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September 2014 Issue
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Dart Track a great gravel path

The Dart Track in its natural state near Cattle Flat (left) and where it has been upgraded between Sandy Bluff and Chinamans Bluff. Photo: Stephen Keach

The extensive track network in New Zealand allows opportunities for people to develop skills and confidence by tackling gradually more difficult tracks, so why is DOC taming one of the best intermediate tracks? By Stephen Keach

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to revisit the Rees-Dart Track in Mt Aspiring National Park to see the new lake created at Sandy Bluff, the result of a large slip in that part of the Dart Valley.

The hike was to become an experience of track maintenance.

Heading up the Rees Valley, it wasn’t long before we arrived at 25 Mile Creek. I had read of DOC’s decision to build a bridge as a number of accidents and deaths had occurred at the crossing over the years. The towers of the bridge were visible behind a rise but as I reached the crossing point, I realised the bridge was incomplete and there was nothing spanning the creek. Luckily the stream was not an issue that day, but it left me wondering whether DOC was reconsidering its placement and had halted work. I was to reflect upon this experience three days later while walking the Dart Track.

In forest in the Dart Valley, between Cattle Flat and Daleys Flat Hut, there is a rough, natural section of track. Mosses and small plants grow to the edge of the worn path which, in places, follows the bed of a small creek, making it rocky, uneven and often bisected by tree roots. In rain it would make a challenging walk, but it is an authentic backcountry track for trampers of moderate experience. But beside the track were pegs with scrawls on them such as ‘Culvert’, ‘Culvert start water table’, ‘End water table’ and ‘Realign end 2’. It appears DOC has decided this natural area of track, largely unchanged since I first walked it in 1995, needs upgrading.

Shortly after Daleys Flat Hut, I arrived at the great gravel path where a wide section of bush had been cleared and gravelled over. In comparison to the section just walked, it looked barren, particularly on the forest floor where plant life was less lush. Knowing that the natural section is to be dug up made the experience of walking this Great Walk-standard track all the more depressing.

The new lake at Dredge Flat had submerged parts of the Great Walk-quality gravel path to Sandy Bluff. I was impressed that DOC had created an alternative connecting track so soon after the event. This new track reverted to the rawness I had expected and it had the nature of a more difficult, rugged backcountry track where care is needed. It was definitely out-of-context with the gravel path just walked; that easy track perhaps allowing less experienced trampers too much complacency when the nature of other parts of the Rees-Dart traverse are considered.

After passing Sandy Bluff, I arrived at a long section of digger-created gravel path. My frustration grew as I observed the extensive trenching that had been done alongside it and, in places, perpendicular to it to drain wetter areas. This work seemed excessive and in addition to being an eyesore in an otherwise pleasant beech forest, may change the tolerance of that area to dry periods during summer time.

Trampers don’t need this level of track to be built, given that it leads to routes that cross the Rees and Cascade saddles. Trampers in this part of the world should be able to cope with some water and mud. The gravel path crossed pipe culverts linking the trenches, allowing water to be drained from the forested bench to the river below. It was Great Walk quality on a track that was, and still remains in places, of intermediate standard.

People I encountered on the track indicated this path had been created to upgrade the track standard for a nature walk a jet boat company operating on the Dart River wants to run. If true, perhaps this is part of the DOC model of promoting business partnerships. In which case, it isn’t just tunnels, monorails and roads that are of concern.

With this track work having been completed while a bridge over a potentially dangerous stream in the Rees Valley hadn’t, seemed surprising to me. But at least those nature walkers on the jet boat trip, who will be getting a sanitised wilderness experience, will at least keep their feet dry – unless it is pouring with rain.

I ended my tramp of the Rees-Dart thoughtful about track maintenance. In providing and maintaining huts and tracks, DOC performs a great service, facilitating access to the outdoors for a broad range of people with differing levels of experience and who participate in different recreational pursuits. But are they going too far in some cases?

The Great Walks, with their huts staffed by wardens, provide a beginner-level experience for people wishing to try the outdoors. There are many difficult, rugged tracks and routes that require a high level of experience and skill. Between those extremes of easy and hard are the intermediate tracks. The Dart Track was one of these but it is being tamed, removing an option for people to graduate their skill.

In these times of funding cuts, DOC needn’t spend resources on excessive track upgrading. In the case of the Dart Track, the easy gravel track in the lower valley is out of context with what trampers will encounter in the upper valley, which could make them complacent to the risks and territory they are moving through.

The Dart Track in its natural state near Cattle Flat (left) and where it has been upgraded between Sandy Bluff and Chinamans Bluff