A classic New Zealand tramping track, the Rees-Dart circuit was closed for a number of years due to a huge slip in 2014. As soon as it reopened in late 2017 I booked to walk it late April 2018. Unfortunately in February 2018 Cyclone Gita damaged the bridge over the often dangerous to cross Dart River. It was touch and go, but I got lucky and the bridge was reopened about a week before I walked the track. DOC were slow to update the website so over a long public holiday aided weekend I walked 81km over four days, only coming across half a dozen people.
I started from Muddy Creek car park, heading up the wide Rees Valley, overtaking and being overtaken when I stopped by a pair of Canadian spirit cyclists, on holiday after the Commonwealth Games in Australia. The valley walk was a flat, boggy slog, but at least the scenery was pleasant.
I was less keen on the cows I soon came across, but unlike my experience a fortnight earlier on the Motatapu Track, there was plenty of room to get through them safely.
At Twenty-Five Mile Creek there was a poignant reminder of the risks of tramping, in a memorial to a pair who drowned after being swept away by a nearby flooded creek. Another reminder never to cross a flooded river, wait it out or turn back. Understandably there is now a bridge over the creek.
This was my 22nd multi-day walk in New Zealand and I’ve never walked a track with so many 21river crossings. Even without rain for two days it was near impossible to keep my boots mostly dry. This definitely isn’t a track to walk in wet weather, you can quickly become stranded.
The sun came out as I reached the end of the private station land and crossed into Mt Aspiring National Park. By a bridge over the Rees River made for a lovely spot for lunch, once I’d covered up to avoid being bitten by the sandflies.
Much of the next couple of hours was through bush but it opened up a couple of times to quite spectacular effect. The night before there had been unseasonally early snow, a sprinkle of white dust across the tops of the mountains.
Shelter Rock Hut was home for the night, surrounded by mountains and having an entire bunk room to myself, with the Canadians next door, and a Belgium in the kitchen / third bunk room area.
It was literally freezing overnight, evidenced by frozen water pipes and thick frost. By half seven the sun had started to hit the reach the tops of the mountains and I got ready to head out.
The first couple of hours were spent heading up the valley to the Rees Saddle, coming across some of the most unusual ice formations I’ve seen. One explanation for these fine strands of ice could be frozen water pushed out of the soil overnight perhaps.
Parts of the stream were also frozen in wonderful patterns.
The views weren’t bad either.
The ascent was reasonably steady until a final steep push up onto the 1,471m saddle. From here an unmarked but obvious track headed even higher for 360 degree views of the Rees and Dart valleys, plus a couple of frozen tarns.
There was more ice, though less scenic and more dangerous on my descent the other side, though these icicles were pretty impressive.
Heading along Snowy Creek was quite spectacular on a perfect blue sky day, with alpine vegetation and snow capped mountains everywhere, plus a few waterfalls.
I reached Dart Hut in time for much needed lunch, and chatted to the warden Alex, after crossing over the recently repaired bridge, which had led to the track being closed to most for three months. The bridge itself was fine but they had to add the steps in as the bank had sunk two metres making access a little tricky…
Dart hut is ten years old but doesn’t seem it, well maintained, with a great deck, large kitchen area, four bunk rooms and like all the huts on the track flash flush toilets! Yet again I got a whole bunk room to myself. There were six of us staying in the 32 bunk hut, heaving by recent standards, with the soon departing warden having seen 15 people in the last 15 days, including our six. Quite a contrast from earlier in the season, particularly over the summer holidays when it was frequently full to overflowing with people. One night it was home to 70 people! Late April is end of the season on the track, with the wardens on their final rotation (15 days on, 6 days off) packing up the huts for winter, draining the flush toilets (to save them from freezing) and shutting off the running water (other than outside tanks).
Though a little tired from the morning’s walk over the saddle I couldn’t waste the brilliant weather, which was forecast to turn for the worse the next day. I spent the afternoon heading out to Dart Glacier, which I’ll cover in a separate post, but here’s a couple of photos of what to expect.
Thankfully the weather held for most of the following day as I headed 18km to Daleys Flat Hut further along the Dart River. The first hour and a half was spent heading through pretty standard bush, lots of beech trees, though atmospheric in the morning sunshine.
The bush ended with a huge channel cut by flood waters demonstrating the power of nature.
From here Cattle Flat was the scenic highlight of the day, though you can become stranded here in wet weather as the many channels that flow into the Dart River become flooded. Perfect weather for me though, mostly sunny with a few clouds. It’s somewhat less flat than it’s name!
Five minutes into the bush part way along Cattle Flat is an impressive rock bivy. A good place to wait out flooded rivers but not sure I’d want to spend the night there.
After a final lovely parting view of Cattle Flat I headed back into the bush, home to more impressive rocks and numerous waterfalls.
Next was the nearly as pleasant Daleys Flat, followed by a quick explore of a rather wobbly bridge to nowhere, or at least no where with tracks, on the other side of the Dark River. I only ventured a third of the way across, enough for gorgeous views down the river to Daleys Flat Hut.
The view approaching the hut was ridiculously scenic, and while the hut is 45 years old it made a great base for the next day and a half. I shared the place with a Frenchman on his first proper New Zealand tramp, and we were joined by the informative and entertainingly honest DOC warden Daniel in the evening.
Given the highly weather dependent nature of the track I’d allowed a day buffer, which I didn’t need, but it was easier to stay at Daleys Flat Hut for another night than try to reorganise transport to make it back to Auckland or spend the night in Queenstown. I got the hut to my self for much of the day (the Frenchman left by 8am, the Canadians arrived after 2pm, and an Australian couple about 3pm) and quite easily passed the time reading, writing, chopping up firewood, managing the fire, sweeping, talking to people, and soaking in this view.
Daleys Flat was the pick of the huts to spend a day as it gets the most light (Dart Hut in late April was dark before noon), and it has the smallest kitchen area (easiest to heat), though it’d be hard to choose between the views from each, they’re all in stunning locations.
The final day was a relatively straightforward 16km to Chinamans Car Park, the highlight of which was the turquoise lake formed by the huge slips in 2014 which wiped out a good chunk of the track. The lake has many erie if beautiful dead trees.
Heading up Sandy Bluff you get a sense of size for the lake, and the two slips that created it when they narrowed the Dart River.
The remainder of the track was a bit of a slog through the beech forest though it had some nice water features, more tussock at Surveyor’s Flat, sightings of the Dart River Jet Boat, and a graphic illustration of the damage flood waters can do to bridges, explaining why DOC remove a number of them during winter.
In time for some much needed lunch I reached Chinamans Car Park, though the initial priority was covering all exposed skin to protect from the swarming sandflies.
The drive back to Queenstown Airport with the excellent Glenorchy Journeys was spectacular as usual, this is such a wonderful part of the world.