Monday, 17 October 2016

Lake Rotoiti Circuit: Nelson Lakes National Park: 14-15 October 2016

Walking around Lake Rotoiti

Mt Robert, Lake Rotoiti from Kerr Bay car park

Over the weekend I went and tramped the Lake Rotoiti Circuit. This is a 30 km loop track around Lake Rotoiti in Nelson Lakes National Park. I last visited Nelson Lakes way back in the early 1990's, so its been awhile but as there are a number of places in the park I am keen to visit I will be returning there shortly.

Lake Rotoiti, Nelson Lakes National Park
This is a 2-3 day tramp so the original plan was:
 Day 1: Arrive St Arnaud then walk to Lakehead Hut via Lakeshead Track (3 hours), 
Day 2:  Walk to Coldwater Hut (4+ hours) via the Travers swing bridge and Travers Valley Track, stay the night at Coldwater.
Day 3: Back to Kerr Bay (4.5 hours) via Lakeside Track flanking Mt Robert, Mt Robert road and the Peninsula track. 

More on that later.....

St Arnaud to Lakehead Hut: Day One

I set off from Christchurch at 4 am on Friday for St Arnaud, this small village is the gateway to Nelson Lakes NP. It takes about 4.5 hrs to drive to St Arnaud and arrived I around 9.30 am. It was cold and raining for most of the way which slightly concerned me as I wasn't sure if I would arrive to find snow down to ground level.

Entrance to St Arnaud
I started my tramp from the Kerr Bay Car park which is near the NW end of the lake, there are a number of car parks here as well as two boat ramps/jetties. If you wanted to start from St Arnaud then you could stay the night at the DOC Kerr Bay Campground, this is right next to the start of Lakehead Track. The campground looked good: lots of shady trees, quality toilet block and a nice enclosed shelter for cooking and eating. 

Lake Rotoiti from near the jetty

According to the woman in the visitor centre security is so-so at these car parks, if you are concerned there is a DOC car park on Ward Street, right outside the local DOC workshops.

You ARE NOT allowed to park at the visitors center!

Car park at Kerr Bay

The other side of the Kerr Bay car park
This side of the lake includes a fenced "mainland island", an area surrounded by predator fences with a large population of native wildlife including geckos, frogs, Kaka, Kiwi, Bellbird and Tomtit. There are a multitude of tracks starting here ranging from 15 minutes right up to 3 hours in length.

Kiwi Zone right down to the shoreline

Start of the Kerr Bay track network
The DOC track network board at Kerr Bay
As you can see the start of the track is wheelchair friendly, very easy walking, it eventually becomes your standard DOC track but the first half hour of the track is very nice...

Wheelchair friendly start to the Lakehead Track

Interpretive panels about 10 minutes up the track

Travers Valley in the far distance
You strike a number of boardwalks early in the track as there are several mossy swamps to cross along this side of the valley.

Boardwalk at the start of the Lakehead Track

Jon on the Lakehead Track
After an half an hour the Lakehead Track starts, this is a bit rougher but it is still a very easy track to walk on as it is well benched and not too arduous. This was also the point when it started to rain so it was jacket on and buttoned up for a wet slog to the hut.

Lakehead Track, start of the tramping track proper

Lake Rotoiti from a viewing area
Most of the time you are in forest with the lake to your right hand side, you get occasional glimpses of the lake but it is mostly out of view. Every now and then the track drops down to the shoreline so you can stop and admire the distant mountains.

Lakehead Track, gravel debris field
After an hour and a half much heavier rain rolled in this continued until 3 pm in the afternoon and made for wet tramping conditions. Lakehead Track is well maintained but all that rain resulted in me walking in 10 cm's of muddy water for the next hour....

The storm clouds roll onto Lake Rotoiti

Lakehead Track, young red beech tree grove
Two hours down the track you get a glimpse of Whiskey Falls on the far side of the lake. The falls are 10 minutes up a side track and are a good stop point on the second or third day of this tramp.
Whiskey Falls on the flank of Mt Robert
It was raining for most of the time I was walking, it was fine as you are covered by forest for most of way but I still got pretty wet.

Thank God for quality rain jackets, eventually you get wet but at least you stay warm.

Lakehead Track, the wet cat look

Lakehead Track, typical scenery
There are three streams to cross on this side of the lake, only one of them could cause a problem in heavy rain.The problematic one is about 15 minutes before you reach the Lakehead jetty.

Lakehead Track, crossing a rising side stream
After 2.5 hours you get to the Lakehead Hut jetty, there are good views from here of Coldwater Hut on the far side of the lake. If you wanted a interesting day walk you could hire a water taxi to take you to this jetty and then walk back to St Arnaud.

Coldwater Hut across Lake Rotoiti
Lakehead Hut Jetty

Rainy view of the Travers Valley from Lakehead jetty

From the jetty it is a short 10 minute walk to Lakehead Hut, it is roughly 750 meters up and over one last debris field to the hut site.The photos are blurry because it was raining so hard I couldnt clear the lens of mist quickly enough to keep them sharp....!

Lakehead Track, not far now....

Climbing the final debris field just before Lakehead Hut

I was quite pleased to reach the hut as it had started to rain really hard and you are walking in the open along this last section. Lakehead Hut was built in the 1960's and is very nice: 24 bunks, nicely appointed interior, good woodburner, full woodshed and it looks like it might have been painted recently. It sits on a terrace quite a long way from the lake but it has good views as a compensation.

Lakehead Hut in the rain

Woodburner and sleeping platforms, Lakehead Hut
Lakehead Hut dining area

Kitchen area Lakehead Hut

Lakehead Hut, cooking benches and water tap

Lakehead hut sleeping area

Lakehead Hut veranda
There was already gear on several of the bunks, it belonged to a group of guided adventure tourists who were staying in the hut for the night. I found out later that they had gone up valley for the day to try to visit Lake Angelus but had to turn back due to the deep snow up Cascade Valley. 

Jon happily ensconced in Lakehead Hut

Lakehead Hut, doing some chores while the billy boils...
After changing into dry clothes and setting up my gear I relaxed with a brew and ate my lunch looking out the windows at the rain pouring down. Nothing quite as good as sitting inside a hut and watching it pour outside knowing you are finished walking for the day...

Travers Valley from Lakehead Hut deck

Robert Ridge from Lakehead Hut deck

Lakehead Hut wood shed
I went out and cut up a pile of firewood as I had a fair idea it would turn cold later in the afternoon. There was a massive pile of wood waiting to be put in the shed so i spent about half an hour piling some of it inside so it could dry.

Axe and saws at Lakehead Hut

Start of my firewood pile, Lakehead Hut
After cutting some firewood I fell asleep on my bunk for an hour or so.

By the time I woke around 4 pm the weather had cleared so that you could see the snow further up Travers Valley, there was a LOT of it on the ranges near Travers Pass so I don't think anyone is going over there any time soon. 

Travers Pass & Travers Valley from Lakehead Hut deck

Snow on the mountains near Travers Pass
The water tank at Lakehead is fed from a nearby stream not from rain fall, so if it is empty you need to walk about 10 minutes back towards the jetty to reach the first sidestream. Otherwise it is a 20 minute walk down to the Travers River itself. 

Lakehead Hut on its terrace

Snow on Angelus Ridge from Lakehead Hut veranda

View of the fresh snow from Lakehead Hut

Brief sun shining on Travers Valley, late afternoon

I lit the fire around 5 pm as it was getting cold and put on some soup, the other hut residents arrived about 20 minutes later.  They were wet and cold so appreciated the warmth that had started to build up from the blazing fire.

Fire burning at Lakehead Hut

The group staying in the hut with me was from Active Adventures and consisted of two Kiwi guides (Nick and Rachel) and four American clients. I chatted with all of the members of their party at one time or another over the evening. This was the second to last night of their 9 day trip around the South Island.

They said the snow halfway up Cascade Valley was at least knee deep so for safety sake they decided to return to the hut.

I imagine anyone at Lake Angelus Hut was staying for another night due to deep snow along the ridgeline....

Resting on my bunk, Lakehead Hut

Nick invited me to walk out to the Mt Roberts car park with their group the next morning. This was great as it would save me a day and allow me to travel back to Christchurch on the Saturday. It is also nice to have some company for a change.

The track from Lakehead to Coldwater huts

These tour groups eat well: their menu had antipasti + red wine followed by chicken paella + champagne and a cheesecake with fancy coffee for dessert all prepared by the guides. 

Jon had dehydrated chicken Laksa and cold water......!

 Yes, my lip did quiver a little bit....but at least I was offered some of the cheesecake!

Lakehead Hut to St Arnaud via Coldwater Hut: Day Two

Because I was walking with a group we were able to use the ford over the Travers River. Normally there is a ford you can use at this end of the Travers but with the rain it was deep and swift. There is no way a solo tramper could cross the ford after rain so you have to walk up valley for 2 hours to the Travers swing bridge and then down the other side of the river to Coldwater Hut.

Using the ford saved me 10 kilometers and 4 hours and meant I could head home early.

Heading out towards the Travers River ford
Once we got to the Travers river Nick, Rachel and I scouted the best crossing point (not on the official ford, there is a waist deep channel there...go down river about 30 meters) and crossed over in a stick of 3 and another of 4. The water was freezing and fast but only knee high at our crossing point.

Travers River from the true left of the valley

View of Upper Travers Valley

Start of the Travers Valley Track
The Travers Valley Track runs down the true left of the valley from John Tait Hut right down to Coldwater jetty. Because of the rain the previous day it was very wet and muddy but I would imagine that normally it is a very easy track to walk on. 

On Travers Valley Track to Coldwater Hut

Travers Valley Track, climbing around a spur

Chandler Stream bridge just before Coldwater Hut

View of Chandler Stream from the bridge
After 20 minutes of walking you reach Coldwater Hut on the shore of Lake Rotoiti. The hut looks nice: it is 12 bunks with an open fire, plenty of internal space and also looks like it has had recent maintenance done on it.

There was obviously a party of hunters in residence as their gear was scattered around the hut including gun cases.They were not there so they may have been the group of three we saw fishing down by the mouth of the Travers River. 

Coldwater Hut, Lake Rotoiti

Coldwater Hut from the jetty

View of Lake Rotoiti from the Coldwater jetty

Coldwater Hut, open fireplace and bench

Coldwater Hut, the sleeping platform
I noticed this gem as soon as I walked into the hut: classic JanSport pack circa 1970's that is the definition of old school....It looked like it had just been brought so it must not get a lot of use.

Check out the classic Jansports pack.....

For the next 3 hours the track sidles above the shore of Lake Rotoiti, the track is very nice and we seemed to fly down it. Generally you are about 20 meters above lake level but there are a couple of places where you go right down to the shoreline.

Lake Rotoiti from the Lakeside track

My American tramping companions....
The snow over night had fallen roughly along the 900 meter ASL level, all of the surrounding mountains had a good dusting along their tops. 

Snow along the 900 meter line...
The side track to Whiskey Falls (40 metres) is about 40 minutes down the track from Coldwater Hut, I have already visited them before so didn't this trip but this is what they look like...

Whiskey Falls, Nelson Lakes NP

Crossing a shingle slide on Mt Robert
Two hours after leaving Coldwater Hut you get your first clear view of St Arnaud, it is about 45 minutes to the Mt Robert road from this point.

St Arnaud in the distance

Last flat before the climb to the Mt Robert Road
You climb up to the car park and Mt Robert road through Manuka re growth, it is about 15 minutes to a high point and another 20 odd minutes walking along an old 4 W/D track to get to the road.

Climbing through the  Manuka, Mt Robert

On the final stretch, Mt Robert

Mosses, ferns, Manuka trees alongside the track....

100 meters from Mt Robert road.....

Mt Robert access road
From the road you turn right and walk about 2 km's down hill to the car park at West Bay. It is possible to organise a shuttle to collect you from the track head, you probably need to do this before you start the tramp.

Heading along the Mt Robert road for West Bay
The outlet for Lake Rotoiti is also the headwaters of the Buller River, the water is deep but for such a mighty river it is a mediocre starting point....

Head of the Buller River, flowing from Lake Rotoiti

The St Arnaud Range from West Bay
My travelling companions were stopping for lunch at West Bay so I bid them adieu and set off for Kerr Bay on my own. Originally I had planned to walk the Peninsula Track but in the end I followed the short cut up and over the spur to the DOC visitors center on Ward Street instead. 

Start of the Peninsula Track at West Bay

On the Peninsula Track, Lake Rotoiti

Climbing up to the Ward Street track head
After about 20 minutes I made it to the Kerr Bay car park and was pleased to see that my car was still sitting where I left it. The carpark was much busier on the Saturday probably because the weather was much nicer than the previous day. 

Mt Robert from the Kerr Bay car park

Lake Rotoiti, the Kerr Bay jetty

Back at the start of the Lake Rotoiti Circuit....

All in all a really excellent tramp: the tracks are great, the huts are well cared for and it was nice to have some company while I was walking. If I was going to do this tramp again I think I would reverse the order and start from the Mt Robert car park instead.

I will be back Nelson Lakes National Park, see you soon!

Post note: Home via Blenheim and Kaikoura

Snow covered Seaward Kaikouras from my lunch spot

I drove home via Blenheim and Kaikoura both for a change of scenery and so I could stop for some fish and chips in Kaikoura. They were good by the way....!

There is only 60 km's difference between the two routes so both are fine ways to get to Nelson Lakes from Christchurch.The round trip was somewhere in the region of 750kms over two days so what you should do is go to St Arnaud for a week or two to make it more worth while.