The Rees (Puahere) and Dart Valleys were well known to the Kāi Tahu people of Southland and the Otago Coast. They journeyed here to collect the highly valued, pearly grey-green inanga variety of pounamu (greenstone) from the Dart and Routeburn Valleys. In their search for pounamu Kāi Tahu often undertook major journeys, across mountain passes such as Harris Saddle on the Routeburn Track and the Greenstone Saddle on the Greenstone Track.
Early explorers recorded that even West Coast Kāi Tahu crossed the Southern Alps to obtain pounamu from the Dart Valley. All pounamu in situ is legally owned by Te Runanga. Other aspects of the iwi (tribal) relationship with this area have been recognised in the settlement of its long standing land claims.
The Glenorchy and Kinloch area was a meeting and resting place for Māori parties travelling to and from the West Coast. More than 30 Māori sites occur within 20 kilometres of Glenorchy, which was known as Kotapahau, the place of revenge killing.
At the best known camp site, beside the Dart Bridge, excavations have shown that Kāi Tahu used the area continuously from about 500 years ago. A few moa were hunted, cabbage tree stems were cooked in deep ovens, and pounamu tools were made using flaking techniques, rather than by sawing and grinding.
Among the first Europeans to explore the Rees-Dart area were Government surveyors, gold prospectors and run holders in search of new grazing lands.
James McKerrow finished the first reconnaissance survey in 1863. By this time, a large number of gold prospectors and miners were at the head of the lake, and a party of five miners led by Patrick Caples made the first record of the Dart Glacier.
The Rees Valley, Dart and Earnslaw sheep runs were all established during the 1870s.
A gold dredge operated on the Dart River, in the area now known as Dredge Flat, from 1899 until 1902. the dredge was then sent to the Victorian goldfields in Australia, after being pulled out of the valley by 19 horses. The remains of the pontoon can still be seen at Dredge Flat.
As part of the Deed of Settlement agreed to by the Crown and Ngāi Tahu, two areas, Pikirakatahi (Mt Earnslaw) and Te Koroka (Slip Stream), have been given the status of Tōpuni. These are areas of special significance to Ngāi Tahu. A Tōpuni does not override or alter the existing status of the land but ensures that the Ngāi Tahu values are recognised, acknowledged, and provided for.
The rocks of the Rees and Dart Valleys are green and grey schists, which are metamorphic rocks formed about 220-270 million years ago from ancient sea floor sediments which have been altered by heat and pressure.
The present landscape of the area has been shaped by glaciation. The Dart Glacier is now a small valley glacier but at the peak of the last ice age, about 18,000 years ago, it was part of an enormous glacier system that terminated at Kingston, at the southern end of Lake Wakatipu, about 135 km from its present location. Huge moraine walls in the upper Dart Valley beyond Dart Hut show the previous extent of the glacier and how much it has receded even in the last few hundred years.
Southern beech, or Nothofagus, dominates the forest. Red beech is found on the warm valley floor of the Dart Valley, while mountain and silver beech dominate the rest of the Dart Valley and the Rees Valley.
Cold air draining from the Dart Glacier has depressed the treeline in the Dart Valley to about 900m, 200m lower than elsewhere in the region.
Above the treeline, tussock grasslands dominate, interspersed by the dramatic flowering spikes of the aptly named speargrass, and spring and summer flowering herbs such as mountain buttercups and daisies.
The Dart Valley is notable for its sizeable populations of the endangered mōhua, or yellowhead, and kākā, and the presence of long-tailed bats. Other forest birds such as kākāriki or parakeet, robin, tomtit, fantail and brown creeper thrive in both valleys.
Kea can be seen on the Rees-Dart Track
Two particularly striking inhabitants of the valleys are the cheeky kea in alpine areas, and the paradise ducks on the grassy river flats.
Rock wrens can be heard, if not seen, on Rees Saddle, and whio, or blue duck, are occasionally seen in the turbulent upper reaches of the rivers.
Invertebrates are abundant, especially the ubiquitous sandfly in the beech forest and grassy flats, and energetic grasshoppers in the alpine areas.
Alpine wetas are also present in the Rees Saddle and upper Dart areas.
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