Off the Beaten Track in New Zealand: Trekking the Rees-Dart in Mount Aspiring National Park
By Michael Lanza
We’ve hiked just thirty minutes from the trailhead when we hit the kind of view that frequently makes you stop and take a deep breath when trekking in New Zealand. The Rees River Valley sprawls out before us, golden grasslands dissected by a braided, meandering, emerald-green river. In the middle distance, a fat and foaming Lennox Falls plunges over a cliff. Farther off and thousands of feet above us, glaciers pour off a row of sharp peaks in the Forbes Range angling into the sky.
My hiking partner, Gary Kuehn, an American who has lived here on New Zealand’s South Island working as a mountain guide for several years—long enough, apparently, to pick up that semi-intelligible Kiwi accent—looks around, grins, and mutters, “Pritty noice.”
Gary has seen a fair bit of these Southern Alps, where vistas like this are so common that they inspire an odd sort of déjà vu that you have stumbled into paradise for something like the fourth time today. And yet, he jumped at the invitation to join me here on the Rees-Dart Track because he’s actually never done this trek.
That fact affirms my impression of the Rees-Dart, most of which falls within Mt. Aspiring National Park: Although just spitting distance from the world-famous and enormously popular Routeburn Track, with scenery copied and pasted from the same Southern Alps template, the longer and more rugged Rees-Dart remains largely overlooked by the armies of international trekkers that invade New Zealand every austral summer. Other than the expected busy atmosphere at the huts, we will spend most of every day out here seeing no one else.
That’s kind of remarkable, given that just about every living human who’s ever put on a backpack and walked up a trail dreams of trekking in New Zealand (rightly so), and many of them make it here.
We continue up the valley, sinking calf-deep into just a few mud bogs—pleasantly dry trail conditions for New Zealand. We enter a dark, intensely green forest of moss-draped, twisted beech trees, where ferns obscure the ground—woodlands that make the fictional landscapes of Dr. Seuss look unimaginative—and cross a swinging bridge over the shallow but lively Rees River.
Climbing higher into the mountains, we leave the forest behind and continue past the usual first-night stop for Rees-Dart trekkers, the Shelter Rock Hut. We hike into the evening across rolling, treeless sub-alpine terrain carpeted with knee-high tussock grasses and the dagger-like fronds of a plant called speargrass. Steep, green mountainsides rear up on both sides. At 4,747-foot (1,447-meter) Rees Saddle, soft evening light makes the greens, browns, and grays seem to glow on mountainsides where enormous fins of rock erupt from the earth. From the pass, we descend steeply into a gorge wallpapered with waterfalls to cross a footbridge over the deafening whitewater roar of boulder-choked Snowy Creek.
Just before dark, Gary and I stroll up to the Dart Hut, perched on a bench above the raucous Dart River. In every direction, slopes of dense greenery rise to bare rock and glaciers. We cook up a late dinner and throw mattresses onto the outdoor deck to spend the clear, cool night under a sky machine-gunned with stars.
Lying on the deck, fully knackered from our 18-mile, 4,300-foot-uphill first day on the Rees-Dart, I’m hoping for good weather tomorrow for this trek’s highlight segment, Cascade Saddle, which is notorious for fog obliterating the views. Then I see Orion shining brightly—and I have to smile. The familiar constellation offers a reminder that I’m in a place about as playfully exotic as it gets: In the Southern sky, Orion performs a handstand.
The high-pitched laughter rains down from the sky, volleying side to side on mighty gusts of wind. I look up, scanning the blue for the bird I know is producing that distinctive song. Gary spots them first, points, and says, “Keas.”
Four of the world’s only alpine parrot slice the air acrobatically, issuing their signature high-pitched chortle, as if infinitely amused by the foolishness of humans who would walk high into the mountains just to turn around and go back down again. The kea’s song is New Zealand’s avian answer to North America’s loon: a sound from a wild bird that induces a smile for how it seems to express the joy of being in a stunning, wild place.
On our second morning, we’re making the 12.4-mile (20k), out-and-back hike from the Dart Hut to 5,000-foot (1,524-meter) Cascade Saddle. And the weather gods are smiling on us: skies are mostly clear. Having walked upstream alongside the angry whitewater of the Dart River, we are now hundreds of feet above the heavily cracked, dirt-streaked Dart Glacier, which spews that gray river from its snout. We zigzag through switchbacks on a steep trail that crosses almost lifeless glacial moraine—rocks, dirt, and little more than mosses, lichens, and those jester keas.
At Cascade Saddle, Gary and I stand atop cliffs thousands of feet above the lushly green Matukituki River Valley. The sharp pyramid of Mount Aspiring, a peak Gary has guided many times, towers above the valley. Snowy, icy mountains stand shoulder to shoulder for as far as we can see. And we’re the only two people standing here.
We linger over the scenery for as long as we can stand the blasts of harsh wind, and then start back down to the hut. As we descend, the wind kicks up a dust storm in the upper Dart Valley. We had seen a brown cloud from just such a windstorm while riding in the hiker shuttle van many miles from here yesterday. The van’s driver had told us that wind is the reason to walk the track counterclockwise—up the Rees, down the Dart: “If the weather’s crrrrap,” he explained in that accent that is impossible to not love, “at least the wind is at your baahck.”
Later that day, after a few hours of hiking down the Dart Valley from the Dart Hut, Gary and I pitch our tent in Cattle Flat, a grassy meadow speckled with wildflowers. The sandflies come out in full force to greet and eat us, but the evening light paints the valley in soft tones after the sun drops behind the mountains. Beech forest flanks the grassy valley bottom. The Dart River banks through gentle turns below us. Craggy peaks stretch toward the clouds.
Those clouds will congeal into a thick overcast by tomorrow, our last day on the Rees-Dart, showering us with a light drizzle. But the weather will seem appropriately dark and mysterious as we hike through more of that signature, stranger-than-fiction beech forest, and along a river where bus-size, glacial-erratic boulders sit midstream, deposited by the Dart Glacier thousands of years ago, during a time when the ice reached some 80 miles beyond its current terminus.
In New Zealand, a small country with an unusual wealth of natural beauty, the Rees-Dart Track remains a best-kept secret, a multi-day hut trek where you can stumble repeatedly into paradise without having to elbow through crowds to enjoy the view.
See my other stories and images from adventures in New Zealand:
River of Many Stories: Canoeing New Zealand’s Stunning Whanganui
Super Volcanoes: Hiking the Steaming Peaks of New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park
Into the Mystic: Sea Kayaking Doubtful Sound In New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR moderately fit and experienced trekkers and backpackers who are aware of and prepared for the potential hazards. The track, or trail, is good and not difficult to follow, but steep in places. The biggest challenges are weather-related, including severe winds and rain, dangerous creek fords in times of high water, and extremely muddy track in wet conditions. This track is strenuous—more so than the nearby, shorter Routeburn Track—and has long stretches above treeline that are exposed to the weather.
Make It Happen
Season Summer (December through February) is the best time of year, with average daytime highs in the 60s to 70s F (high teens to low 20s C), and lows in the fifties F (low teens C). March can be a good month as well, a little cooler, though there is a chance of snowfall in the mountains. Rain is common year-round and can be very localized.
Plan four to five days, walking six to eight hours a day, for the 37.2-mile (60k) Rees-Dart Track, which starts and ends at different trailheads. Walk up the Rees Valley (starting at Muddy Creek Trailhead) and down the Dart Valley (finishing at Chinamans Bluff Trailhead) in order to have the frequent, strong, down-valley winds in the Dart Valley at your back.
The usual itinerary is to spend your first night at Shelter Rock Hut, second night at Dart Hut, and final night at Daleys Flat Hut. Layover a second night at Dart Hut to make the 12.4-mile (20k), out-and-back hike from the hut to Cascade Saddle, definitely one of the scenic highlights of this track. For better chances of good weather and clear views for that hike, have the flexibility in your schedule to wait out a day at Dart Hut (possibly spending three nights there). You can also dayhike 8.7 miles (14k) out and back from the Dart Hut to the snout of the Whitbourn Glacier.
Getting There The Rees Trailhead (Muddy Creek) and Dart Trailhead (Chinamans Bluff) are 42 and 47 miles from Queenstown, respectively, and more than an hour’s drive apart on roads with river fords. Use a transport service: Buckley Transport, +64 3 442 8215, buckleytransport.co.nz; or Info & Track/Backpacker Express, +64 3 442 9708, infotrack.co.nz.
Map Mount Aspiring Parkmap 273-02 (1:160,000), $9 NZ, or the NZ Topo50 Lake Williamson CA10 and Glenorchy CB10 maps (1:50,000), $9 NZ each; linz.govt.nz/topography/topo-maps/topo50/sheets. Maps are sold at DOC offices, bookstores, outdoor stores, and information centers, including several in Queenstown, the nearest major town to the Rees-Dart Track and an enjoyable little town to visit.
Guidebook Tramping in New Zealand, $22 US, lonelyplanet.com.
• Cover up and be obsessive about reapplying sunblock; UV exposure is extreme throughout New Zealand.
• Don’t leave a tent or gear unattended for any length of time; keas will shred anything.
• Rain is common, and strong winds and severe weather can make hiking in exposed, sub-alpine areas dangerous. Time your trekking at higher elevations for a forecast of fair weather.
• Don’t attempt this track during heavy rain; some creek fords become impassable. Check current track and creek conditions with the DOC office in Queenstown (see Contact, below).
• Bring waterproof outerwear, including gaiters.
• Swarming, biting sandflies are abundant in the “bush,” or forest areas, and along water. Use a DEET-based repellent and wear long sleeves, pants, a hat that shields your ears and neck, and a head net if preferred.
• Bring a good tent (see reviews at this site) in case there’s no space in a shelter or weather forces you to alter your plans. The lower-elevation huts, especially Daleys Flat, can get overrun by sandflies, making it preferable to sleep outside in a tent.
Huts and Camping Purchase tickets in advance for the Shelter Rock, Dart, and Daleys Flat huts from the Department of Conservation (DOC) office in Queenstown (see Contact below); ask about the number of people expected nightly at each hut. Bring your own stove, fuel, and food. Camping is allowed outside the huts and elsewhere along the tracks, except in sub-alpine areas between Shelter Rock Hut and Dart Hut and at Cascade Saddle.
Contact New Zealand Department of Conservation, doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/tracks-and-walks/otago/queenstown-wakatipu/rees-dart-track. DOC Queenstown office, 36-38 Shotover St. (in the central business district), +64 3 442 7935, email@example.com. The DOC Queenstown office is located in the Outside Sports retail store, where you can get last-minute supplies and gear, and is open from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week.