Hiking the Angelus Circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park

The Angelus circuit is a stunning 3 day hike through native beech forrest and up onto rugged alpine ridge lines.

The Angelus Circuit - An even greater walk

The Angelus Circuit is a stunning 3 day hike through native beech forest and up onto rugged alpine ridge lines (although the first and third day are not full hiking days and can be used to travel to and from St Arnaud). You can choose to camp or stay in huts along the way (either option will require hut tickets or a reservation that can be attained through the Department of Conservation). The hike is classified as moderate and requires a good level of fitness and preparation.

Starting at Kerr Bay the first section of the Angelus Circuit is the 3 hour, 11km hike alongside the shores of Lake Rotoiti to Lakehead Hut. The track is relatively easy going, well maintained and well marked. Most tracks or routes in New Zealand are marked with orange triangles (they can be spaced quite far apart on obvious tracks but are positioned a lot closer together where routes are less well defined).

Wildlife

During the hike you may also see pink, white, yellow or blue triangles along the track, these are used to identify the location of animal traps. New Zealand has a wonderful array of native birds, but unfortunately they are under constant threat from harmful introduced species such as stoats and possums. Traps are used to try to reduce and eradicate these pests so that native wildlife can re-establish itself in an area.

Whilst on the track you may be lucky enough to encounter the small chirpy fantail or curious New Zealand robin, both of which may follow you for a time feeding on the bugs you disturb in the air as you walk. The other bird you are likely to hear, although it can be difficult to spot amongst the bush, is the bellbird. As its name suggests its melodic call can mimic the chiming of bells.

After a couple of small stream crossings and as you near the head of the lake and approach Lakehead Hut you will come to a jetty where it's often possible to spot eels. The abundant eels in Lake Rotoiti can be up to 60 years old and grow up to a metre long. Having migrated as elvers from the warm waters of Tonga, the eels live out their long lives in the lake before departing back down the Buller River to the Pacific to breed and finally die.

The final little critter in this area that needs no introduction is the sandfly. Luckily they are unable to keep up with walking pace but will often make themselves known if you linger too long in the open. There are a number of insect repellants and ointments that may help avoid or sooth their rather irritating bite.

Backcountry Huts

From the jetty it's just 15 minutes to Lakehead Hut. The hut is fairly basic with shared bunks that accommodate up to 28 people, a cooking work top area and dinning table. There is also a wood burning stove and 3 basic outhouse toilets. During most of the year there will be running water (collected rainwater) but no electricity. It is necessary to bring your own sleeping bag, food, gas, cooking pots, candles and toilet paper.

One of the delights of staying in huts is the eclectic mix of people you meet. If you've been hankering to meet a true kiwi tramper you might just bump into one at the hut, or you could be sharing with some enthusiastic young travellers, hunters or a school group. It is important to remember that you are sharing the hut and that some hikers may be sleeping early and rising early. It can also be important to remember to pack earplugs!

River crossings

On the second day you will cross the flat valley floor, walking amongst the spiky native matagauri bushes and within 20 minutes from the hut you will arrive at the Travers River. Most of the rivers in New Zealand are known as braided rivers, i.e. they have a wide river bed and sometimes several shallow channels of water that can change course after heavy rain. It is common for hiking trails to cross such rivers but due to their changing nature it is not so common for there to be bridges! During heavy rain the wide river bed can fill up from bank to bank with fast flowing water but usually in drier periods these shallow channels can be easily crossed on foot. Before attempting a river crossing it is important to check entry and exit points, water depth and water flow. If it is too deep or too fast flowing you may need to check for a wider area to cross or find an alternative route. As a rough guide you don't want to attempt a crossing if the water is above knee height or if the water is flowing faster than walking speed (you can check the speed of the current by throwing a stick in the water then walking alongside the river to see if you can keep up with it). When crossing it is safest to do so in your hiking boots (the river bed will be rocky, uneven and potentially slippery underfoot) and as a group. You can form a link with other group members by unclipping the straps of your backpacks and threading your arms behind each other's backs, this will join you together for support and make you more stable as you cross.

One of the natural delights of hiking in New Zealand is that you are able to fill up your water bottles in most alpine rivers and streams. However, if you have walked through them it is important to ensure you clean your boots after your hike. Over the past few years an algae known as Didymo has started to spread throughout New Zealand's rivers. Although it is not toxic it can clog up waterways. So by cleaning your boots after any river crossing you are helping to stop any potential spread of Didymo.

Cascade Track

Once across you'll notice orange triangles indicating the trail and about 100m from the river you'll take a left at a junction to continue up the Travers Valley (keeping the river on your left). After approximately an hour of relatively flat hiking and having crossed 2 small swing bridges you'll arrive at another track junction. Turn right and up towards Angelus Hut following the Cascade Track.

From now on the track route becomes less clear (so it is important to look out for and follow the orange triangles), there are often rocks, routes and trees to climb around or over but this is where the fun begins (and where hiking poles can be pretty handy). The track now climbs up 1000m in elevation and it normally takes between 4-6 hours to reach Angelus Hut from the Cascade Track junction (the total track length from Lakehead Hut to Angelus Hut is approximately 9.4km). For the first couple of hours you remain under cover in the trees, wondering how there could be so many different types of moss and so many shades of green, and how the track can really meander up and over all those difficult looking tree roots! Until, after a wee clamber across the boulders of an old scree slide you emerge to a small clearing. From here on a clear day you can see up the valley to the bush line and beyond, and to the route you'll be scaling up later in the day. Once you have crossed the clearing keep following the orange triangles for another 30 minutes when you'll reach another larger flat clearing and a great rest spot for lunch. Although this point is about halfway up with regards to height it's only 1.5-2 hours to the hut.

The next section of the hike climbs steeply up the side of the mountain, it will often be necessary to use your hands to help you climb up the rocks and as you gain elevation quickly you will also observe the terrain changing from beech forest to smaller alpine plants. About 30 minutes up from the second clearing you will be rewarded by some great views from a temporary bridge platform that crosses the Hukere Stream. After this point, if possible it gets even steeper as you head up a loose rocky slope, then through several false summits, winding your way to the top. Literally breath-taking!

Finally the beautiful Angelus Lakes will emerge before you and it will feel like you are within the crater of an old volcano. Luckily you are not in a volcano, and on seeing a final track junction you will turn left and be at the hut in a couple of minutes.

Angelus Hut sits at 1650m and was re-built in 2010. It can sleep 28 people in 2 separate bunk rooms but requires a prior online reservation.

If you arrive at the hut early, still feeling fit and able, it is possible to undertake a 1 hour return hike up to the highest point of the ridge (it is definitely worth it if you have the extra energy for panoramic views of the hut and across the mountains to Lake Rotoroa). Or a longer and more demanding side excursion can take you to the summit of Mt Angelus (2075m, 3 hours return via sunset saddle). Both side hikes are rocky and slippery underfoot without track markers but the hut warden can provide further local advice if required.

Robert's Ridge

To complete the Angelus Circuit the final day involves a 6 hour hike along the exposed Robert's Ridge back to Mt Robert car park. On a clear calm day the views can be spectacular but there is no access to running water so be sure to pack plenty. However, with strong winds, rain and low cloud the ridge can be risky so be prepared with waterproof and warm clothing, or even to change your route down from the hut if the weather becomes hazardous.

On the ridge there are several boulder fields to cross on the way and often the terrain can be rocky and uneven. It may be a little unnerving for less experienced hikers and those with vertigo so take your time and take care. Look out for unusual alpine plants along the way like Vegetable Sheep (named for their resemblance to woolly sheep) and the pretty white Gentian flowers dotted amongst the rocks.

The majority of the hike undulates gradually along the ridge line. Towards the end of the ridge in the last basin on the right, before the route descends, you will see a collection of buildings. These were used as part of a local skifield until 2005 when lack of snow forced its closure and the rope tows were removed for use in the nearby Rainbow Ski Area. The descent from the ridge then begins joining onto the Pinchgut Track and towards Mt Robert car park. The track is well formed and soon develops into a number of switch backs as Lake Rotoiti comes back into view.

If you are not being picked up from the Mt Robert car park you can follow the road and then lakeside trail back to Kerr Bay.

Whether you decide to hike this trail independently or as part of a guided tour, you'll absolutely love the scenery, and the chance to truly get off the beaten track and into New Zealand's wilderness. 

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