Saturday, January 30, 2010

Nelson Lakes National Park

“I’m givin’ it to ya!”

Mick the Brit with a kayak school in Murch for six months and a house in Teton Valley for the other six, smiled, holding his hands together, palms up.

“The Sabine River. Up in Nelson Lakes. It looks like a beautiful kayakin’ river. Lotsa Class III, a spot or two of IV and the rest Class II. I looked at just two weeks ago with my family on a tramping trip there. It's never been done.”

Nelson Lakes National Park is a smallish park, long and thin, straddling the north end of the Southern Alps. The Buller River valley separates it from the bigger more tropical Kaharungi National Park where the mighty Karamea River flows.

But in many ways I found the Nelson Lakes to be quintessential New Zealand, with big lakes, blue, snow-melt streams, steep craggy mountains whose bases were draped in southern beech forests. It differed from Chile’s beech forests in that here the tree trunks are black from a mold feeding on the exudates of a native scale insect living in the bark. The female scale insect drips honeydew from an inch long projection. This sweet drop attracts non-native yellow-jackets; the whole forest sounds a buzz with them.

After the Mukihinui mission, Allan and Rob dropped me at the Murchison Riverside Campground where I met Erik Tomsen, a graduate student in Auckland University’s Geography Department. Erik’s from Eagle River and he just graduated fromWest Point last May. Erik stands six foot four and weighs 200 pounds and is strong and fast on his feet as all that muscle would suggest.

He’d come to NZ with his Alpacka raft but finding no one willing to paddle with him, decided to join the Auckland University Canoe Club. To get a kayak he worked at the Bliss-stick kayak factory on the North Island in their “Ambassador Program” where foreigners work for a cheap boat (NZ$500) to take back to their home country and spread the word.

By the time I’d met him he’d made nearly thirty runs since before Christmas. He was primed and ready to go, especially eager to get away from the road and use packrafts as they were designed: walk-in, float-out.

And he was intrigued by the thigh strap idea after feeling the snugness of the hardshell kayak.

I suggested we walk in and do the Sabine.

We could do it as a three day trip, driving southeast out of Murch on the Mangles Road about 10 miles to the Tutaki junction. Hiking into the Park via the Tiraumea Valley we could see if that stream was packraftable, maybe return to the car by floating out, after doing a circuit up the D’Urville and down the Sabine.

But once we’d slogged the 27 km into the D’Urville we realized that there was no way the Tirumea would be worth our return. Similarly, our plans changed when we saw the inviting Class II and III waters of the D’Urville, something of a local Kiwi classic packraft trip. We also balked at the thousand meter climb out of the D’Urville.

Our new plan was to stay at the Morgan Hut, leaving our camping gear and food there while we hiked up to the George Lyon Hut, dressing and inflating our rafts there sheltered from the sandflies.

The plan went beautifully, although by portaging what looked to be a rock tunnel about 45 minutes downstream of the Georg Lyon Hut, we missed some good Class IV water too. The D’Urville was a little scrapey in places, especially for big ole’ Erik, who sometimes seemd like a rock magnet, but a classic traveling run.

After the a three hour hike and two hour float back to our stuff at the Morgan Hut, we continued down more splashy water to Lake Rotoroa. Here we paddled a mile over to the big 32 person Sabine Hut. It was more than half full with hikers doing the popular Travers-Sabine-Speargrass Circuit. It also had a radio to a water taxi.

We made arrangements to have the water Taxi pick us up on the morning of our fourth day, even though we only brought food for three. We spent our third day hiking up the wonderfully scenic Sabine River Trail, a much tighter valley than the D’Urville with a steeper, higher volume river. It looked well spiced with Class III and even Class IV rapids. One section of big boulders and tight drops looked especially appealing.

As usual hiking u and rafting down the same river valley in New Zealand are two entirely different, but complementary experiences. Unfortunately, I had little battery remaining on my camera, so missed filming the best rapids (a 5 move series of drops including sticky holes, 4 foot boulder boofs, a narrow passage past stick-jammed sieves, and a final 3 foot log drop) and the wild portage around the final Class V-looking 500 m long gorge (also at the 500 m contour) through forests toppled by heavy snows of two Augusts ago. Back in below the gorge we paddled to the lake and the Hut.

The next day we took the water taxi out (20 minutes, $NZ 40/pax), as we had no food and didn’t fancy slogging through all the tree fall out around Rotoroa Lake.

Nelson Parks snow-capped crags, aqua-blue waters, and open beech forests seemed quintessentially Kiwi wild, with no cows, sheep, roads, or 4x4s. It feels remote and unspoiled and offers a wonderful packrafting experience of good waters, trails, and huts.

When we got back to Murchison I bought Mick a good bottle of Pinot in thanks for the gift of this first descent.

(Post Script: Apparently someone had called the water taxi operator earlier in the season about running the Sabine, but when she told them the water was high then they decided not to come. So this was a run that others had been watching.)


  1. Roman,

    I'm enjoying your blog and looking forward to using a Packraft for much mellower purposes (e.g., cross-Admiralty canoe route).

    Since visiting NZ in 1980 I've been pushing to get the Forest Service to change some of their public use cabins to the New Zealand shared hut system. Not an American thing to do has been the standard response for decades.

    Well, this year I got some encouragement from Tongass leadership. There is a big Alaska region (Tongass and Chugach) recreation strategy meeting coming up in Juneau February 23-25. If you get a chance and could share some info on your experiences with the shared cabins and how you think it would work in Alaska it would be fabulous. Any pictures inside huts would be great too. I got tantalizing glimpses on your video.

    Karla Hart
    Juneau, AK
    email alaskabirder at

  2. Thanks for the positive comments, and yes, Karla, SE Alaska would be perfect for the shared huts system. Same with Chugach. The mattresses offer me the only good sleep I seem to be getting down here.

    Is there going to be USFS strategy meeting elsewhere besides Juneau on this? Is there a way to comment, if not?

    I'll do more hut vids.


  3. I don't know of a meeting other than in Juneau. This is a regionwide meeting with FS and invited interests (though I know anyone is welcome). It is a three day event and cabins weren't really on the top of the list (probably still aren't), but I've been lobbying some FS folks and now have one strong ally from the Tongass leadership.

    We had a breakfast meeting yesterday between flights for FS folks and they had some creative ideas to make things happen. But none of the four I met had ever experienced a shared cabin and while supporting the concept, had personal reservations on Alaskans beinng ready for this.

    I'll check on input options from folks who can't be at the meeting.




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