Off the Beaten Track in New Zealand - March 2016


A spur of the moment decision to go backpacking in New Zealand's South Island high country turned out to be rather foolhardy for a late 70's adventurer like me. But my self confidence, bred by years of solo climbing and hiking in the Californian Sierra Nevada and Washington State Cascades ... and because of my New Zealand heritage and knowledge of the South Island mountains, the idea seemed totally safe and not particularly challenging.

I'd selected sections of the "Te Araroa Trail" to hike; from above the town of Nelson, south to the Arthur's Pass highway between Christchurch and Greymouth. Some of this country I'd hiked during my survival training years with the Royal New Zealand Air Force in the late 1950's and early 1960's. After so many years, I guessed that the tracks would be vastly improved from their then primitive state, including the upgrading of huts and swing bridges. As it happened, this assumption was only partially correct.

Once on Kiwi ground again, my overall impression was that the huts [large and small] were more than adequate, the river and creek crossings ... most with bridges, were safe; but the tramping tracks were atrocious: hard to follow, poorly maintained, unformed in many sections and potentially hazardous without taking extreme care. In the USA, on the Pacific Crest Trail, it's possible to walk the full 2,600 miles without encountering trail conditions like the [goat] tracks that I stumbled along in New Zealand.

  • The Mount Richmond Forest Park circled in red - area of my first attempt on the Te Araroa Trail The Mount Richmond Forest Park circled in red - area of my first attempt on the Te Araroa Trail
  • The sign for the Trail from Hacket Hut to Starveall Hut - note well the Caution! The sign for the Trail from Hacket Hut to Starveall Hut - note well the Caution!
  • The beginning of the "trail" from Hacket to Starveall - follow the creek bed for 300 feet! The beginning of the "trail" from Hacket to Starveall - follow the creek bed for 300 feet!
  • Starveall Hut located at the timberline. Starveall Hut located at the timberline.
  • The interior of Starveall Hut - sleeps five, but on my own. The interior of Starveall Hut - sleeps five, but on my own.
  • The view down to Richmond and Tasman Bay from the Starveall Hut The view down to Richmond and Tasman Bay from the Starveall Hut
  • The trail [route!] south from the Starveall Hut The trail [route!] south from the Starveall Hut
  • Looking back down the trail [route!] to Starveall Hut - extreme left of image Looking back down the trail [route!] to Starveall Hut - extreme left of image
  • Looking southwest to Mount Rintoul from Slaty Peak Looking southwest to Mount Rintoul from Slaty Peak
  • The Te Araroa Trail map covering the section from Starveall to Rintoul Huts The Te Araroa Trail map covering the section from Starveall to Rintoul Huts
  • The way ahead from Slaty Peak, looking south over Ada Flat The way ahead from Slaty Peak, looking south over Ada Flat
  • Looking north back towards Slaty Peak from Ada Flat Looking north back towards Slaty Peak from Ada Flat
  • The Trail along the ridge to Old Man Peak The Trail along the ridge to Old Man Peak
  • On the narrow ridge looking back at Old Man Peak. Ada Flat on the left On the narrow ridge looking back at Old Man Peak. Ada Flat on the left
  • Alone again at Old Man Hut - the beginning of my bailout Alone again at Old Man Hut - the beginning of my bailout
  • One of the many creek crossings during my bailout down the Old Man Hut Route One of the many creek crossings during my bailout down the Old Man Hut Route
  • My first encounter with the Goulter River near the Goulter Track intersection. My first encounter with the Goulter River near the Goulter Track intersection.
  • My one tent night near the [full] Mid Goulter Hut. My one tent night near the [full] Mid Goulter Hut.
  • The Goulter River between the Mid and Lower Goulter Huts The Goulter River between the Mid and Lower Goulter Huts
  • Debris along the banks of the Goulter River from a very recent flood Debris along the banks of the Goulter River from a very recent flood
  • More and larger debris along the banks of the Goulter River from a very recent flood More and larger debris along the banks of the Goulter River from a very recent flood
  • Finally in sight of the mighty Wairau River, looking southwest. Finally in sight of the mighty Wairau River, looking southwest.
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Possibly I'd selected sections of the Te Araroa Trail that were still in their primitive state, but if so, the New Zealand Government shouldn't be promoting this Trail as meeting International standards for hikers from North America and Europe. The so called "Tramping Tracks" that I walked in the Mount Richmond Forest Park and the Nelson lakes National Park were nothing more than "cross-country routes" when defined under standard USA trail classifications. Admittedly, the DOC [NZ Department of Conservation] have hidden in the fine print of their Track Brochures, the following comment:

Our friends across the Tasman call it bushwalking. Visitors from the Northern Hemisphere refer to it as trekking or hiking. In New Zealand, heading off into the wilds with packs loaded for several days has long been referred to as tramping, a term which might seem mildly eccentric -until you visit the landscape. It is the rugged nature of the land which has shaped New Zealand's tramping culture and which also dictates the slow plodding movement sometimes necessary to move steadily through the backcountry on foot. Stumbling over tree roots, easing along a craggy ridge, or scrambling up a streambed of boulders is not everyone's idea of enjoyable travel, but such is the nature of New Zealand tracks that tramping is a more apt description for it than others.
[My opinion is that this statement is a cop-out for not maintaining the Tracks/Trails and a waver against litigation when overseas hikers are lost, seriously injured or die in the "Bush" ... and it does happen!

Despite my advanced age of 77, I still have no problem hiking-backpacking in the High Sierra for 10 miles [16 km] per day, at elevations above 10,000' [3,000 mtrs] and a pack weight of 32 lbs [15 kg]. So, this knowledge was my undoing in New Zealand: My food planning was based on a conservative 8 miles [13 km] per day along the Te Araroa Trail, but after the first few days clambering up and down the ridges of the Richmond Range, my pace was much slower than expected ... trying hard not to break a limb! It quickly became evident that I would run out of food before reaching St Arnaud [resupply point]. My decision was to bailout from the Trail at Old Man Hut, which took three more difficult days to reach civilization.

 

  • The Nelson Lakes National Park is outlined in red. The Nelson Lakes National Park is outlined in red.
  • The D.O.C. brochure map of the Travers Sabine Circuit The D.O.C. brochure map of the Travers Sabine Circuit
  • Looking south from St Arnaud down the length of Lake Rotiti Looking south from St Arnaud down the length of Lake Rotiti
  • A typical rough section of trail along the Speargrass Creek section of the Circuit A typical rough section of trail along the Speargrass Creek section of the Circuit
  • Speargrass Hut [12 bunks] on the trail between Lakes' Rotoiti and Rotoroa Speargrass Hut [12 bunks] on the trail between Lakes' Rotoiti and Rotoroa
  • The Rotoroa lake edge by Sabine Hut [32 bunks] The Rotoroa lake edge by Sabine Hut [32 bunks]
  • The lower Sabine River close to the Sabine Hut The lower Sabine River close to the Sabine Hut
  • The Sabine River half way between the Sabine and West Sabine Huts ... looking south. The Sabine River half way between the Sabine and West Sabine Huts ... looking south.
  • A really nasty section of the Sabine River trail section. A really nasty section of the Sabine River trail section.
  • A gorge on the Sabine River just downstream from the West Sabine Hut. A gorge on the Sabine River just downstream from the West Sabine Hut.
  • Looking across the Sabine River to the West Sabine Hut [30 bunks].  A swing-bridge slightly upstream from here. Looking across the Sabine River to the West Sabine Hut [30 bunks]. A swing-bridge slightly upstream from here.
  • Looking down the very steep and rough slope on the western side of the Travers Saddle - in rain! Looking down the very steep and rough slope on the western side of the Travers Saddle - in rain!
  • Looking south at the Upper Travers Hut [24 bunks] Looking south at the Upper Travers Hut [24 bunks]
  • The main room in the Upper Travers Hut. The main room in the Upper Travers Hut.
  • One of the two bunkrooms in the Upper Travers Hut - alone again! One of the two bunkrooms in the Upper Travers Hut - alone again!
  • Hut Passes of two types: The blue tags are NZ$5 each.  The season card is NZ$90, one time charge. Hut Passes of two types: The blue tags are NZ$5 each. The season card is NZ$90, one time charge.
  • Hikers moving north - downhill from the Upper Travers Hut Hikers moving north - downhill from the Upper Travers Hut
  • A wash-out & rockfall hazard that's not been repaired - easier and cheaper to put up a warning sign!! A wash-out & rockfall hazard that's not been repaired - easier and cheaper to put up a warning sign!!
  • The swing-bridge over the lower section of the Travers River - be careful not to fall off, or through! The swing-bridge over the lower section of the Travers River - be careful not to fall off, or through!
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With this new understanding of bad trail conditions and the resulting slow progress, I decided against continuing south on the Te Araroa Trail from the town of St Arnaud to the next resupply point at Boyle River. Instead, I chose to backpack the "Travers-Sabine Circuit" within the Nelson Lakes National Park, in the expectation that it being a popular hike for both locals and overseas visitors, the trails would be well maintained and easy to follow. Also, the huts along the circuit were large enough that I wouldn't need a tent as backup and could easily carry food for the expected 6-7 days before returning to St Arnaud.

The round trip took me 7 days, which included a zero day at Upper Travers Hut. The trail between St Arnaud and this Hut was acceptable; easy to follow and well formed in most sections. The trail over Travers Saddle is listed as a "route" and difficult to follow; steep and rough. What did surprise me was the terrible state of the trail between West Sabine and Sabine Huts, despite it's heavy use by backpackers who come in from Lake Rotoroa [by boat] and hike to West Sabine Hut, with a day trip further south to see Blue Lake. My overall assessment of the trails in this part of New Zealand: The huts are very good [particularly for a High Sierra tent dweller like me], the swing bridges are reasonably safe, but getting from one hut to the next is somewhat hazardous and definitely not an enjoyable outdoor experience. Look at the associated photos from along these scruffy trails and be careful what you wish for in New Zealand. See also my actual NZ Schedule

 

©2016 Peter Tremayne, Reno NV

 

 

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