Te Araroa part 14: Woohoo Pass
A whole bubble of TA hikers was piling up in St Arnaud, and we realised that we would probably be hiking in a much bigger group and sleep in busier huts during the next section. Sadly, none of these other hikers would be Joe. He had a few more days in NZ before he had to go back home. We did our very best to convince him to stay with the group but the school where he was teaching apparently couldn’t spare him for so long. After breakfast consisting of three croissants, a bowl of muesli and not a single oat, the Anti Wekaweka Squad said goodbye to one of its founding members, and we set off with Brianne and Yerin.
The glorious sunshine was back, minus some of the heat, so we had a pleasant stroll along the lake. At the start of the track we had one of those amazing views that you see on postcards and calendars: a jetty sticky out into the clear blue waters of the lake, set against a dramatic backdrop of mountains. Hello Nelson Lakes National Park! As the morning wore on, we began to feel a bit annoyed. We were walking through forest. Where were those mountains? We caught occasional tantalising glimpses of soaring peaks through the trees, but that was it. The trail stayed low. We had an early lunch at Lakehead hut and then we continued into the valley. Here and there, we crossed open grassy areas so we could at least see the mountains, but the trail stayed low. It was flat and easy, and with nothing to do except steady trudging, my feet soon started to hurt again. I wanted to take breaks, but the sandflies were absolutely ferocious and we could hardly stay still for more than a minute at the time. Yerin and Brianne fled ahead to avoid the swarms of sandflies, while Jasper and I made ourselves stop and take breaks rather than destroy my feet completely. At least there were no wasps. There had recently been wasp control operations all along this valley.
At six o’clock we reached John Tait hut, after spending an entire day walking on flat ground, nearly all of it in the forest. By this time we were pretty fed up with the trail. Don’t get me wrong; I love forests and this had some of the most beautiful trees we had seen so far. But I love mountains more, and we wanted to get up on the ridges and peaks and do some scrambling. It was disappointing to spend an entire day in what many had described as New Zealand’s most beautiful national park, and not see anything except trees. What this section needed, we decided, was a high route. A trail that climbed straight up and then spent an entire glorious day above the treeline. We would have loved to take the trail over Angelus hut, but that was fully booked, unfortunately. So it was valley trudging for us. John Tait hut was huddled under some trees, and looked forlorn and messy inside. We decided we didn’t want to stay there. According to the sign, it was three hours to Upper Travers hut, the next one along the route. This was located just above the bushline which promised good views. Even though it was late, we decided to push on. Both of us were aching to to some climbing, even if it was just 500 m. After a quick snack break, we set off. The path was still easy, the climb very gradual, and we were still under the trees, but we were going up, and after an entire day of flat walking it felt good to be doing something. We took the time to take the short side trip to the waterfall, and made it to Upper Travers hut well under the standard time. This was a much nicer hut than John Tait. The trees thinned out and we saw the mountains up close for almost the first time that day. This was more like it! Yerin and Brianne had pushed on to the hut too, and we made our dinners together as dusk fell. The hut was massive, and full of people hiking the Travers-Sabine circuit. It was the first time we had been in a hut with a ranger. She told us lots of cool stuff about the wildlife in the park, and also checked that we had actually paid to use the hut. We had bought hut passes in Auckland and this was the first time we could show them off.
An ominous sign at the start of the trail from Upper Travers hut read “Are you ready for Travers Saddle?” Below that, some person had written “Yes” which was our answer too. It was a good straightforward climb, just steep enough to make us feel like we were climbing, and rocky and interesting enough to be easy on the feet. Now that we were above the trees we could finally admire the mountains around us. We took a snack break about halfway up the climb and again at the top of the saddle, soaking in the view. That morning’s hike definitely rivalled some of the best hikes we had done in the Alps. Unfortunately, it was over too soon. The path took the steepest possible route and headed straight for the treeline. Soon we were walking in forest again, climbing down from treeroot to treeroot. We were going all the way down to the Sabine valley. Beautiful forests, certainly, but disappointing after the splendour of the saddle. The birdlife was cool though. New Zealand has many introduced pests such as mice, rats, stoats and possums, that all have a dramatic influence on the native wildlife. They eat birds, raid the nests for eggs, and compete for food. As a result, many New Zealand bird species are threatened by extinction. There are many projects to reduce the number of pests, and in Nelson Lakes National Park there are extensive trapping operations. The birdlife benefits hugely from this. We saw many fantails and South Island robins. The fantails whizzed around looking annoyed and the robins hopped around inquisitively, following us around and checking out our trekking poles and shoes.
After the steep descent came another flat trudge through the valley which made my feet hurt, so I was glad to reach the West Sabine hut and stop for lunch there. Afterwards there was a nice climb to Blue Lake hut, our destination for the night. The hut was situated close to Blue Lake, the clearest and bluest water in the world. The hut itself was rather cramped, with not much table space for the number of bunks. Other than that it was a cool hut. Over dinner, we talked about hiking in Europe vs hiking in NZ, in particular the “health & safety” aspect. Kiwis everywhere like to stress that in NZ (I quote) “your safety is your own responsibility” as though this is not the case in the rest of the world. We have found that NZ tends to mollycoddle hikers more than Europe. At many of the popular hikes (and even at more obscure trailheads) there will be signs warning you that the track standard is tramping track and may include steep unformed sections or river crossings, that the weather can change quickly, that it is for experienced people only, plus there will be a list of gear you should carry. Blue Lake hut itself had a massive sign warning about the dangers of Waiau Pass. Even the Te Araroa trailnotes contain a list of dangers for each section, warning you that sections above the treeline are exposed and weather can deteriorate rapidly in the mountains (well, duh). The trailnotes for the Adlerweg in Austria mention scrambling, snowfields and steep descents and assume you have some basic knowledge about mountains. Difficult sections will have a black dot on the signposts, to show it’s a hard route, perhaps with subtle “only for experienced hikers” underneath. Definitely a lot less than the NZ warnings. I guess all these extra warnings are necessary in NZ. It’s a country where the outdoors is the biggest tourist attraction, so you get people doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing despite having never done any hiking except a stroll in the park before. In Europe, these people would probably visit the Eiffel tower or something, rather than climb the Grand Veymont or go on a three day hike in the Belledonne mountains. Plus, huts in the Alps are manned and sell food so you are never too far from people and supplies. But Europe is also a lot bigger than just the Alps. To sum up: regardless of where in the world you are hiking, a good supply of common sense and experience are useful.
We didn’t sleep very well because there was one guy who snored so loudly he made the windows rattle. If you were in this hut with us and you had a good sleep I’m sorry to say that you are probably the snorer. Earplugs were useless against this sort of noise. But we were still excited and happy to be off the next morning. The sign with the warnings about Waiau Pass intrigued rather than scared us. There was a short climb beyond Blue Lake, then a rocky part to get to the next lake, Lake Constance. This was as beautiful and clear as Blue Lake. We spotted Yerin and Brianne up ahead on a scree slope and caught up with them as they began to descend again towards Lake Constance. There is no room for a path alongside the lake, so instead the trail goes up and then down again. This was by far the most difficult descent of the day. We took a break beyond the shores of Lake Constance, to get some strongly needed snack calories in. Yerin thought she spotted a kea, but it was hiding behind bushes so I didn’t get a look at it unfortunately. Kea are mountain parrots. They are incredibly inquisitive and will wreck tents, steal boots and gnaw rubber off car windshield wipers. All in good fun, obviously. They’re just playing. They tend to hang around tourist places because that’s where the fun happens. This gives people the impression that there are plenty of them when in fact that are very rare and will likely become extinct soon. This makes Jasper very sad because they are his favourite birds.
After snacks, we began to climb steeply up a scree slope. There were marker poles, not so many at first, but suddenly one every ten meters as we neared the saddle. They must’ve been on sale. I reckon we would have been extremely grateful for the excess of marker poles in foggy conditions, but on a nice sunny day it made us laugh a bit. Sort of like walking into a town with huge backpacks and trekking poles. Anyway. Woohoo, what a view from up there! Peaks upon peaks upon peaks, dotted with waterfalls and distant snowfields. A glittering lake in a hanging valley. Scree slopes down steep mountainsides. It was windy up here, so we dropped down behind a rock to take a sheltered snack break. Waiau Pass is one of the highest points of the TA, so we took some epic squad photos that showed off our hiker’s muscles.
The way down from the pass was steep but easy, consisting of scrambling down grippy rock. There were narrow gullies to clamber down with plenty of footholds and handholds. It was easily the most fun path on the TA so far. Jasper went down first, then took photos of us as we scrambled down. Then he gave the camera to me and climbed back up so he could have some shots of himself scrambling too. We took more breaks on the descent, because the scenery was just too beautiful to walk quickly. Just before we reached the unofficial campsite, Jasper slipped and fell, landing on his wrist. This wrist had been sore for a while, so he had been hiking with one pole to give it some rest. If it had been me, I would probably have damaged my wrist further in such a fall but Jasper is a lucky bastard. He got up, flexed his fingers experimentally and declared that it suddenly felt a lot better.
We decided not to camp at the unofficial campsite because there were already three others there; Dagmar and Vincent, a Dutch couple, and a Kiwi woman whose name I can’t remember. We continued along the river, where the path switched between easy forest stroll and scrambling over boulders. There was a new hut a bit further down the valley, but about halfway there we found a nice grassy meadow near a swimming hole so we camped. The swimming hole was cold, and Brianne needed a bit of peer pressure but she swam. It was a great little camping spot but unfortunately all the sandflies in the valley thought the same too. We got our sandfly protection suits out and fled into our tents as soon as possible.
The sandflies were back in full force the next morning. We hurriedly packed up and then we basically slowed down and spent about 5 hours to walk 10 km. The trail was flat and easy, along the grassy valley floor, but the weather was good and the view along the open valley flats was beautiful. We took break after break after break. First at the new Waiau hut, which was really nice. It had bugscreens on the windows! But we heard later that it was not the best hut to sleep in because the mesh on the screen was not small enough to keep sandflies out...
We took another long break at the 2000 km mark. We had expected a “2000” made out of rocks or twigs but didn’t see anything, so we made one ourselves. We celebrated by eating a very very crumbly battered Kvikk Lunsj and singing our very own very special cover of Bohemian Rhapsody. Great to cross the 2000 km with the Anti Wekaweka Squad, the best squad ever (wish you were here, Joe). Not long after the 2000 km, we met a few NOBOs who had hiked twice as far as we had in the same time. Oops. Time to speed up. We pushed on and made good time through what we soon dubbed “Ninety Mile Valley”. The day was still hot and sunny and we tried to find a shady spot for our lunch break, but that proved tricky. There were not many trees in this valley. We met Dagmar, Vincent and the Kiwi woman again, they were going down a side trail while we were heading for Anne hut on the TA itself. We finally left 90 mile valley and climbed slowly towards Anne Hut, which was one of the best huts on the TA so far. Weird name though. We’re pretty sure it should be either “An ‘ut” or “A hut”. There were only three other people there. Two NOBOs (who told us to enjoy the next day, because it would be the last day with dry feet), and a woman doing the St. James Walkway.
We were looking forward to our last day with dry feet, but it turns out that NOBOs lie. It was drizzling, the grass was wet and the ground was boggy, so our feet were soaking wet in ten minutes. It was a long, long, long day, and we slogged rather than walked. We put our raincoats on, off, on, off and on again. It was that kind of day. Brianne and I kept tripping over the grass. She is world champion in tripping over things and falling into holes, and I’m runner up. How in earth can you trip over grass, you ask? Well, it requires some talent. You put one foot down on the end of the grass, then move your other foot forward against the grass which is now held down at both ends, by roots and foot number one. If you keep moving forward, you will automatically trip. With some practice, you can also use this same technique to trip over sticks, trekking poles, and even your own feet.
We had a cold, exhausted snack break on Anne saddle, the highest point of the day which was not very high at all, just a brief climb up through the forest. The trail officially switched between tramping track and easy tramping track about half a dozen times, but the quality of the trail did not really match the type in the signs. We sang Disney songs to make the time pass, but for some we only knew half the words. My feet were hurting again, after a few good days. Brianne made the time go more quickly with a quiz about American state capitals. Apparently, there are four that start with the same letter as the state. We found them all, eventually, surprising both Brianne and ourselves by somehow knowing the capitals to states like Idaho and North Dakota (neither of these is one of the four). We had lunch in Boyle Flats hut, together with the St. James walker. We were very tempted to stay, just because we didn’t want to put on our wet socks and shoes and go out into the drizzle and sandflies again. We bullied each other into walking. Finally, finally, we reached Boyle village and the road. Boyle village is not a village, but an outdoor pursuits centre and a DoC campsite. We pitched our tents, cooked our dinners, then huddled together in the Palace to eat while trying to not be eaten by sandflies.
We all got up early the next day, excited for the next part of our TA journey: hitchhiking into Hanmer Springs and soaking in the hot pools for a few days. It took a while to get a lift because there was very little traffic on the road, but eventually a woman with a van picked up the four of us. She dropped us at the junction to Hanmer, and from there it was a quick and easy hitch to the town itself. It was the first real town since Havelock (if you can call that a town). We wanted to have a real breakfast but were suddenly spoilt for choice. Yerin wanted a pie so we grabbed a table at the bakery and devoured pies and cinnamon rolls. The rest of the day passed in a similar way. We rented a motel apartment, and got a ton of food plus a bottle of whisky to celebrate passing the 2000 km. Then we spent the rest of the day just eating (and drinking). It surpassed our epic Kerikeri snack binge. There were roast vegetables. Timtams. Kumara chips. Thai takeaway. Roast tomatoes with halloumi. Hot chocolate. An entire tub of Tip Top boysenberry ripple. We even baked brownies. “Have we got a whisk, or something?” I asked, as I rummaged around the kitchen, looking for a mixing bowl and utensils for the brownies. “We’ve got whisky!” replied three happy voices. We looked up the lyrics to more Disney songs and sang them together, although the effect was slightly spoiled by Yerin’s interruptions: “So what are we eating for dinner?” The next day passed in a similar vein, with visits to the hot pools, a leg and foot massage for me, an epic pancake breakfast, and the arrival of some friends in the afternoon. Courtney, Marion and Francois had come over Waiau Pass together and hitched into Hanmer. The arrival of other TA hikers was a good reminder for us that we had nearly 1000 km to go to Bluff. We might’ve just stayed in our motel otherwise, enjoying food, hot pools and a lack of sandflies. But the TA must go on!