Mesmerised by the most stunning alpine scenery (Mt. Aspiring & Fjordland NPs, South Island, New Zealand)

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February 25th 2010
Published: February 28th 2010
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(Day 692 on the road)My recent trek (nine fabulous days in total), took me across the unbelievable Cascade Saddle, probably the most visually stunning scenery I have layed my spoiled eyes on here in New Zealand to date. After hiking up the Rees Valley, spending two nights at Shutter Rock Hut (including a rest day due to terrible weather on day two), and a great third day from there onwards to Dart Hut, I hadn't actually planned on going over the Cascade Saddle, but I am very glad I did.

At Dart Hut on day three I had talked to a number of people who strongly recommend going there. "It is so totally like worth it, I was like this is one of the best panoramas I have ever seen" to quote this friendly American guy. Did I ever mention that I am, like, really getting, like, fed up with the absolute, like, overuse by Americans of the fill-word "like"? Incidentally, it was another American girl who stumbled into the hut just before nightfall ("I have like never been so happy to see a hut in like my whole life"- no, not really, I am just adding the "likes" for effect here), who had just come over the saddle. It had taken her 12 hours and she looked dead-tired but was in awe about the views. And as I was looking for a challenge (most of my hiking days are actually pretty tame), I was hooked. Stunning scenery and a physical challenge, what more could I ask for?

A number of people had done a day trip up from Dart Hut, but backtracking has never seemed appealing to me at all. If I walk for four hours one way, rather than coming back four hours I might as well go forward and see something new. So I gave up on my original plan to go down the Dart Valley and went over the Cascade Saddle to Mt. Aspiring Hut instead. It was tough day (800 metre ascent and a knee-breaking, steep 1300 metre descent on the other side), but, just like the American had told me, so totally like worth it.

I had set off with a French guy who soon turned out to be an extreme hiker - he told me a story of him recently crossing the Atacama desert in northern Chile, a trek that took him fifty days straight. When his two mules ran away after three weeks he was forced to carry 45kg of water for the next three weeks. Crazy guy. He was way too fast for me and I had to let him go after just 45 minutes of trying to keep up with him. He hiked the whole thing in just over six hours - it took me a good eight hours in the end.

But it was a simply beautiful day and there was no point to rush things - pure blue sky in the morning, with a few puffy clouds appearing later during the day, which added great dimension and depth to the scenery (and the countless pictures and panoramas I took). Standing at the top of the Cascade Saddle is hard to put in words - visualise standing on the edge of a rocky ridge with a steep 500 metre drop in front of you, looking at a huge glacier to the left, a vast valley with imposing snow-covered Mt. Aspiring on the other side of the valley straight ahead, and a lush, plain flat with another glacier visible in the distance to the right. Let my pictures help you in imagining this, they speak for themselves.

After spending the next night at Mt. Aspiring Hut (not too enjoyable as it was, like, full to the, like, brim with two elderly American, like, tour groups, I was like, ah...), I had to hitch 300km to the start of the Routeburn trek, which I connected right away with the Rees-Cascade Saddle hike. It is amazing how far you often have to drive around to get from one valley to the the next here. In the process, I met a number of pretty interesting people who kindly gave me lifts in their cars (though I had to wait for hours at one point before somebody stopped, but who is complaining). They included a Norwegian and a Dutch couple, two guys from Ireland and Canada who live here in NZ, and a lovely Israeli family.

Speaking of Israelis, they seem to be the most unloved international travellers in New Zealand, with a lot of people complaining about their low level of honesty, how they often cheat and lie to avoid paying (I witnessed two such issues myself at two different huts I must add), and their noisiness. I was told it is because most of them are straight out of the three-year army service that is compulsory in Israel, but I haven't met enough Israelis to comment on that. Although I can confirm that they are a noisy bunch for sure, possibly because they always tend to travel in big groups (all Israelis) and don't seem to mix much with other nationalities. The last time I encountered animosity towards Israelis was in South America a few years ago, where a lot of hostels actually had signs proclaiming "No Israelis" (that is notably absent across Asia however). Interesting and somehow scary how a whole nation can acquire such a bad reputation; plus of course it must be pretty hard at times to be a travelling Israeli (no matter if you fit the stereotype or not).

On the Routeburn trek, I was unable to obtain a reservation at any of the campsites or huts along the way as I had left it too late - it is classified as a Great Walk and one of the most popular treks in the country, often booked out long in advance. I was thus forced with the option of skipping it altogether or trekking the whole bloody thing (normally a two or three day hike) in a single day. Ah well, what the heck - off I went...

I was able to camp about an hour after the start of the trek at Routeburn Flats campsite, which I did to save that hour the next day. The following morning, I set off very early (day seven of my nine day hike by now) and hiked at a pretty fast pace without stopping save for taking pictures. I had been told it would take between ten and twelve hours, so I was relieved when I reached the (free and completely empty save for yours truly) Howden campsite after a mere eight hours. But I really only took one 20 minute break the whole day and missed out of the few, apparently worthwhile side trips up some peaks along the way. All in all, it was beautiful day and I am glad I did it, but since I had to rush it so much and after just having been spoiled by the awesome scenery of the Cascade Saddle I didn't enjoy it too much.

Over the next two days, I returned to near where I had parked my van via the Caples trek (which connects with the Routeburn), down, as the name suggest, the Caples Valley. The scenery wasn't as spectacular as on the Routeburn, but the absence of people made up for it; the Routeburn had been super-crowded, not helped at all by the way by a private tour operator that charges NZ$700 and in return carries your gear for your and cooks your meals.

Spending my last night at small Upper Caples Hut was possibly the nicest hut-night I have had in NZ, due to the great company of an Australian and a Czech guy and an American girl. We had lit the wood/ coal stove to dry our clothes and ourselves (it had been raining most of the day), talking long into the night by the light of a tiny candle, sipping hot tea and being warmed by the cosy fire. A perfect way to end nine great days of hiking!

Next stop: Milford Sound & Kepler Trek (Fjordland National Park, South Island, New Zealand).

To view my photos, have a look at And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


28th February 2010

Cascade Saddle was one of my absolute favorite places in NZ, and I always regretted taking so few pictures when I was there. (That was back in '97, when you had to actually buy and carry 35mm film around...a big photo taking day back then consisted of burning through one 36-exposure roll!!). So I was very excited to look through your pictures of the trip up Rees and over the Cascade Saddle, since I have so few pics of my own from my trip. (BTW, you didn't miss much skipping the Dart valley descent). I remember when I did the Routeburn trek thinking that if it got any more popular, it was going to be a problem, and it certainly looks like may be heading there. I also remember thinking how short the supposed 3-day hike was, and that it would be easy enough for someone to just day-hike it if permits/hut reservations were difficult to come by, so I'm glad you were able to get that to work out. Sounds like you're having the time of your life tramping, thanks so much for allowing us to enjoy it vicariously. Keep the trek blogs coming!
28th February 2010

my girlfriend would like to know about your camera, what kind and the specs
7th March 2010

Hallo aus Schwabenheim
Hallo Ben, viele Grüße von einer ehemaligen Kollegin, die ab und zu mal Deine neuesten Erlebnisse liest;-) Während Du die Welt bereist bin ich (mal wieder) beim Windelwechseln (Florian ist 7 Monate) :-) Weiterhin viel Spaß und komm heil zurück! Viele Grüße an das andere Ende der Welt Sandra
7th March 2010

I'm jealous!!! Another place on the map, that I need to go to...
14th March 2010

Hi ben! How long have you been in NZ already? its, like, totally awesome what you are doing there and well, like, experiencing and stuff! ha ha, tell me all about it. Lived in Arizona for 4 months and, like, totally took over that word! My favourite pic; the one with the sheep! It's sooo cute and adorable!!! It makes me wanna run over and just give that adorable animal a hug! My like animals.... Meanwhile, I'm still in cold cold winterland (no snow fortunately) trying to find a job... Lucky you, wish I was there with you, like, doing stuff! ghehe

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