Ella Range, Nelson Lakes National Park

8-11 March 2019

“They generally attack the fourth person in line”. Sonja was over from Australia, and had been regaling us with stories about snakes, leeches, ticks and March flies. We countered with tales of wasp attacks and sand- fly swarms, but our wasp warning sounded a bit feeble in response.

The NZ weather had already played its part with the 2018 Lake Unknown trip being rescheduled and still unknown in 2019, after an adverse southern forecast. Plans B and C were discussed before deciding on a traverse of the Ella Range between the D’Urville and Matakitaki Rivers. Lunch in Murchison was followed by packs on at the start of the Mole Track opposite Mataki Lodge. The first farm track section was accompanied by the sound of wasps in the trees. This diminished when we re-joined the river and found significant flood debris, few markers and a boulder bash up the middle. The marked track between two tributaries was a welcome sight and we gained height quickly to reach the delightful Mole Hut at 1200m. Realising that we had only completed half the height gain to the Mole Tops was a shock, and some weary bodies reached the top about 5pm to a fantastic vista of tarns and tussock.

Looking south along the Ella Range to Mt Ella. Photo courtesy of Raymond Ford

Clouds over Nelson Lakes delayed the sunrise, but our weather window treated us to much photographed tarn reflections. We could see people and tents in the next large basin, but we were intent on staying high on the ridge. Gradually the ridge narrowed and following it was not an option. We tried traversing high but finally dropped east to avoid rocky ramparts. Peak 1785 was bypassed before we regained the ridge towards the 1871m Mt Watson. Basin traverses became the theme as spires on the range finished in bluffs and the green rolling Mole Tops were a distant memory. It was still early when we reached the first of two large tarns under Peak 1916, but the cloud was lowering and camping seemed like a good idea. The onset of rain at 4pm dispelled any ideas of a swim. Sonja’s curry warmed us that night as Peter described, “it was even hot when it was cold”.

Raymond and Sonja climbing up from the second campsite. Photo courtesy of Gary Huish

Low cloud the next morning created some discussion over routes. Navigation though the increasingly jagged landscape in low visibility would not be easy and we were opposite an old track down to the Matakitaki Base Hut. Doug and Gary opted for caution and descent while Raymond and Sonja wanted to continue. It must have been Peter’s deciding vote or the clearing weather that tilted the decision, and we were off for more adventure. The peaks on the range ahead appeared and disappeared in the mist, but Mt Ella itself remained hidden. Dropping east or west into the basins and climbing up the other side proved easier than traversing. The decision not to climb the last 1.5km to Mt Ella was made and we crossed the last ridge before a long descent into the McKeller Stream. At last beech forest and greenery! The marked track was overgrown but reasonable. Finally easier going, then disaster. A wasp nest right on the track at about 1140m. Raymond and Doug passed without noticing, Sonja got through but Peter was fourth in line and was enveloped in an enraged swarm. He ran forward, Sonja was in the way and both were being stung. Gary bailed. Finally quiet resumed, antihistamine was administered and down we continued. The track faded as we reached the flatter areas. Regrowth obscured markers and foot trail got harder to follow. “Lost markers” became a common call, people searched left and right, then “found marker” and we continued. At last the Matakitaki river flats, camp, swim, dinner...and sandflies!

The last day down the Matakitaki River was an anti-climax to some extent. A total of 15km, 10km on track and 5km on road back to the car, taking just over three hours to mirror two days travel along the tops. Stopping meant feeding the sandflies so it was head down and out.

The trampers were: Raymond Ford, Doug Foster, Sonja Risa (leader), Peter Umbers and Gary Huish. (GH)