New Zealand – Over the cascade saddle trying not to crap my pants

I have long wanted to traverse the pylon and the cascade saddle – reputed to be the most beautiful pass in NZ – but had been put off by the multiple fatalities that have occurred when people have slipped on the path, as well as not having had the right conditions to make the ascent.  This time, the weather window looked perfect and I had papa scout (a goat on the hills) for company so we thought we would give it a go

Our tents in the aspiring valley

Day 1 – 10k, 2 hours

We had just got out of the Gillespie pass that morning, so we had an obligatory stop at wanaka for Eggs benedict and banana bread and two coffees, as well as stocking up on even more food, and then we got a taxi to raspberry flat.   Being cheap, we strolled the 10k to just before Aspiring Hut and put up our tents next to the river, as it is free to camp anywhere in the park, except next to the huts.

Half way up the pylon. Crapping me pants

Day 2 – 30k, 1900m climbing, 9.5 hours of walking

Up with the dawn, we headed out just before 7.30.  The climb up to the tree line was lovely, plenty of switchbacks and lots of tantalising views of Tititea/Mt Aspiring peeking through the trees.  We came out of the tree line to one of the multiple signs warning us to take extreme care given the fatalities….. with my vertigo it is hard for me to get the balance right between taking extreme care and not having a panic attack.

One of many signs telling me I might die

I would have loved to have taken some photos on the way up between the trees and the pylon but mostly I had my hands too busy holding on to the side of the cliff!   While the path was fine given how dry the day was, it is easy to see how lethal it could be when wet.  Papa scout kept an eye on me and eventually we made it to the pylon for one of the best views I have ever had in NZ.  I rewarded myself with half a pack of ginger nuts and tried not to worry about what the descent down the other side would be like.  Honestly no amount of money would have got me to descend back down the same way.

The view from the pylon

From the pylon to the cascade saddle was a stunning walk, albeit across some hairy slippy sections.  And the view of the dart glacier from the cascade saddle rendered me speechless.   Honestly the best views I have ever had in NZ and worth the near crapping of the pants to get there.   We hadn’t seen anyone since we left the valley, so it was an incredible privilege to be enjoying the view in solitude.


From the saddle to dart hut it was an interminably long and hot walk….. which only took 2.5 hours but felt like longer.  Mostly the trail was fine,  though some sections had vanished so I did quite a bit is swearing as I navigated my way across some of the steeper sidles.


We eventually made it to the dart hut after 6.5 hours (the guide had said 10), and decided to have a huge lunch but keep going.   Papa scout and I could win an eating contest at the moment as my appetite is insatiable.  After most of a block of cheese, more gingernuts, mealmates, and a litre of coffee we headed off again up and over the gentle Rees saddle.   It was an easy and lovely way to end a tough day strolling through a high alpine valley.


We were delighted to get to the hut and only find one occupant – a young Israeli who was still in shock about how tough the climb was over the saddle (he had done it the day before).  Not long after a very skinny Japanese guy struggled in with a 25k pack, a classic case of all the gear and no idea – he was carrying two stoves.   I had a dunk in the river which is the next best thing I could have to a shower and then got eating.  I was in bed by 8pm as we each had our own room and I needed to escape the Israeli who was determined to give me hiking advice.

Day 3 – 20k flat stroll to the carpark, 4.5 hours

I was confused this morning to see a face popping up at my window at ten minute intervals from 6am.  After having coffee in bed, at 7 I finally went out to ask what he wanted.   So it was our Japanese friend, who asked me to call him a helicopter as he was tired and didn’t feel well and didn’t want to walk out?!?!?!?

View down the Rees saddle

Hmmmmm.   So I do have an sos button on my de lorme, but I am not pushing it for a tired guy whose name I don’t know.  I explained I didn’t have a chopper on speed dial and I wasn’t hitting the sos button and incurring the $10k fee unless he was dying.  I asked him if he was dying.  He said he wasn’t.  So I told him to rest in the hut for a day, hydrate, eat and walk out tomorrow.   We gave him some food (apparently he didn’t have much left in spite of a 25k bag) and left him to it.  He decided to walk out and we eventually saw him arrive about 7 hours after he left…. obviously not dying then.   At this point I have a rant on the tip of my tongue about people going to the bush poorly prepared and expecting choppers to come get them but will keep that to myself.


It was a lovely, easy but muddy stroll out, with some stunning views of My Earnslaw.    We made it in four and a bit hours so had ample time for another dunk in the river and some laundry before the shuttle arrived at 2.   Next stop, the caples track

Additional notes

– the start and finish of this track are 2 hours drive apart.  From queenstown you can get to raspberry creek carpark via wanaka with alpine connexions, or from wanaka with Karim at wanataxi (a great deal at $140 for the taxi)

– from muddy creek to glenorchy and queenstown I recommend the wonderful folks at glenorchy journeys 

– for route notes, check with doc, but these are the most recent for the cascade saddle and Rees/dart

February 19, 2017, Muddy Creek Carpark

Recommended Hikes in NZ

I have met many wonderful people on my travels who want to come to NZ, and have asked for my top tips on where to hike.  Apologies for the tardiness, but here are my favourite places to run and hike in the worlds best hiking country

The Great Walks

There are nine great walks in NZ, and they are justly named as they are some beautiful tracks (what we call trails in NZ) – including the Routeburn, Kepler, Milford, Abel Tasman and Tongariro.   I would no longer do any of these walks as hikes, as there are too many people on them and you have to prebook the huts.   However, if you are new to hiking, and/or want to be sure of company, then you will be happy walking any of these Great Walks.

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the Heaphy Track

If you are a trail runner, I can highly recommend running some of the Great Walks as the trails are all beautifully groomed, my fave runs are:

  • Routeburn from the Glenorchy carpark end up to the Harris Saddle or onward to Conical Hill, and back down to the carpark
  • Abel Tasman from  Awaroa back to Marahau or vice versa using the water taxis to transport you one way – about 4-5 hours (tide dependent and with some paddling stops), 30k and pretty easy
  • Heaphy as a two day run, with an ultra light pack as you only need a bit of food and a sleeping bag
  • Rakiura is an easy 4-5 hour day run around Stewart Island
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Running up to the Harris Saddle on the Routeburn
Terrific multi day hikes which are not ‘great walks’

New Zealand is a land blessed with wonderful hikes, and ones I would highly recommend are (* means trails are extremely runnable)

Near Auckland 

  • Hilary trail which is a lovely stroll along the west coast of Auckland

Near Nelson/St Arnaud

Near Wanaka

  • Wilkins Gillespie Circuit near Makarora with a side trip up to Lake Crucible
  • Matukituki valley tracks near Wanaka with some wonderful shorter walks based out of Aspiring Hut
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Fording the Rees river heading up the Rees valley

Near Glenorchy

  • Rees Dart circuit * – one of my absolute favourites, simply a stunning run/hike up the rees valley and down the dart.  This can be joined up with the Matukituki valley tracks in good weather with a traverse over the Cascade Saddle into the Aspiring national park.  Note the Dart part of the track is currently closed
  • Greenstone/Caples track *- two good day runs, or a nice 2-3 day round trip, much less crowded than its popular neighbour the Routeburn
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Tuatapere Humpridge Track

If you are feeling super energetic you can join up the Wanaka/Glenorchy trails in a big long loop – hiking from Arrowtown to Wanaka on the Motatapu Trail, hitching a ride from Wanaka to Makarora to walk the Wilkins Gillespie, and if you have alpine experience traversing the Rabbit pass directly from the Wilkins to the Aspiring Hut (near Wanaka), and then taking the Cascade Saddle over to the Rees track to come out at Glenorchy.   This is a pretty epic route and I am looking forward to seeing if I can make it work this summer

Near Te Anau

  • Hollyford track – a wonderful walk and you get to see the seals at Martins Bay.  This can be a bit tricky, as the ‘demon trail’ is aptly named.  If you want to go a bit upmarket and take a boat around the tough bits you can pay for a guided tour and they also chopper you out from the end
  • Tuatapere Humpridge*  – a very good track, privately run, which means you can upgrade to a private room if you don’t want a dorm.  You can also buy food in the hut, so you really don’t need to carry anything.  And they have hot showers!!!
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Hollyford Track

If you are looking for somewhere to base yourself for these hikes, I would recommend the quieter bases of St Arnaud, Motueka, Wanaka and Glenorchy.  I tend to avoid Queenstown these days as it is too busy!

There are hundreds of other hiking opportunities in NZ, including considering embarking to Te Araroa – the long pathway which runs for 3000km from the top of the country to the very bottom, I have only picked my favourites, and I am sure others would prioritise different hikes

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Rakiura on a Rainy Day
Accommodation/Transport
  • If hiking, you can get a great value pass from Doc for $122 which will allow you unlimited nights in back country huts for a year (excluding Great Walk Huts)
  • There is lots of good free camping in NZ, and I use the camping NZ app to find free campsites – many of these are pretty basic and administered by DOC.
  • I highly recommend that you DO NOT rent an RV and drive around the south island – our roads are not terrifically well designed for big slow vehicles and it is much more sensible (cheaper and easier) to rent a small car and stay in hostels or camp
additional information
  • Doc – the department of conservation is a wonderful source of info with track maps and the local office can advise you of trail conditions
  • Good too maps are free to download from http://www.topomap.co.nz

 

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West Sabine River