New Zealand – Part 2 – Rees-Dart Track

The bus from Glenorchy to the start of the Rees-Dart walk was crammed full. In fact, one of the walkers who started out the same day we did had to run most of the way to the start of the walk! Luckily his pack did make it into the bus given it contained one inflatable canoe, two paddles, a pump, a bottle of champagne for New Year’s Eve, and lots of food, not to mention his own equipment. Ange and Craig had big plans for the walk, including floating down the Dart River back to Glenorchy, but I’m getting ahead of my story…

A total of 12 walkers piled out of the bus at Muddy Creek: a bushwalking club from Christchurch, paddlers Ange and Craig, Jo and Eileen from Seattle, a solitary walker, and Heike and I. We all set out at a brisk pace along the four-wheel drive track, but by the time we left that behind and hit the muddy bits, our pace slowed down. The view of the valley we walked into was beautiful, but it was a long day and after endless grassland, a steep ascent through forest, countless up and down crossing of streams, the pack started to weigh like a menhir and the usual mantra started in my head: “Where is the ******* hut?” A bit further on clearly. Muttering under my breath at every new stream I had to cross, suddenly, like a mirage, there was a swing bridge to cross to the other side of the valley and behind it, just slightly uphill, was the hut. And there were still free bunks! Once we had cooked up some food, we also found our conversation again and we chatted with the rest of the walkers who trickled in one after the other.

The second day was much shorter, but rougher. The skies were overcast, but it was dry and we walked gradually uphill. At one point looking back down the Rees Valley we saw this amazing rainbow straddling the valley. Further on, after donning gloves and beanies against the increasingly cold wind, we realised where the track went up to the saddle… surely NOT?! That wasn’t just steep; it looked perpendicular! We worked our way slowly upwards, groaning under our packs, and at times on all fours, but on the saddle the view opened up to Snowy Creek, thundering through the valley below. Further down we reached the bridge that links to the other side of the valley. Every winter the bridge has to be removed to avoid it being risked in avalanches, as the Snowy Creek Valley fills up with snow. The evidence of that was still there, a disintegrating snow bridge on the side of the constructed one. From here it was a steep descent to Dart Hut, and I mean steep. My legs are long, but even I had difficulty to step down without doing the occasional bum slide. Eventually we reached the delightfully positioned Dart Hut, possibly my favourite hut on all of the walks. With walkers converging here coming up both the Rees and Dart Valleys, as well as those who coming from Aspiring Hut via the Cascade Saddle, we were lucky to find ourselves bunks. Not long after we arrived a drizzly rain started, but we were snug, sipping tea in the communal area, waiting for the rest of the “crew” to arrive.

It was still raining the next morning, but as the side trip to the Whitbourne Valley wasn’t possible due to the bridge having been washed away, and the only other option of Cascade Saddle challenging due to the rain, we decided to take it easy and just enjoy a rest day; this was a holiday after all. The rain cleared around midday, the sun came out and we sunbathed on some rocks near the river and spent time talking to other walkers. Later that day we met up with the Christchurch walking club again who had made it to Dart Hut.

The next day we started early for Daleys Flat Hut. The hut is infamous amongst walkers on the track for the squadrons of sand flies who terrorise (un)suspecting walkers there. But first we had the most enjoyable day walking through grassy fields, the Dart River on the right, while gradually descending down the Dart Valley. Early cloud slowly evaporated to reveal glaciers clinging precariously to mountain faces like wobbly meringues. During our lunch break we were stalked by a robin who relentlessly pursued crumbs. Not even a camera lens poking at his beak put him off. We saw many of these birds along the track, who often looked annoyed at us occupying their favourite log for a quick break and would fearlessly try to chase us away. When we arrived at the hut the sand fly squadrons gave us a ceremonial welcome, but after sorting out bunks and dumping our packs, Heike and I found a sand fly free place for a quick dip in a side stream a short distance away from the hut. Cold water never felt so good!

Ange and Craig finally arrived with many wet items; their first effort of floating down the Dart had a few obstacles, including a capsizing canoe and belongings drifting down the river, but they were determined to give it another try on the final day of the walk. And indeed on New Year’s Day they floated all the way down the Dart River, cool and collected, and the envy of all of us who had to carry our packs out.

New Year’s Eve was celebrated by everyone in the hut agreeing to move midnight forward to 9pm so we could all have a decent sleep. And so after dinner we welcomed in 2012 by sharing champagne, vodka, glo sticks and whatever else people had, singing Auld Lang Syne (mainly humming along to it – does anyone ever know the words?) and wishing each other a happy new year. The next morning everyone was up early to make sure we all made it in time to the end of the walk for our bus transport. The walk downstream was easy and pleasant, despite the roar of jet boats disrupting our bucolic experience. It was a reminder that we were getting close to civilisation again and although we all looked forward to a good shower, there was regret that the walk was over already. The transition can sometimes be abrupt, particularly after five days ‘out’ and connections made with fellow walkers can sometimes evaporate quickly when the bus delivers you back to civilisation, but in this case we managed to catch up with Jo and Eileen for a well-earned drink in Queenstown, before departing the next day towards part 3 of our NZ adventure.

New Zealand – Part 1 – Routeburn

It took five years to turn my walking plans for New Zealand into reality, but over Christmas and the New Year I finally managed to walk the Routeburn and the Rees-Dart tracks. My friend Heike flew in from Germany to join me on the walks and we started with the popular Routeburn, walking from The Divide at the Fiordland end to the Routeburn Shelter at the Glenorchy end. We were blessed with the most amazing weather and didn’t need to break the rainjackets out even once.

The walk is very popular, because it is truly spectacular, and you have to book in well in advance to ensure a bunk in one of the huts. Those huts are something else, with mattresses and kitchens and allow you to bring less equipment. Unfortunately we did have to bring mats and tent as we would need those for the Rees-Dart track afterwards, but having the booking meant we didn’t have to rush to the next hut to secure a space.

The walk took us through a variety of vegetation, but one constant was the stunning mountain scenery we got to feast our eyes on. Our arrival at Mackenzie Hut on the first night, after walking for most of the way in vegetation, was breathtaking and the next morning I really wished I had not been lazy and taken that dip in the lake after we arrived at the hut. It looked so inviting, but the next morning was just too chilly to plunge in.

The second day, Christmas Day, was even more spectacular and after we had climbed up from the hut we got to a glorious spot where we could look deep into the Hollyford Valley and across to the Darran Mountains including Mt Tutoko. Those views stayed with us for the whole day until we crossed Harris Saddle and started our descent into the Routeburn Valley, which wasn’t too shabby to look at either. Routeburn Falls Hut was an even prettier hut than the previous one and in a perfect position perched against the hillside.

The final day was an easy walk downhill, occasionally catching glimpses of the roaring river. We finished our walk in style as instead of the expected bus transfer from Glenorchy we were picked up in a speedboat to take us across to Kinloch Lodge, where we found much longed for showers, laundry facilities and a hot tub, not to mention lovely food ad wine menu. Did I say I love walking in New Zealand?