Tag Archives: Trek

New Zealand Part I – The Kepler Track

β€œFiordland, a vast tract of mountainous terrain that occupies the south-west corner of South Island, New Zealand, is one of the most astounding pieces of land anywhere on God’s earth, and one’s first impulse, standing on a cliff top surveying it all, is simply to burst into spontaneous applause.” – Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See

Kepler Track Day 1

Murchison Mountains, Lake Te Anau, Kepler Track Day 1

28 November 2013: We were a party of four (yours truly, my girlfriend Lexi, my brother Pete and his girlfriend Lisa) lacing up our boots and making last-minute adjustments to our backpacks at the start of The Kepler Track, a 60km tramp in Fiordland National Park, in the South Island of New Zealand. Ahead was four days of backpacking through alpine mountains and beech forests, from summits to sandy shores, where we would be bathed in sunshine, battered by wind, and dampened by rain.

Kepler Track Day 1

Alpine tarn, Kepler Track Day 1

Our walk began from the door of our hotel in Te Anau. What better way to start than straight from the breakfast buffet station, no driving, no more procrastinating. We picked up our hut passes at the Doc centre en route, a little way outside Te Anau. The weather forecast looked promising, which was all I was hoping for at this stage. Day Two of the walk was the “alpine” day, when we would spend all day above the treeline, crossing some of the ridges of the Jackson Peaks. As long as the weather permitted us access to the higher mountains, and our walk could proceed as planned, I would be happy. At this stage, all looked good.

The route followed the shore of Lake Te Anau to Brod Bay, with the beautiful Murchison mountains as a backdrop (see the first photo), before beginning a long climb through beech forest, eventually emerging above the treeline and finishing at the Luxmore hut. The sun shone, we sweated our way uphill in shorts and t-shirts, reaching the hut around 5pm. The views that opened up as we emerged from the forest were spectacular, at once justifying the effort needed to reach that point.

Sunset from the Luxmore Hut looking out over Lake Te Anau

Sunset from the Luxmore Hut looking out over Lake Te Anau

The Luxmore hut was pleasant and comfortable (as were all the huts on this walk) when judged by the standards of some prior trips (when we’ve been known to sleep on the snow slopes of Mt Blanc in a blizzard sans tent for example). It’s been a while since my last hut trip (I think the Swiss Alps in 2011?) but, as often at mountain huts, it had a welcoming, convivial atmosphere (although, beware of the “socks-ygen”, as the hut warden Peter informed us, from 30 pairs of fruity hiking socks, that would also be present in the atmosphere if we didn’t open a few windows and ventilate the dormitory that night). I was dog tired at day’s end, but insanely happy to be in the outdoors again.

We woke to a slightly different forecast which, rather unsurprisingly for this region (one of the wettest on earth), predicted rain and stronger winds. No bother we thought! We had all the right gear and it certainly wasn’t too dangerous. We would be just fine, with a dollop or two of old-fashioned stoicism.

Kepler Pano

Panorama from the Kepler Track over Lake Te Anau

“A bit breezy on top, maybe a bit damp too” were the words of the hut warden as we left. Typical understated Kiwi humour. It was indeed a bit breezy (reaching 100km/h we were informed at the next hut!), which made for a rough-and-tumble sort of day and a well-earned dinner. The thick cloud scudded across the sky, revealing, hiding and teasing us with dramatic views of the mountains and lakes all around us. My brother and I made the short detour to climb Mt Luxmore, which was a relatively quick scramble to the summit and tremendous views over Lake Te Anau. We caught up with the girls at the Forest Burn emergency shelter, where we stopped for lunch and enjoyed a brief respite from the rain.

Summit of Mount Luxmore

Summit of Mount Luxmore, Day 2

Kepler Track Day 2

Kepler Track Day 2, can anyone spot Lexi in the photo?

Pete above the South Arm of Lake Te Anau

Pete above the South Arm of Lake Te Anau

The scenery more than made up for the weather. We felt ALIVE! The elements forced us into the present, the here and now, a coarser, more primitive existence for a day, no bad thing in our modern, tech-obsessed lives. I, for one, would not have traded places with anyone that day.

On the march

On the march – “a bit breezy on top”

Kepler Track Ridgeline

Fantastic views from the ridge line

A Kea

A Kea (the only alpine parrot species) outside the Hanging Valley Shelter – they are inquisitive, mischievous creatures

Descending off the ridge

Descending off the ridge

A series of stepped sections along the final, narrow ridge below the second shelter (the Hanging Valley shelter) felt slightly precarious in the wind, but we were at last safely below the treeline. What a day it had been. We still had several kilometres to go, down through the verdant Fiordland rainforest, where seemingly everything, except the odd twisted tree, was coated with moss.

Fiordland Forest

Twisted tree in Fiordland forest

Fiordland rainforest

Incredibly verdant Fiordland rainforest – moss was everywhere

Iris Burns Falls

Iris Burns Falls

The second half of the walk, from Iris Burns hut back to Te Anau, was of a different nature to what we had encountered so far. With the mountains behind us, we spent these final two days among the trees, where the landscape was measured in metres, not kilometres. The joy was in the detail, the vividness of the green mosses, the precise geometry of the fern fronds, the stark black of the tree trunks against the white misty backdrop.

Kepler Track Day 3

Misty rainforest, Kepler Track Day 3

Hiking through the rainforest

Hiking through the rainforest

Enjoying the silence and beauty of the forest

Enjoying the silence and beauty of the forest

Our third and final night on the track was passed at Moturau Hut, on the shores of Lake Manapouri. After a night in the mountains, a night in the forest next to a waterfall, it was fitting to finish with a night on the lakeshore with a sandy beach. After dinner we were treated to a sunset to remember. It began with some incredibly warm light breaking through under the cloud base, which had everyone scampering out of the hut and down to the beach with cameras:

Lake Manapouri Sunset 1

Lake Manapouri Sunset 1

The light kept improving as the sun’s rays filtered between the mountain tops, reflecting in the lake:

Lake Manapouri Sunset 2

Lake Manapouri Sunset 2

And the final act was the best of all, as the colours turned pink and illuminated a lone cloud over the mountains:

Lake Manapouri Sunset 3

Lake Manapouri Sunset 3

Our fourth and final day of tramping took us from the Moturau Hut all the way back to Te Anau. It was a straightforward day, with little up or down, through forests and along rivers. A mellow day of walking, giving us plenty of time to reflect and scheme up future adventures. The sun was shining and the team were in high spirits as we departed the hut:

The team at Moturau hut

The team at Moturau hut, start of day 4

Lexi headstand

Lexi couldn’t resist a quick headstand on the beach before we set off

Wire bridge

Wire bridge, day 4 of the Kepler Track

Amongst the ferns

Amongst the ferns

After four days, 60km of walking, three huts, two keas, two rare whios (blue ducks), more sunshine than we expected, amazing views and more ferns than you can shake a stick at, we were all too soon back in Te Anau. The walk had passed far too quickly, and I felt sad to be back in civilisation so soon! But we had more adventures planned for this trip (story of a future blog post) and this trek had been a wonderful four days with wonderful people, and for that I will always be grateful.

Kepler Finish

Kepler Finish – back at Te Anau, DOC office, and the end of the Kepler Track

Southern Shenandoah National Park Photos

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

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After a busy summer dominated by work it was high time for a weekend getaway to the woods. I’ve come to love the subtle beauty and rich woodland experiences that characterize any trip to Shenandoah. We had booked a wonderful cabin – High Laurel Inn – for the weekend. Situated on the edge of the National Park (the back fence of the property is the Park boundary!), it was the perfect spot. We could hike from our doorstep.

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Our home for the weekend

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The front of the cabin

Day 1: 14 September 2013 / Paine Run Trail and Trayfoot Mountain Trail Loop / 10 miles

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The leaves are turning; fall is on the way

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On the Appalachian Trail

The halfway point of the day’s walk was also the most spectacular viewpoint, the summit of Blackrock mountain:

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A contender for the best vantage point in the Shenandoah National Park perhaps?

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Me and Lexi on the summit of Blackrock

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Blackrock mountain summit panorama

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Onwards to our next summit, Trayfoot Mountain

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Snakeskin

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Yogini Lexi showing good form on the shoulder of Blackrock Mountain

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My own attempt

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Hairy caterpillar

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Beware of the Yellow Jacket Wasps on Trayfoot Mountain – I was stung 4 times after stepping on a ground nest on the trail. I can tell you they HURT!

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Wooded mountains

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Sunset from the balcony of the cabin

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Meet the locals

Day 2: 15 September 2013 / South River Falls / 8 mile out and back

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On the Appalachian trail

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Spot the caterpillar

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Looking down to South River Falls

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Humbled by the scale of it all

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South River

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Trail through the woods

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Lexi finds the clearing

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Wild flowers

Hiking in Cape Town

Since my last update on this blog, we’ve seen North Korea conduct its third nuclear bomb test, witnessed a major meteor strike and seen a new pope elected. A dramatic start to the year!

Earlier this year I was fortunate to spend a week in beautiful Cape Town for a good friend’s wedding and managed to get in a couple of decent treks whilst there. I didn’t take my big camera so all the photos below are taken on an iPhone with a little bit of post processing in iPhoto. I’m loving the portability of a phone camera and the quality is getting pretty good nowadays.

A delayed journey saw me making an impromptu connection in my former home city of London – it was a spectacular sight to fly over:

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Hike 1: Table Mountain via the India Venster route

Free from the office and near a mountain? Well let’s climb it then! At the trailhead with my good climbing buddy Steven (of South America and Alps fame) and girlfriend Lexi (who has no idea yet what lies ahead πŸ˜‰ )

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I can’t say we weren’t warned…

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Spectacular view of Lion’s Head as we get higher up Table Mountain. It was a beautiful day. I got the impression that every day is like this in summer!

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We ended up slightly (ok, very far) off route and were picking our way gingerly around the cliffs. We pushed on thinking we could take a short cut back to the path but there was a final barrier – a steep cliff that was too dangerous to down climb – blocking our way. Back it was then. Better a live donkey than a dead lion!

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I’d still rather take the trail any day of the week:

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Back on the official route and enjoying the “climbing” section – a mini via ferrata:

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The views from the summit down to Camps Bay were stunning:

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Duly noted! (this sign was at the top of the climbing path route we came up but we were taking a different path down, which although less direct, was more mellow)

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It still had the occasional steep section and ladder to negotiate:

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Late evening sun on the descent (a panorama stitch on the iphone):

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We had a full day on the mountain, from 9 until sundown at 8.30. From there it was a race to the nearest cheap and cheerful Italian restaurant to satiate our gnawing bellies. Sunset near the trailhead:

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Hike 2: Lion’s Head

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iPhone panorama of the trail up Lion’s Head, with Camps Bay and Table Mountain in the background. It was another stunning day with spectacular views.

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Another steep band to climb using the chains and steps in the rock. Adds a little bit of excitement to the walk:

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Nearing the summit with Table Mountain in the background:

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Lexi on the summit:

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Yours truly enjoying the setting

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iPhone panorama from the summit showing how extensive the Table Mountain massif is:

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Early Exploration of the Interior of Australia (Larapinta Trail Part Three)

This is third part of a three-part series about a thru-hike with my brother of the stunning Larapinta trail. Part one, the story of our trek, can be viewed here and part two, photos from Standley Chasm, here.

The country ahead, Larapinta Trail, Australia

The country ahead, from the summit of Brinkley Bluff, Larapinta Trail, Australia

John McDouall Stuart, a small but incredibly tough Scotsman, led the first successful expedition to cross Australia from south to north and back again, traversing the then blank interior of Australia. He named the West MacDonnell range, the very range that we had spent 8 days crossing as we walked the Larapinta Trail; he named and was the first to climb Brinkley Bluff, a mountain that we climbed along the way; heck, there is even a pass through the mountain range named after him. In short, walking the Larapinta trail is to take a journey back in time to discover the lands and people that played a formative part in the exploration and development of the Australian continent.

Stuart's Pass, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Stuart’s Pass, Larapinta Trail, Australia

After the trek I bought a recently reprinted copy of Stuart’s 1861 Expedition Diary. It is a compelling tale of a journey full of serious hardships and genuine first-hand geographical discoveries. The mention of Brinkley Bluff really brought his journey to life for me – we had also climbed that mountain only a week earlier:

THURSDAY, February 27. [1861] – Owen’s Springs. This morning the clouds all cleared away without any rain. Proceeded up the Hugh [river] to the north-east side of Brinkley’s Bluff. I have been obliged to leave one of the weak horses behind. Three more have given in to-day, and it was as much as we could do to get them here.

Summit of Brinkley Bluff, Larapinta Trail, Australia

On the summit of Brinkley Bluff which was climbed by the early explorer John Stuart during his explorations of the interior of Australia

He probably stood in some of the same places that my brother and I did, seeing an almost identical landscape (nothing man-made is visible from the summit except for the cairn and the trail obviously, and one distant jeep track).

For the information of His Excellency the Governor-in-Chief, I have the honour to report to you my return to Adelaide, after an absence of twelve months and thirteen days; and I herewith beg to hand you my Chart and Journals of the Expedition, from which I have just returned. – John McDouall Stuart, Explorer, from his 1861-2 Expedition Diary

After an absence of only eight days, I returned to Adelaide having taken the considerably quicker and easier option of a flight back from Alice Springs. Whilst staying in Adelaide with my relatives, I took a trip to see the State Library. Incredibly, the library had an exhibition wall displaying memorabilia, maps and books from the Stuart expeditions. It was fascinating to learn more about his journeys and lifetime of work to open up the interior. I delighted in recognizing place names where I had been trekking only a week earlier; places he had named as he laid eyes on them for the first time. It was enthralling.

Adelaide State Library

The magnificent Adelaide State Library

The serendipity didn’t end there however. The Royal Geographical Society of South Australia is housed on the third floor of the State Library and their door was open. A staff member warmly invited us in to have a look round. The large room was a haphazard explosion of maps, old books, objects of exploration, photographs and who knows what else. Like a kid in a candy shop, I excitedly scanned the room trying to take it all in. In one corner was a statue of John Stuart himself. At his feet was a piece of the dig tree from the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition.

Statue of John Stuart, Explorer, in the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia

Statue of John Stuart, Explorer, in the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia

“Do you want to see any of the maps?” asked the volunteer librarian.

“Yes, I’d love to. I’ve just come back from the West MacDonnell ranges, so maybe we can find a map of that area.”

After rummaging through the filing cabinet, he found a facsimile 1886 map of the area west of Alice Springs. Lo and behold! There were names I recognized on this map. Campsites, peaks, ranges from my recent Larapinta trek were marked this ancient map.

Old facsimile maps, Royal Geographical Society of South Australia

Old facsimile maps, Royal Geographical Society of South Australia

Old facsimile map, Royal Geographical Society of South Australia

Old facsimile map, Royal Geographical Society of South Australia

Redbank Gorge, Sonder Mountain, Rockybar Creek, Glen Helen Station, Mt. Giles, Fish Waterhole, Ellery’s Creek, Chewings Range… All names that we had discussed, passed, climbed or camped at only a week earlier.

Old facsimile map showing the area where the modern-day Larapinta Trail runs

Old facsimile map showing the area where the modern-day Larapinta Trail runs

Old exploration tomes, Royal Geographical Society of South Australia

Old exploration tomes, Royal Geographical Society of South Australia

I wonder how John Stuart must have felt as he opened up this country and saw these views for the first time. Did he allow himself to smile at the beauty of it all? Or was he consumed by the task at hand, constantly breaking trail and searching for his next source of water? To be an explorer, now that’s the life!

Larapinta Trail, Australia

Surveying the land ahead on the Larapinta Trail, day 5

Standley Chasm (Larapinta Trail Part Two)

This is part two of a three-part series about a thru-hike with my brother of the stunning Larapinta trail. Part one can be viewed here. Part three, a post for the explorer-buffs amongst you, is coming soon.

Standley Chasm is one of the standout geological features of the West MacDonnell mountain range. It lies close to the trail, so on the morning of day 7 of our trek we took a side trip to see it. The soaring red walls, some 80 metres high, were well hidden until we turned the final corner of the walk in. We stopped in our tracks, craning our necks to take in their full height, in awe of the forces that created such a feature. No one else was there, just me and my brother standing transfixed between those red walls. It was one of those moments that’ll stick in mind; one of the highlights of our time in this beautiful part of the world.

Entering Standley Chasm

Entering Standley Chasm, West MacDonnell Range, Australia

Standley Chasm, West MacDonnell Range, Australia

Standing in Standley Chasm, West MacDonnell Range, Australia

Standley Chasm, West MacDonnell Range, Australia

Looking back at the entrance to Standley Chasm, West MacDonnell Range, Australia

Credit to my brother for taking the second shot in this set.