The icy water was chest deep & I found myself clinging for dear life to two young blokes I’d only met the day before. We gingerly stepped into the main flow & I, being the furthermost upstream, was promptly knocked off my feet. Quickly deciding this wasn’t likely to end well, we all carefully turned around & executed a nerve-racking retreat. Not to be defeated so easily, the three of us split up & scoured the bank, searching for a safer place to cross.  It had been raining for days, and the result was that this side stream of the Dart River we were attempting to cross was simply ranging torrent in both directions. The choices were simple. Either cross now, or spend a very cold wet night camped here, waiting in hope that the river would subside. The second option didn’t appeal to any of us, so another likely crossing location was soon agreed upon. We linked arms, braced & plunged in. Immediately the cold swift water both hit like a hammer & chilled me to the core. Luckily this time I was able to clutch a large rock in the centre of the stream, then with every muscle in my body braced, swing Cameron & Christian across. Once they battled past the worst of it, I was dragged through & we all managed to clamber onto the bank. Surprised & relieved to be across, I recall saying something along the lines of ‘the best thing we can do now is keep moving, so let’s go!‘. Knowing full well that if we didn’t push on, that the cold would set in & hypothermia would become a very real possibility.

A leisurely weeks hiking to unwind…

I had been in New Zealand for about 10 days, climbing some alpine peaks with two mates from Australia. They had departed, leaving me tired & sore, but full of excitement for the next adventure. After a couple of rest days in the stunning lakeside paradise of Wanaka, I booked a shuttle with Alpine Connexions to the trail-head at Raspberry Flat. Mount Aspiring National Park was a region I’d not spent much time in & I was keen to spend a relaxing week exploring the deep glacial Valleys filled with dense pine & rainforest. I was feeling both drained from the climbing, but also fit & ready for a another challenge. My intention was to head up the West Matukituki Valley to Aspiring Hut, over the renowned Cascade saddle route if the weather gods permitted, then from Dart hut walk back down the Rees Valley. I’ve roughly marked my route in Pink on the two maps below. During the hike I referred to the two relevant NZ Topo printed map sheets regularly & would highly recommend buying topographic maps for any hiking in NZ.

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My route marked in Pink, Starting from Raspberry Flat in the East, up the West Matukituki to Aspiring Hut. Side trip to Shovel Flat (north) then across the Cascade saddle route to Dart Hut. Side trip to Cattle Flat (west) then south-west down the Rees Valley.

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The final day & a half walking coming from the north, with my campsite at Slip Flat marked by a triangle. The Muddy creek car-park is just beyond the edge of the map to the south. My printed map also ended about where this screen grab cuts off.

Having thus far been blessed with nothing but clear bluebird skies for the first half of the trip, it seemed only fitting that a large weather system would arrive the day my hike begun. After chatting to several authorities on the area, such as the Wanaka DOC Visitor Ccentre staff & the owners of a local outdoor gear shop, the overwhelming consensus was that my intended plans were doomed. Destined to end in failure or mishap. Not someone who takes safety lightly, I decided to proceed with the original plan, but evaluate the situation upon arrival closer to the potential hazardous section. Having just been alpine climbing, I also had the clothing & equipment necessary to pack adequately for harsh South Island mountain weather. I also spoke the the hut Wardens along the way & carried my ACR Rescue Link GPS PLB at all times (Personal Locator Beacon).

West Maukituki to Aspiring Hut

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L: Looking back down the West Matukituki on Day 1. R: Looking up the West Matukituki on day one, past some locals.

Setting off up the West Matukituki Valley my pack was overloaded. Complete with 6 days of food, plenty of wet weather gear, warm clothes & a high altitude mountaineering tent (the only one I had with me). Even my Ice Axe & crampons were thrown in at the last moment. Sure it was heavy, but at least I was prepared for the conditions & didn’t have to worry about getting stuck out without the right gear or enough food. The walk starts gently, with a wide easy trail winding through Aspiring Station’s lush green pastures, home to curious sheep & fat healthy cattle. It’s only a couple of hours to Aspiring Hut so I was there in time for a leisurely lunch. It had been raining on & off all morning, with plenty more to come, as I would learn in the days following. There were only 3 other occupants staying at the hut, which set the trend for the whole trip, mostly empty huts & quiet trails. Just the way I like it. February is peak season, but the wet forecast had probably kept most people away.

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L: Aspiring Hut. R: Self portrait looking out the Window at Aspiring Hut.

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L: Selfie overlooking the West Matukituki River. R: Looking up the West Matukituki Valley, with lower slopes French Ridge seen in the top right of the frame.

Aspiring Hut to Dart Hut, Via the Cascade Saddle

After two nights at Aspiring Hut I was ready to move on. The weather was showing no sign of abating, so I decided that day 3 was going to be Cascade Saddle day. I’d met Christian & Cameron at the hut, two friendly young fellow Aussies who were in NZ for the first time. We decided it would be wise to stick together heading over the saddle, so agreed to wake early & hope for the best. The weather actually looked even worse in the morning, but determined we all packed our bags in silence & donned full wet-weather gear. Stew, the Aspiring Hut warden wished us a safe crossing & promised to radio the warden at Dart Hut to expect our arrival later that evening. It was cold & raining when we left, making the initial couple hours of climbing steadily up through the pine forest quite magical. The amount of water running of the mountains was a bit concerning but not ‘turn around’ inducing. We gained about 400m in elevation per hour according to my Suunto Traverse, which made keeping track of our progress quite easy.

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L: Cameron getting some exposure on the way up to the Pylon, the West Matukituki Valley glimpsed far below. R: Christian & Cameron trying to shelter from the sideways snow at our high point.

Before leaving the tree line we all stopped for a rest & added an extra layer of clothing. The temperature was dropping, hovering just above freezing and the rain was beginning to feel more like sleet. Once out in the open we caught glimpses of the valley far below through the cloud, but also glimpses of the deteriorating weather ahead. The clouds were ominously dark & full of precipitation. This section of the route is considered the most dangerous, especially in wet windy conditions. Be very careful to follow the marker poles, as a deviation off the track here wouldn’t be ideal. It soon became apparent that the rain was now icy sleet & the temps were hovering around freezing. The exposure to the North is quite significant & I’d recommend only experienced & well equipped parties attempt this route in adverse conditions. We all climbed slowly & carefully, soon finding ourselves at the 1835m high point at the Pylon. It was near blizzard conditions, air temps below freezing, plus windchill with sideways snow starting to fall. Keen to get out of the wind we pushed on, down to Cascade Creek below. We knew there was a small toilet there so aimed for that. The wet snow was about 3inches thick over the rocks, making it quite hazardous to walk on. My ice axe came out & the other guys used a walking pole each.

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L: walking down from Cascade creek towards Cascade Saddle. R: Cascade Saddle is behind us to the right, with the Dart glacier to the left.

After our rest, all of us jammed in the toilet, we crossed the already thigh deep Cascade Creek & headed down-hill, stopping briefly to be smashed by wind just above the Cascade Saddle. The famous views were very obscured, but we could just see down to the lower sections of the Dart Glacier. The route down from the Saddle towards the Dart River fairly straigh forward to follow, being very well marked with poles & rock-cairns (as were the trails during the whole hike). It was still sleeting with flurries of snow following us down to about 1000m. The Dart River was raging, which led us to experience the rather intense aforementioned stream crossing, not an ordeal I will soon forget. After 10 hours of madness, the three of us were rather ecstatic to see smoke bellowing from the chimney of Dart Hut in the distance. The warden, Zaneta & the only other guest Dave, were thankfully warned of our impending arrival. They had the coal stove roaring, which was fortunate because everything was sopping wet, highlighting the importance of good dry-bags! Mine had luckily kept my vital extra clothing & sleeping bag dry. My Arcteryx Theta AR GTX Jacket really proved it’s worth that day & earned my trust. Falling asleep after a good feed, snug & bone tired in a warm comfy bunk was pretty darn satisfying that night.

Hiatus at the end of the world

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L: Rain off the roof at Dart Hut. R: Long relaxing days reading whilst the world raged outside

Sometimes, spending time holed up in a warm, cosy back-country hut, while the world rages outside is just the remedy for our hectic overdeveloped world. Luckily for me, I had plenty of time to kill so staying three nights at the stunningly situated Dart Hut was possible. Perched above the confluence of Snowy creek & the Dart River, Dart Hut is a spacious & fairly modern modern DOC operated facility. That said, it’s design & character certainly suit the landscape. The rain wasn’t going anywhere so neither was I for a while. The furthermost I ventured was about 8k further down the track beside Dart River one afternoon, to stretch my legs & enjoy walking without my heavy pack for a while. (Note: The track that heads back down the Dart river valley was still closed at the time of writing, check the DOC website for updates)  Relaxing in the Hut, reading, attempting to bake bread, writing in my journal & chatting to a few other guests was more than enough to keep me occupied. Notable mentions to Matt from Montana & Warden Zaneta for some quality company, and engaging conversation. The coal stove was a constant source of entertainment & I had a great time splitting firewood with a grand view of the mountains.

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L: Our attempt at making bread in the coal stove. R: Boiling water on the coal stove

Dart Hut to Muddy Flat

After three relaxing nights at Dart Hut I decided it was time to depart. Besides… I did have a bus pick-up booked for two days time & a flight back to Australia not long after that. Had that not been the case, I may well still be there. The sun had re-emerged the evening before & not long after leaving the hut I was presented with some glorious views back up the Dart Valley, across mountains that had been enshrouded by rain & clouds during my walk down the river days before. The weather was cool & fine & I relished being alone in this pristine wilderness. After passing Don & Cliff who I’d first met at Aspiring Hut, then crossed paths again at Dart Hut, I arrived at the high point for the day, Rees Saddle.

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L: Selfie looking back up the Dart River, whist heading up the toward the Rees Saddle. R: Looking up the Rees Valley from Shelter Rock Hut.

After that it was downhill all the way, literally following the Rees River from it’s origin. Seeig a river grow and change from a trickle to a moderate flow was quite special, giving me ideas for another trip to the area, pack rafting anyone? Shelter Rock Hut arrived in no time so I stopped there for lunch, but decided to push on down the valley for a couple more hours to Slip Flat. I’d been lugging my little Nemo Tenshi Alpine tent along and really wanted to spend the final night outside. My chosen camp-site was about 2m from the bank of the Rees River, with only a swarm of sand flies for company. Being in a North-South Valley it both lost the sun early & didn’t see it again until late, which was fine but made for a cold evening!

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Early morning camped by the Rees River, with Mt. Earnslaw just peaking out above the ridge in the top right-hand corner of the frame.

Waking early to find my gaiters frozen stiff outside the tent, I quickly broke camp & got moving, chasing the approaching sun down the trail. The final days walk was lovely, a mixture of moss covered pine forest, with regular views of the growing Rees river & the ever present mountains flanking the valley. Mount Earnslaw was on my right for most of the day & I was already plotting to return for a climbing trip reach her distant summit. After leaving the Aspiring National Park boundary, I was again striding through high-country station farmland, with plenty of locals (cattle) to say hi to. For the final two days the traffic coming up the valley had steadily increased, which had me feeling blessed to have been up there with only a small & ever friendly group of people. After the final couple of kilometers on the dirt road I stumbled across Muddy Creek to the car-park. being several hours early for my pick-up, I chatted to Don & Cliff again & napped under a tree. Having just under-packed food for the week (or maybe it was that I ate too much at Dart Hut…) my stomach was growling in anticipation for a hearty meal later that evening in Queenstown, the tiny morsels of salami & Parmesan cheese I’d managed to save until the very end weren’t going to cut it. Right on time, Glenorchy Journeys arrived & I was treated to a lovely drive back to Queenstown. Avoiding the massive lines at the iconic Ferg Burger, I headed instead for the nearby Devil Burger, to slay the monstrous Man-Killer burger, along large serve of fries & a pint of local nectar. A fitting culmination to a great week in the mountains.

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L: The swing bridge over the Rees River that marks the boundary of the Mt Aspiring National Park. L: Looking back up the Rees Valley to Mount Earnslaw, with the other Dart Hut Warden Mason & his father Kevin heading up the trail.

For those thinking of spending time in this part of New Zealand, definitely consider the West Matukituki/Rees Valley region. Visit the DOC website for further info & up to date track conditions. Don’t forget that the weather in the NZ Southern Alps can be harsh & unforgiving. Always pack ready to encounter the worst, even in summer & take the necessary safety precautions. Happy trails & enjoy the mountains!

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L: The end, waiting a Muddy Creek. My smelly feet tired & a bit sore after several weeks in my Scarpa Rebel Pro GTX Alpine boots, which actually hike incredibly well!

About The Author

Lachlan Gardiner

Lachlan works as a freelance photographer, writer and videographer. He loves spending time in the outdoors whenever possible - be it hiking, mountaineering, climbing, or just being on the road - He'll take any excuse to get into the mountains! He also works in our Paddy Pallin store in Fortitude valley, Brisbane. Drop in and say hi!

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