Rees-Dart: The New Favorite

Wow.

I just finished (well, two days ago) the most spectacular hike I’ve done in New Zealand, the Rees-Dart. Even though (maybe because) it kicked my ass, it was an amazing six days of outstanding natural beauty. It took my breath away countless times, and not just because I was huffing and puffing to get myself up a steep incline or two.

Also, I might add, with a bitter glance in the Hump Ridge Track’s direction, it was free.

Okay, it was free only because I’d bought a Department of Conservation Backcountry Hut Pass for $60, which included hut fees for the Rees-Dart and all other non-Great Walks, but still.

I had wanted to do the Rees-Dart back in January, after the Routeburn and Greenstone Tracks, because it’s in the same area. I’d heard the three huts on the track, however, were overcrowded, with some 50 people crammed into spaces meant for 20-30. So I figured I’d wait till the Kiwi summer holidays were over and come back. I was lucky. I learned from other hikers that the day before I started the trail, the huts were again overflowing, and on my third night at Dart Hut, the place was gridlocked with people sleeping on the porch outside in the chill alpine air because there was no room anywhere else (because it was my third night at the hut, I already had a bunk).

The Rees-Dart is so popular because it’s not a Great Walk, though I would argue it is heaps more “great” than the GWs I’ve done, including my beloved Kepler. It doesn’t require advance booking and is cheaper than the GWs (if you don’t have a hut pass, it costs $15 a night, compared with the $45 a night for Great Walk huts). Because it’s not a Great Walk, the trail is also not as developed. It was pretty rough in places, and also far more steep, muddy, rocky and just plain “scrummy” as one Englishman on the trail put it. And I loved that about it. It was a proper trail, “not a motorway like the Great Walks” as a German I met described it.

The people on the trail, even when packed into the hut, also had generally a better attitude than many I’ve met on the GWs. They were serious hikers and willing to share their space in the cramped quarters and respect quiet in the bunkrooms when people were sleeping and take their boots off at the door. Many were Kiwis (rare on the Great Walks) but I also met several Americans, Brits, Australians, Germans (of course!), Austrians, Czechs, two crazy Italian guys who tried to combine two days into one and wound up running it, French folk and Croatians.

I was also incredibly lucky with the weather. And it’s not just about getting pretty photos. There are numerous unbridged stream crossings on the trail (another difference from the GWs) which quickly become impassable in rain. People have died on the trail getting swept away in flash floods or from exposure or tumbling down the steep scree and snowgrass slopes.

Ah, peril.

The Rees-Dart is more than 80km if you do both side trips, which I did (more on those in a bit). It is, roughly speaking, an elongated upside down U shape. You walk up one river valley (the Rees or the Dart), cross over an alpine saddle and come down the other valley. Although you can do it in either direction, I chose the way recommended (counterclockwise) for being slightly easier because hey, I think I was facing enough of a challenge as it was.

Day One

Along with eight other trampers, I took a shuttle bus from Glenorchy the 30km or so to the Rees Valley trailhead. Even with slightly overcast weather, the scenery was stunning from the get-go as the glacially-carved Rees Valley opened up before us. It’s about 16km (10 miles) to the first hut, with about a 500 meter (1550 feet) elevation gain that’s spread throughout most of the day, so very little steep up and down. There were a few rough, crumbly, loose rock places that tormented my ankles, and a lot of mud across the flats, oh, and poor trail markings that had me wandering off across the bog here and there till I found the trail again, but I didn’t mind. All I had to do was look around me at the open valley, the looming mountains, the rare Paradise ducks and curious cows and I found plenty to distract myself.

I did miss the landmark I wanted to see most… apparently, near the disused 25 Mile Hut about a third of the way into the hike, there’s a memorial to some of the hikers swept away when a creek allegedly rose more than three meters (ten feet) in less than an hour during a storm. Fortunately, as the weather had been dry, the creeks were low enough that I never went in over my calf. The mud was worse than I thought – I followed the advice of a fellwalker I met in England’s Lakes District last year who  told me never step on bright green or black, only brown or dull green, and I never went into the mud deeper than my ankle. At the hut, however, several hikers complained (and had the filthy pants and boots to prove it) of going up to their thigh in the sticky brownie batter-like ooze.

So remember, kids, when crossing bogs or fells, “never step on bright green or black, only brown or dull green.”

Day Two

During the night, the rains came. Howling, smashing, pouring down on the roof of the hut and onto the mountains and the bogs and yes, the streams and river. By dawn the worst of it was over, but it was still spitting and misty with occasional deluges. A few of the hikers stubbornly stuck to schedule and set off for an ugly slog upward, but others, including myself, waited around. It was only 9km (less than six miles) to the next hut, the main challenge of the day being another 500 meter elevation gain, up and over Rees Saddle, which can be notoriously slippery on both sides.

I waited until noon, snuggled in my sleeping bag and pajamas, reading Bernard Cornwell’s “The Pale Horseman,” deep in Saxon England aside from keeping one eye on the skies.

It started to clear, and I set out. The streams were running a little higher, but because I was crossing them higher up, they still were never more than ankle-deep. It was muddy across the open tussock basin, but not as bad as it had been in the boggy flats the day before. My main pain, literally, was the damn speargrass. It looks a little like flax or aloe from a distance, but if you bump into it at a certain angle, you will understand why it’s called speargrass. The ends of the leaves are so stiff and sharp that even a gentle bump draws blood. Ouch.

The final 100 meters up to the Rees Saddle is nearly vertical, but doable since I took it slow. The skies had cleared by then, so I was rewarded with amazing views of both the upper Rees Valley and Snowy Creek Valley, as well as a glimpse of the Dart Valley ahead and the glaciers cloaking Marion Tower.

Snowy Creek is at the bottom of a steep gorge. It’s fast-running over boulders as big as a school bus, so there is, mercifully, a bridge to cross it. DOC removes the bridge in winter because it would otherwise be destroyed by the numerous avalanches that come slamming down the narrow space. Getting down from the saddle to the bridge, then back up again to where the trail steeply sidles another mountain, proved to be the tricksiest part of the day, and also the part least enjoyed by my ankles as loose rocks, still wet and slippery from the rain, conspired against me. But again, it was worth it for the expansive views as the Snowy Creek Valley opened up into the Dart, and glimpses of what lie ahead.

Day Three

After a comfortable snooze at Dart Hut, I left my pack there and started out on the first of two side trips, this one the 19km (11 or so miles) round-trip to Cascade Saddle. There’s about 600 meters of elevation gain on the trail, but nearly all of it is in the last couple of kilometers, across glacial moraine, scree and snowgrass. The trail started out along the Dart Valley, once buried by a monstrous glacier more than 1000 meters thick (I read it may have been more than 4000 meters thick, that’s more than two miles of ice in height, but don’t know how reliable the source was).

I was lucky again because the streams crossing the trail had dropped enough to ford – two women leaving that morning told me they’d had to turn back due to flood levels the day before. That’s the thing about those mountain streams and rivers; the levels drop as fast as they rise. In the end the crossings were easy and I never went in above my knee.

The way was marked by cairns and the occasional orange snow pole, but otherwise it was a stretch of yellow-green tussock grass broken by streaks of rocks and the braided Dart River, framed by barren, sharp mountains. I felt like I was in the Himalayas. Even though I was at a much lower elevation (Dart Hut is only 900 or so meters above sea level and the Cascade Saddle is less than 1600), it had that same barren, empty “roof of the world” feeling you get from photos of the Himalayan valleys.

The valley narrowed to a point where further passage meant an exciting scramble over rocks and boulders right on the rushing river’s edge. Then it opened up again and, soon after, I got my first glimpse of the snout of what’s left of Dart Glacier. It was black. Not just dirty, but black, like an enormous pile of soot.

The trail began to climb along the glacier’s edge and, ever so slowly and teasingly, I was able to see more of the source of the Dart, first more piles of soot, then streaky black and grey and then finally, nearly to Cascade Saddle, I could look over and see pristine blue-white ice rumpled at the foot of Mt. Maori.

The final push to the saddle started on crazysteep scree and ended on sheets of bare rock and slopes of snowgrass but, yay, was broken up in the middle by a long, perfectly flat bench that overlooked the glacier like a balcony box overlooks a stage.

Once at the saddle, I could look over it to my first close-up view of Mt. Aspiring, the tallest mountain here at the southern end of the Southern Alps. It’s 3030 meters,  about 10,000 feet, but, like Mt. Cook, what it lacks in sheer height it makes up for in personality. You may remember Mt. Aspiring from the opening moments of The Two Towers (oh yes, you knew I’d find an LOTR connection, didn’t you?), when the camera follows its severe angles and snowfields as Frodo dreams of Gandalf’s fight with the Balrog in the Mines of Moria…

Wait, I can tell I’m losing you. Back to the trail. Cascade Saddle itself is too steep to be an actual alpine crossing, and hikers tramping onward to the next valley have to sidestep it and then climb to an even higher saddle at a spot called the Pylon, another popular spot to tumble to your death.

Me, I took several good long looks at Aspiring and Dart Glacier and then began the long, slow descent back to Dart Hut. By the time I got to the snout of the glacier again, my worse ankle was threatening to secede from the union. I took it slow and barely made it back to the hut before dark. But what an amazing experience.

Day Four

Damn my Lonely Planet Tramping New Zealand Guide. Damn it to hell.

In fact, I’ve had it with LP. I used to swear by their guides and recommend them to everyone, but the past few I’ve had have been disappointing, full of errors and lazy writing that simply regurgitates whatever the tourist pamphlets say. And I do seriously doubt that the author of the tramping guide did most of the trails. Case in point: the second side trip from Dart Hut, to Whitbourn Glacier, is described as “much easier” than the trail to Cascade Saddle. I set out in the morning thinking it would be a nice 10km or so jaunt to give my ankles a rest.

Yeah.

Well, it’s certainly shorter than the trip to Cascade Saddle, but as I started walking and scrutinizing my topographical map to see what awaited me, I thought “hmm, that looks steep. That looks really, really steep.”

And it was.

While the Cascade Saddle trail is classified as a tramping track, marked and somewhat developed, the Whitbourn Valley trail is a route, which means there’s a cairn here and there but it’s up to you to figure the way from one to the next. Yes, it was shorter than the Cascade Saddle trail, but getting down to the Dart River and back up again, then sidling a steep gorge with the Whitbourn rushing below, was no cakewalk. In several places, small waterfalls had washed out any horizontal surface and I had to clamber over boulders or swing like a monkey from fallen tree branch to fallen tree branch to make any progress.

Don’t get me wrong… it was fun, especially since I’d left my pack at the hut again, and my ankles did get a break when I made my way forward Tarzan-style. It just irked me that the LP book would call it “much easier,” offering no further information, smacking of lazy journalism, which irks me to no end.

I continued for a while and then, when it got rough on my ankles again, decided it was time to turn around. I ended up climbing out onto a boulder halfway into the Dart River and watching the silty blue-gray water rush past, which was far more enjoyable than asking of my ankles more than they could give.

Day Five

At last it was time to leave Dart Hut… and not a day too soon. A few large groups of hikers had arrived the previous night and the place was packed, people sleeping everywhere. It was about 16km to the next hut, Daleys Flat, following the Dart River. What a splendid walk, in perfect weather. I kept stopping to look around, because in every direction there was a sight to behold, looking back at Marion Tower, up to Curzon Glacier, ahead to broad, grassy flats riddled with avalanche gullies. Even the forests seemed lovelier than on other trails, thick with beech and rushing streams.

A wild, non-native grass that looked to me like wheat covered much of the flats, including the picturesque Quinn’s Flat, growing hip-high in many places. I brushed the soft tops with my hands as I walked, thinking about the opening scene of “Gladiator,” when Maximus is walking through the field before battle. That put the theme to the movie in my head for most of the day, which is not a bad thing.

Though I did actually begin to hum the “Hallelujah” chorus when I came out of a bit of forest and saw Daleys Flat Hut ahead. It was beautiful, and not a difficult walk by any means, but it was a long one for my ankles, which were still recovering from the previous days.

The hut itself was noticeably more basic and grotty than the other newer and more spacious ones on the trail. Apparently they’re slowly upgrading the Rees-Dart overall, improving both the huts and the trail itself. I’m guessing they have plans to make it into a Great Walk within a couple years, which in many ways is a shame. Once it gets boardwalked and gussied up and graveled over, I think it will lose a lot of its character. I’m glad I was able to walk it now.

Day Six

I couldn’t sleep so I got an early start, on the trail shortly after 0700 to cover the final 16km to Chinaman’s Flat and the spot to catch the 1400 shuttle. It was a gray day, with mediocre visibility, and once again I felt so fortunate that the weather gods smiled on me when it mattered most. The trail continued to follow the Dart downstream, mostly through bush and river flat, with two up-and-over sections at Sandy Bluff and Chinaman’s Bluff named, like the Flat, for the Chinese miners that once searched for gold there.

The biggest excitement on the walk that day was finally seeing a rifleman, a teeny tiny robin-like bird, New Zealand’s smallest, that weighs just a couple grams. Adorable, but too quick for a photo.

The second biggest excitement was seeing some of the new and experimental stoat traps DOC has placed as part of its Operation Ark Project to save highly endangered native birds such as the mohua. The traps are supposed to be more effective and more humane. Lured by the smell, the stoat stands on its hind legs to look into the trap and BLAM! gets its head crushed. I suppose that’s more humane than a slow death in an old-fashioned trap or the grotesque and painful death-by-poison, but when I got a look at the white traps fixed to sides of trees at about knee-height, I could only think one thing: how long before some idiot tourist decides to heed the call of nature and thinks “oh look, they’ve put in soap dispensers for my convenience and personal hygiene!” I’m just sayin’.

About a dozen of us arrived by noon and sat in the shelter waiting for the long shuttle ride back to Glenorchy. A few of us had talked about trying to hitch, but on this dim and slightly drizzly day, few tourists and day walkers were venturing out to the flat so we had little chance of catching a ride. We were a pretty motley bunch – six days on the trail without a shower will do that – but when a half-empty private tour bus pulled up I figured it was worth asking if they had space. Hey, the worst that he could say was no, right?

The guide, a particularly arrogant Kiwi, looked us over and said “this is an exclusive group” as if I had asked the Queen of England for half of her sandwich. Well, excuuuuse me (what I said, curtsying extravagantly). When I went back to the shelter and told the other hikers what he’d said, there was much loud and boisterous jeering.

I imagined we seemed like a gang of plundering barbarians, covered in mud and dirt and sweat and sandfly bites, to the half-dozen posh tourists in their matchy-matchy North Face-outfits (who the hell irons their hiking khakis?? And you could tell their boots had never touched mud, their fancy fleece vests had never known the stink of six days of sweat).

When the bus drove past again, one of our group, the Kiwi named Anthony with whom I’d traded books we’d finished the night before (he got the Saxon violence of “The Pale Horseman” and I got Thomas Harris’ “Lustrum,” a highly entertaining retelling of ancient Rome, so I think we both won), did the right thing.

He walked out of the shelter, almost into the road, and mooned them.

Good man.

After our laughter subsided, our conversation returned to the most important topic at hand, and the only one we’d been discussing for the last 24 hours.

Food.

All of us were nearly out, and none of us wanted to eat what we had left, a sad assortment of peanut butter, crackers, two-minute noodles and nuts. Instead, we talked about triple cream brie, baskets of chips, fresh blue cod, gelato, birthday cakes thick with buttercream and burgers (even me). In a freaky coincidence, we discovered that all of us had been fantasizing about Fergburger, a Queenstown hole-in-the-wall famous for, what else, its massive, delicious burgers. Even I’d been there, trying on separate occasions The Codfather (battered blue cod), the Bun Laden (falafel) and, in a moment of weakness, the Little Lamby, featuring yes, New Zealand lamb, the most delicious burger I have ever had even though I felt horrible afterward for eating meat.

The shuttle came soon after and we piled in, filling it. Only then did the true horror of our collective scent become apparent. God, we stank. That dizzying odor of old, wet socks, unwashed flesh, greasy hair and a vague, rancid meat smell.

Within the hour, however, we were all back in Glenorchy, going our separate ways, which meant to separate shower stalls. The next day, several of us ran into each other at, where else, Fergburger.

I had the Bun Laden again, treating myself to a side of onion rings with garlic aioli. Like the Rees-Dart itself, it was good. It was very, very good.

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