Fall guy finds his feet on NZ's glorious Kepler Track
I WAS almost 1500m high on my first ever multi-day hike and I had a serious wind problem.
And not the sort I'd overheard others experiencing in our bunk room the night before.
A 100km gust had just swept me off my feet and crashed me to the rocky ground on the most elevated section of New Zealand's Kepler Track.
It felt like I'd been hit by one of my host country's world-famous All Blacks rugby gladiators.
As I gazed up from the razorback ridge at the stormy skies above, life had looked better, and I had the moment of reflection I knew would come on my inaugural venture into the world of serious hiking.
My body and pride were equally bruised and when faced with such adversity we have two choices - retreat to safety or embrace the challenge.
I took a deep breath and chose the latter, and I'm so glad I did.
Completing the 60km four-day/three-night Kepler walk was quite likely the greatest physical achievement of my life.
I'd trained reasonably consistently in the lead-up to the Kepler with regular half-day hikes and twice-weekly 50km bike rides, but the lycra and lattes didn't really prepare my legs for the challenge of transporting both me and my 15kg pack up and into the clouds.
As the only novice among our walking group of seven, there had been pre-departure talk of my potential to be "the weakest link" and I believe it was a mixture of pride and fear of failure that helped propel me forward when the going got tough.
It also helped that the amazing scenery along the way quickly has your mind turning away from thoughts of the enduring physical battle, and instead you're energised by the colours and smells of the lush South Island native forest.
At times the forest floor resembles a plush carpet where it seems every shade of green is utilised by the mosses, ferns and lichens inter-woven with other colourful plant life.
And when it's not the flora taking away whatever breath is left in your lungs, it's the dainty little waterfalls cascading off the rugged hillsides and tumbling gracefully into space.
Some say that "blue and green should never be seen", but along the trail a variety of azure trickling streams blend perfectly with the myrtle-coloured beech forest growth.
While I'm rolling out the quotes, I'll also highlight that "pain is temporary", but the special sights experienced along this four-day walk will live in the mind forever.
Those memories begin forming the moment you step on to the track on the shores of the vast Lake Te Anau.
Leaving the lake behind as you head inland, there's no gentle easing into the ascent, with the climbing beginning almost immediately.
But the reality is that when planning your assault on the Kepler, the challenges begin much earlier than those first bold steps along the undulating trail.
While the hike itself is undoubtedly arduous, it's testing enough simply securing hut bookings for the three nights. On the day the bookings open, you need to be logged on to the website early and be poised over the keyboard to snatch up beds the moment the process goes live.
It's akin to getting tickets to an Ed Sheeran concert. Hesitate for a minute and it's likely to be sold out.
(Eds' note: Bookings open on June 13 for the Great Walks season from Oct 29, 2019 - Apr 30, 2020. Visit doc.govt.nz for full details)
As a complete newcomer to the world of multi-day hiking, I quickly discovered there's actually a lot of planning required to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.
For me it began with equipment selection. Guru-like hiking friends emphasised the importance of having the right gear, so after several visits to the local outdoor adventure stores, I at least looked the part.
Nancy Sinatra was clearly a hiking advocate as she sang about the importance of having boots made for walking.
Trust me, no one wants to be climbing rocky peaks in boots made for anything else, and I'm grateful I took the advice offered and chose the sturdy ankle-high and waterproof variety.
The pack is probably the most important piece of equipment of all and my emphasis on colour-coordination was immediately highlighted by my gurus as a flawed selection approach. Apparently, my long torso meant I should instead be concentrating on the appropriate style to cater for that physical feature.
I'm pleased to say I was eventually able to cover all bases, so still ended up with quite possibly the most visually alluring pack on the trail, with its little map of New Zealand logo just the icing on the cake.
It's a given that you'll burn through the calories on a four-day hike, so planning for the re-fuelling process holds significant importance.
Unsurprisingly, there's no cute cafes or craft beer bars along the track, although I did note numerous ideal locations for pop-up coffee carts. #ideasman
The complete absence of fast food venues means dietary requirements for the duration need to be calculated and loaded into your pack before departing on Day 1.
With weight a key consideration, dried food is a staple on the menu and despite its initial resemblance to something you'd serve up to the family moggy, I was pleasantly surprised that the addition of a little boiling water returned it to something close to its former glory.
But to be honest (and with no intended disrespect to my hard-working partner responsible for our culinary creations), after 15km or so of strenuous hiking up and down mountainous trails, anything even slightly resembling solid food takes on MasterChef-like qualities.
When it comes to holiday accommodation, I'll readily admit I'm traditionally the kind of guy who enjoys a little room service and the occasional spa.
I understand that down pillows and king-sized beds aren't the norm when it comes to hut life.
But pre-hike banter highlighting the possibility of long drops and enforced bedtime spooning involving hirsute international backpackers with questionable hygiene had me a little worried.
I needn't have been concerned. The three huts on the Kepler all have flushing toilets, and while the prospect of sharing a sleeping bench with fellow hikers is indeed real, I was so tired each night that I'm pretty sure I would have gone out like a light even if faced with a bed of nails.
The rhythmic sounds of the inevitable snoring from unknown bunkmates just acts as a bedtime lullaby.
There's a fair amount of protocol involved in hiking through pristine areas such as those in the Fiordland National Park, and as a complete newbie I learned a few lessons the hard way.
Like the fact there's a boots-off policy inside all huts. Judgy eyes fixed on me and my boots when I wandered into the kitchen on night one and this wasn't quickly forgotten.
And while my toilet preference is definitely to be a private pooper, there's no time or place for that during hut life. With the trail beckoning, queues can form quickly for morning movements and the No.1 priority for No.2s is getting in and out tout de suite with your business done.
One thing that struck me along this Great Walk was the wide range of ages and nationalities enjoying the outdoor life. At times it seemed like a gathering of the United Nations.
A glance through a hut's comments book highlights the presence of hikers from all over the world (one Slovenian's reference to "the mice hut" had me equally worried/amused) and New Zealand's glorious long summer evenings bring plenty of opportunities to swap stories about life on opposite sides of the world.
Speaking of stories, the resident wardens at the Kepler huts each have their own unique personalities, but good humour and the love of a chat is a common thread across all.
The standout was Peter Jackson (no, not that one) at the Luxmore Hut, who specialises in dad jokes. His talk of breathing "socksygen" in the sleeping quarters took me back to my high school days in the sulphur city of Rotorua.
And at the Iris Burn Hut, I had to chuckle at the discomfort of my fellow hikers when our host insisted on a compulsory group chorus during her carefully crafted composition about the native whio duck and the deeply despised stoat ("the only good stoat is a dead stoat", reads the sign on one hut wall).
It took me some days to get the "boom diddy boom diddy boom diddy boom" chorus out of my head.
And at the Motorau Hut, all I could do was shake my head in wonder at the warden's tale of the Israeli hikers who lit a fire under the wood shed to heat their dinner, with the shed just happening to be immediately adjacent to the hut's gas tanks.
Subsequently, the pair obviously decided to keep a low profile, because a quick check of the visitors' book failed to reveal any entries from Dumb and Dumber.
Along with the stunning scenery, the unique birdlife is one of the key attractions for those lucky enough to walk the Kepler.
Everyone's after that elusive kiwi sighting and I'm afraid I missed out on this occasion.
But I was fascinated by the frequent appearance of the cheeky native parrot, the kea, and amazed at their determination to steal anything with even a slight prospect of being edible.
Fellow hikers were full of warnings about their thieving ways, and I unfortunately witnessed first hand their ability to sneak up unobserved and take to the skies with some of the day's precious food stocks.
I don't think we should necessarily read anything in to it, but I did note that the dehydrated food was among the items left behind.
While on the subject of airborne menaces, no recounting of a Kepler walk is complete without mention of the constant threat posed by mosquitoes with wingspans the size of small aircraft.
To stop and pause in the vicinity of any still waterway is to invite a kamikaze-like attack from the bloodthirsty beasts.
You quickly learn to cover as much skin surface as possible, and drench the remainder in whatever insect repellent you can lay your hands on.
But from bitter personal experience, there's a good chance these airborne attackers have now mutated into some super 'squito with total resistance to known methods of human defence.
But at the end of the day, a few itchy bites are a small price to pay for the chance to experience some of the most spectacular natural scenery this world has to offer.
Taking on the Kepler was no walk in the park (ok, strictly speaking it was) but it's only strengthened my desire to throw on the pack and explore more of what's out there.
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