Lake Alexander Route
We walked the Lake Alexander Route just as the first bite of winter weather hit the Nelson ranges. To escape the cold rain showers, we headed over to sunny Marlborough and the Tummil River southwest of Renwick, in the Ferny Gair Conservation Area. This tramp had been on the list for a while, since we walked the Blairich loop to the east, a couple of years ago.
There are a couple of options for the Lake Alexander route. Having pre-arranged your crossing over private land (key required) to get to the start of the track, it’s a 2.5-hour (one-way) marked track to the lake and hut on DOC land. You can return the same way or make it a loop with the 5.5-hour return over the 951m saddle and back down the valley to the east. Note that no dogs are allowed.
I would recommend the loop track for more experienced trampers. When we walked, the track from pt 951 “Wild Sheep Saddle” was a little overgrown and we had to look around for some of the markers. There were a number of rope-assisted climb-downs either over slippery rock sections or treefall (usually both). We really enjoyed it, but it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. The final quarter of the loop is across private land.
We found the DOC timings to be spot on. On the way in we took just under 3 hours as we spent so much time fungi spotting, and our return journey was 5.5 hours.
Getting There Lake Alexander
From Nelson, we headed east on the SH6 towards Picton through Havelock to Renwick. The obligatory cafe stop was at the Phoenix cafe in Renwick for some excellent pastries and a sausage roll. From Renwick, we took the Waihopai Valley, then Avondale Road, and half an hour later pulled up to collect the key for access.
As per the DOC website, contact Bernie and Jo Mason beforehand to arrange access over 6 Km of private land to get to the start of the track. Note that access may be closed from mid-winter to spring as the track can get too wet to drive. We left our intentions in their book, made our donation and took a map and key.
As instructed we slowly followed the yellow markers along the 4WD track. You’ll need a 4WD vehicle with reasonable ground clearance. It was steep, narrow and rocky in places with some occasional drop-offs down to the river. There were a couple of river crossings and generally it was pretty slippery. The local beekeeper was returning as we were coming in, and we were really glad we hadn’t met her at one of the single-lane sections!
Lake Alexander Route
Thirty minutes later we reached the car park. We were carrying our winter gear, but it was hot and sunny so we stripped off to a singlet and started walking at 12.30 pm.
I was using this short overnighter to test out some new (for me) second-hand gear, including a pair of nearly new leather Merril tramping boots. I bought them a year ago but hadn’t worn them yet. There were numerous river crossings on this trip, so it was the perfect opportunity to break them in. I don’t usually wear leather boots so it took a bit of getting used to, but within thirty minutes or so I loved them.
Within five minutes of starting there were a couple of small stream crossings. The water was quite low, so no wet feet. (Points to the new boots already – my usual Goretex boots would probably have been inundated already). The next twenty minutes was a careful sidle on a track above the true right of the river. It led to a small, beautiful gorge. We came to a rocky outcrop with track markers and a rope hold on the true left of the river, but we easily crossed the river to walk around the outcrop.
Fungi and Trees
One of the joys of walking in autumn/winter is finding lots of fungi in the forest. Today we came across numerous different ones we hadn’t seen before, and were delighted when Rich found a couple of basket fungi!
Bernie cut the Lake Alexander loop track (and the track to the tops) and still maintains it – and what a labour of love it’s been! As I’m not all that clued up on native trees, we really enjoyed his handwritten markers on the notable old trees along the route, detailing the type of tree and their age.
At 1.30 pm we found a perfect sunny lunch spot in a mossy patch of forest teeming with birds. We only walked about 1.5 km in that first hour, due to fungi stops and me taking my time over the slippery rocks.
Towards Lake Alexander
After lunch, we set off at 1.50 pm. The forest changed in and out of beech, and the track crossed numerous little slips. Eventually, the river completely disappeared under boulders and gravel and we walked along a couple of grassy flat areas. A gentle climb of around 80m or so took us up to a small gorge and a steep drop down to our right before the lake.
We reached Lake Alexander at 3.05 pm. According to Bernie’s notes in the hut book, Lake Alexander was likely created by an earthquake and landslide around the 1850s. Apparently, in the 1970s the lake edge was much closer to the hut than it is now, but the shingle fan has increased considerably over the past 10 years.
Lake Alexander Hut
The very tidy 6-bed Lake Alexander hut is set on gravels, a short distance beyond the lake. We arrived at 3.20 pm, just as the sun dropped below the trees and the shadows crept up the valley. The hut sits adjacent to the rustic leaning skeleton of an old, small wooden hut, which we assumed was ‘historic’. We later found out that Bernie built it in the 80s.
The woodshed was well stocked with manuka, so I broke up some small branches for kindling and swept the hut while Rich gathered some more firewood and chopped logs. Lake Alexander hut doesn’t have a water tank, so I wandered off to the lake with a couple of old pots from the hut. Afterward, we noticed a little map drawn on the wall with directions to get fresh water from the nearby streams. (We boiled and drank the lake water for our dinner/breakfast etc. but used stream water for our water bottles the next day). The hut was nicely warmed by the sun, and we began to settle in.
We killed about six giant, sleepy wasps, chose the thickest mattresses (the lovely new blue ones), spread out our gear and got the water on to boil for a soup. The temperature was dropping quickly so we got a fire going, and spent a lovely evening playing Yahtzee and enjoying the reading materials in the hut.
Day Two – Lake Alexander Route
The night sky was clear and we woke up to a frosty morning. The hut was so warm from the evening fire that I didn’t even zip up my sleeping bag, but it was chilly now, and we warmed ourselves up with a hot breakfast. The sun fell on the hut at 9 am and we left at 9.35 am, walking upstream to complete the loop.
Behind the hut, we found a marker pointing upstream, but you can’t really go wrong heading up the wide, dry (this morning, frozen) gravel bed. We kept our eyes peeled for a marker in the bush and found one fifteen minutes later on the left. When we got to the bush edge we found a series of markers (again all thanks to Bernie) with approximate timings. They read 45 minutes to the Rock bivvy and 1.5 hours to pt 951 – Wild Sheep Saddle.
Towards Wild Sheep Saddle
The track up to the saddle began with a short, steep section which rewarded us with a lookout and a small stream fifteen minutes later at around the 700m mark. We filled up our water and continued on up through a beautiful boulder garden with the stream to our right. We reached the rock bivvy just after 10.20 am, approx 35 mins from the start of the climb.
The rock biv looked like a great spot for the night. It was flat and dry with a fire pit, some dry firewood and a collection of rusty old pots in the corner. We took what we could of the rubbish which had been left there, and carried on.
From the rock biv it took a further 35 minutes up the steady climb to Wild Sheep Saddle (one hour ten minutes from the river bed). The trees were covered in honeydew and sooty mould, but we only saw a few wasps. This great post from NZ Nature Guy explains the scale insect and honeydew ecosystem.
Wild Sheep Saddle
We arrived on the sunny saddle (pt 951) at 10.45 am and climbed an additional 50m up to the right for even better views. A track continued to the tops from here. Back down at the saddle we explored left and got some great views of the mountains of the Ferny Gair.
From Wild Sheep Saddle
The afternoon down from the saddle back to the car was an unexpected adventure. The signage read an approximate 4 hours from here to the (private) Tummil hut close to the car park, which we found to be pretty spot on.
Later on, when we dropped the key back to Bernie he asked us how we’d got on down the valley and mentioned the loop track from the saddle hadn’t had much TLC for a while. We hadn’t realised that he maintained most of the track, with the exception of some on the Lake Alexander side. Imagine not only trying to find the time but carting the heavy tools and fuel in here by yourself to keep the track in order – what a legend!
The track gave us a bit of everything. It was steep from the top, then as we descended became boggy. There was some occasional route-finding and bashing through some overgrown sections and new tree growth, navigating occasional treefall, and using the ropes lashed to the trees to get down slippery, rocky and/or treefall sections. Some sections were fairly steep, even though it didn’t look overly so on the map. We also noted that the track on the ground wasn’t aligned with our topo map apps (which wasn’t a problem as we were following markers and essentially following the stream). We loved it.
Leaving the saddle at 11 am, we reached the first stream crossing about an hour later (after a number of slippery rope climb-downs). From here the stream was to our right. By 12.30 pm we reached a sunny spot and the lookout to Pig Whare Saddle. We continued on through a boggy section and the track became less steep and easier to navigate. The unmistakable smell of goat wafted up to us at one point from the valley below but we didn’t see any.
Bernie named parakeet valley after the kākāriki he’d seen here. The valley was beautiful and filled with birdsong. Down below, the sun filtered through the trees, and the stream trickled beside and below us. We crossed a few times as the markers indicated with no difficulties at all.
At around 1.20 pm the beech forest turned to manuka as we reached the junction up to Pig Whare Saddle (on Ramshead private property). Our trail continued to the left over another small stream to a clearing, which marked the border between DOC and Bernie’s land. We couldn’t resist taking a look at the gorgeous, rustic (and private) Pig Whare hut.
From Pig Whare Hut
At 1.40 pm, 2 hours 40 minutes from the saddle, we stopped for lunch. We found a sunny spot out of the breeze with views of the mountains through the trees.
Lunch was a good time to inspect the new boots. Rather worryingly, the couple of small separations of sole from boot we noticed last night, was now almost the entire sole separating from both boots!! I was amazed that with all the bog and river crossings, my feet were still dry. I didn’t dare take them off. We both carry duct tape and I carry cable ties for emergencies, so I knew they could make it back to the car (plus I had my hut sandals as a last resort).
After a 30-minute break, we descended a steep, skiddy slope with the river down to our left. The track continued on the true right before a steep climb down the rocky bank to meet it. From here the track followed the river closely for a while, which in summer would be a great opportunity for a dip. It was beautiful. I felt the loose soles of my boots begin to ‘flap’ a little and sure enough, at the next river crossing got wet socks.
Towards Tummil Hut
At 2.45 pm we reached a clearing with some bee hives and followed the four-wheel-drive track for about a kilometre. It was nice to stretch the legs into the easy walk, and a relief given the boot situation. Fifteen minutes later we reached Bernie’s private and brilliantly named (tongue-firmly-in-cheek) Tummil Ridge “Resort” hut. We popped up for a look – ok, so it’s not exactly a resort per se, but what a beauty! It was a loving testament to many past hunting trips with all kinds of surprising trophies mounted outside and in. The hut looked lovely and cosy, located on a beautiful open spot overlooking the mountains.
From the hut, it wasn’t far downhill back to the car, and we arrived at the car park around 3.10 pm – just over four hours after leaving the saddle. We packed up and drove back to Bernie and Jo’s to drop the key back. We met Bernie and thanked him for permission to cross his land and chatted a little about the beautiful track and his huts. We’d love to come back to walk up to the tops.
The End (of the boots)
Back at the car I whipped off the gaiters and gently peeled the soles off my boots!! Had it not been for the last couple of Kms being a 4WD track, I think they would have completely fallen off during the walk. I later ran it past a tramping forum I’m part of. I was very surprised to receive many responses from people who had exactly the same experience.
The general consensus was that if boots aren’t being used and are stored e.g. in a warm garage, a dark wardrobe etc. the glue between the leather and sole can perish (a process called hydrolysis). The problem didn’t appear to be boot brand or age-specific either. People mentioned a number of the reputable brands – some with new boots having been worn once just or twice.
The lesson is to actually use your tramping boots. I’d kept mine in storage for a year after buying them. For more information google – ‘Hydrolysis boot sole separation’ for specifics on the science of the process. Lowa, Asolo and Meindl mention it on their websites and provide more details on storing boots etc.