|Hiking the Travers - Sabine Circuit|
Nelson Lakes National Park is situated in the upper right corner of the South Island. It is based around 2 large lakes - Rotoiti and Rotoroa - and the valleys and ranges extending south from them down to Lewis Pass. The closest town to the park is the village of St. Arnaud which contains the DOC visitor centre. The hamlet has a shop, service station and plenty of accommodation. The park contains 2 skifields - the club skifield on Mt. Roberts and the commercial Rainbow Skifield.
Most hikes will start at one of the lakes. These have tracks along their shores to the southern valleys (good for day and short trips) but there are water taxi services also available (about $10 per person). A lot of the routes consist of travelling up one valley, crossing an alpine pass and following another valley out.
The Travers - Sabine Circuit is a classic tramp (hike) up the tremendous Travers Valley, over the Travers Saddle and then down the sublime Sabine Valley. The start at St. Arnaud can be regained via a traverse along the Roberts Ridge to Speargrass Hut and then out along Speargrass Creek. Alternately you can hike along the shores of Lake Rotoroa to the road end at the foot of the lake.
There are a number of options on how to do this hiking trip. The shortest journey is to walk up to the Upper Travers Hut (8 hours) on the first day, cross the saddle on the second day and travel down the Sabine River the next day (exiting the same day along Lake Rotoroa). The description below is split into six sections giving five easy days of tramping with the tougher crossing of the saddle. The first and last 2 days can be merged to give a quite tough 4 day trip. The trip can be extended by adding a rest day either at Upper Travers Hut or West Sabine Hut - the latter allowing a side trip up to the scenic Blue Lake.
A few people hike over Travers Saddle from John Tait Hut. This can minimise the time spend on the circuit but makes the crossing rather rushed and tiring. Remember that in fine weather you will want to spent at least an hour enjoying the saddle.
Note that the Upper Travers Hut is due for replacement in 2004 by a much larger hut. This will upgrade the circuit to a "Great Walk" and the higher Great Walk fees will apply.
|Lake Rotoiti to John Tait Hut|
|Mt. Travers and John Tait Hut|
I started my day at my parent's new home in Motueka on the coast. They kindly drove me down to St. Arnaud - my dad wanted to check out the fastest route to the Rainbow Skifield. We ended up taking the water taxi over Lake Rotoiti to the jetty for Lakehead Hut. There we had lunch before they took the lakeside track back to the car and I continued up the valley.
The weather started off overcast and wet and rapidly became worse. The photo above was actually taken the next day. Raindrops were the only things that I could have taken photos of on this day.
From Lakehead Hut, there are 2 tracks - one up the left-hand side of the valley that eventually crosses the river via a swing bridge and another that fords the river near the hut. I took the latter track meaning to have a look at the river. Immediately I crossed a broad shallow 'stream' - it took another 5 minutes of walking before I realised that I had crossed the Travers River. You can see that the river is easily forded (except of course when in flood).
It only took a few minutes more to join the track from Coldwater Hut and head more directly up the valley. A quick hour later and I was at the first footbridge across the river. Up to this point the track passes through beech forest and along open river terraces - easy, level going. Angelus Hut can be accessed via the steep Cascade Track up the Hukere Stream (branching off about 20 minutes before the bridge).
The other track heads up the valley quite close to the river with some rocky patches (slippery when wet). Soon the river swings away to the other side of the valley and the track enters an area of scattered scrub and clearings filled with old burnt-off trees. There are good views across the river into the green, steep valley of the Hukere Stream and up to the brown tussock tops. After an hour the track enters a patch of beech forest and climbs up slightly to traverse a rocky bluff with a helpful metal rope - take care rubbing your hand along the rope since there are a few spiky metal strands poking out. A swing bridge is at the end of the bluff and crosses the river to join the other track.
Similar easy and level hiking took me up to the next footbridge. Here the path up to Hopeless Hut branched off. By now the valley had closed in and from now on the track would keep above the river. It is a bit steeper - very noticeable with a heavy pack on the first day of a long tramp. Also the rain had really started to pour down. At times it was difficult to tell the difference between the track and the streams it crossed (especially since it was getting quite dark under the rain clouds and bush canopy).
A couple of hours later, I was sloshing along the wet, dark track using my head-torch when I came out into a clearing to see a sort of truncated tree trunk in front of me - the long-drop for John Tait Hut. Soon I was in the hut drying off over a hot stove. I shared the hut with a bloke that had just returned from Upper Travers Hut where the weather had prevented him from crossing the saddle. A bit of a worry for me but I was pretty sure the weather was clearing.
|John Tait Hut to Upper Travers Hut|
|Upper Travers Hut at 1310m|
The posted time from John Tait Hut to Upper Travers Hut is 3 hours. I started off at 9:30 intending to take it nice and slow and managed to stretch it out to 6 hours. The track is generally steeper than the first days walk (rising 500m in 6 kilometres as opposed to 200m in 12 kilometres). Usually it is quite a distance above the river. There are a number of points of interest along the way:
The footbridge at Cupola Creek is a good place for your first break. The view through the overhanging trees down to the junction with the Travers River is nice.
A little way up from Cupola Creek, you come to a marshy clearing. Dump your packs at the edge and walk out into the centre - take your cameras! Up the valley is a grand view of Mt. Travers with its craggy north-east ridge profiled against the sky. You also get a glimpse of the rough ridges near the head of the valley.
|Travers Falls (15m)|
A few minutes from the clearing there is a side track that leads down to Travers Falls (15m). It is well worth the 3 minute detour down the hillside (a bit steep at the end). One option is a cold dip in the pool at the foot of the waterfall.
Before the footbridge across the Travers, there is a big, old slip to cross. It is a good idea to stop in the middle so that you can appreciate the vistas up and down the valley. Downstream you can see the broad flanks of Mt. Hopeless. Upstream, the ridge along the east side is beginning to tower over the valley. The peaks along this ridge are over 1900m high. Of course on the west side are the slopes leading to Mt. Travers.
On the rest of the way to the hut, there are few views across the valley to Mt. Travers until you cross the last stream before the hut. Here the trees open up and you can see the first views of the massive bluffs falling from the summit.
The first view of the hut is also something special. The track squeezes through some rocks and then you emerge onto a tussock plateau. On the far side is the hut nestled under a belt of trees with the sunlit and shadowed ridge above.
Upper Travers Hut is based on an older hut (on the right as you approach) which has been extended with another room on the left. The stove is in the old section while the new section has a sink and running water (when not iced up). Make sure that you make your food secure - the first thing I noticed was the pitter-patter of small feet. The mice seem to have a burrow just outside by the chopping block.
This day I decided to have a rest. This was probably just general laziness but on the other hand the magnificent setting of the hut (and great weather) also contributed. After a lie-in, I spread out some of my wetter clothes and basically drunk in the views.
Around 1 o'clock a couple arrived from John Tait and had lunch before continuing on over the saddle.
As the afternoon went on I could hear more and more keas around about. Soon I heard a pair in the bush behind the hut and went out to say hello. Like most keas they were pretty friendly and allowed me to get within 2 metres of them. They stayed around for about half an hour. I managed to get a couple of photos of them, the last photo being of them flying away across the tussock.
The next day dawned even better than the previous. There was not even a sign of a cloud in the sky. By 8 o'clock I was off on my travels. The morning light gave the bluffs of Mt. Travers a special glow. They appeared a russet colour rather than the plain gray that midday light painted them.
|Travers Valley from above the Travers Saddle (at point 1837m)|
The first part of the track got my heart started with a short sharp climb from above the footbridge just past the hut. There were plenty of excuses to look back as the valley opened up behind me and the different aspects of Mt. Travers were revealed. The path levelled off after about half an hour. It lead rapidly up the valley to a large boulder and signpost. I had a good rest here to take a few photos and gird my loins for the steepest part of the ascent to the saddle.
The track made a sharp right-hand turn at the boulder and climbed a steep boulder bank beside a small waterfall. The climb was about 100m in 200 metres travelled. There was good footing all the way and a fairly clear path to follow around and over the boulders.
The top provided another chance for a rest (and a photo opportunity). The track turned left over a little stream (feeding the waterfall) and up a sometimes icy slope. Less than an hour of contouring below the northern slopes of Mt. Travers brought me onto Travers Saddle. I walked past an iced-over tarn and to a cairn and pole where the East Sabine Valley and the ranges beyond opened up before me.
The combination of the wonderful weather and the splendid location made the Travers Saddle the best place I have been in a long time. I spent an hour and a half wandering about the saddle and shot the better part of a roll of film. The views were perfect and almost indescribably lovely. To the north is the massive peak of Mt. Travers towering over you. To the south are the peaks of the St. Arnaud Range - Kehu Peak on the left with large scree fans at its feet and Rainbow Pass almost directly south with its guardian ridges to either side. Behind you is Travers Valley and before you the steep drop into the East Sabine Valley with the green bush creeping its way onto the shoulders of the Franklin Ridge
If possible you should climb up onto the ridges to the north and south of the saddle. Just 20 minutes south and up takes you up to point 1837 where the Travers Valley can be fully appreciated. A quarter of an hour the other way gives you access to a small peak over stoney ground. Here the junction of the Sabine River branches is visible (West Sabine Hut is just upstream of the forks). You can also see a good part of the next days journey down the Sabine. The range on the far side of the Sabine is the Mahanga Range with Moss Pass hidden behind Mt. Franklin.
After lunch, I continued along the track. The track descended sharply south and then turned back north over the headwaters of a small stream. For the first section of the track this was on a fairly eroded track in the tussock. There are about 3 boulder fields to traverse before reaching a signpost (about half an hour after the saddle) where there is a good view down the valley and across to the Franklin Ridge.
Less than an hour from the saddle a belt of beech is passed through and you emerge beside the beginnings of a dry gully leading down into the valley. This is where you say goodbye to your knees - you are about to drop straight down 400m in less than 500 metres. The track is almost a scree slope as it follows the gully edge with a dirt base covered with shingle. I met one bloke coming up the track here but Sabine to Travers is certainly the harder way to do the saddle.
Generally the track followed the left side of the gully. It crossed temporarily to the other side at a large boulder where the gully started to become a stream and then regained the left-hand side a little further down. The slope was beginning to reduce about here and a large marker lead me into the beech forest for an interesting descent down to the river.
The track followed the river downstream for half a kilometre where it slipped down to the footbridge over the Sabine River Chasm. The footbridge didn't need to be very long since the Chasm is less than 3 metres wide. However the river waters are invisible 30 metres away at the bottom of the canyon.
A quick climb up the other side and the track then continued downstream. The terrain down to the forks is typical southern beech forest with some large trees providing interest. The track is certainly not a highway - the going is narrow in some places and muddy in others. It soon though brings you to the last drop down to the forks. From the forks the track becomes a broad and level path that gets you to West Sabine Hut in less than 20 minutes. Note that Forks hut and the footbridge to it have been demolished.
West Sabine Hut is a large modern building that can sleep 35. It is nestled under trees near the river. The stove seems a bit small to heat such a large building. On the other hand I did not light it and being alone in a hut usually makes it seem larger.
|Down the Sabine River to Lake Rotoroa|
|East Sabine Valley (previous day)|
Back to wet weather for the next days tramp. This day was an easy 5 hours down the Sabine River. The morning started off overcast and wet but as the day passed the weather became finer. There were enough gaps in the cloud cover to get some views up and down the river valley. A short days walk gave me the excuse to start off late (about 10 o'clock).
The footbridge over the Sabine River (West Branch) was reached about 10 minutes downstream after leaving the hut. After crossing the bridge I passed the track leading up the valley to Blue Lake and its isolated hut. I took the path leading north (downstream). The track went on through various terrain - beech forest, open slips, river flats - always clear on the ground and good going (not too much mud). Overall it descends 250 metres between the hut and the lake. However there is one 90m climb over a ridge to avoid a gorge on the river.
Keep an eye out for waterfowl on the river. I saw a pair of blue duck and watched another pair of geese for a while. If the clouds allow, you can also see some good views - especially up the valley to the sharp end of the Franklin Ridge.
There is one place that is a mandatory rest spot. At one point the track comes down to the river at a small gorge. This is about an hour and a half from the hut if I remember right. With plenty of water in the river, interesting and relaxing rapids form.
A large river flat was the sign that I was coming to the climb around the final gorge. There is a can hanging on a tree for those too lazy to walk the couple of minutes over the flats to the river for water. The track sidled along the ridge, gaining height steadily. Soon I was descending the other side where half an hours walking brought me to a footbridge over the Sabine. At this point the river passes through a rocky gorge less than 10 metres wide. There are big blue pools where the river emerges from the gorge. Keep them in mind if you are travelling on a hot summer's day.
The track went along the hillside above the river for a while and then descended for a long, level walk bending northwards to Sabine Hut beside the lake. As soon as I sat on the hut porch, a cloud of sandflies rose to surround me. Thank goodness for insect repellent! The only good thing about the sandflies is that they attract lots of birds. You can expect to be accosted by very friendly bush robins.
The hut has a radio so you can call for a water taxi to the road end at the foot of Lake Rotoroa. The road end is 6 hours walk away on the lakeside track.
I settled into the hut and and was soon joined by a couple (brother and sister) who had dropped down from Angelus Hut. Angelus Hut is probably the best hut in New Zealand judging by their comments and the comments in the Sabine Hut logbook. It sleeps 35 easily and is situated at a height of 1650 metres beside the beautiful alpine Lake Angelus. There is easy access up to Mt. Angelus (2075m). The walk in along Robert Ridge is also something special. A visit up there is definitely on my mind. The route between the 2 huts crosses over Mt. Cedric where the drop down to Sabine Hut is steep (the couple were pretty shattered and a bit muddy from slipping on the track).
The hut's logbook also mentioned that tracks and huts were being upgraded in preparation for creating a "Great Walk" of at least the tramp up to Blue Lake and perhaps the Travers - Sabine Circuit. This means that soon you may have to book ahead to do the tramps in the Sabine area.
|Sabine Hut to Speargrass Hut|
|Looking across Lake Rotoroa to the D'Urville Valley|
Overnight the rain clouds had blown away and we were left with the morning fog slowly lifting. I left last night's companions preparing for a late start on to West Sabine or Blue Lake Huts while I followed the track around the lakeside. I took my time - another fairly easy 5 hours walking was expected.
Soon I left the lake shore as the track branched up and across the slopes into a small valley. I was passed by a couple of blokes who mentioned that there were lots of hunters around - some sort of police hunting competition with up to 20 teams of 3 coming into the bush. By the time I got to the crossing of the stream running down the valley the blokes were well ahead of me. Here the track became steeper as it climbed up the other side of the valley and onto a small plateau.
Once past the steep section the track entered a stand of large trees. I took a rest here, sitting on a log and listening to the songs of the tuis and bellbirds ringing out from above. Travelling again, I passed a couple of tarns and came to a fork in the track. Ahead of me was Howard Track which drops down following streams to Howard Hut. From this hut a track heads up Hodgson Stream to Speargrass Hut. The tramping time is 8 hours from Sabine Hut. The other track is a route that goes directly to Speargrass by traversing along the slopes of Robert Ridge (5 hours). This route is in the process of being upgraded to what looks like a fairly high standard (based on the sections I have seen). However the old sections on the route are still a bit rough.
I took the direct route. The track continued to pass a few tarns. The quality of the track was alright with only a few muddy patches, plenty of tree roots to navigate and lots of markers (needed in some places where the path was not clear on the ground). I had my morning break at a small bridge over a creek with the attendance of a bush robin. About halfway between the tarns and Cedric Stream I came to the work site for the new track. For about a kilometre the going is not pretty - where DOC have dug up the ground for the new track there is quite deep mud. In one section there is a new cutting through rock to give a rest from the mud. However the bits they have finished are very good with solid, dry gravel underfoot. The equipment they are using may block the way since one item is a small bulldozer.
I arrived at Cedric Stream around 1 o'clock and stopped for lunch beside the stream. There is a quite impressive swingbridge over the wide expanse of shingle brought down by the stream. Part of the track upgrading is the construction of boardwalks over delicate areas. It was quite a surprise sometimes to follow a meagre track onto a well constructed boardwalk. After Cedric Stream the track went on for some distance until it turned sharply uphill along a narrow ridge. I then dived down the side of the ridge along a good, benched track to a stream (Hodgson Stream I think). The track crossed the stream on a small sturdy bridge (with a wire rope anchoring it to the bank in case of floods) and climbed up the other side on another well-constructed and benched path.
From now on the track was nearly a highway - gravelled with good drainage and easy gradients. Soon I came to the biggest surprise of the day - a boardwalk that seemed to go on forever (maybe a kilometre in length). The boardwalk protects the marshy terrain through which the track travels. Shortly before 3, I arrived at a viewing platform built on the side of the boardwalk where it passed through a clearing. I spent about an hour here - looking at the splendid views, resting up and doing some sunbathing. From here you can look out over Lake Rotoroa to the hills beyond or turn your back and look up to the impressive scree banks below point 1805 hiding Mt. Angelus (the left hand ridge is a possible route between Speargrass Hut and Angelus Hut with the official route actually beside the Speargrass Stream on the other side of the ridge).
Quick and easy progress soon got me to the end of the boardwalk. A bit beyond this the good track ended and a rough route lead over a small saddle on the ridge dropping down from point 1805. The path down from the saddle was one of the muddiest patches that I had seen on this trip. The junction with the Speargrass Track wasn't very clear but so long as you take the downhill fork you will be OK. More muddy progress took me down to finally break out into the grassy clearing holding Speargrass Hut.
The hut is quite small and basic (holding 6 people) but well situated at the top of the clearing with views up to Robert Ridge and down Speargrass Creek to the hills beyond St. Arnaud. Water is best obtained from the creek about 3 minutes walk away. There is a small brook at the foot of the clearing that also seems to be used. When I arrived the long grass had been crushed around the hut. It looked like 2 or more helicopters had dropped a number of people off - probably the hunters I had heard of earlier.
|Out to St. Arnaud|
The next morning was cold and clear. Overnight a sprinkling of snow on the heights had given the Robert Ridge a nice frosty covering. No particular hurry for today's walking since it was just 3 hours to the road end and then a couple of hours along a gravel road to St. Arnaud. Note that it is possible to leave your car here at the start of the circuit since there is an accessible track around the lake to Coldwater Hut. However you should check with DOC regarding the security of this isolated carpark.
There is one error between the maps (M29 and N29 - published in 1984 and 1987 respectively) covering the track. M29 correctly shows the track crossing Speargrass Creek and proceeding down the true right of the creek (right when facing downstream). However N29 shows the track entering the map on the creek's true left and then crossing by a footbridge. This is wrong - there is only one footbridge just below the hut and the track stays on the true right of the creek all the way down.
The track is fairly good all the way with no bad sections and a few places where it is benched into the hillside. For the first hour or more it traverses the slopes well above the creek. It then drops down into the creek and crosses a couple of slips. At one point the track takes a sharp and steep detour up and over a recent slip. I took this route and suggest that if possible you ford the creek a couple of times instead (much faster and lots less effort).
Eventually the track left the creek and for an hour followed the 800m contour until a final steepish climb to the carpark at the end of the Mt. Robert road. This is a good place for a rest before hiking into St. Arnaud (or while waiting for transport). There is a shelter for respite from inclement weather and toilets so you don't have to cross your legs. The weather was good that day so I had the added bonus of good views across the lake to the Arnaud Range. The carpark is also the setting off point for the track up to the Mt. Robert Skifield and onto Angelus Hut (see my trip report for a description).
I took the gravel road downhill to the lake arriving 2 hours later in St. Arnaud to sign out at the visitors centre and find a room for the night. The next day I took the bus out to Nelson, another bus to Picton and then the ferry home to Wellington.