Rees-Dart: The Most Beautiful Glacier

December 28, 2020
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The Valleys of the Rees and the Dart surround the Forbes Mountains, north of Glenorchy at the head of Lake Wakatipu. LINZ via NZ Topo Map, 2021.

IT was cold, and boggy underfoot, as a few friends and I began our tramp upthe Dart River on the great Rees-Dart Track near Glenorchy.

Part of the South Island’s World Heritage area, the Rees and Dart Valleys were first used by the Ngāi Tahu people of Murihiku/Southland and Otago for hunting moa and collecting greenstone.

Alongside its English name, the Dart River has an official Māori name which also appears on maps, Te Awa Whakatipu, meaning the river that drains into Lake Wakatipu.

The route runs up the beautiful, initially flat-bottomed river valley of the Dart/Awa Whakatipu and joins with the Rees River in quite different country, at the Tititea/Mount Aspiring National Park boundary, before looping back to Lake Wakatipu down the Rees.

It’s at that upper point that you can also go still further up the Dart/Te Awa Whakatipu tothe Dart Glacier, or over the Cascade Saddle Track into the Matukituki Valley.

Despite its accessibility and the fact that the lower parts are mostly an easy stroll, this track gets quite ‘gnarly’ further up, with some steep bits that beginners would find scary, and it pays to read what Tramping New Zealand has to say about this loop, which normally takes five days including a day trip to Cascade Saddle and back: That web page has got some pretty good photos, too!

The Dart Glacier (top centre-right) and Cascade Saddle in relation to the Forbes Mountains.This is a closer view on NZ Topo Map, 2021. The Cascade Saddle route into the Matukutuki Valley does not actually go over the Cascade Saddle and is visible on a still closer view.

From the mouth of the Dart River/Te Awa Whakatipu, it’s seven kilometres hiking to Shelter Rock, the first hut on the four-day Rees-Dart Track.

We left Shelter Rock at about eight o’clock the next morning to make our way to Dart Hut. Heading over the Rees Saddle we encountered a light dusting of snow on the track. I have had experience tramping in snow and done some alpine training, but I hadn’t brought any crampons with me on this trip.

Thankfully, we managed to descend the saddle safely and re-joined the track down to Dart Hut. It was quite a long day of tramping, but it certainly was a beautiful walk, with the snow only adding to the already spectacular mountain scenery.

I found a bunk in the Dart Hut, where we were to spend two nights, and decided to take a look at the Dart Glacier.

We finally reached the Dart Glacier and I fell absolutely in love with it. As we climbed up towards the Cascade Saddle, the glacier turned from rock and scree into an icy, white slash in the landscape.

We made it back to Dart Hut, and I carried on to Daley’s Flat Hut, which felt like a different walk altogether. Between the two huts,and all the way through to Chinaman’s Bluff, you follow a faint track through sprawling beech forests and across terraces – very different from the snow-covered Rees Saddle we had crossed earlier!

A booking system also now exists for the huts on the Rees-Dart Track. It pays to book well ahead.


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