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Two weekends, two Great Walks and (almost) two ends of the island

Mum asked me two weekends ago what I was doing, “Not much, just around Christchurch” I replied. “That’s not like you,” she said. She caught me off guard, but I suppose it’s entirely true. I had driven to Kaiteriteri and run the Abel Tasman the weekend before, and I knew I was away the following weekend, so it was nice not to drive anywhere! As I was driving for eight-plus hours south last Friday (without a radio and plenty of time to think!), I realised I am pretty lucky that I can just ‘up-and-off’ at the drop of a hat to wherever the next adventure lies. While my responsibilities are limited, I’m going to keep making the most of these opportunities.

Last weekend I headed to Te Anau to get amongst The Kepler Track (another of NZ's Great Walks) and most of all, escape technology for a few days. After a couple of stops on the way, one to soak up the stunning views of Mount Cook on the edge of Pukaki and the other to refuel the gas-guzzling Coon, I stopped just south of Five Rivers to pick up Jacqs who is currently working on a dairy farm (a good time, not a long time she tells us). Scott, who is also working nearby, joined us and ‘Team Hundy Club’ were back together again, let the bullshit chat begin!

We stayed at Jacq’s family Bach, right in the heart of Te Anau, a handy central spot to hit up the tracks around the lake. Caeley, a friend of Jacqs, joined us too as she is also running The Kepler Challenge. It was decided that we would do a ‘long’ run on Saturday and a shorter one on Sunday, so there were no arguments when after dinner (and a Hobnob with our cup of tea) everyone headed straight for bed.

The next morning, with our packs loaded with too many pink buns, all the compulsory kit required for when we actually do the race and a fully charged iPhone (for photos only!), we headed for the control gates and the entrance of the Kepler Track. Just after 10am we took a pic at the start and made our way along the lake’s edge and the first easy five kilometres. We then started to climb, and climb… it was very similar to Mount Peel, but with switchbacks. We wound our way up, even spotting a deer not very far from the track (well I didn’t, my legs weren’t long enough, but I heard it so that counts in my books), passed the limestone rocks, which can be seen from the township, before popping out into the open. A quick stop here to add an extra layer was very welcome before a short run to the Luxmore Hut and the first stop of the day. Two races take place; The Kepler Challenge, which involves the entire track, a mere 60-kilometre loop that starts and ends at the control gates and the second, the Luxmore Grunt, a 27-kilometre up-and-back run (or slog) to the Luxmore Hut. The Grunt was looking like a better option right about now!

I was super impressed with the Luxmore Hut; clean, spacious with breathtaking views looking up the lake. But alas, today we were only visitors, signing the visitors' book with our intentions for the day – carrying on all the way to Rainbow Reach where we had earlier left a car (and 10 kilometres short of the control gates). Scott handed over his PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) before heading back down the hill due to a slight ITB injury. You can never be too safe in the mountains, especially with a few dark clouds rolling in from the direction we were headed! I pulled out my camera for a pic and realised I had just videoed the last hour of the inside of my pack. It makes for rather dull watching but… it picked up our voices! Four people can talk a lot of bullshit in an hour while walking up a hill, especially when Tinder is the topic! Don’t worry, it is filed safely away and will be used as and when required. Consider that your warning team!

We set off, leaving Scott behind to walk back down, with the track sign telling us we had a six-hour walk until the Iris Burn, the middle hut along the route. We were exposed entirely now on the ridge, so hat, gloves, jackets and Thir bands were all very welcome. It wasn’t long before we hit snow and continued to do so the whole way along. There weren’t heaps but enough to make us weary when we crossed it. The spring melt made it quite soft, sometimes sinking to above my knees (so not that deep), I wouldn’t have wanted it to be too much deeper though. It was a significant part of the track, and I can imagine on a bluebird day, incredible. The mountains just make my heart sing - the 360-degree view, the freedom and the remoteness is what makes me come back. To put it bluntly, “I love this shit.”

We passed three other groups of people using the track too, but it was pretty quiet out there. It was quite easy running along the top, a few ups and downs but nothing too major. We reached the end of the ridge and stopped at the Hanging Ridge shelter for a food stop and a break before starting the descent down into the valley below. Speaking to a few people who have done the race before they all offer the same advice, “don’t go down too fast, you need as much energy as you can once you hit the bottom.” They are right, once you hit the Iris Burn hut and you’re off the mountains, you’re only half way! YES, ONLY HALF WAY! Yikes, still 30 kilometres to go.

The plan was to stop here, refill the water bottles and have some more food, but hells bells those sandflies! I hadn’t even stopped, and the little suckers had drawn blood (yes, I’m that person you want at the party, and not just for my great chat) so it was a very quick turn-around, and we were off. This part of the track really is beautiful; dense forest canopy with a great wide track to run over. The latest winds that had swept through a few weeks early had wreaked havoc though, with many huge trees crossing the track, meaning a bit of off-roading was required to carry on. We ambled our way along, slowly starting to feel a few wee niggles on the body and again, talking rubbish. Jacqs loves the game ‘Would you rather’; so more entertaining hours were passed listening to her throw more curve-ball options at us. One way to find out some very questionable information about each other! I did throw a few educational questions out though, like "what is the only sport at the Olympics where both Men and Woman compete against each other?” It’s my go-to, but hey, it had these girls stumped.

We had told Scott we would be back about six pm, but as we cruised along the edge of Lake Manapouri and reached the Moturau Hut just before six, with another 10 kilometres still to cover, we thought we had better give him a ring and push out our expected arrival time. Again, the sand flies meant it was a very brief stop before we hit the trail for the last stretch to the car.

The bodies were sore. We would wind up the arms to make the legs move to gain some momentum before breaking into an amble, which was supposed to represent running. All I could think of was “what am I going to be like in seven weeks?” We finally spotted the Waiau river and then the swing bridge, which meant we had reached Rainbow Reach and the car. 50 Kilometres and nine and a half hours later, add an extra 10 kilometres to that, and you’ve got the Kepler Challenge. Woah, this certainly isn’t going to be a walk in the park (even though, technically speaking, it is). Scott the legend had cooked us dinner when we arrived home, so we wolfed that down, and it wasn’t long before we headed to bed to give the body some well-deserved rest.

On Sunday we headed out for our ‘short’ run, with Scott joining us this time too. We had planned on doing a run near Lake Manapouri, but after discovering we needed to take a boat to get to the start, it was decided we would park at Rainbow Reach again and run the last part of the track. The bodies were feeling surprisingly good; if only they feel like this the next time we cover this track! We ended up turning around at the seven kilometres point, three short of the end as Scott’s knee was starting to play up. There were no complaints from us though!! A quick stretch mid-track and we were running again, heading back to the car.

It was a solid weekend of training, I am glad I now know what I am up against. I've added a few more hours on to my desired finish time, I just hope those last 10 kilometres can somehow be enjoyable come race day! I look forward to finding out.

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