Mole Tops – Ella Range, Nelson Lakes National Park
If you’re looking for something a little bit different in the Nelson Lakes National Park, Mole Tops has to be on your list. A trio of us made this fabulous trip over a sunny, summer weekend. If you haven’t been before, I would advise you to go on an excellent weather weekend as the Mole Tops are absolutely stunning and you don’t want to miss the views.
There are several tracks to Mole Tops. The shorter route is via the Jameson Ridge Track, Mole Saddle returning via Mole Track/Mole Stream (or you can return via the ridge). We walked a slightly longer route, in via the Watson Creek Route and out via Mole Stream. If you have more time and fancy the less trodden route there is the Tiraumea Track from Lake Rotoroa, via the D’Urville and Tiraumea Rivers, but I’m not sure about the state of the track.
Getting There Mole Tops
Mole Tops are in the Nelson Lakes National Park, at the north end of the Ella Range. It takes a couple of hours to drive the approx 150km to the trails from Nelson. Head south on the SH6 towards Murchison, then just before Murchison turn left onto Mangles Valley Road and continue to Tutaki, then south towards the Mataki Lodge. As with any journey heading south from Nelson, a stop at the magnificent Wakefield Bakery is a must.
Day 1: Watson Creek to Mole Tops – Southern Tarns
- Car park to Bush line – 4.5 hours
- Bush line to Southern tarns – 2 hours 25 mins
Our visit up Watson Creek and down Mole Streams was not quite a loop. Mel and I (and everyone’s gear) was dropped off at the large Matakitaki car park. Rich drove back to the car park close to Mataki Lodge, and ran the 2 km back to meet us. This would save us all a 2km road walk at the end. What a trooper.
Towards Watson Creek
After demolishing the bakery goodies we set off at 11 am. We initially followed the farm road where the high-spirited cows in the paddock next to the track were charging around with a surprising exuberance. It was nice to have some entertainment as we followed the markers heading towards the mountains.
A couple of kilometres later we passed the (private) Matakitaki Base Hut, entered the bush and by 11.50 am were enjoying the gentle uphill through the beautiful forest towards Watson Creek. We reached the creek at around 12.25 pm. The track was marked, although occasionally we had to hunt for the markers with the odd fallen tree.
This was a wet boot trip and the track crisscrossed Watson Creek numerous times. The crossings were easy as it hadn’t rained for a while and the river was low. Generally, the track was in good condition, if a little muddy at times.
There were a couple of small, sketchy slips to walk across/drop-down and a couple of hairy little scrambles up and around some slips. Experienced trampers would certainly be more comfortable with this, so if it doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, the Jameson Ridge Track is probably the best option.
Old Hut Site to Saddle
Around 3.35 pm we arrived at an old hut site, where the track ends on the topo map at around 1250m. It offered a beautiful flat spot by the creek with lovely views up the valley to the ranges. It was the perfect place for a break, and would also be a perfect place to camp.
At 4 pm we followed the true right of Watson Creek up towards the basin through the tall tussocks and flaxes. This section of track wasn’t marked or poled, so we picked a good line and headed up to the left through the tussock. It was a fairly steep, grunty 200m climb, but very enjoyable with incredible views of the basin and mountains of the Ella Range.
As we climbed, the Matakitaki valley came into view behind us. We passed a beautiful tarn with the most amazing colours of iridescent blues and greens. Unfortunately, our attempts at getting a decent photo of it fell extremely short.
We reached the saddle (1642m) at 5.20 pm and were rewarded with incredible views of a large basin below us dotted with tarns and views across to the Mahanga Range to the west and beyond, the high peaks of the Travers Range.
After the obligatory photos and general amazement, there was some debate about which tarn we wanted to camp next to. We were tired from the climb and no one fancied wandering around them all for the perfect camp spot. We settled on the closest large tarn and made our way down the grassy and rocky slopes to find a spot.
Camping at Mole Tops
It’s interesting how fussy some people are or aren’t about their camp spots. I am certainly on the fussier side of fussy and finding a nice, flat tent spot is very important to me. This usually involves a lot of scanning and plenty of bending, crouching etc. to ascertain the angle of every potential spot over the selected area. I’m the person who needs an ultralight spirit level. If there is even a hint of a slope in any direction I stuff my belongings under my sleeping pad to make a level bed. But one thing I have never done (I have no idea why) was to test my spot before I pitch the tent.
Being a backcountry champion, Mel casually executed this life-changing manoeuvre and changed my own habits forever.
By 6 pm we were pitching our tents and settling in for the evening. As the sun dropped behind the mountain it cooled off a little, so we wrapped up and enjoyed dinner while watching the shadows slowly creep up the mountains.
Day 2: Mole Tops – Southern tarns to Mole hut and Mole Stream
- Southern tarns to saddle below Pt 1770 – 45 mins
- Across Ridge at Mole Tops – 40 mins
- Ridge down to Mole hut – 35 minutes
- Mole hut to car via Mole Track (Mole Stream) – 2 hours 40 mins
Our camp at 1620m got a pretty chilly overnight. Wrapped up in hats, gloves and puffa jackets we ate breakfast, slowly packed up and left our camp at 9.25 am. It was an 80m climb to the saddle separating the north and south basins. We walked to the left of the highest tarn and continued to the ridge which dropped steeply towards Mole stream to our left.
We followed the ridge then sidled down and along it for a short time meeting the scree slope. We picked our way over the base of the rock with the scree slope to our right. At 10.10 am we reached the saddle below Pt 1770 and spent ten minutes at the top marvelling at the incredible views.
There are lots of lovely alpine basins with beautiful tarns in New Zealand, but Mole Tops is really quite impressive. This mid-section stretched along a couple of kilometres of undulating hills and dips, peppered with tarns and eventually falls sharply away to the D’Urville River. Standing on the saddle (and following the ridge along the tops) the 360-degree views were spectacular. Looking east are views of the Mahanga Range extending to Mt Misery, and beyond that, the mountains of the Travers range – Mt Cupola and Mt Hopeless to Mt Cedric.
Behind us, down the Ella Range, we could make out the highest peak Mt Ella. To our left the views of the Matakitaki and the Tutaki Rivers were splendid, and we could make out some of the peaks in the Kahurangi – Mt Owen and the Thousand Acre Plateau.
We made our way down to the large, high tarn beneath us and met the ridge again shortly after. Mole Tops is not for rushing, and I think we all wished we had another day to wander around the tarns and the tops. At 11 am we stopped close to Pt 1651 and chatted with a group of walkers also from Nelson one of whom we’d met at Quail Flat homestead on labour weekend.
Towards Mole Hut
At 11.15 am we started our descent down the ridge track to Mole Saddle. It was very steep and slippery in places, and we were all very glad for the walking poles.
At 11.50 am, about 500m before Mole Saddle we veered off to the left because someone said they knew a shortcut. I don’t think he knew a shortcut at all, but Rich doesn’t get much ‘off-track’ walkies when he’s with me. I‘m not especially fond of a bush bash but it wasn’t far. Twenty minutes later we popped out onto the track 200m from the hut. It definitely would have been faster to go the long way via the saddle.
We reached the cute 4-bunk Mole Hut at 12.10 pm. We had previously ascertained that Mole hut was a milestone hut for me on Hutbagger, so it got a lot more fanfare than it deserved. When I got home I realised I’d calculated wrongly and the previous hut (Blowfly hut) had been ‘the one’. We found a great spot for lunch under a nearby tree and enjoyed a relaxed lunch.
Mole Track – Mole Stream
We made a unanimous decision to walk back via Mole Stream. All of us had walked plenty of beech forest, so we decided the river option would offer something a little more interesting this time. We weren’t wrong.
We set off at 1.20 pm following the track close to the river. There were a couple of slips to cross, one of which was particularly awkward and muddy. After about 40 minutes the track led out onto something I wasn’t at all expecting at all, and what began as an average small mountain stream turned into a vast open river of boulders carving its way through the forest as far as we could see.
Fallen trees were carried with it and slips dropped into it from either side. It was quite a sight. I guess looking back up at the height and steep, rocky face of the ranges we shouldn’t have been surprised that this lot has to come from somewhere, but we couldn’t quite believe it was so big! A huge event must have brought this lot down from the mountains.
The small stream wove its way through the boulder river and we rambled our way down with it. It was another scorcher of a day, and we were glad that at least our feet were refreshed. We finally saw a trail marker on the left in the forest before the river curved right and entered the forest again.
After 15 minutes or so in the forest, we came out onto grassy farmland, following the markers in and out of the trees back to the car. We made our final creek crossing at 4 pm opposite the Mataki Lodge, and were really grateful that we didn’t have a 2 km road walk ahead of us!