As a kiwi living in Brisbane one of the main things I miss about New Zealand is the mountains. Unfortunately nothing I’ve tried in Queensland and Northern New South Wales quite matches the rugged grandeur of New Zealand’s southern alps, so once a year I gather a small group of Australians, bring them across the Tasman and show them some real mountains.
For 2014 I decided to have a crack at a new take on a classic Nelson lakes tramp taking in the D’Urville, Matakitaki and Sabine valleys including visits to Lakes Ella, Thompson & Constance. While Lakes Thompson & Constance are world renowned and very often visited, Lake Ella receives little attention and I was hard pressed to find any records of previous visitors to the lake.
Our journey began late January 2014 with a casual stroll up the D’Urville valley after being dropped at the D’Urville hut by the Lake Rotoroa Water Taxi. We spent the night at the Morgan hut in the company of two well-travelled American fly fishermen who were great company with many a story to share. An approaching storm front in the morning necessitated a short walk to the George Lyon hut to sit out the weather for the afternoon allowing the storm to clear overnight as forecast.
From George Lyon hut our adventure proper got underway with a 4 hour bush bash on a steep climb to a hanging valley above the hut. We found that our intended route up a gentle spur before crossing the creek to be unrealistic due to steep ravine sides along the creek and we wasted some time trying to find a creek crossing when the best option was simply to keep heading up hill until we burst out into the hanging valley. Once above the bush line travel, became much easier with gentle tussock slopes leading to easy tight scree.
A boulder choked rock chute leads to a saddle at 1,900m on the shoulder of Mt Ella and the views just keep getting better the higher you climb. From the saddle our route dropped into a glacial remnant before another scree climb to cross to the Lake Ella basin.
Lake Ella is a superb alpine jewel that offers excellent sheltered camping amongst snow grass and adjacent a boulder field. It has been written that Lake Thompson offers the best alpine campsite in the Nelson Lakes National park, I beg to differ, Lake Ella is more spectacular, sheltered & superb in every way!
After a well-earned nights rest we climbed a boulder field to reach the 2,000m ridge above Lake Ella for amazing views down McKellar stream and across the Matakitaki. The views from up there simply take your breath away and easily eclipse those had from the Robert Ridge.
Our original intention had been to traverse the ridge to Mt Magdalene, however we found the ridge more suited to a fully equipped mountaineering expedition rather than our tramping party.
So after aborting our ridge assault with a white knuckle descent down a very steep loose rock chute, we sidled scree at around 1,800m before dropping to 1,600m and crossing two 1,900m high saddles to gain access to the westerly spur below Mt Magdalene. The spur led to our home for the night, a large tarn at 1,700m overlooking Downie Creek and the Matakitaki valley.
The tarn provides an excellent fine weather camp however, given it’s exposure to the south west and lack of shelter of any kind, would not be a suitable camp in poor weather.
The following morning provided fantastic views over Downie creek to the Matakitaki forks with morning mist suspending our campsite and turning mountains into islands thrusting from a sea of white.
After enjoying the spectacle provided we descended the Mt Magdalene spur to pick up the Downie creek track at around 1,000m. The spur below the bush line is tight with regrowth but offers reasonable travel to the determined tramper. The Downie creek track is somewhat overgrown and has a large amount of windfall slowing travel. Bees and wasps are a major issue in Downie creek and through to the Matakitaki forks with three of our party receiving multiple stings here.
After a quick lunch stop at the historic Downie hut we pushed on to the Matakitaki forks and around to the East Matakitaki hut. We found that where the track beneath the forks suffers from extensive windfall, above the forks it is remarkably good condition and you got to love the three wire bridge at the confluence!
A footpad now exists most of the way up the east Matakitaki to the bush line with only several short detours in the river required to make the upper valley. The East Matakitaki has long been one of my favourites with it’s easy travel and rugged grandeur.
After ascending a rock gut to a boulder filled basin we climbed scree to the D’Urville pass.
A quick detour on top of the pass up a nearby peak to gain a glimpse of the large tarn that is the source of the Matakitaki made me glad that I hadn’t tried to camp there as originally intended as it didn’t look that inviting as a camp spot.
From D’Urville pass we sidled around to Thompson pass taking a high level approach to drop into a rock gut that drops you above Lake Thompson on western slopes. This route is relatively easy as long as you don’t try to access Thompson Pass proper.
I had always wanted to camp at Lake Thompson but on every previous occasion I had visited the timing just wasn’t right. This time however, we managed to overnight at the lake and were treated
to another early morning show with morning mist advancing and retreating across the lake to showcase snow patched mountain reflections on a brilliant blue background. I couldn’t take enough photos and those images are something I’ll always treasure.
From Lake Thompson we dropped into the Upper Waiau before crossing the Waiau pass to Lake Constance.
Lake Constance didn’t disappoint with cloud formation highlighting the Franklin ridge and showcasing the beautiful lake. Lake Thompson & Blue Lake seem to get lower every time I visit and I hope we are not going to lose these treasures to changing weather.
Blue lake astounded with it’s clarity and beauty once again before we continued down to the West Sabine hut for our last night in paradise.
Saturday saw us amble down the Sabine to Lake Rotoroa where we were picked up by the Lake Rotoroa Water Taxi for the ride over the lake to complete our adventure.
This trip should only be attempted by experienced parties with a thorough knowledge of local conditions. The route as described utilises known alpine access routes over the Ella Range to link to the more popular East Matakitaki – Lake Rotoroa tramping route. Sound navigation skills are required for the off track travel where opportunities for misdirection frequently present themselves. Even the best of us can become disorientated in heavy regrowth on the Mt Magdalene spur and walk a complete circle before resorting to a compass bearing to reorientate travel! The route also involves several nights camped on the tops that in fine weather are superb but in foul weather would be exposed and unpleasant. The rewards, however for those fortunate enough to be able to gain access to the area are beyond words, An incredibly spectacular and dramatic landscape that cannot fail to awe & inspire.
I would like to thank my companions, Lindon, Kurt, Sam & John for their fine company & fortitude in our adventure.