Thursday, 13 March 2014

Lake Christabel: 6-7 March 2014

I had been planning for some time to walk the St James Walkway in early March (last week), unfortunately the weather did not "play ball". We had a "one in a hundred year" rain event in Canterbury and the whole of the South Island. There were falls of 150mm of rain in the foothills, snow and gale force winds. This has scuppered my plans to walk the track this year.
As an alternate, I decided to walk the track into Lake Christabel in the Victoria
State Forest Park on the West coast. The track is 17kms from my start point at Palmers Farm, mostly flat but with several significant low ridges to cross en route. It is rated a moderate track in most guide books, which normally takes 6-7 hours to tramp. In my case it turned into a 9 1/2 hour grovel as i had to negotiate windfall, slips and an overgrown track.

Here is the start of the track, near Palmer Farm on the Palmer Rd, this is about 5 kms west of Springs Junction, and is reached down a 8 km gravel farm road. Plenty of space for parking near here. A lot of people who are walking the track camp overnight near the track. This allows for an early start the next morning, required as it will take most of the day to reach the hut. 

This is prime cattle country, here is a shot of the river flats surrounding the car park.

The track starts off next to the Blue Grey river, the very beginning of the track meanders through open forest with the river close to the track.
You cross a couple of low ridges before moving upriver on a terrace.

There are a number of small clearings as you move along, with some impressive Red Beech trees in the lowland forest typical of the area. The vegetation is thick in places, reflecting the much higher rainfall on this side of the Southern Alps.

Here is a view of the Blue Grey from one of the low ridges you cross as you follow the track. Although mostly flat there is the occasional up and down as you follow the contours of the land.

This is typical of the forest you are travelling through, open beech forest or dense two story bush in areas where the sun reaches.

Some areas of the track are a little over grown, you need to keep your wits about you so that you don't lose the track.

Another view of the Blue Grey river from one of the low ridges you need to cross. The track at this point would be 2 hours in, and sidles above one of several gorges cut by the river in times past.

Junction point for the Blue Grey and another unnamed creek, about 2.5 hours in.
This point is about another 10 minutes along from the spot above. This could be a very nice camping spot as there are a couple of great looking swimming holes here and plenty of flat ground for
a tent or tarp.

My first interaction with a bush wren on this trip, he/she came and sat next to me for 20 minutes as I was eating my lunch.
This is the last flat area before you start climbing the slip which formed the Lake. This is where I stopped for lunch both days as it was a great sunny spot close to the water. Probably not a good spot for a camp as the only flat area appears to be prone to river flooding.

The track climbs away from the river starting from this point, the track is in the middle of the photo heading to the right. I could see problems here if it started to rain as you would not be able to ford the side creek coming in from the left. This would be one of only two points where you might have to turn around if the weather gods decided to play some tricks.

Typical view of the track through this area, it is quite steep, very green and slippery from the mossy rocks.
About an hour from the confluence you strike an upland alpine swamp and then follow a poled track up a stream bed for a distance.

This is the saddle at the top of the slip, it would be possible to camp in this area, there are small streams about 50-100 metres downhill either side of this point. The lake is 400 metres east of this high point, all downhill.
You cant really tell but the lake is down there about another 100 metres along the track, it had taken me 5 hours to reach this point.

There is a small beach as you descend down to the lake, with excellent views up valley. The hut is off to the centre right of this photo, it is about 40 mins walk up the valley and leads towards Robinson Saddle.

The underground outlet for Lake Christabel is close to the island in the middle of this photo. An ancient rock slip fell and filled the bottom of this valley, blocking the course of the river. Lake Christabel is the result of this slip and the subsequent inflow of water. The lake has forged an underground outlet for the water, this is the source of the Blue Grey river.

This is one of the bays of the lake, this is an hour from the beach in the photo above. In all it takes from 2-3 hours just to make your way around the shore of the lake. The track through this section was very difficult, with a lot of wind fallen trees, slips and very slippery conditions. Care is required as a fall from the track along here will leave you floating (hopefully..... you might just sink) in the lake and unable to get out. The water is cold, the sides are steep cliffs and it is very very deep!

Eventually you reach some small beaches at the eastern end of the lake, this is the view looking back towards the west. There are only 2-3 possible spots to camp along the lake side as the terrain is steep, with thick bush growing along side it. Once you start along the track you are committed to walking to this end of the lake. There are no decent spots to pitch a tent or tarp.  

Another view back towards the West.

This is the condition of the track for most of the way along the lake, this area is one of the few relatively open areas.

Here is a shot from the flats at the end of the lake, there is plenty of space around there to camp. I stopped for what I thought was a well deserved rest after 8 hours walking.

The rest of the track is along the flats next to the river, the hut is approximately 30 minutes up river from the lake. When you finally reach the hut, you will find a suspension bridge 100 metres up river, this allows you to cross the river safely.  I just about forded the river, then thought "I'm going to look a bit stupid if I drown here when I could walk another 20 metres and cross a bridge". Surprisingly this river has no official name, i suppose you would call it the Blue Grey East branch? It's a surprise because it has almost the same flow as the Mingha river in Arthurs Pass.

Your first view of the hut as you come out of the bush on the true left of the river, it is an old style 8 bunk hut, with an excellent burner installed. There is plenty of firewood in the immediate area.

Jon in the hut, do I look tired? I felt totally shattered! The hut is well maintained, it gets a lot of use, there were 15 entries in the hut book from people who visited the hut in the last month or so.

As you can see the interior is in good nick, I was in the hut by myself again, in fact I didn't see another person on either of the days I was out. I had my PLB with me so that gave me a small measure of safety.

Time for a brew and some kai!

Here is another shot of the exterior of the hut, it was warm even without the fire (I lit it later for a bit of ambiance) but I imagine it could be cold in the area in the dead of winter.

Here is the bridge, it is about 100 metres up river from the hut.

Here I am outside the hut, it is in a nice location, with the river (water source) only 20 metres away.

Here is a shot looking up river taken from the bridge on the Friday as I made my way out. If you follow the track upstream it will eventually reach Robinson saddle and the huts in the Robinson valley. Judging from the hut book, it is a popular trip, I have spoken to a couple in Nina hut who said the track is quite overgrown and really rugged.
This might possibly be a trip for the future.

View of Lake Christabel hut from the true right of the river, it is in a very good location.

Here is a view from the flats at the Eastern end of the lake, the track climbs over the slip which has the sun just rising over it. It would be 7-8 kms from this point to the western end of the lake.

The other potential spot you could come unstuck is in this area above. There is a side stream running along the edge of the bush to the right of the photo. On the Thursday the water was knee deep, though slow moving. It had completely dried out by the Friday morning. This makes me think it is prone to flooding with a bit of rain. Worth considering!

My last view of the lake from the Eastern end, before plunging into the track. It is a very scenic lake.

I had a lot of company from bush Wrens, I had 5 of them following me at one time, also a lot of fantails. Both bird types follow you along the track catching the bugs that you kick up as you walk along.
Here is my lunch spot, pate and crackers and a brew did wonders to revive me. It was quite pleasant sitting here for 45mins eating and generally having a rest. No sand flies, they must have died off due to the unusually cold weather. For those of you who are not in New Zealand sand flies are small biting flies which attack you in swarms looking for a meal: you are the main course! They are the bane of tramping in New Zealand as you find them from sea level right up to 2000 metres.

Another view of the Blue-Grey river from my lunch spot, beautiful clear water in this area.

Right children, lets play a game!
Now, you would have heard of "where's Wally", this is the Lake Christabel version, "where's Track". It's out there, you just have to find it in the under growth!

There is a very nice camping spot about 1 1/2 hours from the track end, it is flat, and right next to the river. It obviously gets a bit of use because there is a fire pit and it looks like a great spot to pitch your tent. I could be tempted!

L' Fin, once again. I was VERY pleased to finally reach the car.

This was a long and hard trip, but the valley is very beautiful, I would suggest that anyone who wanted to visit the hut plan to stay for at least 2 nights to allow you to enjoy exploring the upper valley. The hut and lake can be visited via the Rough Creek route (from Lewis pass road over the top of the surrounding mountains) and the Robinson valley/saddle route. I would like to come back here and go by one of those routes, then out to Palmers farm.