The journey through my favourite mountain trails continues, closer to home now, on New Zealand’s South Island. But not among the usual roll calls of famous tramps.
6. Nelson Lakes to Lewis Pass, New Zealand
On New Zealand’s South Island there’s a wealth of famous walking trails: the Milford Track, Routeburn Track, Abel Tasman Coast Track, Heaphy Track. Then there’s Nelson Lakes National Park.
I’ve hiked the Milford, and I’ve hiked the Routeburn, but I preferred hiking through Nelson Lakes. This national park near the northern end of the Southern Alps gets little of the kudos showered over other Kiwi trails, but walk here and this oversight might puzzle you.
This particular hike has no set name, and rarely does it get written about. It simply exists on a map and through a series of interconnecting trails that head south from St Arnaud until you reach the hot pools atop Lewis Pass a week or so later, having covered around 10 percent of the South Island’s length.
The luminescence of Blue Lake
When I hiked here, so much was familiar from other South Island tramps: fjord-like bodies of water, mountains scarred with scree and rock, mischievous keas, even the sandflies. But on this hike we stood alone atop passes, camped free and wild, and simply let the lakes and valleys steer us south, wandering through mountain beech forests and across bouldery avalanche fields. We dashed up side passes in the evenings, and rarely knew where each day would end until it did.
Near the national park’s southern end, the luminescence of Blue Lake became the dark, forbidding hole of Lake Constance, with sharp-edged Waiau Pass – known to us as Vowel Pass – rising above. The bleak, muscular line of peaks, leaning out like a wave about to break over the valley, looked like mountaineering terrain but it yielded slowly.
Little more than a narrow ledge strung between peaks, Waiau Pass was as beautiful and harsh as anywhere I’ve hiked in the country. Below and ahead of us stretched purgatory: the Waiau Valley, a long, agricultural valley that’s the glue between Nelson Lakes National Park and the St James Walkway, New Zealand’s first long-distance walkway, along which we’d finish our hike through the ominously named Cannibal Gorge.
* The list ’til now:
10. Gokyo Ri (Nepal)
(For anybody who’s just stumbled into the room, here’s the premise I outlined at the beginning: “I’ve been thinking about past wanders, juggling mountains and footsteps in my head to find the 10 treks that stand out as the most memorable of my mountain experiences on foot. I’ve subsequently tried to rank the treks, which is a little like trying to choose your favourite child. Over coming weeks I’ll walk you through this list of 10. For me, it’ll be as much an excuse to relive fine and inspiring times in the mountains as an attempt to highlight some of the most beautiful places on the planet. My selections should all be read with the knowledge that they’re entirely subjective and limited. There are vast tracts of the planet, and entire mountain ranges, I’ve not seen or walked.”)
** Adventure before Avarice is also across at Stalkbook.