Exploring New Zealand's Deserted Dusky Track

Can there be too much of a good thing? For backpackers who like a challenge as big as the reward, New Zealand’s Dusky Track tests the limits.
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The Pleasant Range in New Zealand

The Pleasant Range affords one of the Dusky Track's best views.

Swirling wind hurls rain at us, like someone throwing cups of water into our faces. By the time my friend Jeff Wilhelm and I have gone 50 yards on New Zealand’s Dusky Track, we have both sunk to our knees a dozen or more times into the heaviest, gloppiest, boot-suckingest mud that I have ever mired a leg in. Our first steps in what may be the most dishonestly named mountains in the world—the Pleasant Range in chronically soggy Fiordland National Park—do not bode well.

I glance back at the Lake Roe Hut, but we didn’t come here to hide out in a shelter. Nothing to do but cinch the gaiters and tighten the hood. We continue across an almost treeless, alpine landscape of knee-high grass. Boggy tussock masquerades as earth, but the ground seems more liquid than solid. Our mode of travel falls somewhere between walking on water and wading through land.

We claw up a crazy-steep hillside of rain-slicked grass and stop in our ankle-deep tracks. The view makes me forget the brackish mix of rain and sweat dripping from my nose. A vast, mystical plateau dappled with scores of tiny tarns and a few bigger lakes sprawls ahead of us. The plateau falls away abruptly into glacier-carved valleys and fjords that stretch for miles to the South Pacific. In all directions, rainforest-shrouded mountains loom in the fog. It’s absolutely quiet, except for the threatening moans of the wind and the explosive farting sound our boots make each time we pry them from another quagmire.

The Fiordlands in New Zealand

The Fiordlands' annual rainfall—more than 20 feet—grows a brushy obstacle course.

I look back toward the Lake Roe Hut to gauge our progress—and see that in 45 minutes of walk-wading, we have covered about 400 yards.

Jeff and I have come to backpack a four-day section (about half) of Fiordland’s 52-mile Dusky Track, from Lake Roe Hut to the track’s northern terminus at the West Arm of Lake Manapouri. We chose the Dusky for a reason that can seem, at first blush, either a little masochistic or just plain dumb: We’re intrigued by its reputation as the hardest hut-to-hut trek in New Zealand. To us, though, this isn’t about something as shallow as bragging rights. Jeff and I are both past 50; our pride has gone the way of our ability to sleep through the night without getting up to pee. Having done enough stupid-hard treks for several lifetimes, we have nothing to prove.

We know we can handle the suffering. What captivated us was the Dusky’s more subtle promise: the chance to experience the New Zealand wilderness the way it must have been a generation ago, before the hordes of international trail-trophy seekers invaded. Thanks to its reputation, the Dusky can feel all but deserted compared to other Fiordlands trails, like the famed Milford and Kepler Tracks.

Now, though, as my outer layers double in weight with a layer of Fiordland mud, a more profound question enters my mind: Sure, we know we won’t quit out here. But can we suffer like we used to and still enjoy it?

Loch Maree in New Zealand

Jeff Wilhelm negotiates the descent to Loch Maree

The Dusky Track may be unique in the variety of misfortunes it presents. Blowdowns can slow your pace to a crawl (literally). Absurdly steep and slick “root ladders” are just as sketchy as their name implies. “Walkwires,” unnerving three-wire bridges that would pucker the sphincters of the Flying Wallendas, offer the only safe—relatively speaking—river crossings at times of high water. Flooded rivers can strand you for days, and flooding is not rare: Fiordland receives more than 20 feet of rainfall annually, about seven times as much as Seattle. Park officials recommend Dusky hikers carry a personal locator beacon, a mountain radio—both available for rent locally—and emergency bivy sacks. We pack all three.

The route is marked, but calling it a trail would be a very generous use of the term. The first four hours, we average barely more than half a mile an hour. By afternoon, we’ve begun the descent to Loch Maree, where the trail plummets almost 3,000 vertical feet in less than a mile and a half.

For more than two hours, we downclimb nearly vertical ladders of slick tree roots and rocks—unnerving sections that pose the very real prospect of a femur-shattering tumble. We grab onto fixed ropes and chains wherever they’re available. I’m surprised it doesn’t have a technical rating. I’d call the terrain 5.4 rainforest—a little harder if you have to devote one hand to slapping at sandflies.

Staggering into Loch Maree Hut at the end of the day, I wipe the mud off my watch and look at the time: It took us six hours to hike 3.7 miles from Lake Roe Hut. From legs to shoulders, my entire body feels like I just put in a 20-mile day in the Tetons, and I’m as wet as I’ve ever been from rain and sweat. Moments later, Jeff steps through the door, dripping mud, and bellows, “That was epic.” He doesn’t mean it fondly. We exchange wide-eyed looks that say: “Could every day be that hard?”

Dusky Track walkwires in New Zealand

Dusky Track hikers cross 21 walkwires

A couple hours later, three guys stumble in to join us in the basic, one-room shelter, which, like most huts on the Dusky, sleeps up to 12 people and has wooden tables and chairs and a wood-burning stove for heat. This will be our most “crowded” hut on the route (we’ll only see two other people in four days). On other Fiordland hut treks, like the Kepler, I’ve encountered dozens of hikers daily, and the huts almost always require reservations.

The hikers—a Belgian in his 30s and two Frenchmen in their 20s—are traveling the Dusky in the opposite direction. This is their first visit to New Zealand. When I ask why they chose such an unlikely first track, one of the Frenchmen grins and says, “Because it is the hardest!” Jeff and I offer no response. We’ve been their age; we know they have to learn on their own the pointlessness of suffering for its own sake. We aren’t in the business of saving young men from themselves.

After a night of coma-like sleep, all five of us step outside early. The rain has stopped. Mist dangles like a curtain over Loch Maree, a small lake surrounded by steep slopes. Swords of sunlight slash through the mist, silhouetting hundreds of beech stumps that rise two or three feet above the lake’s glassy surface. The water reflects green and gold mountainsides and blue sky.

It’s an image I’ll remember forever. Along with yesterday’s mud-boarding.

Loch Maree hut in New Zealand

Loch Maree hut

Standing on a tree root ball not much bigger than my boots, inches above brown water of unknown depth, I peer into the gray light. By all appearances, nothing lies ahead but a muddy stream sliding lazily into a brown pond with trees growing out of it. But in fact, orange markers indicate that the Dusky Track plows straight across this stream and pond. It’s our third day, and any hope of the track getting easier has long since faded.

I stretch and lunge from one partly submerged root ball to the next, trying to avoid disappearing into this organic stew, where I can imagine my bones and flesh spending the next million years transforming into a quart of sweet crude.

And yet I feel a smile crease my face. Hopping from root ball to root ball is kind of fun, in a small-kid-climbing-a-big-tree sort of way.

Somewhere behind me, Jeff erupts in a series of F-bombs. In a tone suggesting our experiences might not be totally in sync, he yells: “I’m stuck!” Hesitant to risk spending eternity as a fossil fuel, I wait on a relatively secure root island, calculating that his chances of extracting himself are pretty good (patience in moments like these is one benefit of reaching a “mature” age). When Jeff finally sloshes toward me, his pants plastered brown, he tells me through labored panting, “I was stuck hip-deep in mud! I didn’t think I was gonna get out! I thought I was gonna die there!”

Although my good friend Jeff occasionally veers into hyperbole, I congratulate him on his self-rescue, and remind him that we didn’t get where we are in life by relying on others.

After escaping the root ball gauntlet, we reach a torn-off edge of earth where a wall of forest drops off into a boulder-strewn gorge some 50 feet across. A walkwire spans the canyon, suspended at least 20 feet above the river—high enough that if a fall wasn’t fatal, you might lie there wishing it had been. I’d seen pictures online, but eyeing the suspended wire live gives me pause. These skimpy spans make wobbly, bamboo footbridges over raging cataracts in Nepal look like the Golden Gate Bridge.

Clutching the two handrail wires, I step gingerly onto the foot wire. Each time I slowly place one foot in front of the other, the wire vibrates like a plucked guitar string; before I’m halfway across, it’s visibly bouncing. I look down past my toes at the rocks two stories below—they’re hard to keep in focus because of the up-and-down motion of the wire. The sensation is half nauseating, half thrilling. Make that 90 percent thrilling.

Spey River Valley in New Zealand

Slow zone in the Spey River Valley

Once across, I look back at Jeff. The rushing stream drowns out our shouts. I motion for him to come across. He plants one foot on the walkwire, scowls, shakes his head, and backs off it—a reasonable choice I could see many hikers making. Jeff scrambles down to the creek and walks downstream to a rock-hop crossing that’s possible because the water level is low. Then he’s crashing through the jungle more than 100 feet downhill from me, bushwhacking up a steep, muddy slope so thickly vegetated that I can’t see him—I can only hear his grunting and see ferns and other leafy plants shaking as he yards on them. Twenty minutes after he backed off the walkwire, he reaches me looking like a puppy rescued from a hurricane. He does not look even 10 percent thrilled.

Beyond the walkwire, we commence another brutal ascent of more than 2,000 vertical feet in just over a mile—climbing root ladders, slogging through swamps, shimmying and slithering over and under some of the most tangled piles of blown-down trees I’ve ever seen. It’s absurdly steep and complex terrain. Only the orange route markers keep us from looking for a better way.

After more than two hours of jungle thrashing, we emerge from the bush to green, rocky meadows that remind me of the Scottish Highlands, only—and it stuns me to say this—wetter. A meandering footpath leads us over 3,448-foot Centre Pass, where a chill wind blows through the cliff-flanked gap.

But it’s not raining. The clouds have broken up, and we get a view that’s even more special because we know how rare it must be. Green mountains roll off into the distance. Rainforest sprouts from sheer cliffs, many bearing the vertical, light-green scars of new vegetation growing in the wake of a “tree avalanche,” which is exactly what the name suggests—a landslide of forest that’s grown so dense on a cliff face that tree roots tear free—and which I had never heard of before visiting Fiordland.

Jeff and I stop for lunch and to gape like happy idiots. My good friend, an English professor and one of the most literate people I know, is reduced to a burbling fountain of vague superlatives by the scenery. And we’re alone, of course. I’ve hiked for three decades all over the U.S. and the world, from Iceland to remotest Patagonia, Nepal to Norway, in the Swiss Alps and Italy’s Dolomites, and twice before here in New Zealand. I’ve never worked so hard for a view—or been so glad I did. It occurs to me that not only am I enjoying this hike, but maybe my satisfaction is just a little bit deeper because of all the trips that came before.

After the long descent from Centre Pass—and another exhausting day of averaging half a mile an hour—Jeff and I reach the Upper Spey Hut for our final night. No one else shows up, even though this is the first hut for hikers walking in the other direction. I don’t consider this fact worrisome until the rain that falls softly at first builds into a drubbing like a thousand fists pounding the metal roof.

I awaken a couple times to its relentless, monsoonal drumming, and only then begin to wonder whether the reason no hikers showed up here tonight is that the Spey River Valley, which awaits us tomorrow, now lies under an impassable flood.

Rain is still pouring down in the morning, but we decide to attempt to hike out to the Dusky’s northern terminus, where we’ll catch an hour-long ferry ride across Lake Manapouri. If the valley is impassable, we can backtrack to the hut and avoid spending tonight in a tree.

Despite the unknown conditions ahead, the rain doesn’t put a damper on our mood as we follow the Spey River. In fact, the weather lends a haunting beauty to the forest, with an ethereal fog rising from the dense understory of ferns and grasses. It turns out the river has not flooded; apparently, that requires more than a few inches of rain overnight. And there are no more root ladders or thickets of blowdowns. We casually cross the last two walkwires—short spans that wobble less, but still feel plenty exciting. Jeff walks them without any visible anxiety, and I think I even see him crack a smile. We still plunge unexpectedly into knee-deep mud bogs, but they’ve somehow become routine, just part of the trail.

It occurs to me that the Dusky Track is not just harder than most other hikes I’ve done; it’s a different experience altogether. I have known extremes of wet, cold, and mud. I’ve come close to trench foot in the Alaskan tundra and was thru-hiking Vermont’s Long Trail solo when the tail end of a hurricane dropped some 10 inches of rain on the Green Mountains. The Dusky, though, eclipses them all—in a way I hadn’t expected. It’s not just a hard, wet hike—it’s a full-body immersion in land and weather. It forces you to interact with the landscape in a deep, tactile way. You have to slow down and traverse the wilderness on its own terms.

The Dusky did eventually answer the question that it raised in my mind on our first day—but it also reframed the question. Turns out, we could suffer even more than ever before and still enjoy it.

My advice to anyone heading for the Dusky—at any age—is this: Be patient. You’re sure to discover the rewards out here, but you might not realize it until you’re hip-deep in them. 

TRIP PLANNER

Getting there Te Anau serves as the Dusky’s gateway town. Trips and Tramps provides shuttles to the trailhead ferries. Season December to March Route The full 44-mile Dusky Track is Y-shaped, but trekkers choosing to do it all must backtrack one leg (usually the 8 miles between Loch Maree and Supper Cove). That makes the entire route 52 miles. Plan at least eight days for the whole thing, or do a shorter version by flying to Supper Cove or Lake Roe Hut. Shuttles Lake Manapouri ferries at the northern end operate three times daily (NZ $45). Boats to the Lake Hauroko trailhead at the track’s southern end operate on Mondays and Thursdays (NZ $99); The cheapest shortcut is a float plane to Supper Cove (about NZ $330). Huts All huts have mattresses and pit toilets; BYO sleeping bag, stove/pot, fuel, and food. Huts cost NZ $5/person per night. Buy hut tickets in advance at any DOC office (no reservations required). Total cost $1,600 (round-trip airfare from L.A., shuttles, hut tickets, lodging in Te Anau)

Michael Lanza is the author of Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks. His wife and children are glad they didn’t join him on the Dusky Track.

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