New Zealand: The Travers-Sabine Circuit

There was nothing left to do but drive, so I did. Around the outskirts of Christchurch, over Lewis Pass. The rain caught up with me, hitching a ride all the way through to St Arnaud. Back again, from the depths of Fiordland to the Tasman region in a week, with a few adventures along the way. The rain relents in the evening, only to return in the morning with a crash. I stare at the forecast which claims it definitely isn’t raining right now. I will for one of them to change and, thankfully, the rain stops. Time to get ready for the final adventure for a while. When I finished the Heaphy Track I wasn’t ready for the walk to be over. I wanted more, which is in someway how I ended up here. I had considered doing the Travers-Sabine Circuit off the back of the Heaphy. When I arrived in the Nelson Lakes National Park the forecast was abysmal. I decided then that 5 or maybe 6 days in the rain might not be the most fun I could have. Instead I opted to cross the Robert Ridge Route, in questionable weather, to Angelus Hut. Having returned to the Nelson Lakes, I was thinking more like 4 days for the circuit. With 6 huts on route, and several others on side-trips there are plenty of ways to make things work. For reasons that I hope by now are obvious enough, I wanted to push myself. I wanted full days of walking. I wanted to know if I could walk 30km in a day with a full pack. No more of those 5km to the first hut and spend the rest of the afternoon on a puzzle days. I wanted to arrive at each hut in time for a wash, dinner and then bed. I started filling my pack with everything I’d need for more days than I hoped to be out, with all of the camping paraphernalia I didn’t expect to use. I forgot to buy gas on the way up so I stopped in at the petrol station that’s also a store that’s also a cafe in the village. I went in to the Department of Conservation Visitor Centre to check if there’s anything I need to be aware of. Not this time. The forecast is improving into the weekend. Perfect. I drove down to Kerr Bay to make final adjustments, or faff. For ages. Why? Get a move on. I’ve got a big day ahead of me. Some 23km to John Tait Hut.

10am has been and gone by the time I finally start walking. The Lakehead Track wanders through the beech forest. The air is thick with the sweet aroma of honey. Insects burrowed in to the surrounding beech trees pump out honeydew as excrement. Seems less sweet now. Black mould fungus thrives on this sweetness, covering trunks, leaves, branches in a crumbling coat of darkness. The few streams pouring across the track are clear and low. Last night’s rain having cleared the catchments and already made its way into Lake Rotoiti. The first few hours pass quickly. The track is easy to follow and well looked after. I watch the opposite shore of the lake draw closer. The head of the lake approaching. The meadow flats mark the start of the Travers Valley. By the time I reach Lakehead Hut I’ve already covered a day’s walk. I stop in to fill out my intentions and to break for lunch. Someone is ahead of me. A woman walking Te Araroa. She’s going further than me today. All the way to Upper Travers Hut. Lakehead Hut is a mess. The closer a hut is to civilisation the more people seem to take it for granted.  I sweep the floor and wipe down the table before I leave. Annoyed that I’ve stopped for longer than planned. I still have most of the afternoon ahead of me when I set off from the end of Lake Rotoiti and start tramping along the Travers River. In the comparatively low ranges of the Nelson Lakes, silver scars of scree cut through the thick bush. The river rumbles through the valley. The walls begin to close in. The surrounding tops still reach up into the clouds. The sun is behind me. My ears feel hot. I pause for a moment. I know I put sunscreen on. Beak and wings, always. At the same time rain begins to bounce off the peak of my cap. At least my hat keeps the rain from my glasses. I reach the first swing bridge. I slide over the wet metal, my poles get in a tangle. I slip almost straight off the far side.

I lose the track after crossing beneath a landslip. I reached the bank of Hopeless Creek and there was nothing No pole, no orange arrow nailed to a tree. The trail seems to disappear into the water. I’d spent all morning keeping my feet dry. Nothing else to do but cross. I wade through the knee high creek in mild surprise there isn’t a bridge. On the other side there’s still no sign of the trail. I check the map. There is a bridge. Somehow I’ve managed to miss it. I cross halfway back across the creek. There, upstream and around the corner I can see the missed bridge. I stay on the wrong side, feet already wet. I fight through the tree fall to get back on the track. There will be no time to put my boots and socks out in the sun when I arrive at John Tait Hut. I will have to put wet boots and socks on in the morning. Satisfaction increases with the struggle. Passing through the beech forest I stop to watch mist rise off tree trunks in the last of the afternoon light while rain patters through the canopy. I emerge from the trees to find the welcome sight of the hut on the far side of a clearing. There’s no smoke from the chimney but there is what I think might be a head in the window. I pull up on to the deck to find coats hanging in the boot room. I don’t remember it being wet enough to need to put my waterproof on. Inside one man sits at the table reading, three other figures lie wrapped up in sleeping bags. I didn’t think it was particularly cold either. Two pieces of meaningful graffiti are carved into the table. “Be here now,” and “everything changes”. Enjoy the moment and let it go. If anyone cared that James was here I’d like to think he’d have put his name in the intentions book as well as on the table. The rest of the occupants move to the table. We talk of trails walked, trails still to walk. “Have you done Dusky Track?” they ask. “I haven’t, it’s still on the wish list.” “That’s the best place for it, leave it there.” They tell me of the struggle, the unavoidable wet, bogs rising from knee to waist. Maybe I’ll scratch that one off the list.

Nobody moves, the morning gets late even by my standards. Eyes open at 6:37. Already lost an Iain early start. No matter. Today is my shortest day. A comfortable 14km stretch to West Sabine Hut. Comfortable if you ignore the kilometre high Travers Saddle in the middle. The bunks adjoin, or perhaps more accurately are in the kitchen. I try to be quiet. Rustling plastic. Opening and closing doors. As I leave the other four guests stir. “See you next time,” I say. I still haven’t seen anyone for a second time by chance. The climb to Upper Travers Hut is gentle, steady. Could I have come this far yesterday? Yes, but I didn’t want to. There’s nobody home by the time I arrive. Anyone who stayed here is well on their way over the Travers Saddle by now. I don’t stop for long. The easy walk ends here. Goodbye to the trees, hello to the wind and the sun. I realise now, after months of walking these trails so many of them follow the same pattern. River valley, mountain pass, river valley. How ever many huts you’d like on the way. I’ve followed the Travers River to the Travers Saddle, I’ll climb the other side and find my way down to the Sabine River. The trails are named in this way. The Travers-Sabine, The Rees-Dart. Some people know the Gillespie Pass Circuit as The Young-Wilkin. The notable exception to this pattern is The Kepler. Named after the mountain range the ridge walk follows. I smile, grinning up at the Travers Saddle, at the clouds moving at traffic speed in the wind. I am coming for you. The orange topped poles stretch into the sky. False promises of the top. I jump across rocks, cross streams and climb ever upwards. Two poles stand amongst the cairns marking the high point.

The rocky summit of Mount Travers reaches still higher to my right. Ahead of me the Franklin Ridge and Mahanga Range spread across the horizon. Scree and boulders run away from the high pass to the treeline. Looking down I find I’m not smiling anymore. Down is a long way, a 1000 meter drop to the forks of the Sabine River. Above the trees the route is straight forward, skirting around the edge of  scree fields. Then the trail drops into the trees and never stops dropping. I lose altitude so fast I become convinced I’m going to reach my terminal velocity. Be it on foot or arse over. The trail turns, the drop stops, levels out. I begin to relax and the trail drops again. I can’t go on like this. I find a spot to stop for lunch before the next drop. Rest, go again.
Next to a fallen tree I see an unnatural brown shape. A bag. I pick it up to find I have half a two-person tent. Somebody’s going to miss this. Whoever has the other half is going to be mad. I forget the trail. The aches in my knees. The still falling drop. My attention is absorbed by the tent and the unfortunate owner. I don’t know how they haven’t noticed they’re missing half a tent. It isn’t light. When I picked it up I thought I was doing someone a favour. They’ll come back. Surely they’ll come back. What if they dropped it on purpose? No longer able to carry it. I wonder if they’re walking Te Araroa. Maybe they decided they don’t need it anymore. On the South Island you can almost always find a hut. Why not leave it in St. Arnaud? I realise I might never find the owner. I won’t be able to carry it all the way out. I’ll leave it at West Sabine Hut. If it does belong to a Te Araroa walker they will have stayed in Upper Travers Hut last night. They will be pushing all the way through to Blue Lake Hut. Could I go that far? I guess, if I had to. Almost at West Sabine Hut a boy comes back. “Oh, where did you find that?” he asks. “A long way back up the trail.” I tell him, handing over the excess weight. “Would you like some M&Ms?” he offers. Honestly, I’d prefer beer or whiskey but you take the rewards life gives you. I grab a handful of the chocolate pebbles. He runs on ahead, picks up his pack and I follow him the remaining way to West Sabine Hut.

In the hut there are more people than I was expecting. The walking partner of The Boy Who Lost his Tent thanks me. “Maybe you should walk behind him, make sure he doesn’t drop anything else.” “I was walking behind him, I didn’t notice either.” She sheepishly admits. They pull out kilogram jars of peanut butter each and my building doubts about their experience grows. They don’t stop for long, moving on to Blue Lake Hut. I decide I’ve walked far enough today. The others in West Sabine Hut have come back from Blue Lake having spent a few days up there. Someone else has come out of Angelus Hut. A family arrive, having caught a water taxi across Lake Rotoroa to Sabine Hut. Compared to yesterday this is a crowd. I escape to the shores of the Sabine River. The water is running high and fast. No chance of a swim in the main channel. A stream cuts away from the main flow, pouring into a small pool. Deep enough to sit down in, to rinse off at least. I return to the hut to negotiate kitchen space in the small corner. At less than half capacity, the cooking arrangement is difficult. Had this been a busier day I wonder how anyone is supposed to safely get anything done.

I thought I was having an efficient morning until people who woke up half an hour after me left at the same time. I haven’t bothered taking my pack. I’ve committed to Blue Lake as a day trip. I’ll either come back to West Sabine or carry on down the river to Sabine Hut. Walking without my pack is like flying. Or at least it’s what I imagine flying is like. Three ladies come down the trail. “You’re travelling light,” “Just popping up to Blue Lake to have a look.” “That’s what a 7 hour return pop?” “I’m hoping to do it quicker than that.” My confidence is high. I’m feeling good, feeling light. The track is always easier without a pack. Leaping and jumping over streams is comfortable and doesn’t come with the risk of falling forwards or being dragged backwards. Balance is restored. Whole sides of mountains have come down and  kept on going up the other  side of the valley. Flood debris lies high on the trail. Rocks settle next to each other, some have been there maybe hundreds of years covered in moss. The others washed up out of the river, covered in nothing. I bounce over logs straddling a bog. I don’t have my poles to check but the surrounding footprints suggest this is a deep one. I climb up alongside the frothing torrent, feeling as though I must be getting close. There’s one more climb and I’m about ready for a break. I stop outside Blue Lake Hut. Nobody is around. All gone already. I go down to the lake’s edge.

You honestly begin to think you’ve got used to New Zealand’s water colour nonsense. After a few glacier fed lakes, snow melt rivers, you begin to think you’ve seen it all. Then you come face to face with what claims to be some of the most optically pure water in the world. The blue doesn’t look natural. How can it be? I read all the signs. Swimming is out but nothing says I can’t drink the water at Blue Lake so I fill my bottle. The water tastes like water. Maybe it tastes cleaner than out of the tap. Maybe. I walk around the shore, mesmerised by the jewel like sparkle of white light dancing over the ripple of wind kissed waves. I notice a couple across the other side of the lake. I think they’ve seen me too, they have a guilty look about themselves. I suspect they’re hoping to fill their water bottles too. I decide to carry on walking, to follow part of the Waiau Pass Route up on to the moraine wall. From the top I look back down on to Blue Lake. I can’t believe it, I shouldn’t believe it but I can see the bottom. Even from this far away. The water is so clear. I carry on through the rock garden towards Lake Constance. I keep one eye on the pole markers as I diverge to see how this other lake compares. The water looks black, with only the faintest trace of blue around the edge. Somewhere along the ridge line that skirts the lake is the trail. The scree slope leading up to the ridge looks borderline terriying. There’s no sign of anyone walking up there. Again, already gone. The Waiau Pass Route looks as though it will be one to remember. I decide I’ve seen enough and begin walking back to West Sabine Hut. I pass more people than I remember seeing up at Blue Lake. The next batch of Te Araroa walkers come through. Some stop to chat. “We’re North Islanders doing the South Island.” I wonder if that’s why they look mostly clean, almost fresh. I come to the deep bog again. Sphagnum moss is wetter than water. I try to remember what my route was coming in. I have no idea. I put one foot on to a log and it sinks beneath me, threatening to cast me into the black muddy waters. I pull back, see what looks like firm rock and sink again. At least I only got ankle deep. I jump across the final stretch to safe, firm ground.

I get back to West Sabine Hut. A man lays flat out on a mattress on the deck. “Big day?” I ask. “Yeah,” he says, “we’ve come up from Sabine.” Concerned I wonder whether I should press on or not. I look at his school like backpack, the white trainers covered in mud. I suspect a big day for him isn’t the same as a big day for me. Still,  should I stay or should I go? I’ve done around 15km without weight, now I’ve got the same again plus weight. If I go, I’ll arrive around 8pm. Enough time for dinner and bed. I can do it. I pull my pack on. “Have fun,” I say as I leave. In the beginning the track is nice. I stop the thought before it begins. It will not be like this the whole way. Although, most of the Sabine Track is nice. Flat, compact. Sometimes through the bush, sometimes along the river, sometimes in a meadow. A man catches me by surprise. He’s behind me. Where has he come from? He claims he was fishing. “See you back at the hut,” he says and disappears forever over a fallen tree. Should have asked him to put a beer in the fridge for me. Definitely an original trail joke. Definitely won’t have heard it before. Two thirds of the way there I’ve had enough. I can feel hot spots on my feet. Not blisters, not yet but I’ve clearly found my limit. There’s a final climb. I look up at it, the trail stares back. “Can you?” It asks. I don’t know. I don’t have a choice. I’ve come too far. No turning back. I must. Amongst swearing and stops I make it to the top and fall down the other side. Back down at the river I cross a bridge and come to a fork in the path. A  sign. Sabine Hut, 30 minutes, that way. What passes might be the longest 30 minutes of my life. I crawl on to the deck of Sabine Hut as the sky flushes orange and pink. I was expecting there to be a bigger crowd here than up the river at West Sabine Hut. I open the door to find only Martin, the Surprise Fisherman. “Are you well hydrated?”, he asks. Weird question but yeah I think so. “Do you want a beer?” he asks. Can you believe it? I couldn’t. He puts a sort of cold American Pale Ale in front of me and I’ve never been happier to see one. He joins me for dinner as the sun goes down. We talk of trails walked, trails still to walk. I think he’s surprised how many times I say, “Yep, done it, loved it.” “What about the holy grail then?” How do I know what he’s going to say already. “Dusky Track?” Nope. Absolutely not. Not after what I was told two nights ago. He laughs, it isn’t that bad. Apparently. Like all these things it depends on your experience, what you’re used to, how much you love to suffer. We chat into the evening. A late bed time. With a bunk room each. Madness.

In the end I was probably over hydrated. I had to get up to pee in the night. Went back to sleep. Woke up late. I hurt. Where is the pain? Ankles. Above the knees. Across the bridge of my left foot. On the outside of my big toe on my left foot. The pain fades but I’m still slow to leave. I continued chatting with Martin who gave me some more tips for things to do if ever I find myself back in the depths of Fiordland. On the trail, sections of bush have been wiped out by a storm. A guess. It’s open, exposed. Hot in the sun. The bush is deep, dark and cool. In the big bush getting lost is easy. Many things look like tracks but aren’t. You have to peer deep into the gloom of the forest. Seeking out the orange triangle. This is the way. Shafts of sunlight slowly sink to the forest floor. I notice a weird sound. A sound that might have been there this whole time. There’s an endless, relentless droning. The buzz of wasps. They’re here to feed on the honeydew producing bugs in the beech bark. Yellow traps are nailed to the trunks. Apparently there’s a 90% kill rate but with the amount of wasps here I think they need to aim higher. I find myself enjoying the forest again, just like the first time. I climb over tree roots, drop down tree roots, into a bog. I bounce over boulders. I follow a stretch of track as smooth as a contour. Somehow I’m still flying. I come to a bridge over the massive flooded wastes of Cedric Stream. I think I’m close to Speargrass Hut so I speed up, a little burst now to get me there in time for lunch. I was wrong. I had another creek to cross. Gaiters and socks are draped over the hand rails. A big group have come in from Angelus Hut. They’re splitting up, some staying an extra night others pressing on. I could stop here, spend an extra night or I could maintain the push. The afternoon still lies open ahead. I feel alright so why not? I catch the old people at the slip. I remember this track but I remember it worse. Maybe all I remember was the rain. The old people offer to let me pass but I like their pace on the flat. I take the lead on the last slog up. They’re lost forever behind me.

I have to keep telling myself the Mount Robert carpark isn’t the end. The van is at Kerr Bay on the other side of St Arnaud. At least I hope the van is still there. I crunch down the road, moving aside as I hear the burst of vehicles on gravel. I come back to the edge of Lake Rotoiti. Nearly there. The visitor centre is closed when I arrive but I keep going to Kerr Bay. I walk straight in to the camp ground. I head over to the van with the sign that reads Camp Host. He comes out. “Whatever you want we don’t have,’ he says. “Ok, fair enough but I really would like a shower.” “I know,” he says, “I can smell you from here.” I don’t doubt it. He lets me buy a token for the shower. It is the best 6 minute shower of my life. My feet are raw but at least for today I am clean. I finish up in the Alpine Lodge. I approach the bar and ask if they have a table for one. They don’t, but they can seat me at the bar. I don’t mind, I just want a cold beer and a hot burger. The waitress introduces me to the Valentines Menu. That explains why it’s busy. I tell her thanks, but no thanks. The burger will be just fine and it is. I don’t stop there, the dessert menu needs a browse and I end up with an Asian Pandan Leaf & Coconut Panna Cotta. I don’t know what it is other than delicious. Once I’ve finished I have a think. Could I eat another burger? Probably. Could I eat another dessert? Definitely. Should I? Undecided. The kitchen is closed which makes my mind up for me. I start to wonder if this is what it is like on the long trails. After pushing out several 30km days you stop in town and eat enough for two and go again. These are certainly the stories you hear. I move the van back to Tee Total Campsite. I leave my bag packed in the front seat, crawl in to bed and slip into the deepest, most well deserved sleep of my life (so far).

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