The Travers-Sabine Circuit

When I had planned to go hiking around Nelson, I had pictured the Abel Tasman, Heaphy and Angelus Tracks. I had never even heard of the Travers-Sabine Circuit. That was until I was at the DOC office in Nelson looking around and noticed an extended circuit in the Nelson Lakes area that could incorporate the Angelus Hut. As it was considered a much more difficult trek, I had written it off as one I wouldn’t do, as I’d need someone to go with me and I didn’t want to put in the effort to find someone, when I could just do the simpler Angelus Track by myself. Those plans changed when Danielle suggested we do the entire circuit instead of just the Angelus Hut.

Of course, a simple map only tells a bit of the story, a look at the elevation map gives a bit more of an idea.

Then, on top of this, do you notice how they conveniently leave distances off the elevation map? That’s because it is a whopping 80+km. Adding the Angelus Hut track to the Circuit pushes the distance travelled up to around 100km total, along with a second significant climb on par with the Travers Saddle.

Our plan was this: After the Angelus Hut, we would go down to the Travers Track Junction via the Cascade Route (3 hours), the hike out the rest of the day all the way to Upper Travers Hut (a total hiking time around 10 hours). The second day we’d tackle the Travers Saddle and head down to the West Sabine Hut…but not stay there. We’d detour there to Blue Lake Hut, a further 3 hours (so 9-12 hours hiking total on Day #3). Then, we’d backtrack to West Sabine on Day #4 and make it to Sabine Hut. At 8 hours hiking, all downhill, it was our easiest day in the plan. The final day is a further 8 hour marathon that included climbing once again. I was looking at this and thinking – are we insane? It was a common feeling I had while hiking the track as well. But, we had to make do with the time we had – for myself, I had to be back in Nelson in 5 days.

After the 6 hours to the Angelus Hut, I certainly was having doubts about my sanity. But, on a frosty, clear morning, we began our descent down the Cascade route to the valley below.

The nice thing about the Cascade Route is that you reach the valley below very quickly. The bad thing is, that means the route is darned steep.

But reach the valley floor we did, and after a while longer Danielle and I made it to the track junction. Here, we said goodbye to the pair of Germans and solo Israeli that we had hiked with for the morning, as they were heading back to civilization…and Danielle and I were continuing on our nutty adventure. We still had 7 or so more hours of hiking to go.

The day was gorgeous and the track was fairly easy at this point, following the meandering Travers River. And along the way there was a bit of entertainment to be found.

As far as scenery went, there wasn’t much as we were entirely in the forest for those 7 hours. We arrived at the gorgeous Upper Travers Hut as dusk fell. It was a long day, and we had another 3 long days ahead of us. An early night awaited me.

The next morning was once again gorgeous. So this is what the Upper Travers Hut looked like!

There was an ominous sign guiding our way over the saddle. You had better hoped you were prepared if you had made it this far!

Looking back down the Travers Valley, from near the Upper Travers Hut. There was stellar scenery now that I was out of the tree-line.

And this was where we were headed. Up. The track went up the center-left of the picture, before veering up the side of the middle hill. It didn’t look like an easy trek when we started.

Looking up when we got to where the elevation really started to climb, we knew it was going to be a sweaty morning.

But for all of the painfully difficult parts that the Travers-Sabine threw at us…this wasn’t one. The climb was tiring, but we very quickly gained elevation and were continually rewarded with stunning scenery.

Before we knew it the ground was flattening out again and the Travers valley floor had fallen away.

For we had reached the saddle, the highest point of the circuit, and could now see the Sabine valley stretching out before us!

Which meant it was the perfect spot for a break and a bite to eat. Luke and Laurel had kindly sent me a goodie-box from Canada, including some delicious chocolate. What is better than chocolate while hiking a very difficult hike? Not much. Well, maybe chocolate while hiking a much easier hike..:P

Proof that both of us had made it to the saddle. Despite her constantly talking about and plotting my death, Danielle was a very enjoyable companion for the hike. She was the more experienced of the two of us, so I gave her all the heavy stuff to carry.

No, not really. After a very enjoyable break, we started our descent off the saddle and down towards the Sabine River, far far below. For we still had 6 or so more hours to go!

The descent started easily enough, and gave great views of the Sabine Valley, which was center of our view.

Looking back towards the saddle, the peaks got smaller and smaller.

And then the mountains just fell away. I was glad not to be heading down that side.

But then the track pretty much did the same thing and dropped off a cliff. When Danielle and I were planning for this trail, the DOC person we talked to strongly suggested we hike the circuit from the Travers to the Sabine side (which we did). We were about to find out why.

The Travers Saddle area is riddled with avalanche paths. These huge swaths of rock and debris can be tricky to cross when going perpendicular to their route (so walking in a relatively flat, straight line across). This is how we crossed almost all of the avalanche paths. With one exception. A massive avalanche path had been carved out years ago and the track went straight down the mountain using the avalanche path as a ‘track’. I use ‘track’ very loosely. Just like the rocks you walked on.

Steepness is hard to tell in pictures, but the one below might give you some idea. That’s Danielle, way down below me. I’m not a great judge of angles when walking, but I’d guess the slope was between 35-45 degrees, straight down, on loose gravel and rock. It was a dreadful and slow hike down. But we were thankful to be going down rather than trying to get up this thing.

After surviving the avalanche path, we came out at the east branch of the Sabine River, which was a joyous sight to see. We continued alongside the river for a few more hours until we reached the West Sabine Hut. It was at this point that I nearly scrapped my going to the Blue Lake Hut – I just couldn’t walk anymore at this point. Danielle was exhausted as well. We both sat down for lunch and could barely even have a conversation, we were so tired.

Thankfully, a bite to eat and a good sit down was just what we needed. An hour later we felt rejuvinated and wanted to find out what this magical Blue Lake really looked like. Plus, West Sabine Hut was kind of a dump.

Next challenge, crossing the Sabine River! Flooding had made this a bit harder this year. Because the track wasn’t challenging enough yet.

Thankfully, some smart hikers (or perhaps a warden) noticed, felled, or shifted a large tree, so that one could cross the river without getting wet (I’m not sure how it got there). Danielle did the river crossing the old fashioned way (getting wet), while I did a balancing act across the log, which I now wish I took a picture of. The walk across was certainly nerve-racking (don’t want to fall in after all), but I made it across in a fairly dry state (a bit sweaty), and we continued up towards Blue Lake Hut, 3 hours away.

This was a tricky track. It crossed 5 avalanche paths, 2 of them taking probably 15-20 minutes each to cross. There was also a difficult river crossing to jump across. On top of that, there was an easy river crossing, at which point I decided my feet were too dry and slipped into (bag was fine though).

It was a full 3 hours to get there, and we got there just when it was getting dark enough to need our head lamps. 9 hours of hiking complete, we were greeted (well, we weren’t) by two unfriendly Germans. After a tasty dinner, it was another early night for me.

Morning was once again clear and sunny, so Danielle and I ventured up to Blue lake for a look-see.

Pictures don’t really convey the beauty of this spot. It was gorgeous.

The crystal clear waters were very reflective in the calm morning.

But most notable was definitely the colour of the water. Striking blue, with almost flourescent green for accent. It was a gorgeous spot, and well worth the 3 hours each way of detouring.

From the Blue Lake, it was 3 hours of retracing our steps to the West Sabine Hut, and then continuing to follow the Sabine River all the way to Sabine Hut. The track itself at this point wasn’t very difficult, being mostly gradual downhill for the 8 hours of hiking on Day #4.

Crossing the Sabine River was one of the prettier spots of the day. Some of the water comes from Blue Lake.

Once again we finished hiking around dusk, this time at the lovely Sabine Hut, on the shores of Lake Rotorua. The presence of a boat gave us a little hope – perhaps we could get a ride and skip the last day? The only problem, that would only get us further from my car. About 50km further.

The 5th and final day was another gorgeous one.

Especially because we weren’t hiking! An incredibly friendly Kiwi couple offered us a boat ride to the other end of Lake Rotorua, as their friends couldn’t make it up for the weekend. We happily accepted, and we planned to simply hitchhike back to my car.

As we left the boat ramp area, we realized we might be in for a bit of walking still. The boat ramp area was deserted, and kind of remote. It was an 11km walk along the road to the main highway. We started walking, happy still since it was much flatter and easier than previous days.

Luck continued to smile upon Danielle and I though. The same friendly Kiwi couple decided they didn’t want to fish that day, instead heading back to Greymouth. After Danielle and I got about 20-30 minutes down the road, they pulled up and offered us a ride to the highway (they went a different direction at that point). This was incredibly lucky for us, as we hadn’t seen any other cars on the road so far. From the highway, it was another 10 minutes of waiting until a father with his young son picked us up, and returned us almost all the way back to my car. We were dropped at the turn off to the Mt. Robert carpark, and had about 45 minutes of walking or so, which we started off eagerness to be back.

We only made it 5 minutes or so before we were picked up by another friendly couple, and they drove us up to the Mt Robert carpark. They were daywalking that day, so it worked out perfectly.

At that point, Danielle and I just enjoyed the view out at Lake Rotoiti, the wonderful nature of the Kiwi people, and our incredibly good fortune in how fast we got back to my car.

Total time that day? Just under 2.5 hours. We were back in Nelson for lunch, a grand thing (each having a Domino’s Pizza). It was well deserved after the grueling 4 days we had prior to our easy 5th day. Looking back at it, the Travers-Sabine Circuit isn’t for the faint-hearted, or the inexperienced. It requires long days (even when breaking up the hiking more than what we did), the track was often challenging to traverse, and you are in relatively boring forest for the vast majority. It is when you finally break free of the trees, at Blue Lake, on the Travers Saddle, or up at Angelus Hut and Robert Ridge, that you really feel that the trouble has been worth it. The picture perfect weather certainly helped – some sections might not even be navigable in bad weather. As a good 5-7 days of hiking though, the remoteness offered by the Circuit was quite wonderful. I’d recommend this Circuit only to those that knew what they were doing, and wanted to be in an area a bit quieter than Fiordland, while still getting rewarding scenery as you cross ridges and peaks.

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