Nelson Lakes National Park, New Zealand
2/22/2017 – 2/27/2017
This is a 50 mile (82 km) loop in Nelson Lakes NP, just south of the town of Nelson. I figured the weather would be better off the coast and we would be closer to the Southern Alps on a lightly recommended hike (the only place I’d even heard about this hike, was from a single sentence in our DK eyewitness travel guide). Our first day would be fairly mellow since we arrived late and we had to organize food and gear for 5 days. We choose to park at the trail exit rather than at the visitor center which would’ve required we take a lake ferry or hitchhike out on the last day, neither of those options sounded appealing. Instead we parked, hiked down a road a little ways and cut into the west side of Rotoiti Lake. It only took a few hours of walking around this fairly big mountain lake to reach our first stop at the Cold Water hut.
The cold water hut was aptly named. The short dock made a nice diving board into some chilly waters. The hut was right where the Traverse river dumped into Rotoiti Lake providing a brisk post-hike swim. I’m just glad I didn’t realize there were a pair of 6 foot eels hanging out under the dock when I took my plunge. They’re harmless, but it probably still would’ve been enough to keep me out of the water. The cold water hut was only our second hut stay, and was much more primitive than the one on our great walk, but this is much more what I’d expected. 4 walls, a roof, a fireplace and long table, with water and toilets outside. We only had 3 hut mates in our 12 bunk hut, an old Kiwi, a talkative Californian, and a nice German gal named Teresa. There were also a few late night visitors, but they were only interested in rummaging through the plastic bags containing food. Thankfully our food was spared by the mice. I later found the little bastards had tried to get at our nice bar of dark, raspberry chocolate, but it was wrapped to heavily to penetrate, close call.
I’m going to get this out of the way now so it doesn’t keep slipping into this story and possibly causing some bitter views on an otherwise wonderful hike. 3 things. Times, trail maintenance and hut placement. For whatever reason this hike especially, but in most other places, trailhead signs are marked almost exclusively with times. No distances, no elevations, just how long it takes some guy at some point to walk the stretch of trail that you’re about to walk. The part that really drives me crazy about this is that it’s totally inconsistent. While most sections are within reason, its wildly off from time to time. On the north island we could safely take 20 minutes off each hour, while here on the South Island flat spans are close to their estimations. We seem to be faster than their paces on uphill and downhill, but then there seems to also be the factor of how fucked the trail is. If you tell me distance and elevation, I’ll tell you how long it takes, not the other way around. It is infuriating. Back to the TFF (trail fucked factor), these trails were pretty aweful by any trail standards. Mud bogs were more the norm than the exception, tree roots were stairs and in more than a few places the river’s edge had reclaimed the former trail, leading to long, uphill reroutes. The huts are top notch but they seem to put very little effort into the trails that connect them. Lastly, I understand these huts are not meant to each be my ideal daily distances apart from one another. However, they are spaced in such a way that you either have a 3-5 hour hike or a 8-10 hour hike. And since you’re inevitably up with the first person in your hut, you’ll get moving pretty early and what are you going to do if you arrive at the next hut by noon? Spend 9 hours reading or move on to the next hut? You would move on to the next hut, right? I enjoy reading and writing but that’s too much time to kill.
Day 2 we had planned on being a big 8 hour (whatever that means) hike by passing one hut on our way to the mountainous Upper Travers hut. Some early morning fog shrouded valleys filled our hearts with awe and our pant legs with dew. Next we accidentally crossed a long suspension bridge over the Traverse River. McKayla did some solid deductive reasoning to determine we needed to stick to the west side of the river and the bridge cross was the wrong way. But, it was pretty cool in retrospect. We stopped at the midway hut for some lunch and to refill our waters.
Soon after our lunch stop we found the Travers Falls. We painstakingly inched our way down the steep face so we could take an afternoon cold water bath with a giant thundering waterfall. Turns out the giant shaded waterfall was even colder than we’d imagined; our nice afternoon swim turned into a quick dunk to wash the grime off then out we scurried back uphill towards the warmth of hiking. The trail was rutted and muddy to the point of playing hopscotch with rocks and roots but we made it to the Upper Travers hut without much issue.
The hut was tucked into a big bowl just at tree line. The surrounding mountains provided a great backdrop to the little hut looming under what looked like a fairly difficult climb to the pass. We had the chance to meet some interesting through-hikers making their way across the South Island. The first was a big, loud, talkative Maori man who was determined finish the TA (Te Araroa) for emotional, physical, but most importantly spiritual reasons. This was the route his ancestors had taken so now, overweight, 53 and having never hiked, was the time to walk the entire island. He had an infected toe from breaking in new boots and figured his stubbornness and a little help from his ancestors would get him through. The following morning I mentioned it was time for his ancestors to get to work. He just pointed up at the sky and said, “Hear that? Let’s get through this one, I’ll buy you a beer.” The other through-hiker was a Dutch girl with bad knees. She was ready to tackle the rest of the trail but her knees weren’t. (At an average of 25 km per day, the Te Araroa trail takes 120 days to walk – four months) Then we saw and talked with Teresa some more and as usual we met a few arrogant douchebags in the hut as well.
Kiwis aren’t much for switchbacks. If you’ve got somewhere to go, “get after it” seems to be the policy. Day 3 began with a steep but relatively short climb up to the Travers saddle (Poukirikiri). What followed was possibly the most brutal downhill section of trail I’ve ever walked. Again, without clear distance or elevation, I can’t give exact numbers but I can guess that we lost 3,500 feet of elevation over the course of 2 miles, straight fucking downhill. Again, we arrived too early to the next hut to call it a day so we continued on to the Sabine hut, walking parallel with the beautiful Sabine River.
We decided against going on a spur trail 7 hours north to Blue Lake. Blue Lake is claimed to be the clearest lake in the world. A bit like claiming the greenest pasture, best pub or greatest pie, it seems immeasurable. But, it actually is somewhat measurable. Supposedly, the visibility is estimated at 70-80 meters. However, it’s only 7 meters deep and you’re not allowed to swim in it because it’s sacred to the local Maori. What is the point of being the clearest lake if you cant take a dip? I’m sure it’s lovely but didn’t seem worth the time or effort. We have some pretty clear lakes in Montana. So, instead we took the 5 hour walk to Sabine. It actually took us 6 and a half hours. By a short survey, everyone else we talked to also overshot the estimate. As close as I can figure, we walked 19 miles(ish) with packs through some fairly tough trails. Thankfully at the Sabine hut we were greeted with some great views of the second of the Nelson Lakes, Lake Rotoroa. It came complete with a great diving dock. McKayla ended up running screaming out of the lake when she was convinced an eel touched her leg twice.
This hike ruined both of us. We limped around the hut only long enough to make dinner and stretch before calling it an early night, content to lay down and read in our bunk. We were the last ones to leave the following morning by almost 2 hours. The decision for day 4: hike 5 hours to the Speargrass hut or 8 hours out to the car. We had enough food but decided to put off our only decision of the day until we gimped our way to the next hut. As it turned out we found our bunkmate’s tablet a half hour after they’d left the hut. My good deed for the day had found its calling in lugging this brick back to its French owner. The guy had been nice enough to help me learn the distances on our hike (11 km/ 7 miles to the hut and another 7 km/ 4.5 miles to the car) and I knew he was headed in our same direction. I’d first tried to sprint out to meet him but coffee was the only thing fueling my exhausted body and it sputtered out quickly. I ended my sprint and went back to the hut for some pancake balls (we forgot oil or butter so McKayla attempted to make them using peanut butter to line the pan. It didn’t work but the result was something edible with calories). I loaded the tablet into my pack, figuring that we’d either find its owners or drop it off with the rangers at the visitor center. Instead, after we’d only been on the trail an hour, the Frenchman ran back towards us sweating and panting. I gladly handed off the extra weight and he was happy he didn’t have to go all the way back to the hut.
The Speargrass hut was as far as we would make it on day 4. Clouds looked threatening and muscles were so tight the Flying Walendas would’ve walked across them. The hut was great, good views and plenty of deck space to stretch. By morning we were feeling only slightly better but we were determined to get out early, find food and grab a shower. We met a Swiss guy who was biking through New Zealand and, naturally, we got along well with our new friend, Basil. He joined us on our short walk out and we insisted on giving him a lift back to his bike at the information center. We were heading there anyway to report a bird. The DOC (department of conservation) had wanted people to keep an eye out for for some endangered species and report them if they’d seen any. On day 2, we saw a weka (a curious flightless, chicken-like bird). Later, we heard a story of a girl sleeping in her tent with ear buds in and a weka had chewed through her tent and stole her crackers. The birds in New Zealand seem to be some of the few wildlife around, but most are colorful, strange, intelligent or a combination of the three.
The Travers-Sabine loop followed 2 bright blue rivers and followed the shores of 2 big lakes, surrounded by mountains. There were occasional waterfalls and more than the occasional songbird. As tough as it was, it was a great way to spend 5 days in New Zealand.