The Travers Sabine Circuit is an 80km loop located in the Nelson Lakes National Park on the south island of New Zealand. It is usually walked over 4-7 days. We chose to do it over 7 days and nights including two side trips to Blue Lake and Angelus Hut. This meant we had some careful packing to do to ensure that we could manage our pack weight.
Day 1: Nelson to Lakehead Hut.
After flying in on Friday, we were up early the next morning to shop for a few last food items and to purchase our Backcountry Hut tickets from the Nelson i-SITE Visitor Information Centre.
We took a 1.5-hour shuttle from Nelson to St Arnaud and from there we took a scenic water taxi journey up Lake Rotoiti to the jetty only 750m from Lakehead Hut. Two of the group had taken an earlier water taxi and had time to walk to John Tait Hut on the first night.
As we arrived at the hut early, we had time to explore the area which was at the head of Lake Rotoiti and the lower part of the Travers Valley.
Three of the group walked around to Coldwater Hut and delighted in making their boots wet when crossing the river. Three of us decided to keep our boots dry and have a swim back at the jetty. Here, we had our first meeting with the multitude of sandflies that were to pester and bite us for the rest of the trip!
On our return to the hut we were amused and just a bit concerned to find out that the other hut residents included a 4-month-old baby and 9 eleven-year-old girls for a birthday party. We were told that the baby was good (which it really was) and the girls were great (which they really were too), so we all slept well. In fact, it was a surprisingly quiet night!
Day 2 – Lakehead Hut to Upper Travers Hut
7.5 hours walking, 22km
With a long day ahead of us and very full packs, we were up early for the 7.5 hour walk via John Tait Hut. The weather was fine, although we knew there was some rain forecast later. The walk started off with an hour and half of relatively easy walking along the Travers River flats. After crossing the Travers River on the first of the swing bridges, the going became a little more difficult, walking through beech forests, alongside beautiful clear tumbling creeks, grassland and some small creek crossings.
We lunched at John Tait Hut before tramping up steeper terrain, passing both the spectacular Cupola Creek Chasm and Travers Falls. The viewing point for the falls is accessed by a short sidetrack off the main route. We then started to cross avalanche screes as we ascended more steeply through the forest. As the day progressed some light rain started. Eventually, we were happy to see the hut in the distance. It had been a long first day and we were all feeling tired.
Day 3 – Upper Travers Hut to West Sabine Hut
5 hours walking
We awoke to mist and drizzle and were a little concerned about what the day might hold as well as feeling the effort of yesterday in our muscles.
We agreed to proceed and to come back if the conditions were not favourable. Getting to the Poukirikiri/ Travers Saddle involves a 450m increase in altitude with a wet and steep rocky track up. Amazingly on arrival at the saddle we had very little wind and were relieved to see that the weather in the Sabine Valley was in fact clearing. We had expected the next two days to be wet.
The descent was very steep, and we had 1000m of vertical to descend before we were on the valley floor. Between us there were lots of slips as we made our way first down a muddy track through tussock and scree and then into the stunted beech forest. It was here that we experienced our first “root ladders” that sometimes would help us and at other times trip us up!
Once through the beech forest the walking became a little easier however there were still some very steep drops off the side, as well as having to deal with some boggy areas on the track. A point of interest was the seemingly bottomless chasm of the East Branch Sabine River that roared below us but was impossible to see as we crossed the bridge!
Once again, there was relief to arrive at the hut. Our quads were all feeling the steep ascents and descents with the weight of our full packs. We had decided to spend 2 nights here and walk to Blue Lake as a day side trip the next day. We did our usual battle with the sandflies as we washed in the river, stretched our sore quads, enjoyed our dinners and headed to bed.
Day 4 – West Sabine Hut to Blue Lake Hut (day return trip)
7 hours walking, 17km
We lightened our packs to only carry emergency items and food and set off up to Blue Lake. Two of our group had stayed there the night before however, as they were planning to visit Lake Constance, it was unlikely we would cross paths on this day.
After crossing the West Branch Sabine swing bridge adjacent to the hut, we headed upstream. There had been a significant rain event last year that had created many washouts of the track and slides where extra care was required, not only finding the track but negotiating fallen trees, creek washouts, avalanche scree and many exposed roots that easily tripped you up (and did!). Looking up the mountain, we saw numerous waterfalls spectacularly tumbling hundreds of metres down.
Known as Rotomairewhenua (the land of the peaceful waters) by the Ngati Apa iwi, this sacred lake, located at 1200m altitude, is spectacularly clear and blue, and reputed to be the clearest fresh water in the world. Appropriately visitors are requested to respect the waters and not wash themselves or anything else in the lake.
We had lunch at the lake and returned the way we came. A few of us braved the cold waters of the river along the way to wash as there were less sandflies higher up than back at the hut. At this point in time, the skies became very dark and we could hear thunder. We only had a few drops of rain however at the hut and further down the valley we learnt there had been a hailstorm that we were happy to have missed!
Day 5 – West Sabine Hut to Sabine Hut
5 hours walking, 16km
This time we headed downstream after crossing the swing bridge, following the Sabine River’s course. Once again, we found significant flood damage with tracks often having been recently relocated. The river became increasingly larger as we headed downstream and the walking at times a bit easier, as we traversed some beautiful open river flat areas but always interspersed with another steep ascent or descent over a ridge line to keep us concentrating. We had a bit of rain but not enough to dampen us too much!
After crossing a bridge at the head of Lake Rotoroa with beautiful views of the clear blue Sabine River waters far below us, it was only a short and easy walk remaining for the day. Sabine Hut was very scenically located on the edge of the lake and abundant in sandflies, bumble bees and wasps – especially the toilets! The toilets were definitely not a place to linger!
We braved a very quick swim off the jetty and otherwise stayed inside to avoid being eaten alive! We reunited with two or our party who had been ahead of us for the past few days.
Day 6 – Sabine Hut to Speargrass Hut
5 hours walking, 13km
Despite having a hut warden talk about hut etiquette, the lads in the other room were up very early and noisily tramped up and down many times with their boots on inside, getting ready for their early start.
Here the group went 3 different ways. We were blessed with good weather again! The most intrepid two took the steep climb up to Mt Cedric and along the exposed ridgeline being a 6 hour walk to Angelus Hut.
Two others got an earlier start to get to Angelus Hut via Speargrass Hut which was a tiring 7-hour walk. The remaining four had decided to spend the night at Speargrass Hut so had a more leisurely walk.
The other four arrived at Speargrass hut with plenty of time to bathe in the creek, wash clothing and relax before cutting some wood for a cosy fire and going to bed. We half expected that we might have some more trampers arrive however the four of us were lucky enough to have the hut to ourselves for the night!
Day 7 – Speargrass Hut to Angelus Hut
3 hours walking, 7 kms
A day to forget about keeping boots dry with the track crossing over Horowai/Speargrass Creek a dozen or so times. We climbed steadily from 1200m to 1650m with the huge scree slopes of Robert’s Ridge to our left, finally climbing up steep scree and tussock slopes dotted with numerous tarn lakes to the intersection with the Mt Robert Ridge Route. From here a short walk up and we were able to look down into the scenic Lake Angelus basin being our destination for the day.
We arrived at Angelus Hut to meet the other four of our group as they set off on a day side trip to one of the tarn lakes in the area.
Having only had a short walk, we arrived before the other booked trampers and campers did. We happily relaxed in the stunning warm and sunny weather on the deck of the hut chatting with others as they arrived. We took a dip in the smaller adjacent lake and managed to dry out our very wet boots. We even had time to do some of our trek knitting project, being woollen pouches for joey kangaroos that had recently been orphaned in the NSW bush fires.
As this hut can be reached as an overnight destination from St Arnaud and it was a weekend, it was full as well as the lakeside camping area. It was very dry when we were there and in fact at Angelus Hut there was very little water in the hut tanks as well as a total fire ban being in place along the track.
Day 8 – Angelus Hut to Robert Ridge Carpark
6 hours walking, 12.2kms
Once again, we were extremely lucky to have the most perfect of days for our exit on the Pinchgut Track via Robert Ridge.
Initially climbing back up the scree slope out of the Angelus basin, we traversed scree slopes first on the Speargrass Creek side and then crossed over the crest to the Sabine River side and up to Julius Summit at 1794m with stunning views all around. We were happy to finally have much lighter packs. On this section, there is no water along the way so being a warm and sunny day, we made sure we were well stocked up for the day.
Now into our 8th day out, we were feeling fantastic. Our sore quads were no longer bothering us! We weren’t too bruised or battered – although most of us had had a slip somewhere along the way. However we were all beginning to feel the itchiness of the sand-fly bites! As ever, there was already a lot of discussion as the where we would go to next year!
Arriving back into mobile reception brought us back to reality very quickly as we learnt that in our eight days out, the world had in fact changed with the progression of the COVID-19 virus and a global pandemic had been declared. We were lucky enough to get out of New Zealand before the lockdowns started and the requirement to mandatorily self-isolate for 14 days on our return to Australia.
Within days, this area and all the NZ huts, campsites and lodges were closed with everyone in New Zealand required to stay at home in order the slow the spread of the virus!
When we walked the circuit in March, we found that we would only pass or see several others on the trail through the day, so it was definitely not a busy route at this time.
Our packs were approx. 15kg or even a little bit more when we started, having to cater for a week of food. Being as there was abundant water on every day except the last, we didn’t need to carry too much water.
We stayed in serviced huts, most of which were on a first come, first serve basis. We carried some sleeping mats in case the huts were full but did not have any problems.
Angelus Hut, which was our final destination, is on a booking system. As Angelus Hut is also able to be hiked as a one-night circuit from St Arnaud, it is often booked out especially on weekends.
Backcountry Hut Tickets or passes are required for the huts (which are checked by volunteer wardens). In the huts, mattresses are provided, non-flush toilets and tank water, which was recommended to be treated before use. You need your own cooking facilities. It seems that each hut has its own rodent life and whilst we didn’t meet any, there are plenty of warnings to keep the doors closed.
Walk times are given in hours which we found quite accurate but add time for stops. Whilst the route is well marked, we found that at times you must look a little more carefully for the next marker.
As the walk includes an alpine pass and alpine ridge-lines, we packed to be well prepared for all weather conditions. Within our group we had at least 3 Personal Locator Beacons.
We were lucky enough to have two creative cooks on the team who experimented and worked hard to cook and dehydrate delicious and nutritious vegetarian meals for us which was a welcome change to the usual commercially available meals.
We flew into Nelson from via Auckland, Christchurch or Wellington. We stayed at the Bridge Backpackers which, whilst the facilities were good and the staff friendly and helpful, the front rooms were impacted by the beeping traffic lights on the adjacent street corner and overall the area was quite noisy because of the late-night dragsters.
- Created: 16 Apr 2020 3:14 am
- Updated: 16 Apr 2020 3:30 am
- Distance 93.59 km
- Time 23 h 23 min
- Speed 4.0 km/h
- Min altitude 458 m
- Peak 1785 m
- Climb 3771 m
- Descent 3462 m