“Hmm, maybe my hatchback wouldn’t make it here after all,” I finally admitted, at about a quarter to midnight. Whilst it’s a ‘gravel road’ on the map, the road to Lake Chalice is a lot more like a goat track than a road. It’s narrow, steep, winding and rough. For once I was grateful to be in a big van with the weight of many punters and their packs holding the back wheels firmly onto the road.
It had already been a long day and a long night. My job was to collect the vans; a minor crisis at work at just the wrong time meant I was late and rushed, but we all made it onto the ferry in good time. As we sailed south, we three leaders worked out the logistics of dropoff and pickup. Emily’s trip was straightforward; she was heading to Lake Chalice, then returning to Lake Chalice. Katy needed a dropoff at some random road-end on the way, then pickup from another random road-end. I was heading to Lake Chalice but needed someone to collect my group to save an interminable walk down a road that may be gravel, might be 4WD, could be navigable in a van…
So some 8 hours after we started our journey, the Lake Chalice car park suddenly appeared through the darkness. We unloaded and headed off in the dark to Lake Chalice Hut, which we were reliably informed was somewhere down the track. It was a beautiful night and perfect conditions for a bit of night walking. Soon we found that our informants were correct – just 30 min down an easy track we found a spacious, tidy hut. Emily and her group turned up about half an hour later – this was Emily’s first time driving the van and she sure picked a tough trip for it!
We all fitted just nicely into the hut, since two of us decided it was such a nice night that sleeping outside was the best thing for it. The new day dawned fine and crisp, but we were all flavours of Easy trampers so there was no hurry. After a suitably relaxed beginning to the day, we set off on our respective journeys. Emily’s group were daywalking up Old Man ridge, to the north. We were loping southwest down the valley to Mid Goulter Hut, about 5 DOC hours away; then heading back to the lake chalice car park on the Sunday by climbing out of the valley and returning along the ridgeline. The track in looked really gorgeous on the map, following the shores of Lake Chalice itself and then down beside the Goulter River. But alas, this was somewhat deceiving. The lakeshore and river were steepsided, so the track followed the terraces and spurs a short distance from the water. Still very pleasant but lake- and riverside, not so much. Soon we arrived at the head of the lake, where a short path took us down to the river fan that fed into the lake. Beautiful it was too. Next time I’ll walk down the river fan and pick the track up at the lake head.
After stops for photos we carried on down the meandering track. Up and down, side to side we went, and this is where we discovered what the difference is between the long dashed lines and the short dashed lines on the topo map. This was a short-dashed-line route, which was new territory for some of our group! Instead of a smooth gravel track we had a rooty, bumpy, sloping path. So sloping that our left legs were much more tired than our right legs by the end of the day! Water ran a little low for some as we saw the Goulter river much less often than we expected. Still, the track was quite lovely, wending its way through some trees, then gaining a little height in places to change ecosystems into… some other sorts of trees. (Where was Illona when you needed her?!). The weather was superb as it always is in Nelson-Marlborough.
One thing about following a river is that there aren’t that many bearings to really know how far it is to go. The track wended and wound up and down spurs and gullies and over side creeks… it seemed never ending. But sure enough, in late afternoon a big sign welcoming us to Mid Goulter loomed at us, to the relief of many tired left legs.
Mid Goulter is a funny sort of hut. Like Lake Chalice hut it’s an 8-bunk, but unlike Lake Chalice it is small and poky, and has a dearth of windows. Still, it’s relatively modern, warm and weather tight, and has a delightful history of being nurtured by a couple of old guys over the years who at one point even winched it up into a sunnier spot and rotated it 90 degrees to give it a better outlook. But our little group of 5 were a tight fit, and we had to carefully choreograph moving about inside.
Dinner was cooked on Jenn’s fantastic JetBoil. I am now sold on Jetboil. The inner German in me is deeply satisfied at its perfect, efficient design, optimised for boiling water with its integrated, neoprene-wrapped 1L container. However my stove broke when I tried to use it, so we had to press the JetBoil into service doing unnatural things such as cooking a billy full of stew. With a bit of balancing and jury rigging we fashioned a tripod for it, and though the JetBoil Engineering team would be crying and knashing their teeth at the chaotic inefficiency of it all, it did a fantastic job at heating the contents of a 30 year old, well panelbeaten WTMC billy as well.
The hut water supply was the nearby Goulter river, and the sign in the hut sternly warned us to BOIL (for 3 minutes) OR STERILISE the contents of the river before daring to consume it. Most of us respected this but this river is one of the clearest, crispest and most beautiful I’ve seen, especially outside the hut – bunk to bunk, completely clear and transparent and flowing languidly. I took my chances. As did Helen, who declared that her time living on a farm in the Waikato had hardened her stomach to anything.
Next day we were off relatively early for an EM group – there was a ferry leaving and we didn’t want to miss it. And we knew that the day started with an uphill slog. Ominously, the signpost pointing us up the hill had no estimated time – either they didn’t want to discourage us, or it all depended on whether or not you even made it up the hill! But there was nothing for it but to set off. Clare had damaged her ankle on the lopsided route in, so we split into two parties – Jenn, Edd and Helen heading off first, followed by Clare and I.
And steadily uphill it certainly was. Perversely I actually quite like steep uphill; if you’ve got to get to the top of a hill, then let me rip the bandaid off and slog up there quickly, rather than interminably climb slowly for hours. Well – rip the bandaid off this certainly did. Up and up we climbed, through lowland forest giving way to scrub, in turn giving way to alpine plants and bare rock and scree. With a bit of scrambling and 3 points of contact climbing we were relieved to see Edd coming back to report we were nearly there. We traversed across the face of the tallest peak, glad we didn’t have to summit it – turned out that Helen and Jenn had in fact missed the turn and had ended up at the top! The view was certainly worth it though.
Suddenly the track jarringly ended on a gravel road – and surreally, an older couple were there walking their dog. We said hello and they reported that the road end was just 15 min back down the road. Joy! After a bit of a rest and a bite to eat, we set off again. Sure enough there was the road end and (I still can’t work out how they did this) there were the dog walkers, back at their van. Wonderfully, they had a big jerry can of water that they were happy to share with us!
There’s nothing fun about walking down a gravel road, even one as picturesque as this one. So we were ecstatic to see a familiar looking van appear over the rise as we walked. Thanks, Tracey and Joe! We were wondering if the van would make it, because on the map the road changes from ‘gravel’ to ‘4wd only’ after lake chalice. But it’s actually in better nick past the lake chalice car park – if you made it that far then going on is no worries at all.
We were done! After an uneventful drive back to Picton we met the other van at the Toot and Whistle and relaxed and swapped stories on the ferry. The Richmond Ranges are now near the top of my favourite places to go. This is definitely not the last time I’m going to stay in Lake Chalice hut, that’s for sure.