St Arnaud – St Arnaud 80km (Day 110-116)
After speaking with the DoC lady, we convinced ourselves that we could do the Travers-Sabine Loop – most of which is still on the TA. We will see much of the same scenery – but won’t do the Waiau Pass which the TA trail notes describe as “the most demanding on this track…suitable for experienced individuals..good fitness and reasonable agility is a prerequisite”. It has scree slopes, steep sections and sheer bluffs. Just not our cup of tea at all. But, the Travers-Sabine – we should be able to manage that.
We set off, planning an 8 day loop – our longest tramp ever. The first section around the lake to Lakehead Hut was lovely, except for one very niggly eroded section, that had us both inching our way down a steep gravelly section on our bums – tres elegant! On the whole though, the track was pleasant, and over the next 3 days we climbed up the valley, finally reaching Upper Travers Hut at 1300m. The walking was mainly through beech forest, with a few avalanche rocky patches to navigate across. The huts were fairly modern and welcoming, and we had good company for the long evenings. After walking through drizzle on the 3rd day to get to the hut, we found it already pretty full – as the inclement weather meant that none of the trampers had attempted to go over the pass that day. We were all hoping for clearer weather the next day. One bonus though – we were caught up by Robyn and Trevor who we had started our TA adventure with, way back on Cape Reinga in October. Lots of laughter and swapped TA tales followed!
Day Four – drum-roll – the Travers Pass. We knew this would be a tough day – 6-9hrs to do 8km! We let the hut empty out and then set off on our way. Fingers of mist rolled up the valley passed us, and then got burnt off by the morning sun. The scenery was awe-inspiring. Massive mountains surrounded us in all directions – including the path we were taking. We could not see how we were going to get over them. The poles took us forward and upward. There were a couple of sections that were pure rock-scrambling, not looking down. However, on the whole, the 450m vertical climb was challenging but enjoyable. It was exhilarating to reach the top of the pass and scan the mountains around you. Magnificent feeling of achievement.
The 1000m descent, however, was a different matter. It started well enough, although at the time we hated the steep rocky avalanche slope. Next was a ridge – ugh, massive 300m drop on one side, and about 100m on the other side. Not our favourite conditions. It was a fairly short section, although Pete managed to lose his footing, and gave us both a hell of a scare. Thankfully, he just landed squarely on his bum – no sliding! We were relieved to make it to the tree line. Ha – but no, that wasn’t the end of the vertigo-inducing path. We’ve never encountered a descent like it. We had to inch our way side-on, down the never ending descent. Our knees, quads and toes were screaming after 30mins, but we had hours to go. Eventually we made it to the Sabine River – the main descent was over. It took us over 8hrs to make it to the hut and collapse in a heap. Thankfully, the majority of TAs had continued on to the next hut, so we got a bunk ok, though the hut was full to capacity by the end of the day, making for a cramped and noisy evening.
We had intended to walk up to Blue Lake the next day – but poor weather, and sore legs made it wiser to just continue on down to Sabine Hut instead. That was a lovely walk, beside the pristine river – with just a few erosion/avalanche paths to navigate around. The Sabine Hut is on the lakefront of Lake Rotoroa, and it was lovely to sit in the hut and watch the sun sink over the mountains (sandflies made outside unpleasant). Stunning, stunning place. Added bonus, there was only 12 of us in the hut – so lots of space to stretch out and enjoy the experience.
Pete and I were the only ones to walk out the next day – the others had arranged a water taxi/shuttle from Sabine Hut. Cunning plan – but we really did want to complete the circuit – so waved the Howick Tramping Club goodbye. It was another 500m climb to Speargrass Hut – but it was so well done, that after we had climbed above the Lake, it really was a pleasant walk. There was a stunning look-out at one point – this part of the country seems to have endless mountains, rolling out to the distance. We made it to the hut about 3pm – and had it to ourselves!!! What a luxury! There are mountains behind you, and a grassy flat in front. And it is peaceful – just the wind through the grass to provide a soundtrack.
The last day is always tough – you start picturing a hamburger and a pint, but you still have to get to the end. Maybe it is perception, but the path and forest wasn’t as nice as the previous two days either. Still – we made it! Out to Mt Roberts carpark, then another 1.5hrs down the road (trying and failing to hitch) to the welcoming Alpine Lodge at St Arnaud. It was an amazing hike – terrific and terrifying, challenging and rewarding. Stunning alpine scenery, crystal clear (and cold) rivers and beautiful beech forests.