Tramping recap 2: Travers-Sabine (Jan 2-8)

Ah yes – the final holiday tramping recap!  The epic Travers-Sabine circuit in the Nelson Lakes area.  This was a trip we decided to do after I had seen photos of the track at tramping club.  Also, we were spending New Year’s in Kaiteriteri, so it made sense to try and do a tramp in the north part of the south island since we were so near!

Our original plan was to start day 1 climbing up to Angelus hut, then walk the track from the Sabine to the Travers side.  Weather wasn’t on our side however as gale for winds were predicted for the night of Jan 2, so going up to Angelus was not advised by DOC.  The problem with Angelus is that it’s now on a booking system, so you need to book days in advance if you’re going to stay.  Since it’s on a Mountain, the weather is well, unpredictable.  So as a last minute change, we decided to book Angelus for the night of Jan 7, and tramp from the Travers side to the Sabine side and come out via Angelus.


Our plan included spending night 1 at Cupola hut, a hut that D had set his heart on, due to it’s being perched more or less on the side of a Mountain, and having amazing views of the surrounding mountains. We decided to get the water taxi from Lake Rotoiti to Coldwater hut in order to skip out the first 2.5 hours of beech forest, saving my knee a bit. We missed the 10:15 launch and since we knew it would take 7.5 hours to get to Cupola, we thought we had better not wait until the 2:40 launch, so we paid an extra $30 to go at 12:30.

Day 1 dawned pretty rainy and dreary.  And as we walked, the rain kept getting heavier (our packs also seemed to be getting heavier! 7 days of food, and all the gear required for tenting does not equate light packs… although admittedly I am sure we are getting better with bringing food and gear and are gradually getting lighter), the rivers got higher, and we were less inclined to stop.  Fortunately, all the side streams were bridged so we didn’t have to cross anything dodgey!  D says several times he wished he had eaten more at lunch that day, and more at Christmas!  I mentally planned all of our meals for the Milford (which we’re doing at Easter) and generally obsessed about food.  After about 4 hours of walking in the drenching rain, we decided that we had had enough and would abandon our hopes of getting to Cupola, and stay at John Tait hut instead.

Day 1: Side stream meeting the Travers River

Day 1: Side stream meeting the Travers River

This was a wise move – we arrived and the fire was already going, so we dried out our gear and had a bit of a rest.  We had an actual thunderstorm that night (very rare for Dunedin, so for us it was a novelty!), and very heavy rain.  I was actually paranoid the river was going to flood its banks and take out the hut (which, let’s be honest – it was just too close to the river for my comfort!).  These were all completely unfounded worries, of course.  When it’s dark and rainy, I can be a little irrational at times.

Day 2:  The rain is clearing up.  So we had to decide if we were going to still try and make it up to Cupola for lunch, or just head to the Upper Travers Hut (a mere 3 hours from John Tait).  Well, clearly we were both not having 100% days because we abandoned the Cupola plan once again (it was raining on and off, in our defense – we weren’t certain that we would have good views), and I decided because my knee was still not 100% and we had a saddle to do the next day that I should probably take it easy as I probably only had 1 day worth of serious climbing/descending knee strength.  We arrived at Upper Travers after a mere 3 hours (and passing a very large Travers falls after all that rain!), both stuffed (it was only 3 hours!  We’re better than this!).  It was beautiful and sunny though, so we took the opportunity to relax and dry out all of our gear.  I should also note that on this day we met a woman tramping by herself (she looked about my age) who had come over the saddle the day before (in the torrential rain)!!!  She commented that in many places “the track was the river”.

Day 2:  Arriving at Upper Travers Hut

Day 2: Arriving at Upper Travers Hut

Day 3:  We picked up 18 year old Australian, Matthew, at the Upper Travers Hut, as this was his first ever NZ tramp and he wanted to go across the saddle with someone else since he wasn’t sure how well it would be marked (it was classed as a route).  He was also struggling with his feet a bit so we clued him in to the amazing miracle blister cure that is athletic tape.  As soon as you feel a spot rubbing, just put some athletic tape on it and you’re good to go.  Excellent stuff at preventing blisters!  [It was fun being the “experienced” trampers for a change!]  Matthew was traveling very light.  No cooker.  No sleeping bag (just slept in his clothes!)!  He did have a little tent, however.  It was summer, so he would have been fine, but hopefully next time he will take a sleeping bag, as these are pretty essential and even in summer, NZ backcountry huts can get very cold at night.  He did the whole track in 5 days (DOC website suggests 4-7).  But if you’re a fit 18 year old with a pack that weighs probably less than 10kg, that isn’t much of a problem.

Anyways – the saddle!  We enjoyed the fact that the sign just before you began the saddle said “Are you prepared for the Travers Saddle?”  Clearly someone at DOC has a sense of humour.  It wasn’t bad as far as saddles go (either that or I’m getting fitter, and more experienced).  Upper Travers hut was already at 1300m, so we only had 400m in total to climb.  It took us a whopping 1 1/2 hours to get to the top.  D had a number of side trips planned but I thought climbing Mt. Travers (2338 m) was possibly a bit ambitious.  Instead we explored a bit, and went to find some unnamed lakes on the map.  Initially I was skeptical as I’d had enough of exploring by that time and just wanted to get back on the track.  But D was redeemed in that these little lakes were beautiful and clear and provided great fodder for photos!  It was my second favourite part of the trip.  Also, we had amazing weather.  Not a cloud in the sky so we had some really amazing views of Mt. Travers and the surrounding valleys.

Day 3: Mt. Travers

Day 3: Mt. Travers

Day 3: D and I by one of the lakes on the Travers Saddle

Day 3: D and I by one of the lakes on the Travers Saddle

The trip down the other side of the saddle to the West Sabine hut was a lot more grueling.  It was steep.  There was a never-ending scree slope to descend that pretty much nearly did my legs in. 

Day 3: What goes up, must come down

Day 3: What goes up, must come down

Matthew left us at this point as he wanted to make it up to Blue Lake that day.  We arrived at West Sabine at about 3:30 – it was hot.  D jumped in the river – I just sort of splashed my face and such a bit (it was pretty cold and rather swift).  We set up camp, D made friends with the other kiwi guy there (and swapped tramping stories while I had a nap in the tent).

Day 4.  The best day.  We got up and got going pretty early as we knew it would be hot, even though we only had 3.5 hours to go up to Blue Lake.  The other trampers had guaranteed we would get wet boots on this day, and about 15 min up the track it was obvious why: the track was the river.  Typical.  The valley going up to Blue Lake offered some pretty spectacular views as well.  Waterfalls.  Rockslides.  (I suppose I should mention the nearly constant Avalanche Warning signs we encountered.  As it was summer, we ignored them.  But in winter – I would probably avoid those valleys as the entire track seemed like one long never-ending avalanche warning).  Bits of the track had been washed away in the recent flood, there was a section with about a 2 m high dirt washout you had to climb up (or in my case, D pulled me up) with virtually no handholds.

Day 4: D and a random boulder on our way to Blue Lake

Day 4: D and a random boulder on our way to Blue Lake

We finally arrived at Blue Lake, hot, sweaty and hungry.  The hut is about 100m from the lake, so we dumped our packs, fished out our lunch and swimming gear, and headed to the lake.  There was a family (yes, a family with kids about 10 years old on this rather difficult track!) there, and the son told us “there was a really sweet campsite just over by those trees”.  At this point I was getting grumpy as I wanted to jump in and cool off and, of course, I was starving.  After a bit of miscommunication, D and I had our “swims” (I mean jumping in and then jumping out as fast as possible as the lake is very refreshing at 4-8 degrees C) and some lunch.  We then set up camp at what turned out to be a simply amazing perfect stunning I-can’t-possibly-rave-about-it-more campsite and then headed up to check out Lake Constance which is the lake that feeds Blue Lake.

Day 4:  It's obvious why it's called Blue Lake

Day 4: It’s obvious why it’s called Blue Lake

Now, these lakes are the entire reason we went.  Blue Lake is the lake with the clearest water in the world.  That is because the water from Lake Constance filters through a massive slip (rockslide) and essentially filters out everything.  Its water is nearly as clear as that of distilled water. (I should mention before I get in trouble that there are other places in the world with clearer water, but this is the clearest lake).

And we camped right next to it.  Did I mention there are also Mountains everywhere?  Oh, and we were the only ones there that night (everyone else just came up as a day trip)?!  Amazing.  Seriously, that has to be one of the best camping spots in the world.

Day 4: Our amazing campsite

Day 4: Our amazing campsite

Anyways, we missioned up to have a look at Lake Constance, but after about an hour we decided it was hot, we didn’t really want to climb much more, and we should go back for another swim.  So we spent the afternoon “swimming” (jumping in and jumping right back out) and laying about in the sun, drying out our gear.  We even had a campfire that night!  It was simply divine.

Day 5:  Got up early again to hit the trail by 8 as it was going to be another hot day.  We should have really been clued in about the heat as the wind at 8:30 in the morning was  warm.  Anyways, we left our spectacular campsite and made good time back down to West Sabine hut (despite spending about 15-20 min disoriented on a slip.  Funny that – all the rocks look the same!), getting in at 11:45.  We had a quick stop for snacks and a break from the sun.  Refilled our water bottles, and headed for Sabine hut (5 hours more to go!).

Wow.  This ended up being one of our worst days ever (I ranked it as number 3, D may have put it at 2. We are constantly discussing our “Top 5 worst ever tramping days” D then commented that we really ought to have a “Top 5 best ever tramping days” as well…).  It.  Was.  Hot.  It was like tramping in an oven.  Most of it was in the bush, thank goodness, but when you had to cross as slip, or even some of the open flat grassy fields…  hot.  After about 2 hours, even I was putting my hat into streams in an attempt to cool off.  It was so hot, I didn’t feel hungry (not a good sign as I pretty much am always hungry when we tramp and try to eat non-stop).  Both D and I were suffering the heat big time.  But apart from it being miserably hot, there was some interesting bits along the track in the evidence of major major flooding by the Sabine river (likely from the storm on the 2nd).  Seriously large bits of track were washed away (banks undercut).  I’ve never seen anything like it (and Ive seen evidence of flooding on the Dart river!).  It was over its banks and flooding areas 10-20 metres or more from the river.  Huge trees down.  Major bits of tangled debris everywhere.  You would not have wanted to be there during the flood!

Day 5:  Where has the track gone?

Day 5: Where has the track gone?

Day 5:  That giant tangle of brush looks suspiciously wave like

Day 5: That giant tangle of brush looks suspiciously wave like

We finally arrived at Sabine hut (sandfly central, FYI) at about 5 pm (and after D had drunk 10 litres of water throughout the day.  That’s nothing really, on the Kepler, he drank 14).  We had walked in the torturous heat for 9 hours!  Thank goodness Sabine hut is on lake Rotoroa, as we immediately jumped in upon our arrival (even the huge lake was flooded, as evidenced by the underwater jetty). 

Day 5: Lake Rotoroa

Day 5: Lake Rotoroa

We made friends with the Scottish couple we met earlier in the day at the West Sabine hut.  It was pretty funny, you’d think D had met his new best friend (Ian, who was actually British).  Lots of tales of tramping (often related to food) were exchanged.  I think my fave was about their trip along the Great Ocean Road of Australia.  They had bought muesli bars or something for lunch, but were pretty sick of them by that point.  They arrived at a little town and there was like a museum/cafe thing.  They just wanted to go to the cafe but you had to pay for entrance into the entire complex and they were like… naw, too expensive as we just want to go to the cafe ($18AUD/per person).  Then after some consideration, they came back, and paid the entrance fees. The cafe was well, let’s just say they didn’t have much left by that point in the day!  They had like half a sausage and the Scots said “Yep, we’ll take it!”.  LOL, the cafe workers took pity on them and gave it to them for free.

Then there was much discussion about our plans for the next day.  The forecast was “Severe Gale Force” winds.  This was the day we were supposed to be going up to Angelus hut.  Where we’d booked in to sleep in our tent…  Also, it was probably going to be hot again, and there is no water for the 6 hour long track between Sabine hut and Angelus (D carries 3L, I carry 2L, and D needs 1L/hour in the heat.  You do the math).  Did I mention the track is straight up the side of a mountain?  Also, D and I were stuffed and to be honest, getting a little sick of walking with a pack on by this point.

Day 6:  We elected to walk out via the Speargrass track.  There was still discussion of Angelus (it was another amazingly fine clear day, but the weather forecast was putting me off a bit.  I don’t like wind)…  But we just wanted to get the heck out of the woods at this point, and 8 hours to the car, through the beech forest was a lot more appealing.  A bit of climbing, but not nearly as much as going up to Angelus.  So we walked through the never-ending beech forest and finally made to Speargrass hut (and under track time too!) where we encountered a group of about eight 16 year olds on their own.  We had lunch and a long rest before our last section of track which was supposed to be all downhill back to the Mt. Robert Carpark.

Day 6: Speargrass hut

Day 6: Speargrass hut

I’ve never done such an “all downhill” section of track that seemed so uphill.  I have no idea how we managed to get downhill by going uphill but we did!  After vowing that if we ever saw another beech tree, it would be too soon, we arrived at the Mt. Robert Carpark.

Day 6: Finally!  The end!

Day 6: Finally! The end!

Of course, our car was parked back at the Lake Rotoiti water taxi spot.  A mere 1 hour walk downhill (D assures me), as we stash our packs underneath the shelter at Mt. Robert and head off in search of the car.  2 hours and about 7km later, after talking almost exclusively about food, how we are starving, what we’re going to eat when we get back to Dunedin, what we’re going to eat on the Milford, and whether or not the Earth isn’t real at all but just a simulation, we finally arrived at the car (and thank God, a packet of chips!!).  I gave it a hug.

The water taxi driver immediately comments that D looks as though he’s lost weight (we are honestly not that surprised as we are both keen to jump on the scales once we arrive  back to Dunedin).  He also tells us it was 32C the day before (90F!!) and he spent most of the day jumping in and out of the lake because it was so hot.  No wonder we were nearly dying – it was definitely the hottest weater we have ever tramped in.  We also decided if it is ever that hot again, we stop and wait for it to cool down and tramp in the evening or at night if we have to.

Anyways, we jump in our car and return back to the Mt. Robert Carpark (it takes all of 10 min, in which time we decimate the chips) to pick up our packs and we’re on the road back to Dunedin.  The first main town we pass is Murchison where we stop for petrol.  But this place doesn’t even have a McDonald’s (I mean, we are really starving by this point)!  So we settle for a couple of sausage rolls from the service station.

We finally arrive into Christchurch at about 11 pm.  More petrol.  A pie, a sandwich and… ohmigod the Burger King drive through is still open!  We also eat 3 burgers.  At Timaru, we pick up 1.5L of coke, and about 750ml of milk.  We finally arrive back into Dunedin at 5am.  D has lost 5kgs.  I’ve lost about 1.  And we are still starving the next day (there was a lot of talk of steaks, or going to the buffet).

Even though the Travers-Sabine nearly broke us (ok, not even close, but we were pretty tired of both heat and tramping by the end!) we are already planning our next trip since we missed Angelus and Cupola, we need to go back, of course!  D also has his sight set on the Moss Pass. 

Would I recommend this track? Absolutely. The Travers Saddle and Blue Lake were definitely worth it, along with some other pretty spectacular photos (which, of course, don’t even begin to do justice to the scenery). I feel very sad for the Scottish couple who did the circuit in 3 days – they skipped out Blue Lake due to time constraints. In my humble opinion, Blue Lake is the entire reason to do this track. If you’re not going to go up there, it just isn’t worth it!


3 thoughts on “Tramping recap 2: Travers-Sabine (Jan 2-8)

  1. Hi there, thanks for posting this great info. I was wondering what rating was your sleeping bag and was it enough?
    Thanks. We’re trekking the circuit this coming new years. Very excited.

    • Hey thanks for reading! My sleeping bag is a Mountain Hardwear rated to 0 degrees C (or possibly -15?), I think. If you’re doing the track over summer, something rated to 0 degrees C should be fine. I’m the type that gets cold at night so I like to have something rated as high as possible. It also depends on if you’ll be planning to stay in the huts, or tenting.

      If you want more info, I also have a tramping dedicated blog

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