The last minute rush. The question, do I have everything? Never certain. Anything not in the pack I can survive without. I move the van around to the long-term car park, walk the two blocks across the township of Glenorchy to the bus pick up point. A bus is already there, carrying the branding of the other company. The one I didn’t book with. There’s a man sat in the back, wearing a mushroom brown long sleeved shirt and a black cap. “Good morning,” he says. “Good morning,” I reply. Putting my bag down, getting ready to put sunscreen on. I get talking with the man on the bus, he’s not a guide as I had assumed. He’s meant to be on the other bus too, there isn’t another bus. This is the only bus going to Muddy Creek car park this morning. I extend my sunscreen covered hand, “I’m Chris, by the way.” “Nice to meet you, I’m Iain.” The bus driver comes back from wherever bus drivers go when they’re not on the bus. He’s not interested in seeing my ticket. I take the seat next to Iain and we get to know each other while we wait for departure. Another bus does arrive, this one from Queenstown. The Auckland 6 get off one bus and on to the other. We’re all here. Off we go. The Rees Station road is long, gravel and covered with several fords. At one point I had considered driving up here myself, I’m glad I changed my plans. The driver takes us as far as his wheels will allow. We all get off. Iain loads up first and waits. I take this as an indication that he’d like some company and we set off together, leaving The Auckland 6 to struggle with their packs. I wonder how we are going to get on. Will I be too fast or too slow? Will we stick together until the end?
A pack of hunters come down the Rees river valley. They give us some advice, walk straight through the river bed. Don’t bother riding up and down the hillside. The bottom of their shorts are wet. Easy to say go and get wet when you’re on the way out. Iain and I agree we’d like to keep our feet dry for as long as possible. We snake along the true left of the river, which I know now means the left hand side while facing downstream. We go up and down slips, sometimes walking in the currently dry edges of the river bed. The old pasture meadows are soaked through. The grass covering mud, the mud edging bogs. Iain uses his hiking poles to test the ground before he adds his own weight. I lead with my feet, sinking into a bog up to my knees. Whoops. The track leads us towards the biggest of hundreds of waterfalls coming down the slumped terrace walls of Pikirakatahi Mount Earnslaw. Iain gets the first of my “oh wows”. I try to explain, I don’t normally do this. Not for waterfalls that is. Pockets in the grey cloud reveal white snow on black ridgelines. We are moving into some seriously big hill territory. The first swing bridge marks the end of the pastures. The ancient beech forest begins, the views of the Rees Valley are closed off. Shortly after we arrive at the second swing bridge. On the far side we enter Mount Aspiring National Park, or is it Jurassic Park? Hard to be sure.
Iain’s company helps make short work of the forest. Walking and talking. The sky shifts through blue to white, blue to white, grey to black. We stop for a short break in a rock meadow. The boulder we choose to sit on not quite damp enough to be immediately uncomfortable. Iain tells me he can hear voices. Nobody comes up behind us. I laugh, I tell him I also hear voices when I spend a bit of time in the forest alone. The combined sounds of the wind, the trees, the birds, the water start to sound human. As we get up to carry on walking, peeling our damp shorts off the back of our legs, a group of three hikers moves out from behind another boulder ahead of us. Maybe Iain could hear voices after all. They notice us and stop to let us pass. Rain rinses through the canopy. Short, sharp showers over as soon as they begin. The shimmering silver of open wounds in the mountainside flash through the trees. Avalanche damage has wiped out sections of the forest. Blocks of untainted ice sit beyond the trail, carried down in the fall. There are several diamond blue, milky white meltwater creeks. Iain lends me one of his hiking poles to aid in a crossing. I’m starting to think these poles might come in handy. Gaiters and poles were bumped down my nice to have list when I had to add new boots to my need to have list. We round a corner, moving towards the head of the Rees Valley. Dragons teeth peaks lean together like dominoes. When does the ice and snow stop being these two things and start being a glacier? The white streams don’t appear to move. In the deep crease of the valley the final swing bridge appears. In the bush beyond, the not yet smoking chimney of the Shelter Rock Hut. Nobody’s home. As we enter the clearing two falcons scream after a hawk. Not a bad way to end the day’s hike. We snag bottom bunks, change into warm clothes, I put water on for tea, Iain gets the fire going. The other three hikers arrive. We all move back and forth from benches to kitchen, carrying hot drinks and snacks, admiring the mountains through the windows.
Fortunately, Iain busts out a deck of cards. Unfortunately, the only game he knows is Rummy. After a few rounds I decide it’s time for something more interesting. The only game I remember all of the rules to is Shithead. A game I spent more hours playing at college than attending maths classes. A classic. Three face down cards, the face up cards. Three cards in your hand. You always have three cards in your hand until the deck runs out. You play a card, you pick up card. Once you run out of cards in your hand you play the face up cards. Then the face down cards. First one to play all their cards wins. Cards are played in sequential order with the exception of magic cards. 2 resets the deck. 3 is invisible. You have to player lower than a 7 and 10 burns the deck. I convince Iain it gets easier once you’ve played a few times. A few more and he’s hooked. Two other trampers turn up. They stop, eat a few snacks, eye up the weather, consider the time. They layer up. They’re going on. Pushing through to the Dart Hut. That’s a big day on your feet. We wish them luck. The Auckland 6 arrive and we think that’s us for the night. “One more round,” I tell Iain, “then I’m going to bed.
I wake up sticky. The consequences of not going for a wash after a long day on my feet. I peel my legs apart and get dressed. Wind pushes at the walls, rain slaps on the windows. The sound of bad weather inside is always worse than the feel of bad weather outside. I boil water for coffee and mix my oats with new additions of dried apple and cranberries. A win. The Auckland 6 ask if we’re going over the saddle today. Yes we are going over the Rees Saddle. They discuss between themselves waiting another day. Iain and I can’t figure out why? The weather isn’t so bad. Today’s distance is the shortest. The rain spits on Iain and i as we leave Shelter Rock Hut. This morning we complete our journey up the Rees Valley. On our left the monstrous Forbes Mountains rise over 2500 meters. So big they don’t even look real. On the one hand I’m reminded of the hand painted scenery in a model train enthusiasts basement. On the other hand I’m thinking again of dragons teeth, of sharks fins. The imagery of mountains, of menace. The smile on my face is as permanent as the continuous thunder of the river. I think Iain is catching on. He’s stopping, coming out with his own “oh wows”, but each one is different. A chain of words. A rumble of sounds. We’re enjoying this. Creeks crackle down the final climb of the valley like sparklers on bonfire night. Beyond the river, the valley ends. There’s nothing. A wall of rock. A low hanging saddle connects the opposing mountain ranges. This is it, the Rees Saddle. We have arrived. There doesn’t appear to be a way out. The narrowest, steepest track so far sits tucked in against a slab of mountain. Up we go.
A combined oh my god oh wow valley opens below the saddle. Cobweb like waterfalls hang in the corners of high fortress walls. It is hard to imagine anyone having been here before. Why would anyone just walk here? Why did we just walk here? Because we can. So we did. Someone has been here before us. Someone cut the trail, making it easier for those of us that follow. Iain stops, turns around and uses the end of his pole to push my mouth closed. He’s lucky he hasn’t had to pick up all of my teeth and rebuild my lower jaw. Snowy Creek cuts a deep chasm in the rounded valley floor. The track levels out for a while. Iain selects a dryer than yesterday boulder for us to break on. Behind us, one mountain peak sits snow covered in the valley. Ahead of us another mountain sits covering the other end. Our descent begins. I use my hands to support myself down, puncturing new holes in my hands on each unintentional but deliberate push down on the speargrass. I fall once on a wet rock. The contents of my stomach momentarily consider leaving via the nearest exit. I’m fine. I stand up and continue climbing down. The alpine meadow is pocked with the white of Mount Cook Lillies. The world’s largest buttercup, or is it daisy? I don’t remember. Nice white flowers that don’t stab you. As we sink lower into the valley we can see further up the next one. The snow folds into ice. “I think that’s the Dart Glacier,” I say to Iain. I’m wrong, but I’ve said it with enough confidence he believes me. Ice carved all of these valleys in a time so far away I struggle to comprehend anything. Who am I? What am I doing? What day is it? Does any of it matter? I’m not sure if the views have truly blown my mind or if I haven’t had enough to drink. Difficult to be sure.
We stumble down the final descent. Falling rather than walking. Again Iain’s poles look inviting. My knees are screaming out for support. Steep steps scared out of the alpine environment carry us down to the edge of Snowy Creek. A swing bridge carries us over. Iain stops, turns and slams both of his poles into the bridge. “You shall not pass!” he shouts. The bridge holds and he isn’t swept into the roaring river below. I wait for him to go all the way over and follow him across. We pass the scenic toilets and arrive at Dart Hut. There are people already here. Those who’ve been in for a night already. Some have already explored our destination for tomorrow. The head of the Dart Valley and the Cascade Saddle. We join the three hikers who we’ve half followed, half been followed by for the last two days. Sharon says “you can call us the Gnarlies,” which saves me having to come up with a better name than the three hikers. I get the impression Serge, Sharon and Steve are exactly that. Hardened by experience, tough as they get. Steve tells us he’s getting his hill fitness back up. I thought I was pushing myself, with the current week on week off strategy. Steve’s just come off the Milford, the day after he gets out of here he’s starting the Routeburn. The man, unquestionably, is a machine. The Auckland 6 arrive, having committed to making the journey. Later in the day, the two gents who passed through Shelter Rock Hut return from the Dart Glacier. One of them shows an interest in the cards Iain and I are getting overly excited about. We get to talking over the intense rounds and I find I might have ended up walking with these guys. Luc knows old mate Matt up in Auckland who suggested the Rees-Dart to me for this week before he did himself a bit of mischief on a football field. I think I’m glad I ended up with Iain, I’m not sure I could have pushed on over the Rees Saddle all on day one.
I wake up in the dark. It’s either too late or too early. I wake up again and it’s lighter. Iain moves first. 6am. Time to start. I’m groggy, half asleep with sticky eyes. We don’t hang around. First on the trail. Keen to get the most out of our day. We cross the bridge, pass through the trees and find ourselves facing what I thought was the Dart Glacier but what is actually the Hesse Glacier. We are in the most Lord of the Rings like scenery I have seen so far. Peter Jackson truly knew what he was up to. This is as close as I think I’m likely to get as feeling like a Baggins on a real adventure. Straight ahead I have no problem in expecting to find Helm’s Deep and an army of Orcs around the next corner. Instead a hare runs the gauntlet across the valley floor. A falcon cries. The hunt is on. Creeks crash out of the mountain tops. There is no way around, the way is straight through. My technique is to wade straight across. I’m going to get wet feet regardless, I might as well embrace it. Iain strides over, using a pole to check the depth, testing the stability of submerged stone. Gaiters protecting his boots whenever he does have to step into the flow. A kea takes off from the rocks, investigating us, visitors to his realm. As we move further along the valley the walls close in. “Would you get a load of that serious piece of dirt,” says Iain, gesturing at the mountainside infant of us. The colossal mass of Earth surrounding us brings an incredible awareness of our own finite, minuscule time. The ever growing expanse pushes against the walls of my mind. I can’t make sense of the size, the age. Iain and I discuss whether or not Mass Effect is a real thing or just the title of a video game. Something is happening to both of us as a result of the infinite landscape around us. We move on to an easier subject, in an attempt to break it down. To understand where we are. Sedimentary or metamorphic? Are those lines layers or the scars of boulders pushed through ice? The Gnarlies catch us up and we ask their opinion. Sharon knows. “It’s metamorphic schist, almost 200 million years old.” Nothing like an unfathomably deep time scale to help put things in perspective. Then Iain puts forward another line of enquiry; “is it sentient?” If it is, would we ever be able to understand it? I put a finger in my ear to see if my brain has started to leak out.
Ice cracks, the rumble echoing off the valley walls. Around the final corner the actual, for sure this time Dart Glacier appears. A frozen river twists around the mountains, blue teeth grin on the edge of the snow fields. Avalanche debris covers one half, the other half shimmers white and blue. We look up at the Cascade Saddle. Cloud clings to the far side, whisps of white stray into the glacier’s home. Up in the ice there are more shades of white than I believed possible. White is white, is ice white, snow white, cloud white. I turn to Iain, “have you seen this?” I gesture to everything. Unlike anywhere, anything I have ever seen. Morraine terraces, deep gullies. We team up with The Gnarlies to tack up the scree wall. Steve takes the lead, looking for the orange tipped route poles. We can see one on the distant sky line. There should be another between where we are and where we’re going. A huge slip has dragged the trail down the mountain side. The pole appears a long way from where we expected it to be. Do we go towards it, or do we go up? We follow Steve across the face. The paper thin rocks snap underfoot. Tiny rumbles of miniature avalanches triggered by our weight. We are all, I think, relieved to step off the loose rubble and onto solid ground again. The track lies in a narrow channel, the still climbing mountain on one side, a strange castle rampart of boulders protect us from the fall on the other.
The team reach a plateau. Sheltered from the wind, with a view up the final climb. The cloud still holds the high ground. A chamois peers down from the tops. A silhouette of horns and ears. A quick check of how everyone’s feeling and Iain and I lead up. The weather doesn’t want us to proceed. The wind pushes down into the glacier, dragging the cloud with it. Rain starts to slap us in the face. Behind us the Gnarlies have stopped. Iain and I stand at one marker pole, watching the sky swallow the ones above us. We turn around, Iain gesturing to the others were aborting the attempt. We meet back in the plateau, stopping for snacks of crackers, cheese and salami. “Are you disappointed, Chris?” Steve asks. “Nope, I’m glad to have come this far. I could have turned back in the valley.” It’s true. Getting this far, this high, with both hands pushing on the edge of my comfort zone is amazing. Knowing we’re turning back, taking the safe choice is even better. There will be other days, other passes to attempt. The scree slope on the way down has me looking at poles even more seriously. Sharon offers me one of hers to assist but I decline. I don’t know how to use it. Serge checks in on me too. I’m in good company. “I don’t know how you came down that without poles,” Steve said. “Necessity,” Iain said, “he didn’t have a choice.” The down happens fast. We’re rapidly back in the bottom of the valley but still some 800 meters above sea level. Back again, along the river, past ribbon white waterfalls. We chew up the distance in no time. Over the next ridge, around the last corner. The valley behind is closed to us. How can something so big simply disappear? Out of sight, gone until next time.
I wake up in the dark again. Too early to get up. I blink and it’s light and then there is action. I take coffee, have breakfast. Chat with the other hut users. “What’s the one item you can’t tramp without?” Someone, sensibly answers “my personal locator beacon.” Ok, I change the question. “What’s your luxury item?” the same sensible person comes back again, “a paper map.” We have among us someone who takes things incredibly seriously. I later learn from the same person a good way to get experience without going outside is to read the coroner reports of tramping accidents. I find myself both intrigued and slightly concerned. I head out of the kitchen, Serge sips on his cup of tea. “Ready to go, Chris?” he checks. “5-10 minutes.” I reply, which is definitely optimistic. I come back out of the dorm to see Serge has his boots on and is pulling his pack on. The rest of The Gnarlies are standing up, ready to head out. These guys are so efficient. I spend another 20 minutes faffing around. Iain challenges my view on what consists of getting up and going. We are still the second group to leave the hut, which I think counts for something. We easily lose the first section of beech forest. We discuss the challenges of living in the modern world. It is easy to withdraw from the world, to look out for your self, to get on your own high horse and say “look at me, I’m doing the right thing so why aren’t you?” Fair enough but how do you help bring the rest of society along with you, make things better for everyone? We drift through subjects, the golden age of piracy, hunter gatherers, drugs, therapy.
We catch the Gnarlies to find them staring up at the canopy. There’s a whistling I’ve heard before. I’ve always pegged it to a parrot but Steve tells me it’s a long tailed cuckoo. He’s not far away, whistling down at us. Serge tells him to come out, I think the cuckoo is whistling back something like no. We take the lead out on Cattle Flat to find we’re not the first to ask where the cattle are and why it isn’t flat? Meadows of long grass, filled with butterflies drop into stream beds and climb back out the other side. The relentless up down up down slows us. Saps our energy. The lack of shelter from the sun drains us. We break for lunch at the Rock Bivvy. An overhanging lip of what I think is a limestone builder has a wind break wall of rock, a small fireplace and a tarpaulin pegged down. No doubt a haven had we been caught in the rain. My legs ache, my feet hurt. This is day four. Fatigue sets in. How do you fight it? I know I’ve walked bigger days than this before. Just yesterday in fact. I pester Iain for more talk, to distract me from my own internal, jaded chatter. We’re running out of issues to resolve when the roof, the window, Steve stood on the deck of the hut come into view. We’ve made it.
We’d been advised by the warden the flush toilets are currently locked but the winter toilet is still good to go. I come in to hear Sharon complaining about the state of the drop toilet and I assume she’s talking about the smell. Steve heads out, toilet paper in hand and comes back far too soon. He couldn’t go. How bad can it be, I ask my self. It isn’t the smell. The black pit is a sandfly den. Under absolutely no circumstances do I want to expose more skin than necessary. The best thing to do is hold off until after dark, which happens to be around 22:30 this far South. The next task is to attempt to wash off days worth of sweat. Hopefully here, where the river flows deeper, faster I can get all the way washed. Iain, Steve and I follow Serge’s instructions to find the silver sand beach. The neon blue river sweeps past. The water is ice cold. I wade in to a comfortable depth, struggling to take the final step that will make it uncomfortable. I stand, waist deep. Arms outstretched. My body an offering to the invertebrates who feast on my blood. Iain and Steve play it safer, washing in the shallows. I plunge, head in, hair wet. The freshest of feelings. The fatigue is swept away. Aches ease. Bites soothed. Then, only a few seconds later, I’m out. Reborn, clean. The sandflies make the warmth of outside uninviting. There is no escape. Inside the hut, Iain and the Gnarlies head for a nana nap. A strange term I’ve become accustomed to while hiking in New Zealand. The strange thing is having never seen a Nana head for a nap. Only ever middle aged men (with apologies to Sharon). I stick to moving my wet pants, damp socks and boots in to the slowly disappearing patches of sun.
Iain and I had agreed we needed to get up and go on the final morning. Iain’s understanding of get up and go. We’ve got a 2pm pick up and a 6 hour walk. Without allowing for breaks we’ve got to be on the track by 8. None of my usual faffing would be possible. Instead I end up hardly sleeping at all and wake up before even the Gnarlies have left. At least this way I can sneak in my second cup of tea. I find it’s still early enough to slip into the long drop without the company of sandflies. Sharon is less than impressed, I’ve jumped a queue I didn’t know I was in. We wave off the Gnarlies, good people, good company. An hour ahead of schedule, we’re also walking out in to the woods once more. We munch through the trail, following the river until it becomes a lake. A massive chunk of mountain decided it didn’t want to be mountain anymore, slumping across the river to form a damn. The lake drowned the track. The new detour is a piece of work. More skill, more attention, more effort is required. Iain and I both came for the challenge and we certainly found it. A narrow, edge riding route broken by roots and wet rocks. Where the path widens, water pools in and around the stone and the wood. We climb up and over bluffs through endless drizzle. Iain notes the temperature has dropped. I agree, my knees are feeling the chill. Morale is dropping. I tell Iain my terrible, favourite, childish jokes. In response he shares a joke so vile I stop, turn around and leave. I turn back not long after, I have a bus to catch. Morale improves. We emerge from the forest into a meadow. I’m sick of meadows. The rain wet grass soaking my socks, filling my boots. Iain is impressed for some reason. “No Iain, this is not an oh wow moment”, I tell him as I emerge to find fresh snow falling on the tops, on the trees. “Oh wow,” I say. Dense cloud covers the summits, hiding the snow as it paints the rock white. We stand, spinning, taking in the Christmas scene in summer.
The weather lifts after the fresh dump of snow. A huge cascade of water crashes down another mountain. Another valley opens up beyond the falls to reveal yet more snow capped mountains. What opportunities for adventure lay in wait up there? We have one final game of Is This Chinaman’s Bluff, hoping to reach the end sooner than the end appears. At last, one of us wins. Beyond the trees the silver metal of a car gives away the location of the car park, the road end. We’ve made it. The Gnarlies are there, cheering us through. Iain offers to take my picture at the final sign. A blank board with a poison notice. Sure, why not? Then we reach the final sign and Steve takes a picture of the pair of us. Me looking exhausted, Iain looking thrilled. We’ve hours to kill. Hours I could have spent lying in bed, waiting only to get up. A final hot drink, the last of the crackers, cheese and salami. We decide to start walking down the road. Finding so much more left in the tank. Could we have done another day? Maybe. A 4×4 rips down the gravel and over the ford, pulling up next to us. “What are your names?” the driver says. We tell him. “Get in,” he says. We bump back to Glenorchy. We’ll meet again later in the pub for a celebratory pint but first things need to happen. A shower, a round of laundry, copious amounts of tea. I remember telling Iain at some point that I’m always early. I realise, as I’m half-jogging across town I’m about to be late to the pub. We take a seat at the bar, toast our glasses of beer and wait for a table. Friday night in a middle of nowhere township is surprisingly busy. We manage to grab a table, delicious burgers are carried over. We get another round in. “I think, before the next one I’m going to buy some gaiters and poles.” I tell Iain. He looks at me and he says, “don’t worry about the poles, I’d like you to have mine. A thank you for the company.” I have nothing to give in return so I hope he feels like he got a good deal. I carry my new tools back to the van, wondering where I’m going to keep them. The obvious answer is somewhere in the back. I crawl into bed, my mind already drifting towards the next few days. Getting South, crossing the Foveaux Straight to Stewart Island, walking the Rakiura Track.