Take Me Back to Nelson Lakes

If you've ever dreamt of visiting New Zealand's perfect, pristine mountains, chances are, you were probably dreaming of the Southern Alps, which run nearly the full length of the South Island. While Te Araroa doesn't venture up into the highest parts of this massive range, it traverses along the eastern edge starting in Nelson Lakes National Park.

From St. Arnaud, Jonathan and I have an easy stroll along the shores of Lake Rotoiti -- one of the two glacial lakes that give the park its name. It's sunny and breezy, and every so often the trail takes us close enough to the lakeshore that we can sneak out onto the beach for a glimpse of the stunning view up the valley. We walk together, chatting and enjoying our morning stroll.

Soft lakeside trail covered in tiny beech leaves  photo/ Jonathan 

Soft lakeside trail covered in tiny beech leaves

photo/ Jonathan 

Looking up Lake Rotoiti  photo/ Jonathan  

Looking up Lake Rotoiti

photo/ Jonathan  

At the end of the lake, we cross the inlet on a suspension bridge to begin a well-graded climb through the forest. We continue to follow the river upwards and find dozens of waterfalls cascading down toward the lake. 

Cascades spilling down toward the trail  photo/ Jonathan 

Cascades spilling down toward the trail

photo/ Jonathan 

Travers Falls, 65 ft  photo/ Jonathan 

Travers Falls, 65 ft

photo/ Jonathan 

Our hut for the night is located along a popular circuit through Nelson Lakes, so it's a big one with 24 bunks. Several groups have arrived before us and more thru-hikers wander in to join the lively conversation. A family arrives around 6pm with two small kids. The hut is already bustling and nearly full when a massive group shows up: 17 teenage girls with massive backpacks and three exhausted chaperones. Chaos ensues as the group scrambles to find some less-than-ideal tent sites around the full hut. We retreat to our bunk and listen to a podcast, one headphone each, as we fall asleep.

The alarm goes off at 5:30am the next morning, and we've got a long day ahead. We dress in the dark and try to be quiet as we repack our bags. Seven or eight of the teens are sleeping on the kitchen floor in the hut's only common area. Three or four other thru-hikers are the only other early risers and we make faces at each other as we creep around them. Though it's freezing cold outside, we're a bit relieved to be escaping.

The sun rises as we climb toward Upper Travers Saddle, our first pass for the day. The peaks all around us are tinged pink with alpenglow. On the saddle, the wind is whipping. I climb up on boulder and Jonathan snaps a picture, but we have to keep moving to stay warm.

Morning light near Upper Travers Saddle  photo/ Molly

Morning light near Upper Travers Saddle

photo/ Molly

Molly climbing around near Travers Peak  photo/ Jonathan  

Molly climbing around near Travers Peak

photo/ Jonathan  

This will be one of our longest days on the trail, climbing up and over two steep and exposed passes on rough terrain. We spend most of the day grinding through the forest, but the rewards are memorable. After a long, steep descent from the first pass, our second climb takes us past Blue Lake, where we stop for lunch.

Blue Lake is famous for being the clearest lake in the world. When you look down at the bottom, you get the uncanny feeling that you wouldn't know there was water there if it weren't rippling in the breeze. From farther away, the lake shows off improbable shades of aquamarine and leaf green.

An entire bag of potato chips later, we're off again, climbing up to Lake Constance (Blue Lake's larger cousin). The final ascent to Waiau Pass is an ultra-steep scree slope rising 1500 feet in half a mile. But the views back toward Lake Constance are absolutely magical and the far side of the pass does not disappoint. The down climb is slow going, first scrambling down through the rocks, then slipping through mud and tussock.

Looking back at Lake Constance from Waiau Pass.  photo/ Jonathan  

Looking back at Lake Constance from Waiau Pass.

photo/ Jonathan  

Molly looking epic AF  photo/ Jonathan

Molly looking epic AF

photo/ Jonathan

The view from the far side of Waiau Pass  photo/ Jonathan 

The view from the far side of Waiau Pass

photo/ Jonathan 

Toward the end of the day, the trail flattens out, but we spend the last few hours dodging roots and holes, then hopping over fields of softball-sized rocks. The hut is full when we arrive, but we squeeze into a corner to escape the ravenous hoard of sandflies while we cook dinner. By the time we're laying in the tent, we are so, so ready for sleep. 

The next section of trail is much flatter and our morning starts out smoothly. As we round a corner, though, we see a truck and a woman yells across the river, "Stop! Stop!" She shouts that we'll just have to wait; she's got a herd of wild horses and they're heading straight toward us.

"Wild horses?!"

We have no idea that there were wild horses in New Zealand at all, but we are about to get up close and personal. After sitting in the trail for a half hour, eating all of our snacks from boredom, we get another shout: "They're coming! Make noise!" We holler and wave our arms as thirty or forty horses thunder toward us, up the river. Maybe 100 feet away, they turn sharply up the bank and they're off. Stunned, we have nothing to do but wander up the trail.

"A pack of wild horses raging across this river 100 feet away was one of the most cinematic experiences of my life."  photo/ Jonathan  

"A pack of wild horses raging across this river 100 feet away was one of the most cinematic experiences of my life."

photo/ Jonathan  

The whole day feels surreal after that, helped along by some extremely strange weather. At one point, the sky glows an absolutely insane shade of blue: 

How is that blue patch of clouds even real?! Believe it or not, that color is not artificial.  photo/ Jonathan  

How is that blue patch of clouds even real?! Believe it or not, that color is not artificial.

photo/ Jonathan  

Later, the wind is so strong that we fight to stay upright. Here's Jonathan crawling his way across a suspension bridge swinging wildly back and forth with each gust:

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That night, we share a large hut with just one other hiker and finally have some peace and quiet. We sit next to the large windows and watch the cold rain outside.