Wellington - Picton - St Arnaud
A successful holiday was built on the premise (now being one of the un-waged) that my 1982 Audi would keep chugging along merrily for duration of my winter travels. It had performed admirably for the past five years without major repairs. I got an annoying rattle in the front fixed in Wellington before I caught the ferry. Now I was landing back at Picton, I was heading to Nelson Lakes to tackle the Travers Sabine Track. It was dark by the time I left Blenheim and I began to become obsessed with my petrol and economy gauges. I'd recently filled up the tank and so the needle should be staying up the top of the petrol gauge. The economy gauge needle should be near the bottom. Situation was my petrol needle appeared to be dropping as I watched it and the economy needle was at the top. I thought at this rate I'm gonna use a whole tanks petrol in the next 50 k's. The drama played out thus: turned back to Blenheim, camped at campground and next morning stopped by at mechanics in town who were all heavily booked. Had one guy who 'Knew Audis' look at it and he figured it ok, said my economy switch was probably bung and I'd just read too much in to my dropping petrol gauge, turned out his diagnosis was spot on. I got my tyres balanced and headed back on the road to St Arnaud
An attempt on Travers Sabine Track
- Hut nights: 4
- Solo hut nights: 0
- People in huts: ~26
- Overall people: ~30
The night before there had been some significant lightning on the western horizon which I was now traveling towards. When I reached St Arnaud village on Rotoiti Lake it was both sunny and snowing. Turns out during the night and morning snow had been falling and now the village was deliciously blanketed in fresh snow in bright sunlight. The tragedy was for the only time on the trip I didn't take up the photo opportunity. I was in a rush to get on the track, but that was no excuse for stopping for a five minute shoot. The local DOC office reported thigh deep fresh snow on the Travers Saddle. The track starts off skirting Lake Rotoiti then heading up the Travers River valley, over the 1700M (5600ft) saddle and back down the Sabine River Valley, about 4-5 days. I organised my pack and set off, it was just getting dark as I reached the end of the lake three and a bit hours later. A motor boat approached and pulled up to a jetty just as I was passing it. Five minutes later I was at the one roomed hut and opened the door to see about 4 people there already. Not too full considering it is the last long weekend (Queen's Birthday) till the spring. Hot on my heels where three guys who'd been on the taxi boat, making it about eight of us, still plenty of room. About a quarter of an hour later a party of eight from Christchurch turned up, full house after all.
After a frosty starry night with my 16 fellow bunk mates (and a good test for my new lightweight sleeping bag that performed admirably) I saddled up for a double hutter - wanting to make it to the alpine Upper Travers Hut. I'd noticed at the end of yesterday that my new Salomon boots (to replace my leaky pair) were biting into the tops of my ankles. I took the precaution to stuff some newspaper down my socks for padding. Four and a bit hours later I was at the John Tait Hut and by then the snow was a few inches deep and had been in patches all the way from Lake Hut. An option here would be to stop rather than trying to make it to the next hut which could possibly be snow bound, but on I trudged.
Though I'd been on a few walks in the past few years and kept a modicum of fitness I wasn't exactly in peak condition when I started this track. My array of clothes for blizzards, food for four days, plus my new crampons and ice ax amounted to the heaviest pack I'd ever had. By the the time I started up the incline to the 1400M (4600ft) hut I was feeling totally buggered. For over an hour I pushed myself through increasing troughs of energy lows. My boots were biting painfully into my ankles, I took some painkillers to alleviate the bruising at each step. I just didn't have match fitness, I wearily trudged over snow slippery track taking frequent rest stops to catch my short breath. As dusk rapidally fell I I finally cleared the tree line and was greeted by knee to thigh deep snow and the hut sitting in a basin with mountains rising all around. The major bonus was that some people had been before me and so I didn't have to make fresh steps. Even so it was a weary body that waded up to the hut.
I was pretty buggered, once inside the hut I just sat there for a long while till I could summon the energy to get some food going. I shared this new beautiful hut with two parties of three and a duo made up of the local DOC manager and a classic old-timer climber in his seventies. The hut was only a couple of years old and had been positioned up the basin from the old one to avoid a possible avalanche route. The fire pumped to create a cozy atmosphere in the main room, two cooler separate bunk rooms ran off this room. Outside it was clear and chilled. Whilst we were all sitting there in the candlelight and torch lights there was a loud rumbling and crashing noise very close by that made everyone look up and around. By the time anyone could freak out about a massive avalanche of fresh snow descending upon us it was all quiet again and we quickly realised that the heat from the fire had heated the roof and all the fresh snow on top had just slid off to the back of the hut.
Awaking to sore ankles and a luscious morning the next day I pondered the days activities. Since getting over the saddle with this much snow was out of the question it was going to be a minor trip up to the saddle with a lightened pack and back to the hut for another night. Earlier in the darkness the climbing duo had left pre-dawn. First thing was to get out in front of the hut with the camera. It was a truly magnificent morning - deep blue sky with contrails from passing airplane traffic in the frigid upper airs, the mountains around bathed in morning light and the fresh snow all around. After breakfast and the other parties had left I got together all the pots and heated some water on the stove for a bucket bath on the balcony. With the sunlight, snow, view and warm water it was as good a bathroom as in any glossy magazine. Thankfully three guys from Wellington also choose to go up to the saddle - this enabled me to avoid the exhaustion of breaking fresh steps in the snow by following theirs. I made it up to the saddle under a deep blue sky and enjoyed the views. I got an excellent shot of Mt Travers with some summit cloud wisping around it. Tricky part was coming down, one foot anchored to the knee in snow then making a new step with the other leg to find it sinking up to the waist and the anchored leg twisting every which way.
The next day I made the return trip to Lakeside Hut. As I started off from Upper Travers stepping into the ice hard holes in the snow my boots were biting into my ankles again. I stopped and improved my bandage and newspaper padding. I took some painkillers and after a while I was walking without wincing. It was a full day of lonesome hiking back down the now snow free valley. Eight hours of one foot following another I was back at Lake Rotoiti. At dusk I had a cold shower in the stream near Lake Hut, bracing but the feeling of cleanliness afterwards was worth it. I shared the hut that night with a grandmother who was off into the wilderness for a couple of days. I'd been feeling pretty hardcore being out there all by myself braving the outdoors. Now I was being upstaged by a granny.
The following day I made it back to St Arnaud with re-bandaged ankles and painkillers, only a 3 hour walk compared to the eight the day before. Once back at the village I got some messages on my mobile, I'd been out of coverage for a few days. Turns out I wouldn't be heading for the Heaphy Track but had to return to Wellington for six weeks before I could start my South Island adventures again. First I needed to return to Invercargill to pick up some more of my possessions before coming all the way up the island to the Picton Ferry. So now I head south down the West Coast, cross Haast Pass and to Invercargill. In a couple of months I'll return south to continue my travels.