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Trip Reports : Nelson Lakes - Sabine and D’Urville Valleys

Updated Updated 1st February 2011

Sabine - Blue Lake - Waiau Pass - Lake Thompson - Thompson Pass - D'Urville Valley - Moss Pass - Sabine Valley - Lake Rotoroa


Manawatu Tramping and Skiing Club - Palmerston North
24-29th April 2002

Some late cancellations and substitutions meant that we had to sneak through P.N. airport with Christine Scott masquerading as Christine Allardice and Carolyn Brodie as Harry Allardice - and not very convincingly either. Fortunately the people at the counter were as confused as we were and didn’t notice. It had been raining in Nelson when we arrived, but it was just being playful and didn’t show up again until the last day of the tramp.

After a big fish n chip nosh-up in St Arnaud, we settled into Yellow House for an early night so we could be picked up bright and early the next morning for the shuttle bus and the water taxi ride up to Sabine Hut. It took us a leisurely 5 hours to reach West Sabine Hut for a long lunch and 3 hours from there to Blue Lake Hut. Yes the Lake is Blue - under ideal conditions.

We had to take some weight from Judy and tell her a lot of lies (the value of lies should never be underestimated) about how long and hard the afternoon wouldn’t be. Fortunately, she is very gullible or we are very good liars. Either way Judy pepped up after lunch and didn’t seem to be suffering nearly enough for every one else’s continued enjoyment. During the weight shuffle, trip leader managed to end up with less weight while Neville ended up with even more than he started off with. Later on in the trip this made the group dynamics, well…… more dynamic!

While the first half of the day was on the flatter terrain through rather nice Beech forest, it was the travel between West Sabine and Blue Lake that was the most picturesque. The forest was very pretty and in places we were walking along at water level, which brought it into the living room - so to speak. There were lots of waterfalls on the rock faces to our right. One hour before the hut we came out into the open on a rocky area with views up towards Moss Pass. We rested with the other party of trampers we had been hopscotching with all day. The next section of the day was the steepest, but only contained about 20-minutes worth of climbing. Just before the 16-bunk Blue Lake Hut was reached the track passes some small lakes. We settled noisily into the hut after our 9-hour day. Carolyn had not stayed at West Sabine for a long lunch, and thus arrived at the hut an hour before us. She had taken possession of half the hut for us.

After all the commotion we made the night before the other parties in the hut seemed eager to depart early. One party did a day climb of Mt Franklin, which apparently is not all that difficult. The other escaped over Waiau Pass to Lake Thompson at the head of the Waiau River. We dogged their footsteps all of the way up to the pass, and beat them to it. Judy stayed behind to rest, guard our gear, bake scones, and just have a nice day visiting all the lakes around and above the hut. She must have eaten all of the scones because we never got any! The water in Lake Constance was so still that it was not visible. All we could see was the reflection of the mountainside. There was some argument about whether or not there really was water there. The track past this lake has to sidle for part of the way along the lake above bluffs. there are a couple of steep sections but it is not dangerous. The route is marked by waratahs all the way up to Waiau Saddle, over, and down the other side into the Waiau River on the St James Station.


The top end of Lake Constance


Further up-valley from Lake Constance

Waiau Pass is behind the rocky peak in the top left of the photo - the route is up the line of vegetation that goes up the scree slope. It looks a lot worse than it is. Quite a safe route given that there was no snow.


The start of our climb from the valley floor up to Waiau Pass

It was a wonderful sunny day, just made for photo and rest stops, but even so we made it up to Waiau pass (1870 m) in four hours [including the one-hour climb (570 m) to the pass from the valley floor]. We had lunch just over the other side with views down the Waiau Valley and across to Lake Thompson (1700 m) and Thompson Pass (1796 m), which is actually a fault line.


View back down to lake Constance

After such and excellent morning we made our way back down to Blue Lake Hut for the night (8-hour day) leaving the other party to make their way to Lake Thompson, which took them an easy 3 hours, for the night. From there it took them a nine-hour day to go over Thompson Pass and down the D’Urville River to Ella Hut. There is a trick to going over Thompson Pass so it is advisable to get advice or read the appropriate guidebook.


Looking across to Lake Thompson and Thompson pass, which follows the fault line up past the right hand side of the lake.

It was another rowdy, non-PC mind-in-the-gutter dinner evening, the highlight being an impromptu survey of what time of day people and their partners are at their randiest. The euphemisms and evasions were quite revealing, but no gender-based preferences were determined. Neville boasted that he thinks about sex 50% more than the average randy male. Poor Eleanor!

Next day it was up bright and early (despite some stubborn, mutinous murmuring) to make our way up over Moss Pass (590 m climb). This was another leisurely we are going to take our time in the sun, effort that stretched out to three hours (1-hour of rest and photography stops). The people who had climbed Mt Franklin the Day before decided that they would rather die than put up with another night with us, and so they sidled north along the east face of the Mahanga Range to camp north of Mt Windward for the night. It took them about 6 hours, the following day, to reach D’Urville Hut via Mt Misery.

Most of the climb up to Moss Pass was very straight forward - well marked. It was only the final ten-minute steep climb at the very top of the narrow rock chute than caused us any concern. Because of this section we judged Moss Pass to be more difficult than Waiau Pass. On top of the pass we got out cameras (for the obvious reason) and maps and compasses so that we could identify all the peaks we could see. There was much heated discussion and not a little sulking at arguments lost.


Looking towards the rock chute at the top of Moss Pass

One of the cleverer trouble makers manoeuvred trip leader into cutting short our stay on the pass so that we could drop a couple of hundred metres down the other side to have lunch by a rather inviting tarn. Neville got rather annoyed by trip leader’s cavalier, dictatorial manner and voiced his intention to shoot said trip leader at the first opportunity. Sound travels a long way in the mountains on a calm sunny morning, and so any hope of trip leader not being forewarned was lost. Cooler heads intervened and pointed out to Neville that not much tramping gets done in gaol and that some of the entertainments might not be to his tastes. He eventually cooled down, especially when he came to appreciate the charm of our lunch spot.


Looking up the rock chute at the top of Moss Pass


Looking down from the top of Moss Pass to the top of the Rock Chute

Our long lunch (90 minutes) included a boil-up, first aid for Christine (who had performed quite an unusual fall), personal hygiene in the tarns, and more arguing over maps and compasses. After lunch (1:30 p.m.) we had had enough of the sun and were glad to head down the sometimes-steep track into the bush, some of which was quite interesting. Further down, one section of the track had a rope for people to hang on to - not really necessary, but nevertheless helpful. The birds were friendly and unafraid. We ambled down onto the flat where Judy took off down river like a scalded cat and we had a hard time keeping up with her. Fortunately, the distance wasn’t great and it wasn’t long before we reached Ella Hut after a nine-hour day. This was the end of the golden weather.


Our lunch Spot by the tarns on the D’Urville River side of Moss Pass (which is the Low point in the shade)

On day four we woke up to light rain and had an easy 3-hour tramp down river to the site of Morgan Hut for an early lunch, which we shared with the sand flies. The track down river from here was not so pleasant (one might say Tararua-esque), with a bit of climbing (we were tired after three days of sun) and lots of tree roots to negotiate. However, after a 2¾-hour forced march we made it to D’Urville Hut 15 minutes before the water taxi. We stayed at Yellow House again that night and entertained the staff over dinner at the Alpine Lodge.

I am not sure that I would want to do this trip again. We had better weather than we probably deserved - the Fates will surely make us suffer for this at some later date! A repeat is bound to be a disappointment, because it would be unlikely that the conditions would so clement or the trip so full of fun and silliness, as it was this time. Tis trip would have been very different in bad weather or in winter with snow on the ground - ice axes and crampons would have been necessary.

We were Carolyn Brodie, Christine Scott, Judy Callesen, Bev Akers (trip organiser), Rod McKenzie, Neville Gray, and Adam Matich (trip leader).