Mt Franklin, Nelson Lakes National Park

12-16 December 2019

Our trip nearly ended soon after it had begun. Fortunately, this was avoided by Gary’s hidden talents as a cobbler. This was the first of many challenges our party experienced during the four day tramp around Mt Franklin, Nelson Lakes National Park.

Bearing heavy packs, our party of four started up the Clarence Valley at 11:30am from the car park at Lake Tennyson. The midday sun danced on the lake’s surface, highlighting the lake’s exquisite turquoise colour. Immediately, our boots were wet, sidling three kilometres around the east side of the lake to the Clarence River. Once around the lake, travel was easy. We traversed tussock grasslands up the valley towards Clarence Pass. At our first rest stop, Gary noticed the sole on Jane’s left boot had separated from the boot. On closer inspection, he found the same thing had occurred on the right boot. After a discussion on our options, we agreed to continue up the valley to the bottom of the pass where we stopped to see if we could effect temporary repairs to the boot. Gary, skilfully using a Swiss army knife and a piece of cord, secured the soles to each boot. The repairs were successful and enabled the party to continue the planned trip. To our surprise the boots held together up and down scree slopes, rock scrambling, across snow and numerous river crossings, finally failing in the last hour of the trip on the traverse across soggy soft plains!

Our original plan for the first day was to climb over Clarence Pass and camp by the eastern branch of the Sabine River. Due to the unexpected delays, the lateness of the day and the distance remaining we decided to camp in a basin just below the pass at 1600m. After a bit of a scout round, we found a partially sheltered and comfortable spot amongst boulders next to a stream. During the night wind gusts consistently battered the tents, and the pass and surrounding mountains were shrouded in cloud. Fortunately the weather cleared by morning. We commenced our day with a steep climb on boulder scree up 300m to the narrow and blustery Clarence Pass, which provided spectacular views of the Mt Franklin range. This was followed by a steep and quick descent to the Sabine River.

According to Sven’s guide book it was 3-4 hours of relatively easy travel down the Sabine River on the true left of the river to a track to the swing bridge on the Travers Saddle Track. Based on this information we planned to walk to Blue Lake hut and climb Mt Franklin the following day. The forest had a lot of thick undergrowth, which slowed our progress. We found it easier to cross back and forth over the river, and where possible follow old animal trails. Gary joked that this track has no ’t’ or capital ’T’. Raymond did a fantastic job over the course of the day safely navigating the party through the valley.

It was 6.30pm and drizzling when we finally arrived at the West Sabine Hut. To our surprise, the hut was full with a school group of 16-17 year old girls from Wellington plus a number of adults and Te Araroa trampers. The hut was warm, but noisy, so we promptly went outside and located a couple of tent sites near the hut. Later that evening Gary taught the girls ‘Zilch’ and henceforth their yells of delight reverberated around the hut.

We awoke to a chorus of birdsong and a beautiful clear day. Today’s route along a track with a capital ’T’ promised an easier day, however due to the recent heavy rains we experienced additional challenges on the route to Blue Lake Hut. Ten minutes from the West Sabine Hut the track had been washed away and once again we were navigating through forest. Then we encountered a large slip that was unstable, steep and exposed to a river that was still running high. Raymond and Gary cut steps in the scree to ensure a safe traverse and once through this section we found the track, in good repair from this point onwards.

Our party enjoyed lunch with a spectacular outlook on the rocks at the outfall of Blue Lake and savoured the experience of drinking the crystal clear and cold water from the lake – a novelty to this Australian!! .

After lunch we climbed up the moraine at the end of Lake Constance. The Waiau Pass track climbs high up a scree slope on the western side of the lake, and then sidles round to a knoll where it descends to the lake shore with a short sidle along to the valley.

Numerous Te Araroa trampers had overtaken us at the beginning of the descent. We were amused to see a young woman, from the Czech Republic, who carried a guitar on the back of her pack. We were told later by other people that she carries the instrument but she can’t play it! The Te Araroa walkers set up a small tent village by the lake shore. It was crowded and exposed to the wind so we continued onwards up the valley and camped by the stream near the base of the pass.

Frost followed a cold and clear night. Raymond forgot to put his socks inside the vestibule had the double pleasure that morning putting on frozen socks and wet boots. The brisk temperatures had our party keen to climb the first steep 300m section, of our 500m climb to the pass, up towards the warm morning sunshine. A few frozen snow banks on the southern side of the pass required some step cutting in-between steeper sections of rock scrambling. The Aussie in the party started a snowball fight and tramping was momentarily paused as snow and laughter filled the air.

We followed a good track on the true left of the river down to the upper forks, after which the track crosses to the true right of Waiau River and continues down the valley. There was no flood damage, and the track provided quick travel down the valley to Caroline Creek. We stopped briefly for a look at Caroline Creek Bivouac, before heading on for another hour to the new Waiau Hut. This small hut built in 2017, sleeps six people and was full - with eight Te Araroa trampers. The weather was deteriorating and the wind was picking up. We decided to carry on and find a sheltered camp site on the true left, a precaution in case river levels rose from overnight rain in the headwaters, A couple of kilometres downstream, below a large bend, we crossed the river and found a sheltered spot to camp among matagouri meadows. The neighbourhood was crowded with resident hares, mice and vociferous Canadian geese with goslings. The rain set in disturbing dinner and putting a dampener on any socialising on the final night of the trip.

Our exit from the Waiau Valley was over Maling Pass on a four wheel drive track. Below the pass, we left the road to avoid a long road walk and took a short cut to the lake across the soggy and diverse terraces and flats below Lake Tennyson. What appeared to look difficult proved to be easy going, soft under foot and pleasurable tramping for the last hour of our trip. Our final challenge was crossing the lake outlet to the waiting car. There was a sigh of relief as Raymond crossed with the water only to knee level.

Dropping packs, we laughed at Jane’s boot repairs giving out one hour from the end of the trip on the soft plains, talked about the constant challenges throughout the trip and our good fortune with the weather. Thank you Raymond for organising and leading the trip.

We were: Sonja Risa, Jane Liddle, Gary Huish, Raymond Ford (leader) (SR)

Figure 1. Sonja and Jane climbing up to Clarence Pass. Photo courtesy of Raymond Ford

Figure 2. Party on Clarence Pass. Mt Franklin in the distance. Photo courtesy of Raymond Ford

Figure 4. Lunch at the outlet of Blue Lake. Photo courtesy of Raymond Ford