Kepler Track: Thirst for Adventure

Well, it’s not that I had a bad sleep last night…okay actually yeah, it was awful. Though the weather stayed mostly civil overnight, I spent the night switching between hiding in my sleeping bag from the deranged moth that somehow got into my tent and sitting bolt-upright at the slightest sounds to spastically pat the sides of my tent to scare away all the mice that I was obviously hearing (yeah, even while I was doing it I realized how dumb it was).

 

When the sun finally rises, I’m relieved. I sit up, stretch, and look sleepily around my tent. I smile and laugh at myself for my frantic efforts to scare mice last night — my pack looks completely untouched. I have no idea what time it is, thanks to my phone being dead, but with a quick peek outside the tent, I realize the other campers are gone. I should probably get going sooner rather than later. I zip open my pack, figuring breakfast is a good place to start. Immediately, I notice something fall onto the floor of the tent that I really hope is a dead sandfly but looks a lot like a mouse turd. I dig cautiously through my pack then look at the tent wall just behind it .

 

Yep. Those are mouse turds and that, is a small, mouse shaped hole.

 

After last night, I am fresh out of useless tears so I unpack my breakfast items and assess the damage: there’s a hole in every food item I have except my big plastic jar of peanut butter. Sigh. These little critters have decimated three of my granola bars, gnawed the top, lefthand corner of every single one of my tortillas, and bitten a hole in my bag of chocolate buttons (thankfully, they’ve only nibbled on a sole chocolate button). I tear off the mouse-bits of my tortillas and toss them into my garbage bag along with the nibbled on chocolate button and the poor ravaged granola bars and make myself a breakfast peanut butter and chocolate wrap. To wash down my peanut butter heavy meal, I sip the last drops of water from my otherwise empty CamelPak. Sigh.

 

There’s nowhere to go now, I think, but up..both literally and metaphorically, so I pack up, shoulder my pack, and hit the trail. The trail starts off with the same gorgeous alpine forest and flat path as yesterday afternoon and, despite my building thirst, I’m loving it. The weather is perfect, with the sun filtering through the trees in big, warm blocks and the wind tussling the leaves of the ferns that line the path. It doesn’t take long for the path to start winding its way uphill. The incline is steep but I’m so ready for water that I am in the zone, and within minutes pass the only other two people on the trail, walking about double their pace, even with me stopping every so often for (you guessed it) pictures.

 

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After what I estimate to be two hours of steep elevation gain, hotter than expected weather, and quite a bit of thirstiness, I decide to take a break. I plop down on a moss coated tree stump by the path and grab a granola bar. I’m desperately thirsty at this point and my initial determined energy is fading fast. I’m trying to be a trooper and just grin and bear it, but I’m really not enjoying this at all. The only thing I can think about is how thirsty I am and how I would totally be that moron on the lifeboat who dies first from being unable to resist drinking the seawater. Oh yeah, and guess who decides to pay me a visit right in this break spent wallowing in self-pity? That conniving bitch Mother Nature with my monthly gift.

 

Sigh.

 

I hide in some ferns off the track and get my unfortunate gal-problems under control and then hoist my pack again and trudge on, much slower and grumpier than a few hours ago. During my break, the two girls I’d passed earlier on had passed me but it doesn’t take me long to catch back up to them. We’d chatted earlier when they’d passed me, but I was so absorbed in my stress and self-pity that I hadn’t been much up for conversation. Now that I’ve run into them on the track again, chatting with another family, I stick with them as they hike up the mountain.

 

Their names are Lara and Lisa, and they’re both backpackers from the Netherlands, here to explore New Zealand for a few weeks as part of a worldwide journey. They’d met a few weeks back during their travels elsewhere in the country and it’s today, actaully, that they’re parting ways. Lisa is just hiking up to the first hut on the track and then will head back down the mountain, spend a few days in the Fiordlands, and then head to North Island to continue her travels. Lara, however, carries a pack as I do and will be doing the whole Kepler Track. Stoked at the prospect of a hiking buddy for the whole of the trip, I join in the conversation, for which they’ve so graciously switched to English as we trek through the endless expanse of trees and ferns and moss and rocks. They ask me where I’ve come from and I explain my situation: American, from Florida / Los Angeles, studying in Brisbane, here for the Kepler Track, spent the night in Brod Bay last night, had a run-in with some mice, haven’t had water in 16 hours…

 

“What? You don’t have any water?? Do you want some?” they ask.

 

“Oh my gosh, are you sure? I don’t want to take your water…” I say, even though it’s a complete lie and I would trade my left arm for water.

 

Lisa waves off my sputtering attempts at politeness and pours half her water bottle’s contents into my empty Nalgene.

 

“Wow, oh my goodness. Thank you so so much. You are an absolutel hero –” I start, then down the whole thing. “You are a godsend. Seriously, thank you so much. Wow, I feel so much better.” They laugh, shrugging it off and say they’re happy they could help. I know I sound dramatic, but seriously — I’m sure I would have made it up the mountain without water, but my misery would have continued at an alarming rate without these two perfect, selfless human beings.

 

After more profuse gratitude from me, we make our way up the track until we finally reach the halfway point of the trail: a block of imposing cliff faces that overlook our first glimpse of the view from the peak of the Kepler Track’s first section. Feeling renewed by what may have been the best tasting cup of water I’ve ever had, I’m back to my old self. Meaning…

 

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…lots and lots of photos.

 

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My heroes: Lara (left) and Lisa (right)

 

The cliffs are impressive and the trees are beautiful as ever, but all three of us are starting to get sick of the same endless switchbacks of alpine forest. Luckily, just an hour or so later, we meet a runner making her way down the track. She takes a quick breather to chat with us and tells us we’re nearly to the hut and, more importantly, a change of scenery. “When you get to the clearing,” she warns us, “Make sure to put on some extra jackets before leaving the woods. It gets pretty cold and windy up there.” We thank her but as we hit the trail again, I notice I’m the only one who seems stoked to hear the news. It doesn’t take long for me to figure out why: as we walk away, Lara asks what a “clearing” is. I give a brief explanation and sure enough, she and Lisa share my excitement. We hike on, eager to reach the peak and within half an hour, we reach it.

 

The trees fall away behind us as suddenly as if we’d stepped through a doorway. Before us stretches a rolling stretch of sprawling red tussock grass. Our runner friend wasn’t exaggerating, though, the grass whips furiously in the wind, clinging desperately to the rocky landscape of the moutnaintop.  

 

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We layer up, snap a few quick pictures, and head up the sloping path. Within minutes we round the top of the hill and find ourselves on top of the world.

 

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All worries, all stress, all thirst, disappears from my mind. All I can think about is how unbelievably spectacular this is. The fiord below shimmers softly while clouds snake around the mountains that frame the water on all sides. Behind us, the forest drops off into gleaming green farmland while above, fluffy white clouds chop the sun into slates of light that drop like lead onto the swaying landscape that surrounds us.

 

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We spend a while taking all sorts of pictures from all sorts of different angles, as amateur adventurers such as ourselves are wont to do.

 

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Eventually, though, we recognize the fact that we should probably get going so that Lisa can relax and eat lunch at the hut with us and still make it back down the mountain again before dark. We march on and are surprised to realize that the hut has been just right around the bend in the trail this whole time.

 

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~the bend~

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Waaaaaaterrrrrrr!

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Our greeter: a cheeky lil’ alpine parrot (or kea)

 

We stroll down to the hut and, despite my awe at how beautiful the hut is, I have a mission. I run to the bathroom first then, finally, at long last, fill my Nalgene all the way up to the brim and chug the entire thing in about a minute flat.

 

Best brain freeze I’ve ever had.

 

Lara and I pick out our bunks and dump our stuff and then we all make ourselves lunch and sit back to enjoy the view for awhile. It’s only two o’clock, so we have plenty of time left in the day. Lara and I are contemplating taking a side trip to the Luxmore Caves and/or to Luxmore Peak, both supposedly just half an hour return from the hut. After my luxurious lunch of granola bars, I’m feeling hyped to head out for the side trips, since it’s still so early.

 

Sadly, Lisa has to leave us. It’s getting late and it’ll be at least four hours to hike out. After a surprisingly emotional goodbye (she did save me from a slow and painful death by dehydration…) she heads back down the trail towards Brod Bay and Lara and I grab our cameras and lights and head for Luxmore Caves, the closer of the two side trips.

 

The walk up to the caves is very quick and beautiful as ever. When we get to the caves, I get seriously excited — the entrance to the cave is a steep wooden staircase that descends into a moss- and fern-shrouded pit of darkness.

 

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I wish I’d brought my Indiana Jones Hat…

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We stomp our way down the staircase and turn our lights on. The information brochures and the signs at the hut had encouraged us to bring two light sources each, but with my phone dead, all I have is my headlamp and Lara just brought her phone. Luckily, my headlamp does the trick and as we tiptoe carefully along the slick stone floor of the cave. Stalactites hang from the ceilings like slick, rocky drapery while we slip and slide our way around what would be stalagmites, if it weren’t for the small stream that flows through the center of the cavern. We inch our way forward, bit by bit, being careful not to slip and fall. Feeling a reasonable lack of confidence in my ability to stay upright, about halfway down the cave, I set down my camera on a rock — out of the way of the dripping stalactites — for safe keeping before continuing on.

 

“I can never remember the difference between stalactites and stalagmites…” I say, eyeing the bulbous mass of mineral deposits seeping slowly before our eyes.

 

“Ah,” Lara says. “It’s easy for me, because in Dutch the word for, like, big hanging breasts is tiet and they hang down [she motions with her hands] like that so…”

 

I may have just turned 21, but I’m still about as mature as a ten-year-old boy, and I spend the rest of our trek into the cave snickering about this and the fact that I’ll now forever remember the difference between two geological structures because of a boob joke…things are really starting to look up on this trip.

 

After maybe trekking twenty to thirty meters into the cave, we reach a chunk of stalactites that hang so low, we’d have to kneel down into the stream to pass. Patting ourselves on the back for a cave well explored, we turn back and make for the blotch of light in the distance, slipping and sliding like cartoon characters on ice.

 

I only snapped a few pictures on the way into the cave, but in the interest of not shredding through my limited battery power for the trip (plus the fact that I’ve already held Lara up quite a bit in the half a day I’ve known her with my unending barrage of picture stops), I resist the urge to take more (likely identical) shots of the landscape as we exit the caves and head back to Luxmore Hut.

 

In a snap decision, we decide to try to make for Luxmore Summit, too, before the ominous-looking rainclouds in the distance hit our side of the mountain. Grabbing rain jackets, we set out, realizing early on that it’s not, in fact, a half-hour trip from the hut, but rather a half-hour trip from the trail…an hour away. We keep going nonetheless, enjoying the views as we huff and puff our way up the steep incline that twists its way up the mountain behind the hut.

 

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Within thirty minutes, we start seeing raindrops fall splat onto our jackets and (eep!) my camera. We stop to deliberate what we should do. On one hand, we really want to see the summit (especially since the weather report for tomorrow isn’t looking so good…), but as is, I have my camera stuffed into my armpit in a — largely worthless — attempt to shield it from the increasingly persistent drizzle. In the end, we decide to turn back towards the hut — the clouds in the distance do look quite sinister and I’m pretty worried about my camera.

 

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Just a ~tad~ ominous looking

 

As we get back down to Luxmore Hut, we feel we’ve made the right decision. We run into Pat, the ranger on sight, and he expresses his relief to see us back so soon. When he saw us heading out a little under an hour ago he says he crossed his fingers we’d turn back — that storm we saw? Should be several inches of rain and 100 kph winds.

 

Yep. Definitely the right decision.

 

We’ve only been gone from the hut for about an hour, but in that time it’s come alive with energy. Nearly every one of the 55 people who are staying the night at Luxmore have arrived and the main kitchen / lounge area is alive with activity. A fire blazes in the ancient wood heater by the door and people are hard at work making tea and mid-afternoon snacks in the kitchen. Lara and I join the ruckus and quickly make friends: Wendy, a Canadian Veterinary Nurse and travel aficionado; Carol and Nate, a pair of old university friends (also from Canada); and Cami and Thomas, a French couple from Paris. Wendy turns out to be my savior on this trip within about five seconds flat: she lends me her backup charger so I can charge my phone for photos / videos tomorrow and lends me her cooking pot for my delicious instant rice dinner after I nearly set my cheap camping mug on fire (I guess K-Mart isn’t the best place to buy camp gear). Nate lends me some duct tape to patch up my tent and so, by the end of the night, it’s like the panics of last night are nothing but a distant memory.

 

We spend the night eating and chatting by the fire and then all move into the kitchen to play cards (oh yeah, ya better believe ya gurl came in dead last) until the solar lights run out of stored power and shut off for the night. Even then, we stay up for awhile talking until one-by-one the fatigue sets in and we trudge off to bed.

 

I try to read a little bit before bed, but in the end, I can’t stay awake for much longer than ten minutes and crash hard before 10:30pm. It’s for the best, arguably. Pat told us the rather frightening night of storms tonight should clear up by late tomorrow morning, but by the sound of the rain lashing the sides of the hut and the wind howling outside the doors, I’m going to need all the rest I can get for tomorrow.

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