The Dusky Track

20-29 March 2011

Day 1. It was 8.30 and we—Lisa, Helen, Murray and Darcy—were on the road south. The miles rolled by until it was time for a break in Geraldine.

Canterbury skies had been overcast, but as we ascended Burkes Pass the sky cleared and we enjoyed the views of the Mackenzie as we wended our way south. Omarama saw us replenishing our energy levels before we moved into Otago. Due to the quake, Lisa had not been able to purchase a new hut pass, so we headed for the DoC office at Te Anau and there she was subjected to a barrage of questions. We learned that the boat up Lake Hauroko was fully booked for the morrow. Drat! We had been hoping that we would be the only ones going in. Then we went on down to Manapouri and moved into our booked backpackers dorm at Possums Lodge, before going into the pub for drinks and eats.

Day 2. A hurried breakfast and repack saw us driving down to meet our minibus transport to Clifden Corner. Murray raced away to park his car with an old school friend who lived locally and the rest of us started to meet our fellow trampers—all young and foreign. Murray returned, our bus arrived, we loaded our gear, and then we were off. The drive was beautiful, with multiple layers of ground mist lying in the valleys. All too soon we arrived at Clifden Corner, and there was Val our boatman waiting for us. We transferred our gear, and continued on to where Val keeps his boat, the Namu. With Namu in tow, we were soon at Lake Hauroko. Any residual mist had cleared and we enjoyed the trip up the lake, although space on board was rather cramped due to the large number of nine passengers. Views were great. After some 50 minutes on the water, we arrived at the head of the lake and rushed into Hauroko Burn Hut for sanctuary from the horde of sandflies. I was dressed for the track and so champed at the bit whilst the others changed. Then we were off, and very soon met two hunters who were staying in the hut. The walking was mostly good with the track following the Hauroko Burn, but it wasn’t long before we met our first bog-holes. Trees, moss, fern—everything was green, except for the blue sky, the odd boghole, and the burn itself. I was taking lots of video of the burn and its enclosing vegetation, so I knew that I would not get to Halfway Hut in five hours, but even so I was beginning to think that Helen and I had somehow walked past the hut when we met Murray who had reached the hut and was coming back to ensure that the two laggards were okay. In bed that night, we listened for hours to the stags as they roared in the clearing right in front of the hut!

Day 3. We rose at 7am, much to the annoyance of a Czech woman who was still adjusting to sharing a hut with others. Although we were first away, we were soon passed by the other, younger folk, and this became the pattern for the succeeding days. Some of them had done over a dozen tracks in the previous few weeks, so they were really fit. We enjoyed crossing the three-wire suspension bridges, but they did impede our rate of progress and Murray decided to ford the rivers as a way of speeding our progress. It was a good decision as the river levels were low. Eventually we emerged above the bush line, and very soon after that we were at Lake Roe Hut. Four hunters, a mixed group of Aussies and Kiwis, had left their gear strewn everywhere, so we shunted it all into a corner for them and moved in. Some cloud had come over, but it wasn’t bad. We took off up to Lake Roe itself to enjoy the scenery and I climbed a bit higher to look down into the Hauroko Burn Valley, but the cloud made the view of it quite dark. The hunters returned with no game – they were an amiable bunch, and we co-existed easily.

Day 4. Yesterday’s cloud had dispersed, and the weather was brilliant. We left the hut and found ourselves in a wonderland—no bush, but innumerable small lakes and tarns all about us, and towering peaks further away. The climb up to Furkert Pass was made easy for us because we were continually stopping for “Kodak” moments. The pass merged into the Pleasant Range tops, and for us they really were pleasant—more tarns with the backdrop of mountain peaks, the deep chasm of the Seaforth River, and the first views of Dusky Sound. Fantastic! The view of Dusky Sound kept appearing for some time. Then, just before the track entered the bush, from a rocky outcrop we could see Loch Maree far below us. We could see the drowned tree stumps in the water, but we could not discern the hut. In all ways the day so far had been really great, but now adverse conditions commenced. The descent was not just steep, it was damned steep. Slippery tree roots became a constant hazard, and I continually asked myself why I had given up using tricounis.Then I slipped and rolled a few metres down-hill and off the track. I knew the general direction in which the track was heading, so rather than climb back up to it I set off through the bush to intercept it. Ten minutes or more passed and still I hadn’t regained it. Drat, maybe the track turned a hard right just after I fell off it, or something. Another few minutes went by – the bush bashing was actually easier going than was the track, but the track offered security. Still no track appeared, so I used my sergeant-major’s voice. Murray heard and replied. He was directly in front of me, although some distance ahead. Whew! Another five minutes and there was the track, but it continued to be the “track in hell” for another hour or so before it arrived in heaven, a lovely flat area that followed a tributary of the Seaforth River. And there was the shelter shed, a haven for trampers who could not get through raging flood waters of the Seaforth. These days there’s a ladder up to the three-wire bridge. Soon after was the bridge itself. Due to my previous experience, I knew that the ravenous horde waited until a tramper was halfway across before attacking him, so I applied repellent before climbing the ladder. Soon after the bridge, Loch Maree Hut was a welcome sight. All four of us agreed that that the descent from Pleasant Range to Loch Maree was an experience not to be relished.

Day 5. A side trip to Supper Cove and back. We stored food, unused gas, and other items that we could do without for the following two days and one night in one of the hut cupboards, and off we went. The track along the loch was not easy, but we were fresh. We passed a couple of waterfalls, the second one being quite spectacular, and had some beautiful views of the Seaforth. The lowest reaches of the river are tidal, wide, deep, and slow-moving with beautiful bush alongside it. One look at the sound, when we got there, convinced us that the low tide route across the flats was not possible, so we had to endure the difficult up and down track through the bush to the hut. That night a mixed Czech/Swiss couple, who were having several nights in the hut, provided blue cod which they had caught from the rocks below the hut, for dinner. Some Aussies, who were holidaying on a rented fishing boat, rowed ashore with a big crayfish which they presented to us. The Czech/Swiss pair cooked them all beautifully and shared them with us.

Day 6. The fishing couple assured us that low tide would be 9.30am, so we had a lazy start to the day. We were, however, down at the boatshed by 9.30 and found that the water was still too deep. We waited an hour, and the water steadily receded during that time, but it was still too deep to get around the point. We four kiwis and two Brits opted to take the track over the nearest spur and then to try the low tide route. It did not save us time, but it certainly saved us lots of energy and it provided us with a different experience, that of tramping knee deep in salt water. And then Helen went missing. She was the rearmost tramper in our group, I was just in front of her, and I asked her something. I received no reply. I stopped and waited, and when she did not appear within a couple of minutes, I called out to her. There was no reply. Damn! I visualized her slipping in one of the ubiquitous bog-holes, hitting her head on a tree root or something as she fell, and lying, possibly face down, in the mud. I dropped my pack and raced back, yelling to her. Again, there was no reply. I went further back and yelled again, and this time I got a reply. From its direction, she had somehow got in front of me. I was relieved. She hadn’t drowned in the mud, nor had she been kidnapped by the Lost Tribe. I returned to my pack, shouldered it, and continued on. I caught up to the others, who had stopped, and as I approached them I said, “Helen, how did you get past me?” They looked at me and said, “Helen’s not here”. She wasn’t either. Apparently they had heard me calling out to Helen and they replied – that was what I heard and mistook for her. Murray and I both dropped our packs and raced back, yelling at intervals. Eventually we heard a reply, way off to our right and through some thick bush. Murray stayed on the track so that his voice could be a homing beacon for me if I needed it, and I scrambled through the bush. There she was, safe and sound, sitting beside a bridge on the track. She had recognized the bridge from yesterday, but she knew that she hadn’t been over it today and so she was certain that she was right on the ball. But today we had forded the river rather that use the bridge, and bridges do look different when seen from below. Helen had left the track to skirt round a bog-hole, and on regaining the track had followed it the wrong way. All’s well that ends well. When we got back to Loch Maree Hut, we found that our food cache untouched by man and mouse.

Day 7. Dawn was cloudy and cool. The track along the Upper Seaforth was initially a steady but easy climb. Light showers fell at times. Gair Loch provided some interest, and good views of it were obtained during breaks in the weather. Soon after that we reached a dry and warm Kintail Hut. The roaring stags did not keep us awake for long that night, but most of us woke at times to hear steady and fairly heavy rain on the roof.

Day 8. A grey, dismal dawn followed. The climb began almost as soon as we left the hut, and we were fortunate to get a good view of Gair Loch below us. The track got steeper, and I kept on wondering when we would get out on to the open tops of Centre Pass. Eventually we did, and it was really bleak up there. I did not recognize it until just before our descent. On the tops Helen pointed out an extremely long worm lying on the track. It was a good 45cm long. The descent was quick and easy with most of us leaving the track to take short-cuts over the deep mosses, etc. Once in the bush, it was just another hour or so of easy walking to gain the Upper Spey Hut.

Day 9. This promised to be the easiest and shortest day of the trip, and so it turned out to be. The track followed the Spey River almost all of the way, and large, moss-covered tree branches stretching out across the river provided some beautiful scenes. Every day preceding this we had exceeded the advised track time by an hour or more, but today we were faster than the given time! At the boat terminus at West Arm, Manapouri, we had to wait for almost three hours. Plenty of time to change into dry, tidy clothing and to have lunch. It was now that I discovered that the memory card in my video camera was full and so I changed it. Unfortunately, when I did so, I must have forgotten to place the full card back in my pack. It contained my visual record of the final two and a half days on the track, from Loch Maree Hut to West Arm. Two days later, from Chch, I phoned Real Journeys to make enquiries, but it had not turned up. Anyway, the boat returned us to Manapouri and hence Possum Lodge. After a hot shower, a copious quantity of beer, and a large, freshly prepared meal, we slept like babies.

Day 10. This was Day 1 in reverse.

I would like to thank my three companions. Together we survived the ravenous hordes, the mud, the slippery tree roots, the steep terrain (particularly the descents), the weather of the last three days, and each other’s cooking. Helen showed unfailing good humour, Lisa’s exclamations of delight at the constantly unfolding panorama bucked us all up, and Murray demonstrated great fortitude in tramping day after day with badly blistered feet that were rubbed raw in places. The only grumbling I heard was my own.

We were: Helen Harkness, Lisa Williams, Murray Hight, and Darcy Mawson—the real old-fashioned general who believed in leading from the rear, but in my case perhaps I had little choice in the matter. (DM)