Angelus Hut Hike- Nelson Lakes, New Zealand
Roland was quite pleasant in the mornings, the large rear window invited the sun in like a returning friend. The seats were a gift from the car camping gods, they could almost be classified as personal futons being that they folded to a near flat state- A luxury feature of the 1997 Toyota Levin that I graciously reveled in. With the windows cracked to exhale the moisture we could also receive the intimate morning melodies sung by one of the 196 species of winged friends that inhabit the island. Waking with the light I hadn’t the slightest inkling of what the day would bring. I was visiting my friend Kelcie who had just finished a term abroad and had planned out one last road trip before departing home, so I just hitched onto that wagon. My philosophy was that I didn’t want to see anything ahead of time, I did no research online, I was all about the rawness of the experience. So, all I was aware of was the cliff note statistics of the hike: that it was 12.2 km’s (which still didn’t mean a whole lot to me… I can barely gauge miles) and that there was about 1000 meters of elevation gain. It was going to be a solid day on the trail.
The vibes were high in the car as we ascended to the Mt. Robert carpark. Accompanying Kelcie and I was Karsyn one of Kelcie’s good friends she had met through the abroad program- She was great company with a heavenly singing voice. As we arrived I took notice to the bag of bricks I was going to haul across a mountain. This was only my second overnight hike in my life and I vastly over packed (per usual). This indiscretion would give me a not so lovely back adjustment over the course of the hike… We said our goodbyes to our pal Roland and started up the trail.
The first section was alpine wooded switchbacks. We absolutely crushed this section- as I’ve noted in previous field notes I’m not in the switchback fan club so we made sure to make short work of them. The last leg of the switchback emerges from the alpine forest to grant some lovely vistas over Nelson Lakes. Great spot to catch your breath and snap some pics.
The second section was through alpine grassland and was a mix of switchbacks and straight sections. The panoramic beauty was slowly starting to emerge like a tulip unfurls. The mountain range on the left and the valley to the right really started to reveal their grandeur as this section progressed. Then the grass turned to rock as we made our final approach to the ridgeline.
Then boom, we crested the climb plunging into the beauty of Nelson Lakes. It was the most immense landscape I had ever seen. Towering mountains and ridge lines to the left and the vast plains of the northern South Island (put that on an envelope). I can’t do reasonable justice with adjectives and metaphors- the photos say eons more than what I can muster (look for the girls in the photos for a comparison to the immenseness). We took a decent break at this point, snapping heaps of photos and I took the opportunity to dive into my ration of trail mix- the backpacker’s rocket fuel.
The trail from this point on was kind of like an eye spy rock scramble. We scoped the horizon for the markers of orange plastic mounted on stakes. It was pure improvisation in between- I was all about this. If you’re new to my page it should be noted that rock scrambles are my spirit animal. Especially the rock scrambles that require your full attention to avoid a life or death coin toss mistake. This was one of those hikes; you’d look off the side and be fully aware that falling would score you a helicopter ride that you probably wouldn’t remember. It was this way for the majority of the ridgeline section with sporadic sections that would be more forgiving. These were nice places to catch your breath and get your wits for the upcoming challenges. This is probably a good time to mention that Karsyn wasn’t super keen on risking personal well-being; knowing this Kelcie had told both of us that todays venture was listed as a moderate hike- only revealing that it was listed as strenuous as we were searching for foot and handholds.
I absolutely love the photos from this section. As with any photo they only portray morsels of incline, but there are a couple where you can see that it’s pretty much a cliff and I dig that. There were also a couple sketch snow sections that I thought were awesome. We navigated these sections in December (late spring/early NZ Summer), I can’t imagine the folks that venture through the off season and early spring.
The ridgeline maintains a pretty consistent altitude throughout with only minor troughs and crests. One of the larger crests being towards the very end of the ridgeline hike. We kept expecting to see the hut upon reaching the top only to find more ridgeline to traverse. The knots in my shoulder were my miniscule admission for the grandeur that surrounded us along that stretch of land.
The last couple of altitude climbs had snow coverage so that made things a bit interesting with no crampons; but patience and persistence wins most battles. After a nice crispy ascent, we got our first glimpse of the hut. The hut was suppled in the hands of a panoramic alpine lake depression. Being chilled and tired we bee lined for the hut for some downtime before we explored the surrounding area. I couldn’t have imagined the view that shared the dinner table with us. Kelcie warmed up some hot chocolate (she didn’t have any to share 🙁 ) I think I heated up a packet of rice. There were quite a few hikers already at the hut so the atmosphere was adventure chatter and tin mugs. Funny story, this was the first trip I used my dads film camera on and it showed. I opened the back and ruined my first roll trying to rewind the film after some sweet shots of a hot springs river, bummer. But there were tons of film age individuals around so I sat down at a table while a nice man showed me the ropes of film photography. It was kind of overcast towards the end of our hike but cleared off within an hour of arriving at the hut. Just in time to enjoy one of the best sunsets of my life. I went out and scrambled around a bit to shoot some photos. It was a lovely evening.
Being that my bag was loaded to the brim with photo equipment I made the point to make good use of it. I didn’t know this before I got there but New Zealand is a bird island and has essentially no predators. I am usually a little hesitant to do astrophotography solo missions in big cat and bear country, paranoia is a noisy neighbor. So, hearing that I got astrophotography dreams. This was my chance, I was surrounded by beauty and I got lucky as the skies had pretty much cleared up by sunset and blue hour. I readied my stuff and hung out with the girls until they called it for the night then I headed out to snap some nectar. The lucid solitude of the New Zealand night was euphoric. I had a great time shooting. It was only when I had gotten back to the states that I realized I had my exposure compensation set to underexpose three stops. HIGHLY disappointing but I enjoyed the night for what it was. I got a few usable images but man I totally missed out on that one; the milky way was visible to the naked eye. I’d never seen it that crisp, the closest I had gotten was the boonies of Montana on a new moon but even that couldn’t touch what I witnessed that night. Oh well, live and learn, I will never shoot astro without checking my exposure comp again (learn from my mistake).
I headed for the (28 bunk) hut stumbled into the top bunk trying not to wake any of the exhausted hikers only to stumble down in a mere 4 hours. Might as well shoot sunrise right?! Yeah that’s what I thought too; Kelcie had agreed to join my morning expedition at dinner but there was no success rousing her out of her slumber come time to go. Solo mission number two. I scrambled up in the direction we came in. I spitballed the eastward direction, ended up panning out with a few minor tweaks as the sun broke the horizon. I saw a waterfall in the distance that I thought was manageable to explore so I worked my way to that and enjoyed its splendor. I found Kelcie shooting some photos around the hut when I returned. I actually think she got better photos sleeping in and sticking close to the hut… you can’t win them all. We then enjoyed breakfast and packed up early to make our descent back to the car park.
We didn’t know it as we departed the hut but the three of us would get free ice baths by the time we reached the car. We took a different route down, I’m not 100% sure but I believe it was the speargrass track. The top was lush grassland with a pretty solid grade with consistent waterfalls on the right side (soon to be our bath water). This section lasted a couple km’s maybe 2ish again don’t quote me on it. As we descended in elevation it started to flatten out. This is where the river crossing sections came into play. They were basically natures hop scotch except instead of pavement it was slippery potentially loose rocks. We would sit on the bank planning our routes, each rock was Russian roulette, they could easily be loosely propped up ready for a prankster’s sabotage. We quickly learned that commitment was key. If we didn’t depart with conviction in our plan we would hesitate on a rock until our bath was ready. Kelcie was the first to take the plunge and pretty much got a full on bath. I was next, pausing on a rock gravity gave me a hug from behind. My bag through me off balance and pop goes the weasel. Kaysn was last and also the most unfortunate. She had been pumping some jams out of her phone located in the hip pocket of her bag. The rock way troll took it as a toll. Cold water doesn’t bother me much and since I was already wet I sifted around the creek/river to no success. I think this was Kaysn’s third phone during her time in New Zealand, real bummer. We took the moment to take a break and have a couple pb&j sandwiches.
I was pretty exhausted by this point so the rest of the hike is a bit hazy. Fun fact, your brain struggles to “write” memories when you are exhausted, it may also write false memories so get your sleep kids. But yeah it was more jungle/ forest scenery at the bottom. It was in a flood plain so it was pretty soggy as well. I also remember a bunch of really cool tree root natural ladders that were along the trail. There was also a section where the creek became a full-on river, so we ditched our pants and waded carefully through the fast moving water. Yeah unfortunately it’s pretty blurry other than that. One of those hikes where I appreciated my surroundings but also couldn’t wait to see my good pal Roland. Overall this was the best and most scenic hike of my life and if you are New Zealand I would definitely put it on your radar (book the hut online beforehand if you do). Peace and Love fam!