Walk 10 - Angelus Circuit

Nelson Lakes National Park is an area of glaciated valleys and lakes and steep-sided mountains and ridges. There are numerous tracks and huts in the park and it is possible to do anything from a day walk to a week-long trek in this alpine environment. Given the weather predictions, we chose to do a three day circuit from St Arnaud, the small village servicing the park, which involved an easy stroll along the shores of Lake Rotoiti, a 1000m climb up to Lake Angelus, set in its beautiful glacial bowl, and a walk back along a narrow ridgeline, with superb views over the surrounding mountains and countryside beyond. This walk encapsulated the essence of this magnificent park and its varied alpine landscapes.

Day 1: St Arnaud to Lakehead Hut - a lakeside stroll

It was late morning when we set out from the "Yellow House" backpackers and followed the local track down through beech forest to the shores of Lake Rotoiti. Soon we were following the easy track around the beech-lined eastern shore of this large glacial lake; the cold westerly wind was already blowing at 50-60 km an hour and, with the sound of wind rushing through the canopy above and the splashing of wind-whipped waves against the pebbly shoreline, all other sounds were suppressed. It made it easy for the body to switch on to auto-pilot, allowing the mind to wander freely in "surge and purge" mode; surges of creative thoughts mixed with the purging of unwanted garbage stored too long in the mind. The fair Nello calls it day-dreaming - I prefer to think of it as meditation - it sure beats sitting cross-legged on a hard floor!

After a while I realised that I could hear bird-songs, running streams, the soft crunch of dry beech leaves underfoot, a soft ripple of water on the lake. Had I reached that quasi-zen state where the senses are heightened and the world around becomes intensely clear. Actually, we had just reached the narrower upper end of the lake and entered the lee of Mt Roberts on its opposite shore; the wind was now a gentle breeze and the lake waters a quiet rippling.

Beech forest near St Arnaud

Looking across Lake Rotoiti to the Travers Valley

Upper Lake Rotoiti and the Angelus Ridge

Lichen covered boulder field

Just as well that I returned to the real world, as the track was also becoming rockier and muddier in sections and required the full attention of the walker. Soon the grassy flat at the head of the lake appeared and, a few hundred metres back, in a pleasant setting, Lakehead Hut.

Grassy flats at the upper end of lake

Lakehead Hut

Travers delta marsh

The Travers River

Some more red-lichen boulders

It had been a short 8km walk, leaving us with the afternoon to laze about the hut, explore the grassy flats of the Travers River delta as it flowed into Lake Rotoiti, smell the alpine flowers dotting the terrain and lie in the dry straw, watching the breeze blowing down the long glacial Travers Valley rippled across the flats in an endless succession of grassy Mexican waves.

Day 2: Lakehead Hut to Angelus Hut - cold night with
the angels

The restful afternoon had been a good tonic and the steep slopes of the Angelus Ridge beckoned to as the rising sun gradually illuminated them the following morning. We were eager to get on and start the big climb, but first we needed to follow the Travers River upstream for another 4 km; initially in beech forest at the interface of the steep valley wall and the grassy flats, then crossing the open grasslands, through an area of muddy flat beech forest criss-crossed by small streams, before following the bank of the Travers once more to a swing bridge that brought us out to its western bank.

Once on the other side, we followed a more open path back down the Travers for a kilometre until we came across Hukere Stream and the junction of the Cascade Track, which would lead us up to Angelus Hut. Our climb was about to begin.


Early morning reflections

Crossing the Travers swingbridge

Hukere Stream

Take a jumble of knobbly, moss-covered rocks and gnarled roots, add a scattering of dry beech leaves below, a sparkling of sun-lit leaves above and the rumbling sound of water flowing down a rocky stream bed. Put it all on a steep slope and you have the Cascade Trail, as it climbed up the Angelus Ridge alongside the Hukere Stream, always within earshot, and occasionally overlooking the crystal clear water rushing down the narrow glacial valley to join up with the Travers River. Often the orange triangular markers nailed to trees provided the only indication of the track through this superb forest.

Suddenly we realised that the forest was silent - no sound of running water, just a dry stony stream bed beside us. The Hukere Stream had literally disappeared. Several hundred metres further on the mystery was solved - the soft sound of running water and small pools of water draining into the stony bed started to reappear - the Hukere was seeping down to flow underneath the gravel bed for several hundred metres before re-emerging. Soon the visible stream was back at full volume, rushing down its steep and stony course.

Rock-hop across the Hukere

Stairway Cascades
After the first steep climb, we crossed a flattish area of more open forest, where ferns replaced mosses as the preferred groundcover. The next section of track then climbed up past and through a magnificent set of cascades, tumbling and foaming their way over moss-covered rocks.

Lunchspot Flat and end wall of the valley

Hukere spa pool

To our left a thin stream of water plunged for over 100m down the side of the enclosing bluff. To our right a scree slope encroached on the valley, just before the track opened out on to a grassy flat. It was an excellent place to stop for lunch - the end of the valley was now in sight and we could contemplate the next stage of our path up the steep face of the bluff to the hut. The dense clouds that had hovered over the mountain tops all day seemed to be slowly lowering - beautiful as it was, it was not the time to linger.

Arched bridge at Japanese Gardens Cascade

However, the Hukere Stream had not yet revealed all its splendour and the next climb took us past a second series of spectacular cascades, the icy waters tumbling from rockpool to rockpool in a series of mini-waterfalls and rapids.

Mossy Rapids

Looking back down the scree-sloped valley

Soon, the sight of a second grassy flat greeted us and behind it the line of poles marking the route up the bluff. We had climbed almost 600m in 6km since joining the Cascade Track, leaving less than a kilometre to climb the last 400m up to Angelus Hut. Zigzagging up a rocky path, we rock-hopped over the base of one of several waterfalls plunging down the face of the bluff and scrambled up a scree slope to reach the first of several snow drifts.

Top grass flat

Looking down at the start of the final climb

Waterfalls pouring off the Angelus bowl

Rocky path across the face
of a waterfall

Nello engaging the big drift

By now, an icy wind was whipping over the ridge line and we zipped back the long legs onto our walking shorts, donned fleeces and pushed on - soon to be greeted by the curious spectacle of a waterfall disappearing into a snow cave at the top of a deep drift. The clouds were only just above our heads as we crested the final ridge, but Lake Angelus and its sturdy hut were only a few hundred metres further on and we soon had the coal stove fired up.

Cloud descending rapidly over Lake Angelus

Waterfall disappearing into snow cave

Good company and good cake


Within fifteen minutes of arriving, we were in white out conditions - out of the mists, Nello, Tim the Englishman and I were joined by John and Maud, a Belgian firefighting couple, who had followed us up the Cascade Trail, and Aussie girls, Justine and Sarah, who came in via Roberts Ridge. By 5pm, the wind was whipping mist plumes past the windows and the temperature had dropped to 0ºC, but inside our hut the atmosphere was convivially warm, as we shared tales of our walks and chocolate cake (dankuwel Maud).

That night, everyone went to bed with the collective hope of improved conditions in the morning, and the gale-force gusts rattled the walls of Angelus Hut. It would be a cold night with the angels.

Day 3: Angelus Hut to St Arnaud - along
an alpine ridge

Call it the power of collective thought, call it the swifter than expected passage of frontal system, but when we rubbed off the condensation and looked out the windows next morning, the sun was peaking through the lifting clouds and the wind had died down considerably. Lake Angelus lay there in all its alpine splendour, surrounded by the brilliant snow-clad walls of its glacial bowl; the perfect way to raise all our spirits for the return to St Arnaud.


Good morning to all at Angelus Hut

Morning cloud lifting from Hinapouri Tarn

Lake Angelus from the west

Hukere Stream plunging off the edge after flowing out of Lake Angelus

After a hearty breakfast and a brief explore of the lake area and neighbouring Hinapouri Tarn, we headed off for our return, beanied, gloved, gaitered and goretexed to keep out the wind and snow.

The correctly equipped alpine tramper

Heading off once again

A last look at the Angelus Basin

From the hut, we backtracked to the junction with the Cascade Track and then headed upwards, climbing 170m up a steep rocky spur on the eastern side of Lake Angelus.

Robert Ridge silhouette
Allowing one last long look down at this marvellous lake, we dropped off the spur, down a long snowdrift, and on to a saddle separating the Speargrass Creek Valley to the left and tarn-filled Fourth Basin to the right, before climbing once more across a rubbly scree slope to the Robert Ridge.

From here, we commenced an undulating and meandering trek along the razorback rocky ridge, part in snow, part on scree, part edging away around rocky outcrops on narrow paths, the promise of a long sweeping slide down the snow drifts below to the basin floor encouraging us to make sure of each step.

View back to the Angelus Ridge

Crossing below the saddle

Climb up to Robert Ridge

The track along the razorback

All along the ridge, magnificent alpine panoramas opened out in all directions. Occasionally we passed clumps of cushion plants, which together with a few ragged tussock grasses and alpine daisies, were the only vegetation that had managed to colonise this inhospitable terrain. This was a very special part of the walk.

One of many jewel-like alpine tarns

Panorama of Fourth Basin -
0ur path the previous day was up the cleft valley at the rear of the basin


Crossing the scree slope below
Julius Summit

After reaching our high point of 1794 m, the ridge line became broader and the walking easier. The tarns and green grassy slopes of Fourth Basin had now been replaced by the tarns and green grassy slopes of Third Basin. Eventually we dropped off the ridgeline to traverse the scree and boulder slopes on the western side of Julius Summit, before climbing up and over the ridge once more. At this saddle, we had one last lingering look behind at our pathway - the clouds had finally lifted, revealing the snow-capped profile of 2075m high Mt Angelus.

Alpine skyline with Mt Angelus in the centre

The rim of Second Basin

The track now traversed the stony upper slopes of Second Basin in a long steady descent toward the abandoned infrastructure of Mt Robert skifield. The wind had by now begun to pick up strength again and we were glad to reach the shelter of a small wooden hut for a break. Our descent continued down the Pinchgut Track, named by the skiers who made the 600m climb up it to ski at Mt Robert each weekend - we admired their determination and understood why the field was abandoned in favour of a the newly created vehicle-accessible Rainbow Skifield nearby.

The abandoned Mt Robert skifield
As we descended, we passed through the beautiful alpine meadows of First Basin, dotted with clumps of flowering alpine herbs and cushion plants. The temperature increased as well and we gradually shed layers of clothing. A small grassy clearing on the edge of the Mt Robert provided an excellent place to have lunch and lie in the sun, taking in the glorious views eastward across Lake Rotoiti and down the Wairau Valley. Out to the north the Tasman Sea glistened in the sun beyond the Buller Valley and Nelson.

View of Lake Rotoiti and St Arnaud

Looking north from Mt Robert

Final descent through the beech forest

Eventually we forced ourselves to continue on a steep zig-zagging descent, first through a forest of zebra-striped beech and then on the grassy lip at the forest edge, until we reached the Mt Robert carpark. For many the walk ends here, but we had left our car at the Yellow House in St Arnaud. The remaining 6km of the trip were therefore somewhat anticlimactic, as we strolled down the gravel road from the carpark to the West Basin of Lake Rotoiti, before crossing the peninsula to Kerr Bay and St Arnaud, where a nice cold beer was waiting for us at the local bar.

Looking back across Lake Rotoiti to Mt Robert

If you want to experience the impressive scenery of Nelson Lakes National Park and don't have time to do a trek deep into the park, this walk may be well what you are looking for. It offers beech forest, lake shores, river flats, mountain rivers, streams and superb cascades, scree slopes. beautiful tarns, rugged stony ridges, alpine meadows and magnificent alpine skylines and vistas over the distant lowlands. Of all the walks we have done, it probably is the one that packs most into its 39 km distance and, with the physical effort needed for the hard climbs, is immensely satisfying to have done.