Eyes Above The Waves

Robert O'Callahan. Christian. Repatriate Kiwi. Hacker.

Friday 8 December 2023

Rees-Dart Track 2023

After the Caples-Routeburn trip, seven members of the group took a shuttle back to Queenstown and then flew home, and the remaining five stayed on in Glenorchy. Saturday 18 November was a rest day; the weather was excellent and we did some short walks around Glenorchy — the lagoon walk was lovely. We also rendezvoused with our sixth group member and prepped for the Rees-Dart track starting on Sunday. I always really enjoy these rest days: time to reflect on the previous leg and relax with friends while still enjoying the anticipation of another imminent adventure.

The previous time I did the Rees-Dart, we walked up the Rees valley and down the Dart. This time, mainly for the sake of variety, we did it in the other direction. So, on the first day we got a shuttle from Glenorchy up to Chinaman’s Bluff car park. Once again it was a relief to not have to drive ourselves over some very sketchy roads! On this first day up the Dart valley, there are a couple of segments where the track winds around bluffs with some tricky up-and-down, but otherwise it’s really quite flat and easy, and very beautiful with snow around the peaks and the sun shining. We were blessed with fine weather for the whole trip, except for some clouds and rain on the last day. Our group was all quite fit and we moved along very quickly, usually matching or beating DoC’s signposted times. It was a real workout for me, as the oldest and definitely the weakest link! We got to Daly Flat hut in good time and enjoyed a relaxing afternoon … indoors, because the sandflies are pretty thick there (although only there; very few sandflies were seen on the rest of the trip). That first night we tried a new tramping meal: tortilla wraps with canned tuna, mayonnaise (jar), shredded cabbage and sundried tomatoes in oil (jar). This went down very well and the ingredients last long without refridgeration; we’ll definitely repeat it!

All along this track we drank freely from side streams (but not the river itself) — delicious, and also convenient because we didn’t have to carry much water. This didn’t cause anyone any issues. My son got an unexpected bonus: catching a native shrimp in his water-bottle.

Day two was a longish stretch along the Dart valley to Dart Hut. I had remembered the Cattle Flat stretch as being uncomfortably rocky underfoot, but curiously it didn’t feel that way this time. Overall it’s actually quite an easy track, and not too long if you’re moving reasonably fast like we were (18km in about six hours). I stuffed things up a bit by losing my hat and going back along the track to unsuccessfully look for it; the rest of the trip I had to slather my head in sunscreen lotion, which fortunately did work. Once again the views were extremely beautiful. Dart Hut is quite a busy hut because many people spent two nights there so they can do the Cascade Saddle side trip. We met a number of interesting people; the Rees-Dart attracts visitors who are more capable and experienced than average. Some of our group members refreshed themselves with a dip in the pools next to Dart Hut; the water was icy-cold, but I wasn’t into it this time. Our dinner was pasta, canned tomatoes, grated cheese, diced salami cooked together with dehydrated carrots — another really good one.

The next day we did the day walk to Cascade Saddle. This is definitely the highlight of the Rees-Dart, and once again we were blessed with perfect weather. It was a long day — eight hours of walking at a good speed, plus an hour on the saddle — but very well worth it. The track follows the Dart River upstream until you get close to the end of the Dart Glacier, and then heads steeply uphill. Along the way you have to navigate a couple of very large slips mostly consisting of very broken rock. The first slip also has a lip that can be climbed with difficulty or else navigated around with a significant detour. We finally reached the top of the saddle in time for an early lunch. The whole area is just amazing: looking down onto the Dart Glacier to the west, and stunning views of Mt Aspiring and the surrounding area to the east. Patches of snowfields were all around us. Every so often we’d hear a crack and boom and see chunks of snow falling down the mountains around the glacier. You feel like you’re a long way from anywhere, although oddly enough you can see a car park in the far distance in the Matukituki Valley.

Since the beginning of the Caples/Routeburn track I’d been aware of cracks around the soles of my boots. It didn’t seem to deteriorate significantly during the Caples/Routeburn, but perhaps because of getting my feet wet in stream crossings and the harsh rocky terrain of the Cascade Saddle route, my right boot sole started to detach. From here until the end of the trip I had to use duct tape and bandages to hold the boot together, eventually on my left boot too. I guess I got about 70-80 days of walking out of these boots and I expected them to last longer. Maybe my next pair will be better. One lesson learned is that it probably would have been worth buying new boots before this trip for the sake of my peace of mind.

On day four we made our way from Dart Hut up by Snowy Creek to the Rees Saddle. The segment near Dart Hut is pretty steep and tricky track, with a lot of speargrass, and I did not enjoy descending it last time. Going up it isn’t much fun either but I think I preferred the ascent. The whole area is extremely beautiful, especially up on the saddle where we arrived in time for lunch. Climbing up a bit further to the knob just west of the saddle is highly recommended; you get views down the upper and lower Snowy Creek valleys and also the Rees Valley. I was worried about the descent from the saddle — it’s very steep and snow was present — but the snow was mostly avoidable and we had no problems. The track down Rees Valley to Shelter Rock Hut is quite easy and we made very good time. Shelter Rock Hut itself is lovely, probably our favourite hut of the trip.

On the last day we left the hut around 7:30am to be sure to make our shuttle pickup at 3:30pm. We had light rain most of the morning — the only rain in all five days — but we continued to move at a very good pace down the valley. Once we reached the grassland part of the valley the rain slackened but we started getting buffeted by high winds, and later on we also encountered the infamous boggy sections of track. It’s quite challenging hopping from one lump of hopefully-solid ground to the next while catching a wind gust! The clouds obscured our view of Mt Earnslaw but otherwise we had excellent views up and down the valley. In the end of course we reached the carpark with plenty of time and had to spend an hour dodging sandflies. Fortunately our driver arrived early to rescue us. The drive back to Queenstown was as spectacular as ever. We got to the airport in plenty of time, so we were able to have dinner at “The Meat Preachers”, which turned out to be about perfect for a post-tramp feast.

The flight home was somewhat eventful. A crew member had pulled out, so they had to offload passengers to meet a crew/passenger ratio requirement. I encouraged my son to volunteer for offloading since he didn’t have anything to do the next day — unlike other passengers trying to get back to work, family, or connecting flights. Air New Zealand took good care of him and he got back early the next day anyway, having spent the night at posh hotel. Another less fun event was that an airline passenger who had sat near me on the flight came up to me afterward and complained that I stank. It’s the first time anyone has made a complaint to me like this, after many many post-tramp flights, but I suppose most people wouldn’t complain even if they were unhappy. In the future I’ll try to find a way to have a shower before the flight or at least make sure I change all my clothes.

Overall this trip was a huge success. We had a few aches and pains but nothing serious. So far, everyone I’ve done the Rees-Dart with has agreed that it’s the best track they’ve done in New Zealand … which is a high bar. I really thank God for the privilege of having been able to do it twice in three years, with great weather and people I love. I might not ever do it again, but if and when I accumulate some more appropriately fit tramping buddies, I think I might!

BTW the Mountain Safety Council has made a pretty amazing video about the Rees-Dart which is worth watching.