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July 2013 Issue
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Unfinished business

On the tops above Lake Christabel. Photo: ray Salisbury
10km west of Lewis Pass, park in a small layby near the Maruia River at Speargrass Flat
BT22,  BT23

Lake Christabel Hut, Lewis Pass National Reserve

It is inevitable. The blizzard blows hard in our frosted faces, the temperature is a tropical minus five, and the visibility is only a hundred metres in the swirling snow flurries. Our boots fail to grip the ice and we are chilled to the bone – I love it. Determined to push on to the lake, I reluctantly concede to the leader’s decision to retreat. We return to Top Robinson Hut to lick our wounds, and warm up around a feeble fire which fails to push the temperature above zero degrees. Next time, we assure ourselves, we won’t leave our crampons in the car.

Next time, my desire to reach Lake Christabel is thwarted again due to heavy snow falls. Then, finally, after two years, we get that lucky break. A long, fine spell promising two days before a southerly front hits the South Island with a vengeance.

There are a handful of routes to reach this remote inland sea but none are easy. The most straightforward route is from Palmer Road but this requires a car shuttle. The shortest distance is via Rough Creek, which lives up to its name, tumbling down into the Maruia River over a steep staircase of boulders. We clamber up the hill for the first half hour, profusely sweating, trying to reacquaint our legs with walking. However, the track levels out as we trample the confetti of fallen red beech leaves, crossing after an hour to the true left. So far, so good.

Flame red rata catch our eyes while bush lawyer catches our clothing. From the headwaters good old-fashioned Kiwi grunt gets us up to a defined treeline where the stunted trees suddenly give way to a tussock basin – no scrub to bash through here, but the spiky Aciphylla horrida (Horrid Spaniard) draws blood from our unprotected limbs.

Resting on the lip of this natural amphitheatre, we drink from a beautiful brook which cuts through the grass. In three hours we have gained the ridgeline and I trot off along the tops to photograph the lake from a nearby hilltop. Shaped like a boomerang, Christabel is also the largest New Zealand lake still uncolonised by introduced fish. Long-finned eel and koaro (white bait), renowned for their ability to climb waterfalls, have penetrated the lake’s underground outlet. Since 1980, the lake has been protected as an ecological reserve.

My party have left long ago, so I descend down snow grass and jumbled rock on a spasmodic ground trail, ever on the lookout for marker poles. Tiny tarns punctuate the sub-alpine basin and would make idyllic campsites.

Once under the bush canopy, I soon catch my companions, who are aged between 60 and 70, and are somewhat less energetic than me. A well-graded path leads us down into the Blue-Grey catchment, where sunlight filters through moss-laden forest and robins flirt and flit. Sulphur seepages are evident where the track skirts the river and I revel in the pristine beauty of this wild place that’s never seen an axe or chainsaw.

But the last kilometre to the hut is brutal, as we negotiate some serious windfall, and our tired limbs are screaming blue murder, after nearly eight hours on our feet. A swing-bridge gives access to the old NZFS hut sited on a clearing by the Blue Grey River. It is a welcome sight.

I read through the visitor book, which dates back to the late 90’s. It’s almost exclusively the domain of Kiwi trampers who make the occasional pilgrimage to Lake Christabel – no foreign species here. Even sandflies are thin on the ground in this corner of the country.

Next morning, I’m off along the track on a reconnaissance of the lakehead, an extensive gravel beach with a fair amount of duck droppings. Scaup, grey duck, shags and herons frequent these parts but today, all is quiet. I tarry here, until the rising sun inches over the forested flanks, reflected in the mirror calm waters, crystal clear.

When I return to the hut, the others have long since departed. I make another brew, lingering longer in the hut that has been my obsession for three years. Savouring my success with a mug of sweet tea, I recall the wisdom of Winston Churchill: ‘Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.’

My dogged persistence has certainly paid off, and I can now remove Lake Christabel from my Bucket List.

Access .

Grade Moderate

Time Rough Creek to Lake Christabel Hut (12 bunks), 6-9hr; Lake Christabel Hut to Palmers Road, 7-9 hr

Map .
Further information Winter conditions on the high saddles may lead to avalanche risk