This is the story of my first big multi-day hike in New Zealand. The Rees-Dart is a four-day hike in the South Island of New Zealand, mostly in the Mount Aspiring National Park. This hike does boast stunning alpine scenery but it was a challenging and not entirely positive experience. In fact I nearly broke up with my boyfriend over it.
Day One: Muddy Creek to Shelter Rock Hut (5-8 hours, 19km)
The Muddy Creek car park is the starting point for this walk, around 68 kilometres from Queenstown. From there we hiked up a wide golden river valley between snow-capped peaks. The trail winds through leasehold farmland, with Mt Earnslaw peeping through the clouds on the left, towards the national park boundary.
The path follows the wide, chattering Rees River down the valley centre, weaving from side to side. Into the woods we stopped in a country garden clearing, with trees that look like an orchard and neat clumps of hebe that look like trimmed box. Tiny birds landed on our packs.
By the time we reached the national park I was starting to struggle a bit. The weight of the backpack felt like it was boring straight through my hip joints and into the ground. I was worried I had bitten off more than I could chew and blamed my boyfriend for planning this big hike for such an inexperienced walker. It started to rain in the late afternoon and I was quite wet by the time I dragged my sorry self into the hut.
Day Two: Shelter Rock Hut to Dart Hut (4–6 hours, 10km)
On the second day we crossed the Rees Pass and found ourselves surrounded by snowed-in country. The mountains are all decorated and the Mt Cook lilies push through the snow cover. A snowy creak tumbles blue and foaming down the valley.
I tried to set my own pace today rather than try to keep up with the group. but by the end of the day I was exhausted and discouraged to think this is only half way. Of course the scenery is the saving grace. Today I noticed tiny, red jewel-like juicy nertera growing close against the ground when we stopped for elevenses. And an alpine garden of daisies and lilies, spreading yellow and white up the hillside. A cheeky kea swooped overhead.
Day Three: Dart Hut to Daleys Flat Hut (5–7 hours, 18km)
I walked mostly alone today with sore and wet feet through dripping beech forest to Cattle Flat. We stopped for lunch by the river and the boulders were all red and yellow with lichen. The cicadas sang so loudly they were audible even above the icy rapids. There were half-star pratia flowers along the trailside. I love the mix of forest and alpine vegetation, which keeps the scenery varied.
Dayley’s Flat Hut is very comfortable and in a lovely setting but again I was last to arrive at the hut, not just last out of our group but last overall it seemed. After gobbling a dinner of pasta I crawled straight into my sleeping bag.
Day Four: Daley’s Flat Hut to Chinamans car park (5.5 –7.5 hours 16km)
After discussing the situationb with my companions the night before I set off as early as I could on the final day. I knew it was important to get to the pick up point in time to get a bus. I knew I was hiking at least an hour slower than the rest of the team. On the fourth day the trail sidles around first Sandy Bluff and then Chinaman’s Bluff: along peaceful cattle flats beside the Dart River towards the pick up point.
This would have been quite easy walking if I wasn’t so tired and discouraged. The rest of the hikers passed me within a couple of hours in the morning but my boyfriend stayed with me later in the day and I kept going doggedly.
I stumbled into the car park that is the end of trail with about ten minutes to spare before the bus was due. (The bus stop is 78 kilometres from Queenstown but there is a jet boat service on the lower Dart section of the track, as well as the bus service.)
There is not doubt that the Rees-Dart is a spectacular walk with gorgeous New Zealand alpine scenery. However, I finished this hike feeling like I never wanted to do another long walk again. Why? I was exhausted physically and mentally. I walked progressively slower as the days passed, at first making the slowest estimated time and then exceeding it by the last day. I thought I was the world’s worst hiker. With the benefit of hindsight I know this was because I was inexperienced and I know that my body finds carrying a heavy pack very challenging.
Since hiking the Rees-Dart I have done a lot of trekking in Nepal and some in the UK and Europe, where it is not necessary to carry a heavy backpack filled with sleeping bag/food/cooking equipment. Next month I am heading back to New Zealand do to another multi-day walk, one that is dubbed the world’s best hike, the Milford Track. With so much more outdoors adventure experience under my belt am I ready for the New Zealand tramping challenge again??
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you been hiking in New Zealand?