- Total Ascent
- 6-9 days
- Hopeless Hut, 6 bunks; Cupola Hut, 8 bunks; Blue Lake Hut, 16 bunks; East Matakitaki Hut, 6 bunks; Ada Pass Hut, 14 bunks; Cannibal Gorge Hut, 20 bunks
- Mt Robert car park at the end of Mt Robert Rd, off SH63 near St Arnaud
- BR24, BS23, BS24, BT23, BT24
- GPX File
- St Arnaud.Lewis Pass (gpx, yo 211 KB)
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- Download the route notes and maps
Heading off the marked track can lead to unexpected encounters. David Dawkins finds more than just steep passes and rugged river valleys on a variation of a South Island classic
The chamois had a nonplussed gaze. His large eyes questioning why I was intruding on his alpine domain.
Having previously only seen these flighty creatures scampering across distant mountain faces, I stood immobile trying to blend with the shattered rock of a steep gully high in Nelson Lakes National Park.
I held my breath, expecting the chamois to turn tail but, he continued his assessment until suddenly it had seen enough and bounded up an imaginary path in the rock, leaving us privileged to have had a close encounter with this high country rarity.
On a week-long trip between St Arnaud and Lewis Pass, this was just one of the experiences that arose from heading off the beaten track.
This classic tramp in the northern Southern Alps has increased in popularity since becoming part of the Te Araroa Trail. Anyone making the trek will become familiar with the acronyms TA NOBO or TA SOBO (Te Araroa northbound or southbound) and can enjoy sharing huts with a range of international walkers.
Rather than follow the Te Araroa route up the Sabine Valley, over Waiau Pass and down the flats of the Waiau River, my father Chris and I selected a more challenging route that took in five alpine passes and the Matakitaki Valley.
A leg-busting ascent of Mt Robert to start the trip was the perfect test for long dormant muscles, but we were rewarded with wide-ranging views over the pristine waters of Lake Rotoiti and across to the St Arnaud Range.
The sun beat mercilessly down as we forged along the rocky ridge, which was alive with trampers young and old heading to or from Lake Angelus.
Youth was out in force at Angelus Hut where two young families had set up residence. We enjoyed a late lunch as a gaggle of children raced around. It was a far cry from my last visit when the hut was a skeletal foundation whipped by snow and the only company a very cold builder.
The lake is an idyllic spot to lounge away an afternoon but we had a lot of ground to cover so we hefted our packs and headed to Sunset Saddle.
As we made the haul to the saddle, a lone traveller slogged along behind us. We paused at the saddle for the tramper, a visitor from Germany, and as a trio we scrambled to the summit of Angelus Peak.
The high point offered an amazing view of Lake Angelus. Entrapped by a jagged ring of rock pinnacles with steep scree slopes descending to the water’s edge, the lake seemed to change colour from deep blues to vibrant greens as the late afternoon sun swung overhead.
Eventually, we began the rocky descent to Hopeless Creek. Nestled at the base of the barren slab slopes, the small lake at the head of the creek always takes my breath away and is a peaceful place to camp.
We were staying at Hopeless Hut though, so negotiated the waterfall cascading from the lake and made our way through the bush to the hut.
The next morning, with a short day to Cupola Hut, we set a leisurely pace to the Travers Valley. The Travers is one of my favourite spots with beech forest blanketing the valley floor beside the steady flow of the river. Far ahead, Mt Travers towered snowy and menacing.
While the journey to Cupola Hut is short as the bird flies, the climb from the valley floor is arduous and those muscles not fully tested the previous day received a vigorous workout. But the sweat and pain was worth it.
The small hut is perched in a basin beneath the rugged south face of Mt Hopeless and the blocky north face of Mt Cupola. With panoramic views of the mountains and down the Travers Valley, it’s a place that makes you feel at peace with the world.
As the day cooled we moved inside and I sifted through the extensive collection of literature on crossing Gunsight Pass.
Chris was equally excited to find a discarded knee brace as an injury suffered on a previous trip to Fiordland had flared up. He was confident it wouldn’t be a problem, but I silently cursed tough old farmers who don’t get injuries checked out. Admittedly I have little ground for complaint: my wife could testify to my inheritance of the same stubborn gene.
The next morning we made quick progress to the distinctive U-shaped pass sandwiched between Mts Cupola and Travers. Gunsight Pass sees far fewer visitors than the more southerly Travers Saddle, which made it an attractive target for our trip.
We made a fast descent of fine scree and crossed easy tussock flats below the west face of Mt Travers, pausing only to trade stares with an inquisitive deer. After a long stand off, the deer finally fled in our intended direction of travel.
Our progress was not as swift and soon we were brought to a standstill by a series of deep gouges where rock had sloughed off the side of the mountain.
Scouting past the first gash revealed more broken land blocking our route to a meeting with the Travers-Sabine Track.
Our best option was to carefully descend the rock slide. Smashed tree trunks and loose rock gave way to a steep mountain stream then gentle beech forest. We met the track just above the bridge over the spectacular chasm of the Sabine River East Branch.
Back on a marked track, we sped to the Sabine Forks and turned for Blue Lake.
Heading south we encountered evidence of the avalanches that in winter tear down from the steep ranges above the valley. The massive snow movements had left their mark right to the river’s edge with the track re-routed in places and we picked through areas of broken bush and scattered rock.
A short climb finally led us to the welcome sight of Blue Lake Hut, where a long row of boots indicated plenty of company.
Before bunking down we visited Blue Lake, which has some of the clearest water in the world. From up close it didn’t appear spectacular. It wasn’t until the next morning, when we viewed it from above that its full beauty was revealed – gleaming a brilliant blue like a thin sapphire jutting out of the earth.
That evening we enjoyed the multi-national company which included trampers from England, Wales, Czech Republic, Israel and America – but no other Kiwis. The hut book suggested this is common, with most visitors having made the journey from overseas – many attracted by Te Araroa.
Planning to reach the Matakitaki Valley, we left the hut early, climbed above Blue Lake and past Lake Constance with Franklin Ridge reflected in its still water. After cutting through bluffs at the lake’s head, we followed the open river; a spectacular spot ringed by peaks crowned with snow.
The mid-morning sun and loose scree made the 500m climb to Waiau Pass a challenge and it was a relief to reach the 1870m saddle. With expansive views over Marlborough, Nelson and Canterbury, Waiau Pass is an ideal place to contemplate trails already walked and the journey to come.
Our next destination – Lake Thompson – could be seen nestled in the mountains to the south-west.
With no route to the lake, we first picked our way through the snow and rock below Waiau Pass before turning up-river and climbing tussock slopes to the lake.
For many, Lake Thompson provides an overnight camping spot. It’s easy to see the appeal of lounging by the small lake below high peaks, the long route from Waiau Pass playing out directly in front.
For us there was time only for a quick snack before making for Thompson Pass where we stared across the head of the D’Urville River to D’Urville Pass.
Trusting others’ experience, we climbed onto an unlikely jumble of rock. Our faith was quickly rewarded as we saw a cairn, the first of a ragged trail that picked its way through a series of cliffs to emerge on open slabs.
With the afternoon drifting away, we made our way around the head of the valley and on to a wide, sparsely grassed ledge which ran out short of the pass. We noticed an apparently easy line leading up to a small notch in the ridge and with time against us decided to take the direct approach rather than sidle beneath bluffs for another scree climb to reach the pass.
I surged up with a sense of trepidation. The ridge was ragged rock and the far side could bring anything from scree, slabs or sheer cliffs.
Peering over the crest, it was with relief I saw a gully – rocky and steep, but passable.
We were in true mountain goat country so encountering the chamois came as no great surprise. When it finally bounded away, it was with depressing ease. In contrast, we continued our slow downward shuffle, eventually emerging at the Matakitaki River East Branch.
There was little time to celebrate exiting the mountains as we still hoped to make East Matakitaki Hut before nightfall. It was already after 6pm.
Travel down-valley looked easy, but we were soon battling waist high tussock mounds. Reaching the bush edge provided little relief: clear paths were rare and we were often left thrashing through clinging branches and undergrowth.
Eventually we found easy going in the riverbed, but light was fading and my GPS showed we were still an hour from the hut.
We decided to avoid an uncertain walk in darkness and used the last light to find a suitable campsite where we could build a makeshift shelter. A fallen tree trunk provided a solid wall and we improvised a roof using two emergency blankets. Rocks filled the remaining walls and dry grass made for comfortable bedding.
It was a special night lying beside the roaring fire, staring up at a clear dark sky where uncountable stars mingled with sparks from the flames.
We departed early to make up lost time and were soon surprised to hear voices.
At a river crossing we met a group of 19 from Nelson College. The students were doing the reverse of our trip and had camped on large river flats just a few hundred metres from us.
We shared route notes and wished them well, then forged ahead, soon picking up easy tracks beside the river.
We passed East Matakitaki Hut, looking lonely but accommodating in a grassy clearing, and continued to Bobs Hut. For most of the morning we had been blessed with easy walking on marked tracks, but past Bobs Hut we entered thick swatches of bush and a steep-sided gorge in the Matakitaki River West Branch.
Emerging above the gorge, travel slowed but was not difficult. The advice we had received was to not follow the river too far up-valley, where impenetrable bluffs awaited, but to climb to its true right. What followed was a vertical grind where upward movement was sometimes possible only by hauling on fistfuls of grass and dragging ourselves metre by metre.
It took two hours to gain the top of a ridge of grass and gravel. Far below, the river wound its way serenely through a valley that, with a gentle gradient and apparently easy walking, would lead to Three Tarn Pass – our final hurdle before the St James Walkway.
Hot, sweaty and tired after our long climb and two hard days, frustration boiled over and I questioned the sanity of our prolonged climb and our ability to reach the St James before dark. A snack break and close scrutiny of the map calmed me down and we traversed a mixture of easy grass slopes and rock slabs to the tarns.
Three Tarn Pass is not obvious from below. Aligning the three bodies of water points to an unlikely looking gap between rock outcrops. The approach is steep and loose, but as we trudged wearily upward the climb, for once, was easier than it looked and we quickly reached our final pass.
A cool wind was blowing and standing in the six o’clock shadows, the summer warmth was gone. But despite the cold and encroaching darkness, I lingered to savour the view. To the south and far below, the St James Walkway snaked between lush green bush with Ada Pass Hut peeking out of the trees.
My gaze was drawn north, over the tarns and down the Matakitaki. I imagined the rocky ranges, steep passes and rugged valleys we had travelled.
Reluctantly, I turned my back on chamois country and started the descent, looking forward to the comforts of home.