The Rees and Dart Valley tracks run through some of the most spectacular scenery in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, and indeed, the Southern Hemisphere.
In late January this year I was fortunate enough to spend some time in the Mount Aspiring National Park in the south-west of New Zealand’s South Island. After sampling the crazy, hedonistic atmosphere of Queenstown for a couple of days I was more than ready to leave and head on to wild landscapes, leaving wild party-town behind. I had planned to fit in a multi-day hike but did not want to be walking with a crowd. The Rees Dart Track was recommended to me by a couple of friends: It was reasonably strenuous, far less busy than the Great Walks routes, fitted in with my available time constraints and – rather importantly, did not require booking weeks or months in advance as many of the more popular walks did. It was also only a couple of hours drive from my then base of Queenstown and (and this is what clinched it for me) apparently spectacularly scenic. Regarding the last point, I was certainly not disappointed, it is an incredibly beautiful, awe-inspiring area.
Before leaving Queenstown, I checked in at the Department of Conservation’s office to pick up a map, tickets for the huts and some advice on the condition of the track. I learned that the normal circular route up the Rees valley then back down the Dart Valley was not possible at that time. The Dart Valley part of the track had been blocked by avalanches the previous winter, making the route to Chinaman’s Car Park (the standard end point) impassable. Blasting to clear it was happening but was not yet complete.
Completing the 46 kilometre drive north to Glenorchy took me far longer than the expected hour. It was hard not to stop every few miles in order to get out and photograph yet another stunning view over Lake Wakatipu and the Thompson, Livingstone, Ailsa and Humboldt mountain ranges beyond. Arriving at Mrs Wooley’s General Store, I drove in to Mrs Woolly’s Campsite directly behind, pitched my tent and settled in for the evening. Mrs Woolly’s store is exactly what one might expect from a store located in rural New Zealand belonging to someone called ‘Mrs Woolly’; constructed from rough wooden planks and packed full of wholesome goodies. Two teenage girls served behind the counter (Mrs Woolly’s daughters I convinced myself). I imaged Mrs Woolly as a kindly-faced elderly lady with wire-rimmed glasses and a white pinafore over a long black dress; a kind-of antipodean ‘grandma Walton’. I tried hard not to think that ‘Mrs Woolly’ might be the creation of some bright young advertising executive in Queenstown or Auckland.
My planned early morning start didn’t happen. For various reasons I found myself completing the drive back to Queenstown and returning to Glenorchy mid-afternoon. By the time I finally set off for the Rees Valley and the start of the track it was well after 2pm. I drove my little hire car as far as the track would allow; to the track starting point at Muddy Creek Car Park. There I grabbed a quick bite of bread and cheese from the food supplies I had, locked the remains of the bread loaf securely in the cars boot (a bad decision as I would later find out) shouldered my pack and set off walking around 4pm, much later than I had originally hoped. The forecast was not great. A weather warning was in place with strong winds and heavy rain forecast, but – on the bright side – it wasn’t raining… yet.
By six in the evening I was stomping through the waterlogged meadows that bordered the braided, meandering river as it flowed along the wide glacier-carved valley, walking directly in to the wind-driven rain. Every so often the track would head up in to the steep sided valley walls. Here the path was far drier but slower as one clambered over or under fallen trees. As the rainfall became heavier the steep muddy track became ever more slippery. To my surprise, as I negotiated my way along the narrow track, I suddenly came upon a tiny one-man tent erected in the shelter of the shallowest of depressions in the rock face that bordered the upslope side of the track. I was impressed at the ingenuity in pitching a tent on mud-covered rock in what was no more than a 3 or 4 foot deep undercut in the cliff. This was the first (and only sign of others) on the track I encountered that evening. I was to meet very colourful character who occupied the tent the next day, but for now I tramped on. Eventually I abandoned it in favour of a direct route through the meadows, fast becoming a calf deep bog. There are poles marking the preferred route across the valley floor but, as the wind increased, they became trickier to spot in the driving rain. I leaned in to the gale-force wind, my jacket hood pulled low and the collar high so only my eyes and nose were exposed to the needle like rain drops, and plodded through what now resembled paddy fields more than grass meadows. I reckoned I was carrying a few extra pounds with the mud that filled my boots and encased my legs to mid-thigh after numerous plunges in to troughs hidden beneath the water’s surface. I thought about the warm sunshine and gentle, cooling breeze that had lulled me in to a false optimism at the start of my hike only a few hours earlier. The same question went around in my head: where the hell I was going to pitch my tent that night. It was 20km from the car park to Shelter Rock Hut, 7km from the park boundary which I had still to reach, but continuing to walk after dark seemed like a pretty dumb idea.
When I finally reached the park boundary the sky was already darkening. The track climbed out of the valley floor up in to the trees. The park boundary sign estimated a further 3-4 hours walking to Shelter Rock Hut, that would be 3-4 hours in very dark conditions, under the trees with heavy cloud cover, along a slippery, muddy footpath with possible steep drops at the edge of the track. Maybe not tonight I though. The alternative was to pitch my tent for the night. I found a raised clearing in the trees; slightly drier than the surround land but with a soft carpet of sphagnum moss. I watched the surrounding trees sway and creak in the wind but decided that chancing a tree fall on me while I slept was a risk worth taking given the alternative option of pitching on open, boggy ground where, if my tent didn’t blow away, I’d probably find myself lying in several inches of water. Despite my tent almost blowing flat at times, and the ominous creaking of nearby trees, I fell asleep quickly and slept until the early hours. I awake around 3a.m. to a persistent scratching noise. Something was trying to get in to my tent. I thought about the empty tin from the cold chilli con carne I had eaten before crawling in to my sleeping bag, now tucked under the awning of the tent. Okay, so something was feasting on the scraps in the tin – but no, the noise was inside the tent. I was a little more awake now. In fact, the scratching was on the outside of my sleeping back, and I could feel small footsteps on my shoulder. Fumbling for my torch I discovered a mouse had somehow got into my tent (quite how remains a mystery, the tent was zipped fast and no holes were later discovered). Extracting a very athletic and clearly terrified mouse from a small tent crammed with soggy clothes is no easy feat. After several minutes of trying to corner an animal that that appeared capable of leaping many times its own body length and changed direction far faster than I was capable of, it finally discovered the (now unzipped) tent door and leap to freedom.
The remaining hours of darkness passed uneventfully. By dawn the wind had died away to nothing and the rain ceased. I lay in my sleeping bag watching sandflies form frenzied mobs on the other side of the mesh vents of my tent. Female sandflies (more properly west coast blackflies, Austrosimulium ungulatum) are attracted by the CO2 from exhaled breath; this would accumulate within my tent through the night. They are also believed to be attracted to chemicals such as 1-octen-3-ol that also occurs in exhaled breath and in sweat. Again this was something that abounded within my small tent and the soggy clothing within after by exertions of the previous evening. All the flies congregating outside my tent were females. I knew this because only the females are attracted in this manner. The reason for their frantic pawing at the mesh vents, in a manner reminding me of the zombies in a George A. Romero movie, was their need to drink blood (my blood, specifically, at this moment in time). If a female cannot obtain a blood meal she lays only a few eggs, but if she is successful then she may lay several batches of two to three hundred eggs. Personally, I’m not too keen on helping produce more sandflies, and I had already been driven to distraction by the intense itching that is the after-effect of their dining on me. So I lay in my sleeping bag, safe from their bloodthirsty attentions, for a little longer. In many other parts of the World black fly species are the vectors for some pretty nasty diseases (e.g. river blindness through transmission of the nematode worm Onchocerca volvulus). I wasn’t aware of any similar concerns in New Zealand, but even so I had no desire to be bitten more than absolutely necessary.
Once up there was no incentive to hang around. After a quick breakfast of porridge and coffee I packed up my tent, pushed my feet in to still sopping wet boots, shouldered my rucksack and headed on up the track. The first part of the track within the park is a very pleasant hike through beech forest with a dense undergrowth of ferns. Sphagnum moss blanketed much of the forest floor whilst lichens hung from and encased the tree trunks and branches. Occasional streams cascaded down the steep walls and, more often than not, I couldn’t resist the urge to dig out my camera and set up a few shots. Thus it’s fair to say my progress was slow, but my intention was to make it no further than Shelter Rock Hut that day, so I had all day to cover 7 kilometres. After an hour or so the forest came to an abrupt end, the track continuing through open meadows of tussock grass interspersed with Spaniard plants (Aciphylla species) or speargrass as they are sometimes known due to their stiff, erect, spear-like leaves which are sharp as razors and definitely to be avoided. As the morning progressed, the sky cleared, and the walk became very pleasant. Shortly before arriving at Shelter Rock Hut I met the first other people on the track. Jesse and Alecia, a couple from Colorado, caught up with me as I took my time and stopped to take photographs (Jesse has his own blog on travel and living cheaply, noodlesandfish.com). We walked the last couple of kilometres together. As we arrived at the hut we were greeted by the wardens, with boiling water for a hot drink and a coal burning stove throwing out a radiant heat that filled the room. We settled in for the day with our fellow trampers: Craig, an Auckland geneticist and artist, his teenage son and his son’s friend, and our two wardens. We were joined later by the occupant of the tent I passed last night. A fascinating guy who spent most of the year living out of his car, and the summer months tramping the tracks of Otago and Fiordland. As it transpired, the following day was one of persistent rain and wind, so the day was spent drinking coffee, stoking to stove and swapping yarns.
I had intended to write and publish this as a complete article, as ever, time became squeezed with other projects and so I decided to publish this first part before too much time elapsed. In the words of those old ’60s TV cliffhangers ... to be continued.
© Colin Munro 2017
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