My body tingled with excitement and anticipation as I started up the trail, a tangle of roots and rocks forcing purposeful steps to stay upright. Despite my heightened awareness, just 15 minutes into the hike, while crossing the first of many boulder-filled avalanche chutes of the day, I rolled my ankle and pitched face first onto the trail, letting out an audible cry of surprise. My ankle was sore, as was my opposite knee, which I had knocked on a nearby rock. I sat for a few minutes, assessing whether I was truly injured and cursing my lack of ibuprofen. Luckily, the pain subsided fairly quickly, and I started once more up the trail, a bit slower this time.
My calves ached with each step, but that was just a physical reminder of yesterday’s 1200-meter climb and impossibly steep descent over Travers Saddle.
I thought of Alex climbing the steep, scree-covered trail to the Saddle in the opposite direction, realizing how glad I was to have that grueling day behind me. Our paths around the Travers-Sabine circuit, an 80+ km (50+ mile) loop trail in Nelson Lakes National Park, had crossed the night before at the West Sabine Hut, where Alex presented me with a bouquet of dried mosses and a feather in honor of Valentines Day (and I had bestowed our few remaining ibuprofen on him for his climb).
As I continued up the valley I heard the faint rush of water to my right. A double-tiered waterfall glinting in the morning sun was visible through a small peep hole in the bush. The trail continued in and out of the forest; the forest littered with giant boulders dislodged from their perches above the valley.
The rocks, most the size of cars, others the size of small houses, had been seamlessly incorporated into the forest by the trees whose roots now encircle them, reaching for the soil just below. Pools of water appear and disappear along the trail without warning, hidden springs plugged and unplugged by boulder stoppers.
As I exit the forest, I get my first view of the watershed laid out above me, towering gunmetal grey cliffs bookended every 1,000 feet by steep chutes covered in scree, evidence of the very active avalanche terrain, forewarned by signs along the trail. A second waterfall tumbles down the mountainside, a third further is visible in the distance at the head of a cirque next to a cave perched hundreds of feet above the valley floor.
Here the previously flat and calm creek became a torrent, crashing over boulders of all shapes and sizes that once resided hundreds or thousands of feet above.
And I see the steep rocky climb that awaits me ahead, the narrow trail clinging to the cliff-like shore of the churning creek below.
The creek tumbles down its white water path, bass thumping, rushing, falling, echoing off the valley walls.
I huff and sweat through the final ascent, the forest once again enveloping me, the creek now calmly meandering next to the trail. I arrive at my home for the night and drop my pack before walking the last short distance to the crowning jewel of Nelson Lakes National Park.
I am at a loss for words as I step onto the lake’s shore. I am struck first by its color, a brilliant blue-violet, ringed by neon green at its edge like a nuclear lifesaver.
It is this blue-violet color, described by an earnest hiker to his hydrologist friend, which brought about the surveys that ultimately concluded Blue Lake is the clearest freshwater lake in the world, with measured visibility of up to 250 feet.
Like the lower valley I have just traversed, the lake too is the result of perpetual and eruptive earth movement. The creek that feeds Blue Lake begins as multiple springs within a wall of landslide debris above, fed by an upper lake, Lake Constance. As the water drips through the half-mile of ancient landslides, all turbidity is filtered out so that the lake is essentially the clarity of distilled water.
I spent the day in awe. I sat on a rock near the lake outlet gazing at the brilliant colors just below the surface: burnt umber, muted gold, bright lime green, and every shade of blue imaginable.
A light breeze kissed my skin, ripples in the water obscuring the lake’s clarity for a few seconds before it came back into focus. I sat for a long time, observing the lake and the surrounding mountains, listening to the constant gurgle of the water as it began its descent down the valley. I felt a power in this place, one that I had not felt elsewhere in New Zealand. And I felt a sense of clarity and contentment as I sat on that rock, my face turned to the sun, its warmth washing over me, all of my senses acutely awake.
The afternoon faded, and it was time to meet my new hut mates, log in to the hut book, and claim a bunk. As I was perusing the information on the hut bulletin board, I noticed a list of recent whio or blue duck sightings on the lake. For weeks I had been searching for the rare, endemic bird on our many hikes, but with only 3000 remaining in the wild, I knew my chances of seeing one were slim. Most sightings on Blue Lake were in the evening, so at 6pm after finishing my gourmet mac and cheese dinner, I walked out to the lake to search for the ducks. No luck. Unfortunately, the sandflies were biting, so I went inside and returned at 7pm to check again. Bingo!
Two blue ducks were at the head of the lake, feeding in the swift water of the spring-fed creek. I watched them for several minutes, their huge feet allowing them to work in the fast-flowing water, the unique fleshy tip of their beak scraping the rocks for food. Eventually the sandflies began to swarm so I headed back to the hut.
Although typically my enjoyment of moments like these is intensified by sharing them with Alex, as a lone adventurer on this trip, I had decided I would keep my sighting to myself (other than to note it on the sightings list in the hut). But on the way back to the hut, I saw one of my hut-mates lying in the grass next to the lake gazing at the sky. I said hello and she responded that she liked the way the greens of the forest and grasses looked in the fading sunlight contrasted with the grey rock of the surrounding mountains. Her response surprised me in the best possible way, and I felt an immediate connection to her.
“If you’re interested, there is a pair of blue ducks feeding at the lake inlet,” I said. Her face immediately lit up. “Oh I looked for them on the Kepler track but didn’t see any. Thank you!” she replied. And she began collecting her things to go have a look. I knew immediately that the experience of seeing the ducks would be indelibly stamped in my memory to have shared my fortune with someone who also found joy in this beautiful world of ours.
Due to a terrible night’s sleep (the curse of the snorer in the hut), I got up earlier than I had planned. Before hiking out, I returned to the lake for one final look. Four blue ducks glided across the lake, reflected perfectly in the calm water. Two swam towards me chattering to each other as they skimmed the surface for breakfast.