This section has been a highlight for me. The trail has seen me climb over the Waiau Pass and Travers Saddle in perfect weather, making for an even greater experience. From the top...
As I was preparing my gear to hitch-hike back to Boyle Village from Hanmer Springs on the Tuesday morning, an older fella appeared out of the dorm room that I stayed in and asked where I was heading to. I told him that I was planning to go over the Waiau Pass, to which he replied "a lot of people die on the pass you know...", and then offered me a ride to Boyle Village and my certain death. The 45 minute drive was kind of funny/painful because the dude was an Outdoor Expert, you know... food, gear, trails and specialised in talking crap. I've met a few of these characters along the way. There's no room in my pack for the Lonely Planet guide books though, I'm just the idiot trying to replace calories with as much food as I can carry. I am grateful for the ride though, cheers to that fella! I was back at the trail head much earlier than I expected at 9:30am, which meant I'd hopefully make it the 30km to Anne hut even if it took me 10 hours like the DoC sign said. I set off on the St. James Walkway with the heaviest pack yet. After starving my way through the Harper Pass track I went hard on the supermarket resupply and stocked up. My estimate pack weight was around 26-27kg for that day. I walked through beech forest and grass flats on well formed ground trail (which is something I always appreciate) following the Boyle River to Boyle Flat hut. Along the way I passed quite a few people, two that are worth mentioning are the kiwi couple...old mate rockin' out at 87 years old and old girl still seemed to have enough energy to give me a run for my money at 79. They had just come over Travers Saddle and Waiau Pass as they are finishing sections of TA that they hadn't already done over the years. Solid effort. I had a short break about half way and got dominated by sand flies so moved on quickly. The climb to Anne Saddle (1136m) wasn't as hard as I thought it would be, but still got the heart rate up with the pack on. The rest of the afternoon followed mostly golden grass track down the Anne River valley. My legs and feet were starting to feel the pressure towards the end of the walk but a small climb out of the valley took me to the palace that is Anne hut, which features two long drops...now that's luxury! I thought it was getting quite late by the time I arrived because the sun was getting low, but it seems that daylight savings is rapidly decreasing as it was only 4:30pm. There were plenty of people in the hut that evening, including some other rAdelaidians experiencing New Zealand's backcountry for the first time.
The following morning there were people colliding everywhere, so I took my time getting away. After using the fancy radio system to check the weather forecast with Arthur's Pass DoC I was off for what I thought was 25km, into a very cloudy valley. The walking was very easy as it followed 4WD track almost all day. The trail notes mentioned one small river crossing at the Ada River, there was no way to rock hop so I decided to change into sandals and avoid water logging my boots. This option came at a price though: flesh for the sand flies. At around 11am I noticed a blue hole appear in the clouds, and within a few minutes it was a beautifully clear day. As I slowly made my way up the Waiau River valley, I noticed the occasional DoC signs didn't line up with where I thought I was. A quick count of the kilometres on the map showed me that it was actually 30km to Caroline Bivvy, instead of 25km like the trail notes said. I got worried about how slow I had been going, so picked up the pace. The 4WD track eventually disappeared and I started following single track as the valley got slightly smaller. My legs and feet once again started to wear out but I made it to Caroline Bivvy sooner than expected. Quite a few people had strongly advised against staying at the Bivvy because of rubbish and hunters leaving animal parts lying around, but it was in a very clean state when I arrived and didn't seem at all bad. It was apparent that DoC had been through to clean up and cut the track recently. I contemplated continuing for another 5km to the Waiau Forks informal campsite but decided against it as I didn't think my legs would cooperate if the trail got rough. I beat the unbelievable amount of sand flies that evening by wearing thermals and socks, which for some reason they were attracted to. Atleast they didn't bother my face.
With my pack weighing about a kilogram lighter, it was time to climb the Waiau Pass the next morning. I was expecting it to be cloudy and rain in the evening, but I woke to clear sky. The trail continued up the Waiau River valley, slowly getting rougher as the valley tightened. A couple of bouldery slopes crossed and I was at the Waiau Forks campsite within 1.5 hours. The site was pretty nice, but I was glad I hadn't pushed on the afternoon before. I began climbing towards the pass through alpine shrub, passing some very cool waterfalls along the way. On the way up I met a year 11 student that was on a school trip with 16 other students also heading for the Waiau Pass. They were climbing 4 passes over 6 days. What an awesome experience that would be as a high schooler. From there, the climb started to get a bit more serious, and so did the views. I had the whole day to enjoy it, so I took my time getting to the Pass. Slowly the climb got rockier, and ended with rock scrambling for the last part. By 1pm I was sitting at 1870m, enjoying the views of the Waiau River valley and Lake Constance on the northern side of the Pass while I had lunch. The school group caught up to me and no one seemed keen on the idea of carrying my pack for me, so I left them to have their lunch. A few people said I'd have trouble getting down the other side as it was a huge scree slope. Solution: run. While it took almost 2.5 hours to climb up, I was down at Lake Constance in 15 minutes. I made a very stupid mistake of following a German dude's advice about leaving the trail and following the opposite side of the lake around because it was all flat rather than climbing over a huge moraine dam. 1.5km of walking around the lake ended at a huge impassable cliff face 30m before the end of the lake. Common sense should have told me that the trail is there for a reason and I wished I hadn't been so easily led astray. I back tracked around the lake and climbed over the moraine dam to catch up with the school group. I walked with the group for the last kilometre over rocky terrain down to Blue Lake hut. The Blue Lake just a few metres from the hut was quite a spectacle, with it's deep blue colour on the surface, but crystal clear water so that you can see right through to the bottom. I met Jeb, Amy, Robby and Britt in the hut, a group of American SOBO's, we shared trail advice and laughed about some of the ridiculous things the trail can do sometimes.
Another clear morning for my climb to Travers Saddle the next day, I couldn't believe the weather was being so kind. I was off fairly early towards West Sabine hut following the West Branch Sabine River valley. The trail descended through the coolest beech forest, I don't think there could be any beech forest more picturesque than through this section of the Nelson Lakes National Park. I was at the hut by 11:15am and had a food break. I noticed that the West Sabine hut's elevation was 670m above sea level, and suddenly realised that the climb to Travers Saddle was going to be over an 1100m ascent. I got going by 11:30am and soon the trail started to climb steeply. I climbed for around 20 minutes before the trail flattened off for a while. I met another SOBO pair: Dylan and Mary, they gave me some useful information about the track ahead in exchange for confirmation about the hot spring on the Harper Pass track. I continued on and shortly after crossed over a bridge above a huge gorge that must've been about 20m deep...wouldn't want to fall in there! The trail began to climb in a steeper manner again, I came to the sign that Dylan and Mary spoke about and took the 'Avo Detour' to avoid climbing up a big scree slope, and followed the track through bush. About a quarter of the way of I met a couple of guys that were descending from the saddle. I was dripping sweat by this stage, and one of them told me how hard it is to descend on this side of the saddle...while not looking the slightest bit tired (as I'm writing this, that dude just walked into the lodge lobby...typical South Island!). He told me I had about another 3 hours of climbing before I'd get to the top, so I continued on with a reasonable uphill pace. Eventually I made it out of the bush line and rejoined the main route. Dylan would be sad to know there were no avocado's on the 'Avo Detour', sorry bud. I was starting to lack energy on the final part of the ascent, and for the first time my legs were saying 'no'. 1.5 hours after I met those guys and I was on Travers Saddle (1787m). It was stunning, and made me feel very minuscule amongst those huge formations. I resupplied my energy levels with some scroggin before I started the descent to Upper Travers hut. It was only 2km, but the first kilometre was slow going over big boulders, with many leg snapping holes to be avoided. I arrived at the fancy Upper Travers hut an hour later and chilled out with some blues music for the evening.
The next morning I allowed myself to have a bit of a sleep in until 8am. The trail descended through incredible beech forest all the way to John Tait hut. The weather was starting to look a little gloomier, but I was still in a fantastic mood, and enjoying my time through the Park. I met Greg, a DoC hut warden at John Tait hut. I had a longer break than I expected while talking with him. It was refreshing to meet someone that is so compassionate and enthusiastic about the environment and tramping. I made my way towards Lakehead hut with good pace, hoping to make it there early enough to have a go at fishing with the hand reel a dude kindly gave to me in Hanmer Springs. I met an older fella Michael who was planning to do the section of TA that I had almost completed, but he was quite anxious about getting lost over the Waiau Pass and wanted to have a proper conversation about the trail. 40 minutes went by before I was walking again. I felt like my fishing time was cut into dramatically, so pumped out the last 4km as quick as I could. I seem to surprise myself at how fast I'm going more often than not. The time was 3:15pm when I arrived at a very full hut. I found myself a spot and walked down to the lake where I found a small jetty. I spent about an hour hanging out at the lake, loving the quiet away from people while I wasn't mobile. There were plenty of creatures in the lake, and eventually one took to the strange insect I had found. Unfortunately I didn't bother checking the knot on the hook as it seemed ready to go when the guy gave it to me. A bit of wriggling and the hook came undone. I felt kind of bad that there is now a fish wish a hook stuck in it's mouth as I walked back to the hut. That evening I met lots of people, including Jess, Isaac and Marcus doing TA SOBO. It is surprising to be meeting TA walkers still so far north this late in the season. I think it's going to get a bit chilly further south!
The final morning into St. Arnaud was a nice walk along the Lake Rotoiti lake edge. It was a little rainy as the tropical storm was apparently coming in. I've checked with DoC and the weather is supposed to clear up pretty quickly...the sun outside right now agrees. So I'm straight into the Richmond Ranges this afternoon. This is apparently the hardest section of the entire trail, but to me that means it's going to be incredible.
As I near the end of the South Island, I'm happy to carry more food and take my time to enjoy the landscapes, rather than pounding through trying to make the next hut everyday. I think this mentality contributed to why I enjoyed this recent section so much. Lovin' it!
On a little side note, I didn't realise while I was in Hanmer Springs soaking in the hot pools, but the Boyle Village mark put me into quadruple digit kilometres! Good times.