Struggling through a Monsoon
I had the best time tramping through Nelson Lakes National park 2 weeks ago. As the name says, it is a park with lakes and mud. Knee deep mud… I was also very wise to leave on my tramp in the best possible conditions, 5 days of rain on an 8 day hike. Couldn’t be better. The goal was to do the Travers-Sabine Circuit with a side trip going up to Blue lake. Supposedly to be the clearest water on the planet.
The track is popular for a backcountry tramp. Huts are $15 per night so if you want to do the full loop, which is 6 – 8 days, you’re better off buying a Backcountry Hut Pass from DOC. Price: $92 for 6 months and $122 for a year. It’s perfect if you plan to do other backcountry tramps like the Leslie-Karamea Track in Kahurangi National Park or the Inland Track in the Abel Tasman National Park.
If you plan to tramp the Travers-Sabine circuit in winter time, then you need to prepare for ice and snow. When crossing the Travers saddle, you climb up to 1700 m so crampons are necessary. I went out there in April, just at the end of New Zealand’s summer. So no ice, just my regular outdoor gear was sufficient.
Nelson Lakes Park is one of my favorite places to tramp because it is gorgeous! The huts have lake views and it’s not too remote. There are lots of circuits so it saves the hassle of organizing a ride back when you’ve left your car at one side of the park. The tracks are well maintained because the park is so popular. Lots of people tramp up to Angelus hut, which is a 2 day, 1 night tramp.
I had been there before, so I knew what to expect. Well, that’s what I thought… Nothing could prepare me for the carnage that was about to happen in the next 8 days as I tried to bulldozer myself through rain, mud, boring company and tasteless food. You would think that after a month of back to back tramping I would have learned a thing or two.
I have to disappoint you, I am a slow learner (even though my CV claims the opposite).
Day 1: Speargrass Hut
I started off from Mt Robert Carpark in drizzling rain. My pack was too heavy because I did a crap job of selecting food. Too many vegetables and fruit, even walnuts !in their shell! I guess when I arrive at a place I just throw stuff in my backpack without thinking too much about it: a bag of vegetables and a few apples won’t make that much of a difference, but my god, it does.
The 3 hour tramp up to the first hut was agonizing. My knees couldn’t carry the weight, hence I walked very unstable the whole way. This made me sink in the mud, adding to my fun that day. The hut was full of trampers that evening. There weren’t enough bunk beds so 2 lucky trampers volunteered to camp outside in the rain.
The next morning it was pouring outside so I decided to stay an extra night and sort out my stuff (deshelling the walnuts). People came in, totally washed out. One tramper had lost his walking stick, hat and had broken both his hiking boots. All because of a raging creek. A proof of the carnage that was happening outside.
Day 3: Sabine Hut
I managed to tramp to Sabine Hut the day after the monsoon. A lovely lakeside bungalow. The track was muddy and it was raining. I got annoyed because I just couldn’t keep my boots dry. Silly me, I was to find out that this is the norm when tramping in New Zealand.
Most of the tracks go through lovely bush. I like to call it New Zealand swamp. Best time to hike is spring and autumn because of the sandflies. But tramping in those seasons means cold and wet weather. This means mud.
You can save a day of walking in exchange for some cash. Lake Rotoroa Water Taxi runs a shuttle between the end of the lake and Sabine Hut. But you would be missing the spectacular views between Speargrass Hut and Sabine Hut.
I met a German tramping the opposite direction. When talking about the track, he only spoke in riddles. Travel times were vague and track conditions were mysterious. He sorta annoyed me so I gave up talking to him. There were some other trampers that arrived later that evening. A family of 5: dad-the-very-excited-tramper, mom-the-not-so-excited-tramper, 2 kids and grandpa.
We spend most of the evening trying to get the fire going. A job that took 3 people 4 hours of constant wood chopping. I wonder if it was the wet wood that made it so hard or if it was just us, being all civilized. Our expensive outdoor gear surely made us legitimate outdoors people. Prepared to withstand a blizzard but with zero skills of making fire.
Day 4: West Sabine Hut
It rained the whole morning the next day. The family of 5 left courageously through the monsoon, only to return an hour later, grumpy and completely soaked. Which confirmed what I already knew: best to stay put and wait for better weather.
And Behold! The sun showed itself at noon. I decided to continue and make it to the next hut. 5 hours so I had to hurry if I wanted to make it before dark. The rain continued on so I decided not to stop. The track was muddy and slippery when climbing over rocks. It seemed I was the only tramper crazy enough to try and get somewhere that day.
I was cold, hungry and a little bit washed out when I arrived that evening. But thank goodness the fire was going and hot water available. The hut wardens and a couple of trampers had been cocooning there for 2 days because of the horrid weather. I couldn’t speak for the first 2 hours because I was so occupied with making and eating food.
Why don’t I put snacks in my pocket? Somehow that never occurs to me when I’m tramping. If I had just put a few walnuts in my pocket, then I wouldn’t have to bother with unpacking everything to have a snack. Especially when it’s raining.
Day 5: Blue Lake Hut
Next day, I made it to Blue lake jumping through a few swollen creeks along the way. Some of the people I met had been stuck at Blue Lake hut because of flooded creeks. Rain does that to New Zealand creeks. They can be lethal. Best to be careful.
People go missing here in the New Zealand bush. Not because of bears or lions but the weather is very treacherous. Creeks rise really fast when there is heavy rain. People misjudge the possibility to cross and get taken by the creek. When I arrived in Upper Travers Hut on day 7, there was notice of a missing German guy. He was tramping on his own and disappeared in the park. Probably made a wrong call and ended up at the bottom of the river.
Blue lake, yes lovely. I guess having seen so much water in the past 5 days left the climax moderate in my eyes. Happy I made it that far and the place was wonderful, but now I had to plan my return. The hardest part was yet to come: the Upper Travers Saddle. A 1100 m climb to the next valley.
Day 6: West Sabine Hut
It was the first day of sunshine in 6 days. I took some time in the morning to dry out my boots and socks and jacket and pants and pretty much everything. Since my plan was to only make it back to the West Sabine Hut, I set out around noon. The 3 hour walk back was easier than the walk here. No more rain and the creeks that had been thundering the day before were now just a trickle or even gone.
I arrived without any trouble in the hut. By then most of my fun food was gone, but the can of mackerel in my pack made the best soup. It is true that hunger makes the best sauce. Unfortunately my travel companions of 2 nights before had been replaced by 12 other hikers. I retreated into my book for the rest of the evening, only to find myself trapped with insomnia for the most of the night.
Day 7: John Tait Hut
6 am the next morning I started the next and hardest part of the tramp: the Travers Saddle. The highest point of the tramp with 1100 m to climb from the West Sabine hut. I was aiming for John Tait Hut, which would take 8 to 9 hours of tramping. If I would make it, then I could get out of the park the next day since it’s only a 5 hour walk from John Tait to the Mt Robert Carpark.
First I had a gruesome climb to do. For the first 3 hours I ascended all the way through a lovely beech forest. As I left the forest behind and went into an alpine grassland, I met a fellow tramper going the opposite way. He assured me it was only another hour to the Upper Travers Hut.
I believed him. I would postpone my lunch until I reached the hut. Great Idea…
So not 1 hour but 3 hours later I walked into the hut. It’s funny what that does to you. Being deprived of any food for the past 6 hours, I threw off my clothes, shaking, wrapped myself in my sleeping bag and ate everything that was within reach.
Damn that tramper giving me false hopes of getting somewhere fast in the backcountry.
Then I had to fight the sleep that crept up on me. I was so tired. But if I fell asleep here, then I would lose daylight. I wasn’t going to tramp in the dark that day, so if I didn’t leave then I had to stay there. Only 3 hours downhill from Upper Travers Hut to John Tait Hut. That gave me some courage.
I jumped back into my clothes and dragged myself down for the next 3 hours, jumping creeks and trying to avoid getting eaten by mud piles. Thanks to pure perseverance, I made it to John Tait Hut just before dark.
Day 8: Mt Robert Carpark
Last day and only 5 hours to the end of the track. I was very keen to get out and indulge in all the things I had missed for the past 8 days: chocolate, fries and a couch with a cup of tea. I left at 8 am and tramped the whole way except for a quick lunch stop at Coldwater Hut.
I met plenty of people on their first day hiking in, going the opposite way. The 8 days I spent in the park had sharpened my senses and I could smell their deodorized armpits from meters away. I can only imagine how my 8 day of backcountry grime buildup smelled to them. But this was all going to be over soon. I was looking forward to my first shower.
By then Jesse, who was my safety officer (always tell somebody where you are going), had reported me as missing and I was investigated by DOC officials who were waiting for me at my car. They were happy to see me. The feeling was mutual but I could only think about burgers and fries at that moment.
After the necessary phone calls and a quick change of shoes I was on my way home, snacking on fresh feijoas. I ordered a burger and fries on the way there. Which was the BEST THING EVER! Then I went and bought a family supply of Easter eggs. I was happy to be back in civilization again.
Tramping in Nelson Lakes National Park was amazing in spite of all the hardships. I feel I quite enjoy overcoming the obstacles on my way, feeling strong. Definitely need to plan my pack better next time.
Learned my lesson: deshell the walnuts and leave the veggies at home.