2014 – Travers Sabine – Easy Street

Moa Hunters on this trip:  Magnus, Adam, Richard, Chris, Paul

The Trip:

A much shortened Travers-Sabine circuit, reaching the Angelus hut via a lesser trod path up Hopeless creek and over Sunset saddle.

Day 1:  Drive to St Arnaud. Fish and Chips. Walk to Coldwater hut.
Day 2:  Coldwater hut to Hopeless hut
Day 3:  Hopeless hut to Angelus hut via Sunset saddle
Day 4:  Angelus hut to Speargrass hut
Day 5:  Speargrass hut to Road end

Our route on topomap.co.nz

Our route on Google Maps

Day 1

Thursday 20th February – Carpark to Coldwater hut

Our Master-plan was in place. Chris would make the four hour drive from Dunedin to Christchurch and Richard would fly south escaping the rat race that is Auckland.  Adam would sweep by in his mighty Caldina late Thursday morning to collect them both.  By lunchtime the majority of the Moa Hunters would be at Paul’s house, ready for the drive North to St Arnaud.  Magnus would hop on a plane in Wellington that morning, fly home to Nelson,drive himself to St Arnaud and meet us all there for fish and chips.  Simple.

Except there was thick fog in Wellington that morning.  Very thick.  And Magnus was going nowhere.

After investigating every possible option, we agreed Magnus couldn’t possibly get to St Arnaud in time to walk into Coldwater hut that night.  With luck he would fly into Nelson that evening, drive to St Arnaud the following morning and get a water taxi to the hut.

With four Moa Hunters, four packs and other assorted paraphernalia jammed inside, a heavily laden Caldina departed Christchurch at 1.30pm.  Two and a half hours later we rolled into a searingly hot Springs Junction for a quick toilet stop and leg stretch.

Shortly after 6pm we were sat outside the St Arnaud General Store tucking into a delicious feed of fish and chips.  Shortly after that we were at the car-park and preparing to walk in to the Coldwater hut.

4/5 of the Moa Hunters ready to hit the track
4/5 of the Moa Hunters ready to hit the track

While not quite as baking hot as Springs Junction had been, it was still very warm despite being early evening.  It didn’t take long at all to break into a healthy sweat as we marched off down the well trod track.  The sun set quickly and as the daylight waned, the track ahead became indistinct in the murk. We dropped packs and fished out headlights for the remainder of the walk.  Paul enthusiastically clicked his new Kathmandu headlight on and lit the surrounding area with the power of an industrial searchlight.  Squinting into the intense glare, Chris commented that he might need a layer of sunblock if he walked ahead of Paul!

Set in a lovely little bay with a tidy wooden jetty reaching out into the lake, Coldwater hut is nestled into a picturesque spot. A sneaky peek though a window revealed the hut was occupied.  There seemed to be just one person inside, already tucked up into a sleeping bag.  We did our best to be quiet, but it is nearly impossible to haul gear out of a pack in complete silence.  I don’t think the occupant slept through our arrival!

As it wasn’t especially late, we wandered out onto the jetty and trained our headlights into the water.  Much to our delight a large number of extremely substantial eels curiously snaked their way over to investigate the disturbance.  Paul dashed back to his pack and grabbed a roll of salami.  It turns out Lake Rotoiti eels really enjoy a little salami.

Day 2

Friday 21st February – Coldwater hut to Hopeless hut
Dawn at Coldwater hut
Dawn at Coldwater hut

We all slept well and awoke around 7am to a crisp beautiful morning.  Layers of fog still clung to the edges of the lake.  Ducks paddled quietly across the mirror surface, rippling through reflections of the surrounding trees and bush covered hills.  Trout regularly flopped out the water, rising for flies.  The fishermen amongst us wished we had a rod and tackle on hand.

Our hut companion turned out to be a DSIR version of Slim Whitman.  Sporting a scientific beard, wearing reading glasses that were missing a leg, he was a studious man of few words.  Whilst friendly enough, sort of, we got the feeling he was keen to depart and enjoy solitude in the bush, without the company of four rowdy Moa Hunters.  He said his goodbyes and left us to our ostentatious bacon, eggs and mushroom fry up.

Magnus arrives!
Magnus arrives!

Shortly before 11am we saw a powerboat cutting across the lake towards the hut.  Within minutes Magnus was climbing out, clearly delighted to finally be with us.  It was great to see him again.  Paul and Chris gave up trying to work out what was wrong with the hut water supply and joined Magnus, Adam and Richard getting ready to hit the trail.

A lazy departure from Coldwater Hut.
A lazy departure from Coldwater Hut.

By 11.15am we were on the track following the Travers river up an easy valley.  With barely a cloud in the sky, the temperature soared and it was soon extremely hot.  We were relieved to discover far less wasps on the track than we were led to believe there might be.  Certainly nothing like the plague we encountered on our Wangapeka trip.

The wide valley, carpeted with tall grasses and random clumps of scrubby vegetation reminded us of the Rees and Dart valleys we had walked through in Mt Aspiring National Park some years ago.

The wide expanses of the Travers valley
The wide expanse of the Travers valley

At one point we rounded a bend and came upon a young couple cooling off in the river.  They were fully clothed and slightly flustered.  We guessed that might not have been the case had we approached less noisily.

Heading up to Hopeless Hut.
Heading up to Hopeless Hut.

Around 3.30pm we came to a swing bridge close to the confluence of Hopeless Creek and the Travers River.  Heading off up the Hopeless valley on the true right of the creek we were glad of the shade offered by the surrounding beech forest.  Being out of the sun offered some respite, but it was still hot work as we sweated our way up the valley towards the Hut.

While less walked than the main Travers Sabine circuit, the track was still easy to follow as it wound its way up through the beech forest.  We arrived at the hut around 5.00pm.  It was a relief to drop our packs and take the chance to cool off.  Hopeless Hut is one of the older generation of huts, the kind Moa Hunters like.  Lots of character, offering plenty of history and generally quaintly cramped conditions.

Magnus prepared his traditional delicious hot chocolate for us all while Paul set about searing some superbly tender marinated steak for dinner.  Apple crumble drizzled liberally with evaporated milk finished off the evening.  All in all, a bloody magnificent meal.

Moa Hunters in Hopeless Hut
A hopeless Moa Hunter clutter in Hopeless Hut

Day 3

Saturday 22nd February – Hopeless hut to Angelus hut

After a very warm night spent more on our sleeping bags than in them, we awoke to a change in the weather.  Blue skies and blistering heat had been replaced by low cloud, rain and an increasingly strong wind.

Paul was up first and had some porridge heating in a large billy. He has perfected his porridge preparation technique over many Moa hunts.  Soaking the oats overnight makes for a shorter preparation time and a sublimely smooth result.

By 9am we were on the track.  Not exactly early, but early enough for the day ahead.

The first 500 metres of our day was in the bush where we were relatively sheltered from the rain and wind, which was now blowing like a bastard.  After that point the track left the bush climbing onto exposed and rocky terrain.  The wind howled, buffeting us mercilessly, driving rain into our faces and attempting to throw us off balance.  We picked our way slowly and carefully over the rocky landscape, following a line of cairns up the valley.

The route skirts up the left side of the valley (true right of the river) before cutting back across the top of a waterfall.

Above the falls, conditions didn’t improve.  In fact they got significantly worse.  Thick cloud descended on us, reducing visibility to no more than 20 metres through a swirling mist and rain. Spotting the next cairn became increasingly difficult.  Some time earlier we had naturally drifted into two groups, but with the thick mist was increasing our risk of getting lost or injured. The lead group stopped and waited so we could all walk together.

As we approached Sunset Saddle, the cloud lifted and rapidly broke up.  Within 15 minutes we were on the top of the saddle in relatively sunny conditions, enjoying spectacular clear views of Lake Angelus and the surrounding peaks.  A treat we were not expecting!

The view from Sunset Saddle towards Lake Angelus.
The view from Sunset Saddle towards Lake Angelus.

Ducking over the crest of the saddle, we found ourselves a nice spot amongst the large rocks out of the wind and in the sun.  We dropped our packs and broke out the lunch rations, laying our jackets out in the sun to dry.

Above us stood Angelus Peak.  We all agreed it would be rude not to climb the couple of hundred metres to the top. Well, to be fair, all but Chris, who took the opportunity for an early afternoon siesta, sheltered from the wind in a sunny nook amongst the rocks.

“Climb” is probably not quite the right word for our ascent.  It was more a half hour scramble up loose scree, following any route that looked decent. Halfway up, the wind accelerated over an exposed rocky shoulder, rising to near gale force. Exhilarating!

Extremely windy!
Extremely windy!
Awesome views from the summit of Angelus Peak.
Awesome views from the summit of Angelus Peak.

Angelus peak offers majestic 360 degree views of the surrounding ranges.  In the distance we picked out the inland Kaikouras, including Mt Tapuae-o-Uenuku (Tapuaenuku). It was an absolutely stunning vista and well worth the extra energy expended getting there.  The cloud started to lower again, so Adam, Magnus Richard and Paul charged back down the scree slope to Chris – great fun!

Tarn above Angelus Hut
Tarn above Angelus Hut
Friendly trampers at Angelus Hut
Friendly trampers at Angelus Hut

The fairly quick descent from Sunset saddle to Angelus Hut skirts round a series of tarns, Hinapouri being the largest.  Rather rudely, the track drops below the level of the hut before climbing back up again.  A rather unnecessary deviation we thought!

We reached the very large and modern Angelus Hut at 3.30pm, finding it bustling with other trampers.  While we particularly enjoy the splendid isolation of true back country huts, swapping tales with other trampers in a busy thoroughfare like Angelus is also lot of fun, and we quickly made some new friends.

Dinner was a simple three course affair consisting of spicy laksa soup, a nice curry and delicious freshly baked red velvet cake for dessert, proudly cooked in Chris’s billy oven.

More firndly trampers at Angelus Hut
Three more friendly trampers at Angelus Hut

After dinner we sat and chatted to other trampers, enjoying the guitar and harmonica playing.  Chris swapped food drying techniques with another guy called Chris.  Nobody we talked to had spotted any food suitable for Moa around the Angelus Hut.  We naturally assume a large group of Moa had arrived, eaten it all, and left.

Day 4

Sunday 23rd February – Angelus hut to Speargrass hut

Trampers should always prepare for any weather, no matter what the season or location.  The Nelson Lakes on this day proved that to be very wise advice.

Paul samples the weather outside Angelus Hut.
Paul samples the weather outside Angelus Hut.

We awoke to fairly nasty weather at the Angelus Hut.  Low cloud obscured the surrounding peaks and a howling cold wind whipped rain squalls with vicious power across the lake.  This was a far cry from two days earlier when we were sweating our way up Hopeless Creek under a blazing summer sun.

Amongst the rain, hailstones started to pepper the deck of the hut. Before long, the deck was coated in a wintry white blanket.  When the hail transitioned to something resembling snow, the Moa Hunters couldn’t resist the opportunity for a lightly clad romp out in the unseasonably icy weather!

Not a pretty sight at all....
Not a pretty sight at all….

Trampers prepared to leave the hut. One group were determined to tackle the very exposed Robert Ridge route back to Lake Rotoiti, despite the awful weather.  We suggested it would be extremely unpleasant at best, and likely dangerous in the strong winds, but they set off regardless. We watched them head out from the hut into atrocious conditions.

Being a staunch and battle-hardened group of back country trampers, the Moa Hunters settled in for a lazy morning, waiting for better weather so we could execute our revised exit strategy via Speargrass Hut.  Earlier we had debated the merits of this option vs our original much longer route to Sabine Hut. Given the the hideous conditions, we had decided on the appealingly shorter Speargrass Hut option.

Chris occupied himself preparing and baking a loaf of bread for lunch. The rest of us relaxed in front of the big hut windows watching groups of trampers disappearing into the wild weather.  Rather than using paid DOC staff, Angelus Hut (as do many others) has a volunteer warden system .  Paul and Juliana were the resident volunteers and we had an interesting time chatting to them.  They had come down from Wellington and tramped into the hut for a couple of weeks to do the job.

A volunteer warden politely pretending he hasn't seend Paul's pink longjohns....
Volunteer warden Paul politely pretending he hasn’t seen our Paul’s hideous pink longjohns….

By late morning the only life forms left at the hut were five Moa Hunters, two volunteer wardens and approximately 10,000 sandflies.

We ate an early lunch supplemented with delicious fresh baked bread and by 12.30pm were ready to hit the track.

ready to hit the track
Richard rugged up and ready to hit the track

The weather hadn’t improved much at all.  The first section of track climbs steeply away from the hut onto an exposed ridge, where we felt the the windchill’s full effect.  Cold conditions encouraged good speed and we moved quickly to get ourselves off the tops and into a more sheltered valley.

Descent into Speargrass valley
Descent into Speargrass valley

The scrubby valley was certainly more sheltered from the wind, but not from the snow, which fell steadily as we descended. The tops of our packs soon wore icy white hats.  We hopped back and forwards across the muddier sections of the increasingly steep track.

Close to the bushline the snow eased off and the sky brightened slightly, then closed in again just as we made the edge of the beech forest.

We arrived at Speargrass hut not long after 3pm.  The hut is located at the top of a grassy clearing which slopes relatively gently down towards Speargrass creek.  DOC have installed boardwalks leading up to the hut, cutting an easily walked path through the long grass, hinting that in wetter conditions it may get boggy underfoot.

Packs off at Speargrass Hut
Packs off at Speargrass Hut

The hut was unoccupied, so we dumped our packs and proceeded to make a hell of a mess of gear in true Moa Hunter fashion.  Jackets were hung on hooks to dry, gaiters spread on the deck, and boots under the platform seats which run across the front of the hut.  The wind was still keen, but the cloud began to break and the sun made its warming presence felt.

Being good back country citizens, we cut some dead branches from the surrounding beech forest and hauled them back and left them to dry properly in the woodshed near the hut.

Later in the afternoon we were joined by an Israeli couple. Eran and Anna were heading up the Speargrass creek for Angelus Hut, hoping to make it there before dark.  Given it was close to 5pm and they had a fairly solid climb ahead of them in cold conditions, we advised them against the attempt.  They seemed happy with that, and we made some space for them amongst our clutter.

Eran and Anna
Eran and Anna

Eran and Anna, like almost every tramper you will meet, were lovely people.  We enjoyed hearing their answers to our questions about Israel, their religion and culture. And in return, they quizzed us for advice on what adventures New Zealand has to offer.

Later that evening Eran and Anna taught us an intriguing card game called ‘fool’.  Apparently the game is of Russian origin and is quite popular in Israel.  None of us had heard of it before, but very much enjoyed learning the subtleties of the new game.  After playing cards we had a shared dessert.  Chocolate mudcake provided by the Moa Hunters, and cheesecake by Eran and Anna.

Day 5

Monday 24th February – Speargrass hut to Road end
Frost melt drips off the roof of Speargrass hut
Frost melt drips off the roof of Speargrass hut
Paul at the helm of a gas burner.
Paul at the helm of a gas burner.

Given the light day ahead of us, we were up and about surprisingly bright and early.  Not long after 7am Paul had porridge heating, and even Chris was beginning to stir in his sleeping bag.

Overnight the temperature had dropped, and under a brilliant blue morning sky  there was a hint of a frost in the air.  We spent the next hour unhurriedly packing and tidying the hut ready for the next arrivals. Eran and Anna said their goodbyes and set off up the valley together.

By 9.30am we had everything packed and were assembled outside the hut for the usual group photos.  The early morning sun was already quite hot and sunblock was slapped on a few noses. We we were pleased to know from our trusty topomap that most of the days walk would be in the shade of the beech forest that clads much of the Nelson Lakes ranges.

Mighty Moa Hunter Chris in front of Speargrass hut.
Mighty Moa Hunter Chris in front of Speargrass hut.

The walk out is an easy track following Speargrass creek as it descends towards Lake Rotoiti.  The creek never makes it to the lake directly.  With a long ridge in its path, it turns north and joins the Buller river on its long trip to west across the South Island to Westport. The track leaves the creek about 2.5km from its end, climbing lightly all the way to Mt Robert road.

We stopped for a mid morning break at a nice clearing beside the creek at 10.30am.  Or as hobbits would prefer to name it, second breakfast.

Magnus and Chris telling each other engineering tall stories
Magnus and Chris telling each other engineering tall stories

Just before midday we emerged from the track to a bright sunny afternoon and spectacular views over Lake Rotoiti.

Magnus snaps a pic of the gorgeous lake vista
Magnus snaps a pic of the gorgeous lake vista

Another most enjoyable tramping trip, if perhaps a little lightweight by Moa Hunter standards.  But still with its share of uphill grunts, and definitely with the most varied weather we have encountered on such a short trip.