I think I finally learned what tramping is. Compared to a weekend trip, everything I’ve just experienced is on a bigger scale. The mountains, the valleys, the rivers, the sky. The supplies needed, the effort involved, the decisions required. We’ve followed rivers to their source, crossed a saddle and an alpine pass, dealt with ugly streams and a million sandflies. We’ve landed in a different landscape from the one in which we began, tired but delighted with our adventure. So this is what tramping is.
The centrepiece of this section is a crossing of the Waiau Pass, an exposed alpine track amongst scree and rock that takes you from Marlborough to Canterbury. It requires a day of calm conditions. This sounds all well and good but the trouble is that the approach and retreat requires the accompanying rivers and streams to be low. Getting a six-day stretch with fine weather is as likely this summer as me ever going tramping again without a kilo of cheese. So it’s a juggling act to try to find the best slot to make each section of the trip possible. Some people take their chances on the weather but that’s not my style. Some people rush through ahead of incoming systems but we chill back and let it pass. But even playing safe with the weather is a gamble on what comes next. If we decline to move from the hut one day because of showers, will we get a deluge the next and regret our choice?
Doing the trip immediately after two serious rainfalls seemed somewhat unwise but with the Metvuw 10-day rain forecast as my guide I worked out a plan that, if it pulled off, would keep us out of the worst of the water and maybe give us a clear spell for the pass. This involved enduring a long soggy first day to Upper Travers Hut, which we shortened by three hours by taking the water taxi to Lakehead Hut. Upper Travers put me in mountain heaven, surrounded on all sides by beautiful peaks. Bliss!
At West Sabine Hut we rode out a half day of rain playing ukes and doing yoga, and had another rest day at Blue Lake Hut when Friday brought yet more water.
So there was a lot of hut time to anticipate the Waiau Pass and not all the descriptions we were offered by Northbound trampers who’d just come over it were confidence-inspiring. Such phrases as “it’s dangerous”, and “more mountaineering than tramping” we’re ringing in our minds. But we struck gold when we met a lovely DOC worker at West Sabine doing track improvements on the sections around the hut. We asked her to describe what was in store for us on the pass. She paused, then gently uttered that wonderful Kiwi phrase: “it’s all good, ey?”* That was what we needed to hear.
Because of either our fabulous planning or, er, total luck, Saturday brought the finest weather one could imagine for the Pass. This was probably the finest single day of tramping I’ve ever done.
We travelled down glorious valleys, alongside (and sometimes in) an incredibly clear lake, climbed solid safe scree on a decent path to 1800m and descended to the next valley via a short fun scramble, and finally ended at a peaceful riverside campsite under beech trees with mountains behind. We could have pushed further but we were shattered so we called it there.
The price of that decision was waking up early for a 35km day, 30km of which was in A SINGLE VALLEY. It was farcical travelling for so long on the same terrain. It was very much a retrograde step for my blisters. But stunningly beautiful.
The following day I awoke refreshed and ready to tackle the next day with gusto and joy. Did I hell. I was absolutely buggered. I haven’t been this mauled since the day after Dundas Hut when I was so dysfunctional I had to leave work early. We had 17.5km to walk and for seven hours I had to send individual instructions to each leg to get them to carry me forward. After 22 days away I finally got tired. So I was happy that our final stretch to Boyle River was a cruisey 15km, a “half day” in our new parlance.
Resting in Hanmer, allowing the next weather front to come and go, I am so thrilled with the trip we just had and excited about the next. But this time, I’m not quite so impatient to get moving. My feet and legs are not yet on board.
STATS OF THE TRACK
Items lost: one watch, in unfortunate and mildly foolish stream crossing incident
Items gained: two new dry bags (thanks Daan) and a spark lighter thingy to remove the does-my-lighter-still-have-gas paranoia (thanks Dylan), miso soup supplies (thanks Don)
Rolls of strapping tape deployed: 0.5 (blister management and ankle support)
Holes found in gear: 1 (gaiters)
Tiny Concerts given: 1x mountain, 1x hut
HOW WE SPENT OUR DAYS
Day 15: St Arnaud to Upper Traverse Hut 11hrs 820m ascent, two fast streams just before the Hut
Day 16: Upper Travers Hut to West Sabine, 7hrs 450m ascent, exposed
Day 17: rest day
Day 18: West Sabine Hut to Blue Lake Hut, 3hrs 450m ascent
Day 19: rain day
Day 20: Blue Lake Hut to Waiau Forks, 7hrs 730m ascent
Day 21: Waiau Forks to Anne Hut 34km, brutal
Day 22: Anne Hut to Boyle Flat Hut, 17.5km
Day 23: Boyle Flat Hut to Boyle Village 14.5km
*if reading this with a view to walking this section, note that she also expressed plenty of caveats. I would absolutely not attempt the crossing in anything less than good weather. The route is exposed to the elements all day. The scramble requires a level head for down-climbing with a pack. And the whole thing is a completely different prospect Northbound, where the 450m steep scree descent would be quite intimidating.