Sunday, April 06, 2008

Nelson Lakes National Park

The very first tramp of our trip around the South Island was at Nelson Lakes, and I didn't get around to blogging it at the time. So without further delay, here is the tale of our journey.

Nelson Lakes is at the north end of the Southern Alps. It is named for the two large lakes at its north end, Lake Rotoroa and Lake Rotoiti. Our original plan was to walk up Robert Ridge to Angelus Hut, on the shores on Lake Angelus nestled below the peak of Mt. Angelus. Then the next day we would descend via a poled route to Speargrass Hut down in the valley. The third day we would hike out via Speargrass Track, which would complete a loop back to the carpark.

Of course, plans are there to be changed, and when we saw a forecast for rain and wind, and a recommendation not to attempt the ridge track, we decided to do the trip in reverse.
We started along the Speargrass Track (named for the sharp, annoying grass in the valley), as it followed the mossy valley floor, crossing small streams before they met the Speargrass Creek. A brief taste of sunshine made us second guess our change of plans, but the sun soon disappeared and clouds hung heavily over the ridge. What was the point of walking along the ridge, I reminded myself, if there was nothing to see from there but cloud? We continued on as the drizzle set in.

We reached Speargrass Hut around midday, and found a large group of Australian bushwalkers. With nine of them already taking up most of the 12-bunk hut, they were glad to hear that we planned to continue on to Angelus Hut. Having just hiked down from there, they told us that it had been crowded, even with its 36 bunks. But, they assured me, the route is very straightforward and easy to follow, even in the fog and mist.
Most of the way up, the route follows a stream. But in classic Kiwi fashion, it does not stay on one side of the stream. No, instead it crosses back and forth around a dozen times from one bank to the other. Sometimes leading us through the bush, sometimes across steep scree slopes.
If you follow my blog, you know that crossing streams and rivers is my least favourite part of tramping - so this was pretty much a nightmare track for me. The stream was too wide to leap across, and for several crossings there were not enough rocks to hop from one to another. Instead, it meant sloshing through the stream, icy water filling my boots, and trying not to topple over. While most of the crossings were clear, there were some places where it was hard to tell where we were meant to cross, or whether the place people seemed to cross was in fact the best place to try it on a rainy day. We missed one crossing completely, and rather than backtrack (my preferred method) we crossed at another point and scrambled up a steep, rocky bluff to rejoin the route. It was so steep that I could only do it without my pack on (my rock climbing skills are pretty limited) and G had to go back down and climb up a second time with my pack.
The higher we got, the more cloud surrounded us. Eventually the trail moved away from the stream (hooray!) but as we approached the ridge, it became more of a challenge to see the route markers. After we connected with the ridge trail, there were some moments of looking around to determine which way we should go to stay on the track, which was now all loose rock, and not find ourselves plummeting off the side of the ridge.

The rain was getting harder too, which made us want to move along as quickly as possible, but the rocks underfoot were not making that easy. Eventually we started our descent towards the hut, picking our way down through the rock. Then almost without warning there was a large lake in front of us, shrouded in clouds. Lake Angelus. A few steps further and we could make out the hut, perched on the edge of the lake. The rain continued to fall harder as we thankfully made our entrance.
The large hut was deserted. Apparently nobody else had made the decision to tackle the ridge, from any direction. This hut, filled to the rafters just a day earlier, was ours alone for the night. A hut warden wandered in from her private room to greet us and check our hut passes. She warned us that the rain tanks were almost empty, so we had to go outside to fill up from the last bit of the tank water, because there wasn't enough pressure to use the sinks inside the hut.

It rained all night, and in the morning it showed no signs of stopping while we considered our options. The ridge was still covered in cloud. The warden came in with the latest forecast, which included 50 km/hr winds on the tops. With that news, we regretfully abandoned our plans to try the ridge track, and decided to hike back down to Speargrass Hut by the same route as the day before.

Heading downhill made the walk less strenuous, but I still wasn't enjoying all of the stream crossings and at one point I lost my footing and found myself wet up to the groin. I also managed to plunge my leg into a hole hidden between some tussocks of grass. All in all, not my most graceful hiking experience.

When we arrived back at Speargrass Hut it was already occupied by a group of six from a bushwalking club in Melbourne. They'd been on the trails for six days, and were spending the night at Speargrass before hiking out. There was also a Kiwi couple there from Hamilton, and just after we arrived, a hunter and his girlfriend arrived. So it was a full house, even before a student from Austria showed up. It made for a lively evening, but everyone turned in pretty early (the Austrian student sleeping on the floor) and the first early-birds were up at 6:30.

Our walk out along the Speargrass Track was pleasant, as the rain finally cleared up and the forest took on that misty afterglow. It was not the summery start to our tip we'd been hoping for, but it did break in our trail legs nicely, and hopefully we'll be back to walk that ridge in the sunshine another day.

1 comment:

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