Justine Tyerman learns to love snakes on the Kepler Track.
Ranger Robbie measures the wind at the top of the Kepler Track based on the reports of traumatised trampers as they stumble into the Iris Burn Hut in varying states of shock and relief.
If the gusts are so strong, trampers have had to crawl along the ridge on hands and knees, Robbie estimates the wind at 90km/h, or if they have lain down on the track for fear of blowing away, he reckons 100km/h or so.
We only roped ourselves together, lost a pack cover over the edge and staggered from one warratah track marker to the next, so the gusts were probably a mere 70 or 80km/h.
During our five hours on the brutally-exposed ridge with drop-offs on both sides, the warning from Ranger Fay the previous night at the Luxmore Hut kept forcing its way through more pleasant thoughts about who to throttle for choosing this tramp in the first place.
"Plant your feet firmly," Fay said, after telling us about a young chap who had been blown clean off the ridge a few days earlier. The 18-year-old had both feet off the ground at once, apparently running or jumping, when a wind gust threw him on to rocks below the track.
He suffered severe lacerations and had to be helicoptered out... but he was no doubt counting his blessings that he did not end up in a free fall to Lake Te Anau 1400 metres below.
So I mastered a new shuffle-style of tramping which involved keeping both boots in contact with terra firma at all times. This made progress rather slow but ensured I did not get airborne.
To keep me plodding - or shuffling on - in such grim conditions, my husband dangled snake lollies just beyond my reach. It worked! I toyed with thoughts of turning back but my tramping mates managed to convince me it was all a grand adventure... and those snakes were pretty damn good.
Amid the swirling mist and horizontal rain which stung any skin left exposed, there were tantalising glimpses of alpine cirques left by ancient glaciers; foamy waterfalls tumbling off sheer cliffs; deep, steep-sided fiords, and quite incongruously, the occasional brilliant rainbow.
We were sadly denied the ultimate trampers' reward for two days trudging uphill - a stunning alpine panorama of Mt Luxmore, and lakes Te Anau and Manapouri - but after all, this was Fiordland where wind and rain reign.
The descent was as long, steep and arduous as the ascent with steps followed by 97 tight zigzags which turned already tired legs to jelly. But once safely below the bush line, we had the shelter of the tall, mossy forest to protect us from the elements and we could push back our jacket hoods and regain peripheral vision.
A near-demented soul finally called out "Hut ahoy" as the Iris Burn Hut appeared like a beautiful mirage in an oasis of beech trees.
Downing our packs, stripping off wet weather gear, drying ourselves by the roaring pot belly fire and eating our dehydrated pasta with chopped up chorizo made us delirious with joy which raises some serious questions about the sanity of those hooked on this tramping thing.
The evening passed companionably with tall stories about the force of the wind, erudite debates about the relative merits of merino, Gortex and polyprops, and examining the weight and type of food people were carrying.
It's hard to explain but wrestling all day with the elements and pushing one's physical limits seem to strip life down to simple but sweet pleasures - food, shelter, dry clothes, good company... and a smug sense of achievement.
The last two days were a gentle amble downhill in warm dappled sunshine through beech forest alongside the pretty Iris Burn stream.
Our packs, now lighter due to the food we had consumed, grew heavier again as we peeled off layers of clothes.
A breathtaking sunset over Lake Manapouri on our final night almost made up for the spectacular views we missed on the Kepler ridge.
The evening was mild and long - so armed with Fiordland-strength insect repellent, we ate the last of our supplies by a mirror lake as the fading light turned the layers of mountain ranges into cardboard cut-outs and the silver-gold pathway of the setting sun gradually shrank to nothing. Bliss.
Where are all the Kiwis?
The question we Kiwis were left pondering was why are we the minority on these magnificent Great Walks of New Zealand? While it is educational, stimulating and great fun for us to meet so many foreigners enjoying our tramps and DoC huts, where are the Kiwis? Considering all New Zealanders under the age of 18 have free use of DoC huts, why are they not there in their droves?
Is it the $50 a night hut fee that puts people off, the prospect of communal bunkrooms and having to carry everything you need on your back, or the lack of creature comforts like hot showers and electricity?
We suggested to DoC that all Kiwis should tramp free and all foreigners be charged double the current hut fee and pay to access to our national parks, just as Kiwis are often charged overseas.
Over 8684 people walked the Kepler last year of which 26.78 per cent were Kiwis, 14.12 per cent were German, 11.45 were Israeli and 10.12 were Australian, 9.43 from the US and 6.1 per cent from the UK. The remaining 12 per cent hailed from 57 other countries including Japan, Norway, Hungary and even one tramper from Cameroon!
The statistics for the Waikaremoana Track, another of our Great Walks, were more encouraging: 5113 did the walk last year of which 75 per cent were Kiwis.
The Heaphy Track had the next highest percentage of Kiwis at 70 per cent of the 5190 trampers while on the Milford Track, we made up 33 per cent of the 7235 trampers and on the Routeburn, 31 per cent of the 10,946.
The Kepler Track, like the mountains it traverses, is named after 17th century German astronomer, Johannes Kepler. It is a 62km three-to-four day loop track from Lake Te Anau over Mt Luxmore to Lake Manapouri and back to Te Anau.
One of nine Great Walks of New Zealand, the Kepler was opened in 1988 to take the pressure off the hugely popular Milford and Routeburn tracks. However, as tramping fever takes hold and the quest for more remote experiences increases, the Kepler's bunks are filling fast... be in!