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Nelson Lakes National Park Trip
You know that you are in a special place when people want to spend a lot of time there.
So when both our guide and our water taxi driver told stories about how their ashes would be sprinkled in the Travers Valley, I knew I would be in for a treat.
My treat was a four day guided walking trip with Southern Wilderness NZ (www.southernwilderness.com), a Blenheim-based company specialising in luxury guided walks in the Nelson and Marlborough regions at the top of the South Island of New Zealand.
Met in Blenheim the night before the trip by Southern Wilderness NZ, my fellow walkers and I whet our appetite for the trip during a slide show showcasing the hikes, flora and fauna we would encounter. Joining me for the week were American couple Steve and LeeAnn, Australian Margaret and Aucklanders Mark, Peter, Michelle and Linda.
It was also a chance to meet Kate, the cheerful guide who would lead our trip. Always with a great sense of humour and full of information about the local area, flora and fauna, Kate took responsibility for all the logistics also. As it turned out, the hardest decision we guests had to make all week was what meal to choose from the sumptuous menu each night!
And it was Kate’s smiling face we saw the next morning as she picked us up for the one-hour drive up the Wairau Valley to the alpine village of St Arnaud. Nestled against the St Arnaud Range, the cosy Alpine Lodge would be our home for the next three nights. Owned by a Nelson family, the lodge has some of the charm found in similar ski lodges in the European Alps, perhaps the influence of the German heritage of the owners.
No sooner had we checked in when we strapped on our boots and headed out to hike a loop around nearby Mt Robert. Fortunately we gained quite a lot of altitude by driving up to the carpark and then headed off across the face of the mountain towards Bushline Hut.
The weather was looking unsettled but cleared in patches, enough for us to get spectacular views of Lake Rotoiti below us and back down the Wairau and Motupiko Valleys.
Named after the two significant lakes within it, Nelson Lakes National Park was formed in 1956. It was an area where early Maori would camp on their way to the West Coast in search of pounamu and European explorers also used it as an important junction and food source.
According to Maori legend, Lake Rotoiti (small lake) was dug out by chief Rakaihautu as he travelled south ahead of his family. Using his ko (digging stick), he dug out several lakes which then filled with water and fish such as native trout and eels, providing a food source for travelers following him.
The geological explanation for Lake Rotoiti is the carving action of an ancient glacier. Classic formations remain as evidence of this – Black Hill near the township is easily viewed from Mt Robert as terminal moraine; debris left behind as the glacier retreated up the valley.
A lot of features in the park were named, as Kate put it, by or after “some dead white guy”. German geologist Julius Von Haast named the St Arnaud area after a French commander in the Crimean War and Mt Robert was named after Haast’s infant son.
Climbing about 540m on Paddys Track, we soon reached the Bushline Hut, a quaint hut nestled at the edge of the alpine beech forest. After a compulsory visit to the “loo with a view” and enjoying lunch on the deck, we made our way across the Mt Robert fells to connect with the Pinchgut Track and our descent to the van.
Welcoming showers awaited us in our comfy rooms at the Alpine Lodge. After joining my fellow walkers in the hot tub for a soak, it was soon time to wine and dine in the restaurant.
The challenge awaited as we had to chose from the fantastic options on the menu. Ranging from fresh seafood to venison and vegetarian options, our only consolation was that we would have three nights in which to roam through the menu. Complemented by a wine list featuring a lot of Nelson and Marlborough wines, the food selection was matched by the delicious flavours and excellent presentation.
And of course, the knowledge of tomorrow’s hike justified our dessert selection!!!
As she would every night, Kate briefed us on what to expect the next day. She also was the creator of delicious lunches and carrier of fun snacks! Employed by the company since the conception of their guided walks in 1994, Kate was back this summer in a cameo role and obviously loving her job. Taking responsibility and care of us made it a real holiday for me where I did not have to think or worry about anything and could just relax and enjoy every day to the fullest.
So it was with excitement that we walked down to the jetty at Kerr Bay for our 20 minute water taxi ride up Lake Rotoiti for the hike on the second day. And it was there that we heard the story from our driver Bill Butters about how he and Kate would “dance for eternity” in the Travers Valley when their ashes were sprinkled there.
Thinking this was somewhat a morbid thought, my mind was changed as we began our hike at Coldwater Hut and started to walk up the Travers Valley. Open grass land with magnificent views up to the St Arnaud Range and Robert Ridge and ahead to the higher peaks - I could see why they wanted to spend more time here. And as I walked along, Lee Ann and I agreed that it was indeed a peaceful place and our work stresses were starting to drop away.
I do not usually enjoy walking in the rain but to wander through the beech forest in the drizzle, it seemed like the colours of the bush were cleaner and the smells fresher.
Our walk took us up the valley to cross the Travers Valley by swingbridge then a gradual downhill walk all the way back to the village. So after about five hours hiking, it was with considerable excitement that we spotted a kaka so close to the end of the track.
The Department of Conservation have invested considerable time and resources into the establishment and maintenance of the Mainland Island Project. It focuses on the eradication of introduced pests to allow for the regeneration of the native flora and fauna.
And one of the successes is the return of the native bush parrot, the kaka, to breed. I was delighted to have such a close view of this big, strong bird as it fed on the grubs tucked under the bark.
The steak I had dreamed about all day just melted in my mouth that night. As we got to know each other better, the dinner conversations got livelier too which made for much laughter to aid our digestion.
Another sound sleep readied me for the “big day” – an eight-hour walk over to the other feature lake of the park – Lake Rotoroa. Meaning long lake, it is at a lower altitude than St Arnaud so the vegetation was beech mixed with conifers and podocarps and I looked forward to seeing the difference.
Blessed with a gloriously sunny day, it began with a drop-off at the Mt Robert carpark and we sidled around the Speargrass Creek before coming out into the clearing beside Speargrass Hut. Too early for a lunch break, we agreed to carry on and were glad we had waited as we broke out into a clearing at the top of the Howard Saddle and enjoyed sweeping vistas across the tops towards Nelson and Mt Owen where some of the Lord of the Rings movie was filmed.
Well satiated in both soul and stomach, we made our way along the reasonably new track, past unique wetlands to the jetty at Sabine Hut where yet another water taxi awaited us. Swept down the lake, we had plenty of time to reflect and feel proud of our walk that day. As we whizzed along, I looked up the Sabine and d’Urville valleys and vowed I would return to explore them one day.
Thanks to Kate’s logistical management, our van was magically waiting at the lake edge for us and a forty-minute drive found us back at the Alpine Lodge, readying for the hot tub and yet another sumptuous meal.
As the Aucklanders had a plane to catch mid afternoon the next day, we agreed to have a relaxing morning of short hikes in the Mainland Island area. The 1 1/2hr Loop Track took us some of the way up the St Arnaud Range and our ears were filled with birdsong – another testimony to the work of DOC.
Kate delighted us with a picnic lunch on the lake shore and after a short walk around Brunner Peninsula and ice cream stop, we reluctantly said goodbye to our great hosts at the Alpine Lodge and boarded the van for the return journey to Blenheim.
Our group was busy swapping contact details and promises to send photos as we travelled and we were amazed to find ourselves in Blenheim so soon. Met by our hosts in a small town park with bubbly wine, cheese and crackers, it seemed a fitting end to what had been a luxurious, relaxing treat of a trip.
article published 3/24/2003