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January 2020 Issue

Pat Barrett describes the Travers-Sabine circuit in Nelson Lakes National Park

The Travers-Sabine circuit lies in the heart of Nelson Lakes National Park and is one of the best multi-day tramps on offer for inexperienced trampers. 

Taking in both of the park’s two large lakes, Rotoiti and Rotoroa, two of its major rivers, the Sabine and Travers, and one high alpine pass at Travers Saddle, the diversity of this walk is perhaps unrivalled elsewhere in New Zealand for a track of this standard and accessibility. 

Travers Saddle is also a Main Divide pass, so there is an added dimension here with rainfall, vegetation, and climate from the drier Travers Valley to the much wetter Sabine catchment. The scaled-up rainfall of the western valleys has often caught trampers unaware when the low lying Sabine Valley floods, making the track impassable. 

The Travers Valley, with its drier climate and open space, has long been a favourite for trampers and those seeking solitude among its mountains and numerous tracked side valleys which lead to high huts and ambitious climbs. 

For a finale, the route out over the last two days traverses the Great Alpine Fault, which here runs from the head of Lake Rotoroa, along the floor of the Speargrass Valley. 

1 Lake Rotoiti
Picture-postcard perfect is how to best describe this much-photographed lake and the beginning of the Travers-Sabine circuit. Some may choose to take a water taxi to the lake head, however, the easy and scenic walk around the lake takes only 2-3hr and is one of the highlights of the trip.

2 Lakehead Hut
Situated about 15 minutes up the valley from the lake head jetty, and 3hr from St Arnaud, this 28-bunk hut makes a good first night stop for those who have driven from afar and just want to get started on the track.

3 John Tait Hut
The Travers is a long valley and John Tait Hut (27 bunks) stands in a small clearing about halfway up it. The walk to this point is very beautiful and passes several good campsites. Not far from the hut is the voluminous Travers Falls, a 20m cataract over which flows the entire Travers River. A side track leads to a viewpoint.

4 Upper Travers Hut
The track climbs steadily to the grand alpine cirque below the saddle which contains Upper Travers Hut (24 bunks). This is easily the most memorable and dramatic setting for any of the huts on this circuit. The hut is nestled among tall tussock and patches of stunted forest beneath the vast east face of Mt Travers and the steep horn-like profile of Kehu Peak, both well over 2000m. This is a must-stay-at location.

5 Mt Travers
For the keen and hardy, though not necessarily mountaineers, Mt Travers (2338m) is readily climbed via Summit Creek, about an hour downstream of the hut. It is a 1300m ascent, steep and loose in parts and will take a full day. In winter, this would be a challenging climb suitable for experienced climbers only.

6 Travers Saddle
The only alpine climb on this route, Travers Saddle lies just 90 minutes from the hut at almost 1800m and has stunning views of Mt Travers’ scary south face, as well as into the deep gulch of the East Sabine. The route here is poled.

7 Sabine River East Branch
It is a long, steep descent into the heavily forested East Sabine. A short distance downstream from where the track meets the valley floor is the impressive dark slot of a canyon over which the track passes on a surprisingly short footbridge. Check out the drop – it’s a long way down!

8 West Sabine Hut
Continuing on into the valley, the track stays high above the canyon until it reaches a major junction where the West Sabine flows
from Blue Lake. The 30-bunk West Sabine Hut is sited here.

9 Sabine River and hut
It is, at times, a tedious walk from West Sabine Hut to Sabine Hut (32 bunks) at the head of Lake Rotoroa. The Sabine Valley has few open flats and viewpoints, it can flood quickly during heavy rain, and is narrow and heavily forested. Yet the beauty of the forest and river are unmistakable.

10 Lake Rotoroa

The largest lake in the park, and upper South Island, Rotoroa is a long, narrow body of water which is deep and possesses a brooding, and sometimes foreboding atmosphere. There is a water taxi service from Sabine Hut to Rotoroa Village at the lake’s northern end. This needs to be prearranged.

11 Howard Valley and Speargrass Track

It is a long day from Sabine Hut to Mt Robert car park and many walkers choose to stay at Speargrass Hut en-route. The track can be slow and arduous as it climbs from the lake and then in and out of several small streams draining Robert Ridge.

12 Speargrass Hut

Speargrass Hut (12 bunks) stands beside Speargrass Creek in a picturesque setting of waving tussock below Robert Ridge. It also lies directly on the Great Alpine Fault.

13 Mt Robert Road

The Mt Robert car park is reached in half a day’s walk from Speargrass Hut. From here, it takes about 90 minutes to walk to St Arnaud.

Total Ascent
4-6 days. Lake Rotoiti to Lakehead Hut 2-3hr; To John Tait Hut, 5hr; To Upper Travers Hut, 3hr; To West Sabine Hut, 7-9hr; To Sabine Hut, 5hr; To Speargrass Hut, 5hr; To car park, 3hr
From St Arnaud village on SH63
BR24, BS24

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