First Mountain Tramp – Nelson Lakes National Park

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First Mountain Tramp – Nelson Lakes National Park

I felt a bit burned by the tramping experience. Abel Tasman was listed as an easy walk along scenic, sunny beaches. As far as I was concerned the walk had been a rain drenched trudge through closed in bush with occasional stops at cramped, musty huts. But I couldn’t deny the sense of satisfaction the difficulties encountered and overcome engendered. I felt much more engaged than I had been by the constant car travel of the first half of the trip.

For my next venture I chose Nelson Lakes National Park for no greater reason than it was on the way back to Christchurch. I caught the bus from Nelson to St Arnaud and stayed at the Yellow House hostel.. I think my main motivation for doing this was so I could leave my excess gear in storage. Of course on future trips I would leave gear at the DOC office and use the afternoon hours to walk to Lakehead or Coldwater huts. As it was I shared the bunkhouse at Yellow House and lost a day.

The Lakehead Track

The Lakehead Track is clearly signposted and begins just beyond the toilets at Kerr Bay. For the first kilometre to the junction of the Loop Track it’s a wide and level path. A lot of effort had been concentrated into clearing out introduced predators and allowing the birdsong to return to the forest in this area. The combination of lake and imposing mountain ranges meant that DOC staff could open up a front and protect their flanks. The ping, ping sounds echoing out for the length of the lake indicate that the effort has  been worthwhile. It’s weird but I have memories of having lunch at a decrepit hut site at the end of the lake but maps and guidebooks from the time do not support my recollection. It may be that I stopped at an older version of Lakehead Hut but in any case I cooked up some noodles on the outside bench to escape the sandflies that had gathered indoors.

What more do I recall? It was a Friday and I was returning to work the following Wednesday. I was in love with one of my fellow workers and sang songs to myself from the American Music Club songbook outlining how it wouldn’t work out. I kind of wished that she was here with me but the closest I got was carrying her backpack. Where are the Jacinta’s of yesteryear? I thought about Jacinta constantly on this trip, how I was going to ask her out when I got back, how I just had to. I was eternally grateful to her for allowing me to forget all about a previous lover who I’d had trouble getting over. At least now I’d put her behind me.

The second part of the day was one of the most exhilarating tramping experiences I’ve ever had. It started with another boots off crossing of the strong flowing Travers River. Taking my boots off didn’t make a lot of sense as it left me groping through the chill waters looking for comfortable rocks on which to place my tingling feet. Being knocked off balance by the force of water meant there was no time to carefully pick a course. Feet had to be banged down to get some balance and if tendons or toes were jarred in the process then that’s is the trade off for valuing dry boots over everything else.

I’d bought a panoramic disposable camera for this trip at a pretty price, hoping to do justice to the spectacular jumbled scale of the mountains, rivers and forests. The Cascade Track follows the Hukere Stream as it climbs through mossy forest. Along the way are a series of precipitous embankments where the rush of water has gouged out the earth to leave a sheer and vertiginous drop to the stream. Resting from my exertions I had timidly crabbed towards a badly undercut edge and photographed the surging roar of a particularly fierce waterfall. Scuttling back to the safety of the forest track I had dropped the camera to hear it crack with finality on the ever-present boulders.

I cursed with annoyance, my nerves rubbed raw by the unforgiving nature of my surroundings. Standing there in the enclosed forest, heavy with shadow, moss and moisture I sensed a timeless power indifferent to human incursion. Every step had to be taken with care, slimy roots were obscured by the muck of leaves and mud, leading to frequent uncontrolled slides made worse by a heavy pack and flimsy shoes. The rock, roots and mud of a forest clinging doggedly to a rugged alpine environment quickly exposed the lightweight porous boots that had handled the tourist paths of Abel Tasman with ease. The constant spills, tumbles and falls merely added to my state of nervous tension.

The track steadily climbed through the tree roots and boulders of the forest. At another point it ploughed through a stretch of even ground made swampy by the water retaining capacities of the plants thriving in the area. I found myself threading through a maze of rotting logs, rock pools and clumps of knotty foliage. Soon after the track emerged from the forest, opening onto sights of casual grandeur. Hukere Stream was hemmed in on all sides, the Angelus Ridge on one side, an unnamed ridge on the other. On the other side of the Travers River lay St Arnaud Range. I’d never seen mountains of such magnitude at such close range, vast walls of broken shale and precipitous bluffs. The mountains were scrubbed bare of tree or scrub, like nothing I’d seen before.

Despite the imposing quality of the surrounding ranges the most imposing view remained the one in front. The Travers Range rose up massively, a series of layers that ended in what appeared to be an impenetrable series of bluffs. The Cascade Track could be traced as it doggedly trailed after Hukere Creek but it seemed to disappear well before the hillside gave way to vast tracts of slab. Consultation with the guidebook provided little extra information, the route being barely mentioned, merely listed as an alternative exit should more feasible alternatives be blocked off by bad weather. Attempting to trace a route with the eye provided little comfort. It was easy to imagine myself pinned underneath a sheer drop or tumbling to my death after losing my footing in the treacherous conditions. My thoughts were accompanied by the sound of water, both distant and constant, cascading down the sides of the hills, an inhospitable, cold rush.

There was a kinetic thrill in  being here and despite my lack of belief about the possibility of an achievable saddle through the cliffs above I could not imagine turning back. I was soon to be introduced to my nemesis in the form of a crossing of Hukere Stream that was perched in the rock pool between two waterfalls. The track followed the rocks on the rim of the precipice, rocks that were blurred by the frenzied splash of one waterfall and the outfall of another. It was a crossing designed by bastards incorporated. It could only be used safely in conditions that occurred rarely, those of low rainfall and minimal runoff. In normal conditions however the track would always require step on greasy rocks at a point where a slip would be most dangerous, involving a fall from a height onto rocks and then into deep, chill water.

Further clouding my judgement was the intimidating roar of the falling water – like a train at one’s back. The only other way across was to walk through the pond but even here the combination of splash and foam meant it was hard to see where I was putting my feet.  I imagined plunge holes that would drag me under or a frictionless rock that would jam me into an abrasive ledge. No way man, no way was I going to attempt either option. I’d reached an impasse.

Alternatives were limited. There seemed no way to climb above the waterfalls. This left retreating on the track on which I’d come to search for other ways to breach the stream. Eventually I settled on a narrowing in the waterway that I believed I could leap across. I was most convinced that I could jump across if unhindered by a pack. I decided I would throw the pack across to the other side and then follow it. It was a plan born of tired thinking and desperation. Further down the valley I’d spied two other walkers making their way at a steady clip. I did not want the humiliation of being caught and this hastened my activity.

Swinging the bag to build up momentum I counted it out, one, two, three before stepping to the edge of the stream and launching the bag over the flowing water.

The bag arced briefly then plummeted quickly.

There had been little power in my throw and instead of landing clear of the other bank it hit it and rolled down its side towards the water. I responded instantly by leaping after it, crashing into the stream and tackling the bag just as it was about to breach the water’s surface. It would have been bundled away from my grasp in a matter of seconds. I hauled myself out of the water, and lay gasping on the flaxen grass. I could not believe my stupidity or that I had got away with it.

Severely chastened by my inadequacies in an intimidating environment I moved away quickly, scrambling through the rock quarry marked by the occasional pole. The track was veering distinctly to the right and the higher I got the less imposing seemed the heights still to be attained. I began to believe it was possible to reach the top. The track threaded it’s way through a clump of gnarled trees and boulders that gave good grip with their twisted roots chipped ledges. The track from here rejoined the stream, steeper now, rocky steps carving out the way. The pull of the route left claimed me however and I wandered away from the poles to scramble up the rocky slope until I found myself edging around a precipitous bluff back to the right and the mounds of alpine grass and eroded gullies that made up the track.

Just before the ledge of the basin the temperature dropped and a fierce wind swept through the area. I had reached the rim of Lake Angelus, feeling relief and satisfaction in equal measure. The lake was hemmed in by a coliseum of rock walls, another stunning natural setting the equal of the range I’d been fearfully watching all afternoon. The hut was situated at the edge of the lake, a bulwark against the constancy of the wind and cold of the alpine environment. The hut had a vestibule that served to separate the living quarters from the outside, allowing the weary tramper to shed soaked and muddy gear before entering inside.

The trampers I’d spotted in the distant valley arrived soon after me and seemed nonplussed by my questions about how they’d tackled the treacherous stream crossing. The difference between locals and tourists, experience and naiveté was made apparent to me in the shrug of the shoulders. There were no more than 3 parties in the large hut that night and little conversation. The following morning the Kiwis rose early and tackled Sunset Ridge on their way to Hopeless Hut. It is not so much a track less travelled as a barely conceivable way out of the area. Did I see or imagine the sight of them scaling the shaly heights of Mt Angelus on their way to the seldom-used hut? The memory continues to haunt me, the nonchalant authority they’d achieved with their environment. It seemed a state of mind I would never reach.

I’d had enough of lugging a pack about the mountains and this was a day I would not have to. Setting out late in the afternoon I made my way around the edge of Lake Angelus and then set off gingerly for Mt Cedric from which I hoped to see Lake Rotoroa. The route was extremely arid, carved out through granite boulders and a few scrapings of hard packed dirt. I was most taken by the small tarns to be seen nestled at the base of vast basins. They reminded me of the volcanic pits dotted around Auckland and the temptation to drop into the basins lingered long after it had been tempered by the realisation I’d have to claw my back onto the winding route. The route steadfastly stuck to the ridge and gave off great views of the Spenser Mountains to the far south and the Mahanga Range and Franklin Ridge at a much closer distance. Every view evoked the same desire, that is, to explore, to plunge into the mountains and soak up the panoramas on offer. I felt as alive as I’d ever been, my lungs clear of the gunk that had afflicted me on the climb to the Travers Range.

Returning along Cedric ridge I thought about the Kiwi trampers who’d disappeared over Sunset Saddle. Reassured by my map I dropped through the bouldery rocks making up the hillside to reach the basin surrounding Hinapouri Barn. With the sun beaming onto the surprisingly lush grass I couldn’t help but lie down and satisfy myself with some warming rays. With the sun dropping below the line of the range I decided I would make a last ditch bid for the peak of Mt Angelus. The map put Sunset Saddle at less than 500 metres from my location at the edge of the tarn and the top of Angelus was supposed to be no more than 750 metre away. It would simply involve following the ridgeline.

Unfortunately the line was so steep and the shale so fine it was difficult to get any purchase in the ground. Every step would be followed by an inordinate slide so that very little ground was made. On losing my balance I found myself stumbling down the side of the hill unable to arrest my descent until applying my foot as a break. I then had to painfully regain the lost ground. With daylight quickly ebbing away and with there being no clear way to tell if the mountain peak was nearby I faced a decision about what to do. I knew I was climbing on adrenalin when I should be taking heed of the very real need to get back to the hut with enough light to make out was rugged, unknown and steep territory. I couldn’t afford to muck around and I told myself that I would come back another time to climb Mt Angelus. And even though I’ve returned to Lake Angelus two times since this hasn’t happened – in other circumstances it just hasn’t seemed important.

Placated by this promise of future visits I began the trek back to the saddle taking moon-sized steps through the easy gravel and steep decline. Hinapouri Tarn proved difficult to negotiate in gathering dark, made up of sheer bluffs overlooking the bleak surface of the still waters. Finally I reached the semblance of a track and fixed on the weak light filtered through the window of the hut on the lake. Despite it being a Saturday night there was only one other staying at the hut, a woman from Nelson. Conversation quickly ebbed away. She retired to bed at her end of the hut and after having my eyes glaze over with Keats I retreated to my section.

Once more the morning was extremely cold and I told myself that the best way to get warm was to stay wrapped up in my sleeping bag. I was on holidays and was entitled to a sleep-in. What I learned on future trips was that you could choose to either be the sucker who lies there listening to others moving about and packing their gear for an early start or you can be the one who gets up and causes the noise. On this occasion I lay there waiting for warmth to eke into the day, a sullen expectation deserving of the lingering cold that seeped into every surface. After a perfunctory breakfast and a protracted gathering of my kit I finally stumbled out the door and began the long walk back to St Arnaud.

There were many ways to return to the small township but the one that came recommended is the route along the ridge past the Mt Robert ski field with views over Lake Rotoiti for it’s entire length. It’s a route that comes with many provisos which need heeding. The route is badly exposed to all kinds of bad weather, be it wind, rain or fog. Given that the track is rocky and negotiates a number of bluffs it is easy to wander away from safe passage and become stranded. These were matters I did not take into consideration on this occasion and it led to a very satisfying day.

The walk out of the lake basin proved daunting, following a series of zig zags etched into the scree slope at the east end of the lake. At first perusal I was extremely sceptical about the likelihood of there being a track through but at closer inspection it turned out that the track easily negotiated with a bit of strenuous grunt work. Track notes refer to reaching the rim and then dropping down a scree slope on the other side into a saddle and then climbing up the western side of the main ridge over a knob of 1814 metres. The ridge could be followed in a north-easterly direction, scrambling over or sidling the steep rock outcrops that are encountered. The route came to a basin below the Julius Summit at 1794 metres then passed under the peak on the western side, returning to the main ridge by first climbing a small saddle immediately north of it.

The well-marked route continued along the ridge past the Third Basin and ascended Flagtop (1690 metres) from which could be viewed the skifield and shelters. All along the way I could see small nameless tarns, peaks and creeks and wondered how such things could go unremarked upon. Later in the day I encountered a couple of tramping groups, mainly made up of overseas travellers, gorgeous Germans mainly. The shelters were much closer to the road end than the Hut and I dropped into one of these for no more than a quick inspection, having had lunch on the western side of the ridge line, out of the wind and with good views over the length of Lake Rotoroa.

I’d made good time, there could be no denying this and in a moment of complacency I pursued a foolish course, wandering off the track at the last minute where it was about to join the road and threading my way through scrubby bush. I thought I was taking the direct route but as the bush thickened with undergrowth and found myself struggling with a tangle of roots and vines. Still I would not turn back, refusing to give up the ground I’d gained so far. These were the actions of a bush bashing fool and before long, as the ground gave way to steep descent I found myself slithering and sliding, crashing into saplings and rotted logs, being torn and nicked by overhanging branches and sharp pines. Eventually I was spat out onto the road, much diminished and feeling extremely foolish.

I’d been given a lesson in the value of keeping to the track, of backtracking and being prepared to admit that your first guess is wrong. I can’t say I absorbed all the lessons to be had during my initial foray into the NZ wilderness but the important thing is that I’d gained a taste for it that I would never lose. It gave me something to hold onto during the long months and years spent in meaningless office toil. There was something else out there, a land of unspoiled beauty and rawness, that gave immense satisfaction if approached with spirit.

I spent the night at the Yellow House in a bunkroom and the following morning caught a bus that took forever to get to Christchurch, meandering through Murchison, Springs Junction and Lewis Pass. From dim recollection I stayed at Foley Towers Backpackers in the flat city, sharing a room with some Israelis.

The following day I flew out for Sydney. I even dropped into work on my way home and called her to arrange to meet up. I recall talking to Megan and her advising me that a change of clothes might be a really good idea.  Upon return to the workplace I found myself facing a shit storm of hostility and ended up unwittingly costing a friend her job with an ill-considered comment to a Manager.  A few months later I had moved onto another job after spending a horrible period dealing with a spiteful workplace. Anyway, that’s another story.

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