Ah, the Dusky.
That, with a wistful look off into the infinite, seems to be a common reaction among those who have experienced the Dusky Track buried deep in Fiordland National Park on New Zealand’s South Island.
The floatplane touched down with only a gentle whoosh on the glassy, silky smooth surface of Supper Cove. Steep, massive tree-covered slopes surrounding our little landing cove looked like they had been jettisoned from the seabed into the sky. The tide was out and the sandy estuary of the Seaforth River glowed golden touched with green where sea vegetation was starting to take hold. The gentle flow of the river braided across the sandy surface, finally ending its journey from the staggering peaks above.
My hiking partner, Derek, and I jumped off the floats of the plane and sloshed mid shin through the salty water of Supper Cove, the deepest reaching of Dusky Sound from the ocean. We took our packs from the plane up on to the small beach along the serpentine tree-covered coastline. The pilot said not to worry about taking our boots off to keep them dry as we deplaned. He said our boots and feet would be soaked not ten minutes into the trail anyway. This is what the Dusky was famous for. Deep mucky mud, huge puddles of standing water, intricate systems of roots to be used as ladders over massive boulders and a rain forest thick with mosses and ferns covering every square inch of the rich sod.
I wish I had taken my boots off to keep them dry. Our first day of hiking was the most technical. Technical in where we placed our feet among the twisted lace of roots, the undulating terrain – up and over rocks, down into and across rocky stream beds and through the hanging boughs of tree fern canopies draped across the trail. The trail was indeed muddy at parts, but not nearly as wet as I had expected. With knee-high gaiters strapped around my leather boots, I think my feet would have managed to stay dry for the day, and maybe even the whole trip. I never stepped into any mud that was deeper than the top of my gaiters, though it came very close.
The logbooks in the huts alluded to a much wetter Dusky than what Derek and I were experiencing. “Had a great 7.5 hour swim between the huts today,” one entry said. “Spent an extra night here because the rain runoff has flooded all the walkwires [bridges],” commented another. Another subtler clue was the bits of dried of grass and shrub hanging from the railing of a small bridge. Evidence that the water does come up that high – nearly two meters above where we saw it.
We figured we hit it just right. A quarter of the way along on the first day, we passed a beautiful waterfall gently gliding into a large pool from a side stream just before emptying into the sea. The unimpeded sunbeams shot through the clear gaps in the sky, just washed in the days before by rain, as the clouds started to open up. The mist was starting to lift and everything sparkled with the fresh glisten, but the rain had not been sufficient to flood the trail as suggested by dried evaporation rings on the trail.
The huts were nice. Not the palaces we found along the Routeburn, our previous trek. A single room with two tables, benches, a potbelly stove right in the middle and two long deep sleeping shelves along the back with thick mattresses to hold twelve comfortably, sixteen in a pinch. The most crucial aspect of the hut was the screens keeping the pesky sandflies outside. If someone ever forgot to shut the door, the rest were quick to pipe up and remind them.
The sandflies weren’t so bad while we were hiking, or for that matter along the trail away from the huts. But they had sorted out that huts equal human congregation and a possible smorgasbord of unfinished meals. Sandflies are very small and seem harmless at first, especially to the hiker who has fought with the prick of mosquitoes in the Cascades of the Northwestern U.S. or the sharp bite of black flies in the Snowy Mountains of Australia. Sandflies on the other hand don’t hurt much, if at all, when they bite; but a day or two later the evidence off these stealth bites appear as tiny red spots on your skin and itch like the dickens for days.
That first night, we did have the unusual odds of sixteen people staying the night at Loch Maree hut. Loch Maree is the crossroads hut. The traditional Dusky trail starts three days south and the trail to Supper Cove is meant to be a two-day side trip. The crowd coming down from the Pleasant Mountains said the views were amazing. This was not part of our original intended route, but their descriptions and recommendation that we pop up there for a look couldn’t be ignored.
Feeling very intrepid, Derek and I packed a daypack between the two of us and set out on the climb-intensive trail up into the Pleasant Mountains towards Lake Roe Hut. We were practically at sea level still, a mere 41 meters above. Over the course of 3 km we would climb over 1000m. This was no simple steep trail. At times we were climbing hand over hand up thick roots like rungs on a ladder only to look up and find more of the same or large looming rocks looking impossible to ascend. At around 600m the undergrowth started to thin, the trees became more sparse and the trail rockier. Soon, we were striding along above the timberline over large rolling mountain meadows filled with grass and on occasion swamped and puddle strewn by trapped rainwater.
We found a good spot with a view of the myriad of peaks poking up from the deep ravines below. We bundled up in our warm clothes and hunkered down in the lee of a rock for lunch. Our timing was spot on with enough time to get back down to Loch Maree Hut to spend a second night there before continuing up along the Seaforth River on our original planned route.
When we returned to the hut, Tom, an Australian and Michiel and Annemiek, a couple from Holland were peeling off their muddy trekking clothes and getting into something warm and dry. We told them of our great trip up to the Pleasant Mountains that day and highly recommended it to them, but they opted to continue hiking out with us as they had planned.
Each morning, Derek and I would rise early and be on the trail before our hutmates were even awake. The days weren’t even really that long, six to seven hours, but we were always keen and it made for a nice rest in the afternoon after we arrived at the hut. Also on my mind, was if any weather rolled in or we somehow managed to get soaked, maybe the extra time drying out clothes in the afternoon would be helpful.
But the weather never really went bad on us. Our third day on the trail was a simple march up the river to Kintail Hut at the base of the trip’s big climb up and over Centre Pass. This climb wasn’t nearly as steep as the one up to the Pleasant Mountains, but it was close. Again we had times where we climbed hand over hand up a mix of roots and rocks, this time with our packs on. We crested the pass at the perfect time for lunch and ate with another amazing view. This time we had the unique perspective of looking right down the long narrow valley we had just come up as well as the similar looking long narrow valley we were going to follow out. We also crossed watersheds, from the Seaforth River that flows directly into the sea to the Spey River that flows inland to Lake Manapouri.
After lunch, Derek continued down toward our next hut while I opted to climb up the side of the pass to summit Mount Memphis (1405m). It was about three kilometers round trip with another 400m gain. The effort was well rewarded. The initial climb was steep, up grassy slopes with rock outcroppings. Once on the wide ridge top I had to work my way around the many alpine lakes nested in rocky bowls. The pointy Mount Ward (1713m) was calling to me. It was only 300m higher and I felt like I could reach out and touch it. But it was over three kilometers away and I would have to drop back down to 1064m crossing from my mountain range to the next via Pillans Pass.
I broke away from the luring spell of Mount Ward and picked up my pack where I left it on Centre Pass. The genesis of the Spey River was starting to trickle right under my feet and as I continued to descend, it continued to grow and soon it was a raging torrent of whitewater and spectacular waterfalls alongside the trail. The descent was steep but not quite like our climb up. I still had to turn around and downclimb a few sections of trail. I finally reached the boggy valley floor just as a light spatter of rain started to fall. Derek was already settled into the hut – comfortable, warm and dry – when I arrived and I told him all about the climb up to Mount Memphis and the lure of Mount Ward as we started to boil up dinner.
The rain pounded out a beautiful symphony off and on during the night, but it was all clear by the time Derek and I were up and going on the last day of the trek. There was still some pink in the sky and the tips of the mountains poked up into the horizontal beams of morning light. The trail was the easiest we had seen the whole trip and we snickered as we thought about what people starting on this end of the trip would have awaiting them.