One of New Zealand’s “Great Walks,” the Kepler Track is a 36-mile loop that takes you 4,000 feet up into the mountains of the Fiordland National Park. Hikers typically complete the track in three or four days, but my goal is to finish it in two — while enjoying the beech forests and alpine grasslands in an area that’s been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
To be sure, a two-day circuit of the Kepler is nothing special by ultra-running standards. Winners of the Kepler Challenge trail race complete the 36-mile loop in under 5 hours. In days gone by I might have raced the Kepler Track in 7 or 8 hours, or perhaps I’d have run it for fun over the course of a full day. But over the last year I’ve managed to strain a tendon in my left ankle, and accordingly two back-to-back 18-milers will be plenty. In fact, this will be a good test to see if the ankle is ready for some long-distance hiking goals I’ve got planned for later this spring. Regardless, the Kepler Track should make for a beautiful hike and a memorable experience — provided it doesn’t make the ankle any worse…
As I gather my gear together the day before, the sore ankle is the biggest factor on my mind, but there are other issues to contend with, too. Ten days ago during a barefoot run in the park, I got a splinter in the ball of my right foot, but it was too small (almost invisible) to pluck out with a pair of tweezers. I considered seeking professional assistance, but the splinter was barely noticeable, and I worried that an unskilled clinician might make things worse. And so far in New Zealand I’ve hiked thirty-five miles already without any problems.
But now I find myself limping around, the spot on my foot having suddenly become tender and slightly swollen. This isn’t the best way to start a 36-mile trek, so I look around in the small tourist village of Te Anau for the medical clinic, and this being Sunday, it’s open for a short time in the afternoon. After a thirty-minute wait, a doctor named Paula is fishing around in my foot with a needle, while we talk about New Zealand’s barefoot culture — when a moment later a tiny sliver of glass pops out of her tweezers and disappears somewhere on the floor. I’m sent on my way with a band-aid and good luck wishes for the Kepler, which Dr. Paula’s hiked twice.
Well, that’s one bullet dodged, but the next complication is the weather, with the forecast now calling for heavy rain. The prevailing westerly winds and steep coastal mountains make Fiordland one of the wettest places in the world, with an average of 200 rainy days and 7 meters of total rainfall per year. After studying the map, I decide to hike the Kepler clockwise, which is counter to the direction described in the tourist brochure, but my reasoning is I’ll get in a long forest walk in the rain, saving the alpine vistas for the next day, which looks to be nicer.
The next morning I don wool underwear and rain paints, and now feeling ready for anything, grab my small pack and head off into the southern beech forest, following an immaculate groomed footpath which starts out a little gravely but soon turns into smooth dirt carpeted with tiny beech leaves. I resist the urge to take off my sandals, however, wanting to knock off some of those eighteen miles at a speedier pace.
The morning is cool, overcast, and a little misty. The trail heads west along the banks of the Waiau river and then follows the shore of Lake Manapouri before rising up into the foothills. Each step further west brings me deeper into the coastal mountains, and gradually the mist turns into a light rain.
I march deeper into the forest, admiring the ever-changing patterns of lichens and mosses covering trees, rocks and forest floor. At first glance, the lichens resemble familiar New York species, although somewhat larger and more luxuriant. Large green folds sprout from the trees: these are foliose (leafy) lichens like the Common Greenshield or Lungwort lichens in New York, but upon closer inspection they’re covered with large colored dots (apothecia, which release spores), or the backsides are bright yellow — very different from back home.
The first day goes smoothly, and after eighteen miles of steady walking, I arrive at the Iris Burns hut and claim a bunk. It’s raining heavily now, and from the covered porch where I’m sipping a cup of tea and talking with a New Zealand couple, we can see four separate waterfalls streaming off sheer mountain cliffs off in the distance, the torrents dissolving into mist long before reaching the valley flats. I’m feeling good: 18 miles is as long a distance as I’ve covered in almost a year. The ankle feels a little sensitive to the touch, so I tape it up firmly, giving it as much extra support as possible.
The next morning I skip breakfast and head off at the crack of dawn. The trail follows a series of switch-backs, rising 4,000 feet into the heart of the Kepler Mountains, and I take it nice and easy, as climbing puts extra stress on the sore tendon. After an hour of steady progress, the beech forest drops away and the trail emerges onto the crest of a grassy knife-edged ridge, with steep slopes dropping off to either side.
What a remarkable landscape. Huge mountains in all directions, some shrouded in clouds, some glowing dull green through the mist. The trail dances along the ridge crest to the west, then loops around to the east, where a glacial lake is visible down below in the folds. The scale is so vast: it feels like walking along the walls of a giant fortress, only the battlements are thousands of feet tall and several miles long.
The plants in this alpine zone are beautiful: all sorts of grasses heaped up in big tussocks, intricate patterns of cushion moss, delicate flowers with blue-green leaves, a small bush bristling like a pineapple – all mysterious and unfamiliar, as rare and interesting a gathering of “plant people” (as John Muir might’ve called them) as I’ve seen. It would be worth the time to get to know their names and stories, just not today. Today’s mission is to finish off the Kepler Track, without antagonizing the ankle.
The trail is a little rockier on the northern side of the track, and the 4,000-foot descent takes a long time. Lake Te Anau comes into view, with the tourist center nestled on the far shore, and behind it endless farmlands fringed with low hills. Then the trail drops back into beech forest. The ankle is feeling sore.
The last few miles of the Kepler Track hug the shore of Lake Te Anau. It’s a calm, sunny, mild afternoon. Waves are washing in quietly along a sandy beach. It would be a nice spot to take a break and relax, but the ankle is really hurting now. I’m straining to engage core muscles, focusing on proper alignment, trying to keep stress off the sore tendon. But the ankle is clearly unhappy, and I limp in the last three miles feeling very frustrated.
Mission complete…but the last three miles get coded in my training log as “red” (injury), which is not good. The test is a failure: I’m not ready for the longer-distance hiking trips contemplated for later this spring, which means goals have to be recast. The prognosis for the ankle seems unclear. I’m not happy.
Next up was to be the Routeburn Track, another “Great Walk,” but now I consider scrapping the rest of the trip and returning home early – what’s the point of hanging out in New Zealand if I can’t hike in the mountains? But I hold off from packing my bags, instead, taking a rest day. And the day after, I decide, will be an experiment: I’ll return to that section of the Kepler Trail along the river where the path is nice and smooth, the perfect place for an easy-paced barefoot stroll, and we’ll see how the ankle holds up, even if for only a mile or two.
After moping around town for the rest day, I return to the trail, and it’s a lovely day: mild, clear, warm. I stroll along for a few minutes, then pull up along the bank of the Waiau river, listen to the water murmur, and peer off into the distance. By the time the day’s over, I’ve covered ten miles. The ankle seems OK. The Routeburn Track is a “go” after all, I decide, although with lower daily mileage.
At one point during the stroll, I was moving pretty slowly on account of some gravel on the path, when a hiker overtook me, but so quietly I didn’t hear her approaching from behind. As she passed me I saw with surprise she was hiking barefoot, too. She strode down the trail at a really fast pace, scattering gravel with her heels, and disappeared around a bend. I just stood and stared.