New Zealand: Nelson Lakes

The Heaphy Track was over too soon. I wanted more days, more huts, bigger distance. The trail is life, the trail is the bringer of joy. I was equally glad to be back in the van. The quietness of solitude, the soft comfortable mattress. On my first day out I took on the Parapara Peak Track. An 18km return up to a 1200 meter summit trig. A mountain ascent from almost sea level. My first in a long time. The trail began with a river crossing, a selection of stepping stones. Figuring out which route looks driest, safest. The crossing is no problem, the water levels are low. The route runs alongside the river for a while before turning up a creek bed, moving in and out of the water. Once I enter the forest proper the trail goes up. Almost vertically. It flattens off, drops over a saddle. Repeating this process until I eventually reach the treeline. The plants shrink to waxy leaved shrubs. The soil thins. Rocky outcrops appear. The trig is visible, a tiny silhouette beyond two more false summits. The view from the top is incredible. Coming up under bluebird skies a good decision. Farewell Spit stretches into, around Golden Bay. The mountains that make up the Kahurangi National Park unroll behind me. Now that I’m up, I have to get back down, along the same route back to the van. 

When I escape the trail, finally tired, finally feeling my knees, I reach out to old mates Kelly and Pike. We’re floating around the same area and arrange to meet up in Motueka.  I get there in time for a cold shower to rinse the sweat off. Reaping the benefits of longer days, warmer temperatures. My friends drive in to the car park and we sit across from each other in the doors of the vans. Catching up on the last how long has it been? 4 months maybe. In the morning I take a day off and follow Kelly and Pike around while they do their chores. Using the social interaction as an excuse to actually do nothing. To rest. In the afternoon we drop in at the Golden Bear Brewery. There’s a live band, a huge crowd. I stick around for one. In the evening they roll back with a broken window. I pull out the trusty ductape and for now at least we pin the glass to the top of the window frame. Their van falling apart faster than mine. 

The next day Kelly and Pike take me to a nearby park to play frisbee golf. The ageless question of when does a game become a sport begins to spin in my head. I stand still on the tee, throwing the disc like you would in a game of normal frisbee. The plastic plate catches the breeze, turns a corner. Pike moves more like an Olympic discus thrower, generating power and launching his frisbee way beyond mine. Par for the hole is 3, I’ll be happy with 7. After 9 what are they, holes or cages? I finish on a respectable in my mind at least, 49. In the evening we have a few drinks in the old Methodist church, now the Free House Pub. Conversation flows “Which age would you live in?” Pike asked”This one.” I say. The summer of 2005 was the best ever. The legend entered my history but I don’t remember why. What was so good about that year? The last one perhaps where I was as free as I am now. The last time that nothing mattered and everything was possible. And what about now, today and the months leading up to it? Would I trade this time for any other? I think not. We roam the streets trying to find an open restaurant on a bank holiday Monday. Our distantly removed yet similar cultures struggle with this removal of convenience. Why isn’t anything open? Where are all the people? We finally find a Thai restaurant. On their specials board is a scotch egg. This though is only an appetiser. The yolk is solid which I assume is how they like it in Thailand. Pike and I then sweat out all the beers, opting for the spicy enhancements to our curry and noodles. We go back to church for another beer, a few rounds of cards. Then it’s back to bed, to fall asleep in a car park. 

I release my van to the AA at opening. I go out for a long overdue brunch. DeVille was open early enough for me to walk back across town in the rain. There are a few people inside but plenty of empty tables to choose from. Indie bangers from 2005 are playing on the sound system and I know I’ve made a good choice. Migas is on the menu. Can you go wrong with eggs and chorizo? It is impossible. I finish my food, drink a coffee and head back to town. Conversation on the Heaphy Track about pack weight had convinced me I can do better. The first thing to do is forget the fleece lined trousers. Warm as they are, they’re bulky and heavy. A pair of light weight, quick drying long johns is a simple upgrade. I spend some time in the library, waiting now for the work on the van to be completed. I come back to new windscreen wipers, a replaced ball joint, and flushed transmission and coolant fluids. I understand really only the issue with the windscreen wipers. They were streaking rather than wiping.

After another night in Nelson it’s time to move on. I’ve spent almost a month at the top end of the South Island. I always feel a bit anxious after spending a while somewhere I’ve enjoyed. What if the next place isn’t as good? I suspect this is a fairly normal, experienced by everyone kind of anxiety. By this point I know if it isn’t as good I can leave, go somewhere else. I head south towards St Arnaud and the Nelson Lakes National Park. Nelson has three national parks within an hour’s drive. This, along with the hopfields is a good reason to consider being based here for a wee while in the future. I had been toying with the idea of the Travers-Sabine circuit. 4-7 days with an alpine pass in the middle. On the drive over I talk myself out of it. I don’t own crampons or an ice axe, let alone know how to use them. The weather looks appalling. This might be a bad idea. More sensible would be a shorter route, a two day in and out kind of thing. Angelus Hut it is. Rumour has it Angelus Hut is one of the most scenic and most popular back country huts in New Zealand. I can always come back and do the circuit on my way North again. The rivers will be lower. The last of the snow should have melted. Two days above the tree-line sounds like a sensible idea. A taster, a little experience. A more gentle push at the boundaries of my comfort zone. In the visitor centre I buy a 6 month back country hut pass, a way to encourage further adventures out in the wilderness. Had I done this sooner, Pirongia and the Pouakai hut would have come out of the cost. Live and learn. I’ve got so much day left I go for a stroll in the beech forest along the shores of Lake Rotoiti. Green shelves extend from black trunks. As is often the case I struggle with how much life there is. Juvenile beech trees wait patiently for the forest elders to fall before racing to claim the light. Tui gurgle, fluttering among the trees. Piwakawaka squeak at one another. A flock of waxeyes flee into the undergrowth. Creeks dance along the track, oblivious to the stream bed beside them. The beech forest smells sweet, like honey. I move on to the cheapest campsite. $8 for a carpark with a toilet in. You can see why people complain about paying when only an hour up the road, in the city, the same facilities are available for free. Sandflies emerge at dusk in swarms. The doors stay closed. As the seasons change, as I drift further south sun screen and insect repellent are going to increase my outgoing expenses.

A Toyota Estima pulls in beside me. A young woman begins unpacking and packing a backpack. I slide open the van door, “Are you going hiking?” I ask. Too easy not to. “Tomorrow,” she replies, “I will go to Angelus ‘ut.” “Me too,” and just like that I have a buddy for the trail. At no point do we discuss walking together or agree on a plan. We arrive at the Mount Robert carpark at the same time. Cloud obscures the view but at least it isn’t raining. I point to the uphill track, “I’m going this way.” The intitial climb is relentless. I warm up fast. I stop to change my set up from fleece to waterproof. Three hair pins later I remember I took my hat off I didn’t put it back on. I suspect I’ll need that later. I drop my pack and jog back down hill finding the black ball of cotton in the dirt where I left it.
The clouds hang in the valley. They’re going nowhere, doing nothing. Simply waiting. The Pinchgut Track up the north face of Mount Robert switches back and forth. In the beginning my legs disagree with this route. What happened to the comfortable gradients? Why are we carrying all this weight? My mind joins in. There isn’t even a view. Through gaps in the cloud the black lake touches the black forest before the openings close and there’s nothing left to see. I realise at this point I don’t know my friend’s name. “I’m Chris, by the way” I say as we approach the first summit. She replies with a French sound that I struggle with “but you can call me Lilie because I know the Rs are hard for you English.”

We reach a shelter. From here the trail continues up. A wide, dirt track through the tussock, into the mist. Black poles topped with orange plastic mark the way. The next two are visible, making it easy to follow. Lilie gets ahead of me, the bright orange of her pack cover the only feature on an empty landscape. What hide behind the clouds? Peaks. Valleys. A whole world. For us there is nothing but the track ahead and the track behind. Deep in the clouds now, I’m not sure if it’s raining is falling or if we’re walking through water. For a while the going is easy. Dark masses appear through the fog. Craggy, sharp edges. More summits. The trail rides around the edge, moving on to loose scree that shuffles like Scrabble tiles underfoot. The poles guide us up on to the side of the ridge. Tucked away, out of the slow blowing breeze. Up on the tips of the jagged black rocks the clouds disperse. We can see down into the valley beside us, our route out tomorrow. On the other side, snow, tarns and high black mountain walls. The landscape is ominous in its scale. We are tiny brightly coloured specs crawling slowly across the side of a huge mass of rock, towards other, bigger masses of rock. Slabs of white ice are packed into the mountain side. The sun rarely visiting these parts. Polished, wet red and green stones clank together like marbles. This reveals the myth of the mountain. You are led to believe that a mountain is a single, massive piece of upthrust rock. This is a lie. The mountain is a huge pile of small stones, loosely stacked on top of each other, ready to slide under any extra weight, as I quickly discover. Down the slope the valley floor looks a long way off. I am quite keen not to slide all the way down. Lilie tries the snow, sinking up to her knees at times. A few paces in from the edge the snow is frozen. Lilie slides over the surface, her face tells me she feels the same about sliding down. We have reached the limit of our abilities. We stop, regroup. Assess the crossings. The next pole is above us. We could go up along the ridge. The rocks will slide beneath us, we will slide on the ice. The snow ultimately seems the better option. Pushing deep steps through the frozen surface into the soft snow below. Lilie cuts the first track, I take the next. In this way we keep an eye on each other. Encourage each other. Get across safely. I point out the hut sign, we’ve only a kilometer to go. One more crest to break. 

“Oh my god,” are the words I remember hearing come out of my mouth on repeat on that final ridge. Below is a partially frozen lake surrounded by golden, snow patched hills. Nestled in the basin, on the icy shore is the Angelus Hut. 500 meters above the highest peaks of the UK we find refuge. There is no smoke from the chimney. We scurry down the last of the scree banks, over the final patch of snow. Beyond the door, out of our wet weather layers we find nobody home. Perhaps we’re the first. The only ones, stupidly or otherwise, undeterred by the distinctly average weather. I squat by the fire, the first time I have had to take charge. There’s plenty of paper and damp hunks of wood but not much in between. I start stripping the bark off what looks like tea tree branches. Scraping together enough kindling to get some heat. One of the logs finally catches. The warmth spreads quickly. The water is disconnected at the hut. During the height of winter the pipes freeze. Neither of us want to go out into the weather to cross the field to the toilets. To do dishes. To clean teeth. We change into dry clothes, drink hot chocolate and watch as the cloud rolls in to swallow the view again.

In the night I listen to the dripping of water, the whistling of the wind. I hear voices in the dark but they aren’t real. In the morning it is still just Lilie and I in the Angelus Hut. The rain has stopped. Thick cloud remains in the lake basin. I delay leaving. Waiting for the cloud to lift. It doesn’t. Even less view. Then either a giant Friesian cow has walked past or the cloud has lifted. Lilie and I rush around taking pictures of last night’s accommodation while we can see. As quick as they left, the clouds return. The black and white patchwork of the landscape fades to grey. In the end we have no choice but to leave. I only carried in enough food for the night. Had the weather been better, were I well supplied it would have been nice to stay another night. To explore the peaks and valleys we can hardly see. 

We leave the mountain and descend towards Speargrass Creek. I can hear thunder. Speargrass Creek is roaring down th deep V valley. We follow the torrent out of the high ground, crossing the water multiple times. I meet the name sake as I place my hand out on a shrub while crossing the stream. A handful of pointed tipped blades push back. No thanks. River rock flips under Lilie. She doesn’t fall in but does get more wet. I look forward to the next crossing, to refresh the warming waters squelching in my boots. Lilie is less than impressed when I suggest we only have 6 or 7 crossings left to make. Later when we cross at different points she told me she fell again. She finally accepts my point. We’re already wet, it doesn’t matter anymore. The steep right of the valley is the loose scree from the ridge top. The left is lined with vegetation. After several hours we arrive back beneath the treeline. Butterflies or moths flicker among the beech leaves. Water floods along the well walked, sunken path. I spot a bridge ahead. Our boots may finally dry out. The turn off for Speargrass Hut is a welcome sight. An opportunity to stop, to rest, to snack. The downside being we’re only halfway out.


The end of the trail at least is easier, drier. We ride the path along the river, sheltered by the tall trunks and distant canopy. Down on the banks of the river huge area of the valley have collapsed. We have to descend gravel banks only to climb back up the other side. The ground beneath our feet constantly shifting. In the trees we hear a screech. I’m sure it’s a parrot but I don’t know which one. Maybe Kaka but we might just about still be in Kea territory. With a final climb we return to the carpark. Too late to get to the visitor centre and collected hot water tokens. Lilie thinks we should check the campground, a warden might be present. No such luck. The cold water is on. I’m not keen, damp as I am. Cool as the day is. Lilie is right though, anything is better than the grime. Cleaner, refreshed we go back to the Teetotal Camp and close ourselves in our own vans, away from the rain, away from the sandflies.

In the morning I wave Lilie off, she’s heading North for the summer. I’ve still a lot more South to see. Not long after she leaves I make a move. A shelduck family with three fluffy chicks waddle down the road. They look to cross and I slow down. The male commits and gets past. The female and little ones are less sure and continue to run down the road. Please ducks get out of the way. Convinced they won’t cross I speed up and the female does too leaving the chicks behind. I sincerely hope they found their way back to their father. Lake Rotora is in flood. A picnic bench is in the lake. The jetty is submerged. The water lapping on the side of the road. So much for a picnic lunch here. I leave the lakes behind and drive on to the West Coast.

One response to “New Zealand: Nelson Lakes

  1. Pingback: New Zealand: Nelson Lakes — I Don’t Have The Map – jetsetterweb·

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