Te Araroa - Waiau Pass

Te Araroa - Waiau Pass

The next section I want to talk about is just one day.

Waiau Pass Map

Waiau Pass separates two of New Zealand's most popular national parks; The St James Walkway and Nelson Lakes. So far as I can tell there are 2 (maybe 3) ways to reach Waiau Pass. The first being 3 days walk from the vast river valleys of the St James walkway, this is the way I came from as it's part of Te Araroa.

St James Walkway to Waiau Pass map

Anne Hut on the St James Walkway at sunset

View of sunrise from Anne Hut on the St James Walkway

St James Walkway

Or you could get there via 4 days walk from St Arnaud through Nelson Lakes, which is the way I left from.

Nelson Lakes

View down Travers Saddle to West Sabine

Upper Travers Hut

Lake Rotoiti at sunset

Or possibly 3 days walk along the D’Urville River from Lake Rotoroa or Lewis Pass, I vaguely remember a track coming from that direction but DOC doesn’t have a tack on their map going past Lake Thompson so my guess is it’s more for the experienced tramper.

I also spotted some 4WD cars on my way up Waiau Pass track so it’s possible you could drive over Maling Pass and it would be 1 day’s walk from there, you would want a decent 4WD though.

4WD tracks along St James Walkway

You’re getting into some hectic backcountry here that should not be taken lightly, Nelson Lakes and the surrounding area is an infamous avalanche zone so unless you have alpine training; a winter crossing is probably off the cards.

So what makes Waiau Pass so great?

Besides saddling two of NZ’s most incredible pieces of land, Waiau Pass is a dramatic climb up 800ms over 2km’s, for those of you who need visual aids to understand; this is the cross section for Waiau Pass. 

Waiau Pass cross section

If you’re coming from the relatively flat St James walkway then the stark contrast is frightening. 

Waiau Hut

Waiau Track

I had researched Waiau Pass while preparing for Te Araroa and it was a section I was both excited for and terrified of.  As you approach the pass the thunderous sound of Waiau falls provides an eerie backdrop to what you’re about to attempt, the falls themselves being a maelstrom of white water and sharp alpine rocks, not a spot for a quick swim.

Waiau Falls

Waiau River

Climbing upwards starts off easy enough but you can see the trail winding its way up steep rock faces, one foot wrong and you’re falling to a pointy doom. Refusing to look back I scramble up and over boulders and scree until I finally reach reprieve in the form of a plateau on the side of this gargantuan rock face.

Looking up Waiau Pass in stormy weather

My backpack soaking wet on the climb up Waiau Pass

It’s tipping down with rain, borderline torrential, and the water is flowing off the mountain in hundreds of falling streams. White-knuckling some boulders I look back the way I came to can see thousands more rivers forming off the mountains and leading into the Waiau River.

Staring down Waiau Pass to the Waiau River

Waiau River valley

The steep climb continues, sharp cliff faces surrounding the track upwards before I eventually reach some gentler scree slopes. The clouds are blocking my view but, occasionally they part, giving me a view down into the unnamed valley below, and to the top of the pass only 100ms away.

Climbing Waiau Pass

Scree leading down Waiau Pass to Lake Constance

Popping over the ridge the clouds part yet again providing one of the most sublime views New Zealand has to offer. 

Lake Constance

The mountain drops off into a steep scree descent opening the horizon to Lake Constance, a deep blue lake untouched by man. I felt awe-struck, terrified and incredibly small. It took me 3 days to get to this view and it would take another 4 days before I would reach civilisation again. This was a view that I had thoroughly earned and knowing this picturesque landscape exists so far and remote from civilisation is what makes it that much more special.

Lake Constance

The climb up Waiau Pass is tough and incredibly dangerous but your reward for reaching the top is an irreplaceable memory. The feeling I had from seeing that view on top of a terrifying stormy peak will be embedded in my mind until the day I die.

Now do what you can to dry off with the rotting logs at Blue Lake Hut, because you've got a long way to go before you reach a laundromat.

Fire place at Blue Lake Hut

Blue Lake Hut

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