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Rees Valley Biking & Kea Basin Hiking

17 May 2023

Words & Photos: Dave Mitchell & Ditte van der Meulen

This Rees Valley farm hut sported a new chimney back in '92.

It was late summer when we headed north from Glenorchy. This cowboy town is experiencing a building boom as Wānaka and Queenstown are as full as a buffet lunch. Clouds of thick dust followed us up the Rees Valley Road, just like it does in any good western. This is a loosely gravelled road hanging tragically on for dear life, between an aggressive undermining river and the bottom of the Richardson Mountains that are busy reaching for the sky. A mix of scrubby regenerating natives then precedes a solid block of indomitable beech forest. In turn they enveloped our windshield view to the Muddy Creek carpark. This was surprisingly popular and provided a shady spot to unload the bikes, shoulder our bulging packs and head off into the sunrise.

The crystal clear water of Muddy Creek.

We forded Muddy Creek accompanied by a massive unstable slip and this was followed by a long cool descent through golden tussock to the wide alluvial Rees River Valley below. What struck us immediately was the beautiful light and view along the sheer rocky slopes and jagged pinnacles of the Richardson Mountains to our right, and to our left the insane glaciated Earnslaw collection of peaks filling a steel blue sky, totally oblivious and indifferent to us mere mortals. I suppose they just run on a different timeline, we come and go in the blink of an uplift.

Splashing around in the Rees.

This is 4WD riverbed country at its best with some wide rocky fording to splash, and hopefully not crash, our way through. The track soon leaves the true left bank and fords the Rees River. It wanders these impermanent and newly formed river flats with their first plant invaders filling up the cracks. In stark contrast the once farmed eastern slopes that have been previously cleared are for the most part in the throws of regenerating and carbon collecting. Above the 900 metre contour, alpine meadows reside then there is a rock jumble to the eroding tops. To our west old growth beech forest winds its way up to the bush line with loads of sheer rock faces and countless waterfalls and streams above. It’s all quite magical.

The glaciers were a bit bigger in '92.

We peddled and splashed our way onward, enjoying the views and sunshine, to the spectacular 175 metre Lennox Falls. These were thundering across the valley like a jet taking off on an endless runway. Less than a kilometre beyond Lennox Falls on a long terrace resides the start of the Kea Basin tramping track. A few orange topped DOC waratahs mark the spot but you do have to get reasonably close to spot them. Up on the terrace a DOC sign confirmed our suspicions and the track start. We parked the bikes and biking paraphernalia, donned our tramping boots and headed uphill.

Kea Basin Track start.

Born before us.

The track is surprisingly well resolved, a good bench and gradient, someone's labour of love in the distance past - possibly when the NZ Forest Service had a dedicated roading division and track building sub-division. Those were the days. There are some stunning monster beech trees on the way up, born when no one roamed this particular corner of the earth. It also delivered plenty of sneaky previews down into the valley as it slowly but surely disappears below us, as if we were the ones getting bigger.

Earnslaw Hut, Kea Basin.

The Earnslaw Hut arrives on cue surrounded by tree fall carnage. This seventy plus year-old veteran abode with its beech framing and corrugated iron cladding, open fire and four slat bunks with no mattresses has just a couple of small windows to light the way. How it had slept through this windfall event and come out the other end unscathed beggars belief. It is a beautiful historic hut with buckets of charm and character, and now with even more firewood for those chilly winter nights.

Home away from home and almost a cave.

Continuing upwards we soon broke out from under the stunted tree canopy where as if by magic one small and one massive rock bivvy presented their credentials. They are set up for non-goat residence with a fire place, kettle and pot ready to boil. The track then follows orange top waratahs out onto an open ridge and Kea Basin. Kea Basin proved an awesome spot for lunch with innumerable waterfalls crashing around the granite tops of steep faces and melting glaciers. A garden of snow grass, dracophyllum, hebes, spaniard, flax and tussock were making the most of the nice weather, just like us.

Kea Basin.

A lone tramper appeared from the ridge above and wound his way through the untracked scrub heading towards the hut. Marked on the map is another rock bivvy near the tops and we wondered if that was where he had come from. With lunch enjoyed and the big bad sundial moving inexorably towards more food time we headed down to the bikes for a cruisy pedal back out with gravity on our side and our fording efforts river-flow assisted. After packing up, a short drive delivered us to base camp at the most excellent DOC Sylvan campsite and home in time for tea. Rees Valley rocks.

Homeward bound.

Muddy Creek returns.