“It’s not unusual for this area of Fiordland to receive more than the annual rainfall of the UK in less than a week” cheerfully announced the driver to the full coach of tourists who were heading on a day trip to the picturesque Doubtful Sound. This was quickly followed with “We’ll just have to stop a moment to let a couple of trampers off”. Lynette and I had hitched a ride with the group to the start of the Dusky track, undoubtedly the most infamous track to be found in New Zealand. It had been nearly seven years since our last visit to Fiordland and we had always vowed to hike the ‘Dusky’ on our inevitable return.
Traversing a distance of 84 kilometres through a remote area of the Fiordland National Park, part of the Te Wahipounamu – South West New Zealand World heritage Area, the Dusky track has gained its reputation as a challenging trail due to its terrain and the fact that large areas are prone to flooding. The ‘Dusky’ has claimed the life of numerous trampers in the past and as such requires a certain degree of preparation before it can be attempted. With this in mind, we carefully chose the time of year to undertake the tramp, opting for the autumn months when on average the levels of rainfall are lower and the hours of day light sufficient enough to complete each days hike.
When planning our route we included extra days to complete the track so that we could sit out any foul weather, particularly periods of high rainfall as this could lead to rivers and sections of track becoming unpassable safely. This dictated the carriage of extra food rations (resulting in us carrying provisions for 15 days in total) and in addition we hired a personal locator beacon to request help in an emergency should the unthinkable happen. We finally arranged the necessary boat transport to and from the track and informed the local Department of Conservation (DOC) office of our intentions.
Our backpacks were bulging with cooking equipment, sleeping bags, food, first aid provisions, a complete change of warm clothing and rain jackets yet I still had to make room for my camera equipment, I had no other option than to keep my gear to a bare minimum, opting to carry only my Canon Eos 5D body, 24 – 105 L Image Stabilising lens, polarizing filter, cable release, 3 spare batteries, assorted compact flash cards and my Manfrotto tripod. I was slightly concerned at the prospect of my gear getting wet while wading through backwaters and rivers and so I also carried a couple of dry bags to store the gear in if required.
The start of the track was a good introduction to the ‘Dusky’, within less than ten minutes we were scouting around fallen trees, scrambling along tree routes and up to our knees in mud! This was the recurring theme for the duration of the first day as we headed from the track head near Manapouri through ribbonwoood and beech forest to the Upper Spey hut. The first evening was spent in front of a wood burner resting our aching muscles in preparation for the following day.
From the Upper Spey the track began to ascend through pristine New Zealand forest and we found ourselves in a position where we had to literally climb through the bush (it was now becoming painfully apparent why just 7km for this whole day had been estimated as a total of 6 -8 hours hiking time!), using tree routes as makeshift ladders until we reached open tussock land and our first view of the Centre Pass. Our track crossed the 1051 metre pass with magnificent views of Fiordland before descending even more extremely than the ascent. A generous dose of mud, combined with the unrelenting arduous terrain, made the final stretch of the second day a slightly un-nerving experience. We were both absolutely exhausted when we finally reached Kintail Hut.
The next day had a distinct mud feel! Lynette found herself thigh deep and whilst I may have mocked her, I quickly got what I deserved when I also sank to well above my knees on another stretch. The suction of the mud was so great that combined with the heavy backpacks it made getting out physically demanding, not to mention the unpleasant aromas that accompanied the final squelch of freeing your body from such large expanses of essentially stagnant mud and water – arguably a laugh or cry situation! Thankfully the weather to this stage had been on our side and although there had been some rainfall, we completed this section, which is prone to major flooding, without any major incidents and the need to wade through any water.
We spent the next day at the Loch Maree hut, where I took the opportunity to capture the play of breaking light on the mountains surrounding the mist enshrouded loch. After this well deserved lazy day, our route took a detour to the tracks very namesake – The Dusky Sound. The following eight hours were an enjoyable hike along a valley floor engulfed by temperate rainforest. Although this hike was for us relatively easy, this is most definitely not always the case and the guide leaflet published by the Department of Conservation warns that ‘After heavy rain low-lying parts of this section can become flooded and you may have to swim across small backwaters’! We had finally reached the Dusky but would our return be as simple?
The next day we were greeted by rain, which continued until the early hours of the next day. We had already planned a lazy day to enjoy the sound, but we decided to sit out the next day as well to (hopefully) let any flooded backwaters return to normal levels. Ironically, the next day was dry but started to rain in the evening. Unfortunately we could not allow any more time along this stage of the track, so we packed our backpacks and vowed for an early start in the morning. We need not have worried though as the return leg to the Maree hut went a lot smoother than expected. Luckily, none of the creeks and rivers had flooded excessively although the moss-covered boulders along the track that had been difficult in the dry weather had become extremely treacherous during rain. We reached the Loch Maree hut just before nightfall. We were now halfway through the Dusky and had only one remaining area prone to flooding to pass.
Typically the rain continued for the next stage of the track, which began with us crossing a 3-wire bridge over the Seaforth River. This bridge is located some 5 metres above the level of the river but can still become impassable and engulfed by the river after heavy and extended periods of rain! However, we crossed the river without any problems and congratulated ourselves on competing the notorious sections of the track. Our route now climber sharply for the last alpine pass of the hike. The track continued in the typical Dusky style taking the most direct and muddy route to the pass and the promised peaks of the appropriately named Pleasant Range.
Any photographers who have visited the Lake District or Scottish Highlands will fully appreciate the scene that greeted us at the top of the pass. In between the swirling clouds of mist and fog, we followed our often-disappearing markers as they led us over a landscape reminiscent of the north of the British Isles. After some two hours of playing ‘spot the marker’ we reached the Lake Roe hut, where we spent another lazy day resting our feet whilst waiting for the sun to appear. When the mist did finally clear it revealed a landscape that once again justified our intrepid trip along the Dusky Track. The next two days walking out of the track were all downhill and relatively free of mud and although we were both totally exhausted by the time we were collected by the water taxi, we both knew that we would be returning to Fiordland as soon as possible.
We undertook the Dusky Track on our visit to New Zealand back in 2007. Regular visitors will know that I returned to New Zealand in 2018. The next blog post will feature a selection of my favourite images from the latest trip.