Nelson Lakes National Park

This Rob Birks-led circuit through the Nelson Lakes National Park started on Saturday 8th March and included Colin and Judy Blakemore, Christine Mold, Russell Grant and myself.

Rob, Judy and Christine started along the shore of Lake Rotoiti at 3:15pm while Colin, Russell and I delivered my car to the Mt Robert carpark where we were to end our circuit. Department of Conservation staff had warned us thieves had been targeting vehicles left at Mt Robert and while we did not suffer their attention it was a reminder not to leave valuables in vehicles at track ends.

Departing one hour later – foregoing the luxury of a water taxi whose owner was keen for business – we passed day walkers and trampers heading out, many warning us that we would find a full hut. With children. Few if any mentioned the wasps which were the greater concern…

Russell and I stopped at the Lakehead Hut jetty where some Black Swans were floating around and mooning as they fed. Imagine eating upside down. The sandflies were hungry too and we were dinner on the plate of the jetty.

Lakehead Hut was busy but not full and the children were not out of control. Given it was after 7pm preparation for the evening meal was begun. This night of our trip was memorable for being the most crowded, perhaps the hottest and for the wasps in the toilets. Going to the toilet with a dozen or so wasps in the confined space with you tests your self-control. Fortunately the wasps were – mostly – uninterested in you…

Sunday 9th March.

We departed Lakehead Hut at 8:15am. The vapour trail of a jet slashed across the sky as we crossed the Travers River swingbridge one and a half hours up the valley. It was a hot, sunny day and I left the others at our second rest stop to take Rob’s suggestion of hiking up to Cupola Basin Hut as a side trip.

When I reached John Tait Hut, our stop for the night, I was shocked to see how close an avalanche had come to it. Debris was thrust across the clearing about 10 metres from it!

I set off at 2pm after quickly dumping gear not required for the climb to Cupola Basin. What a delight it was with the deep canyon Cupola Creek plunges through, the steep zig-zag climb to the hut in the upper basin – if you’re just about buggered you’re still not there – and the dominating mountains and ridges surrounding you. It was very impressive and made more so with the presence of intrepid pass-baggers David and Chris of Blenheim who were overnighting before crossing Gunsight Pass – well-named when you see it – then descending to the West Sabine Hut and on to cross the Waiau and Thompson Passes. An hour talking with them passed very quickly then I made my way back to John Tait Hut, arriving at 7pm.

The others had arrived at 3:15pm and decided to have a wash in the river which they reported was freezing. Rob produced chocolate pudding with custard for dessert. We had the hut to ourselves.

Monday 10th March dawned fine and clear and we started out at 8:45am. After photographing a neat tumbling stream down-valley I met Rob at the Cupola Basin Track along which the others had gone exploring. We moved on to the impressive Travers Falls. As I left shortly after Rob, Ben of the United Kingdom and Lorenz of Germany arrived. As they had an impressive-looking camera bag I encouraged them to climb down to view the waterfall. I later learnt they’d spent four days in the upper valley searching for the disappeared German tramper Christian Prehn.

Rob had waited for me at the Travers River footbridge and we ate before undertaking the steady climb to the upper valley, reaching the hut at 12:15pm to begin an afternoon of lazing. About 15 metres prior to the hut a sign announced, “Avalanche zone ends.” I was uncertain whether I would have felt safer for that in avalanche conditions.

An Australian hiker named Tracy showed me the impressive views available from Mt Misery at the head of Lake Rotoroa before moving on after two German hikers arrived and decided to stay the night. Eventually the others of our party arrived in the order of how far up the Cupola Basin Track they went, Christine and Russell arriving last having gone as far as the hut.

Tuesday 11th March dawned fine and clear; we started off at 9am and made our first stop at a small creek which was the last water until we reached the Sabine River East Branch on the other side of the saddle.

As I sidled to get a view over the Travers Valley below it was made clear to me how hard it would be to find someone in that area amongst the rock and depressions. I re-joined the others at the top of the 1,787m Travers Saddle.

Rob, Christine and I chose to descend via a by-pass track which had been marked through beech forest down a steep spur adjacent to the avalanche gully the main track zig-zagged down. It was gentler on the legs and offered shade. Judy, Colin and Russell took the avalanche slope for the views it offered. We gifted them the lead by stopping for lunch, enjoying the attention of a fantail while we ate.

The thigh muscle work-out came to an end where the track levelled out at the Sabine River and soon we crossed a short bridge over an extremely deep gorge. There was another steep descent to test the thighs as we dropped to the Sabine Forks, reaching West Sabine Hut at 3:15pm. Russell and Christine incurred wasp stings through being at the rear of our six person group; wasps don’t seem to vent their displeasure on those that initially cause it.

Janine of Switzerland was in residence and had brought computing power to the outdoors in the form of a Samsung Galaxy Note with accompanying compact keyboard and portable solar panel charger. She used it for map storage, photo management and diary-ing her walk of the Te Araroa Trail.

With the heat of the day some members of the team decided to freshen up in the frigid waters of the Sabine River West Branch. Later as the sun dropped behind the Mahanga Range the temperature quickly fell to a more comfortable level.

It was overcast and cooler on Wednesday 12th March at 8:15am as we started up the valley to Lakes Blue and Constance, making walking pleasant.

Time has wrought changes and the first of those was the relocated suspension bridge over the Sabine River West Branch, now upstream from the hut. Hopefully the river banks in this location will remain stable for a long time.

Much avalanche activity has occurred in the valley since I was last there in 2005; a large quantity of rock has come down and either remained scattered on the slope of the avalanche zone or gone into the river bed. In some places this has had an impact on the track alignment.

We encountered an ailing 7cm-long Weta. Christine spotted it on the track and took care to move it where it was less likely to get trampled. She did this without touching it. Great courage is required to handle one of those beasties. It’s mandibles were moving so we had some hope it would survive.

Eventually we ascended to the ‘Japanese rock garden’, a beautiful area of rocks, pools, river and lush beech forest. It is an oasis of constancy in a geologically active zone below Blue Lake which we reached at 11:15am. The clouds were breaking, turning the day to our standard hot and sunny.

Blue Lake has some of the purest water in the world. Judy took a discreet swim and advised us afterward that the water hadn’t been as cold as she’d expected. We ascended the track to Lake Constance, Judy feeling much refreshed and probably enjoying the heat after her swim, the rest of us sweating the climb. We spent some time overlooking the lake and surrounding mountains before descending back to Blue Lake, Russell and I leaving last after traversing the rocky flat for a view of the 1,870m Waiau Pass above the upper valley. Upon our return to Blue Lake we found the others had separated by gender with Judy and Christine seated on the shore of the lake and Rob and Colin beside the stream at the head of it. Judy and Christine had succumbed to the siren call of the pure water on this hot, still day and had a swim. The deep-looking aqua blue water looked inviting with the hot sun a reviver after the shock of the cold.

At 3:15pm the others began the return trip to West Sabine Hut; I stayed until 5pm to photograph Blue Lake from the Moss Pass route and enjoy the experience of the ‘rock garden’ one more time. I never noticed the Weta on my return trip but the others told me it had been moving in a more healthy manner as they’d passed it. Another New Zealander named Kimberly shared the hut with us.

On Thursday 13th March at 8:15am, with weather overcast again, we left Kimberly preparing for her Blue Lake trip.

At the confluence of the Sabine River East and West Branches it was again obvious how the river bed has had a lot of rock and gravel deposited into it. Interesting times lie ahead for this area in periods of heavy rainfall.

We made steady progress down the valley with the track to ourselves other than one young woman heading up to Blue Lake and Moss Pass. The cloud had cleared and the day had become another hot and sunny one.

At a canyon a footbridge crossed the deep, clear and torpid blue-green river to the true right where there was a clearing on rock above the river. Heat does strange things to people and the others decided to have a refreshing dip; it’s amazing how I can resist plunging into freezing water! Colin proved to have the best technique for making the biggest splash. The canyon mouth is the perfect swimming hole; the river is deep, slow-flowing and clear and shallows out to a wide gravel bed – the perfect run-out. Sandfly activity seemed reduced with the heat but wasps only stop for rain and darkness so everyone kept footwear on to return to their packs and clothes.

We arrived at Sabine Hut at 3:15pm to find three men on a fishing holiday. Between us we took over the hut; our gear took up one side, theirs the other. The hut was a refuge from the plague of sandflies outside, their little brains programmed for only one thing: Attack all humans! We didn’t want to be the main course! People didn’t tend to stand still outside the hut for very long.

A low background buzz indicated the presence of many wasps busy doing what wasps do. The other notable presence was a population of eels. We were taking photographs at sunset from the jetty – fending off the voracious sandflies – when someone spotted a decent-size eel circling the jetty. Then there were four. Some of us were glad not to have swum in the lake that afternoon.

Rob, Judy and Christine made dinner an occasion by making a cheesecake. It was very impressive, as good as any made in a regular kitchen and they made me eat some.

After dark we returned to the jetty for some eel-spotting with Christine enhancing our chances by feeding out some salami. Almost instantly there were about 12 and they circled, snapping for the pieces dropped into the pool of light from our headlamps. They were very hard to photograph in the dark with their motion; my best results were from videoing them.

It was still very dark on Friday 14th March at 5am when Russell rose to breakfast and pack for an early start to Lake Angelus. Our intrepid fellowship was splitting for the day; Judy, Colin and Christine were walking directly to Speargrass Hut while Russell, Rob and I were traversing via Lake Angelus. Russell wished to maximize his time at the lake and when I rose at 6:10am it was light enough for him to begin.

The route to Lake Angelus from Sabine Hut is strenuous with the climb up the 1,532m Mt Cedric starting immediately from the hut. Rob and I started about 7:45am and made a steady pace up the mountain. I was saddened to see the impact of black fungus in some parts of the forest. At the peak we met two young women who’d come from Lake Angelus Hut. They were heading for Blue Lake and they told us a front of bad weather was due to arrive on Sunday with wind increasing through Saturday. Cyclone Lussi was approaching, but the weather for us remained fine and sunny with some cloud. A cool but not strong wind blew across the ridges of the mountain range. Superb views were on offer and much enjoyed. The photo count was rising!

As we entered the crater lake-like basin of Lake Angelus the recently rebuilt Lake Angelus Hut was facing us. The acoustics were so good I could hear Russell joking with the Dutch gentleman he was seated on the deck beside, saying that he might have left by the time we arrived. It can take longer than you think to cross these areas; in the rocky terrain of the Travers Range distance can seem deceivingly short.

We reached the hut at 2:15pm. It is well designed and oriented to the best outlook of the lake and the 2,075m Angelus Peak. My one small criticism was that the bunkrooms seemed dark. The three toilet cubicles had become four since my last visit. Standing beside one another they looked like missile silos. Their doors were also double-bolted to ensure they remained attached in high wind.

We were just in time to observe a good reflection on the lake before the breeze strengthened as a big grey cloud blotted out the sun. We’d considered spending our last night at this hut but it requires bookings, we’d been advised it would likely be crowded and we hadn’t wanted to make a commitment at the time. With Cyclone Lussi approaching it seemed many had changed their minds; when we left at 3:15pm the Dutch man, the warden and his girlfriend were the only ones there.

The Lake Angelus-Speargrass Hut Track was a new experience. It was easy at first as it dropped into a gully, then precarious as it crossed steep scree slopes on which care was required to avoid a slide to the bottom. We made good progress but kept dry feet with increasing difficulty as the track criss-crossed the growing Speargrass Creek. Finally, when we’d almost reached the beech forest, we couldn’t avoid complete boot immersion crossing two fords which didn’t offer any rocks to step on. Six days of dry-feet tramping ended and I began to wonder if the track did too; it was getting harder to follow. The track became well-defined again when it entered the trees but was a little swampy. Between the forest and the basin at the head of the gully I can see why this track would be slippery in wet weather! Finally we reached the clearing of giant tussock that Speargrass Hut resides in, ending our walk for the day at 5:15pm. When we entered the hut Colin and Christine were reclining contentedly on the bunks. Tramping. It’s not all tough work.

Also in residence was The German. Audreas was a tough, well-travelled and experienced outdoorsman. His ‘pack’ consisted of three large dry bags attached to a harness; it looked like a portable spraying kit and weighed about 22kg. He had strong views on how the New Zealand backcountry is managed and wasn’t afraid to express them.

Colin, Judy and Christine told us the terrain they crossed from Sabine Hut was very dry, that the forest looked stressed. They felt it had been the poorest section of track on the trip. We thought Lussi would probably relieve that – after we were gone.

Kimberly arrived at 6:15pm and said she’d enjoyed Blue Lake.

While photographing a fiery 7:50pm sunset we discovered a sandfly had managed to get inside the lens of Judy’s compact camera and become squashed against it. As the lens extends or retracts an opening is created and at that moment the sandfly must have flown in, becoming squashed on the inside of the lens – perhaps at full retraction. It was impossible for us to remove and made a ghostly image on part of Judy’s subsequent photos.

The German slept on the porch outside under his tent fly. The snoring from an unidentified member of our group wasn’t that loud! He just seemed comfortable with his own company.

On Saturday 15th March, our final day, as chatter started at 6am and I was cosy in my sleeping bag, I thought how fast the time had gone. We faced a three hour walk and an approximately five hour drive to Timaru so we were underway by 8:15am. The track meandered through beech forest along Speargrass Creek then gradually ascended to the Mt Robert carpark which we reached at 10:40am. Kimberly passed us in-transit and we met one young guy heading in; he would experience a greater variety of weather than we did – we were so lucky to get seven days of fine, hot weather.

After a final group photo we stowed the packs and ourselves into my car for an overloaded trip back to St Arnaud where we collected Judy and Colin’s ute and began the drive home.

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