Lake Rotoiti from Pinchgut Track

Nelson Lakes National Park

In which Miles visits Nelson Lakes National Park.

To view the full gallery of 45 pictures, click here.

It was a busy week, and I hadn’t dedicated much time to planning my weekend.  I had talked to a Czech couple about Nelson Lakes.  They mentioned steep climbs up a mountain, beautiful views, and ferocious sandflies.  They had also mentioned a couple of campgrounds.  I typed something like “Nelson Lakes campground” into Google Maps, and when it was found, I headed out along highway 6.

Hope Saddle Lookout is a good, safe place to pull off for a view of the mountains you’re entering.  It also allows free camping for self-contained vehicles.

View from Hope Saddle Lookout
View from Hope Saddle Lookout

I arrived at the DOC campground at Lake Rotoroa, and found a small flat area with a couple of picnic tables.  I got out to stretch my legs and look around, and met the sandflies.  It hurts when they bite, although they are small, and when convinced to move on, they leave behind a small bead of blood.  And they were many.

I coated all exposed skin with both insect repellent and sunscreen – it was a hot and sunny day.  With bug spray applied, I still felt the sandflies brushing against my skin – many of them – and although few actually landed, and fewer actually drew blood, they were still extremely annoying.

Payment in many DOC campsites involves envelopes and drop boxes.   I had the right change to pay for one night, or for two nights, but not the right change to pay for one night, then pay for another night later.  It hadn’t yet set in exactly how annoying the sandflies were going to be, so I paid for two nights.

Pro-tip:  Take change to DOC campgrounds, so that you have the option to pay for one night at a time.

With my campsite paid for, and my body slathered in bug spray and sunscreen, I went for a look at Lake Rotoroa.

Lake Rotoroa
Lake Rotoroa

The view is along the length of the lake.  Walking tracks circle the lake, and lead beyond, and there is a DOC hut at the far end.  The water taxi is apparently always there.  The water was high, just an inch or two from covering the pier.  A black swan and her goslings circled, hoping for a handout.

Black swan in Lake Rotoroa
Black swan in Lake Rotoroa
Black swan's goslings
Black swan’s goslings

A half-hour nature walk offered a scenic route back to the campground.  The walks I had been told about did not start at Lake Rotoroa, so I took the nature walk.  That was a bit short for me, so I followed the Lakeside Track for a while.  A sign warned about a lot of downed trees, and when I reached one that looked like a lot of effort to climb over I turned back.

Nature Trail near Lake Rotoroa
Nature Trail near Lake Rotoroa

The trail offers frequent glimpses of the lake through the trees.

Nature Trail near Lake Rotoroa
Nature Trail near Lake Rotoroa

As long as I kept moving, the sandflies didn’t bother me much.  But when I stopped, it didn’t take them long to find me.

Nature Trail near Lake Rotoroa
Nature Trail near Lake Rotoroa

Returning to the campsite, I got out my guidebook to try to find a good walk for the next day.  The sandflies descended.  I grew tired of that quickly.  The guide book mentioned a Sunday Night Barbecue at the Alpine Lodge in St. Arnaud, and that sounded like a wonderful alternative to the hovering cloud of little vampires.

I got a good look at St. Arnaud in daylight, and had all the barbecue I could eat.  The CamperMate app told me that the DOC campground near Lake Rotoiti offers showers to the public for $3, so I knew where I would be the next morning.  I also learned that some good tracks up the mountains start near St. Arnaud.

It was overcast and cold in the morning.  Sandflies don’t seem to like this, so I kind of did.  The campground and it’s showers are right at Lake Rotoiti, so I got a great view of the lake, the St. Arnaud Range, and Mount Robert.

St. Arnaud Range, Mount Robert and Lake Rotoiti
St. Arnaud Range, Mount Robert and Lake Rotoiti

A group of tourist girls were taking pictures at the end of a pier, and I set out to do the same.  A young girl sat alone near the back of the pier, peering intently at some ducks, or so I mistakenly assumed.  On my way back down the pier I looked closer, and saw that she was feeding a writhing mass of eels.

Lake Rotoiti eels
Lake Rotoiti eels

By holding a piece of meat above the water, she had them breaking the surface to try to reach it.

Lake Rotoiti eels
Lake Rotoiti eels

The eels at Nelson Lakes National Park are protected.  The girl’s mother told me that the ones they were feeding are babies, and that some get quite old, and quite huge.

Eels are protected in Nelson Lakes National Park
Eels are protected in Nelson Lakes National Park
Lake Rotoiti eel
Lake Rotoiti eel

The girl was petting them as well as feeding them.  She said they are quite slimy.  They flinched at her touch.  They were able to lure them into shallow water, but they weren’t able to get them to come essentially onto the gravel shore as they said they had done on a previous visit.  The ducks and seagulls vying for the food were suspected of causing increased shyness in the eels.

Girl petting Lake Rotoiti eels
Girl petting Lake Rotoiti eels

After I had showered, the clouds had cleared from the top of Mount Robert, but not from the St. Arnaud Range.

St. Arnaud Range, Mount Robert and Lake Rotoiti
St. Arnaud Range, Mount Robert and Lake Rotoiti

At the visitors center, I was told that the track up the St. Arnaud Range goes through the bush, so no view is available until you get above the tree line, and at that point, if the clouds didn’t clear, I’d be within them, and still have no view.  Pinchgut Track on Mount Robert however zig-zags in and out of the trees, offering views the whole way up.  I drove to the highest carpark to start my walk.

The gravel road let me do a good bit of the climb in my van, so it didn’t take too long to get great views of Lake Rotoiti.

Lake Rotoiti from Pinchgut TrackLake Rotoiti from Pinchgut Track

Pinchgut Track is steep, and the sun was hot, and before long I was taking a break every time the trail cut back into the shade.

Pinchgut Track
Pinchgut Track

The look of the forest changed as I climbed.

Pinchgut Track
Pinchgut Track

The views over the lake changed as well.

Lake Rotoiti from Pinchgut Track
Lake Rotoiti from Pinchgut Track
Lake Rotoiti from Pinchgut Track
Lake Rotoiti from Pinchgut Track

Eventually I emerged from the trees.  It was clear the top was near, and the climb grew less steep.  Near the top there is a small hut, not for sleeping, but for having a rest.  The hut for spending the night was further than I walked.

Near the top of Mount Robert
Near the top of Mount Robert

The top of Mount Robert offers views in all directions.

Near the top of Mount Robert
Near the top of Mount Robert
Near the top of Mount Robert
Near the top of Mount Robert

I could have taken a different track back, but returned down Pinchgut Track instead.  My descent offered another perspective on how steep the track actually is, and I was feeling it in my knees by the time I reached the carpark.

I had another shower at the campground, and another dinner at the Alpine Hotel.  With the day turned hot, I was mobbed by sand flies.  They hadn’t been a problem in the morning, or on the mountain, but they were back now.  I had work to do the next day, so I said no thanks to the campground I had paid for, and drove back to Nelson, and tried a night in a carpark that a small shopping center offers to campers in vehicles for free, making up for the $6 I had spent on the DOC site.

Nelson Lakes National Park is beautiful.  I left thinking I would return, but I really don’t think I’ll brave those sand flies again in the near future.  I believe that many equally amazing sights will present themselves.  Nelson Lakes was a good reminder of what sets the North and South islands apart though, and my subsequent adventures only get better.  I look forward to showing you what I mean in a couple of days, if the kiwi internet doesn’t fail me!

To view the full gallery of 45 pictures, click here.

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