Those of us from outside Nelson are jealous our Northern tramping friends having the magnificent Kahurangi National Park right on their doorstep.
Valleys, ridges, and peaks are all highly accessible. It seems you can walk almost anywhere from wherever you are.
Our all too short exploration of the Diamond Lakes area took us through shady beech forests, along gnarly razorback ridges, atop high peaks, and onto the shores of six beautiful alpine lakes…
Moa Hunters on this trip: Magnus, Richard, Adam, Paul, Lewis, Chris, John, Logan
Day 1: Cobb reservoir to Sylvester hut
Day 2: Sylvester hut to Ruby Lake
Day 3: Ruby Lake to Lake Lockett
Day 4: Lake Lockett to Cobb reservoir
Topomap of our route
Google map of our route
SaturDay 21st January – Cobb Reservoir to Sylvester hut
The Cobb valley is a long way from anywhere. In fact, it even looks distant when you are standing in the middle of nowhere.
The closest Moa Hunter to the Cobb valley is Magnus, so we all met at his little slice of paradise on the outskirts of Nelson. Five of us made the five hour drive from Christchurch, while Lewis and Richard flew in from Wellington and Auckland.
By mid-morning Saturday we were all finally in one place and keen to head to the start of the track.
Despite Magnus’s lifestyle block being closest to the Cobb valley, it is still a significant drive. Three hours on the road, with the enormous Takaka hill standing ominously in our path. If you’ve driven the endless winding road that snakes over the Takaka hill, you know what I’m talking about.
With our bellies well full of an amazing cooked breakfast provided by Magnus and Venessa, we squeezed into the cars and rolled out.
We made two stops along the way: One at the historic Cobb power station (kind of mandatory when half the crew are engineer nerds!) And the second at the DOC lookout/shelter which commands a fantastic view down the Cobb reservoir (kind of mandatory for anyone with a camera).
The road into the reservoir is unsealed, but drivable in a standard two wheel drive car. Those with low ground clearance will need to be a little careful, though. The road has become crowned through use and the centre sits quite high in parts. If you aren’t driving with one set of wheels on the high point, your cars belly will scrape the shingle. We did a little road scraping here and there – it was hard to avoid….
The track starts at the northeast end of the reservoir. It was shortly after 2pm when we declared ourselves ready to hit the track. We took the obligatory group photo and were finally on our way.
The track trundles easily along a grassy flat above the reservoir until it hits Galena creek where the climb to Sylvester hut begins. Don’t be scared by the word climb here. The altitude gain is fairly gentle, and the track is wide and well formed. In fact, it is following the old access road built by workers during the construction of the Cobb dam and power station. No need for gaiters walking this section!
It felt good to be back with tramping boots on, wandering among the silver beech trees. Occasional tui swooped past, scolded by bellbirds for being too flashy. A group of rifleman, New Zealand’s tiniest birds even paid us a visit. About the size of golf balls, and just as spherical, they entertained us for a minute, bouncing from tree to tree before disappearing into the forest.
The musty odour of damp leaf litter mingles with the distinctive aroma of honeydew excreted by the aphids that suck the sweet sap of the beech trees. They say the sense of smell evokes memories more strongly than any other. Walking into the forest floated many pleasant tramping memories into our consciousness.
After an hour wandering up the trail, we stopped for a late lunch. Yep, not exactly pushing ourselves on Day 1!
It was almost exactly 4:00pm when we caught our first glimpse of Sylvester hut. Perched on a ridge at the edge of the forest, the hut has a lovely outlook, with views of the rolling hills of the Cobb valley from the deck.
Already settled at the hut were a family of three (two adults and a young fella) and two others who are workmates.
We poked our noses through the door and assured them there was no reason for alarm! To be fair, the sight of eight blokes marching up to what you thought would be a nice quiet hut must strike dread and despair into the hearts of many trampers. Our intention was always to setup a couple of tents and only sleep a few of us in the hut, so as not to overrun the place.
There are two not bad camping spots among the trees right behind the hut. If you prefer away from the hustle and bustle of hut life, there are many other good spots in the trees further away. Our preference is to chat with other trampers and briefly become friends with strangers.
In what is now a Moa Hunter tradition, marinated steak was fried up for dinner. For dessert, Chris put together a large grog-log inspired pud. Cookie time biscuits dipped into whisky were plopped into instant pudding and left to go a little soft. There was a lot, it was delicious, and we shared it with others in the hut.
That evening was spent chatting around a small camp fire. The wind was light and changeable and an eerie mist was descending the hills. Outdoor conditions were very pleasant, however we did have to shuffle positions regularly to escape the lazy curls of smoke drifting off the fire.
By 9:00pm dusk was gathering in and we were feeling a little tired. We called it a night and pulled ourselves into our sleeping bags.
SunDay 22nd January – Sylvester hut to Ruby Lake
Sylvester hut catches the morning sun and those inside were up bright and early. Overhead the sky was a mix of brilliant blue and fluffy white clouds. Excellent conditions for being out on the tops.
The previous evening, Paul had put porridge oats in a big billy to soak. Doing this significantly reduces the cooking time required the following morning. With soft lumps of brown sugar on top, hot porridge always hits the spot on a tramping trip. Even Chris, who once upon a time scorned the Scottish staple, now regularly enjoys a second bowlful.
The tenting team of Adam, John, Paul and Lewis had a good night out under the trees. There was no wind, rain or weka attacks through the night. The tents were pulled down early and spread out on the hut deck to dry.
Despite this day being the longest and probably the toughest, there was no great rush to exit the hut. Days are long in late January, and for us, tramping is all about the journey, not the destination. We like to soak up and savour every sight, sound, smell and interaction along the way.
After a ridiculous number of team photos outside the hut, we were ready to stride out into the wilderness.
With the little hand almost on the nine, we were striding manfully up at the track to Lake Sylvester. Its shores are just ten minutes from the hut. The walk there takes in the last scraps of the old 4WD track before it peters out where Little Sylvester Lake reaches an arm out to be close to its big brother.
Camping beside the lakes would be superb on the right night. But with zero shelter from any wind direction, you would need to know the forecast! The low sun sparkled brightly on the lakes surface as we looked back across it toward the Arthur range.
There is a short easy climb from the Sylvester lakes to Iron Lake – another pretty body of water tucked snugly in a rocky tussock-rimmed bowl.
Iron Lake is the gateway to the high traverse. We decided to grab an early scroggin break at the lake edge. Clouds were scudding briskly over the tops, pushed on by a keen breeze. We knew it would be much colder and windier up there. The grassy meadow beside the lake could well be the last pleasant resting spot of the day. It was definitely the last place to grab a drink and fill water bottles for quite some time.
Lying back in the grass, we could make out a well trod route up the rocky slopes opposite. There is an unmistakable path below a distinctive rockface that angles up the slope. With binoculars we made out a couple of cairns higher up. Looking at the climb from a distance, we could see nothing too troubling. While following the well trod path would be easiest, it seemed you could make your way up Iron hill any way you saw fit.
On this trip, Logan had taken a punt on a new food item. A large tub of ricotta cheese. It certainly looked yummy, but the rest of the Moa Hunters were a little concerned about how well it would travel. As it turns out, not well at all when it falls between the pack liner and the pack! Logan did manage to retrieve the poor squished carton with most (not all) of its contents inside. It was very nearly a disastrous mess! Logan as always, met the cheese crisis with plenty of his indomitable good humour.
As we suspected, there were multiple ways to the top of Iron hill. Some a little gnarlier or steeper than others. At times we felt small, like worker ants as we weaved our way through the towering rock formations that protrude imposingly from the hillside.
Below us, Iron Lake sparkled a brilliant turquoise blue. As we climbed, previously hidden features like the small group of tarns that congregate near the Sylvester lakes gradually revealed themselves.
At 1695 metres above sea level, Iron hill is the highest peak in the area. It is 74 metres taller than Mt Lockett to the north, and 34 metres higher than Mt Benson to the northwest. It seemed odd to us that it too didn’t earn the title of “mountain”.
At the summit, the views are understandably epic.
It was 11:30am when we all gathered at the peak, turning round again, and again, trying to take in all of the 360 degree views at once. It is hard for the brain to comprehend the sheer scale of what you see from Iron hill, and even harder to put it into words here. The pictures below do it limited justice, but to fully understand, you will need to pull your boots on and get yourself up there!
Nestled in a deep bowl below its mountain namesake lies Lake Lockett. From Iron hill it is a prominent and spectacular feature, demanding attention. Looking down at its rippled surface from Iron hill, we enjoyed the thought that we would be camped there in just a couple of nights.
As predicted from the lake below, it was rather chilly atop Iron hill. The wind was keen and steadily chilled us down. With many photos taken, we made our way northwest along the ridge.
There is a well worn track to follow along the tops. It leads fairly directly along the slim rocky spines of the mountain ridges, only occasionally dropping below the most dauntingly narrow ones.
Lake Lillie and Diamond Lake didn’t take long to show their faces below us as we made our way along the tops.
All around us the the terrain was magnificent. Giant craggy knobs of sharp rock protruded from the hill, to be skirted around like vast crusty warts. (How’s that for a dreadful metaphor!)
Against all expectations, we found the perfect spot for a lunch break. A lush green meadow below the ridge offered super views, protection from the wind and a comfy spot for a snooze.
We dumped our packs and tucked hungrily into lunch rations. Life felt good. Very good.
Every tramper knows that feeling of privilege when the vast beauty of Aotearoa lies before us, unseen by so many others. Sitting on that grassy slope in the sun, taking in million dollar views, none of us could think of a place we would rather be eating lunch that day.
After a lazy hour (and a bit!) in the sun, we somewhat reluctantly hefted packs and left our emerald green meadow. Weaving through an alpine field of flowering daisies, we continued our traverse of the ridge toward Ruby Lake.
At 2:00pm we had a clear view of our destination, and the likely route to get there. Ruby Lake is not regularly visited. There is no marked route from the ridge to her shores.
We all agreed there was an obvious saddle ahead that would be the best point to drop off the ridge. From there we would stay high and sidle to the top of the first finger of beech forest that pushes up the hill. Once there we would regroup and reassess.
The traverse off the saddle was not as terrible as many we have done. But still had its challenges. Every trampers enemy, spaniard grass was present in good numbers, ready to welcome a poorly placed leg or careless hand with its hypodermic spines.
From the top of the first finger of beech forest, there is another sidle across to the top of the next finger. Beyond that, the nastiest drop-off of the day lay ahead.
It is best to traverse down this steep section at about 45 degrees. This avoids a very steep bluffed section directly below that would be dangerous to attempt. And yes, there’s plenty of spaniard about to keep you honest here too.
Beyond the steep section, the going quickly gets much better. An easy but occasionally boggy slope took us down to the shore of a gorgeously clear Ruby Lake. There are no camping spots right on the lake edge. But to the right as you face the lake, there is an easily found path up into the beech forest.
In the first clearing we found two very good spots for tents. A third was marginal and required a bit of landscaping and pruning to fit a tent. Groups of eight probably don’t visit Ruby Lake very often. Chris erected his fly shelter in the next clearing above us.
There is an established campfire in the clearing, but we chose not to light it that night, despite the freezing wind. Around us the bush and grass in the area felt very dry. An open fire was deemed too risky.
As the sun sank lower, the wind got colder. Freezing cold in fact. Icy fingers pushed through all our layers of clothes, then wickedly whipped away our body heat. Despite wearing our thermals, jackets, beanies and gloves, it felt very cold indeed.
A hot curry and cheesecake dessert warmed us for a short while, but by 8:30pm we were all shivering a little. The lure of a warm sleeping bag was too great, and we all retired to the tents early.
MonDay 23rd January – Ruby Lake to Lake Lockett
One by one the Moa Hunters crawled out of their tents and blinking at the brightness. By all accounts everyone had a reasonable sleep. Reasonable by tent standards… but less than average if at home!
The breeze was already warmer than the previous evening. It looked like the day was shaping up to be a balmy and dry one. Bellbirds in the branches above us were calling out to their mates. Or perhaps prospective mates. The odd tui swooped overhead, like Tom Cruise’s Maverick buzzing the tower. The distinctive whoop-whoop of their wing beats alerting us to their passing through.
There was a nice patch of hot morning sun on the trees at one end of the clearing. We hung our tent flies up on those tree branches to dry off any condensation or dew. Tent inners were flipped on their sides to let the footprints dry. It turns out they were not really damp at all.
Given we had a fairly light day on the track, we dawdled along with packing up the campsite. There was no rush to be out of there, and we were all enjoying the pleasant surroundings and usual chatty banter.
Yet another group photo was snapped at 9:15am. With that, we were finally off.
The previous afternoon, Paul and Richard had scoped out an exit strategy. We followed them down the path that leads back down to the lake edge, then round to the left/east and into a clearing that extends a short way into the beech forest.
Travel through the forest was surprisingly pleasant. It was far from dense, with no sneaky supplejack vines waiting to grab at packs or ankles. We made easy progress down the hill, passing an interesting rocky outcrop with a small cave on our right not long after entering the forest.
Keeping the outlet stream within earshot on our left we made it to a tussocky clearing. At this point the ground ahead started to rise and Ruby stream was disappearing away to the north. We left Ruby stream and made our way up the shallow valley. We crossed to the true right of an unnamed stream that flows down to join Ruby stream and from there up onto drier ground.
Above the stream there were wide swathes of demolished ground. Wild pigs rooting for food had torn up significant areas of tussock and grass, leaving quite a mess behind them. On the bright side, those areas were easy to walk through. However, we’d rather have to push through pristine undamaged tussockland and have those pigs sizzling in a frying pan instead.
Walking up the valley, conditions were predominantly dry underfoot. But shortly before reaching the highpoint between Ruby Lake and Diamond Lake we struck a low lying and particularly boggy section. It seemed there were more places to go up to your knees in the red-brown mud than solid ground. Even standing on the tussock, there was an even chance it would wobble and collapse into the muck, taking you with it. Fortunately the bogland was short-lived, and were soon back into tussock, flax, and our favourite enemy, spaniard.
Having maligned poor old spaniard a fair bit in this post, I should cut it a little slack. The plants in this area of Kahurangi are actually quite small and easily dodged. We have walked among far larger and far more vicious spaniard in other parts of the country.
At the highpoint of the valley we stopped for a break. Chris officially named the spot “Bog End Saddle”. Large cumulus clouds covering much of the sky gave us pleasant shady conditions. As we munched on scroggin, the sun would occasionally find a gap, and it was blazingly hot when it did. Sunscreen was applied again, and many of us covered our legs with jackets to avoid being burnt.
From where we lazed in the sun we could see Diamond Lake, living up to its name, sparkling in the sun at the end of the valley. The walk from where we were to the lake looked very much like more of the same. Tall tussock, flax, spaniard, and the odd boggy section.
There were no surprises between Bog End Saddle and the lake. At a convenient spot close to the lake, we crossed to the true left of a small stream that runs into it from the valley.
Reaching the lake edge we turned left, following the bank until we reached a stand of beech trees. There is no path as such through the trees, but they are widely spaced and it is a short easy walk to the shingle beach at the eastern end of the lake.
The sun was shining, the breeze was light, the surroundings idyllic. Not going for a swim would have been an unforgivable travesty.
Lewis and Paul were first in the water, with other Moa Hunters not far behind. For an alpine lake, the water was surprisingly mild. Not quite what you would call warm, but also not bone-achingly cold like many mountain tarns and lakes.
After the refreshing dip, jolly conveniently, it was right on lunch time.
For the second lunch break in a row it was hard not to feel like the luckiest people on the planet. In front of us we had our own private lake glittering in the midday heat. Behind us stood the cool beech forest offering pleasant respite from the hot sun. All the resident sandflies were strangely absent. Perhaps they had all been hauled into one of those inconvenient lunchtime Zoom meetings.
Camping at Diamond Lake would be amazing. There were plenty of excellent spots among the beech trees to put up a tent.
But, alas, we were not staying. With packs on our backs again, we left the beach and followed the lake inlet out through the forest until we found the track – a trapping line that links Diamond Lake to Lake Lockett.
After a couple of days making our own route through unmarked terrain, it felt strange to be following a well trod track again. Evenly spaced red triangular plastic markers nailed to trees made doubly sure the track was easily followed.
We enjoyed the delights of the primordial forest. The air had a cool musty scent. Flat growths of ancient looking silver green lichen massed on tree trunks. Wispy clumps of old man’s beard lichen clung to branches like snagged sheep wool. Fallen logs were smothered with rich green moss.
Bright red flowers fallen on the track alerted us to something unusual. Attached high on a large beech tree that overhung the track was a New Zealand mistletoe. These semi-parasitic plants are endangered in parts of the country, being a favourite snack for possums.
Along the easy track through to Lake Lockett we noticed several numbered wooden traps, likely targeting rats or stoats.
Shortly after 2:30pm we were standing on the shore of Lake Lockett. A fairly short day on the track by anyone’s standards, but also very pleasant. We were not complaining.
Heavier cloud cover had cooled the afternoon noticeably. We were very pleased to have taken the opportunity for a swim at Diamond Lake. The overcast conditions made a dive into Lake Lockett less alluring. Instead we dropped our packs in the first clearing and had a wander, checking out the best camping spots.
It turned out the best area was occupied, but only temporarily. A nice fella named Jonathan was enjoying the lake from a clearing just a minutes walk through the trees. He had obviously read the intentions book at the start of the track. “You must be the Moa Hunters” was how he greeted us.
We wandered back to our packs and sat down for a while until Jonathan wandered on. We didn’t want to be rude and setup camp all about him while he was enjoying the solitude.
A friendly weka joined us while we chatted, darting in and out of the trees to inspect our packs. We all knew the friendliness was a cunning deception. The weka’s beady eye was furtive, always looking for unattended food or other carelessly placed goodies. We kept a close eye on our sneaky little mate.
An hour or so later, Jonathan strode through and bade us farewell. We took that as a signal to setup camp, and carried our bags to the clearing he had vacated.
It was a lovely spot, with a nice campfire at one end, complete with a beech log seat. We easily found four good tent sites in the large space and had them erected in short order.
Lake Lockett is a beautiful setting. The largest of the six lakes visited on our trip, it is flanked by steep rocky hills. Reddish coloured scree paints stripes between grassy patches and the bulging protrusions of rock that punctuate the slopes. Patches of beech forest add contrast to the scene. Closer in, flax and beech saplings dot the shore looking like they were carefully planted by a landscape gardener with an eye for a good photo.
Come dinner time, we were gathered around a small campfire handing a bottle of yummy Glayva around. Another beech log seat was added beside the campfire, creating a few extra spots to sit and enjoy watching the flames.
With the fire crackling warmly and much milder temperatures than at Ruby Lake, we stayed up longer this evening. Even when there was no conversation, staring at the mesmerising flames of the fire and listening to the murmur of the forest was extremely pleasant. Lazy curls of mist were rolling in over the hilltops as dusk fell. Frequent trips were made to the lake edge to survey the ever-changing view.
TuesDay 24th January – Lake Lockett to Cobb Reservoir
We awoke early to a clear fresh morning. It had rained lightly overnight, but the morning held no threat of any further precipitation. The sheltered ground under the beech trees was barely wet.
Wisps of mist rising off the lake were gently swirling and twisting, pushed like ethereal ballerinas across the glassy water by an almost imperceptible breeze. Watching on was an enchanting and beautiful way to start our last day.
As if that visual feast wasn’t enough, the bellbirds were in full song, chiming across the lake with some of the more intricate and complex calls I have heard.
The aim was to be packed up quickly on this day. Lewis and Richard had flights out of Nelson to catch, and the Christchurch crew had eight hours driving between them and their homes. Breakfast was eaten by 7:00am and then the camp became a flurry of packing up action. Damp tents were rolled up as they were. They would be dried properly after the tramp. The campfire was stirred again and thoroughly soaked to make sure we didn’t leave a disaster behind.
At 8:15am Logan led us away from the campsite, back onto the track we walked in on. Leading out was a decision he would quickly regret… The long grasses that leaned across the track were very wet from the overnight showers. On these damp mornings, last place in the line is where the real winner is found.
Less than five minutes from the lake is a junction in the track. We deviated to the left and began the four hour walk back to the carpark.
The first section of track makes its way up and down a couple of steepish sections. The beech trees were more stunted as we gained a little altitude. We passed through an outlier patch of Mountain Neinei. Less than a dozen trees clustered together on a particularly steep piece of the track. Strangely it was the only large Dracophyllum we saw the entire walk. Chris likes to call them Truffula trees. Dr Seuss fans will get the reference.
We grabbed our first scroggin break a little before 9:20am. It seemed odd to be having a rest at the time we had been setting off from camp on previous days!
Half an hour after the break we faced the only river crossing of any consequence on the trip. The flow was very low and there were plenty of rocks to hop across. The entire Moa Hunter team were happy to keep their toes dry.
Once across the river, the valley broadens and flattens, making for much quicker pace. We maintained a brisk walk, keen to make good time while still enjoying our surroundings.
Roughly halfway between the lake and the carpark is a wooden seat, neatly constructed under a large rock overhang. It would have been rude not to make use of it after all the work that went into making it. We called in another scroggin break and tested the seat for comfort.
Beyond the seat we saw the first beech trees with a lot of sooty fungus on them. We wondered why there would be more here than elsewhere on our trip. Sooty fungus is a sign there are aphids excreting honeydew on the trees. Unfortunately with the sweet honeydew come wicked wasps…
We stumbled on our first wasp nest not too far from the seat. John called back to say he had just been stung. Within a few seconds, Adam also had a painful sting on his calf. We quickly put some distance between us and the nest, which was inconveniently right in the middle of the track.
Another nest was disturbed a little further up the trail. Again it was located right where people tend to tread, just beside a root on the track. This time we were luckier and didn’t earn any stings.
We acknowledge that wasps didn’t ask to be introduced into New Zealand, and that they simply defending their nests from threats. But… it’s still hard not to despise the vicious little bastards.
At this point, we must tip our hats to the Diamond Stream Team and the Friends of the Cobb Valley, who work very hard setting traps to preserve the Cobb valley area. You guys and gals are awesome.
Just prior to high noon we popped out of the bush into a clearing just above an old quarry site. We were within a stones throw of the cars, but the grassy clearing with nice shade from the trees was a perfect spot to grab a quick bite of lunch.
From the quarry, it is perhaps fifteen minutes to the carpark. Maybe twenty. Whichever, it seemed that after lunch we were there in no time. Packs and poles were loaded into cars and we began the long trip home.
Another Moa Hunt was over. It would have been nice to have spent longer exploring the Diamond Lakes area. There are so many possibilities there, and it is such a beautiful area. So many valleys to drift down. Endless ridges to traverse. I’m sure we will be back there one day.