Nelson Lakes National Park - 6 Days of Backpacking Beauty

Emily Renne
July 2, 2015

My 6 day journey on the Travers-Sabine Circuit through Nelson Lakes National Park was a game changer.  For starters, it was the longest track I’ve committed to, but the physical and mental stamina I put into completing it kindly rewarded me with the most beautiful sights and incredible experiences.  Each day my travel buddies and I encountered something new, whether it was snow, the clearest freshwater lake in the world (the Blue Lake), an incredible mountain saddle, or a beautiful, desolate rainforest.  The days go as follows...

5/20 – Wednesday

We started the hike at about 2PM.  I recall our first steep climb up Robert Ridge, and thinking to myself how incredible/crazy it was that we could get lost in this natural entity for 6 whole days! 

Robert Ridge was insanely beautiful.  It reminded me of a Skittles commercial: “Feel the rainbow, taste the rainbow”, as there was this circular rainbow that we walked next to as we crossed the ridge. Every time I start these tracks I feel like I’m being exiled from the real world to find that the grass is greener on the other side.


That night we stayed at Angelus Hut, but never actually got to see the valley surrounding the hut since we arrived after dark and would leave before the sun rose the next morning. 

5/21 – Thursday

We woke up realizing our anticipated 8-hour day of hiking was actually an 11-hour day of hiking.  We were advised by fellow trampers at Angelus to stay at John Tait Hut that night as opposed to Upper Travers Hut.  We stuck to our plans to stay at Upper Travers which I’m extremely thankful for.  Not only is Upper Travers surrounded by the best alpine views I’ve seen from a hut, but we beat out the (small) crowd of other hikers, and only ran into 4 other people during the entire 6 day journey. 

That day started with a steep incline down adjacent to waterfalls crashing into the valley below (our destination).  We approached our very first river crossing (of many that would come).  I did fall in.  About 10 minutes later, we found where the removed bridge was (it was probably removed due to the fact we were hiking off season), and glared at it lying useless besides the track.  The rest of that day was honestly a blur.  We only stopped once for about a half hour lunch.  And it rained lot so I guess that’s why this wasn’t exactly my favorite day. 

Several more river crossings were accomplished in the dark, in the rain later that night.  We crossed one (rather challenging) river, only to find that we had to re-cross it farther up to get back on the trail to the hut.  This is where I may or may not have completely slipped from the rock I jumped on to cross it…pack on and all, knee deep in the river’s freezing current with the rain still coming down.  I know I sound insane but these obstacles added even more fun to this whole journey, and I look back at them with amusement. 

Also, I have some really exceptional tramping buddies, all who kept pushing each other to keep up the adrenaline and motivation.  That final river crossing tested our stamina a bit, but less than 10 minutes later we FINALLY FOUND UPPER TRAVERS HUT! And “feasted” on our carefully rationed meals we had for the next 4 days. 

5/22 – Friday

This is the day we would climb over Travers Saddle.  It was definitely one of my favorite days, only in competition with the day made it to the Blue Lake (which sparked our initial interest in doing this track). 

The only other thing besides Saturday Night Live that I believe truly does not get old is New Zealand’s alpine scenery.  The view at the top of Travers Saddle was exceptional.  There was a waterfall coming from the snowcapped peaks above, rushing into the golden valley below us.  It reminded me of why I love backpacking.  It was moments like these that made leaving New Zealand so incredibly difficult. 


I can’t stress enough how much I love having such adventurous people, most of whom I’d met through IES, to tramp around with, or I'm afraid half the stuff I’ve done here may have been left undone.  Before coming down the saddle, we took our infamous selfies (my friend J is notorious for his selfies) and storytelling panoramass to commemorate the crossing. 

Coming down from the saddle, I encountered probably the steepest incline of a trail I’d seen...probably ever.  And we passed a French couple climbing UP it.  Props to them.  Mad props to them. 

This was the first time we’d arrived at a hut (West Sabine) before dark.  It was sort of like a celebration, especially since we’d be hiking to the much anticipated Blue Lake the following morning.

5/23 - Saturday

The day of the Blue Lake AKA - The clearest freshwater lake in the world with 80m of visibility 

The hike to get there was longer and steeper than anticipated, but realizing how challenging it is to access made it so much more worth it.  Finding these views and natural entities after days of tramping makes them feel earned.  I’ve come to grow very fond of this feeling.  While just plain sightseeing has the perk of easy access, the views become less satisfying.

The valley we climbed through to get to Blue Lake was a fantasy landscape itself.

The actual Blue Lake? Surreal. It defined solitude. One previous backpacker wrote in the Blue Lake Hut Journal, “It commands respect.”

My first impression of the Blue Lake is nothing like the one I have now.  At first, I was a little disappointed by it, and almost wanted to say, “Is this it?”

The first thing I did was dive underneath the 5 degree Celsius water.  If you’re wondering if I broke a law, its actually very legal to swim in the lake, just not legal to wash in it, although the icy temperatures do a good job of keeping most people out (trust me, it didn’t feel any better than it sounds, especially since we were going into New Zealand’s winter).    The backpacker’s article I read afterwards talked about how he abandoned his original plans to swim in the lake after admiring its beauty.  I guess its funny how different actions satisfy different people at this spot.

So my impression of this Blue Lake accelerated through three phases. 

The first was when we swam in it and ate lunch there.  At this point, I was still a bit disappointed after the hype that had been worked up about it. 

The second phase happened after the short nap I took, when a few of my friends and I went to go explore the rest of it.  Here we found its actual blueness.  And boy was it stunning.   There was this subtle transformation of mood that started happening the more time I spent gazing at it.  It was calming, welcoming, soothing, everything you could ask for from such a natural entity.  I’d hiked 3.5 days to find this exquisiteness, and I no longer had any doubts that it was worth it. 

The third phase was when I went back by myself around 4 or so in the afternoon.  I’d been reading the newspaper articles in the hut about it, and some other things people had wrote.  I felt that I hadn’t appreciated it enough yet.  And after the work I’d done to get there, I couldn’t leave knowing that. 

I sat with the lake for quite some time.  It was the most comfortable silence with a stranger I’d ever had.  And it was the most humble and content I’d felt in a long time. 

That night, we watched the sun set behind the mountains.  And knowing we were in such desolateness made it even more incredible, surrounded on each side by these majestic mountains.

That night in the hut, I slept next to a window revealing the mountains and stars above.  Although it didn’t take away from the cold that night, it was a satisfying view to fall asleep to. 

5/24 – Sunday

The climb back to civilization began.  It was bittersweet. At this point, I was ready for my warm bed and coffee again.  This day was rather uneventful until we reached Sabine Hut, nestled next to a big lake.  We unfortunately failed to start a fire in the hut that night, and watched our friend J cut open his jar of peanut butter with an army knife for an hour instead (I guess we had to get creative with the evenings entertainment to distract ourselves from the cold). 

5/25 - Monday

 We were greeted in the morning by a layer of frost, and eventually snow as we climbed to higher elevation.  It was truly a winter wonderland, and even got me in the Christmas spirit a bit. 

This day was a test to my willpower.  At this point we were all very tired (and hungry).  The time was moving by at a glacial pace, and arriving at Speargrass Hut in the afternoon for lunch elicited more than relief.  We had a great view,  about a half hour of rest, and I ate my last nasty can of tuna.

We had 2.5 hours to go until the car park.  I can’t even remember whether they went by fast or slow.  I do remember there being one last, cruel river crossing where we boarded a tree to get over the final stretch of it.  I had a feeling we wouldn’t be finishing our journey without one last grand finale of an obstacle. 

The first glimpse of the trail sign and the car park gave me the most accomplished feeling I’d had in a while.  It was quite nostalgic; here I was in the same spot I started from six days earlier, but now with plenty of views, memories, and sore muscles under my belt.

And we made it just in time to watch the sunset from the car park. 

This was my last backpacking trip during my study abroad time in New Zealand.  And it was the best time I had here.   I don’t know if this was because my departure date was looming in my head, and I was dreading leaving. 

Regardless, these memories of the trail, tramping with great companions, entertaining nights in the hut, and stumbling upon the variety of incredible scenery, are some of the best moments I will reminisce in after my leave from this absurdly gorgeous country.   

Emily Renne

<p>A native of Syracuse, NY, (US) Emily is currently pursuing her B.A. in Integrated Marketing Communications with Minors in Art and Honors. A curious explorer and outdoors lover, Emily&#39;s spontaneity and passions will one day lead her to all ends of the Earth. &nbsp;Witty author, candid photo snapper, and avid dreamer, Emily plans to pursue a career &nbsp;in the fields of advertising and/or design. &nbsp;</p>

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