2007 – Cascade Saddle – A tale of two valleys

Moa Hunters on this trip:  Chris, Adam, Richard, Paul

If the Department of Conservation was to elevate another track to Great Walk status, the Rees Dart track would be a strong contender.  The Rees and Dart valleys are surrounded by spectacular mountains.  The huts are large and the tracks well graded and maintained.  If anything it is verging on slightly mainstream for Moa Hunters.  But the magnificent surroundings make it one not to be missed.

Our itinerary:

Day 1: Raspberry Creek up Matukituki, past Cascade Hut, past Aspiring Hut, camp somewhere.
Day 2: Camp to Pylon, to Cascade Saddle (1524m) to Dart Hut
Day 3: Dart Hut to Rees Saddle
Day 4: Rees Saddle to Rees Valley Road End (Muddy Creek)

Topomap of our route

Google map of our route

Google Earth flyover of the approximate Cascade Saddle route

Day 1

Saturday 24th February – Raspberry creek to campsite

Little did Sonya know when she agreed to put us up for the night at her house in Wanaka that we would be back regularly for a few years to come!  Neither did we back then, but nonetheless we still very much appreciated her hospitality and kind offer to drive us to the start of the track and collect us a few days later.

From Wanaka we were driven to Raspberry Flat, at the end of a long shingle road which follows the  West Branch of the Matukituki River.  It was a day for hats and plenty of sun block.  Even though it was only mid morning, we soon worked up a sweat as we trundled along following the track up the true right of the river.

Wandering up the Matukituki West Branch
Wandering up the Matukituki West Branch

There were numerous small creeks to rock hop across along the way.  Well, unless your name is Chris.  In which case you avoid the rocks and plunge in boots and all at the first opportunity.  “It doesn’t feel like real tramping if my feet are dry,” he assured us.

Easy walking up the Matukituki valley
Easy walking up the Matukituki valley

Walking up the valley was very pleasant and the surrounding mountains were more and more spectacular the deeper we got into it.  There were no nasty bluffs to grunt over.  Just a long flat grassy valley floor.  In fact it was all too easy.  Which suited Paul very well.  He was, in his own words, feeling a little under par.

When we reached a fork in the track, Paul no doubt took a couple of deep breaths.  The right fork continues gently up the valley.  The left one, which we took, launches immediately into a steep climb.

Starting at 450 metres above sea level, the climb is continuous. Towards the end, it becomes brutally steep.  At around 1780 metres there is a pylon which marks the highest point of the ascent.

As we climbed through the beech forest we kept an eye out anywhere suitable to set up camp.  The route guide mentioned there are a couple of well used flat areas beside the track.  Paul did amazingly well considering he wasn’t feeling great.  He certainly didn’t slow us down, despite feeling considerably more buggered than he normally would for the level of exertion.

Camping en route to Cascade Saddle
Camping en route to Cascade Saddle

When we finally came upon it, the first camp site was fairly obvious, with two flat cleared areas next to the track.  We decided to stop and set-up camp for the night.  Jobs were split.  A couple of us put up the tents while Richard cranked up a burner and set about frying kransky sausages.  Strong flavoured and full of fat, kranskies are fantastic tramping fodder.  That night they tasted better than ever.

As the light faded, we sat in a small group and talked about nothing in particular.  Without a pack on his back, and a belly full of food, Paul was feeling a lot better.  While we swapped tall stories, each of us at different times noticed small movements out of the corner of an eye.  Before long we worked out what those movements were.  The campsite was alive with mice!  They were clearly seasoned campaigners and knew that a group of trampers like us were bound to leave a few tasty crumbs about.  They were also confident we were no threat, being so bold as to nip out on reconnaissance runs while we sat there watching.  Tiredness eventually overcame our interest in the little rodents, and we all wriggled into sleeping bags for the night.

Day 2

Sunday 25th February – Campsite to Dart hut
Looking down the Matukituki from the pylon
Looking down the Matukituki.

The next morning dawned overcast. After a hearty feed of porridge, we stuffed all our gear back into our packs and were ready to continue up to the pylon and Cascade Saddle.  Heading straight up a hill from the first step is always a bit of a rude awakening for leg muscles.  But it didn’t take long to warm them up and get into our strides.  We made good progress despite the track becoming steadily steeper the higher we climbed.

About 300 vertical metres from the pylon the track clears the bushline.  It is at about that point that we felt the first smatterings of rain.  From this point we did get some nice views back down the Matukituki valley we had walked the previous day.

We stopped and briefly dropped packs to pull on our jackets.  The higher we climbed, the worse the weather became.  Cresting the final rise we had our heads in the low cloud and the rain was becoming more persistent.

In sunny conditions we probably would have stopped at the pylon to enjoy the view and savour the moment.  It wasn’t sunny, and we didn’t.  Beyond the pylon, there is a descent of about 200 metres leading into a long flat basin.  It was there we found what little shelter there was and had a break for some lunch.  With a moderately strong wind blowing across the tops and cold rain falling, this particular lunch break was short, and only memorable for being generally crappy.

A wet walk down from Cascade Saddle
A wet walk down from Cascade Saddle

The views from Cascade Saddle are allegedly spectacular, with Mt Aspiring in particular being a highlight.  Not so on the day we walked through.  Little did we know that this would be the first of many times Mt Aspiring would cover it’s face with cloud as we passed by.

We hit the saddle soaking wet, but in good spirits and started the descent into the Dart Valley.  Despite the cloud, we enjoyed what terrain we could see.  In particular the Dart Glacier, which was a highlight of the afternoon’s exertions.

Southern tip of the Dart Glacier
Southern tip of the Dart Glacier

By late afternoon we were in sight of the Dart Hut.  It had rained on and off most of the day, but not enough to dampen our spirits.  That said, seeing the Hut down the valley, and imagining how warm and dry it might be inside was a welcome thought.

One by one we made our way across the wire swing bridge that crosses Snowy Creek, just ahead of the Hut.  From there it was a short hop skip and a jump down to the hut and an end to a damp but rewarding day on the track.  It always feels great to take off your backpack for the last time after a days walking.  We dumped them on the timber decking of the Hut, hung out jackets up and moseyed on inside for a look around.

A damp Richard contemplates the Young Hut
A damp Richard contemplates the Dart Hut

There were a few groups there already, mostly getting their food prepared for an evening meal.  There were plenty of bunks still available, but we threw our sleeping bags onto some to ensure we didn’t miss out on a bed, should there be a late influx of trampers.

That nights meal was two courses.  A spiced up mince dish from memory, followed by cheesecake.  It turns out that making cheesecake from a packet mix is very straightforward, easily done even on a tramping trip.  Once we had everything cooked up, we found a free trestle table and began wolfing down the mince.  It was bloody fantastic.  Perhaps if you were served it at a restaurant you would raise an eyebrow.  But where we were, it was fit for a King.

We got talking to a lone tramper while we ate.  Learning he was walking the length of the South Island solo impressed us.  Starting in the South, he planned to finish in Nelson.  Given he had been eating freeze dried food three times a day for quite a few days, we offered him some cheesecake.  And a hot chocolate.  Initially he politely declined, but after some gentle encouragement, succumbed to the temptation.  His stomach didn’t know what had it it with all that rich food arriving.  We suspect nor did his head… as is the Moa Hunter tradition, a generous tot of whiskey had been added to his hot chocolate!

Mid-morning silhouettes
Mid-morning silhouettes

Day 3

Monday 26th February – Dart hut to Rees Saddle

Next morning we were on the trail again, headed for the Rees Saddle and the Rees Valley beyond.  The weather had perked up significantly and we set off with jackets stowed in the tops of our packs.

Chris exchanges pleasantries with some Kea
Chris exchanges pleasantries with some Kea

Walking in dry conditions made for a pleasant change and we all enjoyed the chance to take in the surrounding scenery while discussing the World’s problems and how to solve them.

A few Kea followed us up the track for a while, perhaps optimistic we might throw them something tasty.  We spent a little time wondering if they were a family group or not, and marveling at their cheekiness as they hopped about so close to us.  They were good company, but clearly didn’t feel the same affection toward us.  They left as soon as it became apparent we weren’t going to feed them.

We reached Rees Saddle just before midday.  At just below 1500 metres above sea level, there were some good views to be had.  We dropped our packs and had a quick munch on some scroggin and whatever other goodies were in our pack pockets.

Packs ditched at the top of Rees Saddle
Packs ditched at the top of Rees Saddle

An unofficial track to our right headed up to what looked like a great vantage point.  We scrambled up and were not disappointed.  Being at the junction of three valleys, the scenery in all directions was stunning.

Paul, thinking ahead as always, came up with a suggestion.  Studying his topomap of the area, he proposed a change of plan.  Rather than carry on down into the Rees Valley, why not camp right where we were standing.  A night in tents at 1500 metres appealed to Paul.  It would leave us a long walk the following day.  But after a light day, no problem at all for four Moa Men.  We all agreed it was a bloody fantastic idea.

Our Campsite above Rees Saddle
Our Campsite above Rees Saddle

An hour later we had put up the tents, sorted out some day packs and were heading up a ridge to do some exploring.  The higher we walked, the better the view became.  Before long our tents were small below us and the valley stretched out magnificently beyond them.

Our plan was to climb quite a bit higher than we actually got.  It turns out that what looks possible on a map and from below, can be an entirely different prospect when you reach it.  The steep rocky bluff we had considered climbing looked difficult and slightly dangerous.

Luckily, just below it was a grassy area which faced the afternoon sun.  Each finding a comfy spot, we lay back, talked a bit, and soaked up the occasion.  Being out in the mountains so far from anything and anyone else is a great feeling.  When we stopped chatting, there was not a sound except those of nature itself.

Exploring around Rees Saddle
Exploring around Rees Saddle

The remainder of the afternoon was spent exploring the immediate area around Rees Saddle and rustling up some food for dinner.  A few small tarns were the only nearby water sources we found.  While tarn water is generally drinkable, it doesn’t rate highly with Moa Hunters.  We used as little of it as possible, relying on the water we had in our drink bottles in preference.

After we had eaten, the sun gradually dropped below a hill and we were left in its cool shadow.  We couldn’t help but notice that not far from us at the East end of the Rees valley was a large flat rock, bathed in sunshine.  Ten minutes later we were on that very rock, soaking up the last rays of sunshine and sipping whiskey.  It was a fitting end to a very good day in the hills.

Day 4

Tuesday 27th February – Rees Saddle to road end

With a long day ahead of us, we were up bright and early the next morning.  It had been a cold one.  There was frost on the tents.  We laid the flys out in the sun while we ate breakfast, then quickly packed our kit and kaboodle.

Heading down to the Rees Valley
Heading down to the Rees Valley

The descent from Rees Saddle into the valley was short and sharp, following a rock strewn path that cuts down the side of a steep hillside.

We quickly got into our stride and were soon making good progress from the narrow head of the valley down to the wider open grassy flats below.

As the morning wore on, any remaining cloud burned off and the temperature climbed quickly.  A benefit of walking down a long river valley is there is always water at hand.  On that day we drank plenty of it.

While on the Rees Saddle we had seen a number of helicopters and light planes flitting back and forwards, no doubt flying tourist over the spectacular glaciers and peaks in the area, then back to Queenstown or Wanaka.  There were less this day, but we still heard the occasional sound of a choppers rotors from somewhere among the surrounding mountains.

Late in the morning we reached the Shelter Rock hut and stopped there for a break and some food.  It looked like a nice enough hut, but not nearly as interesting a place to spend the night as on top of the Rees Saddle.

The Moa Hunters outside Shelter Rock Hut
The Moa Hunters outside Shelter Rock Hut

From there we carried on down the valley.  When eventually Mt Earnslaw came into view, it was a stunning sight.  Somehow it seemed compulsory that we all stop to photograph it.

Magnificent Mount Earnslaw
Magnificent Mount Earnslaw

As the afternoon wore on, the Rees valley seemed endless.  While the mountains to our left and right changed as we progressed, the valley remained much the same.  After many hours of walking it, we were growing ever so slightly weary of the never ending grassy track.

A sundrenched Rees Valley
A sundrenched Rees Valley

Reaching road end at around 6.30pm, we were all tired, but happy to be able to drop our packs and loosen the boots from around our hot feet.

Rees Valley Road End
Rees Valley Road End

Sonya showed up in Paul’s car to collect us.  She confirmed her status as the most awesome gal in the Deep South by producing a coolie bag containing cold beers and a couple of bags of chips.  Mt Aspiring National Park is a magnificent part of New Zealand.  There was no doubt we would return there for more Moa Hunts in years to come.

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