Aesthetics and a southerly buster in the Nelson Lakes National Park


Sabine RiverI tramped up the trail to Blue Lake and though I'd never been on the track before, I passed scenes that seemed familiar.

The Sabine River tumbling down over boulders, mountains behind: I had a pleasant sense of something resolving into a preordained pattern. I'd seen this scene before, though whether as a painting or photograph I couldn't remember.

And maybe it was neither painting nor photograph. Just a resonance, triggered perhaps by a landscape that fulfilled some abstract interior template of beauty, of rightness.

The trail crossed a terrace. To my left, the Sabine River turned wide and shallow and babbled over a streambed of brown-algae pebbles. To my right lay a reflective pool. Chunks of black rock, sculptural in size, lay tumbled at the edge of the pool and beech trees grew between the rocks, bonsai height. A series of wooden bridges spanned the moist channels that drained the pool and the whole place was - shibui I thought, beautiful but cool too, like a Japanese garden.

Japanese garden

Been here before? No never. Sure feels like it. I went on into the dappled shade of the beech forest. Were these significant thoughts or was I engaging here in the same sort of ratiocination that boils through the mind of a sparrow when deciding which crotch of the tree to put its nest?

I went on up to Blue Lake hut. Stu Bennett arrived soon after. He'd stayed behind to clean Sabine Hut then had come up the track behind me, clearing windfalls, blocking divergent tracks.

"I tell people often about that. Walk through the mud puddles or you'll make the track 15 feet wide. Take your rubbish out with you. Enjoy the simplicity of tramping."

"And don't shit near waterways."

I restocked the hut with firewood, sawing off dead branches from standing trees. I came and went, and Stu was the proverbial white tornado. He cleaned the hut windows. The tables. The bench. The floors. Dumped all the ash out of the woodburner. Shook and aired the mattresses. He made a primitive plunger and went out to the loos, the worst job, packing it all down for the chopper.

Then we went and stared into the glassy depths of Blue Lake. I stripped and swam in the eye-popping cold. We explored down the lake's single outlet stream, puzzled as to how this meagre outflow could so suddenly become the spunky Sabine River just over the hill, then found the second lake outlet, a big clear jelly of water upwelling in the forest. Evening came on and the valley's rocky walls fell into shadow, but beyond the jagged edge, one summit still held the rosy light - Mt Franklin, highest peak in the Nelson Lakes National Park.

"Come up here and play," muttered Stu.

Night fell. We ate dehydrate and the last of the deliquescing mushrooms and yellowing broccoli from Stu's bag of vegetables. We brewed coffee, and went outside to look at the stars.

"Cinnamon and peach tea," said Stu. "Sometimes the huts are crowded and very lively. This Israeli guy came into West Sabine hut - he'd just done this mammoth walk up from St Arnaud - and he boiled the water and pressed upon everyone in the hut a glass of his special tea. It was - kind of - compulsory. We drank a toast - Shalom!

"I kept watching him. Some kiwi tramper was going off in my ear - DOC hasn't done this, DOC hasn't done that, rabbiting on, but I was hardly listening. The Israeli guy - you couldn't help be aware of him. He was hard as nails. Next morning he set off for Angelus, another big hike and I thought: He's looking for something, trying to find it in the next sunset.

"I went over Travers Saddle that day and met another Israeli. I mentioned this guy and the Israeli had met him and knew all about him. He is a major in the Israeli Army. He has seen some action. He has seen some things. He thought the guy had done some killing."

Stu was up first thing in the morning. He'd fixed the track, the hut, the loo, and now he was more or less getting the sunrise in order.

"I'm figuring today will be one of the better days," he called. "You'll love it. It's just full on."

"Hmmmnn." The last weather forecast had said good until Thursday. Today was Thursday.

We made some rapid decisions. I decided not to climb Franklin. The weather was starting to look doubtful, and I wanted to move on. Stu wouldn't climb Franklin either. He'd come over Waiau Pass with me, then loop back via Thompson Saddle to the D'Urville River valley, where he had three huts to check.

We climbed away from the pocket-sized Blue Lake to the serious Lake Constance, one valley higher up. The weather was starting to break, and we donned parkas, beanies and gloves, pushing through tussock and Spaniard high above the lake, then down a crumbling path to the lakeshore. Stu came up from behind, holding a rag he'd found.

"Is this yours mate?"

"Oh - thanks."

Snatching at it. Holding it tight. Tattered and torn. Almost lost. My lucky blue hanky. We went on, past the lake. Two ducks flew down the draw, and we came to a sign that pointed sideways into the steep scree: Waiau Pass.

We climbed into cloud. Sporadic waratahs marked the route for a time, but visibility was down to 50 metres or so, and we soon lost them. The southerly was blowing, with gusts strong enough to shift our entire bodies sideways on the slope. We soon lost all sense of a trail, and came finally to a dead halt against a vertical rock buttress. We crouched in the lee of it, consulting the map. If we followed the rock up, we'd hit the pass - and we did, hauling slowly up the final yards, slinging off the packs.

Waiau Pass was the highest point yet on Te Araroa's proposed route - 1,870 metres. In my mind's eye I was to have sat down here, to have eaten cheese and salami, to have gazed with deserving satisfaction around the top third or so of the South Island.

Not. It was mid-summer, cold, and strangely dark.

"This is just a brief southerly front. It'll clear," said Stu. "The view from here has to be epic, and all we have to do is wait."

I waited, hood up, back to the wind like a cattle beast, the southerly soughing in the crags. Stu was off exploring, finding a snow bank, and returning full of energetic optimism.

"It's a lot lighter now than 20 minutes ago. It's clearing - look at that!"

"Stu - I have to say I think it's getting worse."

"You said you're writing about the trail route. If you can't see the view, how're you going to describe the pass?"

Stu Bennet at Waiau Pass"When I come to write this bit, I'll just say Waiau Pass is considerably more beautiful than I have been able to describe. Let's get going."

We rock-hopped down the ridge on the far side, Stu calling back over his shoulder amidst the cold blast of the southerly and the streaming cloud:
"Everything condenses into one thing. Coming down the ridge and taking this all in. It's so good. It's so simple."

Then I found him stopped, one hand symbolically cupped.

"Listen! Insects."

A high glistening, right up there in the register where you can't quite tell if its tinnitus or small things rubbing their cuticles. Something other than ourselves - though we never saw quite what - lived and breathed on Waiau Pass.


Then we had to concentrate. The descent got steep. The iron waratahs drooped as if wilted by intense heat but in fact bent by winter snow avalanche. The ridge fell away, and I had a chance to see a South Island tramping tradition at work. After we'd followed one false ridge, and after we'd re-established the route by going back to the last waratah then searching out the next one 100s of metres away, Stu took time out to build a helpful cairn, intermediate between the two track markers.

CampsiteWe dropped under the cloud at last, then hit the bushline again and came on through low thickets of celery pine to a campsite beside the Waiau River. We lit a fire and cooked up a stew that absorbed the last of the sticky vegetables.

We talked some more around the fire. Stu Bennett had held down previous jobs at the Rugby Hall of Fame, and as a chauffeur at Sky City. He'd got the summer job as an honorary warden in Nelson Lakes National Park after a couple of years trying against fierce competition. When the holiday stint finished, he'd go back to Lincoln University where he was studying for a degree in Recreation Management in Parks.

In the morning we shook hands, and I off-loaded a bit of dehydrate.

"You'll have enough food? You'll be okay?"

"A bag on my back, and everything I want is here."

He went back to play in the tops, then to patrol down through the D'Urville Valley, and I went on down the Waiau Valley, headed directly south.