Nelson Lakes National Park – Four days of hiking in the rain.

Nelson Lakes National Park is, as its name suggests, a beautiful park dominated by mountains and two large lakes, Lake Rotoroa and Lake Rotoiti and is situated about 100 kms from the coast half way between Nelson and Picton on New Zealand’s South Island. Famous for its hunting and fishing there are numerous walks to choose from, the most famous being the Travers Sabine Circuit and the hike up to the Angelus Hut. Even though it was late November and the end of Spring by the time we arrived there had still been several days of snowfall on the upper mountains. Not being equipped with ice axes or crampons, we opted to hike in the valley along the shores of Lake Rotoiti to Lakehead Hut and from there up the Travers Valley to John Tait Hut, returning back the way we came. A brief stop in at the DOC office the day before the start of our hike revealed that the huts were unlikely to be crowded because of the forecast – rain and more rain. So it proved to be the case with a constant drizzle on the first three days of our hike and a downpour on the final day.

Nearest Town: St Arnaud, a small village with a range of accommodation and a small general store. The DOC visitor centre is about 5 minutes walk from the general store. It is a good idea to check in here for local weather and trail conditions as some huts may be closed due to avalanche risk.

Getting there: There are no major bus services to St Arnaud. Nelson Lakes Shuttles runs a service operating on certain days between Nelson and St Arnaud ($45) and Blenheim and St Arnaud ($45) from December until April. Outside of those times you will have to drive or arrange a special transfer with Nelson Lake Shuttles (minimum $180).

Day 1 Lakehead Trail to Lakehead Hut (11kms, 3 hours). The Lakehead Trail starts in Kerr Bay on Lake Rotoiti, about a 15 minute walk from the general store. For the first hour the trail is wide and well maintained following the shoreline for most of the way. After about an hour the track narrows to single track and there are more rocks, roots and mud to negotiate. In general, however, it is a fairly easy walk through beech forest along a well-marked trail save where there are two major stream beds. At these points we lost the trail and took 10 minutes to regain our way. Once you reach the jetty (which for those who don’t want to spend the night or walk back the way they came this is, with prior arrangement, the drop off and pick up point for the water taxi from St Arnaud) it is a 15 minute walk to Lakehead Hut (sleeps 28). As this is a very accessible hut and the jumping off point for the hike up to Lake Angelus expect it to be busy. We shared it with a tour group (12), a father and son from the USA and a teacher, whose charges built their character by sleeping outside under tarp shelters in the cold and the rain.

Rain coming
Rain coming

Day 2 Travers Valley Track to John Tait Hut (14.9km, 4.5 hours).  This walk breaks down into three sections of about an hour and a half each. The first section from Lakehead Hut to the swing bridge over the Travers valley is the easiest of the sections and starts with a walk across the flat grassy expanse of the valley before once again entering the beech forest. The track remains flat until 10 minutes before the swing bridge is reached where it heads a bit up hill with a tricky rock section to negotiate. The second section is between the swing bridge and the track junction with the track up to Hopeless Hut. This section is more difficult with the track constantly moving up and down the hill before returning to the river and the valley. The track is narrow with constant small streams to cross. The third and final section between the Hopeless Hut track junction and John Tait Hut is easier than the middle section, there are fewer ups and downs but the track does slowly gain elevation before reaching the hut. The main issues for this section when we walked the track was a rock fall section which had a steep scree area to negotiate and the amount of wind fall on the track, particularly as we got closer to the hut.

Day 3 Rest Day in John Tait Hut. We spent the day drying out our gear and hanging around the hut, occasionally visited by trampers on their way through from other huts. Those who had stayed in Upper Travers and Cupola reported being snowed in for a couple of days before abandoning their original plans and returning the way they came. As night fell we were convinced that we would have the hut to ourselves until shortly after 11pm when Martin and Sheila collapsed into the hut. They had started the day in St Arnaud at about 10.30am and had a fairly epic 12 hour hike, the last part in the dark, before getting to the hut.  Martin, who signs intention books as “Martin one leg” as one of his legs is a prosthetic, was a hunter and was on the track chasing deer and chamois. Once we got past being disconcerted by the late arrival into the hut of a man with a gun, Rob put the billy on and we shared a cup of tea.

View from John Tait Hut, snowline dropping
View from John Tait Hut, snowline dropping

Days 4 and 5. We returned the way we came. The journey back taking slighter less time because it was mainly downhill. The only complicating factor was the rain over the preceding days had turned some dry stream beds and small creeks into more daunting crossings. We undertook those with care, occasionally descending to the lake where the streams were at their widest and most benign. Finally reaching St Arnaud we dripped all over the backpackers got changed into some warm dry clothes and grabbed a coffee before jumping on our shuttle to Picton to get ready for our next hike – the Queen Charlotte Track.

For more information: see our Beginner’s Guide to Hiking in New Zealand post.

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