- Sabine Hut to West Sabine Hut, 5-7hr; West Sabine Hut to Blue Lake Hut, 4hr; Blue Lake Hut to Waiau Pass, 6hr; Waiau Pass to Waiau forks camp, 4hr; Waiau forks to Caroline Creek Biv, 3-4hr; Caroline Creek Biv to Lake Guyon Hut, 5hr; Lake Guyon Hut, 5hr; Lake Guyon Hut to Christopher Hut, 3hr; Christopher Hut to Ada Pass Hut, 4hr; Ada Pass Hut to Lewis Pass, 4-5hr
- From Nelson, Lake Rotoroa is 1.5hr dirve. Lewis Pass is 3hr drive on SH7. There's a regular bus service passing through from Christchurch.
- BS24, BS32, BS3, BT23
The going’s slow when you traverse the Divide three times by foot
The windshield wipers cut through a wall of rain as I steered the Subaru over Spooner Saddle. It had eased to drizzle when we left the highway at Gowan Bridge and headed up to the lake. Our scheduled rendezvous with Craig Simpson saw us manoeuvring overloaded packs along the jetty into his water-taxi.
Lake Rotoroa was still and the mood sombre as the craft sped along, the silence only broken by the roar of twin Honda 135hp outboards. At D’Urville Hut we dumped three fishermen on the wharf.
I milked the opportunity to bag another backcountry hut, stopping long enough to sign the visitor book, but not long enough to be devoured by the dreaded D’Urville sand flies.
We were in Nelson Lakes National Park at the behest of two friends from Auckland. Each year they fly to Nelson for a multi-day tramping expedition. This year they proposed a challenging route beyond Blue Lake, over Waiau Pass, then exiting at Lewis Pass.
Soon we disembarked at Sabine Hut. We donned rain coats, tightened bootlaces, and readjusted sodden packs. At first the going was great, as the track led to the lake’s source, the swollen Sabine River, which was crossed by footbridge. The track hugs the true left bank for most of its 15km, sidling high to avoid bluffs, and negotiating several washouts.
As the day wore on, we tired of the tedious rock-hopping over numerous tributary streams all feeding the frenzied flood that was the Sabine – so swollen that parts of the track were under water – wet feet were unavoidable.
“How are you going?” I asked Malcolm. “By foot,” he nonchalantly replied.
Five hours upriver, the route followed pleasant river flats. Then the bliss was rudely interrupted at an earth-shattering landslide. Here, the destructive power of nature was frightening. Several signs warned of avalanche danger.
My companions elected to push on, while I waited for my wife to catch up. Her knee was problematic, and the rain had dampened our spirits.
We caught up with them at West Sabine Hut, which was swamped with German and Japanese trampers. The next day we slept in until there was more room to move. With her knee playing up, Lynette decided not to continue further and returned to retrieve our car at Lake Rotoroa.
The trail to Blue Lake was more straightforward, so we made fast progress. Moss Pass loomed above; further east, Mt Franklin was vaguely visible in shifting cloud. A few feet away, a seriously angry Sabine was surging, rolling and plummeting down the valley in a fury of white water.
A final climb, steep but short, led us to Blue Lake set into an alpine tussock basin beneath towering crags. I climbed a ladder behind the hut to hang our mountain radio aerial from. The forecast rain turned to sleet, so we headed indoors to play cards and read. A Czech backpacker ignited the Corker Cooker, which kept us cosy. I contacted the radio base in Christchurch – we were given two days of fine weather in which to cross the Main Divide.
The following day, a stiff climb up the moraine wall which dams Lake Constance took about half an hour. The cloud cleared, granting us a grand vista back down the Sabine Valley with Blue Lake shimmering in the shadows.
We followed a poled route up a shingle slide, giving access to a high sidle above sheer bluffs. Some gnarly guts were negotiated using trekking poles to aid balance on the loose scree. A lone chamois sensed our intrusion, darting down the hill to a safe distance.
Halfway along the lake, the high water level forced us up into the tussock and speargrass. Four hours of tough tramping saw us lunching at the lakehead in the sunshine.
The route to Waiau Pass was well-marked, some 500m before the Sabine ended in a cirque of rock walls and waterfalls. Steel warratahs led us up a tongue of snowgrass, mostly avoiding the steep scree slopes on either side. Once above the line of bluffs, we skirted along some soft snow before the final push directly to the Pass at 1870m. Spiders and grasshoppers were flitting around our boots as we ascended – a curiosity in these parts.
From Waiau Pass, the view was breathless, just like us. We posed for the obligatory snapshot before donning fleeces to help ward off the chilling wind. It was mid-afternoon when we picked our way down the desperately precipitous southern face. At times, we were lowering our weary bodies through moderately-angled rock chimneys, our 25kg-packs threatening to topple us head over heels into the void below. At other times we were happily glissading the patches of old snow, our ice axes more of a comfort than a necessity. Most important was a good sense of balance, a head for heights and confidence in basic rock scrambling.
Bent warratahs and numerous cairns kept us on route down a knife-edge spur into the headwaters of the Waiau. We abandoned plans to camp by Lake Thompson and dropped down a rough trail, past thundering cascades, to the forks. Here, in the first copse of beech forest, was a well-established campsite. I threw the radio aerial over the bough of a tree, just in time to receive the weather forecast.
Ten hours of route-finding and scrambling had taken its toll. It was New Years Eve, but we hit the pit early.
On the first day of 2011, the summer sun backlit the beech trees, draped in old man’s beard, and filtered onto our tent, inviting us outside to a perfect day. We were in no particular hurry, so whittled away the morning shooting photos and drinking tea.
By noon we’d packed, forded the river, and the following four hours were spent traversing giant landslides and crashing through an overgrown forest path. Not an orange triangle in sight.
I asked Malcolm “How are you going?” He replied, predictably, “By foot.”
It was 4pm when we stumbled along the first river flats to find Caroline Creek Biv. Within 20 minutes of our arrival, two more parties appeared, making for a social afternoon tea. I retreated to one of two canvas bunks in the tiny shelter, evading the vicious sand flies and writing up my journal.
We awoke to heavy rain hammering on the hut roof. Another couple camping outside joined us for breakfast and there was barely room to move in the small biv. With this route part of the Te Araroa Trail, a larger hut at this site might be needed to house those parties waiting to cross Waiau Pass.
It was laughably late when we headed downriver. A lone hare scampered across the empty cattle flats while we kept our heads down and pressed through persistent drizzle.
Opposite Maling Pass we found a good crossing to the true left, where the Waiau was wide and braided. The faintest hint of a vehicle track led us up and over an alluvial fan, but eventually petered out, leaving us to battle the bogs and dodge random cowpats. We forced a path through a low corridor of matagouri, but our ice axes kept getting caught in each thicket, requiring us to walk backwards, in a sort of twisting movement. Frustrated at our lack of progress, we left the bank and returned to the river.
Intermittent sunshine broke through an overcast sky, lifting our spirits and drying our saturated clothing. Late afternoon saw us on the 4WD track to Lake Guyon, where we made ourselves at home in the charming four-bunk hut. The forecast was for thunderstorms, so we opted for a well-earned day off.
A couple of Cantabrian trampers joined us for the second evening – they’d ambled over Fowlers Pass in a few short hours. Lake Guyon Hut, according to the logbook, was frequented by mountain bikers, fishermen, horse trekkers, and a mouse. The lake itself was surrounded by lush grass terraces, home to Canada geese, a herd of cattle, and numerous hares. We embarked on a mission to bag the old whare at Stanley Vale: hut number 235 – my birthday present.
Next morning, we retraced our steps to the Waiau, expecting easier terrain further down valley, where the horses and steers of Ada Homestead graze a vast expanse. We were wrong.
The Waiau had not finished with us. Two days of heavy rain had the river running high. However, with careful observation, I picked out a possible crossing where the Waiau braided into four channels. Linking up, we were relieved to find the icy green water only thigh-deep, the shingle bottom smooth.
Turning up the Ada valley, we were hit with a headwind and faced a flooded, fast-flowing stream impossible to cross. We didn’t want to roll the dice one too many times, so stayed on Terra Firma. I remembered some old bush wisdom which says: ‘No one ever died by not crossing a river.’
It was mid-afternoon when my mate saw an opportunity to cross at a section where the Ada forked into two separate channels. Sternum-straps undone, we entered the water for another attempt. Reminiscent of an All Black front row, we linked arms. “Crouch … Hold … Engage!”
I took the force of the current, since my total weight, including pack, was over 100kg. This sheltered my companions and slowly we shuffled across. This time we held our line, and didn’t get screwed around like a scrum. Final score: Trampers: 2 – Rivers: 0. Now on the St James Walkway, we stormed into Christopher Hut for a late lunch by the woodstove.
Our eighth day saw us speeding along cattle flats to the old Christopher Cullers Hut, round a corner, then along beautiful grass terraces. The imposing flanks of Faerie Queene still held a fair bit of snow; the other hills were barren. Once into the luxuriant native forest, we followed the first orange markers we’d seen in five days. It felt good to be back in familiar country – my wife accompanied me on the St James the previous summer.
It wasn’t long before we hit ‘rush hour’, as we passed heavy tramping traffic arriving over Ada Pass. Although crossing the Main Divide, this wee climb was almost a non-event, as we danced over a carpet of moss along to the hut.
Ada Pass Hut is sited on a prime piece of real estate, giving a view towards Three Tarn Pass (where we originally had intended to be on this same day.) So, Malcolm left on a late-afternoon mission to ‘bag’ the pass, returning five hours later. I was content to explore the hut environs with my camera. Waterfalls cascaded off the Freyburg Range, the stream gurgled, birdlife chattered, frogs croaked – not a bad place to waste a lazy afternoon.
Our final day was child’s play, bouncing along the track with light packs and light hearts. Between Cannibal Gorge Hut and the road, the St James is delightfully lush. I couldn’t resist stopping to capture a few long exposures of a swirling stream. I hadn’t carried a hefty tripod nine days for nothing.
After a third crossing of the Divide at Lewis Pass, we found my wife waiting with the trusty Subaru. We climbed inside, swapping stories and savouring memorable moments of our longest tramp. By foot.