South Island, Pt. 3: Whisky Falls

If you’re an outdoorsy type and in a new area looking for something to go and see, checking out some local waterfalls is often a reliable strategy. I decided to go down to Nelson Lakes National Park and check out Whisky Falls.

Whisky Falls was not my first choice; I had thought to experience the crystal waters of the world’s clearest lake, Blue Lake. That’s not, unlike usual, hyperbole; Blue Lake is no-foolin’ the clearest lake in the world.

It’s also a two-day hike from Nelson. Seeing the world’s clearest lake would be amazing, but it would mean that I could do nothing else in my time at Nelson. So I bailed on Blue Lake and settled for Whisky Falls, which is in the same general area (Nelson Lakes National Park) but is a more reasonable day hike.

The drive to the trail head passes along a gravel road. I had no complaints, though, because I was in a rental car and because the gravel road goes by this beautiful lake.

The sign assumes a very reasonable 3.6 km per hour. On level ground with a good-quality track, that pace is easily attainable. As you can see, this track starts off quite promising. However, further ahead there are some confounding factors making that estimate utter bologna.

The first factor is the sheer number of fords required by this track.

The primary reason why the Nelson lakes are so clear is that they’re fed not by a few large, muddy rivers but by heaps of small, rocky streams. This mountain runoff is very pure and clear, and rather than acquiring sediment and silt the water is effectively filtered on its way down to the lake.

As you can see, this leads to water that’s so clear that you can’t really even tell how deep it is because you can so perfectly see the bottom. This also means that the trail is going to cross a number of streams.

Many of those stream crossings are simple; this one requires hopping on some rocks if you don’t want to get your feet wet.

Some, not so much.

The small feeder streams also create a number of mini-waterfalls, which becomes important later on.

The second factor making the time estimate frustratingly bad is that the trail is very scenic. At some places it goes down to the side of Lake Rotoiti, affording fantastic views.

Take a break from hiking to photograph this beauty? Don’t mind if I do!

Even the bits under cover are so pretty. Just look at this shot. An inept photographer with a mediocre camera can produce something lovely without really even trying here.

Hmm, a pier. Let’s take 50 photographs of it!

Yessssss.

Look at how ridiculous this trail gets. That is properly steep. Good thing the trail runs laterally along it and not up and down!

The final problematic bit is that after you’ve delayed for quite a while taking photos and fording streams, you’ll have walked for an hour and a half and you will come to this.

I did my homework and read that Whisky Falls was about 40 meters long, but I hadn’t seen a picture of the falls. And sometimes New Zealand likes to call things “falls” which are more like what I would call rapids. So perhaps this stream is the falls? I really didn’t know, and of course I was well outside of cell reception.

Having plenty of time left in the day, I pressed on (the trail itself goes much further than Whisky Falls).

But then, after a bit more walking:

Oh, hey there, trail sign! Hour and a half my hind end; this was a full two hours — and I’m no trail runner, but I usually meet and often exceed the estimated pace for these trails. Ah, well.

Approaching the real Whisky Falls, I note that it is a proper 40m plunge.

Yep. There she is!

Whisky Falls is so named not for the alcohol content of its waters but for the fact that the remains of a still were found above it. I’d love to know the story behind that!

The Nelson Lakes National Park brochure says this:

“The presence of biting sandflies can detract from your
experience at the lakes, especially during the summer months.
To minimise this problem, cover up and apply a good quality
insect repellent to any exposed skin.”

This is, sadly, very true. If you stop hiking near the water for even just a few minutes, small flies will swarm you and start gnawing on your flesh. It is seriously annoying and honestly keeps the trail from being as enjoyable as it otherwise would have been (I did not have any insect repellent, which is a definite thing to change for any subsequent South Island trips).

(I also note that the brochure says the trail is a 5 hour round trip, which is much more accurate than the sign at the trailhead. It took me 4h45, including lunch break.)

So that’s Whisky Falls. It’s pretty much the same same on the way back.

If you’re in the area and looking for an easy day hike, I do suggest heading down to Lake Rotoiti and doing this quite simple walk. It’s about an hour and a half drive from Nelson, so if you leave after a late breakfast and pack your lunch, you will be back home well before dinnertime!

Next post I see another waterfall, wear a hat, and get extremely wet! See you then!

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