After finishing our Travers Sabine circuit we started planning our next visit to Nelson Lakes. There was talk of St Arnaud to Lewis Pass, after a few conversations and some map study that route seemed an under utilisation of the beautiful alpine country on offer. I plotted a route from D’Urville hut up the valley over Moss pass, over Waiau pass then heading east on to the St James range, along the ridge that includes Clarence pass, then south to Paske saddle, through to the Begley then over the high ridge at Cotterell peak, down to John Tait in the Travers, out to St Arnaud. It made a great looking loop.
I started searching for trip reports and couldn’t find anything for the middle section from Waiau to Paske, I reached out to the Nelson Lakes backcountry group and got some good intel but still no reports. I sort the advice of Danny G, he wisely suggested ridge travel in the area is tricky, best to stick to the passes.
Our flights were booked for early December, the snow had been melting fast which was good news for our high route but the weather was not looking flash. The day before our flight the water taxi phoned to say it wasn’t running due to high water levels, DOC staff were unable to travel up the Sabine due to flooding. Suddenly our trip was postponed. We headed north to Ruapehu and found good conditions for some mountain time and rescheduled our trip.
Rebooked for the end of January this time the forecast looked excellent. We flew early Friday and were getting eaten by sand flies at lake Rotoroa waiting for the water taxi to speed us up the lake. We shared the taxi with a nice couple from Nelson, Nigel and Michelle, they were also heading to Blue Lake up the main Sabine route.
Travel up the D’Urville was beautiful, Anthony led us up the river to avoid the track sidles, then used his deer hunting skills to follow tracks across the river flats. It was hot so being in the river was perfect.
We made good time up the valley and were at the bottom of Moss Pass within 4.5 hours. I had read a few reports about Moss since Danny G had recommended it as a detour to our Travers Sabine circuit last year, the climb is 1,100m and after our experience of the 800m West Sabine to Travers pass climb I expected the worst. The climb started steep with a bit of time on all fours, soon the slope eased and we were rewarded with superb mountain views that took your breath away. On the pass we saw the many different mosses that give the pass its name. From the top we had great views across the park, Cupola stood out high on the Travers range to the North.
We climbed down the steep shute and across the very slippery grass to our first views of Blue Lake, the afternoon sun was creating huge shadows in the valley.
There was a good group of Te Araroa hikers and a couple of others doing smaller trips, after a good explore around the lake and a wash down stream in the river we grabbed our mattress to sleep under the stars.
On Saturday we had the first of our off track sections, after Waiau pass we headed east up the eastern headwaters towards the northern part of the St James range, we had a bit of bush bashing to get above the scrub then the travel was nice right upto the last 100m of climb on to the ridge. The ridge was gnarly and the planned route looked questionable for the North heading ridge section, the lower east heading section looked good, exposed to the south but a path on top. Looking back we should have had an explore but it is always better to be safe in these areas. So we headed south on the ridge looking for a place to drop down into the Clarence via the scree slopes. We found a good route down and did a bit of scree surfing.
The headwaters of the Clarence are a wonderful backcountry area, I wonder how many folks travel in here? Down the river we found a steep gut heading upto to Paske saddle. This was the third and last of our big climbs of the day. It was nice to get to the top and eat another of my fabulous croissants filled with avocado and salami. We had been going for 9 hours so we were getting tired, we headed down to the river via the bush towards the east. We lost the cairns before the bluff section. After the hut the travel was easy to the Begley and up the pretty track on the true left. The sun was setting as we passed the valley heading up to Begley saddle, looks like more wild country to explore there. We arrived at the hut after dark, washed in the river and were greeted by Ben who had been baking fresh bread on the fire, warm bread was a nice treat with dinner.
We needed to get to St Arnaud by 5.45pm to make our flight so we set off early the next morning, the day was beautiful again, three days in a row. It was 26 degrees at 7.30am, straight into regular filling of the hat to cool down. Travel up the Begley was good, at the top of valley we turned left to follow the creek towards Cotterell peak. There is one 30m waterfall that has a good route up on the true left (the left hand side of the flow of the river, right hand side looking up towards Cotterell) to get around it.
Then the travel is easy on the alpine plain, the headwall at the top looked pretty intimidating but was much easier than it looked. The rock was very grippy. There is a cool luna looking spot on top of the headwall, we headed south to the low point on the ridge just north of Cotterell peak. The view from here was again one of the classics all the way down to the lake.
Some more scree surfing and a long bash down the ridge towards John Tait got us to the Travers for a much needed swim. It took 5 hours to get here and we had 25km to run out. We jogged, power walked and enjoyed the beautiful sections the valley has to offer, I had a swim every hour to keep cool, it was a fabulous way to spend the last hours of our adventure.
We had enough time for a swim, pizza and beer before heading back to Welly.
We covered 120km over the 3 days and traveled for 31 hours.
Dear Swallow, on your commemorative weekend I finally completed a Main Range SK on my third attempt. A huge thank you for all your inspiration and guidance. It was four years ago that I first heard about SK from yours and others reports. I was captivated by the intense adventurous spirit. At the first SK talk night at the Cross I become more engrossed in the SK spirit. You generously provided your tips and encouragement to all of us regardless of our ability. I must admit I’m yet to find the second gear you described experiencing half way on your SK’s and BG, this might have something to do with our differing fitness levels 🙂 Watching you run on Tuesday nights or speed past at an event was a beautiful thing, you glide like a wild cat. You are a legend!Dear Anna my beautiful wife, thank you for supporting me to do crazy adventures and get the time in the mountains I love. You drove to Ponds Road to collect me from my first failed SK attempt and looked after me while my ankle healed. You consoled me after my second failed SK attempt when I lost the mental game and gave up on the challenge. The painting of you with the Tararua Range in the background is one of my most special treasured gifts. I often reflect on how much I love you and our life together when I’m in the mountains and hope it makes me a better husband when I return. You put up with a lot so I can chase my passion of being above the bush line with the wind in my face and views for miles. Thank youDear Ruba, Rose and Lila our three amazing daughters,On the weekend we went on a great adventure in the Tararua range, we completed a route called the SK main range. Trampers started trying to complete the route over a weekend many years ago, some of our running group have completed it with no sleep and in under 24 hours.We had an incredible adventure, hiking through the night on the spine of the lower North Island. We could see Mt Ruapehu, Mt Taranaki, Kapiti Island, Wellington harbour and Lake Wairarapa. The sunset was beautiful, it looked like the goblin forest was on fire.I love the time we get to spend together in the mountains. When you are not with me, I think about you and your future. I want you to be happy. For me happiness is living a full and inspiring life. Find the things that make your heart sing and do them. Push yourself to your limits, mentally and physically, your spirit won’t soar from playing safe and being comfortable. Doing the SK was one of the hardest and most rewarding adventures I have been on. I hope you get to experience something like it. Love DadTo my fellow adventurers Marta, Anthony and MichaelThank you for your company, support and adventurous spirits. We all enjoy the same drug of intense backcountry adventure. Without you guys, it would be a much less enjoyable experience. Classic quotes of the day were, Marta “once we get up Crawford we only have half a SMR and half a Southern crossing to go” and ” this part is new. Never been here before. It has to be an addition…” Michael “I think it is an advantage not knowing the route or ever being in the Tararua range before”. Looking forward to our next mission :)Trip breakdown
1 micro nap time
3 very tired, sore feet
Waterproof jacket and over trousers
Alpine Series hooded Alpha jacket
Woolen hat and gloves
Long top and bottom polypros
Merino long top
2 600ml water bottles and 2L bladder
Sun hat, sun screen
First aid kit
Head lamp with spare batteries
Cell phone with view ranger and route gpx loaded
Map and compass
Food 30 scoops of tailwind Backcountry smoothies 2 Bars 10 Cheese mini brie 10 Chocolate mini bars 12
On my first trip to the Ruahines I was treated to beautiful sunrises, dramatic landscapes and towering snow capped peaks. My father in law pulled out an old DOC park map showing the whole range on one large bit of paper. Al had made a few attempts at traversing the range and it looked like some cool country. Come summer time at the beach my tramping books come out and adventures start to get hatched. I invited a few adventurers to join me and we had a crew of five keen to go. I found a write up from MadPom who had done a full South to North tramping trip in 2007. I wanted to do a 2 night trip and just do the tops section of the main range. Looking at the map starting at Comet Rd in the north and finishing after Longview hut 2/3rds of the way down the range looked like a great plan. I found the Ruahine tramping club and got some helpful information from Rob including another write up of a group who had travelled south on part of the route we were planning.
Sharing the GPX of the whole range with crew got some worried replies, the whole range is massive. Once I pointed out our finish point everyone felt a bit better. We planned out gear, food and logistics. With 200km separating the start and finish points taking two cars was going to create a very long Sunday night picking up cars so we hired a friendly student to come with us from Palmerston, drop us off and pick us up on Sunday. Eleanor was fantastic and even washed my car!
As the days counted down the weather thumb nails were looking good for a calm clear weekend perfect for being on the tops. I had been on the tops when the Norwester was blowing hard and it is not a safe place to be. The wind had shorten Al’s trips twice before.
Friday afternoon we left town and got to the road end in blazing sunshine, as we set off at 5pm it was 27 degrees and beautiful. To start you climb up to 1,000m and then drop straight down to the Taruarau River at 330m. The river is beautiful and has some excellent camping spots. We were straight up the otherside to 1150m. We passed the historic Shutes hut built out of stone in 1920.
Once on the ridge we made our way to the Dianes Hut turn off. Originally we planned to stay at Dianes on Friday but after getting hold of Peter Steedman we had permission to stay at No Man’s Rd hut and follow the ridge over the private hunting block. The old tracks on the ridge had not been maintained for many years but they had been reopen a couple of years ago. We could see Kawaka J to the North and for miles all around as the sun set with a pink sky. We followed the ridge and found a few markers to start with but slowly the route got less and less defined, soon we were bush bashing, something we were going to do a lot of over the next few days.
At the Dianes Hut turn off we had 3 options, stay at Dianes, stay at No Mans walking via the ridge or stay at No Mans walking down the hill via Dianes and up to No Mans. After a few hours of bashing our shins and wading through scrub we wished we had gone via Dianes. Luckily it was a lovely night with amazing stars.
As we reached the far end of No Mans Rd we found a quad bike stuck in the mud and figured it belonged to hunters who were up on the blocks, a short while later we came across White hut with a ute outside and said hello to the only person we saw until Sunrise hut.
Guy was our navigator and did an amazing job with the map and compass. It was great to have his skill in the group. It was a good reminder of the value of printing the map in sections and laminating them to use in all conditions regardless of the forecast.
We got to No Mans hut at 1am ate and crashed. No Mans is a comfortable 6 bunk hut with a carpeted floor!
In the early hours the forecast 2mm of rain fell and we set off in our jackets expecting it to clear, it never cleared and we had a huge day in the rain and clag. Ant and I put on our overtrousers to protect our cut shins from the night before. Before our trip I had checked in with Al about the need for leg protection, he said it was open and no protection was needed, clearly he had blocked out the hours of thick scrab, tussock, leatherwood and spainyard!
We made our way to Aranga Hut via the pole and marked route. After Aranga we are following the Main range route which has a trapline on the route and was tough to follow in the clag. We got to the turn off for Kylie Biv at 1.45pm and were feeling good about our progress. The sign to Sparrow Hawk said 4 hours surely we could go faster with our lite packs.
This is where the really tough bit started, massive fields of spaniard and leatherwood, we got smashed and lost the route a few times in the clag, finally we got to SparrowHawk at 6.30pm and the call was made to squeeze 5 of us into the 2 person biv for the night. The biv passed Marta not too scuzzy to sleep in test. We were cold, wet and it was likely to take another 3 hours to get to Sunrise hut. Even with Marta singing to us it was going to be tough.
This was one of those moments when the safe call was hard to make but the right thing to do. Dr Murray our head of health and safety guided us to the right call. It was disappointing to be so far short of our target but that’s part of the adventure, doing stuff that you don’t know if you can achieve.
We cranked up the cooker for our dinner, put dry clothes on and got into our sleeping bags. We hatched possible exit plans as we had no chance of getting as far down the range as planned. Hopefully the weather would clear and give us some more of the views we got on Friday. It didn’t take long for us to fall asleep.
There was a bit of one bear rolled over and the other four bears had to roll over, but it was warm with 5 bodies. Ant used an old hut bowl to create a pillow under the mattress, clever lad.
The wind from Saturday had died but the clag was still around, we decided to head to Sunrise which is marked as 3hours on the signs. The range gets more undulating for this section and the saddles are very thick with bush and leatherwood, we were bashing our way through these sections and climbing on all fours. The higher bits were open and made for better travel. The clag cleared for a few brief moments and we got to experience the grandeur of the Ruahines. We found some reception above Armstrong saddle and arranged a pickup from Sunrise track.
The warden at Sunrise Hut was the first person we had seen since Friday and chatted with us about our trip. The journey down the beautifully open and graded trail made for a pleasant and stark contrast to the last few days.
Hopefully the route on the main range south of Armstrong saddle is better than what we encountered. I have read about the challenges of land access and the reduction of resource in the Ruahines I expect these are contributing to overgrown route we saw.
Thanks to Marta, Anthony, Andrew and Guy for a great adventure.