Cascade Saddle to the Dart Valley

“Bye-bye, thank you so much for the ride!”

“Oh, of course, no problem. Enjoy your walk!”

All my nerves from the morning were now gone. Hitchhiking had been a breeze and offered ample entertainment for the ride over. I made it to Raspberry Flats and all I had to do for the next four days was walk. It had been a few weeks since my last proper outing. Something I was desperately missing. As I walked down the Matukituki Valley I felt entirely content. A feeling I had been missing for some time.

Ever since landing in New Zealand four months earlier, everything seemed to be a struggle. Activities I had once loved and sought after now caused me anxiety and dread. I had spent my summer gleefully waking up at three in the morning to climb and hike until I could hardly walk anymore. I was happy. But now the thought of waking before sunrise and walking for a day sounded horrible. I had managed to trick myself time and time again into going anyway, but it felt as if I were a toddler fighting with their parent. Every day out began with me performing mental gymnastics just to get out of bed. I knew the outdoors would be good for me, and they always were, but something had changed. Some part of me didn’t get the memo and had missed the flight over. 

Today was different. The desire to run away from adventure that had become my norm was nowhere to be found. I felt excited, not anxious. I was taken aback by how good it felt to feel good. The sun was high overhead but the air was a perfect walking temperature. In a quick two hours, I had covered the nine kilometers of track that led to Aspiring Hut. The evening was spent sharing stories with fellow hikers as we tried to ignore the numerous screaming children, it was a Saturday night.

“I’m doing Cascade Saddle actually. Should take me about four days in total.” I was explaining when a character I had yet to be introduced to cut into my story. 

“You’re doing Cascade Saddle? You know it’s going to rain right?”

“Yes I do, it shouldn’t hit for another three days though.”

“You can’t do it if it’s going to rain. You know you have to cross rivers right? What certification do you have for river crossings? And how many people are in your party?” 

“Uhh, I don’t have any. I’ve been a rafting guide for three seasons though so I think I will be ok. I’m just by myself.”

“That’s a really bad idea. I don’t think you’re going to make it. People are going to get stuck. People don’t realize what 100 mils of rain is like.” 

At this point, my nerves were back. My planning for this trip had been rather minimal. I wanted the area to remain a mystery until I could see it with my own eyes. I had done plenty of hard hikes before so this one ought not to be much different, right? After a quick chat with the hut warden, who assured me I would be ok, I felt better but not at ease. I went to bed nervous, hoping I had not bitten off more than I could chew. That oh-so-familiar anxiety seemed to already be creeping back to the forefront of my mind. 

I awoke the next morning, not knowing that the day to come would become what I believe to be the most perfect day of my life so far. As the sun began to creep over the towering mountains I set off towards Cascade Saddle. This section of track is unrelentingly steep, covering 1.4 kilometers of elevation gain in only four kilometers of distance. My pack was heavy and calves on fire but I broke through the treeline in around an hour and a half. I was greeted with an unobstructed view down both ends of the entire Matukituki Valley. It was hard not to stop every five minutes and take in the view once more, even though not much had changed. 

I trudged upwards and around three hours after my departure I arrived at the highest point of the day. What I found while walking along that ridgeline is now my definition of the word ‘bliss’. To the west, the Dart Glacier and Mount Edward Massif came into view. To the East, Mount Aspiring and the Matukituki could be seen in their entirety. I have been to many incredible places, but this, this exact spot, was the most beautiful place I have ever been. I walked along the ridge and found a place to sit. A man had just started to paraglide down the valley and another stranger was admiring the scene some 30 meters behind me. There was not a cloud in the sky nor sound to be heard apart from a light breeze traveling from one valley to the next. I sat there for roughly half an hour. 


That half hour, sitting in the tussock, covered in sweat, smiling down on the valley below; was a moment in time that has etched itself onto me like a tattoo for the soul. It was the happiest, most content I had felt in months. Everything was perfect, every single thing. Whatever mental fog had been weighing on me since I arrived in New Zealand lifted away. I didn’t want to leave. I couldn’t leave. Why should I? But if I have learned anything these past few years it is that you must leave. That’s the hard part. That’s the price you have to pay for moments like that. If I were to stay, eventually the sun would set, I would get cold, and the moment would depart before I was ready. So instead I stood up, turned my back, and continued down the path on my own terms; knowing that what I had just experienced was perfect, and it didn’t need to be anything more than that. 

I was now on autopilot. The track had mellowed into an easy-to-follow, meandering path that led me straight to the Dart Valley. The main descent begins high above where the Dart Glacier now rests. The seven kilometers it takes to reach the hut from here was in and of itself an experience to write about. The start is colorless. There is nothing but massive walls of grey on either side. Rock that has only been exposed relatively recently looms high above. As you continue, gradually life begins again. Small plants and flowers spring up amongst the otherwise lifeless scree. These are then replaced by grasses, which are replaced by shrubs, which are replaced by trees, which come together to create a beautiful New Zealand forest. Descending the valley floor is the closest I have ever been to time traveling. As you reach the finale of this trip through hundreds of years of environmental resilience, the Dart Hut rests at the confluence of The Dart River and Snowy Creek, offering refuge from the cold and sandflies. 

After an eight-hour day, I threw my pack onto the floor and ran down to the creek for a dip before the sun tucked itself away behind the mountains. The water was as cold as you would expect something named ‘Snowy Creek’ to be. It was, like everything else during this day, perfect. The rest of the night was spent eating, chatting, and playing cards with other hikers. After a brief run-in with some Kea attempting to steal my socks and a viewing of the moonless night sky, it was time for bed. I wrote in my journal that night. “This was the most perfect day of my life”. And with that, I set down my headlamp and slept my soreness away. 



I am not sure what it is about an experience like this that touches me so profoundly. Sure, there are the usual suspects. The beauty, the strain, the spontaneity, etc. But these just don’t explain it. They don’t explain why sitting there, on that ridge, left an indelible mark on me that has continued to last well after I returned home. Quite frankly, I don’t want to know. If I ever were to figure out the answer to that question I believe it would render such a moment impossible to experience again. I never know when these moments will happen, all I can do is continue stumbling around striving to find another, waiting patiently in the meantime. 

The next two days of hiking offered more stunning views, easy hiking,  and good chat amongst the small group that I had found myself a part of. The final day had promised to be a wet one, and that it was. After 20 km of hiking through the rain, I was lucky enough to be picked up by a lone Dutch traveler who kindly drove me back to my front door. Just like that, my adventure was over and I had to get ready for work the next day. 

It has now been a touch over one month since I returned from this trip. It has been the first month since being in New Zealand where I felt like myself again. What a treat that is. I had felt entirely disconnected from this place up until those thirty minutes atop the Cascade Saddle. I feel extremely grateful for being able to have had such an experience. I have been good. But I know soon enough I will begin stumbling around yet again. I don’t have the faintest of ideas what experience will impact me in a similar way next, but I know that with each passing day I get closer to finding it, and that is all I can ever really ask for. 


Music from this time: 

“staring contest” – tomcbumpz

“Your Name” – Bernache

“Without Your Love” – The Paper Kites

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