New Zealand part III: Mount Aspiring National Park, and down to the ocean

When I arrive in Makarora after three intense weeks through the backbone of the South Island, I know the hardest part of the trip is now behind me. But… my favourite week of the entire traverse was yet to come!

The section through Mount Aspiring National Park is probably the most beautiful of the entire trip. I paddle down the Makarora River and across Lake Wanaka, and hike up into the mountains through the remote and Albert Burn Valley. Now in top shape, I make long days to camp on the most beautiful spots I can find on the map – including the best bivy’s of the trip on the slopes of Dragonfly Peak and on Cascade Saddle, with astounding high-altitude sunrises and sunsets. I float down the wild Dart River, and even paddle the length of the youngest lake on earth! It all just feels like a perfect week out in the mountains.

Once Mount Aspiring National Park is behind me, the journey starts to wind down as I walk down the immensely popular Routeburn Track, and continue south on the Greenstone-Caples and Mavora Tracks, with the mountains becoming lower and more rounded as the kilometers fly by. With march now on the calendar, the days become shorter and the weather more unsettled, with regular rainy episodes.

I use my spare days to make a 2-day detour on another ‘Great Walk’, the Kepler Track – beating the crowds by paddling the Waiau River section and starting the long ridgewalk before sunrise. A surprisingly beautiful 3-day, 110km paddle down the Waiau River guides me further south to conclude the journey. And eventually I hear the wild roar of the Pacific grow louder while covering the last kilometers towards the mouth of the river. Goose bumps!

Putting in near the confluence of the Wilkin and Makarora Rivers

Putting in near the confluence of the Wilkin and Makarora Rivers

Paddling down the Makarora River

Paddling down the Makarora River

I had a 5-6 beaufort tailwind while paddling along the shore of Lake Wanaka towards the base of the Albert Burn valley, with increasingly high waves which required attention.

I had a 5-6 beaufort tailwind while paddling along the shore of Lake Wanaka towards the base of the Albert Burn valley, with increasingly high waves which required attention.

Hiking up the Lower Albert Burn valley. The river has to be forded a couple of times, which will be impossible during adverse weather.

Hiking up the Lower Albert Burn valley. The river has to be forded a couple of times, which would be impossible during adverse weather.

The 8-bunk Albert Burn Hut in the Albert Burn Valley. Although the Albert Burn is a wonderful access into Mount Aspiring National Park, I was only the second person in 10 months passing this hut!

The 8-bunk Albert Burn Hut in the Albert Burn Valley. Although the Albert Burn is a wonderful access into Mount Aspiring National Park, I was just the second person in 10 months passing this hut!

The track through the Albert Burn is cut up to 1150m, after that it becomes a bad bush-bash with a lot of Spaniards grass and one particularly rough section, climbing up along a spectacular S-bend cataract in the river up to the high valley.

The track through the Albert Burn is cut up to 1150m, after that it becomes a bad bush-bash with a lot of Spaniards grass and one particularly rough section, climbing up along a spectacular S-bend cataract in the river up to the high valley.

The terrain becomes easier in the upper part of the Albert Burn valley.

The terrain becomes easier in the upper part of the Albert Burn valley.

Camping high on the slopes of Dragonfly Peak, Glacier Dome (2367m) in the back

Camping high on the slopes of Dragonfly Peak, Glacier Dome (2367m) in the back

Bivy high on the slopes of Dragonfly Peak

Bivy high on the slopes of Dragonfly Peak

Mount Pollux (2536m) and Castor (2518m) from the summit of Dragonfly Peak (2165m)

Mount Pollux (2536m) and Castor (2518m) from the summit of Dragonfly Peak (2165m)

Glacier Dome (2367m) from Dragonfly Peak (2165m)

Glacier Dome (2367m) from Dragonfly Peak (2165m)

Evening views from Dragonfly Peak (2165m)

Evening views from Dragonfly Peak (2165m)

The moutains around Minaret Burn from the summit of Dragonfly Peak (2165m)

The moutains around Minaret Burn from the summit of Dragonfly Peak (2165m)

Lenticular clouds above Mount Avalanche (2606m) from Dragonfly Peak (2165m)

Lenticular clouds above Mount Avalanche (2606m) from Dragonfly Peak (2165m)

Alpenglow on the Mount Aspiring Range at sunrise, from Dragonfly Peak (2165m)

Alpenglow on the Mount Aspiring Range at sunrise, from Dragonfly Peak (2165m)

Sunrise from Dragonfly Peak (2165m)

Sunrise from Dragonfly Peak (2165m)

Mount Cook (3724m) at the horizon as seen at sunrise from Dragonfly Peak (2165m)

Mount Cook (3724m) at the horizon as seen at sunrise from Dragonfly Peak (2165m)

Morning glory, Dragonfly Peak (2165m)

Morning glory, Dragonfly Peak (2165m)

Morning glory, Dragonfly Peak (2165m)

Morning glory, Dragonfly Peak (2165m)

Panoramic bivy high on the slopes of Dragonfly Peak (2165m)

Panoramic bivy high on the slopes of Dragonfly Peak (2165m)

The East Matukituki Valley as seen while descending on the west side of Albert Burn Saddle

The East Matukituki Valley as seen while descending on the west side of Albert Burn Saddle

A recent wildfire made the bush-bashing down into the East Matukituki way easier

A recent wildfire made the bush-bashing down into the East Matukituki far easier

Walkwire across the East Matukituki.

Walkwire across the East Matukituki.

View up the Kitchener Valley from Junction Flat.

View up the Kitchener Valley from Junction Flat.

Down the beautiful East Matukituki Valley.

Down the beautiful East Matukituki Valley.

Bivy along the West Matukituki.

Bivy along the West Matukituki.

The West Matukituki Valley near Aspiring Hut. The weather was getting worse and I sprinted up the difficult 1300m climb up to Cascade Saddle to make it there before the rain set in.

The West Matukituki Valley near Aspiring Hut. The weather was getting worse and I sprinted up the difficult 1300m climb up to Cascade Saddle to make it there before the rain set in.

The West Matukituki Valley as seen while climbing up to the Cascade Saddle Ridge.

The West Matukituki Valley as seen while climbing up to the Cascade Saddle Ridge.

Laura from Canada on the last bits up to the Cascade Saddle Ridge.

Laura from Canada on the last bits up to the Cascade Saddle Ridge.

I camped in the Cascade Creek valley across the Saddle, and sat out the rain for most of the afternoon and evening. The weather cleared during the night and I hiked back up the ridge in the morning twilight for sunrise. This is Mount Aspiring (3033m) minutes before sunrise.

I camped in the Cascade Creek valley across the Saddle, and sat out the rain for most of the afternoon and evening. The weather cleared during the night and I hiked back up the ridge in the morning twilight for sunrise. This is Mount Aspiring (3033m) minutes before sunrise.

The Dart Glacier at sunrise from the Cascade Saddle Ridge (1800m)

The Dart Glacier at sunrise from the Cascade Saddle Ridge (1800m)

Sunrise on the Cascade Saddle Ridge (1800m), the mountains at the head of Dart Glacier in the back

Sunrise on the Cascade Saddle Ridge (1800m), the mountains at the head of Dart Glacier in the back

Mount Liverpool (2482m), Mount Barff (2252m) and Mount Aspiring (3033m) at sunrise from the Cascade Saddle Ridge (1800m)

Mount Liverpool (2482m), Mount Barff (2252m) and Mount Aspiring (3033m) at sunrise from the Cascade Saddle Ridge (1800m)

Mount Tyndall (2496m) at sunrise from the Cascade Saddle Ridge.

Mount Tyndall (2496m) at sunrise from the Cascade Saddle Ridge.

Hiking along Cascade Creek

Hiking along Cascade Creek

Down along the Upper Dart River, Mount Edward (2620m) in the back

Down along the Upper Dart River, Mount Edward (2620m) in the back

Reaching Cattle Flat in the beautiful Dart Valley.

Reaching Cattle Flat in the beautiful Dart Valley.

Bivy on the beautiful, but sandfly-infested Cattle Flat in Dart Valley.

Bivy on the beautiful, but sandfly-infested Cattle Flat in Dart Valley.

Descending into the Dart valley. Several whitewater sections (mostly in the sections through the forest) are present down to Daleys Flat Hut. I put in about 1km downstream of the hut.

Descending into the Dart valley. Several whitewater sections (mostly in the sections through the forest) are present down to Daleys Flat Hut. I put in about 1km downstream of the hut.

At the time I was paddling here this was probably the youngest lake in the world - it formed by a massive rock avalanche (clearly visible in the back) damming the Dart River 5 weeks earlier. A rim of dead trees along the shore testifies to the recent flooding. As all existing trails in the valley are washed away, I was probably the first to make it down the Dart valley in its new configuration.

At the time I was paddling here this was probably the youngest lake in the world – it formed by a massive rock avalanche (clearly visible in the back) damming the Dart River 5 weeks earlier. A rim of dead trees along the shore testifies to the recent flooding. As all existing trails in the valley are washed away, I was probably the first to make it down the Dart valley in its new configuration.

Taking out at the natural dam at the western end of the Lake.

Taking out at the natural dam at the western end of the Lake.

The outflow of the lake now thunders through what used to be the beech forest on the left bank; an obligatory portage for any packrafter who wants to make it down alive.

The outflow of the lake now thunders through what used to be the beech forest on the left bank; an obligatory portage for any packrafter who wants to make it down alive.

Portaging the rapids on the rock avalanche.

Portaging the rapids on the rock avalanche.

Putting in again downstream of the rapids - at the start of the most powerful part of the river.

Putting in again downstream of the rapids – at the start of the most powerful part of the river.

Bivy at the confluence of the Rock Burn with the Dart River - the Earnslaw Burn Range in the back.

Bivy at the confluence of the Rock Burn with the Dart River – the Earnslaw Burn Range in the back.

Early morning put-in at the confluence of the Rock Burn and the Dart River

Early morning put-in at the confluence of the Rock Burn and the Dart River

The beautiful summits around Beans Burn as seen while paddling the Dart River.

The beautiful summits around Beans Burn as seen while paddling the Dart River.

Stunning paddling on the braided lower Dart River.

Stunning paddling on the braided lower Dart River.

I put out of the Dart River near the Routeburn Farm, picked up the food drop which I had left there over 2 months earlier, and continued my trek on the popular Routburn Track, on of New Zealands 'Great Walks'. This is a morning view down the Routeburn Flats, with clearing showers after a rainy night.

I put out of the Dart River near the Routeburn Farm, picked up the food drop which I had left there over 2 months earlier, and continued my trek on the popular Routburn Track, on of New Zealands ‘Great Walks’. This is a morning view down the Routeburn Flats, with clearing showers after a rainy night.

The Upper Route Burn valley.

The Upper Route Burn valley.

The Routeburn Track offers wonderful views down into the Hollyford valley - a future packrafting destination!

The Routeburn Track offers wonderful views down into the Hollyford valley – a future packrafting destination!

I hiked most of the 32km Routeburn Track in a single day, and climbed Key Summit (909m) in the evening to sleep there under the stars.

I hiked most of the 32km Routeburn Track in a single day, and climbed Key Summit (909m) in the evening to sleep there under the stars.

The mountains lining Hollyford Valley as seen from Key Summit (909m).

The mountains lining Hollyford Valley as seen from Key Summit (909m).

Evening beauty from Key Summit (909m).

Evening beauty from Key Summit (909m).

Lake Howden on a cold late february morning.

Lake Howden on a cold late february morning.

Hiking down the beautiful Caples Valley. I initially planned to hike the length of the Livingstone Range off-trail, but didn't feel like it at the moment and continued south on the Caples-Greenstone and Mavora Tracks instead.

Hiking down the beautiful Caples Valley. I initially planned to hike the length of the Livingstone Range off-trail, but didn’t feel like it at the moment and continued south on the Caples-Greenstone and Mavora Tracks instead.

A lazy afternoon with good company at the Mid Caples Hut.

A lazy afternoon with good company at the Mid Caples Hut.

Further down the Caples Valley the next morning.

Further down the Caples Valley the next morning.

Taking a break in the Caples Valley.

Taking a break in the Caples Valley.

The weather got worse when I continued into the Greenstone Valley and eventually through the vast tussocklands in the upper Mararoa Valley.

The weather got worse when I continued into the Greenstone Valley and eventually through the vast tussocklands in the upper Mararoa Valley.

Clearing weather in the Mararoa Valley.

Clearing weather in the Mararoa Valley.

Along the North Mavora Lake - I hitched towards Te Anau from the campsite at the southern end of the lake.

Along the North Mavora Lake – I hitched towards Te Anau from the campsite at the southern end of the lake.

I had a rest day in the Anau while the rain poured down, and started a 2-day detour on the Kepler Track the day after. I avoided the boring part of the track along the Waiau River by paddling it instead. The Waiau River is the outflow of the vast Te Anau, and the volume of the river, which has some class II rapids, was impressive. My speed was around 10km/hour.

I had a rest day in the Anau while the rain poured down, and started a 2-day detour on the Kepler Track the day after. I avoided the boring part of the track along the Waiau River by paddling it instead. The Waiau River is the outflow of the vast Te Anau, and the volume of the river, which has some class II rapids, was impressive. My speed was around 10km/hour.

Rainforest in the Iris Burn Valley, Kepler Track.

Rainforest in the Iris Burn Valley, Kepler Track.

The Kepler Track includes a long ridgewalk. To beat the crowd, I left at the Iris Burn Campsite over an hour before sunrise, and hiked up through the forest in the pitch dark with my tiny headlight (only works on the Great Walk highways!). I made it up the ridge just as the first sunrays touched the Fiordland Mountains.

The Kepler Track includes a long ridgewalk. To beat the crowd, I left at the Iris Burn Campsite over an hour before sunrise, and hiked up through the forest in the pitch dark with my tiny headlight (only works on the Great Walk highways!). I made it up the ridge just as the first sunrays touched the Fiordland Mountains.

Sunrise from near the Hanging Valley Shelter (1356m), Kepler Track

Sunrise from near the Hanging Valley Shelter (1356m), Kepler Track

The South fjord of vast Lake Te Anau from the Kepler Track

The South fjord of vast Lake Te Anau from the Kepler Track

The South fjord of vast Lake Te Anau from the Kepler Track

The South fjord of vast Lake Te Anau from the Kepler Track

Trampers on the Kepler Track

Trampers on the Kepler Track

Paddling down the Waiau River near Manapouri - the start of my 110km float to the Pacific.

Paddling down the Waiau River near Manapouri – the start of my 110km float to the Pacific.

The Waiau River used to be one of New Zealands main rivers, draining all the water of the vast Lake Te Anau / Lake Manapouri watershed. Most of this water is now diverted into Doubtful Sound for hydroelectricity production, and only spillovers are drained down the Waiau River downstream of this dam at the confluence with the Mararoa River, 10km downstream of Manapouri.

The Waiau River used to be one of New Zealands main rivers, draining all the water of the vast Lake Te Anau / Lake Manapouri watershed. Most of this water is now diverted into Doubtful Sound for hydroelectricity production, and only spillovers are drained down the Waiau River downstream of this dam at the confluence with the Mararoa River, 10km downstream of Manapouri.

Beautiful afternoon paddle on the Waiau River, with the Takitimu Mountains in the back.

Beautiful afternoon paddle on the Waiau River, with the Takitimu Mountains in the back.

The Waiau River was nicer than I expected, with some interesting class II rapids where limestone slabs dipped into the river. Some sections where particularly nice, like the Monowai canyon. I took little pictures as I did not have my camera with me on the water. Here I take a break near the historical Clifden suspension bridge.

The Waiau River was nicer than I expected, with some interesting class II rapids where limestone slabs dipped into the river. Some sections where particularly nice, like the Monowai canyon. I took little pictures as I did not have my camera with me on the water. Here I take a break near the historical Clifden suspension bridge.

Taking out at my last bivy spot, a few kilometers upstream of the town of Tuatapere, and adter paddling 91km on 2 days.

Taking out at my last bivy spot, a few kilometers upstream of the town of Tuatapere, and after paddling 91km on 2 days.

Pacific!

Pacific!

14 thoughts on “New Zealand part III: Mount Aspiring National Park, and down to the ocean

  1. poksumdo says:

    Congratulations on completing a long, hard and original journey. The colours of the rivers are magic. Interesting to learn about the landslide on the Dart and the flooding of the tracks. The shot of trampers on the Kepler is a prize winner.

  2. Willem says:

    Thanks everybody! Overall I had nice conditions indeed, but reality is always a bit different than the pictures show😉 I had several half days under my tarp and one full day off in Te Anau during this part of the trip because of rainy episodes.

    The logistics were mainly a good excuse to make a road trip prior to the walk😉 I organised 9 food drops, which didn’t take too long. Main job is clearly the route planning at home!

  3. Hank says:

    This trip is amazing. I am dying to try at least part of it. I took a look at your initial planning map. Do you have a GPS track that shows what you actually did? I read about your hitchhiking departure from the original plan. Did you follow the rest of the planned route, more or less? Any big planning mistakes?

    • Hank says:

      Forgive me — I now see that you did post the map of what you actually did in the pre-post, and I see in your equipment list that you weren’t carrying a GPS. One more question: how did you deal with the bookings/tickets for the Great Walk sections of your hike (e.g. the Routeburn Track) without knowing when exactly you’d get there?
      -Hank

  4. Willem says:

    Hi Hank,

    Thanks for dropping by! I did not carry a GPS, so no tracks unfortunately😉 But the map gives a good idea of what I actually did.

    I did not book the Great Walks, but just hoped I would be able to camp near the huts (Routeburn Flats on the Routeburn, and Iris Burn on the Kepler). The wardens didn’t care too much and I payed the standard rates. Alternatively, you are allowed to free camp like you would normally do as soon as you are 500m off the trails, which is well possible with some planning for both tracks.

    I was happy with my route overall. The original track from the Rangitata would have been a bit over the top – good for a one or two week trek, but (mostly mentally) too demanding on such a long journey. Therefore I avoided one major pass west of the Godley. Maybe I would finish with the Dusky Track if I were to do this again.

    Cheers,
    Willem

    • Liz says:

      Hi Willem,

      This is good to know. I wondered the same about the reservations as Hank did. I thought the camping places near the Great Walk huts needed to be reserved as well, but I’m glad to hear that it’s also possible without reservations: was it really busy near the huts or do you think it’s in general easy to just go there and camp near the huts? As you know, I’m considering al long walk in NZ and would like to combine it with the routeburn and maybe the kepler walk, so won’t know either when I arrive there.

      I also wondered how the terrain of the Routeburn is (particularly how steep it is) and if it’s well-doable to do it in one day?

      Cheers, Liz

      PS. really like your blog: very inspirational!

      • Willem says:

        Hi Lisanne, good to hear of you! Well, DOC normally requires reservations for the camp sites, but I just guessed that they would be a bit more flexible for ultra long distance hikers (and they were!). So just go to the campsite and put on your best smile😉 If they send you away, it is always possible and legal to stray away 500m from the Great Walk track and camp there. The Routeburn is very well maintained and easy, with some denivellation though. It’s a long day (32km, about 2000m of climbing), but doable is you’re in good shape. Compare it to a 32km up-and-down hike in the Ardennes. At Howden Hut you can divert south on the Caples/Greenstone Track, there is a nice free campsite at the south side of the lake.

        Enjoy the trip preparations!
        Willem

      • Liz says:

        Thanks a lot for your extensive answer, that helps a lot! I think I will give it a try to do the Routeburn in 1 day: I hope to be in shape by the time I get there😉 Good to hear that the hut wardens are flexible for long distance hikers; will smile a lot😀 Thanks!!

  5. Anvi Gupta says:

    Hey Willem,
    Those pictures which you have uploaded in your blog are what compelled me to read your blog. I am smitten by the travel bug now and long to travel to the wonderful national park you have mentioned here and New Zealand sounds absolutely amazing and is perfect for a college break.

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