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2. Nelson Lakes - Waiau Pass (Plan B): St Arnaud, Travers Saddle & Sabine circuit. 56kms (166kms)

Day 9 - Sunday 3 January 2021:

St Arnaud to Lakehead Hut

10.4km, 181m, 2hrs 35mins

Lakehead Track

After a very relaxing few days on the boat it was time to get the trail legs moving again before too much of a good thing eroded my motivation... so we headed to St Arnaud. I had sent a resupply box south with friends Jonny & Sue who have a holiday house there, and after a quick repack of food and great catch up over lunch, Rich walked me to the trail start. The track was well formed and the walking easy. On reaching the hut, I passed a couple of young guys camping under the trees, stoking an open fire. Given the dry conditions this didn’t impress me much. Neither, the sight of the wasps buzzing at the bottom of the long drop at the hut! Needless to say, I made alternative arrangements when these facilities were needed. The 28 bunk Lakehead hut was empty. A real surprise given I later found out it had been overflowing just the night before.

Lakehead wharf
Head of Lake Rotoiti

Lakehead Hut

I settled in and after a wash and dinner was lying reading when River & Lela arrived. They were walking the Travers Sabine circuit so we’d be in hut sync for the next few days at least. During the night, two other hikers arrived unbeknownst to me.

Lakehead Hut to Upper Travers Hut

21km, 835m, 6hrs 50mins

Early morning in the valley

The sun was yet to reach the valley floor when I set off in the calm of the morning and the dew on the grassy track soaked the legs of my pants & shoes. The ground trail was well marked through a mix of open grassy river flats and bush, and I made good time to John Tait Hut where I stopped for lunch. A few more walkers arrived including Paulie, a Riwaka-based Irishman, fresh from walking the TA North Island. Everything about him screamed Leprechaun, that is apart from his tall and lean stature. He was there, eaten & gone again in a flash. As the track climbed steadily alongside the Travers River, it headed deeper into the looming mountains. The landscape was stunning & steep.

Travers River & Mt Travers

Only one way out...

Upper Travers Hut

Eventually the Upper Travers Hut came into view, nestled within a more open alpine flat. Beyond it somewhere, somehow was the Travers Saddle - tomorrow’s adventure. The 24 bunk Upper Travers Hut was busy with many walkers also heading over the Saddle tomorrow. I threw my sleeping bag on a lower bunk before going through the now regular post-walk routine of a wash (in the icy river), snack, next-day prep (filtering water & laundry), then dinner. It was only when I headed towards bed, that I realized I was next to Paulie, who turned out, was that one snorer. Even with earplugs, the only way I was going to get the sleep I needed was to drag my mattress into the kitchen area for the night. This also meant I avoided the humid funk that goes with 12 trampers sleeping in non-vented confines. Had a great sleep :)

Day 11 - Tuesday 5 January 2021:

Upper Travers Hut to West Sabine Hut

8.7km, 506m (1173m descent), 5hrs 25mins

Needless to say Paulie was the first up at 5:30am and on the trail by 6:30am. In a record for me, I was out the door at 7:30am on a picture perfect day, keen to complete the climb to the saddle before the heat of the day.

Starting the climb to Travers Saddle

Looking back

Boulder clamber

The steep 450m climb started on a reasonably well defined foot track following snow poles, before ascending to a pick-your-own path clamber up steep boulders, before crossing a waterfall and a gradual ease towards the top.

Looking back

Up and over to the next valley

Following the poles to the bush line

Standing at the saddle at 1787m, I can only describe as awe-inspiring. The sheerness & scale of the landscape was like nothing I’d ever experienced. It was then over and down a 1173m descent to the Sabine River in the valley below. This initially crossed an avalanche path of boulders & scree before reaching the tree line and a seemingly never-ending steep descent down a ridge. Ever so slowly the sound of the river became louder before I finally reached the Sabine River East Branch. I filled my water and drank to getting down with both knees and ankles in tact.

I stopped for lunch about 30 mins shy of the West Sabine hut. Again this hut was busy with walkers from all directions and many opting to camp alongside the river. The sandflies were out in force here so my wash in the river was a strategic exercise in baring the least flesh possible at any one time.

I planned to walk a short day to Blue Lake Hut tomorrow in preparation for the Waiau Pass. Having crossed the Travers Saddle today, there is no way I’d want any rain across the Waiau pass as it would make any boulder clambering treacherous, let alone visibility and navigation - and there was rain in the forecast. I began to hatch a Plan B, which was to forego the Waiau Pass and continue on the Travers Sabine Circuit looping back to St Arnaud. I would then figure out a way to get south by road to Hanmer Springs.

The hut warden (the first I’ve seen on the TA so far) did his rounds in the evening and promised an updated forecast at 8:30am in the morning. I decided to make a call then. Despite the full hut, it was a very quiet night, and the drizzle set in.

Day 12 - Wednesday 6 January 2021:

West Sabine Hut to Sabine Hut

16km, 254m, 5hrs 21mins

Misty morning

I think everyone was waiting for the forecast as no-one surfaced until after 7am. It was still drizzling and the cloud hung low into the valley. When the forecast was eventually posted many were seeking guidance from the Warden on crossing the Pass in such conditions. His warnings did nothing to boost my confidence so I made the decision to deploy Plan B. Next stops would be Sabine Hut, Speargrass Hut and out to St Arnaud. Once I’d updated Rich, I set off for Sabine Hut. The track followed alongside the Sabine River through goblin forests, across avalanche boulders, open river flats and the odd washout. Everything was damp and slippery underfoot making it slow going initially.

Goblin forest

Avalanche paths

Looking back up the Sabine River

Rocks as big as cars

Just before the Sabine flows into Lake Rotoroa it heads underground into a chasm. Where it emerges, the water is the most spectacular emerald. Two trampers - Mark & son Sam from Christchurch (who had also been at the previous two huts) had stopped for a swim with another group. It was also a perfect spot for my lunch stop as it was relatively free of wasps, which had been ever present on this track. Mark mentioned they were being picked up from Sabine hut tomorrow by water taxi (who knew?!) before heading back to Christchurch.

Bridge over the Sabine River

River flats before Lake Rotoroa

Sabine Hut

Lake Rotoroa

Sabine Hut sits on the shores of Lake Rotoroa and the surrounding bush to the water reminded me of the Sounds. It was however, swarming with sand flies and wasps rendering any time outside rather short lived and unpleasant. However, it did have cellphone coverage, which meant I was able to start making plans for my trip south. This was looking rather convoluted as I needed to not only get to Hanmer, but also Boyle Village on the Lewis Pass to collect my resupply box. This was until I broached the subject with Mark and managed to sweet talk my way into a lift with him! He was going right past both places and happy for me to jump in with them. This meant I’d miss the last days walk out to St Arnaud, but I vowed to make up the kms elsewhere :)

Day 13 - Thursday 7 January 2021:

Sabine Hut to Hanmer Springs (by boat & car)

Zero Day

Waiting for the water taxi

Still waiting for the water taxi


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