Travers-Sabine Circuit in Nelson Lakes NP

Every multi-day walk should be launched with a powerboat ride!  The 20 min ride across Lake Rotoiti begins our 7 day tramp on the Travers-Sabine Circuit in Nelson Lakes National Park (NP).

The 80km Travers-Sabine circuit is the ideal way to see the rivers, lakes, beech forests and high mountain country of the Nelson Lakes NP.  Located 90 min from Nelson, the Nelson Lakes NP formed in 1956, now has over 15 huts and covers over 102,000 ha.  An earthquake 6 days prior to our journey, reminds us this National Park also sits on a major fault line.



Day 1 Travers-Sabine Circuit

Disembarking the boat at the jetty on the opposite end of the Lake, we are dutifully welcomed by possibly New Zealand’s (NZ) most despised fauna species – the NZ sand-fly!  Setting off from near Lakehead Hut, our group of seven begin the journey up the Travers Valley, the trail never straying far from the picturesque Travers River.



Our destination is John Tait Hut some 14km further up the valley.  Under clear skies and on an easy gradient, we cross open grassland before entering the beech forest. The easy walking lulls us into a false sense of security for what lies ahead.



From John Tait Hut the terrain changes dramatically, rising 500m in altitude to Upper Travers Hut.  The beautiful beech forests with mosses and ferns dominating the forest floor provide cool respite from the afternoon sun, the continual climb up the valley however, results in constant exertive perspiration.

From time to time we exit the beech forest to see the peaks of the St Arnaud Range to our left and the Travers Range on our right, both rising ever higher and ever closer as the valley narrows.

We finally reach the Upper Travers Hut perched high on the treeline, of the Travers Valley.  The hut has a magnificent location with mountain peaks surrounding on three sides, providing our first real look at the high country and a beautiful reward for a long and exhausting day.


Day 2 Travers-Sabine Circuit

Today we tackle the pass and our highest point on the walk.  At 1787m, the Travers Saddle is another 500m higher up the valley.

With clear skies and now well above the treeline, we slowly trudge up the steep slopes leaving behind the valley below.  The surrounding cliffs create the feeling of being in a large stadium, much like grandstands looming down on us from every direction, some are still cloaked in snow.  It’s a wonderful rewarding moment to look far down the valley, back to where we began our journey the morning before.



With barely a breathe of wind in the air, we gratefully savour the moment when we reach Travers Saddle, soaking in the grandeur that surrounds us.  Understandably we’re reluctant to leave; even more so when we peer down the other side of the valley and see the steep descent that awaits us.




The trail down from the Saddle to West Sabine Hut is a knee busting 1100m descent that seems to have no end.  Eventually we reach the Sabine River which will be our constant companion for the next two days.


The return to lower altitudes heralds the reappearance of our favourite sand-fly species.  New Zealand may be snake free, but I’m beginning to think we got the better deal in Australia.

Day 3 Travers-Sabine Circuit

The rain arrives during the night as forecast.  In the light morning rain we follow the Sabine River upstream for approximately four hours to Blue Lake. The Beech forest in this section of Nelson Lakes NP is a visual feast, the forest floor is a labyrinth of tree roots under a carpet of moss. A green layer that coats every surface be it rock, wood or earth.

The small boomerang shaped Blue Lake is considered the clearest naturally found water anywhere in the world, with visibility close to 80m.  Distilled water is 83m!  Despite the overcast conditions and light rain, the ‘blueness’ is clearly evident and quite spellbinding.


On the return leg to West Sabine Hut, the numerous stream crossings are now considerably higher than when we crossed only hours before.  We are very fortunate as heavy rain again the following night will result in the trail to Blue Lake becoming impassable. Whilst the light rain is an annoyance, the high cliffs on either side of the Sabine River are peppered with spectacular temporary waterfalls that would be only be seen in these conditions – a rare treat!


With two other large groups of walkers sharing a similar itinerary, the huts have been at full capacity with some even sleeping on the floor.  I never thought it would be possible to see 30+ people and their gear in such a small space.  Even worse in wet weather with anything above shoulder height resembling a giant clothesline!  Despite the inconveniences and the sand-flies taking down anyone who ventures forth outside, there is barely a grumble or grouch.

Day 4 Travers-Sabine Circuit

We come across a sinister scene. Like a black death it creeps through the forest blanketing the beech trees both young and old, appearing to have evil intentions to destroy the forest.  The older beech tree trunks are so black; you’d swear it was because of fire. The younger beech tree saplings provide the clue, as some have black ‘patches’, whilst others have black clumps hanging from the branches.

The ‘blackness’ is in fact a fungus – Scorias spongiosaIt  – a sooty mould fungus that grows on aphid honeydew found on the Beech trees.  More benign than its eerie appearance would at first suggest.


The trail down to Sabine Hut is relatively easy, staying close to the river with minimal undulation.  The previous night’s downpour was at times seemingly torrential and the Sabine River has taken on a new dramatic persona during the night, now angrier with the increased mass of water rushing past.

Along the river’s edge there is evidence of where the riverbank was unable to contain the additional flow, the trail also crossing several side streams which prove difficult to cross without getting wet feet.



Sabine Hut sits immediately adjacent to Lake Rotoroa, with the nearby water taxi jetty an ideal launch platform to dive into the surprisingly warm water, but one must be ever watchful (and hopeful) the eels don’t come too close.

It is here that the NZ sand-fly delivers an ‘A’ game standard.  Forming a formidable wall at the door and launching into a feasting frenzy on anyone exiting the hut.

Day 5 -Travers-Sabine Circuit

There is great satisfaction in waking up to the sound of consistent rain and knowing you’ve chosen this day as the designated rest day.  With the hut’s centrally located fireplace alight, it’s a day to relax and an opportunity to recuperate tired bodies, dry clothes and shoes, hone card playing skills and thumb noses at the sand-flies through the window.


The late morning water taxi comes to take two of our group, victims of crippling foot blisters.  We’ll re-unite again back in Nelson in another two days.

Day 6 Travers-Sabine Circuit

If the previous day’s rest was one end of the spectrum, today was the other, courtesy of ‘The Cedric Route!’

Departing from the traditional Travers-Sabine circuit and thus skipping the final section via Speargrass Hut, the Cedric Route is shorter, but steeper.  A 1300m, 6 hour ascent to Lake Angelus, the first half of which is a vertical ‘grunt’ through the beech forest.


Once breaking free of the treeline, the incline abates slightly and the reprieve is doubled by the reward of one of the most spectacular views we’ve seen thus far on the walk.  I’m not convinced I’d ever take on ‘Cedric’ again, but to sit amongst the button grass and gaze down on the full length of Lake Rotoroa and to the mountains and valleys beyond is something special.


Unfortunately Mother Nature draws the curtains on the visual splendour, with cloud and a sharp wind rolling in, forcing us to rug up against the cooler air.

The ridgeline to Lake Angelus is at times narrow and always rocky.  The only vegetation to be seen is the occasional cushion-like clump of Raoulia, or as the locals call it – ‘vegetable sheep’ – due to its sheep like appearance from a distance.  As we walk along the high exposed ridgeline we’re accompanied by dense cloud, limiting visibility to less than a hundred metres and robbing us of the view that lies mysteriously beyond.



Topping the ridge above Lake Angelus, the clouds lift.  From our high vantage point, spread out before us is the reason why Angelus Hut must be booked prior to arrival.  Angelus Hut is perched on the edge of beautiful Lake Angelus, with views of cliffs, deep valleys and high mountain ranges in every direction; it must surely be the envy of all the NZ huts!

And the icing on the Lake Angelus cake – is there is not a sand-fly to be found!




Day 7 Travers-Sabine Circuit

The 8km walk along Robert Ridge is just brilliant, on a cloud free day (as we had) and no foliage to inhibit the views, it is truly spectacular.  The views demand your attention from every direction, each photo opportunity seemingly better than the last.  It’s no surprise that many NZ locals were here also on a perfect summer Sunday.  Although in cold conditions, accompanied with gale force winds, one might not be so lavish in praising the view.









With glider pilots floating overhead, we enjoy lunch on the grass amongst the daisies near Mt Roberts.  It’s only with great reluctance (and in necessity to meet the shuttle bus back to Nelson) that we begin the steep descent to Mt Roberts carpark.

The sand-flies join in as we high five in recognition of a successful and awe-inspiring week that certainly exceeded my expectations, as it will yours.

For more photos, link to flickr page here:

A special thank you to Elena, Kathy, Terry, Anthony, Anne and Di for your awesome company, Elena for use of your photos and Marisa for your edit.

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