Otago: High on the South's rugged majesty

By Conor MacHugh

Awe-inspiring mountain country amply rewards tramper Conor MacHugh.

The splendour of the Dart Glacier demands contemplation. Photo / Conor MacHugh
The splendour of the Dart Glacier demands contemplation. Photo / Conor MacHugh

Some adventures are planned meticulously, others simply fall into place, and some you bumble through as best you can. My trip to Rabbit Pass was in the latter camp.

On Monday afternoon, I was in Wellington wondering about a Southern sojourn. There was little time and money. Last-minute ferries were eye-wateringly expensive and the drive to Mt Aspiring National Park would take days.

There were walks I wanted to do: The Rees-Dart, and Rabbit Pass and the Wilkin Waterfall - dangerous and remote. I mapped both routes; it seemed that I could link the two by going over the Cascade Saddle. I checked flights - midweek to Queenstown was a giveaway.

I called a Southern friend to ask his opinion. Come on down, he said, we'll go fishing when you walk out. One might look a gift-horse in the mouth, but a stampede of the flighty beasts must be obeyed.

I arrived in Queenstown early evening and rushed to buy supplies. As the backpacker crowds made merry, I pitched my tent, ate a takeaway pizza and studied my new maps.

I hitched out of Queenstown and north up Lake Wakatipu, the last ride from two women who embodied the fitness required by the Canterbury tramping club. More than I had, it turned out, as we walked through farmland and birch forest and arrived in drizzle to greet the rest of their team.

The next day dawned misty but soon cleared and conditions would be perfect for a week. The track rose steadily and at the head there was a short, sharp climb to the reward of a sunny lunch at the Rees Saddle.

Trampers take a break at the Rees Saddle. Photo / Conor MacHugh

Day three was tougher, but among the finest walking I have experienced anywhere. The scenery became more majestic as I gained height until I stood opposite the Dart Glacier, nestled in the Snowdrift Range, crowned by a deep blue.

I had thought the Cascade Saddle would meander as a saddle does but the map revealed I had a stiff climb and a steep descent to the Matukituki Valley. One of the great sights of the South, Mt Aspiring, rose jagged and perfect to the north as I lugged myself up again.

I began the descent and scrambled down steep, deep trenches, at times a staircase of worn rocks and footholds in the snowgrass. I made the Aspiring Hut having realised that if this were a warm-up, the Wilkin face was not to be attempted with a heavy pack.

The blessed DoC ranger heard my lament and offered her boyfriend's car for any excess baggage. With the thorny issue of weight sorted before dinner and a fellow tramper's homemade moonshine in my mug, I toddled blissful to bed.

The Matukituki was awash with sunshine and trampers as I hiked to the car park and offloaded 6kg. I was lighter and faster as I forded the river and started up the broad valley of the east branch to camp on long dry grass. Under a perfect Southern sky I hunkered down and watched the stars swing across the valley.

Next day, I crossed a swing bridge and climbed 600m over a broad spur then dropped to flats where I came across footprints criss-crossing the river and gravel banks.

At the head of the valley I met three trampers who had just descended. We looked up at the great horseshoe escarpment and they traced the line I should take up the tussock ridges of the pass. The climb itself was an hour and an half of easy, if steep, going.

The saddle was eerie after a day in the sun, the vegetation was sparse and alpine, spiky and evergreen. I could have been in Samuel Butler's Erewhon as I descended past a small glacial stream and the valley broadened.

Further ahead it dropped 80m over another escarpment to become the Wilkin. It was now close to 6pm and I wondered about the risks.

However, it was dry, my pack was light, and my legs felt fine despite the long day. I ate chocolate and sugar for good measure and headed for a lonely pole on the edge of the drop. Snaking away to my left was an angled face of ancient rock, layered and weathered.

One of its ledges was the track, about 20cm wide, with the occasional foothold cut in.

The phrase "Don't think, do" signal the purest moments. I put that in mind and set off.

With curses, well-placed feet and handholds of rock and snowgrass I soon travelled the 40m to where the ledge petered out. From there - despite taking the wrong line and heading back for a second try - I slid down.

I fair skipped with relief down the valley but soon realised that I would run out of light as the track dropped down the gorge the river joined. But my luck held as a half-moon rose and revealed that DoC had cut the trail not a month before. The track became a mossy, green highway, and I traipsed for two hours before it led me to a hut.

Next morning I was off early as I had a jetboat to catch, and hared down the broad gravel Wilkin to the pick-up point. Within a few hours I was in Wanaka eating a burger and supping Emerson's finest dark ale, anticipating fine West Coast fishing.

The adventure had been compressed, but was all the better for it.

CHECKLIST

Heading into the mountains: DoC has more information about the Rees-Dart Track and the Wilkin Valley.

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