Dart-River-Hero

Justine Tyerman is a New Zealand journalist, travel writer and sub-editor. Married for 36 years, she lives in rural surroundings near Gisborne on the East Coast of New Zealand with her husband Chris. In this article, Justine visits the Dart River in the Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand.

"Sorry, but you have to get out of that Funyak now. The trip is over and we have to pack up," the guide said to me.

But the end of our Dart River adventure had come all too soon so I refused to get out of my bright orange inflatable kayak when we arrived at Paradise. I just lay down in my Funyak and the guide finally had to tip me out.

With both of us in fits of laughter, he admitted he had never had to forcibly extract a client from a Funyak before, ‘a clientectomy’, but he did consider it the highest of compliments.

We were last minute additions to the expedition that day, having decided on the spur of the moment to finally do the trip we had talked about for years.

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Dart River. We floated gently downstream in the late summer sun amid ancient beech forests, waterfalls, glaciers and craggy mountains. Picture by Chris Tyerman

We had driven up to Glenorchy for lunch and casually inquired at the Dart River Jet Visitor Centre if there were any vacancies.

"Yes, two, tomorrow. Are you in or not?"

My ever-prepared husband just happened to have our tent and camping gear in the car so we signed on in a state of high excitement at having been so daringly spontaneous.

Next day, we jumped in a Dart River jet boat with driver Daniel who gave us a safety briefing and a demo of what would happen when he gave a twirly signal with his index finger.

Gunning the powerful twin Hamilton jet engines, Daniel hooned 35km up the beautiful braided glacier-fed river doing the occasional 360 spin where the river was wide enough. Some of the overseas passengers were green around the gills after five or six twirls but I had a silly grin on my face the whole time and didn’t want the trip to ever end.

We penetrated deep into the heart of the Mount Aspiring National Park, encircled by the magnificent mountain peaks and hanging valleys of the Southern Alps.

The park belongs to Te Waipounamu (The Greenstone Waters), a region granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1990 in recognition of its outstanding natural beauty.

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Daniel gunned the grunty twin Hamilton jet engines and spun the boat in a 360. NTT picture.

The landscape is remote and astonishing, an area Sir Peter Jackson eagerly seized upon as Middle Earth for his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Many of the mountains are named after Greek gods – Pluto, Nox, Amphion, Chaos, Poseidon – and the area downstream is appropriately named Paradise, apparently after the eponymous duck not in honour of the staggering beauty of the place.

We stopped at regular intervals to take photos of Mt Earnslaw’s schist face gleaming in the bright sun and towering snow-capped Pluto and friends who popped in and out of their mist shrouds. I wanted to zoom ever onwards, enthralled with the speed and power, and fascinated at how Daniel knew which of the river’s braids to follow, but after 90 minutes, it was time to turn around.

We then transferred to our inflatable Canadian-style canoes to drift our way back down the Dart in a serenely peaceful reverie, such a quiet contrast to the thunderous throb of our earlier ascent of the river.

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Dart River. The view of Lake Wakatipu and the mountains from Bennett’s Bluff Lookout is among the most photographed in New Zealand. NTT picture

Along the way, we paddled deep into the Rockburn Chasm, a narrow, steep-sided gash in the mountain, with water so clear the shafts of sunlight penetrated the aqua-turquoise like laser beams. I wanted to linger in this magical place but was finally enticed out by the promise of a delicious buffet lunch served on a sunny bank of the Dart, surrounded by spectacular mountains which have given the area its World Heritage status.

The rest of the day was dreamlike - floating gently downstream to Paradise amid ancient beech forests, gleaming glaciers, wispy waterfalls and craggy mountains that made my heart soar... until I was tipped out of my Funyak!

Don’t imagine you can snooze on the 46km road from Glenorchy back to Queenstown. Rated one of the Top Ten scenic drives in the world by both Conde Naste and Lonely Planet, it’s stunning at any time of the year, especially after fresh snow. The view of Lake Wakatipu and the mountains from Bennett’s Bluff Lookout is among the most photographed in New Zealand. It’s jaw-dropping.

Have you ever been to New Zealand? If so how did you find the experience? Let us know in the comments section below, we’d love to hear from you.

Justine was a guest of Dart River Wilderness Jet, the only operator on the Dart River owned by Ngai Tahu Tourism.

Related links:

What to do at the Gisborne Wine and Food Festival in New Zealand

Hiking the magnificent Hollyford Track in New Zealand

A memorable trek on the Tora Coastal Walk

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