How I did the Dusky Track

and what it did back for me

The Fiordlands National Park is a wilderness treasure consisting largely of rugged peaks, near-vertical valleys, temperate rainforest (below the treeline; above, it's alpine), and New Zealand's 2 deepest lakes (each over 400 meters deep). It's beautiful, it's awesome, and it's remote. A map shows a lot of really ragged edges - the fjords themselves - and an absence of roads or towns, for it's not really possible to access the Fjordlands except by foot, boat, floatplane, or helicopter. The Fiordlands boasts 3 of New Zealand's 10 "Great Walks", but these are generally booked out months in advance. So if you want to go for a long tramp (which means hike) in the Fiordlands, you have just a few choices - one being the Dusky Track.

The Dusky takes 6, 8, or 10 days to tramp (I took 9), depending on some choices, weather, injury or other misadventure, slow progress, a simple desire to rest, and so on. And, as it turns out, the Dusky is "New Zealand's hardest hike," "extremely challenging," and "... a rite of passage. It has a splendidly nasty reputation". The Department of Conservation (DOC) says "The Dusky Track is recommended only for experienced, well-equipped groups with high levels of fitness" (I did it alone, with standard/basic gear) and they "strongly recommend ... that you carry a personal locator beacon and/or mountain radio." (I didn't.)

I knew about the Dusky's length and remoteness, but I did not know of its extreme difficulty until I actually hit the trail. You start the Dusky Track (going the direction I did) by first taking a boat from the town of Manapouri across the lake of the same name, then walking to the West Arm Hut; only there did I get some of the above warnings (but not all: I didn't get the DOC brochure until after I'd finished tramping the track). This due to a semi-farcical series of events; briefly, I'd been told there was a DOC info centre or i-Site (similar) in Manapouri - there wasn't.
 
Atop the tourist boat that took me to the Dusky Track (Lake Manapouri)

So there I was, faced with all that dire prose. I could have backed out, figuring "I've bitten off more than I can, or care to, chew", walked back to the pier, caught a return boat (presuming there was one), and, basically, quit before I started. But paying a double boat fare in order to call it quits, didn't appeal to me. I was prepared with enough food for 10+ days, and I judged my gear to be adequate. So I decided to go.

If this sounds foolhardy, let's put things into perspective. I recently happened across a library book titled So Far So Good/A three-month traverse of the Southern Alps (meaning New Zealand's). Now that would be really difficult. So would traveling around the world in 80 days by bicycle, which I also just found out in that same library, a guy did - spending 16 hours per day in the saddle, sleeping 5 hours per night. Or I recall a time when, at the end of a track and resting for the night, I heard a big bump and thump - a woman, significantly smaller than me, had just set down her 90+ pound pack, full of technical snow- and ice-climbing gear. What was for us the end of the trail, was for her, just the beginning; she and her party of mountaineers/alpinists were heading up the next day. They didn't even deign to recognize, much less socialize with, us pedestrian trampers.

Compared to those sorts of outdoor activities, tramping the Dusky Track isn't heroic. Along the way, besides the hardbodies, I met up with young city gals who met in church, trampers older than me (a couple of whom looked pretty frail, which they obviously were not), and a variety of "just regular folks" of various body types, sizes, ethnicities, occupations, etc. Also, the Dusky Track is very well-marked by DOC (with orange triangles and snow poles - you develop a love/hate relationship with them); and there are huts all along it, each nicely spaced just about a day's tramp apart.

A word about these huts. They're great. Overall there are 950 of them in New Zealand. Their fanciness varies but they generally all have water, bunks, and foam mattresses - so you needn't pack a tent, nor mattress pad. Each hut has a name: the huts on the Dusky Track are the West Arm Hut, Upper Spey Hut, Kintail Hut, Loch Maree Hut, Lake Roe Hut, Halfway Hut, and Hauroko Burn Hut. Supper Cove Hut may or may not also be on your route.

So, dire as the description (attached) was, and correct in using words like "arduous", I'm glad I did tramp the Dusky Track. Iit was a good experience, though very hard.

When I mentioned this to my son, once off the track and checking in, he asked me (in a nice way), just what was so difficult about it? Meaning the details. You may find some answers in the attached article - though of course the author's experience varied from my own in some of the details, he gets them right, and accurately recounts the essence and the mood. The article reads like a blow-by-blow account of 10 days of misery.

But since not everyone reads the attachments, here's a list of some of the Dusky Track's difficulties and hazards.

That list is incomplete - there are other difficulties and hazards but that'll do for now.

There are ways of dealing (or coping) with all of the above. I was fortunate to tramp the Dusky back-to-front, meaning, most people do it in the other direction. This provided me with some protection. For example if I'd broken my leg enroute, I could expect someone to eventually come across me. Typically (each day except for one), around midday I would meet up with one or more parties, or the occasional individual, going the other way. Also, each night in each hut, I got an up-to-date report about track conditions ahead of me - so when there were particularly challenging places, or good tips, those trampers who'd just come the other way could and did tell me about them. The only nights I spent alone in a hut, were the last ones, after I'd already finished.

Another coping mechanism - I took longer than the DOC-posted estimated times for each leg of the tramp. For example taking 7 hours to do a segment posted as "5 hours", or 10 hours to do one posted posted as "6 to 8 hours". Partly out of inability to go faster! Many trampers on the Dusky, used to beating DOC estimates, found themselves exceeding or only matching the posted times. But also I went so slowly in order to do the simplest, most obvious risk-minimzer: be careful.

This "be careful and don't rush" strategy was correct. I suppose (but will never know) that it prevented injury - it certainly minimized the effect of one I did sustain. It occurred when I was downclimbing/downstepping into a crack in a boulder. This was right on the marked track, and that particular place was indeed the correct place to step, I wasn't doing anything dumb. But "something happened" as things will, the step turned into a misstep, and I banged my shin up against the sharp edge of the boulder. By evening I had a nice golf-ball sized lump or bump on my shin. With more momentum/velocity, I could have broken my leg, instead of just getting a cartoonish bump on it.

Going slowly is only part of being careful on the trail. You need also to be focused on what you are doing, pretty much at all times and in every moment. You could call it "extreme mindfulness practice." The practical details are simple - just watch where you're going. For example in those places where you're walking across or along root systems with holes in 'em; or if it isn't holes to watch out for, it might be walking on/in loose scree while descending a steep slope; or a muddy course where the right step means easy travel and the wrong step, falling over into and then wallowing in the mud; or places where a fall would result in death; or grassy places where you stand a high chance of slipping (and in fact the only fall I actually took during the entire tramp, was when I slipped on wet tall grass and plonked down on a combination of my butt and backpack).

But though those practical details are true and accurate, they don't really convey the feeling. You have to pay constant attention. You can't look up to view the scenery, even to see if it's nice - you have to keep looking at your feet all the time (which is one reason I took nearly no photos). Of course you can pause for a break, and I sometimes did, but not often, because of sandflies and 'cause the tramp takes long enough as it is - you don't really want to be adding very many more minutes to your walk: minutes make hours and hours make danger.

Maintaining this level of concentration results in a kind of constant, and constantly oppressive, strain. It's more than mental - it's psychic: not in the sense of a fortune-teller wearing bad makeup and spouting hocus-pocus, but rather in the sense of affecting one's (entire) psyche, "psyche" meaning the combination of cognition, emotion, mood, perception, affect, desire, attitude, orientation, awareness, and everything else that goes on in heart and mind and makes us who we are.

This constant psychic strain of having to pay such close attention for such extended periods, was the Dusky Track's chief challenge to me.

But what about the good stuff? The pluses? Surely there are or were some?

I must regretfully report - not very many. From a tourist's/sightseer's point of view, the Dusky Track offers very low "bang for the buck". It's said, and I've been told, that there can be some fine views, if the weather is clear, but that's a big "if". All that has to happen to block or negate those views, is rain, mist, and/or clouds. That did happen to me and though cloudy weather is good in a way - I used very little sunscreen - it results in those purported views being hidden from sight. Which is another reason why, despite some of your requests, I ended up taking very few photos. That plus the grueling nature of the experience. Though I hated to blow off friends' requests, along the way I realized, that (professional photography excepted) taking photos is largely a leisure activity. I wasn't experiencing a lot of leisure, so I ended up taking just a few photos - including one at the top of the steepest/hardest ascent, partly just to prove I've really done the Dusky, and partly 'cause that was my very best/most enjoyable day on the trail! That was a good day's hike.
 
Made it to the top!

But alas, in sum and on balance, though the Dusky Track is justifiably famous, it's famous for its rigor, its challenge, its remoteness. Not for its views. It's largely rainforest after all, so you're generally walking through vegetation, which, though it can be interesting, is also equaled in and on many walks in New Zealand - some so easy and/or "improved" that they're wheelchair-accessible.
 
A tree in the forest, on the Dusky Track. I thought it looked cute.
I talked to about 20 fellow trampers during my time on the Dusky Track. With one exception (Lake Roe Hut and the surrounding area), which drew praise, I never heard anyone exulting about great views or experiences they'd had on the track. They were basically all just getting through it. Not that everyone was a "Gloomy Gus" - far from it! These were all healthy, fit people with generally positive attitudes. When there were good things to say, they said them - they told of all sorts of good experiences on other tramps and hikes all over the world. But little of the Dusky itself. There just aren't that many high points.

But despite all of that, I'm glad that I did the Dusky Track. For one thing, a lot of what I get from the outdoors, is the simple physical, sensuous/sensual, kinesthetic and proprioceptual joy/blessings of moving my body through space in a natural environment. And for another, I did actually face/meet and overcome the "extreme challenge" of "New Zealand's hardest hike."

Now, I came to New Zealand to go for a long walk, and to enjoy myself, and for some other reasons. I'm not here to prove anything, to myself or anyone else; neither did I have any desire to face any extreme challenges, or even do hard things. I like fun, easy things as much as the next guy and in general I'm cherry-picking those adventures that offer the most, not the least, bang for the buck. For example in the past 4 days I've enjoyed approximately 20 lovely sights and experiences ranging from simply sweet to astoundingly awesome, all via a combination of driving, car-camping, and little short walks. Easy-peasy, and very, very good - lovely, in fact, as they say in New Zealand.

Back there in the West Arm Hut, at the beginning of the track, I had to reflect and decide: did I really want to do this? I judged that it wasn't beyond my capabilities, supplies, or gear - and as it turns out, I did judge right. But would it be worth it in the end? Would I be glad I did it?

Well, I am. "Extremely challenging"? It's true - challenging enough to change me in certain ways.

For, when you live a fortunate life characterized by relative ease, comfort, safety, et cetera, you don't experience certain things; don't learn certain life lessons; don't arrive into certain states; therefore don't personally and directly comprehend those states; therefore don't develop in certain ways. I'd never before experienced anything like The Dusky Track, which in short order beat me right down to nothing, and kept me there for the duration.

For example. From the track description I knew that the two segments of the track crossing the two mountain ranges enroute (on two separate days) would be the most difficult. But I somehow got the details of the description mixed up - I mentally combined the descriptions of those two segments. So, all along the way on that first hardest segment, I was expecting an "arduous" ascent lasting 3 or so hours, straight up and up and up with no zig-zags at all. Which does occur on the Dusky Track, but on the second of the two hardest segments, rather than the first. Compounding that error, I also mentally envisioned something like coming up out of the Grand Canyon& - with its sheer walls ameliorated by plenty of switchbacks - but without any of the switchbacks. I figured, it'd be quite exposed, just sheer rock and plenty of sun, but no water, and I feared I'd run out.

Now, that first hardest segment on the Dusky Track, was in actuality very difficult - "bush-bashing" all the way up the side of a mountain, then down the other side. But worse than that, looming over me was my misapprehension - which as time went by, grew into something more like horror - that I had not even yet begun the hard part. For the terrain I was crossing did not match that awful description. I found myself despairing "I haven't even gotten to the hard part yet" and praying "Please, let me at least get to the start of the hard part! Please! At least that!" I figured I'd then tackle that "arduous" part once I got to it.

Eventually that first hardest segment (day 2 of my trek) started to draw to a close and I began to realize, once I saw certain landmarks which other trampers had mentioned (e.g. a couple of swingbridges), that I was near the end of my day's journey. So, my horror began to ease - slightly, since I did not want to let myself entertain/get up any false hopes.

After that day, I did not labor under any misapprehension as to what was before me. Instead I labored under the accurate, true knowledge that this experience was not going to get any easier, at all. The descriptions were generally accurate in using words like "arduous". I was in for it.

Now, since the Dusky Track and on a different trail, I met and chatted with a fellow tramper (he's in his 50s) and we discussed all this. He recounted a recent time when he went out to tramp a track to the Mueller Hut, in Mount Cook National Park. He'd done harder hikes as a younger man, but at some point along this one he suddenly felt the realization "I just can't do this." But he did it anyway, and like me, was glad in the end that he did. He emphasized that it wasn't a matter of (physical) strength, or preparation. He simply felt that there was "something" missing.

I guess I know what he meant, for that same feeling came over me on the Dusky Track. Yet (obviously), simultaneous with that feeling of "I can't do this" was the stark knowledge/certainty: "Well, you are going to do it whether you can or not - there isn't any alternative." Turning back would have been worse than just plugging away/through to the end.

As a result of this doing, day after day and hour after hour, what my entire psyche was telling me, I simply couldn't do, I found myself frequently pleading (or praying), as follows: "Please, please, please may it end, please may it just be over - but in some positive-outcome way." I was very careful to append that latter bit, lest I jinx myself and have the experience end in death, severe injury involving stretcher-followed-by-helicopter evacuation, or other unfun outcome.

Obviously this particular plea or prayer, in this particular situation and place, came with its own answer: "You can get what you are asking for in just exactly and only one way: keep on going until you get to the end of the track. Keep putting one foot in front of the other, be careful, don't goof up."

I arrived in or at that state where you've got nothing else left - you've given your all and it still isn't enough, the situation just keeps demanding more, the stress just keeps on. I never was so exhausted that I fell down, but almost never did I ever feel like I was on top of the situation, strong with reserves at the ready, confident, able. In the face of such an extreme challenge, you aren't certain that you can rise to or overcome it. You're not actually sure just how this is going to end. You can't be confident - there's no possibility of confidence, or optimism. Days on end of constant concentration, combined with physical weariness, combined with the fear of what can happen if something goes wrong: it's enough to reduce a strong man (me), not exactly to tears - I never did feel like crying (though in retrospect that might have been a relief, I was just too tired for it to even occur to me) - but to something else: to a state where I had nothing left. Besides no confidence, neither any feelings of joy, nor satisfaction, nor feeling like any sort of adventurer or conqueror, or even feeling like a good, strong man.

I had never before been in circumstances that reduced me to a state where I "had nothing". I mean, objectively I had my strength and my health, and adequate equipment and provisions, and I escaped/avoided any serious injury. But regarding emotional (or psychic) reserves: those all went and remained completely out the window. In fact a lot of things went out the window - even hunger. I ate relatively little of the food I'd brought, simply due to lack of desire - at the end of each long, hard day, I just was too tired out to want to eat.

For the first time, I was in a situation where I had only hope to rely on, after everything else, every resource or coping strategy, everything I had, was all used up. I'd given it my all, I was at the end of everything I could do, think, feel, or attempt: and all that was left, was hope. (And/or prayer - but that's a whole 'nother subject which, though related, I'm omitting here.)

The story of Pandora and her box is simple, yet from the first time I heard it, back in grade/primary school, I could never really understand it. What the heck good is hope? It seems a pretty lame gift, not very valuable at all, very weak compared to all those evils loosed into the world. I never understood on a personal gut-feel level, what it was like, to have only that last resort: I never really, truly understood the value of hope, when all else is gone.

Now I do. And I have the Dusky Track to thank for it.

Epilog

From the trail description in the West Arm Hut, before actually setting out, I read that at the other end of my journey, Lake Hauroko, unlike Lake Manapouri which I'd just crossed, has no regular/daily boat service. The description says to get off the Dusky Track via "your scheduled water taxi" - I had not scheduled one. I figured that if I got to that point (meaning if I successfully finished the tramp), that'd be the least of my worries, which in fact it was. I also kind of figured, maybe since this was the high season, there'd be a boat every day, or perhaps on the day I showed up, or the day after (there wasn't).

Along the way on the Dusky Track I met up with members of a tramping club who were going to get off the trail on a Thursday, that is, the day before the Friday I was due to finish. They offered to telephone the water taxi company, and relay my request to pick me up on Saturday. But when I actually finished the tramp, I found myself fervently hoping that the water taxi people would have said "no" (I had no way of hearing back from them or from anyone else) and not pick me up. I was enjoying myself! The hut was fine and I felt the bliss and satisfaction of having done the Dusky Track. I was ready to just vegetate and chill for a while, still away from civilization and its various aspects.
 
2 interior views of the Hauroko Burn Hut - my last on the Dusky Track

I got my wish. My fellow trampers did telephone/reach the water taxi folks, but they sail on Mondays and Thursdays, so I spent 3 nights alone in the Hauroko Burn Hut, waiting for Monday and the boat. Not being certain that they'd even sail on the Monday (I figured, they might not sail if they had no paying customers to bring across) I put myself on short rations, consisting of:

per day. As I mentioned above, that was enough for me - I wasn't particularly hungry.

In the end I never did run out of food, and when Monday arrived, so did the water taxi with 4 people ready to start tramping the Dusky Track.
 
The cute boat that picked me up at the end of the track (Lake Hauroko)
An hour later I was on the other side of Lake Hauroko; another hour after that I was shuttling a rental car back to the town of Manapouri (for a couple of fellow trampers heading off onto the track I'd just gotten off of - strangers just minutes before who gave me their car keys - such is the tramping fraternity), and to pick up my own car which I'd left there in long-term parking. And an hour after that, purely by happenstance, I re-met and picked up the delightful hitchhiker named Agnieszka (a Polish forester and ornithologist by profession) with whom I'd previously spent several days traveling; we re-joined forces and spent more very delightful days exploring and enjoying The Catlins region of New Zealand's South Island.

But that is a whole 'nother story...