2003
03.21

After traveling through New Zealand for a month and a half together, John and I parted ways in Queenstown and I began my solo journey.  It took a bit to adjust as I stood alone on the side of the road trying to hitch a ride to Glenarchy.  I knew I just had to get into the mountains and I would find some peace of mind there.  The mountains always seem to work their magic and before long I found myself fording a small stream outside of Glenarchy and setting up camp on beautiful river flats at the head of Lake Wakitipu.

Before me were mountains were so majestic and formidable that my heart pitter-patted with excitement and my breaths began to come more quickly.  I had been dying to get into the forests, or the “bush” as they say here, and to breathe the fresh clean air and hear the sound of rushing streams.  As enjoyable as it had been, I had been cooped up in the van too long and I needed to feel the ground beneath my feet.  I booked a shuttle for the next day to the head of the Rees Valley where I would begin my first of several great hikes on the South Island of New Zealand.

I don’t know how I’ve been so lucky with weather, but as I started the Rees-Dart Track I smiled in appreciation of blue skies and welcoming forecasts.  Everything was in place for a great trip in the bush and the only thing that lay before me was several kilometers of open cow pasture and unbelievable views.  The pasture lived up to its name, Muddy Creek, and I found my tennis shoes quickly soaked as I struggled through thick mud. The trail was an avenue of shoe-eating mud and more than once I had to stop at the creek to clean my shoes.

I made my share of mistakes the first day out.  I won’t even admit some of the errors I made, but the Israeli couple who was near me had their share of laughs at my antics.  Every hike is a learning experience and this one was no different, but my enthusiasm was running high and I pushed through those tough spots and entered a sub-alpine forest as I climbed towards Rock Shelter Hut.

I was thrilled to find the hut located in a ring of shear mountains, dominated on nearly all sides by near vertical mountain flanks and constant avalanche danger.  A pleasant stream passed in front of the hut and a gentle mountain rose behind it.  Altogether the most scenic hut at which I have stayed, it was also completely empty and nearly brand new.  I picked from my choice of twenty bunks and settled in for some dinner.

The comforts of the hut system are undeniable on these nights.  I was in heaven laying down on my bunk with more stars than I’ve ever seen just overhead.  Looking at the stars of the Southern Hemisphere that evening I admired the differences of our sky as a strange German fellow pointed out the Southern Cross and other constellations which we never see from the States.  It is these times that I realize just how far away from home I am and how just pleasant it can be.

I awoke to brilliant blue skies and was out of the hut before anyone had even finished breakfast.  The energy was just bursting from my pores as I reveled in the mountain scenery around me.  I was so often reminded of the mountains of Glacier National Park that I found myself scanning the tundra for bears, but I saw only kea, a parrot that inhabits the mountains of New Zealand and possesses no fear of man.  In fact, many of the birds here are types of parrots and therefore so curious that they will often destroy your tent or car with their sharp beaks.  Anyhow, they are beautiful birds, but they better stay the hell away from my tent.

So as I climbed Rees Saddle I felt the excitement of overwhelming anticipation fill my body.  Pulling myself to the top of the pass, I found myself standing at the convergence of three valleys with Snowy Creek bubbling down towards Dart Glacier.  Snow-capped peaks rose all around me and sub-alpine tundra lining the valleys.  Only the sound of the creek below could be heard.  I sat down to write and couldn’t decide which direction to face.  The views were just breathtaking and the whole place was so alive.  Glaciers stretched over the mountain summits and led down to cascading waterfalls.  The rich waters of the falls fed the tundra and filled the creeks.  Everything was in perfect harmony and sitting atop the saddle looking out at the wilderness before me, I felt as if I were the only person alive and all that surrounded me was pure and beautiful.  I felt not the stress of life or the strife of these times.  I felt a part of something greater, beauty that speaks to me more clearly than radio, television, or news.  This is life as know it and I choose it, and I have never felt so alive.

I could have stayed atop the pass forever but the views in the direction that I was headed were too inviting to resist.  I descended into the Dart Valley and followed Snowy Creek down steep declines and across rickety swing bridges.  I watched the mountains grow around me as new and wonderful scenery was revealed around every turn.  I saw Dart Glacier in the distance and the many glaciers that cover the mountains in this area.  By the end of the hike I will have seen nearly twenty glaciers.

Dart Hut was only a month old and situated on the banks of Snowy Creek looking in the direction of Cascade Saddle.  The comforts of such a new hut were almost ridiculous for being this deep in the backcountry.  The huts came complete with running water, flush toilets, and brand new mattresses and bunk beds.  Only 10 bucks too, not bad.  This would be my home for the next two nights and I settled in comfortably for the stay.

My plan was to assault Cascade Saddle on a day trip from Dart Hart.  It would be nearly ten hours round trip, but feasible since I would only be carrying a day pack.  Cascade Saddle was rumored to be one of the best views in New Zealand and as highly recommended as any of the more popular hikes.  Indeed, as I skimmed through weeks of visitor log entries I noticed that repeatedly the saddle was praised as being the best view in New Zealand.

Needless to say, my anticipation was nearly busting through the roof.  In fact, I think I ran up the hike.  I know I stopped to take some pictures of all the pretty waterfalls and the numerous glaciers that led up to the saddle, but I was so eager to see what lie ahead, I could hardly stop for a drink of water.  I know that when I finally reached the saddle after a ridiculous climb, I felt like I had been running.   But it was all worth it.

I had beaten the incoming clouds and before me was a view that defies description.  Mt Aspiring dominated the western horizon.  Dart Glacier snaked its way down Dart Valley like a river of ice.  The world seemed to drop off at my feet and disappear into the valley below.  Water spilled from the saddle in falls of incredible distance.  The wind swirled off the mountains and the blue sky was stretched overhead like the dome of a circus tent.

I sat there on the edge of the world with indescribable beauty before me.  It was one of those moments when you can feel the blood running in your veins and the air passing through your lungs.  You feel so in tune with your body and your surroundings that you feel as if you have left the confines of your skin and that you are floating effortlessly away, allowing the winds to carry you to new and wonderful heights.  There is no time.  There is no indication that anything else exists.  There is only the heat of the sun, the whip of cold wind on your face, and the feeling of being complete.  There is the awareness that you have achieved a higher goal; the knowledge that you have transcended your limitations and boundaries and reached out for something and that it is fully in your grasp.  Feeling alive and knowing that you are in the right place.  It is a feeling of ultimate satisfaction and as I sat upon Cascade Saddle and breathed the air into my lungs, I knew that I had come to the right place.  For if all treks could be as awe-inspiring as the first few days of the Rees-Dart Track, then hiking would be the most popular sport in the world.

But eventually rains always come and you find yourself all alone in the mountains on a misty morning.  Such was my fourth day on the trek.  The mountains were just as beautiful and the glaciers were still a sight to see, but shelter was where I was headed and that night I was rewarded with a hut nearly all to myself.  I was just one day ahead of the storms and they followed me back out to Glenarchy.  In fact, they followed me to Queenstown, Wanaka and even during three days on the Wilkin-Young Track they would continue to follow me.  But after being warned that it “always rains on the west coast” and having luckily enjoyed a month of sunshine I was not about to complain.

Tomorrow I leave for Te Anau, gateway to Fjordland National Park.  If  the weather permits I will try and put myself on the Kepler Track for my birthday in a couple of days. No matter how it happens I think I will find myself in a perfect place.  There is still so much left to see and explore that I hardly know where to begin.  The only thing left to do is head in a new and different direction and see what fate throws my way.

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  1. Thank you so much for this description! I was looking for something telling me that it is ok to do this trek by myself and now I am feeling reassured that it will be. Can’t wait to get there! Wishing you many more of these wonderful experiences (just thought that to go trekking with tennis shoes was a bit risky, though)!

  2. Fantastical Kyle! Having hiked a few trails in my day I can relate to your expressions of elation. They certainly are moments to cherish, remember and renew. I oft find myself pondering the origins of such deep feelings as are evoked from visiting places of inspiration less occupied by the masses. Is it the arrival at a destination of exhilaration that sparks our senses or is it the extrication from the drudgery of daily life that removes the veil from our hearts? Perhaps even, it is just allowing ourselves a quiet moment, devoid of distractions to tune our ear to our inner voice which starts as a whisper and grows in intensity to become something which is hard to attribute to a mere physical phenomenon. The realization that these feelings are portable is transformational for no matter where you go, there you are!
    Keep trekking my friend and shine your light, you have many trails ahead of you.