Day 86 : St Arnaud – Upper Traverse Valley Track (18.8 km / 11.7 mi – Total: 1998.2 km / 1241.6 mi)
Day 87 : Upper Traverse Valley Track – West Sabine hut (19.5 km / 12.1 mi – Total: 2017.7 km / 1253.7 mi)
Day 88 : West Sabine hut – Blue Lake hut (7.1 km / 4.4 mi – Total: 2024.8 km / 1258.2 mi)
Day 89 : Zero day
Day 90 : Blue Lake hut – before Caroline Creen Bivouac (12 km / 7.5 mi – Total: 2036.8 km / 1265.6 mi)
Day 91 : before Caroline Creen Bivouac – before Anne Saddle (36 km / 22.4 mi – Total: 2072.8 km / 1288 mi)
Day 92 : before Anne Saddle – Boyle Village (22.4 km / 13.9 mi – Total: 2095.2 km / 1301.9 mi)
Feb 2 – Feb 8
Total days : 7 | Walking days: 6
Section distance : 115.8 km / 72 mi
Average distance per day : 19.3 km / 12 mi
Total distance : 2095.2 km / 1301.9 mi
I was looking through the window of the first hut out of St Arnaud, and quietly observed the jumble of damp hikers and their gear cluttering the space. I had already noticed that the south island was busier while the landscapes were more imposing, and deep inside I really just wanted to walk these mountains alone, uninterrupted by idle chat and endless leapfrogging with other hikers. It was a Friday. The day before I had out-walked a storm tackling the Richmond Range, but another was coming, headed for the Nelson-Marlborough national park which I’d just entered. It was due to hit on Monday, and everyone was ready to wait it out in a hut. There were two mountain passes along this stretch, Traverse Saddle and Waiau Pass, the TA’s second highest point at 1870m, and there were many river crossing that could swell to dangerous proportions. Once the storm hit, there was no choice but to wait.
It was early in the evening. After a night in St Arnaud I had stationed myself in the cafe at the general store, working on an article I was writing, and had watched everyone leave town well before me. I didn’t set off until 3pm, but quickly found the forest track, which ran alongside Lake Rotoiti. The trail was soft with just a few exposed tree roots unlike the usual overzealous tracks the TA followed, simple and scenic. It was an easy walk out of town. When I reached Lakehead hut less than three hours later, I was confused to find everyone there. I’d expected them to have moved on to the next hut. My plan was also to stay at Lakehead hut, but instead I stayed outside, hovering around the porch for a while, and watched the grey weather turn to a light rain. I opted to push on, get ahead of the big group and away from the ruthless sandflies that inundated the porch.
As I moved on, I decided to do whatever I could to hit the passes in good weather. After hundreds of kilometres of walking roads and farmland on the north island, I wasn’t going to loose the most impressive views to storms or fog or mindlessly dull rain. I knew that everyone else was planning to stay at Upper Traverse hut just before Traverse Saddle on Saturday, and they would stay at Blue Lake hut the next day, and remain at the hut to wait out the bad weather before attempting Waiau Pass. But what would the weather be like right after the storm? It could be misty and rainy, and I figured that if I wanted the best chance of clear views, I’d have to complete the passes before the storm hit. This meant that I’d have to keep on walking as far as I could, so I could do the two passes in the coming two days. This schedule was a little more intense than what I’d normally do, but it certainly wasn’t impossible.
I managed to walk until nine that evening, until the light faded and I started to feel a little uncomfortable walking alone in this large valley. I set up my tent not far from John Tait hut, and enjoyed the wild camp opportunity once again.
The next morning I woke up to a fresh and chilly air. The valley was humid from the light and consistent rain overnight, but at least it was dry, and I moved through the forest easily, cherishing being the only person in the vicinity, being able to start my day in solitude. I passed the 2000 kilometre mark first, then John Tait hut and then continued to jump across intersecting streams, watching the first of the majestic Nelson-Marlborough mountains in the distance. High tops peaked behind a layer of trees, looking more magnificent than any I’d seen thus far.
I arrived at Upper Traverse hut late that morning, perfectly set up to tackle the first pass in the afternoon. It was turning into a perfect day: the dull greyness of the day before had slowly gone, and everything was crisp – the colours, the sharp clear views, the clouds parting to the sun. At the hut I spend some time chatting to three locals, who shot lots of questions at me, and when I was ready to go again at noon, I was wired for the next challenge.
The very moment I began the path towards the crest of grey and lime green rock, I was overwhelmed by the views. I was surrounded by splendid mountains, rising proudly from behind the hut with small creeks and lush grass. I had hardly gone a step and I was occupied with taking pictures of everything around me. After some time the three men from the hut overtook me, running along with small daypacks, causing a mild panic when for a moment I though they were some of the TA hikers I’d left behind.
As I got closer to the pass it got steeper, a slow but steady ascend, following a little stream most of the way to the plateau, where a small lake rested, with views of a black craggy peak. The weather was perfect now. Clear and bright, not scorching hot or bitingly cold. Small white clouds hovered in the sky and cast shadows on the ground. I couldn’t have encountered a better day for this pass, and I was elated I’d taken a shot at doing it this day. It had been the right thing to do.
On the other side a field of rock overlooked the valley below. A river trickled in between lush mountains, all the colours diverse with several greens and a splendidly blue sky. I slowly crawled down to tree line, where the descend down the root covered soft ground got so impossibly steep that I had to use my poles to lower myself safely. It was the kind of terrain that certain people fly though – running right over all those roots and steep corners, hardly aware of the impact of their next flighty step. When I finally made it all the way down, I found a spot to camp in the quiet, close to the river, just before West Sabine hut.
The day I was going to attempt Waiau Pass, the highlight of this section. I was excited, and after yesterday’s long day, I knew I’d be able to get across this pass in good time as well. I set my alarm early, but decided to sleep in a little longer – I knew I had enough time. When I set off, the trail continued in the forest, a mostly level path that followed the river to Blue Lake, it’s eponymous hut and the starting point of Waiau Pass. The trail passed some rocky outcrops and distant waterfalls, but I was distracted by the band of cloud hovering around the mountains’ higher elevations, which thickened along the way, only letting the sun shine through a few times throughout the morning. I kept waiting for the fog to lift, but it didn’t.
I reached Blue Lake hut just before noon, and to my greatest surprise, saw Gina there, who was now hiking with her friend Jan. Apparently they’d been camping near me those last few nights, and I’d had no idea. I also met an Australian woman who was walking with a younger German guy, and we all set off around the same time. Despite the dreary weather, I was excited about the pass.
First I stopped off at Blue Lake. It was a small lake surrounded by trees with, apparently, the clearest water in the world. The views weren’t too exciting from nearby, but as I continued to climb up the trail, the views back down were classic and serene – the blue vivid against the green of the trees, the grey skies only adding a touch of drama.
Soon I entered a rolling and rocky landscape, and walked right into the temperamental grey clouds, where slowly everything changed. The thick fog was heavy with humidity and I walked through a cold drizzle. The clouds obliterated the mountains around me and I could hardly distinguish the bright blue lake that was supposed to be right in front of me. I followed the underfoot trail to the lake until I saw the trail markers going up a much lighter path, up the scree slope to my right, where the Australian and German hikers were, fading in the clouds. I wondered if this scree slope was Waiau Pass, and all we had to do was to get to the other side.
Then everything deteriorated. The wind picked up and the drizzle turned to rain. The teasing fog transformed into a complete white-out, holding the last faint views hostage. The temperatures dropped and suddenly it was painfully cold, too cold to think clearly. I began to climb up the scree slope, confused by my GPS and trusting the other hikers to know which trail was correct, until I saw them move back towards me. This was the one place where a TA hiker had once died and we weren’t facing the best conditions. They told me the weather was so bad they couldn’t even see the next trail marker further up. It seemed the storm had come in half a day early. We needed to head back to the hut.
As they retraced their steps back to the hut, I hesitated. I couldn’t believe I had rushed all the way here for the front to have moved in sooner than expected. I was gutted. I didn’t want to turn back, but I also didn’t want to continue in these conditions, and without the views. If only I’d got up earlier, maybe I would’ve made it across. But it didn’t matter, it was too late. I turned around and began the descend down the scree slope, catching a last glimpse of Gina and Jan in the distance, fearlessly moving towards the lake where I’d gone myself earlier, following the wrong path. I wanted to call out but they disappeared in the haze. I thought of following them, to find out where they were going or tell them to come back with me, but I was too cold, the weather simply too horrible to continue. I needed to get back.
I walked the long kilometre to the hut, where I set up my tent close to the trail, hiding in the trees. I watched everyone trickle into the hut, everyone I’d hoped to leave behind, but also all the people I liked, like Sunshine and Nobu and Kei. Everyone stayed at the hut the following day, a sullen Monday of watching clouds move in and out, the spells of rain, wondering what it was like up on the pass. I stayed in my tent for most of it, reading, and visited the hut a few times to sit by the fire and dry out my shoes and jacket. I kept wondering whether I should’ve continued after all, and what it would’ve been like if I’d reached the pass just a few hours earlier. I hated this wasted day, my wasted efforts. Then I heard from others about two women who’d arrived from the other direction – it had been perfectly sunny on the other side of the pass. But it wasn’t until days later that I heard about a couple who’d been a few hours ahead of me and continued along the pass – they had found themselves in the approaching storm, and didn’t get a single view because of it.
Finally it was Tuesday. The storm had passed and the forecast promised better weather, showers clearing throughout the day. I had feared the remnants of a bad day: fog, grey clouds, a drizzling rain and I stayed in my tent for as long as possible, waiting for the last of the rain to pass. When I set off it was 10:30, and I passed the hut on my way, wondering who had already left.
When I opened the door, everyone had gone. I realised I was at the back of the pack, but it was just as good: now I had all the time to get through the pass, and I’d be able to take all the pictures I wanted, without other hikers in view. I continued the section of trail I’d walked twice already, and finally approached Lake Constance at the foot of the pass, seeing it properly for the very first time. Just then the stormy clouds lifted, and the blue of the lake shone against the monochromatic backdrop of rock. My timing was perfect.
I found the scree slope again, the trail markers spread out high above, and I began the steep climb up. The trail didn’t continue to the ridge, but instead skirted around the lake dangerously, the path narrow and steep, until it spit me out at the far end of the lake, level with the water. I looked up to mountains all around me, and the pass further up to my left. This was where it really began.
It was another scree slope, much higher than the one before. Small switchbacks helped me up the near vertical wall, and rocks tumbled down as I got higher. Each step afforded a small but significant difference in the view of the lake behind. It was a marvellous sight, the blue alpine lake surrounded by mountains. It was the best single view I’d had so far. In fact, the single best view I would have along the entire TA.
As I reached the top I lost the last slither of blue lake, and traded it for the views of the mountains on the other side: a rocky and dark green mixture meeting rivers that ran through the cracks.
When I began my way down I came upon an outcrop of rock, and the trail markers dipped down the side of the short but significant scramble. I had no idea how to negotiate down, but just then a single northbound hiker approached from the other side. Once again, the timing was unparalleled. He was one of very few hikers I saw that day, and the only northbound hiker. I waited for him to climb up, which showed me exactly where I could place my feet, and position my hands. He even offered to hoist my pack down with a rope he carried, but all I asked was for him to stay until I safely got down. It was a careful negotiation but the scramble down was easier and faster than it had looked. The good weather certainly helped. I was glad I wasn’t doing this when the storm rolled it, it would’ve been petrifying.
The remaining route down to the river proved the last of the steep climbs and challenging trail. I’d been dawdling all day to enjoy the views and take pictures and as I meandered down the lime green grass and heather I got caught up by Emma and Dan, who had walked all the way from West Sabine hut. They set up their tent at a gorgeous little spot, just where the trail connected with Waiau River and the trees. I opted to make up for lost time and waded through the turbulent river, continuing in the cold shade of the mountain, a trail that crawled over fields of giant rocks, and I hoped I wouldn’t cause an avalanche.
Soon I began to see the other hikers set up, their tents littering grassy patches next to the trail. The Kiwi girl had made a tumble on one of the rocks and hurt her knee, and BFG was camped further up. A few more tents were strewn across the trail. I found a perfect little spot on my own, next to the river. I crawled inside as it got dark and cold, and I thought back on the day – my best day on trail.
The next morning was cold. The sun hid behind the mountains and there were several river crossing that were so painful that I had to take off my shoes after every single one to warm up, before wading through the next stream. I passed the old Caroline Creek Bivouac and when I reached the new Waiau hut, I joined a few others, who were warming up inside. I treasured the fire while the chilly morning temperatures evaporated with the rising of the sun. When more people arrived I moved on, following the path through the valley of the river, through open grassy fields, an easy path that felt just right after the crazy tracks and grand views from the days before. I was now at the front of the pack again, and marvelled at this turn of the cards, while the dreamlike trail provided the perfectly relaxing walk.
My sole worry of the day was Ada River, which I read could swell to unfordable proportions, but when I reached it, it was barely knee-high with little current, as easy wade through. After that, the day began to drag a little. The valley was grand in its simplicity but remained very much the same, and when the trail moved away from Waiau River to join St James Walkway towards Anne hut, it got hot once again – boiling hot. It was already late in the day when I passed the hut but I kept going for a few more hours, pitching my tent on a raised area in a grassy field. I would reach Boyle Village the next day, and if I arrived early I’d have more chance of getting one of the few beds available at the outdoor centre, which was pretty much all the village existed of. I’d sent myself a resupply box there to avoid hitching into Hamner Springs, but I needed a bed so I could charge my devices.
The next morning I struggled to get up. I was tired and it was still early, but it wasn’t until I opened the tent that I realised why everything seemed to require so much more effort: I had woken up to a field covered in crystal white frost, and my tent was frozen. The rain fly was stiff with a layer of ice and my socks and shoes, wet from the river crossings, had frozen solid in the vestibule overnight. My socks were so stiff I couldn’t get my feet in, and I had to wear my thin camp socks instead.
I got up as quickly as I could, stuffing the icy tent in my pack, pacing fast to get warm and reach the sunnier spots up high as fast as possible. Those first few hours I fought my way through the trail – the sun still behind the mountains and the tall grass covered in frozen dew, the glacial chill saturating my legs and feet as I tried to get through. When the first streaks of sun finally emerged, the valley exhaled, breathing a white mist into the warming air.
I passed Boyle Flat hut and I took a quick rest, taking out my tent to dry it in the sun, as I’d felt it soaking through my pack. The remaining route into Boyle was longwinded but I got there in good time, and it was still early afternoon when I arrived. I found the outdoor centre, got a bed and retrieved my resupply box. I bought a few supplies from their informal shop, cheese and some cookies and a pizza for that night, and I shared the hut with Nobu and Kei, and Emma and Dan. It was the perfect spot to relax for a long afternoon after the two impressive passes, and before hitting the next leg, towards the town of Arthur’s Pass.