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An Ella’va tramp

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October 2020 Issue

On a traverse of the Ella Range in Nelson Lakes National Park, Jo Stilwell finds tramping at its finest

“I think you better give me the tent”, suggests Margaret.

“You resent carrying it.”

Oh no, had I made it that obvious? I suppose I did mention more than once that in my current state of fitness my pack was too heavy for me. It doesn’t help that we’d picked the hottest day of summer to walk up Watson Creek to the Ella Range, in Nelson Lakes National Park.

I’m sweating profusely, haven’t had enough to drink and am feeling a little nauseous from the heat. Margaret suggests a stop. I guzzle a litre of water and we immerse ourselves, clothes and all, into the small cooling pool we have stopped beside. Immediately my load feels lighter. It’s great to have good friends with you when you’re having a bad tramping moment.

I’ve known Margaret for close to 30 years. As well as being a very good friend, she’s the ideal tramping companion and we make the perfect team.

She likes to lead; I’m happy following. I own a food dehydrator; she likes the meals I make. She scrutinizes every contour on the map searching out the best, less-steep route in advance; I’d prefer to follow my nose and work out the route along the way. Her strength is bush-bashing – she can find the most efficient route through the gnarliest piece of bush. She doesn’t like exposure so I’ll take the lead on the steep stuff where a level head and encouragement is often required. And she introduced me to hot-cross buns in the hills and they are now my staple tramping lunch. Luckily, they are available all year around, which is more than can be said for either of us as we usually only manage one or two trips a year together.

This year, we’ve picked a trip that takes us on and off the beaten track in Nelson Lakes National Park. It’s the sort of tramping we both love: not too many tracks, some unmarked ridge travel, a pass or two and a bit of bush-bashing thrown in to keep Margaret happy.

Tops of tussock and carpet grass makes for easy walking on the southern end of the Ella Range. Photo: Jo Stilwell

Watson Creek is the perfect access route to the Ella Range. It’s a gradual climb on a good track that follows the tumbling stream to a tussock basin with great camping at the bush edge. There are some well-established bivvies, but we pitch the tent – I didn’t reluctantly lug it up the hill for nothing. The evening light on the mountain cirque at the head of the valley is a beautiful finish to a hot and satisfying day.

Margaret lures me out of bed the following morning with hot cross buns she toasts over a fire. I love my sleep and am never the first to emerge from the tent– luckily, Margaret is happy to get up and put the brew on. She also kindly puts the tent in her pack and I don’t protest.

We gain the Ella Range with a steep climb, initially up through tussock basins and then onto the ridge where our view immediately changes from benign tussock country to a rough and rocky ridgeline stretching out toward Mt Ella in the distance. It’s wonderful walking along  the ridge. Our travel keeps us between the 1700m and 1900m contour, dropping off the ridge crest at the steepest of places, and shooting up Mt Watson for   a look along the way.

It’s the type of terrain I love and feel comfortable on. Un-tracked, easy tussock tops intermingled with enough scree, steep ridges and rocky peaks to provide the odd navigation challenge – interesting enough but never mentally draining.

Margaret and I have done a lot of trips in this type of country and we are both in our ‘happy place’ all day. The feeling continues well into the evening, as we set up camp beside the first of two large turquoise tarns south of Pt1860. After a refreshing swim, we enjoy the best meal I have ever dehydrated.

Light rain patters on the tent during the night, but we wake to the promise of another hot, sunny day. We leave our tarn behind, its glassy surface looking tranquil in the morning light, and make our way past the second tarn, looking for a route into the D’Urville Valley. We find easy passage south-east through the bluffs, across a mix of steep tussock slopes and chunky scree to a stream which we cross to a pleasant tussock basin at the bush edge. The good going continues as I follow Margaret through relatively open bush as she efficiently picks up all the good deer trails. Her bush-bashing and route finding skills are so precise that we emerge directly behind George Lyon Hut beside the D’Urville River. We have yet to adopt any tramping GPS technology and it’s good to know that our map, compass and route finding skills work just fine.

Checking the map for the route off the tops. Photo: Jo Stilwell

After lunch at the hut, we continue south to the upper reaches of the valley. There’s a good reason for preferring off-track terrain. Following a track after a couple of days of finding our own route feels somewhat odd – the worst thing is the speed at which we travel: it’s far too fast. Soon we’re flagging under the heat of the day. We spy some shade beside the river and I call a stop for a micro-fire coffee.

Margaret gets to play the pyromaniac and in no time she has a small efficient fire boiling our billy and I throw in the coffee grinds. We sit in the shade enjoying our coffee and companionship. There’s not a breath of wind and it’s stinking hot. Neither of us is too keen to move but the coffee gives us the required kick and we continue on to Upper D’Urville Hut, a comfortable two-person biv perched above the river. We reach it just as the skies open up for a late afternoon shower so it’s an easy decision to stay for the night rather than risk a saturated tent.

Margaret can’t quite believe my capacity for sleep. She starts and finishes a novel, reading well past midnight, while I’m fast asleep by 8:30pm. She also wakes well before me and re-familiarises herself with the day’s plan. The route to David Saddle is straight-forward but from the saddle, we are sidling across bluffs to regain the southern Ella Range rather than take the usual route into the East Matakitaki. It looks possible on the map but Margaret diligently studies each contour and commits to memory any potential steep sections.

The route to David Saddle crosses mixed terrain. A nice shady bush track, steep tussock and scree slopes, a few bluffs to skirt around and some crumbly weetbix rock take us to the saddle under the flanks of Mt Dorothy. The saddle  provides a good view to the inviting    tussock tops on the Ella Range. It looks feasible so we start our sidle out onto a sea of rock, where we follow rocky ledges up and down, making our way across the face, staying between the 1700m and 1800m contours. It’s surprisingly good going, each corner leading to something that works and we never need to backtrack.

Margaret toasts hot-cross buns and makes a brew for breakfast. Photo: Jo Stilwell

We reach benign tussock country again after traversing a scree basin east of Pt2040, and find the perfect lunch spot to sit and look back on our route.

We spend the afternoon wandering along easy tops of tussock, carpet grass and scattered boulders, sidling around a large rocky peak and passing many inviting tarns. Once again we are in our happy place and we stop earlier than expected as the view from one particular tarn proves irresistible. I am especially grateful tonight that we brought the tent as our campsite is stunning, with a gorgeous pink sunrise the following morning warning us that our golden weather might not last forever.

It lasts for most of the day though and our final day above the bushline is spent in sunshine watching the high cloud develop. With glorious views of the Spenser Mountains and passing by more appealing tarns, our only wish is that we had more nights available. We reach the end of the Ella Range and Margaret launches us off into the bush and, true to form, finds an excellent route onto the Matakitaki Forks Route. We meet the track about 300m downstream of the East Matakitaki three-wire bridge.

It’s super muggy and the sandflies have a good feast as we strip off for a swim in the Matakitaki River. Rain is imminent and by the time we reach Downie Hut a few hours downriver, the sky has opened up and we’re saturated. We happily stay in the hut, neither of us relishing having to carry out a wet tent.

On our final day, I toughen up and take the tent. We arrive at the car with sore legs from walking far too fast on the well-formed track. Luckily for us there’s good coffee to be had in nearby Murchison where we lazily sit, contemplate life, friendship and the joys of tramping. This trip really was tramping at its finest.

Total Ascent
5-6 days
Two-kilometres south of Mataki Lodge on Tutaki Road South
BS23, BS24, BT23, BT24

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