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Section Summary: Section M goes from Wanaka up to Mt. Aspiring National Park along a metalled (gravel) road and West Branch Matukituki River tramping track, from where it "jumps over" the Cascade Saddle into the popular tramping area of Dart/Rees Rivers, Routeburn, and Greenstone Tracks in the mountains just north of Queenstown/Glenorchy. After coming down the forested Dart River, the route connects to the forested Greenstone Track via remote little-used metalled (gravel) roads, passing along the shore of Lake Wakatipu for 20-km. Part-way along the Greenstone Track, the route heads south along the Mavora Walkway, first through beech forest and then over open grass tussock lands in river valleys flanked by high sharp mountains. After winding along the shore of North Mavora Lake on a 4WD track (dirt road), the route finishes along metalled (gravel) roads and then highway to the small town of Mossburn.
Section Journal: Mossburn, New Zealand, March 20, 2004
"Lord of the Rings" was filmed in many locations all over New Zealand. So far my trek hadn't passed through any specific places that reminded me of the film. The Canterbury Plains of Section L, especially my route near Twizel, did seem similar. A check of a web site giving filming locations (www.jasons.co.nz/lordoftherings) showed that Ben Ohau Station, near Twizel, was the location for the Plains of Rohan in the opening of "The Twin Towers" and then again for the battle of Pelennor Field in "Return of the King." If I had opted to traverse more private land and/or untracked routes in Section L, I might have come close to or through Ben Ohau. Many other parts of my route passed near some of the film locations, but I didn't make a point to locate the exact places.
The Dart River in Section M did remind me of the film, and indeed, my route passed right by the actual location where Isengard was filmed (see photos). (At the time I passed, another film company was shooting some other film at the same place, and I could clearly hear "cut" and "action" from across the field as I stopped to take my photos.) There must have been more LOTR locations around nearby, as tours out of nearby Queenstown into surrounding areas, including the Dart River, advertised to introduce people to Lord of the Rings locations. Some of these tours are so popular, apparently, that they are booked full several months in advance.
Section M also passed through or near many of the most popular tramping and tourist areas on the South Island. In fact, this whole region--west and southwest South Island--has been designated a "World Heritage Area", which means a place containing natural and cultural sites of world significance. The scenery and environment are spectacular, and the tourist trade is booming. There were a lot of fellow trampers on the Dart River Track and on the Greenstone Track. Although I opted to bypass the Routeburn Track with a shorter more direct route, I heard stories of the Routeburn from other trampers; great alpine scenery visible in good weather, but also long lines of group trampers, sometimes 20 or more together, as many hike the route in tour groups where their gear is carried separately and their meals are prepared for them in the backcountry huts/lodges. On the Greenstone Track there was also the frequent drone of helicopters and light aircraft taking people and supplies into and out of the area, and across from Queenstown into Milford and Fiordland. It hardly seemed like wilderness, despite the ruggedeness of the forested, mountainous, and grassy-flat country.
Talking with others in Section M reinforced a notion from earlier on the South Island, both from conversations on tracks and in huts, and also in urban hostels, that many parts of South Island are in some respects like a giant Disneyland (albeit with sheep almost everywhere you look). I finally was able to articulate it a bit more to myself in Section M. These tourist-popular parts of South Island are dotted with a variety of "rides" and many of the tourists simply spend their time going from one "ride" to another in the shortest possible time, often not sleeping in any given place for more than one night before going on. This can be a common tourist modus operandi anywhere in the world, but in the case of South Island, some of the "rides" include specific tramping tracks and/or stays at particular back-country huts. A common form of conversation among hut dwellers is "what tracks (rides) have you taken?..." and "you simply shouldn't miss track (ride) X." I got the feeling sometimes that huts were simply extensions of the extensive urban hostel network throughout the country, and tracks were one-day or two-day check-boxes on busy tourist itineraries. I suppose there is nothing wrong with this, and I shouldn't sound critical, but it does offer a different feel to tramping than I've experienced in back-country treks in the U.S. Perhaps its just that the majority of trampers I've encountered in South Island are foreign visitors, often with very limited time to see a country that is vast and has so many interesting aspects to it.
And the fact that advance bookings (reservations) are required for most things in tourist-crowded parts of South Island, such as bus transport, rides to and from roadends (trailheads), urban accomodation, and even the tracks and huts themselves (for the "great walks" such as Routeburn and Milford Tracks), eliminates an element of spontaneity. In some huts I heard trampers say things like "it would be really nice to stay here another day (or take a side-trip), but my next hostel/bus/track booking requires me to leave here now." It was all pre-programmed. Sometimes I would feel in the huts, not just in this section, like everyone cleared out in the morning with the main purpose of going on to the next thing (ride). This seemed another indication of a "tourist mentality" among trampers, something I would expect in urban tourist areas but less so in the backcountry.
To be sure, New Zealand's tramping network and huts are extraordinary and unique in the world (there are actually over 900 back-country huts throughout the country). Nevertheless, a complaint I heard from several trampers was that there were few places on South Island where could one hike continuously through wilderness for several days. Most of the tracks are developed to allow hikes of 2-5 days for average people, and perhaps 1-3 days for more ambitious trampers. (The Routeburn was billed as a 4-day tramp but I could have done it in 1.5 days, and met some day hikers who had walked to the mid-way point and back to the start in a one-day day hike.) Then one must shuttle on to the next track. A Frenchman dreamed of what his state of mind would be like if he could walk continuously for a week in the wilderness. One couple from the U.S., one of whom had walked the Appalachian Trail, said they had come to NZ primarily to tramp, but ended up spending half of their time off the tracks, getting from one track to another and dealing with bookings and accomodation. I have felt this myself, and the longest time I've spent in the back-country continuously was in Section J, for seven days. In Section M, I linked together three tracks, but even then one connection was via dirt roads and inhabited/farming areas. Only if one is willing to follow more demanding untracked (and usually weather-dependent) routes through the Southern Alps or other ranges does it seem that longer wilderness tramps are possible. Perhaps there are a few exceptions. For example, the Dusky Track in Fiordland is quite long, perhaps 7 days, but is also quite challenging, with weather-dependent stream crossings. One tramper I met said that when he crossed a three-wire "walkwire" bridge on the Dusky Track in heavy rain, the water was already 3-feet deep before he even got to reach the walkwire!). So the choice seems mostly between longer more challenging routes or short easier routes.
Section M was to include the "Cascade Saddle" route from near Mt. Aspiring over into the Dart River valley. Cascade Saddle is the only way to get from Wanaka over to the Dart River without going extensively around south by roads and then back up north--the terrain is so rugged and steep that the only east-to-west road-route south of Wanaka goes via Queenstown. The route up and over Cascade Saddle involves 1300 meters (4300 feet) of straight-up ascent, first through forest and then over steep tussock/rock/scree slopes. "Straight up" in this case means using hands to climb with, and gaining 1300 meters vertical in less than 4000 meters horizontal. The route is weather-dependent, as the slope becomes too slippery when wet to safely negotiate (one person died on the route earlier this year slipping on ice-slick snow-grass tussock and falling--once you start falling you don't stop). And a river crossing after you pass over the saddle is also weather-dependent. All in all, the route should be done with a tent in case one can't reach Dart Hut in the same day (perhaps a long 10-hour day; would be very nice and much safer if there was a hut at the top), but this increases the weight of going up. The route needs to be tackled with vigour and enthusiasm. I decided my body wasn't up to the route at the moment, partly because of a torn chest muscle that had been giving me pain the past few weeks whenever I used my arm (one person thought it was a repetitive-strain injury rather than a specific trauma, which I tend to agree with), and partly because my body was just worn down from the trek. Yes, I'm in good shape and hardly notice anymore when I walk uphill, but the general wear-and-tear on the body has also taken its toll and increased my reluctance to tackle difficult routes. The anxiety and stress of taking a weather-dependent route, with the potential to get caught in bad weather at the top and not being able to move forward or backward, was also too much to contemplate (remember, my trek is supposed to be a break from stress, not a generator of it!). I suppose that if I had a tramping partner over Cascade Saddle, I would have come back to do it, but
The weather was also unsettled at the time I would have gone over Cascade Saddle, and two Canadian trampers/mountaineers I later met said they had tried to climb Mt. Aspiring (after successfully climbing Mt. Cook just before), but couldn't even get up the access track to Aspiring Hut (that also goes to Cascade Saddle) because the streams were too high to cross during that time. (Another of the many stories I continue to hear along the lines of "We tried to go there, but the weather (stream height) wouldn't let us so we had to cancel the trip." This is just a fact of tramping along NZ's many weather-dependent tracks and routes, and a common statement in NZ tramping literature is "if the weather is bad, don't go, just come back another day."
So like in Section K where I "jumped" over Copeland Pass, I once again "jumped" over Cascade Saddle. Actually, I just shifted due-west directly from Wanaka to near Dart Hut on the Dart River (about the same latitude as Wanaka), missing about 70-km of road and track hiking. To accomplish this shift, I took the bus from Wanaka to the Dart River track start (around 200-km to go around by bus) then walked up the Dart River to near Dart Hut, some 20-km by track from Aspiring Hut on the other side of Cascade Saddle, and from near Dart Hut resumed my southward trek. In the future, I would expect to come back and actually hike Cascade Saddle, as it is considered one of South Island's classic routes. But I am OK with bypassing it for now.
I really enjoyed walking the Dart River, Greenstone, and Mavora Tracks in this section. The Dart River and Greenstone Tracks reminded me of parts of the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington State--a smooth well-developed track surface (trail tread) through open but lush forest, with stream crossings across rocks at track level (most other tracks, the streams are often in deep notches or mini-gorges that require climbing down into and then up out of). There are even some graded switchbacks, something uncommon on most other tracks I've walked here. I suppose the nature of the terrain makes it easier (and cheaper) to build a smooth track in this terrain, something much harder to do in the dense bush and rocky terrain of other areas. I found another tramper on the Dart River who agreed with me that most of New Zealand's so-called "tracks," that go straight up or down, or confront the tramper with continual dirt/root/rock "steps" of waist or head-height, which must be climbed up or down using hands and arms as well as legs, would be considered very rugged (even "cross-country") by many U.S. hikers. Recall my earlier sentiment from Section B: "you've got to be kidding; that is not a track!" By now, I've become accustomed to these tougher bush tracks, and appreciate much more the difficulty of making a smooth-surface track through NZ's commonly steep, dense, root-filled and rocky terrain. And I'll probably miss the tough bush routes when I'm done! But in any case, the Dart and Greenstone tracks were refreshingly "normal"--one can just *walk* on these tracks!
The only problem with the Dart River was that numerous tourist "jet boats" run up and down it part-way to the first hut. Jet boats, which can ride in very shallow water, are extremely loud and could be heard up and down the valley. They have become a common feature on some NZ rivers. (In Queenstown, advertisements for jet boats on the Shotover River look exactly the same as advertisements for amusement park thrill rides, with the motto "Thrill Therapy" lettered across the ad.)
On the Dart River I met Michael Johnson from the UK. He was tramping the length of South Island from south to north, and our paths intersected here! He had a late-summer start to avoid hayfever problems, and planned to finish South Island by the end of May. His route, however, was much more difficult and ambitious than mine, staying to many untracked or rugged routes directly through the Southern Alps and other ranges. In fact, his route and mine (and Te Araroa) had almost nothing in common except my Section J from St. Arnaud to Arthur's Pass. He had walked the challenging Dusty Track, taken some untracked routes across farmland, and was planning to walk up some of the west coast beaches, where one river crossing would require him to swim the river with pack right at its exit to the ocean. And he was going to use moutaineering skills to cross Fitzgerald Pass near Mt. Cook (very close to the Copeland Pass that I "jumped" over). I suppose everyone "walks the length of South Island" in a different style, as the few accounts, including his, that I've heard about have all been very different from each other. Good luck, Michael!
The gravel road connection from the Dart River to the Greenstone Track passed through the small settlement of Kinloch, which was also a wonderfully peaceful place, with lodge/hostel and lakeside campground overlooking Lake Wakatipu. An alternate to this route would have been to take the Routeburn Track, but the road walk was almost as long to get to the start of the Routeburn, and I was a day early from the booking I had been able to make for a campsite mid-way along the Routeburn Track. All huts and camping along the Routeburn track, which is only allowed at a few spots, must be reserved in advance, and I had no way to try to change my reservation without going back to Glenorchy, so I decided to go via the southern end of Greenstone and save probably two days--good because my food didn't last as long as I expected, and the seven-plus days it took from the Dart River to Mossburn were long enough!
The Mavora Track passed first through lush but open forest like the Greenstone--very pleasant--and then came out into broad open tussock grasslands in the river valley, bordered by steep imposing mountains. My one night on the Mavora Track I had the Taipo Hut all to myself, and it was a very isolated, peaceful and special place--like a private chalet. I stopped early that day, read a western novel that I found in the hut, ate well, and admired the surrounding scenery. My decision to stop early that day was partly influenced by the presence of the novel in the hut, which looked interesting! Taipo Hut was one of my favorite nights on the trek. The next day, I came out at the two Mavora Lakes, which are deeply spiritual places according to Maori history, and they are really quite beautiful.
Once past Mavora Lakes, it was 40-km on a metalled (gravel) road past sheep and cattle farmland, and then on highway for 15km at the very end of Section M to Mossburn, entering the "Southland" region of South Island. In Mossburn, the Invercargill newspaper, Southland Times, is sold, indicating I was getting close to Invercargill/Bluff and the end of the trek. I had to camp one night on the gravel road, and just found a spot between road and farm fence near a stand of trees and up above the road. I'm sure very few people have camped along that road, but traffic was so light that I counted only 5 passing vehicles between when I set up my tent in the evening and when I took in down again in the morning!
On the highway to Mossburn I witnessed firsthand all the tourist traffic to and from Milford Sound, as this was the only road to go there. I learned about Milford tourism from a March 20 newspaper article in the Christchurch Press. It is almost 300-km driving around from Queenstown to Milford, where many tourists take day-cruise boats around Milford Sound (450,000 visitors per year), one of the scenic beauties of the world. Many buses take the trip from Queenstown to Milford and back in one day (a 600-km marathon), and apparently the tourist bus traffic into Milford now numbers over 100 buses per day. There is a controversial proposal by some tourist developers to build a $100 million, 13-km-long gondola to short-cut this long road route, by going directly across the steep mountain divide between Queenstown and Milford. The proposal is about to be submitted for formal planning consideration and the public debate is sure to be loud. The proposed route would put a road right up the initial part of the Greenstone Track where I was in this section, locate a gondola terminal and bus parking in the now-remote and wilderness-like Caples Valley, and build the gondola over the divide near the other end of the Greenstone Track and the western end of the Routeburn Track. I'm sure it would be a spectacular gondola ride, but would certainly lament the loss of these lovely and remote beech-forest tracks. Given the current wilderness character of Caples valley, some consider the proposal so far-fetched as to not be worth discussing. One thing is sure, the booming tourist industry in south-west South Island is putting increasing pressure on natural and human resources all around.
Page updated March 31, 2004