Ultimate Guide To Nelson Lakes National Park and Travers Sabine Track

I am obsessed with Nelson Lakes National Park in New Zealand.

I visited the park for the first time in 2006, having fallen in love after seeing Tom Gleisner and Rob Sitch fly fish the D’Urville River, at the western side of the park, in their famous fishing and travel doco, A River Somewhere.

On my first trip I had ambitions of hiking up the Sabine River, over Moss Pass, and then back down the D’Urville. This didn’t end up happening. I hiked the Travers Sabine instead. But I have no regrets as this remains the best hike I have ever done. In fact, I have now done it a couple of times.

I get asked a lot of questions about Nelson Lakes National Park and in particular the Travers Sabine, so I thought I’d pen a short Q&A sharing my experiences in the park.

How Long Does It Take To Hike The Travers Sabine?

The Department of Conservation suggest tramping it in 4-7 days. That translates to the following itinerary:

4 Days

Day 1 – St Arnaud to John Tait Hut

Day 2 – John Tait Hut to West Sabine Hut

Day 3 – West Sabine Hut to Sabine Hut

Day 4 – Sabine Hut to St Arnaud

This would be turned into a 5 day hike by adding a side trip up to Rotomairewhenua/Blue Lake.

7 Days

Day 1 – St Arnaud to Lakehead Hut

Day 2 – Lakehead Hut to Upper Travers Hut

Day 3 – Upper Travers Hut to West Sabine Hut

Day 4 – West Sabine Hut to Rotomairewhenua/Blue Lake

Day 5 – Rotomairewhenua/Blue Lake Hut to Sabine Hut

Day 6 – Sabine Hut to Angelus Hut

Day 7 – Angelus Hut to St Arnaud

The first time I did the Travers Sabine I did it as an 7 day hike, similar to the above itinerary. I ended up skipping Rotomairewhenua/Blue Lake Hut though and taking more time to hike the Travers River valley. For me, part of the joy of hiking is taking your time, looking up and out, and reading books in beautiful natural surrounds.

What Facilities Are There in St Arnaud?

St Arnaud is more a village than town, so don’t expect too much and expect the prices to be on the higher side. That said, there are several accomodation options and a couple of places to eat, and a small store/petrol station that stocks most essentials.

View from my room at the Travers Sabine Lodge across to Mt Robert.

Accomodation

St Arnaud has motel, backpacker, and bed and breakfast accomodation.

On the 3 trips I have made to the village, each time I have stayed at the Travers-Sabine Lodge which is on the main road. It provides shared and private backpacker accomodation in the main lodge, and there are units, cabins, and motel rooms out the back. I’ve always found the facilities to be super clean and comfortable and the staff really friendly and helpful. I remember the last time I stayed—my transport wouldn’t be picking me up until later in the afternoon and the weather was atrocious. The owners were kind enough to allow me to stay and use the facilities well into the afternoon even though I had checked out. Perfect opportunity to read books and do some washing.

It’s about a 5 minute walk from the store and restaurants, and about a 12 minute to the start of the Travers Sabine, and the shores of Lake Rotoiti.

The Alpine Lodge in the centre of the village offers more upmarket accomodation, as well as a backpackers, and a nice restaurant.

Shops

The general store/petrol station offers fuel, of course, as well as essential groceries and supplies. I wouldn’t recommend stocking up here—do that in Blenheim or Nelson—but if you forget something, you’re likely to find it in the store. They offer hot takeaway food and coffee too.

Meals

I’ve only eaten at the Alpine Lodge and recommend it. Your typical rural hotel restaurant fare and prices. Soups and breads and salads to start. And fish, lamb and veggies, steak, and burgers for mains.

They have a great local wine list and serve local NZ beers too. The perfect spot to end the hike with a hearty meal and a couple of drinks. Inevitably, you’ll meet other trampers too.

How Do I Get To Nelson Lakes National Park and the Travers Sabine?

Without doubt, the easiest way would be to drive. From Christchurch it’s a 4.5-5.5 hour drive, depending on whether you go the coast via Kaikoura and Blenheim, or inland via Lewis Pass and Murchison.

It’s about a 1.5 hour drive from Picton, if you’ve come across from the North Island on the ferry.

You can also get to St Arnaud with public transport, but this can be tricky. This is what I have done on each occasion. The first time, I travelled from Picton, having just completed the Queen Charlotte Track. The other occasions direct from Christchurch.

Snow day at Upper Travers Hut. The day before was beaut and clear. I woke up to this. Could be worse places to be stuck for the day in bad weather? Many chapters were read, card games played, and sips of port had. 

Let’s look at what you need to do to get to St Arnaud and the Travers Sabine Track from Christchurch—it’s 1-2 days of travel when using public transport, but the glorious scenery you get to enjoy, without having to keep eyes on the road, are worth it.

Note: Nelson Lakes Shuttles, who operate the service between Nelson and St Arnaud, operate varying timetables throughout the year and even during summer operate a limited timetable. Plan your trip carefully. That said, they do publish a list of ad hoc fares (where you’ll be piggybacking someone else trip) that also picks up in Blenheim from time to time, so check this first.

Day 1 – Christchurch to Nelson. Catch the 7am bus in Christchurch and arrive in Nelson at 3:15pm. Spend the afternoon exploring Nelson—it’s a great little town and if you’re into craft beer I highly recommend checking out The Free House. Nelson has accomodation options for all travellers from backpackers to motels to hotels and B&B/Airbnb.

Nelson is the ideal place to buy food and supplies—there are a couple of large supermarkets, and several camping/outdoor stores.

Day 2 – Get the 1pm Nelson Lakes Shuttles service (Tuesdays and Fridays) to St Arnaud.

Nelson Lakes Shuttles services from St Arnaud to Nelson operate on Tuesdays and Fridays too (subject to change) which means if you’re arriving on a Tuesday you have a week until the next Tuesday service, which gives you 6 days to hike the Travers Sabine—the perfect amount of time. Also, rather than travelling back into Nelson you can get a service that will drop you off at Kawatiri Junction on State Highway 6 where you can pick up a bus service down the West Coast.

Why is Nelson Lakes National Park So Good?

For me, it’s the perfect combination of beech forest, beautiful clear lakes, tall mountains, rugged peaks, remoteness, well-designed tracks, comfortable huts, historical huts and bivvys, and a beautiful little village. For me, getting to the pack on public transport has always been part of the adventure.

Can You Hire a PLB in St Arnaud?

As far as I am aware, you can hire a PLB at the St Arnaud Alpine Store (the general store/petrol station). It’s probably a good idea to give them a call or send them an email to ensure they have a PLB available before you arrive in the village, though.

Alternatively, Rollo’s in Nelson apparently hire them out too. And you can buy a PLB from the likes of Rollo’s, Torpedo7, and Hunting and Fishing NZ, in Nelson.

What’s The Hardest Section?

The stretch above Upper Travers Hut, up to Travers Saddle, is up there. Steep and rugged in places, and persistent. And then there is the relentless scree on the descent from the saddle. It’s slippeey so be careful.

Note: I intend to keep adding to this guide. If you have any questions you want answered, please comment below. 

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