Dusky Track: Ah yes, the Dusky Track, one of the finest trails in the world.  That's a strong statement and there are a whole lot of trails that I have yet to experience.  But I know how happy walking this track makes me, it's not only what I think, it's what I feel.  The Dusky is a wet, exhilarating, muddy, green, and amazing experience.  I've tramped the Dusky before and there was a reason for coming back.  At the end, I'll discuss the two experiences but do my best not to compare the two tramps until then.  So, it's on to the track...

To The Halfway Hut:

Dusky MapIt was raining when the shuttle arrived in Te Anau.  Four other people were supposed to be picked up, but only two got on.  The other two cancelled after hearing it was going to rain for the next few days.  I told the driver that it was a good idea they didn't go, as anyone who gets scared away by a little rain has no business being on the Dusky.  Few people like being cold and wet, but it's part of tramping in Fiordlands.  If it didn't rain on the Dusky, I would be disappointed.  Yet during the ride, the sun came out and the weather started to look decidedly pleasant.

The shuttle brought us to Val, the boat captain who would bring us across Lake Hauroko to the start of the track.  It's a 45-minute boat ride with 1600-meter tall mountains that plunge steeply down to the lakeshore.  The ride is nice enough to be a cruise all by itself.  It rained off and on but by the end it was raining solidly and visibility was down to a few hundred meters.

We got off the boat and went into the Hauroko Hut for final preparations.  I met the other two people on the boat, Will and Cheri, and talked briefly before leaving.  It's not pleasant starting a track in the rain.  Psychologically, it's easier to have it rain after you've started, but you know what?  It was raining and that's the way it was.  I put my hood up and started the trail in a downpour.  Approaching the bush, it was striking in its depth and thickness, as if approaching a solid wall.  Entering the forest, the light faded and my eyes had to adjust.  Within ten meters, the bush was so thick that it might as well be ten kilometers in.  All around, the birds were singing.  A special experience was beginning.

The Many FernsThe trail meandered through the forest and crossed numerous deep puddles and mud pits.  One constant companion on the trail were the ferns.  Everywhere you looked, there seemed to be a fern.  In some areas, the track was indistinct and backtracking was necessary, as I was unsure whether I was still on the trail.  The track continued on in its water-soaked glory as it crossed slippery tree roots and rugged rocks.  It was a heads-down day of hiking.  It rained heavily enough that one needed to stay focused on the trail underfoot.  Also, it's more comfortable heads down than getting a face-full of rain.

The track joined the Hauroko Burn (river) and would follow it off and on for the rest of the day.  Every burn and stream was in flood stage, flowing fast and deep.  It's best to be careful when the waters are like this.  In a number of places, the trail would have a series of steep switchbacks, usually to go over the top a rocky canyon.  After one of these canyons, the track went right next to the river.  I slipped and started to slide down the steep riverbank.  I reached for tree branches three times, missed and had a vision of falling into the river.  It's bad enough to get dumped into a river at any time but can be deadly to fall into a severely flooding one.  On the fourth grab, I held onto some ferns.  I wasn't being careless, but it emphasized the need to be cautious—more so than seemed initially necessary.  It was going to be a tough track.

The track would often leave the burn on a climb and would later encounter another river.  At the time, without looking at the map, it was hard to be sure if it was the same river or not.  The terrain is rugged and forest so thick, it's quite disorienting and hard to keep one's bearings.  The track came to a short climb that required the use of my hands.  For some reason I remembered this specific climb, which brought a smile to my face.  There were a lot of powerful memories being stirred, yet there were few areas where I could remember specific parts of the trail.  Mostly my memories were of an overwhelming sense of the place and the raw experience of hiking in such beautiful country.  The feeling of Nature and the Earth…that's what I remembered the most.

The rain would come and go in intensity, but never stopped completely and then a minute later, would be back to a downpour.  The track was often a tangle of tree roots, rocks, streams, water, and mud with lots of ups and downs.  There wasn't any one section that was exceptionally difficult; rather it was somewhat rugged all day.  Most of the day's difficulty was directly underfoot in terms of tricky footing.  It's easy to lose your focus for a moment and hurt an ankle or knee.

There was a pair of three-wire bridges that spanned the flooding rivers.  These bridges consisted of a cable for your feet and one for each hand.  The rivers underneath were swollen and I got dizzy looking at the churning Gardner Burn underfoot while crossing, so it was best to look straight ahead.  After the second bridge, the track started a long climb that led away from the river.  I remembered that the hut was only a short distance after this climb.

The rain hadn't stopped once during the day, though there was one occasion earlier in the day where I could see the sun and even my shadow though the rain overhead continued.  It was nice that the rain finally stopped on the climb.  A few minutes later the wind rustled through the treetops.  Actually it wasn't the wind, but an approaching hailstorm.  Hail isn't as bad as it sounds as it bounces off and you stay dry.  Then it started to rain again, then it hailed, then it rained again and kept raining all day.  On the Dusky Track, you need to be prepared to spend ten days in the rain and that means raining all day (and all night too).  You might have blue skies, but you will have rain.  This part of New Zealand gets eight meters (320 inches) of rain a year.  It can make things difficult, but also makes it so green and an incredible place to tramp.  Rain or not, the climb continued.

The Rugged TrailsAfter a few really rough sections, the track descended and once again followed the riverbank.  I walked along and became worried that I had passed up the hut.  I remembered the path next to the river was fairly short and the track had been following the river much longer than expected.  It's possible when in heads-down mode to miss a sign for a hut and I wasn't positive where I was on the map.  I started to hurry and become careless.  There were a number of flooding streams that crossed the track and fed into the Hauroko Burn, one of which I fell into.  It goes to show the need to be careful and always, always, no matter what, think clearly.

I kept up the fast pace because I really had doubts about the direction of the hut.  Finally there was a sign nailed to a log on the ground that said, “Hut ten minutes ahead.”  I can't tell you what a relief that sign was.  My memory is good, but not perfect, and apparently I was mistaken about the length of this section of the track.  About ten pleasant, but drenched, minutes later I sauntered into the hut.  It was nice to get out of the showers as with the exception of a few minutes; it had poured the entire day.  It's a rainforest and in the rainforest, it rains.

About 45 minutes later, Cheri and Will arrived.  They're a nice couple and we had a pleasant evening.  They had been working in Antarctica and were using a stopover on the trip from there to travel in NZ.  They are fairly experienced outdoor people and came prepared for the conditions.  I usually like to be alone on tracks, but it was ok being with them.  They told me what it was like to live in a building in Antarctica where the interior rooms only have canvas walls.  They said that some people have no shame and with flimsy walls, you learn a lot more about people than you ever wanted to know.  Gulp!  Rather than experience that for myself, I'll take their word for that.

Mosses Grow EverywhereCold, wet, wind, and hail notwithstanding it was a good day.  In some ways I didn't appreciate the rainforest quite as much as I could have due to the weather, but it was still impressive and it was good to be back on the Dusky Track.  Even a lousy day in the bush is still a pretty good one and today wasn't lousy.  Most people wouldn't view a rainy day on a rugged trail rife with mud as a pleasure, but it is to me.  The forests are amazing and there is so much water everywhere.  That's what makes it special.  If there were eight more days like this, I'd laugh in the rain, splash in the puddles, and jump happily into the mud.  If it's eight days of blue skies, I'd be ok with that too.  Come what may, it's ok.

We built a fire as best we could out of damp wood and tried to stay warm.  It rained heavily all evening and every time I woke up at night, it was doing the same.  I had a strange dream that there were supplies hanging above our three beds but just beyond our reach.  Every time we would reach for them, they would recede and always be just out of our grasp.  I don't know what the dream meant and it really doesn't matter.  I was back on the Dusky and that did matter

Tramping To The Lake Roe Hut
Mr. Moose Is Set Loose On The TrailWhen we woke up in the morning it was, you guessed it, raining and did so all morning.  The three of us took our time leaving for the next hut, but there is no point trying to wait out the rain as you can be waiting for days.  Off it was to the Lake Roe Hut.  Early on there was lots of deep mud.  When I talk of mud, I mean serious, knee-deep sort of mud.  The Dusky is known for long sections of mud and it didn't disappoint.  What else would you expect with so much rain?  Some people get put off by that sort of thing, but eh...it's just something you do.

It was a rainy day similar to yesterday with hills to climb, streams to cross, and rocks and gnarled tree roots to go over.  You know, just normal stuff when on the Dusky.  In between the long climbs or descents, there are lots of short, steep climbs that range from five to ten meters tall.  They can keep you going up and down all day long, even if it doesn't look that way on the topographic map.  There really aren't a lot of sections where the trail is flat and smooth.  There were birds singing, but they remained elusive and stayed out of view.  The track arrived at the first walkwire of the day, about halfway to the Lake Roe hut, where Cheri and Will had stopped to eat lunch while I continued on.  I sneezed twice very loudly; it's even louder when wearing a hood.  It continued on through the deepest mud yet—over my knees, but hey, it's sure to get worse.  The rain kept falling and everything was wet and wonderful.  It really was wonderful.

A short while later, the trail turned ever so perfect.  I don't know what it was or why it was so different, but it can only be described as perfect.  These areas might be described as gardens.  There are mosses all along the track, in fact there's hardly a spot on the entire track where you can't see moss, but in these gardens it becomes especially thick and lush and grows on everything in sight.  They cover the rocks, carpet the ground, and wrap the trees all the way up to their tops.  The entire forest looks soft, rounded, and inviting.  They don't resemble a garden that a human created, but one as created by Nature.  “Perfect” is the only word that can describe these areas as no other word, at least none I can think of, fits.  It's strange to look around and see I'm in one of these gardens and then look 50 meters down the trail and see that ahead isn't garden-like.  Yet I can't pick up exactly where one starts and the other stops.

Will and CheriThere is something about Fiordlands that no other place can match.  It's over 1.4 million hectares (three million acres) of wilderness without a single permanent human resident.  I look at everything in front of me and it's wild.  Yet this amazing landscape goes on kilometer after untracked and unseen kilometer in all directions and that pleases me even if I'll only see a few of those places.  After that, the trail started to climb.  It wasn't a hard one, only a 500-600 meter climb.  The trail was sometimes on slippery rocks next to a cascading river, other places it was on a soft, muddy hillside.

 At a certain point, I noticed the forest had changed.  There were no longer ferns and the trees were fewer and smaller, so Lake Roe must be getting nearer.  Approaching the open tussock (high-altitude meadows), it was still raining, but just barely and I could finally take off my hood.  When the hood is up, your peripheral vision is blocked and you can't hear quite as well.  It's nicer to experience the forest with the senses in a natural state.  The higher the track climbed, the muddier it became, as the higher elevations tend to get more rainfall. Sometimes the climb was up a tangle of tree roots, sometimes up rock, sometimes it was a boggy mush.  As I passed the tree line, the clouds played among the rocky peaks all around.  It was beautiful as all get up.

I stopped for a rest and could see the valley ridges in succession all the way back to Lake Hauroko and even a small spot of sunlight in the far off distance.  After more boggy climbing, a cold breeze came across the open meadow, but the rain had finally stopped.  The track crossed a deep stream that evoked a memory and I knew that the hut was nearby.  Then it was past a tarn (small mountain lake) and continuing across the open spaces.  It was a few minutes further walk to the hut.

I intended to go to Lake Roe, but kept putting it off.  My jacket was wet inside and uncomfortable to put back on.  It's not so bad when your jacket gets wet while wearing it, but to put it back on after it's wet, that's an entirely different matter.  Will and Cheri eventually arrived at the hut.  They mentioned that shortly after we met at the bridge, they had heard someone yell “Hey!  Hey!”  They thought someone needed help, but could find no one.  It took a moment to realize they had heard my sneezes!

We collected wood and made a small fire.  It rained off and on for the day, sometimes blowing quite hard across the open meadows.  I went outside to see the mountaintops of the Pleasant Range.  They have this name because a tramper from long ago found them to be, guess what: pleasant.  The clouds were among the mountaintops, giving them a haunting look.  They looked lonely, yet inviting.  I couldn't wait to get out and walk through them once again.  In the evening, it started to rain and did so all night.  I wasn't sure what tomorrow would bring, but the weather would play a big part in it.  After all, this is an area where it rains over 280 days a year.

It was a really good day of tramping.  Fiordlands showed so much of what makes it special.  There was tramping through the mud and the rain-soaked forests, along the river, over the rocks and roots, the stunning mossy areas, endless ferns, and a climb to the mountaintops and haunting meadows.  It was quite simply, a fine day of hiking.  As it got later, I wrote all of this down in my diary and then listened to the falling rain.  The fire died down and the hut cooled off.  A warm sleeping bag called me for a night of dreams.

The next day pretty much followed the same weather pattern, rain for a while and then stop.  The strong winds would blow the clouds over the meadows and then it would start to rain again.  It's name aside, I wouldn't want to be out in these mountains in bad weather.  One is quite exposed and the trail can be hard to follow if visibility is poor.  Alistair, an experienced Fiordlands rescue worker I had met a few days earlier, told me about sleeping under the stars in the Pleasant Range and for him, the name certainly fit, but not this day.  One other reason to wait for good weather is that one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen awaited a few hours walk away, but I get ahead of myself so more on that tomorrow.

During the rest day, I would read for a while, relax, clown around with Will and Cheri (who also waited out the weather), maybe take a nap, and then read some more.  Once again, it started to rain in the evening and rained all night.  It really was a quiet time in the hut, but it was nice enough and I had a good feeling about the next day.

Descending To The Loch Maree Hut
It was raining in the morning and the day didn't look promising but it was time to cross the Pleasant Range.  It was better than yesterday, though that's not saying much.  First thing in the morning the three of us headed up above the hut to see Lake Roe.  It's a 100-meter climb that leads to the rocky outcrops that surround Lake Roe. It was drizzling and cold next to the lake.  It had a lonely, isolated feel that suited the morning.  I don't know what that term “lonely” means, but it captures Lake Roe.  There is timelessness to it as if it didn't matter if a person had just visited or no human eyes had ever seen the lake.  Either way, the lake would be the same.

Will and Cheri On The Tops After Lake Roe, it was time to cross the open meadows to the Pleasant Range.  The ground was wet and boggy and then started to climb.  The climbs weren't big, but they went up 50-75 meters, then down 25-50 meters.  The rain alternated off and on and then the clouds would come in low and obscure the trail.  The plants up there looked pretty tough, as they would have to be, considering the harsh environment they live in.  They can have warm sunshine then the next day be covered in snow.  It's always nice to see such survivors and the strength of living things in general.

 At the top of one of the hills, I turned back and could see the hut and above it Lake Roe.  It was only for a few moments before the clouds rolled in and hid both of them, but my smile remained.  I didn't care what happens during the rest of the tramp:  rain, sleet, hail, wind, snow, or sunshine…it was going to be a great day.

The Haunting Pleasant RangeThe trail did have something of a path across the meadow, but for the most part followed the snow poles, which are orange markers on tall poles.  The track reached a plateau with a ton of pothole lakes.  Some of these lakes were obviously temporary as their bottoms held mud that looked as if it had dried up and cracked at the bottom.  They must have filled up very gently to retain these patterns.  Who knows how many lakes there were, it was too many to count and they were scattered all across the Pleasant Range.  The track passed right next to a very steep descent that plunged off the mountainside, the bottom of which was obscured by clouds, foreshadowing what was a few km. ahead.  The meadows and hills had an eerie feeling to them.  The clouds were low and the mists blew in and gave the lakes a ghostly look.

The track passes by a series of white stones with black veins running through them.  They were striking in that there is no place on the track with anything even remotely resembling them.  The trail kept going by the pothole lakes and white stones and across the meadows.  The rain slowly tapered off and eventually stopped.  I came over the top of one of
the climbs and then it appeared:  Dusky Sound.

It's difficult to describe what lay ten km. away as it looked otherworldly.  The long, narrow fiord was under clouds, but clearly visible, leading away to the sea.  I had come from far away to behold this sight once again and there it lay in the distance.  I sat looking at the sound for a while then moved on down the trail across the open tops and looked some more.  I'd walk, sit, look, and then do it over again.  The clouds would periodically come in across the grasslands and then blow away.  One time, a thick cloud blew in and reduced visibility to ten meters.  I had to stop for a good five minutes, as I had no idea where the trail went.  It's a good idea to sit still if you don't know where you are going; that's a good rule to follow in the outdoors, regardless of the visibility.  Eventually the clouds moved on and the trail revealed itself.  I came upon Will and Cheri, who were enjoying the views and waiting for the sun to shine on the sound.  The track slowly descended with small trees ahead but beyond that the land fell away.  I knew that the descent would be starting soon, but stopped to have another look at the sound.  It was more than just a look.  I couldn't take my eyes off of what lay at the end of the valley.  It was hard to tear myself away from that humbling view.

Dusky SoundAs the track entered the trees a memory returned.  The last time here I looked at the steep descent and thought that this must be off the track.  This time I knew better and started the often near-vertical thousand meter descent, then stopped and sat down for a long time.  I had to have a last look at the fiord at the end of the valley.  On this part of the trail, you travel more meters vertically than horizontally.  On the way down, one could see Loch Maree and a stream that cascaded down the steep valley wall and ended in a waterfall into the loch.  It must be quite a sight up close.  It's an amazing view looking down on that valley that is surrounded by tall, steep walls covered in trees.  Not only that, but all around are the peaks of Fiordlands.  The descent was steep, but not as steep as I remembered it…at least until a little further down.  When I use the word steep, I really mean it.  There are long sections that have inclines of 70-80 degrees where you have to use your hands to hold on.  Sometimes you have a rocky hand or foothold, other times a tangle of tree roots or even just a single root.  Dusky Sound was visible from a number of places on the way down.  It was sad to think that before too long it would disappear behind the hills, so I frequently stopped and looked off into the distance.

The sun came out and would shine for the rest of the day.  The closer I got to the valley floor, the nicer the day became.  Things were looking up going down the mountain.  As the trail descended further, the steepness moderated but the more difficult it became.  The steeper parts were easier in that you climbed down with all-fours and your speed was easily managed whereas when the descent is a mere 45 degrees, it's more work to control your downward speed.

The roar of the Jane Burn at the bottom of the valley slowly became louder and louder.  It seemed as if I was almost there, but it took a long time to actually get down there.  There was one last tricky section slippery with mud, and then I was at the riverbank.  The track gently followed the burn until it reached a three-wire bridge across Loch Maree.  I was expecting a 250-meter walkwire across the loch, but the track had been rerouted and it was now only thirty meters.  I had to wade through floodwaters to get to the walkwire and then it was a short walk to the Loch Maree hut.

I wasn't sure if I would be tramping to Dusky Sound or not.  Loch Maree was deeply flooded.  There is an old forest in the loch but this day the stumps in the water couldn't be seen.  If the water is this high, it generally means that the track is in pretty rough shape, often flooded out, downstream.  I walked down the track towards the sound without my backpack.  After a short time, the waterfall seen from the top of the descent appeared.  It looked as good standing next to it as it did from a thousand meters up.

The track climbed a series of switchbacks, which gave a good view of Loch Maree and the Seaforth River.  The loch was more flooded than I realized and the river was flowing violently.  It was probably a big mess downstream.  I struggled with what to do tomorrow, as the length of time it takes for the water levels to lower can be unpredictable.  Do I go to the sound or head north if the weather is good?  It was difficult to decide; the trail was so appealing that it was hard to imagine not hiking this part.  In the end, it was too nice to dwell on this.  The focus should be on enjoying the moment and let tomorrow come with what it may.  It was such an enjoyable walk and pleasant day.  Without a pack and a gentle pace, I felt so agile and comfortable.  I really didn't walk, but sauntered, and it made me happy.  I didn't want to turn back and felt like walking the six hours to the sound, but eventually had to turn around.  The way back was just as pleasant.  It was good to walk on Planet Earth.

Cheri and Will were at the hut when I returned.  It was a good day for them and they got to see Dusky Sound in the sun.  I'm glad they did as that is one of the highlights of the track.  Both of them came well equipped and had packs heavier than I would have liked to carry (as most people do), but they were ready for any conditions the track threw at them.  Safety is kept in mind, but in some ways I minimize, such as not carrying a camp stove and eating cold food.  I'm famous for bringing dried spaghetti and crunching away as others are having a hot meal.  I do get to make fun of Cheri for bringing along...an electric toothbrush!  She is an experienced tramper but that is one thing she can't do without.

However, them coming prepared does have an upside for me.  They brought plenty of food along in case they were held up by weather and realized at the Loch Maree Hut that they had extra food and shared some with me, including a bag of pistachios.  To me, that is livin' fine!  Now that's something that you don't protest too loudly (i.e. “Oh, I could never accept that delectable bag of pistachios because I'd be much happier eating my dried spaghetti.”).

Loch Maree Hut At NightThere was a mouse loose in the hut and it was getting at my food, though not the pistachios.  At one point my plastic garbage bag was moving as mouse had gotten inside, so I grabbed the bag and caught said mouse.  Will asked me what I was going to do with it.  After taking a look at how cute it was, I couldn't kill it and let it go.  I talk a tough line about invasive species (mice are not native to New Zealand), but when face-to-face with something with whiskers and big, brown eyes, I turn soft.  However, that mouse tormented me all night, running across my back and sleeping bag as well as leaving wet turds all over my stuff.  If you want to read of another battle with a mouse, you can read about that here.

It was a great day of walking, diverse in both the environments and weather.  It went from cold, windy, and rainy to warm, gentle, and sunny.  I started in the rocky heights across the tussock and past mountain lakes and saw Dusky Sound from the heights of the Pleasant Range.  Then down a steep descent to a fast-flowing river that led into a loch surrounded by some of the greenest forest imaginable and tall waterfalls.  Capping off things was a pleasant stroll towards the sound, smiling and singing and happy, on a perfect, comfortable summer day.
It was a great day.  It was a beautiful day.  It was the Dusky.

Resting The Bones At The Kintail Hut
Loch Maree In The MorningEarly in the morning there were a few clouds over Loch Maree but it was shaping up into a nice day.  The stumps in the loch were somewhat visible and I considered heading towards the sound, but the trail was likely to be flooded so it was north to the Kintail Hut.  It was a difficult decision to make since I wouldn't be dipping my feet in the waters of Dusky Sound.  I shouldn't let myself be stopped by a little water and mud (ok, probably a lot of water and mud) but there was a bigger consideration.  The last time on the track it was a pleasant day to the sea.  However, while on the trail north of Loch Maree, the weather was quite rough and I saw little of the scenery.  If it wasn't for that and that this day was a nice one, I would have made it to Dusky Sound.  Still, it was a hard decision to make.

I warned Will and Cheri that they should expect the track to be flooded just north of the hut.  Cheri didn't look forward to it, but I told her not to worry as it was only deep, freezing cold water that she would have to cross.  We headed north walking along the loch and were surprised when the flooded sections never materialized.  Maybe the trail to the sound wasn't flooded by the Seaforth River; it was hard to tell.  I was still ambivalent about not going.  It makes me certain that one day, I will return and no matter what, I'll go to Dusky Sound and touch its cool waters.  It was not only turning into a beautiful day, but a perfect day, no clouds in the sky, the air pleasantly warm, and not a hint of a breeze.

The trail alternated between the deep, dark forest with gnarled tree roots to a more open forest with plenty of sunlight to the mossy gardens that hold so much appeal.  The trail generally followed the river.  Sometimes the track pulled away from the river and other times if you made a misstep you would have fallen down into it.  There was a stream deep enough to get my (very short) shorts wet.  The water was gently flowing but it was difficult to judge its depth.  Coupled with a muddy stream bottom, it was hard to tell how far down I would sink.  The last time, this was a dangerous crossing in a thunderstorm and even deeper water.  It made me wonder, “How the *&#(*&#@&$ did I ever do that!?”

Mossy Garden Along The Seaforth RiverThe birds were out in force today.  During the day, I saw some wood pigeons, which are a grand looking green bird, which absolutely should not be confused with a city pigeon.  They have a distinctive flapping noise of their wings that make their presence known even if they remain out of sight.  A number of fantails also made appearances.  They will flit all around; flashing their fancy tails at anyone who happens to pass and may even follow you through the forest.  Another of the pleasures of Fiordlands is the bellbird.  This is small bird that has a voice that is hard to believe that it can come from such a little creature.  The sound is so distinct, clear as a bell, that there is no mistaking one when you hear it.  I would often stop and sit under a tree and listen to a bellbird.  Their calls are that nice.

The track hugged the western bank of the Seaforth River.  It was 20 meters wide and at least two meters deep and the waters were so perfectly clear and smooth flowing that I could see every single thing at the bottom.  Every pebble, log, and stick was as clearly visible as if there were no water at all.  The air was so still that a log partially sticking out of the water had a gentle mist visible that rose from it in the warmth of the sun.  Many trees in the forest had an ethereal mist rising from them, so calm was the day.  It's such a simple thing, but it's a nice memory.

 The trail continued along the river under the blue skies and eventually Aubrey Peak appeared.  What a sight to look up and see a steep, massive mountain covered in trees and rocky outcrops.  It's quite a unique piece of geology rising steeply above the valley floor.  The mountain is conically shaped, but has three separate summits.  Last time I was here in a heavy rainstorm, I wasn't wowed by the mountain...I didn't even know there was a mountain.

In The Seaforth RiverI took a drink of cool water from a stream.  It's nice to know that there are places where you can drink the water anywhere it flows.  The waters in Fiordlands are among the finest in the world.  It tastes better than any drink you can find in a restaurant.  I wandered down into the main river and stood knee deep in the cool, crystal-clear water and felt the warmth of the sunshine under a huge, magnificent sky.  I couldn't have been happier.

The track continued to meander north.  There were periodic mud pits, and the different types of forest described before, but all day, the beautiful river was a constant companion.  Later, there was a break in the forest and a gentle descent down to the water and once again I waded into the idyllic river.  The waters were smooth and gently flowing and I could still see every single rock on the river bottom under the clear blue sky.  I stayed in the water for quite a long time.  When it would start to get cool, I would move into the sunshine.  When it would start to get warm, it was back into the shade.  It's not complex, but it is pleasant.  It was a perfect day, a perfect place, and a perfect time and there isn't a single thing about the day that I would change.  I don't want to use the exact same words just used, but:  I couldn't have been happier.

Then it was back to the track and through the forest.  Some parts of the trail were rough, some not so rough.  The day continued with the track going up and down through the trees and whenever there was a clear view to the right, there was Aubrey Peak.  It's a sight to behold and dominates the entire valley.  There was also another impressive mountain becoming visible, Tripod Hill, but more on that tomorrow.  I passed up Will and Cheri at a river bend where they were having lunch with all-around views of the mountains.  It's hard to imagine a better place for a meal than they had chosen.  The path crossed through a number of mossy gardens, one of which had what only can be described as a mossy chair...naturally I had to sit in it and sure I got soaked, but that's ok.  It's a six-hour hike and the long summer days gave plenty of daylight, so what's the hurry?  Why not sit and enjoy it all and that's what happened for a good part of the day.

Aubrey PeakLater on I waded into the river and sat on rocks in the stream and had a long, long look at Aubrey Peak and the rest of the valley.  Will and Cheri passed me up as I sat.  A few minutes later, we met at a wire bridge that crossed the Kenneth Burn, which joined the Seaforth River.  I mentioned a section ahead where a large landslide made it difficult to follow the trail.  I told them to walk several hundred meters to the island of trees and then head towards a very large, solitary rock and they would find the path.  We walked together for a while and soon came across a scrubby section of small trees.  Then we crossed a section of larger trees followed by scrubby trees.  After that, the track turned quite rugged and steep, frequently requiring the use of hands to get up and across the various obstacles.  Good heavens, the last time I was here was in a torrential thunderstorm!?

Will and Cheri asked where the landslide was.  It dawned on me that the section where we had passed through with the scrubby trees was the location.  It had started to regrow in the last eight years.  Perhaps in thirty years, it will be completely indistinguishable from the rest of the forest.  Eventually, Nature takes back its own.

The track had a series of switchbacks up and down the side of the mountain to get around a canyon.  In some places one could look down the canyon walls at the river and hear it rushing.  Whereas downstream it was a gentle river, here was a fast-flowing torrent.  It must be something to see this section in flood stage.

I thought I was getting close to the hut when I came upon Gair Loch, a small lake on the river in the shadow of Tripod Hill.  I had completely forgotten that this lay ahead and looked forward to whoooooole lotta slop.  It's a boggy and muddy area, but there was plenty of mud earlier in the day, a little more wasn't going to hurt.  There was a pair of ducks paddling around the lake.  It's always relaxing to watch ducks.  Under the water they might be paddling like mad, but they look placid above.  There's got to be some lesson that we can learn from ducks.  I'll get back to you when I figure it out.

The trail continued to follow the Seaforth River and even went down in the river flats in a place or two.  It was relatively gentle with a few ups and downs and getting darker as evening approached.  I looked up the river and knew that the hut was not far.  I could see a large valley that joined the valley that I was walking in.  The Kintail Hut was located where the two valleys joined.  There was one last really deep, sucking mud pit and then the trail once again turned gentle.  About twenty minutes later, I arrived at a spur trail.  From there, it was a few minutes walk to the hut and so ended a perfect day.

Valley Above The Kintail HutI describe the day as being perfect but I think terms like that need to be qualified.  Just because a day is sunny and warm doesn't mean that it's better than one that is rainy, windy, and cold.  One is certainly more comfortable, but both can be perfect.  Each day captures the moods of Fiordlands and it's good to see all types of weather, even if one is warmer and drier after some of those moods.  The Dusky is not beautiful in spite of the rain; it's beautiful because of it.  To begin to understand the area, you need to experience everything it has to offer.  Sometimes “awful weather” really isn't so awful.

It was sad to arrive at the hut.  It was an awesome day as the sun was out, the breezes gentle, the bellbirds melodious, the forests vibrant, and the waters clear, fresh, and delicious.  The entire day gave a sense of contentment alternating with ecstasy.  It was the most perfect day imaginable for walking and the scenery was second to none.  It was a day as good as I've ever had on the trails.  Actually it was as good of a day as I've ever had...anywhere.

Adventuring Onward To The Upper Spey Hut
It was overcast in the morning, but not raining.  It was back to the main trail and a three-wire bridge across a river.  The trail was rugged, but relatively flat for a short stretch and then started to climb.  It led through the mossy forests and rocky areas and the climb didn't stop.  The track came to another three-wire bridge high above the rocky riverbed and then it was back to climbing.

It went up and up and more up, quite steeply mind you.  There were long sections where one had to climb up the tree roots and rocks on all fours and two places had chains up the bare rocks.  It resembled the descent to Loch Maree just that this was an ascent.  As I climbed, blue skies started to appear above.  It was starting to look good!

Tripod Hill and Gair Loch The ascent continued and had a section where there was a small rock ledge where I could comfortably sit and relax.  I had been very focused on climbing, but stopped at the perch and turned around for a view that gave me a jolt.  There was a large mountain, steep on one side and even steeper on the other side.  It resembled Mitre peak in Milford Sound and the steeper side of the mountain appeared to have fallen away in a massive landslide.  Below the mountain was Gair Loch, so it must be Tripod Hill.  Once again, with how bad the weather was the first time here, I had no idea that these mountains even existed.  So I sat and stared at the landscape of Fiordlands.  It's truly one of the wildest lands in the world.  I wish I could convey that sense, but the words that come to mind seem inadequate.

The Most Perfect GardenThe climb continued steeply up the mountain and eventually had a section which leveled out.  Well, it didn't level out in a conventional sense rather it was more level than had seen so far during the day.  Then came one of the most perfect mossy gardens imaginable.  Even after all that had seen in the last few days, I couldn't believe my eyes, I sat down for a long, long time.  I looked around and was awe-struck at the forests all around.  In one sense there is an excitement as it's good to be immersed in Nature yet there is also a sense of subdued comfort of knowing that this is a place that I belong.  Maybe that “awe” is a mixing of these different senses.  As I write, I still get goose bumps thinking about such places.

After that, guess what?  More climbing.  The forests were starting to change and soon the track was on the tops among the scrubby, weather-beaten trees.  I was starting to get thirsty; not having filled up my water bottle at the hut, figuring water will always be available.  Well, that wasn't true today.  It's so steep that all the water runs off immediately into the valleys below.  Crossing the tops, the track turned into a muddy morass marked by snow poles and the small trees gave way to open tussock.  There was some water, but it was in stagnant, mud-bottomed pools.  The water would probably be safe, but no need to risk it.  I crossed the meadows and started to get warm.  Unsure of where the next good water would be, I found a puddle with a barely noticeable flow and slurped it up directly from ground like a wild animal (Ok, ok, maybe I'm taking this “Getting back to Nature” thing too far, but that's what happened).  Mental Note To Self:  Always carry water...Duh!

KeaThe flats gave way to another climb, this time surrounded by tall peaks with the sound of keas echoing across the rocks.  Keas are large and inquisitive parrots that live in the mountains.  They are “inquisitive” as they examine everything they can find.  People often use the word “destructive” as they will use their strong beaks to tear up whatever they find.  As long as you keep your gear away from them, they're fun to watch.  They're a symbol of the mountains and it's good to hear their call.  There was no need to have drunk from the puddle earlier, as the rock faces were covered in springs.  They formed a stream that descends to the valley below.  This is where the Seaforth River begins its journey to Dusky Sound.  It had given me a lot of pleasure in the last few days to watch it flow, to stand in its cool waters, and to taste its goodness.  So I took one last sip and said goodbye to the Seaforth, but knowing that I will drink from it again one day.  The last time I crossed Centre Pass was in a heavy rain and the stream was flowing fast, but this time it was easy to cross.  From there, it was a short, steep climb to the pass.

Approaching Centre Pass Will and Cheri were at the pass, watching a pair of keas tear up the mosses.  We stayed close to our backpacks as the keas were being “inquisitive” towards them.  It was quite a view and the three of us spent a fair amount of time up there.  We could look back at the mountains and see where we had come from and look ahead at the valleys and see where we would be going.  There were some clouds above and Cheri and Will decided not to go to the top of Mt. Memphis.  There was no way that I was going to come here without at least trying to make it to the top.

There was no trail, just switchbacking up the hillside.  At first it didn't look too far, but there were several false summits.  The mountainside was a light-colored grass interspersed with exposed rocks.  As I ascended the grasses faded, flowers became smaller, and the exposed rocks became rocky domes.  It seemed that the top was just around the next rock dome, but always seemed to get further away.  I walked past a series of ponds (no shortage of water anymore) and even some snow, making a snowball just for fun.  Finally I spied the summit off in the distance.

The Best Picture of the Trip The views on the way were outstanding and they only got better higher up.  The view from the top was unbelievable.  It's hard to imagine something could be so impressive.  One could look down and see Centre Pass and the mountains above it covered in snow.  Turn to the left and it was Tripod Hill and looking down the length of Fiordlands.  There were tall, rugged peaks of bare rock over here and a giant waterfall over there.  There must have been several hundred peaks visible.  I walked to the edge of the north side of Mt. Memphis and looked up the Spey Valley.  This is a massive, and I mean massive, U-shaped valley that is steep on the east side and even steeper on the west.  Waterfalls were coming down the sides and the whole valley, top to bottom, was ever so green.  Even though it's part of the Earth, it was out of this world.  I looked up the valley and thought, “Tomorrow, I'm heading up that valley.”  Perhaps in a different place, that might have made me sad as it would be the last day, but I didn't feel that way then.  I was too impressed with what was in front of (and to the sides and back and even above and below) me.  I set a time limit after which I would have to descend.  When that time limit arrived, it was completely ignored and another one was set.

The top of Mt. Memphis is a fairly large, open area and with views in all directions.  I could walk to the edge of the top and look at a rugged peak of barren rock and beyond that, too many peaks to count, and beyond that, that the blue sky.  I walked to the south, then the west, and back again to the north and looked out over the Spey Valley.  It's such a sight to behold.

Spey Valley Panoama Finally, and reluctantly, the decision was made to come down.  One needs to set limits to make sure that you can get to the hut with some extra time to spare and I couldn't ignore the second deadline.  It was a wonderful couple of hours.  I looked south towards Tripod Hill, the blue skies had clouded up and the weather started to look threatening.  It was time to skedaddle back down.  I made it down to Centre Pass relatively quickly as the terrain was well suited for descending but I also pushed hard to get down in case of bad weather.  If a storm hit and limited visibility to ten meters, it would not have been a good place to be.  Once at the pass there would at least be a track to follow, or so I hoped.  To the south, it looked like it was raining, so it was best to keep moving.

Once back at the pass, the track switchbacked steeply down across grassy areas.  About twenty minutes down, the track was surrounded by towering rock walls on three sides.  It was impressive, but I didn't stop too long as I wanted to reach cover before the rains.  I kept up a good pace until reaching the bush.  In a number of places, the track looked like a dry, gravel-filled streambed.  The last time I was here, the track was nothing but a free-flowing stream and I suspect that it frequently turns into a waterway.  The bush was thick and scrubby and slowly gave way to trees.  Flowing down the center of the valley, the Spey River started its journey.  The track stays to the right of the Spey, often only a meter away.  Once in the trees, the track turned into a very steep descent, resembling the climb earlier in the day.

LandSlide! The trail leveled out for a while and crossed a landslide that had occurred only a few days before.  The entire area looked disturbed.  Rocks were balanced precariously as they hadn't yet settled.  In most landslides I've seen, the rocks are generally rounded as the sharp edges have worn off, but not here.  The rocks were jagged, there were downed trees that still had green leaves, and dust coated everything.  I can't imagine what that must have been like when it fell, but it must have been awe-inspiring.  Alistair said that if you find yourself caught in a landslide, “Don't run.  No need to die tired.”

From there it was another very steep descent that required hanging onto trees, roots, rocks, and vegetation...it was great!  The sounds of the Spey River accompanied the track down and a large waterfall could be heard.  The valley floor and hut weren't far away.

I really started to take my time.  First off, it prolonged my day and there was no need to rush anymore.  Even though it had clouded up, the nice weather held.  Second, the ground was so muddy; there really wasn't any other choice.  In a few places, it was a deep, sucking mud over my knees and I had to work to get my feet out, grabbing a tree branch to pull myself out.  It's not always a lot of fun, but hey, it's Fiordlands.  From behind some trees, the hut appeared.  I was ambivalent about the day ending, but time waits for no one.

The Many Flowers of the Dusky Will and Cheri asked me about Mt. Memphis.  I said, “Eh, it wasn't that great.”  They asked, “Really?”  “Actually, it was amazing!” I said.  They seemed comfortable with not going, but I was ecstatic about my decision to go.  I had previously told them of my experience crossing Centre Pass and today realized that a minor part of my recollection was mistaken.  Will and Cheri suggested to me that it didn't matter as what was more important:  The actual experience or the memories of that experience?  I started to see what they were getting at.  Once the moment is gone, the only thing that remains of it is the memory.  We live our life gathering experiences and memories and since we can't travel back in time, it is how we recall them in our mind that really matters.  Hmmm...interesting idea.

I'll have to say that in my memories, it was one of the most outstanding days of tramping ever.  There was so much to the day.  It went from a river valley to alpine meadows to the rocky tops of Fiordlands and all the different environments in between.  I walked along gentle paths, through mud over my knees, in the waters, steep climbs, and steep descents.  I saw Tripod Hill and sat in mossy gardens.  I stood on Mt. Memphis under blue skies and looked out to the edge of the world.  What more could a person ask?

I debated whether to spend another day at the hut, but something was pushing me on.  Heading back to Mt. Memphis was out as yesterday was so special that I might be let down.  I thought about relaxing for the day, but as mentioned, something was pushing me on.  I don't know why, but I had to keep walking.  Will and Cheri were staying another day and I said goodbye to them.  We had a pleasant time together and if one had to be accompanied by two people, it was nice that it was them.  I hope their tramp out is as phenomenal as the last few days have been.  A couple of weeks after this page was first published, they sent me a letter saying that they had seven more months to stay in Antartica and announced their engagement.  They invited me to their wedding and I hope the rest of their lives together are as good as their time on the track. 

The sky was overcast but the air was pleasant and on that note it was time to leave the Upper Spey Hut.  The trail was just like yesterday: a very muddy, boggy meadow, but that soon enough turned into the forest.  The beech forest gave way to a mossy garden, but this garden went on and on.  It was good that on the last day I would get to appreciate this special part of Fiordlands.  Something that makes one say, “One day, I will see this again.”

Eventually the more conventional (though still special) forest returned and it alternated between these different environments.  The track varied between good solid footing and muddy, which is pretty much par for the course on the Dusky.  There were a few tough spots, but as a whole it wasn't that difficult a day.  It was a time to savor Nature, the Earth, the trees, the rocks, the songs of the birds, the water, and all that is around.  It was even a time to savor...time itself.

Mud Movie When tramping in Fiordlands, there is a certain ritual that one must follow.  It consists of putting on wet boots and possibly wet clothing every morning.  On a trail as soaked as this, your boots will get wet the first day, frequently in the first few minutes, and they will stay that way until the end.  They won't dry out overnight either, so why worry about it?  So every morning, you put on your wet socks, wet boots, and wet shorts and shudder at how cold they are, but it's ok as they warm up after a few minutes.  Some people try to keep their boots dry but that's actually dangerous.  When worried about your boots, you try to cross the streams by jumping between wet rocks and a fall will inevitably result.  Best thing is not worry.  From the beginning, I had been walking through the muck and today was no different.  I was sure going to miss that slop.

There were two wire bridges that I didn't use and instead forded the streams.  The water was gentle and I'm already wet, so why not?  Besides, there's something primal about crossing the streams.  There is a connection to the Earth with the waters around my legs, even if it's only for a minute.  The track crossed to the west side of the Spey River, where it would stay until the end.  Onward north, onward north.

Sitting Along The Spey RiverThere are some views of the valley walls above, including another cliff that fell away in a rockslide, but for the most part, it was a day in the forest walking along a river.  The Spey is just as enchanting as the Seaforth and Hauroko Burn and it's a good companion for the day.  Across tree roots, over rocks, through mud pits, past the ferns, across a dry section of track, watching and getting watched by fantails...it's all here.  Sometimes I leave the trail and walk into the river.  I don't know why, but it's pleasant.  On most days, the water might have been a too cool for comfort, but that was on “most days” and it certainly wasn't this day.

I lost the track and got onto an animal path for a while, but no worries.  There are the massive valley walls that I saw from Mt. Memphis to the left.  To the right is the Spey River, next to which is the track.  As long as I stay between them, everything will be fine.  On most days, losing the track would have concerned me more, but as mentioned, this wasn't “most days.”

The track continued to follow the river and for some reason I picked up my pace and then encountered another pair of wire bridges, another sign the trail's end is approaching.  I don't know where or when, but it's getting closer.  It was time to drop the pace down a notch.  A number of times I sat on a rock to look all around.  It gave the opportunity to look at the trees above, the ferns next to me, the mosses below, a spider web here, and a flower over there.  What a place!

The track pulled away from the river and then returned to the water's edge, doing so several times.  There was a short section that climbed up and down some rocks that resembled the descents of yesterday.  The trail leaves the river and returns again.  Once more, the track leaves the river, but something said to me, “It's not going to return.”

It gave me a strange feeling and I climbed up a short hill, all the while still appreciating the forest.  Then I saw horizontal line.  It was the road at the end of the track.  I walked up the last few feet.  The beautiful, stunning, wonderful, wet, rugged, wild thing that is the Dusky Track was over.

Trail's EndSome people might feel ecstatic or sad at finishing.  For me, it was too overwhelming to feel either.  I don't know how to describe it as anything other than that.  There was still a 45-minute walk along the gravel road to Lake Manapouri, but I couldn't escape that overwhelmed feeling.  A few tourist buses (that run between Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound) passed me up, but one stopped.  I didn't want a ride, preferring to walk from the boat at Lake Hauroko to the boat at Lake Manapouri.  Here's a bus filled with ordinary tourists and the driver stops to pick up a filthy, muddy, unshaven, sweaty...we're talking a real work of art here...backpacker.  I took the ride as it was an act of kindness and I don't usually turn those down.  The people on the bus asked me about the track and were amazed.  The way I looked (smelled!?) certainly made the track look pretty wild.  Our Fiordlands experiences were distinctly different and I'm sure that both were pleased at our choices....I can't imagine doing it any other way.

It was a wait of an hour or two for the boat that crossed Lake Manapouri.  I still really didn't feel anything as far as the trail being over and boarded the boat.  Once the boat started off, the finality of it hit me.  I was leaving the Dusky and didn't know when I would be back.  It wasn't all bad as the there were plenty of good memories, but it was more of an ambivalent feeling.  If you start a trail, you must finish it.  It's part of it and you know what?  One day, one day I'll be back.  I know it, I feel it, I will.

A few people on the boat asked me about the track.  They seemed impressed, but not just by me, but by the whole experience.  One woman said she wished she could have done something like that.  “You know, that it's never too late to start tramping and toughen yourself up.” and she smiled back at me.  As the boat crossed the lake, I turned around for a last look.  One part of me was feeling good.  Another part was saddened as the mountains of the Dusky faded away in the distance.

The Dusky:  Then and Now
Covered In Moss From Top To BottomOn the boat backIn the beginning I said that I would try to avoid a lot of references to my first time on the track except when necessary.  It seems like its time to compare the two experiences.  I won't compare them on the basis of which was better.  You just can't do that.  Both experiences were so wild and amazing that it's not possible to say that one was better than the other.  In most ways, they weren't different.  The Dusky Track is still what it was when I first went on it.  It's beautiful, wet, muddy, rocky, green, and everything else that's been described.  The Department of Conservations did some “improvements” on the wire bridges; that is put in quotes as they didn't seem necessary and just fancied them up a little.  However, the track itself is the same.

What was different about the experiences?  Probably the most notable difference was the weather.  During the first tramp, the first two days were gentle and this time there was poor weather.  The two days at Lake Roe and to Loch Maree were similar both times.  The first time I tramped the Dusky, the conditions north of Loch Maree were absolutely awful and this time they were absolutely beautiful (but remember that “awful” weather isn't always so awful).  The rainy days this time were mild compared to what was experienced last time, which were pretty rough.  One other difference is that I'm older than on my first tramp.  I'm still extremely fit, far stronger and fitter than most twenty-year olds, but I'm not as strong as I was eight years ago.  I wasn't tired and could have easily hiked for another week, but I was a little slower on the climbs.

Often times, I was tramping along and thinking “How in the world did I do this in a torrential thunderstorm and still enjoy it?” This was especially true when I crossed Centre Pass.  After Alistair read my account of my first crossing, he asked, “What did you learn from it?”  I replied, “I probably should have sat the day out.”  He responded with a nod of his head.

Final Thoughts, Epilogue, Post-Mortem, Etc, Etc:
For me, these are really intense experiences.  Every single day I was happy.  Fiordlands is a place that I belong and feel grounded.  I live far away from there, yet feel at home.  There are times when I look back to my time on the Dusky and those memories are strong enough to give me a pit in my stomach.  When writing about finishing the track, sometimes that almost hurts.  From reading this account, you might think I use too many strong words to describe the track, but I don't exaggerate the experience.  I don't know what others will feel when they tramp the Dusky, but I know what I do.

When I'm back home, sometimes (actually quite frequently), my mind drifts off to a world of travel.  I often think of New Zealand and inevitably of the Dusky Track.  It's one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful places in the world.  I think back to the peaks of Fiordlands, to the birds and the flowers, to the trees and mosses, to everything that's there.  I think back and it brings me to another world.  I think back and look forward to being there once again.

Those mountains and forests and waters are still strongly with me today and always will be.

If you've enjoyed this, I've hiked the Dusky two other times.  There is another similar track, George Sound, that I've walked as well as several other spectacular tracks.  Click here to read about them.  They're all good stories, I think you'll like them.