Walk 23 - Rees-Dart Track

The Rees-Dart Track is a combination of two tracks that pass through spectacular alpine scenery and are linked by a high mountain pass; the first heading up the partly rural landscapes of the Rees Valley, the latter descending the more pristine and wild Dart Valley. The trip can be made even more spectacular by including a day trip up to the Cascade Saddle in the heart of the Southern Alps.

Situated near the Routeburn Track at the head of Lake Wakatipu, it is becoming increasingly popular because many trampers arrive in the area to find the Routeburn fully booked. Not being a 'Great Walk', reservations are not required and hut accommodation is also considerably cheaper, though overcrowding becomes a risk. The Rees-Dart does not need excuses though; it is a wonderful track and can hold its own against the 'Great Walks' on all counts. It certainly provided us with our hardest, most adventurous and, in hindsight, most enjoyable tramping experience to date in New Zealand.

Day 1: Muddy Creek to Shelter Rock Hut

It had been a few weeks since our last long tramp, so we were up bright and early with the sunrise, eager to get to the start of the track north of Glenorchy. The morning sky was a firey red (how does that old saying go - red sky in the morning, shepherd's warning) and large lenticular clouds were stacked high over Mt Earnslaw and upper Lake Wakatipu in an impressive start to the day (but did I read somewhere that these clouds signal a change in weather pattern). No point worrying about omens, we were off and running, our packs heavy with gear and 6 days worth of food for our 5-day trek (just in case).

Lenticular clouds stacking up over
Mt Earnslaw

Red sky in the morning - shepherd's warning

Heading down the Rees Valley towards
The shuttle dropped our small group of 7 trampers at Muddy Creek. Leaving the carpark, we followed the 4-wheel drive track over a small rise to see the wide grassy expanse of the Rees Valley spread out before us, cattle grazing contentedly in the golden pastures as the Rees River flowed peacefully by, the steep walls of 2830m Pikirakatahi / Mt Earnslaw rising steeply on the left, the lower slopes of the Richardson Mountains on the right and the snow-capped peaks of the Forbes Mountains forming a brilliant backdrop to this scene of bucolic bliss. This was to be our environment for the next few hours as we headed up the valley.

Rees Valley and the 2400+m Forbes Range

Looking back down the Rees River

First wade of the trip

Lennox Falls (80m)

Leaving the 4-wheel drive track, we followed a line of poles across the paddocks. After a while, it became distinctly spongy underfoot, then boggy, then downright wet as we found ourselves in the middle of a large swampy area. We also found ourselves dancing the swamp samba as we tried to keep our feet dry, but to no avail. Abandoning all hope, we stopped and settled slowly into the quagmire and, in true kiwi tramping tradition, waded on regardless.

The track left this area to climb over a couple of low bluffs that sat flush against the river bank, the last one overlooking a broad river terrace just in front of the Forbes Range. We dropped back on to the flat, passing behind the terrace to follow the valley as it turned eastward; the view in front changing from snow-capped peaks to the rocky silhouette of the head of the Rees Valley.

Upper Rees River in Mt Aspiring
National Park

The valley narrowed and the vegetation changed to beech forest, announcing the start of Mt Aspiring National Park. The river seemed much more attractive in the aesthetic setting of the trees, as we crossed a small swingbridge and started a gentle climb alongside its left bank through a moss-covered rocky forest landscape.

Contented local residents - who wouldn't be?

River terrace - Rees Valley

Looking toward the Upper end of the Rees Valley

Crossing the Slip Flat clearing, we noticed a distinct change in the weather; cloud started to roll in and a cold wind began to pick up. A light drizzle had started by the time that we crossed a series of boulder-filled avalanche gullies high up the valley, but the sight of a swingbridge told us that we had no need to worry. Crossing over, we soon arrived at Shelter Rock Hut with its new roomy bunkrooms. A welcome plume of smoke from the chimney promised us a warm arrival - two deerhunters were also sheltering there and the hut was well supplied with fresh venison!

Beech forest in the Upper Rees Valley

It was a good place to be, as by evening the wind was blowing gale-force, the temperature was dropping rapidly and the rain was setting in. I thought of the red morning sky and lenticular clouds - the weather they had signalled had indeed arrived.

Forest cascade

Avalanche chute

Shelter Rock Hut

Day 2: Shelter Rock Hut to Dart Hut - crossing the Rees Saddle

The one good thing with bad weather in New Zealand is that it is often short-lived, as the fronts are driven through by a strong westerly air stream. We awoke to clear skies, frost on the ground in the shaded valley and the sun glistening off the snow drifts on the mountain tops around us. It would be a good day for crossing the Rees Saddle.

It was 1ºC in the shade as we set off, following the rocky bed of the Rees upstream. A sudden "G'day" surprised us - we had just passed the two hunters sitting in their hide. A curious thought crossed my mind - if I were a buck I would be dead now!

Spaniard grass spikes - Upper Rees Valley

Cairn marking the route to Rees Saddle
We pressed on with our climb, turning eastward into the morning sun, across the low shrubby slopes and past the tall flowering spikes of Spaniard grass. Tussock grasses gradually replaced shrubs as we climbed steadily toward the head of the valley and the final climb up to the saddle.

Nearing Rees Saddle

Looking back to the climb up Rees Pass

The track followed a steep zig-zagging course, lined with daisies and bluebells, up a scree slope under the high rockface at the left side of the saddle. Finally, we crested the saddle to be greeted by the magnificent views up and down the Snowy Creek Valley, a wondrous landscape of steep grassy slopes, dotted with the flowers of mountain hebes, bluebells, gentians in full bloom and tall spikes of Spaniard grass.

View to the north of Rees Pass

Daisies, bluebells and gentians

A short steep descent was followed by a long traverse across this incredible landscape, the steep valley walls framing the glacier-capped mountains of the Snowdrift Range at their far end. The fair Nello thought for a moment that she had heard Julie Andrews singing. I was glad that she hadn't - this environment is much more Andrea Bocelli.

Snowy Creek Gorge

One for the chocolate box ...
Snowy Creek and Mt Edward

Upper Snowy Valley

The hills are alive with the sound
of muuuusic....

Mountain tarns

We followed the deep gorge of the Creek down past a cluster of limpid tarns, before descending steeply to a bridge across it. To the north we saw for the first time the glacier capped peaks at the head of the Dart Valley. The track then undulated for a while through a section that resemble a Salvador Dali rock garden, covered with an effusion of daisy bushes and other low alpine shrubs.

Mountain hebe

Snowy Creek

Swingbridge over the creek

The setting of Dart Hut

Finally one last steep knee-jarring descent down a narrow ridge, a short rocky path alongside a dry stream bed, one last crossing of the Snowy Creek on a long wood and wire swingbridge, and we were in the Dart Valley, where ultramodern large and comfortable Dart Hut awaited us, tucked into its idyllic setting between the river and the steep forested mountain slopes.

Ultramodern Dart Hut

Fernier Glacier on 2480m Mt Lydia

Looking down the Dart Valley

Panorama of the Upper Dart Valley - Mt Lydia, south spur of Humboldt Tower
and Mt Edward (with Hesse and Marshall Glaciers)

Upper Dart Valley

We had arrived early enough to do a bit of exploring, and after a late lunch headed up to an elbow in the Dart River where you could look westward down the valley in one direction and northward towards the imposing 2620m Mt Edward and its glaciers in the other. This would be our path should the weather let us do the sidetrip up to Cascade Saddle.

That night some light cloud began to roll in over the valley walls, but as the sun set, it glowed red above the snow-capped peaks. We went to bed content - red sky at night, shepherd's delight!

Day 3: Cascade Saddle - in the heart of the alps

We were up early - porridge and hot tea by headtorch - for an early start to visit the Cascade Saddle. We were as delighted as the shepherd with the clear blue skies, but the official weather forecast indicated that bad times were on the way and we wanted to get up there and back before it arrived.

Looking up the Cascade Track
and the glaciers of Mt Edward

Back across the swingbridge, up through a small grove of beech, and across a terrace of tussock, shrubs and cutty grass, we reached the elbow of the Dart with its glorious views of Mt Edward. Not stopping to daydream this time, we climbed down the terrace to the right bank of the Dart, its grey-green waters rushing down from the glaciers at the head of the valley. The track followed the river up its gravelly flood-plain, crossing a couple of side-streams before climbing over a small bluff and eventually reaching a bend in the valley. At this point we were facing the Hesse Glacier, which descended halfway down the slope of Mt Edward, waterfalls tumbling from its face to disappear in a pile of mud-covered ice at the base if the mountain before re-emerging from an ice cave and rushing out into the Dart. Even higher up the slope to the east, the clean blue-tinted walls of the Marshall Glacier seemed ready to tumble down to the valley below at any moment.

The hanging Hesse Glacier

Face of the Marshall Glacier high above the valley floor

Turning east, we crossed the broad lateral morain, where once the mighty Dart Glacier had extended, climbed down its face to the valley floor, crossing several deep flood gullies cutting through the gravel and rock (the large exposed boulders showing how unstable these systems are). A variety of cushion plants and alpine herbs struggled to bind the gravel banks in place.

Early morning on the Cascade Saddle Track

Flood gully in the lateral morain

Climbing the scree and boulders of
the morain

Soon we reached a strange monochrome landscape of black glistening ice slabs, grey gravel and grey water; we were at the present-day terminus of the Dart Glacier. Above lay the Cascade Saddle and we commenced the climb up the steep rock / gravel morain towards it. As we climbed, the Dart Glacier was slowly revealed in all its splendour; the whiteness of the clean higher ice gradually appearing, while the pale blue tortured face of the ice fall glistened in the morning sun.

Terminus of the Dart Glacier in front
of Plunkett Dome

Close-up of the blackened ice at the
face of the glacier

The Dart Glacier

Morain edge and Plunkett Dome

Overhead, the sound of keas echoed across the valley and a pair of Pacific gulls flew over our heads and across the saddle. Halfway up the climb, a feathery rush and flash of red and green announced the arrival of a kea, which landed 3m in front of us and hopped over to inspect the intruders into its mountain domain.

Soon, half a dozen of its relatives had joined it and for the next 15 minutes we had a curious and amusing interaction with these incredible parrots - I am still not sure who was amusing themselves the most, the keas or us.


Mountain daisy

Crevasses on the lower glacier

Heading on, we soon reached the top of the steep morain section where the track flattened out to follow a channel between the morain edge boulders and the upper slope, lining up on the rounded snow cap of Plunkett Dome. Below us lay the deep crevasses of the glacier and the jumble of the ice fall while the snowy neve nestled beneath the peaks high above the ice.

The final 100m ascent involved a steep climb up through snow grass covered slopes, splashed with the white flowers of mountain hebe.

The Cascade Saddle

Creek on top of the saddle

The steep walls of Plunkett Dome
with Mt Aspiring (3130m) just
behind the cloud
The track crossed a couple of steep gullies lined with yellow and white daisies and eventually reached the crest of Cascade Saddle (1517m). This place definitely has a very high Wow factor - the deeply fluted walls of Plunkett Dome on the north of the saddle plunged away towards Aspiring Hut, 1000m below, while to the east, 3130m Mt Aspiring played hide and seek with the drifting bands of cloud.

Mt Edward and the Dart Glacier

Directly in front lay the imposing mass of 2800m Mt Rob Roy and, to the south, the Matukituki Valley faded into its step mountainous background. Back behind us lay the curving beauty of the Dart Glacier with its backdrop of snow capped peaks, the pyramidal form of Mt Edward and the Dart Valley disappearing into the west - GLORIOUS!! Several people had told us that this was one of the best alpine views in the world - they get no argument from us.

Alpine wonderland

The imposing mass of 2800m Mt Rob Roy

Looking east up the Matukituki Valley from the Saddle

Dart Valle from the Saddle

We lingered as long as we could, but the mountains were starting to generate a bit of their own cloud and it seemed time to go. The trip up had been full of anticipation, the trip down full of satisfaction and reflection - the past two days in this alpine wonderland had been magical.

Eight hours and 19 km later, we were back in the comfort of Dart Hut again - the clouds were gradually winning the battle with the sun, but it didn't seem to matter anymore. Even if it rained all the next day it would be a fair price for what we had seen and experenced up to date.

Looking back down the Upper Dart Valley

Day 4: Dart Hut to Daley's Flat Hut (wet, wet, wet)

It rained all day!

A light rain had started overnight and the trampers at Dart Hut eagerly awaited the weather posting from the hut warden. At 8.30 it was official - rain all day with a weather warning from 3pm on when 150-180mm was expected in the next 12 hour period. Signs warn that the side creeks between Dart and Daley's Flat huts can become impassable in heavy rain - it was time to leave!

Forest on the valley slopes

Fifteen minutes later, in full wet weather gear, we headed out into the light rain and down the narrow upper Dart Valley. The well-formed track immediately entered the beech forest, keeping high above the river. We followed it for the next 2 hours, accompanied by the pitter patter of rain on our Goretexes and the soft roar of the river down below.

Rainy trek ahead

View across the washout to Cattle Flat - this was
impassable the next day
As time passed the rain became heavier, the patter of our boots became a squish, then a squelch, then a splash as the depressions on the track turned into pools. The forest canopy, which at first protected us, now started to drip heavy drops. Only a solitary robin and fantail remained on duty to greet passing trampers! We crossed several sidestreams and gullies; those that were once dry now flowed, those that normally carried a little water carried a lot - we hoped that we weren't going to meet one that normally carried lots!
Eventually the track descended to a large gravel washout. Crossing this, we climbed back up on to the grassy terraces of Cattle Flat, where the Dart Valley widened out. Behind us the mists and rain shrouded the upper Dart Valley in a ghostly mantle while above the pale shape of the glacier-topped Barrier Range appeared and disappeared in the clouds - even in the rain this landscape is beautiful. We meandered across the 4km grassy flats, crossing several deep gullies with water tumbling down. It was easy to see how these gullies had been carved into the gravel terraces of Cattle Flat.

Difficult stream crossing ahead

Mists rising up the Dart Valley

Bleak crossing of Cattle Flat

Dry feet stream

The long wet grass completed the job started by pools on the track and soon our boots were saturated. The tunnel vision imposed by our rain hoods was matched by a tunnel vision of a warm dry hut ahead, driving us on. We stopped only long enough for a muesli bar or handful of scroggin under the partial shelter of a rock overhang before pushing on. The stream crossings were now starting to get a bit tricky as water levels increased. Reaching the end of the grassy terraces, we re-entered the beech forest, where a rocky track led us slowly down to the edge of the Dart River.

At the river's edge, the track transformed into a well-formed path that followed the river down across the short open grassland of Quinn's Flat, through some more beech forest and on to Daley's Flat. The last two streams were running fast and the fords were now shin deep and rising fast; it was easy to see why - several hundred metres above the flat a pair of waterfalls were exploding off the back of the Pikarakatahi massif. Nonetheless, we were through and the welcome sight of Daley's Flat Hut greeted us at the end of the grassy flat.

We had pushed through from Dart Hut in just under 5 hours - our fastest walk ever, but in heavy rain there is little desire to lie in the grass and smell the daisies.

Wet feet stream

Evening at Daley's Flat and a swelling Dart River

Waterfall plunging off the plateau of Pikarakatahi


How pleasant it was to find a group of DOC officers installed in front of a warm fire; they were based at the hut while undertaking feral goat control. How nice it was to change into dry clothes (even Goretex cannot keep out the insistent New Zealand rain) and join them, drinking hot soup and coffee and watching the level of the Dart River slowly rising near the hut.

The fun was not over; tomorrow would be an interesting last day of our Rees-Dart adventure.

Day 5: Daley's Flat to Daley's Flat (wet, wetter, wettest)

We slept fitfully, woken regularly by the sound of rain pouring off the roof of the hut. When we got up the Dart was nearing its banks, but there were no warnings about sidestreams further on, the goat hunters said that we might have to wade a bit, but no worries, and the kiwi trampers who had come in from the Dart trackhead at Chinaman's Bluff yesterday said that the sidestreams were not a problem. In dribs and drabs, nine of us set out into the rain for Chinaman's Bluff.

Crossing quickly through the beech forest, we reached Dredge Flat and soon realised that our newly dried boots and socks would be short-lived; the flat was ankle-deep in water. We pushed on to reach our first side stream - it was an easy ford.

Leaving the flat, the well-graded track sidled through more forest, crossing a couple of new foaming cascades that required a bit of delicate rock-hopping and eventually dropped back down to the far end of Dredge Flat. Beyond, the dark silhouette of Sandy Bluff loomed through the rain. The narrow track took us up and around the bluff; 90m directly below, the muddy grey waters of the Dart boiled and surged down the swollen river. A few new waterfalls from the top of the bluff fell directly onto the path, increasing our wetness, though the ovehang in places offered a brief shelter from the rain.

No margin for error

Water pooling over the track across Dredge Flat

Sandy Bluff

New braidings appearing as the Dart floods

At the southern end of the bluff we found ourselves again on a grassy flat; the track followed the Dart River bank closely and in places the waters of the river were already washing over it. New branches of the river were starting to form across the depressions of the flat.

We hurried on, needing to follow kiwi tramping best practice and link arms to cross the next stream a bit further inland, as the fast-flowing muddy waters pulled at our legs.

One of the easier crossings

Finding the track again where it now emerged from the Dart River, we followed it along through the beech forest lining a narrow section of the valley. Restricted, the Dart became a raging torrent; rocky outcrops had turned into islands with 2m bow waves as the grey waters churned and boiled around them. For the first time we noticed large logs rafting down the swollen river at great speed and nagging doubts started to enter our minds.

The Dart about to overflow at Sandy Flat - this was
all under water when we returned

One of the streams that blocked us churning down
to meet the Dart

Last photo before the inside of the lens fogged up

In the middle of the forest a swingbridge took us over a large swollen stream and we soon emerged onto another grassy flat. By this time I had begun to fear grassy flats as they signalled another river crossing. I was right to do so, for we soon arrived at a wide thigh deep torrent of churning mud rushing into the Dart River. We had been joined by a German and Israeli tramper, and after many minutes of searching high and low, found a place where we could link arms and get across, though seeing the raging Dart only 30m downstream sent the adrenalin surging. People have drowned crossing streams in this valley and it was clear that if we were washed into the Dart we would add to those statistics.

Greatly relieved to stumble up the far bank, we pushed on across the flat. Uh oh! out of the mist a group of trampers were approaching - at first we were elated thinking that this meant people could come in from the trackhead - then we realised that they were the five trampers that had left Daley's Flat before us and our elation turned to despair - the next side-creek was impassable. The one good thing was that they were accompanied by another person; Donald, a DOC officer doing rat control in the area had seen us passing from his bivvy nearby and came to offer some help. His local knowledge assured us that the creek was not crossable and he invited us back to his bivvy for shelter from the pouring rain. One major problem - the creek that we had all just crossed had continued to rise. A linked line formed, but the bank (with the fair Nello on it) washed away tumbling us in. We struggled back to the edge. A second attempt was made higher upstream away from the Dart - the line broke mid-stream, Donald and two trampers made it across, two of us helped pull the remaining two back to ourside. No more crossing attempts for the moment! We were in the trampers worst dilemma, trapped between two rising streams in heavy rain.

Donald offered to radio Glenorchy and see if we could pay for a jet-boat to come up river and fetch us. The three headed to the bivvy and the rest of us found a bit of shelter at the edge of the beech forest, putting on warmer clothes and starting a long wet wait (why don't beech trees have bigger leaves?). After 30 minutes we heard that a jet-boat was underway and would be there in 50 minutes for $50 each (at that stage they could have charged what they liked!); morale soared and jokes abounded. Two hours later we heard that the jet boat couldn't make it because of all the timber floating down river at great speed; morale sank and the humour got darker.

We really had little choice, stay out in the wet getting colder and colder or return to Daley's Hut. Fortunately, the rain had eased while we were waiting and the water level of the creek had dropped a bit. It was time for a strategic withdrawal. I have few photos of this - digital electronics and water don't mix well and the lens of my camera was already getting condensation inside - and it would take to long to describe everything, so the following are a few highlights of the retreat up the Dart:-

  • the silver-haired Donald propped in the middle of the grey churning torrent with a twisted beech branch, helping each tramper to cross over - Moses in shorts!
  • large river stones being ripped away from under our feet at each step across the creek
  • ten people warming up in Donald's 2-man bivvie having a hot cuppa (thanks for all your help, mate!) before making a final decision - the two Israelis and Stefan stayed at the bivvie, Pete, Patricia, Martin, Stephane, Nello and I opted to go back to the hut - what price a fire and warm bed!
  • bits of the path that had turned into streams and streams that by necessity became our path
  • the size and number of the flotilla of logs and debris rushing down the Dart
  • scrabbling through the scrub and vines on a steep slope to get around a spot where the track had vanished into the river
  • using a fallen tree to get across one deep stream
  • wading through a densely vegetated 'Indiana Jones' style swamp in the forest to get around a flat that had become part of the wider Dart River
  • seeing the cloud lift to reveal a myriad of waterfalls tumbling off the sheer rock mountainside across the Dart

Three hours later we were back in the warmth of the hut, much to the surprise of its occupants. It had been a 9 hour epic tramp in the New Zealand bush and we had learnt a lot about the power of the weather (we learnt later that 300mm had fallen in 36 hours and that a German tramper had been swept to her death in similar circumstances nearby).

The rain was easing, the river levels were falling - tomorrow we would try again.

Day 6: Daley's Flat to Chinaman's Bluff (finally)

At last the fine weather returned - the star-filled night turned into a clear sunny morning and the level of the Dart River alongside the hut had dropped a couple of metres overnight. We set off again from Daley Flat and headed through the succession of beech forest and grassy flats that we had traversed twice yesterday in the rain. The flats were still a shallow pool of water, but we had long given up on dry feet. The sun shone and glistened off the the snow capped peaks of the Barrier Range at the north of the Dart Valley and life seemed good.

Slick grey mud - all that remains
of a raging torrent
It was amazing how much the side-streams had dropped in 12 hours; wide raging torrents were now ankle-deep three-step streams that we crossed quickly. All around though was the evidence of the big flood; broad expanses of slick grey mud indicating the watercourses of the previous 24 hours, large logs stranded on gravel banks in the Dart by receding waters and collapsed edges of the river, eaten away by the rush of water.

The Dart Gorge with Hedin Peak in
the background - calm again

Looking back over Sandy Flat and the Barrier Range

Today a tranquil river
For most of the day we walked with Pete, making quick progress over Sandy Bluff and across the two streams that had caused us so much grief yesterday. In one way we were lucky, as we had the opportunity to see two very different moods of the Dart River. Through the beech trees lining the river we could see (or hear) the jet boats, as they once again plied their trade, taking loads of tourists up to see the wonders of the Dart Valley followed by a quick thrill of speed and spins on the way back. A few people seeking quieter pleasures were floating down with the current in their inflatable funyaks - life on the river had returned to normal.

The stream that stopped us - easy now but the gouged out
banks show where the water was and why we didn't cross

The falls from Lake Unknown plunging several
hundred metres down the mountain side

Soon the large dominating silhouette of Chinaman's Bluff appeared and the track climbed gently around it. A soft roar greeted our ears and on the opposite bank of the wide braided river bed, we were greeted with the wonderful spectacle of a waterfall plunging 700m down the bluff walls in a series of massive leaps from unseen Lake Unknown, perched in a glacial bowl above.

View towards Mt Alfred from Chinaman's Bluff

At the trackhead under the ramparts of Pirarakatahi

Trampers drying out after a wild and woolly walk

Finally, we rounded the southern edge of Chinaman's Bluff and reached the track head and its shelter, on a grassy flat beneath the walls of 2800m Pikirakatahi / Mt Earnslaw. Six days and 94 km after setting out, the tramp was over. We joined our fellow adventurers of the day before in spreading out our gear on the grass to dry and lying in the warmth of the sun, while waiting for the shuttle to take us back to civilisation. There is a heightened sense of camaraderie amongst trampers who have shared a difficult "character-building" adventure; Pete, Patricia, Stephan, Martin, Steffane, the two Israelis (whose names I have hopelessly forgotten) - thanks for your company, as the kiwis would say - it was a pretty unforgettable, eh!.

As for the Rees-Dart Track, it too is unforgettable. The alpine scenery was magnificent, wet or dry, and it will remain one of the best memories of our tramping trip to New Zealand.