Midway through 2019 my life changed significantly with the birth of our first child Lena. Up until then Chris and I had spent the majority of our spare time finding adventures in the mountains, preferably long, rough and challenging ones. Everybody told us it would be much more difficult (getting into the outdoors and life in general!) with a wee one in tow…. And I wholeheartedly agree!
However, with Lena reaching 6 months and feeling slightly more robust than the tiny delicate newborn that had greeted us in June, we got inspired to attempt a multi-day tramp. We had the added motivation that my parents would be based up at Blue Lake in Nelson Lakes National Park in the warden’s quarters doing a week long volunteering stint. This gave us a goal and seemed like a fun plan.
We had decided in advance that we wouldn’t even contemplate the trip without a stellar weather forecast. Two days out and a row of no fewer than seven consecutive suns beamed out at us from the forecast charts of yr. We had no excuses, it was time to pack. Chris wasn’t so happy about the fact that over the course of the tramp his pack was going to get gradually heavier with dirty nappies rather than the usual lightening pack as the food decreased. We thought about reusables… but some things just had to enter the too hard basket.
We booked a water taxi for Lake Rotoroa for the following day at 5pm. After a mad frenzy of shopping, packing, getting hut passes and attending to our little attention demanding cutie we finally departed Christchurch. Even car travel seems daunting with a little one sometimes, so we were pleased to pull up at the shores of Lake Rotoroa at 5pm relatively unscathed. The sandflies were out in force and Lena promptly sustained about 10 bites to the forehead as she lounged around on the grass. We were hoping this might encourage early life long resistance!
The water taxi lady met us at the jetty as we finished ramming everything into our packs…making last minute decisions about which were the most entertaining toys to bring along…times have changed!!
Sitting on the boat and zooming across the lake, with little Lena perched on Chris’ lap felt wonderful. For a moment I was able to bask in the moment and reminisce about racing across this lake with the girls in the GodZone event up here paddling incredibly slow inflatables in the dark. It felt so good to be heading into the hills on an adventure.
Sabine hut at the end of the lake was thankfully very quiet. We did plan to camp to avoid the stress of a crying baby keeping everyone awake in the hut, but there were a lot of wasps and sandflies around so it would make things easier to stay indoors. We took Lena for a swim in the beautifully warm lake and then settled her in the bunkroom. All the occupants had kindly shifted to the other room so we had it to ourselves.
I woke to a rustling sound at about 2am. I shone my torch towards Lena and saw a small baby up on all fours down the end of the bunk – wide awake! About 2 hours of resettling and she finally went back to sleep and so did we… until we looked at our watch and saw that it was 9.30 in the morning!
We were hoping to make it all the way to Blue Lake hut in the upper Sabine valley in one day, which we knew would be a pretty big push even with an early start. The fastest Doc estimates are 5 hours to West Sabine hut and another 4 to Blue Lake. We had also heard there had been a large slip in the upper Sabine which had washed out a section of trail making the going even slower.
Always the optimist, Chris thought we would be fine…which we normally would be without a baby along for the ride! We set off at a brisk pace. I had Lena in the front pack, and Chris had everything else, i.e. a gigantic pack. He claimed it was lighter than normal (not having packrafts, skis, climbing gear etc). Superhuman.
The track was lovely walking through open beech forest with the babbling Sabine flowing alongside. The sun trickled through the trees and Lena happily joggled along with me, pretty relaxed about the whole thing. We kept going until she went to sleep facing forwards in my front pack. Then we walked even faster until she woke up.
There was no time for stopping until Lena demanded it; time was of the essence. She started to wriggle and wanted to be released from her confinement, squished to my front after nearly three hours’ walking. We had lunch by the river and Lena enjoyed squirming around and taking a dip in the icy water, as did we. I felt tired and a bit out of practice at tramping, and Chris estimated we were about halfway to West Sabine – this was going to be a long day! It seemed unlikely we would ever make it to Blue Lake Hut today.
At about 4pm we spotted the bridge that crossed the river and led to the West Sabine hut. We definitely needed a break, whatever we decided to do from here. There were lots of people at the hut and they all exclaimed when they saw Lena. It was nice to hear everyone being so positive about it though – “start ‘em young” was the vibe. I had wondered how people might react to seeing a baby out in the wilderness and it was reassuring to hear their positivity.
After a couple of hours rest and another chilly dip in the Sabine we decided we would continue on up towards Blue Lake even if we ended up camping en route. From talking to several people at the hut we had learned that the recent slip between West Sabine and Blue Lake meant significant bush bashing sections, or a possibly faster option of staying in the riverbed and scrabbling around the base of the slip.
Lena fell asleep again so we stepped up the pace… I felt a bit as though I was racing…except for the precious wee lump on my front I had to be so mindful of. Evidence of a huge flood soon became apparent as we walked through a forest full of shingle, with the river crashing down directly amongst green trees. A cairn showed the way up into the bush, but we stuck in the riverbed and were soon scrambling around the base of towering cliffs of loose rock. One particularly steep section really got my heart racing, but Chris helped me out and before long we were back on track and heading up towards the bushline.
Lena woke up as the sun set and so we flipped her around in the front pack and dressed her up a bit more warmly. It felt quite wild being out so late with her, but Blue Lake was now only 20 minutes away and we decided we could make it.
The last section of track to Blue Lake is magic. You climb up through stunted goblin- like beech forest with the crystal clear stream cascading down alongside you and towering peaks on either side. Other than a few wee moans Lena was doing really well even though she was knackered. We hadn’t really looked after ourselves though, and were both running pretty low on energy. I glanced at my watch and realised we had cracked out West Sabine to Blue Lake in 2.5 hours!
I ‘cooeed’’ as we approached the hut and headed up to the warden’s quarters… it’s fair to say Mum and Dad were amazed to see us. Not to mention horrified at the size of Chris’s pack and the realisation of what we had achieved. We left little Lena happily cuddling in with her Grandparents while we popped down to the creek that drains Blue Lake for a rinse in the ice cold water. It was nearly dark, but it felt so good to put on warm dry clothes. We grinned at each other as we pitched our tent on the wee designated campsite below the Warden’s Quarters – we were stoked to have got to this beautiful place with our baby!
The next morning dawned still and clear. All the Te Araroa walkers who come through here had long since departed the hut, so we had the place to ourselves. We made pancakes on the hut verandah and soaked in the views.The intense colours of Blue Lake were at their incredible best. Lena was happy exploring the new surroundings and being the centre of attention.
In the afternoon we walked up to Lake Constance, and of course did some more skinny dipping. Chris headed off on a run up to Waiau Pass and then over to Lake Thompson Saddle. I would love to have joined him for part of it, but we couldn’t figure out logistics so I headed back down with Mum and Dad.
Chris arrived back from his run exactly four hours after leaving us, an impressive feat given this is exactly how long he estimated he would take him. Chris is always optimistic about times, but when he has no mere mortals slowing him down he seems to be a bit more accurate!
That night was pretty chilly in the tent and it was really hard to keep Lena warm enough. She resists having anything over her arms and upper body and her hat kept falling off. We had her in a sleeping sack, but it didn’t have arms and was only synthetic. I have yet to find a good sleeping bag for her as you have to be so careful to make sure she is not going to suffocate in the non breathable sleeping bag fabric. I have seen bags with arms and little cuffs you can pull over her hands like mittens and that is now on my list to track down.
As we packed up the next morning we all felt quite sad to be leaving this mountain paradise. We had had a magical time there and we weren’t keen to head back down to the busy, sandfly infested valley. My parents had heard that there was a big rowdy party of students at the West Sabine hut and someone had even claimed the warden’s quarters for that night. They weren’t looking forward to dealing with that either!
The descent down valley was stunning, back past the rushing creek and shimmering tarns. But of course my desire for the higher mountains had been piqued, so I was rather gloomy heading down. Nothing a fresh naked swim in the river doesn’t help though.
It turned out the rumours were a bit dramatic. The hut was full, but everyone was polite and friendly and the mix up with the warden’s quarters was quickly resolved. We located a pleasant spot to pitch our tent in the shady beech forest away from the crowds. Chris lit a fire and cooked up some impressive damper to fill our bellies in the dark that night.
The walk down valley the following day felt very long and we wondered how we had made such quick time on day one. The track was quieter again as this section is not part of the Te Araroa trail. Lena enjoyed watching the leaves and branches that brushed past, or sucking the end of my walking poles or clutching a fern. She was tired, but happy.
That night the Sabine hut was busy again so Chris and I opted to tent. After four long days walking with Lena we were happy to have made it safely back to Lake Rotoroa. It was definitely an extra stress having her along for the journey, even though it had been a success. In the morning Lena fell into a deep relaxed slumber in the quiet hut under the watch of her Grandparents… So we snuck out for a high speed run up the ridgeline towards Lake Angelus (for me) and all the way to Lake Angelus Hut and back for Chris – again, supernatural.
I turned around at a high point where I could see all the way up the Sabine River to Blue Lake. I belted back down through the forest enjoying the freedom of being able to move without Lena attached to me. The water taxi was coming at 1pm and Dad was nervous we wouldn’t get back in time. Fortunately Chris got his timings correct again and we got back to the Sabine hut just in time for a nibble and swim. The water taxi lady greeted us with a half smile and was pleased to hear we had made it to Blue Lake with a baby.
Back at the jetty on Lake Rotoroa we hugged goodbye to my parents who were headed back to St Arnaud for their DoC debrief, while we headed home via a stop in Murchison.
This had been a slightly different style tramping trip from our usual, but no less rewarding or challenging in its own way. It was very special to meet up with my Mum and Dad and share Lena’s first mountain adventure with them. Looking forward to our next adventure… Lena style!