairiness, even for me with my largely perfect, hugely privileged life — it can be so extraordinary, too.
I stare out at the shimmering reflection of the sky on the lake, blinking back tears and think, You know what…life is beautiful. Maybe not always, maybe not everywhere, but for those who grin and bear through the pain, who search and strive to find these moments of awe and wonder, life truly is beautiful.
And with that, my Birkenstock-clad feet slip out from underneath me on the slick, lake-lathered rocks and I fall, BANG! onto the…well…rock-solid boulder face.
You can’t write this shit. Perfectly on cue, while I was delivering a deep, cheesy, philosophical monologue to myself about life and how perfect and beautiful it is if you just “grin and bear” the pain, I fall on my ass and experience the most excruciating pain I’ve felt since the last time I concussed myself.
Like I said…you can’t write this shit.
Luckily, in the split second I was in the air, I instinctively thought to protect my camera and managed to grab it and hug it close to my chest as I fell, meaning my right elbow, left wrist, and tailbone bore the brunt of my weight. The first thing I can think when I hit the ground, besides Ow! is how hilarious this is and how I kind of (totally) deserved that. Simultaneously laughing and rocking back and forth in sheer agony, I sit for awhile there on the boulder writhing in pain before the initial shock and torture subsides and I hoist myself (carefully) back onto my feet and assess the damage. My tailbone aches dully and my elbow burns like a mother, but I don’t seem to have torn any of my clothes (woot!) and there’s no blood I can see coming through my shirt (and even if it does, my shirt’s pink, so it might not even stain…score!).
My left wrist, however, isn’t looking so good. There’s a pretty deep puncture hole just above my wrist bone and a latticework of scrapes zig-zags across the base of my hand. Sighing, I shake off some of the small pebbles and decide it’ll probably be fine — I have bandaids back in the hut and some antibiotic cream I can put on it. I’m still getting waves of pain rolling in, but it’s all so funny I can’t help but laugh at myself. Doing the only thing I can think to in this moment, I hold my hand up in front of my camera and snap a picture.
Then it hits me: I’m literally grinning and bearing it.
And you know what? It turned out to be quite beautiful, indeed.