Worth the Wait
Up until this point we had only been in a single place for three consecutive nights once - in Auckland at New Years. We've been living a nomadic lifestyle, only allowing ourselves one full day in most places of rest, and those days tend to be busy with grocery shopping, laundry, blog posts, and phone calls home. And yet we found ourselves sitting in an old, cement floored hut, with a view of Lake Rotoiti, for three nights and four days while outside the weather wallowed about how much to rain, and a slow stream of trampers came and went.
We were waiting for our friend from New York (Ethan) to arrive and join us for the next section of trail, but due to some unfortunate circumstances Ethan's backpacking gear (having been shipped to Christchurch from the US) had first been held by customs and biosecurity, and then mailed without a known delivery date. After waiting in the small town of St. Arnaud in hopes of a breakthrough with the bag news, thoughts of our dwindling bank account had driven us out of the hostel and into the nearest hut (only a 3 hour walk from town) when it became obvious that the bag wouldn't arrive until at least Monday, moving Ethan's rendezvous with us to a week later than planned...we hoped.
Some things are both a blessing and a curse, and although we pushed the limits of our sanity sitting first in a town whose gas station was also its grocery store and its cafe, and then in a hut with nothing to do but read and watch the rain on the lake, we learned on Monday evening that the lost bag had indeed shown up, and that the rain had spent itself, leaving a forecast of sunshine for the following week.
Ethan arrived on Tuesday afternoon, and after catching up for an evening in town, we woke late the next morning and headed for the trail with a sigh of relief. Ahead of us was a seven day stretch of trail through Nelson Lakes National Park and the St. James Walkway, with an additional detour from the prescribed TA route which would add a day, taking us first up the ridgeline to Lake Angelus instead of along the same Rotoiti Lake we had sat and stared at during our somewhat interminable waiting.
As we switchbacked up to the ridge from the car park outside town, and joined a track first through high tussock meadows then onto scree and boulders, we already could feel the immensity of this section of the TA. Views of the small St. Arnaud, large Lake Rotoiti, the surrounding sheer sided peaks and the distant Richmond Ranges had us stopping constantly to take pictures, or just make sure we weren't missing a view in the other direction. For the first time in days the sky was cloudless and warm. It was going to be a good week.
We reached Angelus hut just as the sun set and pitched our tents on a peninsula which stretched out into the glassy alpine waters. The lake sat in a bowl, with sheer cliffs on three sides, and views across the valley from the other. Waking with the sun the next morning we helped Ethan patch up his first blisters and set off down towards the river valley following the aptly named Cascade track and enjoying its many gushing waterfalls.
On the afternoon of our third day we reached the base of the Travers Saddle after having followed the river of the same name up its long deep valley. In the open valley below the Saddle, overshadowed by the distinctive Mount Travers and a ring of other peaks sat the modern Upper Travers Hut, complete with huge windows overlooking the valley and two separate sleeping rooms. Upon reaching the hut for a late lunch with plans to continue over the Saddle we sat on its porch taking in the fantastic view and our will to continue that day began to seep away. Although the climb thus far up the valley had seemed an easy enough stroll for us, Ethan had had trouble keeping up with our pace on the steady incline. Although compared to our fellow thruhikers we had always considered ourselves a bit on the slow side, we finally had living proof that we had in fact gained some level of fitness from all that walking! With nothing to compare to, we had yet to realize the difference in ourselves.
Still, we were enjoying the sunny high valley, and decided to take the rest of the day to rest, recoup, and enjoy the fantastic spot and the gorgeous modern hut. That valley and hut now sit at the top of our list of the best spots to spend the night (or half a day!), and the three of us enjoyed a relaxing afternoon by the burbling beginnings of the Travers River and beneath the heads of the mountains until the sun set and millions of stars shone in the clear sky.
The next morning we set off on the first of our major elevation sections, but the trip to the top of the Saddle proved easy compared to the descent down the other side. Having done most of the climbing gradually as we searched for the river's source the two previous days, it seemed that in no time at all we were atop the saddle and impressed with an even grander valley dropping down the other side. This proved to be the most difficult piece of the day as we descended, first with awesome views of the valley and distant peaks, but then through an almost vertical beech forest as we dropped 1000 meters to the Sabine River deep in the valley's depths.
We reached the West Sabine hut for lunch, and decided that after our restful afternoon the day before we would continue on towards Blue Lake Hut. As we followed the Sabine River slowly upwards, again searching for its source, we first travelled through towering old beech forest. Soon though the trail opened up onto a spectacular, wide valley. Behind us loomed Mount Travers and the other peaks surrounding the saddle we had just descended from. Ahead another set of mountains loomed at the huge valley's end, and to either side steep sided slopes were glistening with impressive waterfalls. The Sabine River wound its way through this impressive valley as we followed its banks over rocks and through small patches of forest.
We reached the valleys head as dusk grew and after a steep climb we arrived at the hut. Before going inside we walked the few hundred meters to the shores of Blue Lake. A sign at its entrance explained that this remarkable lake was known as the optically clearest fresh water in the world, the distance one could see through the water being almost at the theoretical maximum for distilled water of 80 meters! Upon walking it's shores this amazing clarity was apparent as even in its depths the bottom surface of the lake was easily visible, making the depth hard to determine. Details of the bottom could be seen as if they were simply viewed through a layer of blue dyed glass.
The next morning we left the lake shrouded in mist as we began our ascent towards the Waiau Pass, the second highest point on the TA at 1870 meters. The day began wrapped in a world of sunlit mist, which soon burned off to reveal the hidden Lake Constance below us. We descended steeply to its shores where Alexa took a refreshing but icy swim, and then continued up the valley stream that fed the lake. Foregoing our water filter, we drank straight from the stream as we stared up at the scree shoulder of the Waiau, enjoying water so close to its source we could see where it sprang from the mountain.
Having gathered our courage for the almost vertical ascent we shouldered our packs and began the true climb. We labored our way up a mix of dirt, boulders, and loose gravelly scree, taking a breather on a level section half way up and turning back to enjoy the grand view of the lake, valley, and mountains beyond. Although we had been warned by other hikers of the potential difficulty and danger of this climb, so far it had been fairly fine, and the second half proved the same. We crested the top and were greeted with a new expansive view of the mountains to the South and a great sense of accomplishment.
The climb down the far side proved almost as beautiful, though steep and tiring for sore knees. Despite our tiredness we took a moment to smile and dance as we passed the little orange marker that proclaimed we had reached the 2000km mark - we had made it two thirds of the way through New Zealand! We camped in the river valley just beyond that point, prey to the sand flies whenever we ventured outside our tents.
Our next day, hoping to avoid another night with the biting insects, we pushed over 30 km to Anne Hut, another gorgeous new hut set on a windy plateau above the Anne River. The long kilometers passed easily though as we followed a wide river valley through golden grasses, with mountains rising to every side. Another day and a half followed, mostly with easy river valley walking and one small saddle - each valley with its particular flowers, grasses, and mountain backdrops.
On the afternoon of our eighth day we reached the fairly nonexistent town of Boyle Village, the three of us still in awe of the immense beauty of the last week, not to mention the consistently good weather. Being out of food and with no stores around, we stood in the sun on the side of the mountain highway and stuck out our thumbs. After many, many cars had whizzed past we began to feel as if this was where the luck that had taken us through the last section would run dry, but as we marched down the almost shoulderless road, a police officer pulled over and offered to take us the 45 minutes into Hanmer Springs. We hopped in, feeling bad about how much we knew we smelled after eight days without a shower, but the officer was stoic and didn't mention it - he just rolled down his window.
Before long we reached town, making straight for an Indian restaurant and consuming an obscene amount of food - a celebration and reward for our successful section through the mountains of Nelson Lakes National Park. We stayed in town a full day and filled our time resting, showering, and eating large quantities of vegetables andbeer. The next morning Ethan boarded a bus back to Christchurch and we hitched back to the trail, feeling that for better or worse we had perhaps completed what would be the pinnacle of the trail - a section with challenge to meet its reward and the good luck of passing through it with the sun on our side.