The week before Christmas is one of my favourite times to head into the hills – missing the peak frenzy of the commercial madness that breaks out at this time of year, and getting in ahead of the crowded back-country huts post-Christmas when many folk head off into the back-country for some recovery. This year we decided to head to Nelson Lakes National Park and do the Travers-Sabine circuit – a six-day walk I last did 40-something years ago at the tender age of 17. This would be a revisit of the same route, travelling from Saint Arnaud on the shores of Lake Rotoiti up the Travers River to the Upper Travers Hut, crossing over the Travers Saddle into the upper Sabine where we would stay two nights at the West Sabine Hut, before travelling downstream to the Sabine Hut on the shores of Lake Rotoroa. The next part of the route would be the hardest – a 1300 m climb up over Mount Cedric into Angelus Basin where we planned to tent for the night; the final day would take us along Robert Ridge and back to Saint Arnaud. My two sons were also keen to join us on the trip – their first time on a multi-day trip of such length.
After much anticipation and activity – booking travel and accommodation, assembly and checking of gear, running the food dehydrator, etc. – the big day finally arrived, and we set off via Auckland to Nelson, where we picked up a rental car and drove up to the small alpine village of Saint Arnaud. The forecast was not good, with a deep depression in the north Tasman Sea threatening to track south over the upper South Island with a warning of heavy rain to come. We left Saint Arnaud early the next day for a drop off at the head of the lake, and finally arrived at Cold Water Hut with the boatman assuring us that the day would stay dry.
A drop-off like this is always a transition – a last contact with the outside world and an entry into a much simpler ‘other’ world, one with no radios, cell-phones, hot showers, etc. And also with an abrupt transition to nearly 20kg of weight on the back, sandflies that bite any stationary human, and time marked by the distance to the next hut or the time till the next snack break. I was carrying my Sony A7R mounted with a Canon FD 35 – a great walkabout lens for this sort of trip, and sporting a fancy little homemade water-proof hood to keep out the worst of the weather. Slowly we made our way up the wide lower valley, gradually adjusting to the weight on our backs and settling into a comfortable walking rhythm – our lunchtime goal was the John Tait Hut, approximately five hours up river.
Cloud gradually rolled in as the day progressed and by the time we finally reached our lunchtime goal, the first few drifts of light rain had begun to blow in from the north-east. Coats were donned after a lunch of the 3 C’s – crackers, cheese and chutney – and we began the last three hours of walking to the Upper Travers Hut. The river had halved in size by this stage, and the valley was gradually steepening. We had climbed 200 m in traversing from Coldwater Hut to John Tait, but would climb another 500 m before reaching our destination. The rain was making opportunities for photos increasingly difficult to find, so by the time we reached the Travers Falls, the camera was well tucked away in the dry. We trudged on, climbing more and more steeply as the rain increased, packs seemed to weigh heavier, and leg muscles protested.
With great relief, we finally topped the last major climb into a pretty little hanging basin, its floor carpeted with tall tussock grassland, and with the Upper Travers hut nestled in among the trees at its head. Mount Travers loomed above us in the murk to the west, with tomorrow’s climb angling up around its southern flanks, but we were more interested in finding the shelter of the hut and offloading our packs and damp clothes – what relief!
Day Two dawned with low cloud hanging low in the valley, although the heavy rain that fell through the night had mostly finished. After a slow packup we commenced the steep 450 m ascent to the saddle, climbing up through tussock grassland that gradually thins out and gives way to extensive screes and boulder-fields. The cloud lifted a little as we climbed, allowing some spectacular views of the steep, glacially-carved landscape, the valley falling away below us in a series of large steps. After a little over an hour we finally reached the saddle, now shrouded in cloud, which allowed only occasional glimpses of the lower slopes of the surrounding mountains – Kehu to the east, Travers to the north, and Franklin to the southwest.
From here the route was down – 1100 metres of steep downhill, at times almost as physically demanding as the climb up the other side. Lunch was a quick affair using a large scree boulder as a table, with occasional glimpses of steep, mist-shrouded slopes across the valley. But the cloud closed in and it began to drizzle as we again shouldered our loads and headed down towards the West Sabine Hut. The most spectacular sight en route was the East Sabine gorge where the mid-sized river has cut a narrow slot 30 metres or more down into the underlying rocks. The view from the five meter long bridge is well nigh impossible to capture with a camera, with the gorge walls so convoluted that only occasional glimpses can be had of the river – although its roar is clearly evident!
Two hours later we finally reached our goal, arriving at the hut in steady rain, and ready for a large dinner. Up until this stage opportunities for photos had been relatively limited (some can be found here) – we had walked in rain for probably a third of the time, with heavy overcast mostly hiding the mountains of the Travers Range for much of the time. Hopefully more opportunity would present itself during the rest of the trip, with a day-trip planned for the next day to the renowned Blue Lake at the head of the West Sabine.