Escaping Covid-19, both literally and the endless news about it, I spent five days walking a harder variant on the Travers-Sabine Circuit, involving two stays at Angelus Hut. It was a perfectly timed trip to the Nelson Lakes area as while I was on the track (and completely off the grid) DOC closed the whole hut network. I’m glad I got to do a multi-day hike while it was (only just) still possible, and have a usually popular track almost to myself.
I did the ~78km circuit over five days, ascending and descending over 4,000m, with a heavier than necessary pack as I’d originally planned to spend six days to include Mt Misery Hut. However the weather forecast was that it would live up to it’s name the night I’d planned to stay so I axed it from the itinerary. I was also carrying many warm layers as freezing conditions and snow were forecast (in late March, early autumn). I stayed warm and well fed but wouldn’t recommend carrying a pack weighing nearly a third of your body weight…
It was a stunning day in Nelson as I flew in.
But it was grey and damp by the time I got to Mt Robert Car Park near St Arnaud, an hour and half drive away, where my legs got eaten alive by sandflies while I got my pack sorted. After the flight from Auckland and drive from Nelson I didn’t start the Speargrass Track till half two, again not recommended… The track was rather pleasant, though concentration was required not to slip on wet tree roots, one of the greatest hazards on this hike.
There were a couple of areas with impressive slips / banks.
After a couple of hours I reached the rather neat Speargrass Hut to take a quick rest, and talked to an American lady who I saw twice the following day at other huts. She was in New Zealand on a working holiday visa and trying to decide whether to return to the States before they potentially closed the border / cancelled the flights, or to stay in New Zealand. Given that she was out for a week, I suspect the decision will have been made for her by the time she returned to civilisation.
The real work then started with a near 1,000m ascent alongside Te Horowai / Speargrass Creek, which the track annoyingly crossed many times. I kept my boots just about dry but it wasn’t easy in places. The low cloud was rather foreboding.
Particularly as I headed up into it, looking carefully for the next red marker pole. I was pretty tired by this point, and had to be careful crossing wet slippery rocks.
The cloud briefly parted to give a teaser of the obscured views, before swiftly returning.
I got to an empty Angelus Hut by half seven. Having a 28 bunk hut to myself, that was apparently fully booked the night before (a Saturday) was a treat, but quite a spooky one in the increasing darkness.
After a night of broken sleep, imagining people arriving at the hut, I woke to the same enveloping cloudscape.
I took the Mt Cedric route which crossed endless scree and boulders, not that enjoyable in drizzle and at times strong winds.
Amazingly though as I left the boulder fields the clouds suddenly lifted, treating me to stunning views of Lake Rotoroa ahead.
After taking a rest to enjoy the view I ventured into the bush. I’d come up this way four years prior, finding it one of the steepest and slowest going tracks I’d ever walked. At the time I was glad to be climbing as I thought it’d be a nightmare to descend…
Which it was in places, but turned out to be just about doable, though I did slip a few times down the steep, leaf and tree root covered clay hillside.
It felt endless but I finally made it down for a much needed lunch at the lakeside Sabine Hut.
It turned out that the morning was the easy part of the day though. From Sabine Hut to West Sabine Hut was 15km of undulating, mostly steep and slippery tree root and rock dense track, with few views, and increasingly heavy rain. Normally I’m about 20% faster than the DOC track times but this one really did take five hours. I kept hallucinating the bridge across the Sabine River that marked where the hut was…
Rather wet and exhausted after nearly nine hours of walking it was heaven to arrive at the toasty West Sabine Hut, home to four other people and a warm stove.
After a much better sleep the next day started with blue skies and some morning mist.
I had over 1,100m to climb to reach Poukirikiri / Travers Saddle, mainly through endless bush, a tough morning. Frustratingly the track climbed, only to drop back down to cross the eastern branch of the Sabine River, before climbing again steeply. I kept getting false hope as the trees thinned that the bush line was nearby, but it took much longer to reach than expected.
Eventually I escaped the trees and was rewarded with some pretty spectacular views of the Sabine Valley.
Poukirikiri / Travers Saddle is 1,767m above sea level, only about 100m higher than Angelus Hut, but it felt higher when I could see something.
The Travers Valley was equally spectacular, helped by clouds casting patterns of light and shade across the mountainside.
I only had 450m to descend before reaching Upper Travers Hut for a welcome late lunch. It was quite a different experience to when I’d last visited four years before, in the middle of a huge storm, which was the first time I’d had a hut to myself overnight, something I found quite terrifying.
Unexpectedly it started snowing gently as I headed onto John Tait Hut, a far more enjoyable walk than the previous afternoon to West Sabine Hut. The track by the Travers River was much more scenic (including Travers Falls), much easier, and half the distance.
It was quite a novelty to arrive at John Tait Hut by 5pm, with a whole evening ahead. I had the hut to myself which I was getting used to, having probably the first non-spooky night, helped by the hut being a single room, rather than having bunk rooms separate to the kitchen area.
My penultimate day treated me to absolutely perfect weather, barely a cloud in the sky but quite cool, and the scariest moments of the trip. The start wandering along by the Travers River was straightforward, and scenic once the sunlight made it over the hills to illuminate the forest.
After just over an hour I branched off onto the interestingly named Hopeless Track, relating to the nearby Mt Hopeless. This is a less frequently used and tougher track which wasn’t particularly memorable.
Hopeless Hut, reached after an hour and half, was memorable though. It was built by the New Zealand Alpine Club in 1967, and opened by the then club president Sir Edmund Hillary. It was very cosy in the midday sunshine, though not somewhere to visit in winter as it is closed due to high avalanche risk.
I could have happily stayed there longer than it took to eat lunch but needed to keep heading toward Angelus Hut. The route I took isn’t marked on the maps and didn’t have much information online so I wanted to allow plenty of time. It involved heading over the 1,890m high Sunset Saddle, past Hinepura Tarn, and onto Angelus Hut.
From Hopeless Hut the track is well marked through some attractive bush, ending with an impressive vista.
From here the route is marked with cairns, usually plentiful but annoying absent in some parts. I’d spend much of the next five hours clambering up, down and across rocks of varying sizes, all requiring care and attention. This is definitely not a route to do if any rain is likely, it was challenging enough in the dry. Another blog called it, with classic Kiwi understatement, “a bit of a grunt”.
The goal was to reach the tarn that feeds the waterfall, involving climbing ever steeper piles of rock, surrounded by some wonderful views.
Two sections really got my heart pounding. First heading up a very steep section with lots of loose rock, which I had visions of tumbling down.
Secondly a bit further up when I couldn’t see any more cairns, and the way ahead involved me climbing on all fours for 5 metres or so, feeling very conscious of the heavy pack I was carrying, and the drop below.
It was a huge relief after a rather stressful and exhausting hour and a half to reach the attractive tarn.
I thought that this was relatively close to Sunset Saddle, but it certainly wasn’t, with another hour and quarter to go, walking through a barren, rock filled landscape.
Below a small waterfall were these unusual ice formations.
The saddle was ahead but with no clear path, and spotting cairns in the rock filled landscape was like a particularly hard Where’s Wally puzzle.
I finally made it to Sunset Saddle, from which I could see Angelus Hut in the distance. So close, yet as I discovered, so far…
Clouds were starting to roll in, which was a worry, and coming down the saddle was harder than climbing up it.
I headed down toward Hinepura Tarn.
Spotting a few Chamois on the way, though they soon bounded away.
I ended up walking along the wrong side of Hinepura Tarn, scrambling over yet more rocks, but as compensation I had better views, with the landscape reflecting in the tarn.
It was late afternoon by this point, with the setting sunlight adding to an already impressive landscape.
From the end were epic views down the valley which Cascade Track comes up, my original choice for today until I discovered the Sunset Saddle route.
After a final savour of Hinepura Tarn I headed up toward Angelus Hut, on the shores of Rotomaninitua / Lake Angelus.
This is a quite stunning place to put a hut, 1,650m above sea level. With barely any wind it was incredibly quiet, almost unnervingly so.
Filled with sunlight it was a much more appealing place second time round on this trip.
The surrounding scenery is quite magical.
Final couple of shots before the light disappeared.
And a few of it re-emerging in the morning.
As it was clear, if rather windy, I headed out along Mt Robert Ridge, a very exposed but scenic route from Angelus Hut. I’d forgotten how rocky it was though, a theme of this trip.
There were some impressive views along the way, again having the track to myself. I saw a dozen people on the first two days and no one for the final three days, a rare luxury in this popular national park. I was to find out the reason why later that day…
As the track started to lose height, heading about 900m down, the twinge in my right knee turned into something far more painful. I spent the last two hours of the trip pretty much limping. I don’t think I’ve ever finished a hike as bruised, battered and barely able to walk!
About an hour before returning to my car at Mt Robert Car Park I stopped at Relax Shelter to get mobile reception for the first time in five days. Before I left New Zealand was at alert level two, by the time I came out it was at alert level four, i.e. full national lock down! Thankfully flights were running as normal until the end of the week, coming out on Thursday I got back to Auckland fine but a few other life plans got put on hold…