By Michael Lanza
We step out of the Lake Roe Hut into a persistent drizzle, deep in what may be the most dishonestly named mountains in the world—the Pleasant Range in New Zealand’s chronically soggy Fiordland National Park. Belligerent gusts hurl cups of water into our faces. By the time my friend, Jeff, and I have taken our first 50 steps on the Dusky Track, we have both sunk knee-deep a dozen or more times into some of the heaviest, gloppiest, boot-suckingest mud that I have ever mired a leg in.
Garbed head to toe in rain shells, gaiters, gloves, and waterproof, leather boots, we hike across an almost treeless landscape, the “trail,” such as it is, intermittently fading into a sea of knee-high grass. Boggy tussock masquerades as earth, but the ground seems more liquid than solid: Excavate and wring out a cubic meter of it, and I’d bet my wide-brim, Gore-Tex hat you could fill a bathtub. Our mode of travel falls somewhere between walking on water and wading through land.
We claw up a crazily steep hillside of rain-slicked grass and stop in our ankle-deep-in-mud tracks. The view makes me briefly forget the brackish mix of raindrops and sweat dripping from my nose.
Before us sprawls a mystical, heaving plateau dappled with scores of tiny tarns and a few bigger lakes. Emerald fingers of land snake between the watery pearls. The plateau’s sawed-off edges fall away abruptly into abyssal, glacier-carved valleys and fjords that stretch for miles to the South Pacific. In all directions, dark mountains loom in and out of the fog, their flanks at once so vertiginous and lush with rainforest that they appear to have gotten a waiver from gravity. It’s absolutely quiet, except for the haunting moans of the wind and the explosive farting sound our boots make each time we pry them from another calf-deep quagmire.
A shaft of sunlight pierces the bruised heavens, throwing a golden beam onto the valley below us. Then the cloud cover slams the celestial window shut so abruptly I’m left wondering whether I hallucinated it. In Fiordland, sunshine is like a mirage: Believing in it can drive a person mad.
Before we descend the other side of the hill, I turn around for a last look back toward the Lake Roe Hut—and see that in the strenuous and sloppy first 45 minutes of our trek, we have covered about a quarter-mile.
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I’ve come with my friend Jeff Wilhelm to backpack a four-day, 23-mile (37k) section of Fiordland’s 52.2-mile (84k) Dusky Track, from Lake Roe Hut to the track’s northern terminus at the West Arm of Lake Manapouri. I chose the Dusky, and Jeff eagerly signed on, for a reason that can seem, at first blush, masochistic (or just plain dumb): We’re intrigued by its reputation as the hardest hut trek in New Zealand.
To us, though, this isn’t about something as shallow as bragging rights. Jeff and I are both past 50; our pride has gone the way of our ability to sleep through the night without getting up to pee. I have enough tales of ridiculously hard and pointlessly stupid things I’ve done to fuel stories for several lifetimes. (And that’s just what I’ve done outdoors.) We have nothing to prove.
We know we can handle the suffering. What captivated us was the Dusky’s more subtle promise: the chance to see the New Zealand wilderness the way it must have looked a generation or more ago, before the hordes of international trail-trophy seekers invaded. Thanks to its reputation, the Dusky can feel all but deserted compared to other Fiordland trails, like the Milford and Kepler tracks.
Now, though, as my outer layers turn the shit-brown hue of Fiordland mud, a profound and introspective question enters my mind: Can we suffer through all that the Dusky Track dishes up and still enjoy it?
Here Be Dragons: Dusky Track Warnings
On the spectrum of multi-day hikes, the Dusky Track achieves an unusual level of misery and hazard.
Traversing some of the planet’s most biped-unfriendly terrain, we will experience innumerable WTF moments. We will get to know mud more intimately than perhaps ever before. We will scale and descend hundreds of vertical feet of absurdly steep and slick “root ladders.” (Yes, they are pretty much exactly what the name implies.)
We will tiptoe across “walkwires,” sketchy wire bridges that would pucker the sphincters of the Flying Wallendas. There are 21 walkwires on the Dusky (six on the 23-mile section we’re hiking) that offer the only safe crossing of rivers and creeks at times of high water. Before our trip, I scrolled through jaw-clenching photos online of these three-wire spans dangling above brown rivers; calling them “bridges” is like describing a thong as all-weather outerwear. I thought they looked manageable, and in a twisted way, fun. But as Jeff and I will learn, nothing prepares you for your first steps onto a wobbly, inch-wide cable suspended high above a rock-strewn chasm.
On top of all that, we face a very real prospect of flooding rivers stranding us for days in a hut—or as a Fiordland ranger actually warned me, “you could find yourself up a tree for a day or two waiting for the water (level) to come down.” And flooding is not rare: Fiordland receives up to 10 meters of precipitation a year—that’s nearly 400 inches, about 10 times as much rain as Seattle. It’s a climate that only amphibians, mushrooms, and a tiny minority of mildew-tolerant humans could love.
The Department of Conservation (or DOC, New Zealand’s equivalent of the National Park Service) recommends Dusky hikers carry a personal locator beacon, a mountain radio—both available for rent locally—and emergency bivy sacks. We’ve brought all three.
In fact, on the day we arrived in the small town of Te Anau, gateway to Fiordland, the forecast called for what locals refer to cheerfully, as if discussing an amiable, eccentric uncle, as a “weethah bum.” In New Zealand, a “weather bomb” (English translation) bears a strong resemblance to a category 2 hurricane, with tree-lashing wind and “heevy rine.”
Everyone we spoke with—from DOC rangers to the receptionist at our hotel, a cheery young woman who had run the entire, 37-mile (60k) Kepler Track in a day—advised us to postpone starting the Dusky until the forecast improved. Instead, they said, trek the nearby Kepler, which, unlike the Dusky, doesn’t flood. With the right clothing and a positive attitude about bone-rattling wind, cold rain, and wet snow—in late summer—we’d love the Kepler. Jeff and I decided to respect their local wisdom.
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Still, I came here tingling with anticipation at the prospect of seeing the unpolished side of one of the planet’s most pristine wildernesses, with its wildly tangled rainforest and boundless mountain views. Sprawling over 4,633 square miles—only six U.S. national parks are larger, all in Alaska—Fiordland is New Zealand’s biggest and baddest wilderness. There are plants in Fiordland that grow nowhere else in the world. There are animals that Dr. Seuss would have thought looked weird.
There are corners of this vast and largely impenetrable wild land that have never felt a human footfall—probably most of Fiordland—and other parts that few people see.
Like the Dusky Track.
Now, as we walk—and wade—through our first day on the Dusky, I remind myself that we actually waited four days for weather this good. In Fiordland, a wind-driven, steady drizzle qualifies as a break in the weather.
The Roots of All Evil
After close to four hours of muddy up and down crossing the Pleasant Range on our first afternoon, we’ve hiked a whopping two-and-a-half miles. But that was a tropical-beach honeymoon compared to what lies ahead. The persistent drizzle escalates to steady rain as Jeff and I start the descent to Loch Maree, a stretch of our route that plummets almost 3,000 vertical feet within less than a mile-and-a-half. And while it is marked, calling it a trail would be very generous. It will recalibrate our notions of steep and strenuous.
Following the muddy footpath down a grass slope that’s more cliff than hill, I hear a sound behind me like a charging pachyderm and spin around to see Jeff just as he comes to a stop, sitting upright, after cartwheeling downhill. His eyes bulge widely, like a man who has briefly beheld the face of God, but he’s okay. It occurs to me that the Dusky may be the only trail in the world where you could fall to your death on grass.
Then we enter the bush—what Kiwis call forest—and the real work begins. For more than two hours, we downclimb endless, nearly vertical “ladders” of slick tree roots and rocks, grabbing fixed ropes and chains at times, and kicking steps into mud that has an angle of repose of about 60 degrees. If one applied the rock-climbing rating scale to rainforest, this would probably be 5.4, with the difficulty compounded by us frequently using one hand to wave off tenacious squadrons of mosquitoes and sandflies. (Locals had warned us before we set out that “the mossies and sandies are swarming.”)
I dub this section of the Dusky: “The Roots of All Evil.”
Staggering into the empty Loch Maree Hut late that first afternoon, I glance at my watch: It took six hours to hike 3.7 miles (6k) from Lake Roe Hut. I feel like I just put in a 20-mile day in the Tetons or the Grand Canyon. Moments after I set down my pack and peel off mud-encrusted boots and gaiters, the skies erupt in a torrential rainstorm drumming loudly on the hut’s metal roof.
Minutes later, Jeff steps through the door and bellows, “That was epic. Calling this a track is a bit of a stretch. I think we need a new category: ‘bush thrash.’”
By early evening, three guys arrive together and join us in this basic, one-room cabin, which like other huts on the Dusky sleeps up to 12 people on upper and lower platforms, and has wooden tables and chairs and a wood-burning stove for heat. This will be our most “crowded” hut on the Dusky. Besides them, Jeff and I will encounter just two other people in four days. (We flew by helicopter to Lake Roe Hut, where we met two trekkers, a German and a Russian.) On other New Zealand hut treks, like the Kepler, I’ve typically seen dozens of hikers every day.
The hikers—a Belgian in his 30s named Max, and two Frenchmen in their 20s, John and Simon—are trekking the Dusky in the opposite direction. This is their first visit to New Zealand. When I ask why they chose such an unlikely first track, Simon grins and says, “Because it is the hardest!”
Jeff and I smile but offer no response. We’ve been their age; we know they have to learn on their own the pointlessness of suffering for its own sake.
After a night of coma-like, powerfully restful sleep—the gift of rain drumming on a metal roof in an otherwise hypnotically silent rainforest—we step outside early to find the rain has stopped. Mist dangles like a translucent curtain over Loch Maree, a small lake embraced by mountainsides of thick forest, created when a landslide dammed the Seaforth River during an earthquake in 1826, eventually drowning the beech trees it inundated. Swords of sunlight slash through the mist, silhouetting hundreds of stumps that rise two or three feet above the lake’s glassy surface against a reflection of the green and golden mountainside and blue sky.
It’s an image I think I’ll remember forever. Along with yesterday’s mud-boarding.
Not Like a Bird on a Wire
Standing on a tree root ball not much bigger than my boots and inches above water, I peer into the mind-boggling tangle of the Fiordland rainforest. By all appearances, nothing lies ahead but a muddy stream sliding lazily into a brown pond with trees growing in it—an environment better suited to bottom-feeding fish than humans. But in fact, orange markers indicate that the stream and pond are the trail.
We left Kintail Hut minutes ago in the crepuscular light of another gray morning in the bush. It’s our third day, and we’ve long since given up all hope of the Dusky Track getting easier.
I can imagine plunging into this organic stew and my bones and flesh spending the next million years transforming into a quart of West Texas light sweet crude. So I stretch and lunge and make all manner of acrobatic contortions from one partly submerged root ball to the next. On the Dusky Track, “hiking” covers many forms of ambulation.
Despite the unappealing prospect of accidentally tumbling into this mire, I feel a smile crease my face. Hopping from root ball to root ball is kind of… fun, in a kid-climbing-a-tree sort of way.
Somewhere behind me, Jeff erupts in a series of F-bombs. In a tone suggesting he may not be having quite as much fun as me—something closer to genuine panic—he yells: “I’m stuck!” Reluctant to risk spending eternity as a fossil fuel by trying to save him, I wait on a relatively secure root island, calculating that his chances of successful self-rescue are probably at least 50-50. When Jeff finally sloshes toward me, his pants plastered brown—it would be distasteful to describe the image this conjures—he tells me through labored panting, “I was stuck hip-deep in mud! I didn’t think I was gonna get out! I thought I was gonna die there!”
I nod sympathetically. This does not strike me as an implausible scenario.
I’m reminded of the DOC warning about the Dusky’s “knee-deep mud” and “some rough terrain.” That’s absolutely priceless understatement. In a pub somewhere, I’m sure DOC copywriters howl with laughter. If the native Maori people didn’t have at least two dozen names for mud, they must have had that many curse words for it.
An hour uphill from Kintail Hut, we reach a torn-off edge of earth where a wall of forest drops off into a boulder-strewn stream gorge some 50 feet across. A walkwire spans the gorge, suspended at least 20 feet in the air—high enough that if a fall wasn’t fatal, you might lie there wishing it had been.
Clutching the two, chest-high, handrail wires, I step gingerly onto the foot wire. Each time I slowly place one foot in front of the other, the wire vibrates like a plucked guitar string; before I’m halfway across, it’s visibly bouncing. I look down past my toes at the rocks two stories below and my reaction surprises me: This is thrilling.
Once across, I look back at Jeff. The rushing stream drowns out our shouts. He plants one foot on the walkwire, scowls, shakes his head, and backs off it. He scrambles down to the creek and walks downstream a short distance to a rock-hop crossing that’s easy enough at this water level. Then he’s crashing through the jungle more than a hundred feet downhill from me, bushwhacking up a steep, muddy slope so thickly vegetated that I can’t see him, I can only hear his panting and cursing and see ferns and other leafy plants shaking seizure-like as he yards on them. Twenty strenuous minutes after he backed off the walkwire, he reaches me looking like a puppy rescued from a cyclone.
Jeff has gleefully hiked through days of cold rain in Norway with me; we’ve been blown off our feet together by gusts of Patagonian wind. But watching him now, I get the sense that he may be questioning what the hell we’re doing here.
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Beyond the walkwire, we commence another brutally, unbelievably dirty and arduous ascent of more than 2,000 vertical feet in just over a mile—climbing innumerable root ladders, slogging through swamps, shimmying and slithering over and under some of the most tortuous piles of blown-down trees I’ve ever seen. Only the reliably steady line of orange ribbons offer any evidence that we are on a trail.
After more than two hours of jungle thrashing, we emerge from the bush to green, rocky meadows that remind me of the Scottish Highlands, only—and it stuns me to think this—wetter. A meandering footpath leads us over 3,448-foot (1051m) Centre Pass, where a chilly wind blows through the cliff-flanked gap. But the clouds have broken up, granting us a temporary reprieve from the rain, and we get a view made more special by knowing how few people endure the suffering required to reach this spot.
Mountains roll off into the distance, wearing thick, green coats. Rainforest sprouts from sheer cliffs, many bearing the vertical, light-green scars of new vegetation growing in the wake of a “tree avalanche,” which is exactly what it sounds like and a phenomenon I had never heard of before visiting Fiordland.
Jeff and I stop for lunch and to gape like happy idiots. I’ve hiked and backpacked for three decades all over the U.S. and the world, from Iceland to remotest Patagonia, Nepal to Norway, in the Swiss Alps and Italy’s Dolomites, and twice before here in New Zealand. Few times have I labored so hard to reach such a magnificent view shared with so few other people.
After the long, sandfly-bedeviled descent from Centre Pass—and another exhausting day of averaging barely more than a half-mile an hour—Jeff and I reach the Upper Spey Hut for our final night. No one else shows up, even though this is the first hut for hikers walking in the other direction. I don’t consider this fact worrisome until the rain that falls softly at first builds into a drubbing like a thousand fists pounding the metal roof.
I awaken a couple times during the night to its relentless, monsoonal drumming—and only then begin to wonder whether the reason no hikers showed up here tonight is that the Spey River Valley, which awaits us tomorrow, now lies under an impassable flood.
The Dusky Track’s Elusive Pleasures
In the morning, rain still pours down but we decide to attempt to hike out to the Dusky’s northern terminus, where we’ll catch an hour-long ferry ride across Lake Manapouri. If the valley is impassable, we can backtrack to the hut and avoid spending tonight in a tree. Hopefully.
Rain falls steadily and fog rises from the dense understory of ferns and grasses as we follow the Dusky along the Spey River. We wade through dripping, chest-high vegetation overgrowing the trail, which has the same effect as running an endless gantlet of big, wet dogs shaking themselves off. We plunge, usually without warning, knee- to thigh-deep into mud bogs—but rather than life-threatening, they’ve somehow become amusing. We casually cross the last two walkwires—shorter spans that wobble and sway less, but still have enough spice to feel exciting. Jeff walks them stress-free; I think I even see him crack a smile of thrill.
I pause for a moment, alone—Jeff’s just ahead of me—and glance down at a rare sight in New Zealand: an elusive kiwi bird, with its dagger-like beak pointed at me as it gazes curiously upward, as if perplexed over why a creature like me would venture into this environment. A moment later, the kiwi turns and disappears into the impenetrable bush like an avian ghost. I’ve trekked many miles in this country, and that fleeting instant was my lone kiwi sighting.
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As we get farther down valley, the Dusky Track grows less muddy and more walkable. While it rained hard, the river didn’t flood. We actually move along at a normal pace, covering the 7.4 miles (12k) from Upper Spey Hut to Wilmot Pass Road in four-and-a-half hours—averaging a blistering 1.6 mph (2.7 kph).
The Dusky Track is not just harder than any other hike I’ve done; it’s a different experience altogether. I have known extremes of wet, cold, mud, and exhaustion, from the Alaskan tundra to Vermont’s Long Trail and the John Muir Trail. The Dusky eclipses them all. It’s not just a hard, wet hike—it’s a full-body immersion in land and weather. It’s like a hurricane and flash flood striking as you’re sinking in quicksand. It can feel like walking for days through a car wash—if the car wash was filled in with three feet of mud and the brushes were replaced with downed trees.
But the Dusky is more than a sufferfest of root ladders and shaky walkwires. It’s hiking in solitude across the breathtaking highlands of the Pleasant Range and Centre Pass. It’s dark, brooding, lushly dense, and fascinating rainforest of beech, pepper trees, tree ferns, and dozens of species of greenery crowded together like passengers on a rush-hour subway car. It’s your only sighting of a kiwi, or a rare blue duck, or whio, paddling leisurely through the mirrored reflection of mountains in Gair Loch.
New Zealand’s popular tracks are well-graded paths often built with gravel hauled in—manufactured so that trekkers don’t have to worry about mud or overgrown vegetation. For most trampers, those tracks deliver satisfying payoffs of stunning scenery and a sense of challenge. And that’s fine.
Rare treks like the Dusky tap into the essence of adventure: It retains an undiluted and raw character that’s missing from manicured trails. It forces you to interact with the landscape in a deep, tactile way—to traverse the wilderness on its terms. It’s Fiordland without the makeup. As an experienced local said to me: “The Dusky is just a good, honest New Zealand tramper’s track.”
The pleasures and rewards of the Dusky Track are a little like that elusive kiwi bird: always surprising you when they pop up infrequently, and then disappearing just when you were hoping it would stick around for a while.
The Dusky did eventually answer the question that it raised in my mind on our first day—but it also reframed the question. Yes, we could suffer even more than ever before and enjoy it.
After catching an hour-long ferry ride across Lake Manapouri, Jeff and I board a bus for Te Anau. The driver looks us up and down; she has obviously seen our ilk before. She says, “So you tramped the Dusky Track? That’s pure insanity.”
I nod, grinning with deep and abiding satisfaction, and tell her, “There were times we thought exactly that.”
Take This Trip: Trekking New Zealand’s Dusky Track
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR only very experienced and fit hikers and hut trekkers. The Dusky Track should not be underestimated. Not only is it known as the hardest hut trek in New Zealand, it may be a significantly more difficult trek than even many experienced, hard-core hikers have ever done. Besides Fiordland’s notoriously wet weather, hazards include shaky walkwires that are often the only relatively safe way to cross a river during times of high water; the possibility of flooding rendering the track impassable through river valleys; hundreds of vertical feet of “root ladders” to ascend and descend; blowdowns frequently obscuring the trail; and extremely steep and muddy terrain that dramatically slows progress for even the strongest hikers. While the route is marked, it remains unmaintained as a trail and faint in places.
Season The peak hiking season is during the austral summer, from December through March, but the track can be hiked from late spring (November) into autumn (late April). The track is largely impassable during winter due to snow, ice, and avalanches.
Advance Planning While there is a twice-daily boat transport across Lake Manapouri, the boat transport across Lake Hauroko operates just twice a week (Mondays and Thursday, see below), and should be booked in advance because it can affect your itinerary planning. For that reason, it’s logistically easier to hike the Dusky Track south to north, from Lake Hauroko to Lake Manapouri. You can purchase hut tickets at the Department of Conservation (DOC)/Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre in Te Anau right before your trip, no reservation needed (see below).
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Getting There The trailheads at both ends of the Dusky Track—the southern terminus on Lake Hauroko and the northern terminus on the West Arm of Lake Manapouri—are reached via boat ferry, and both ferry trips offer stunning views of the mountains surrounding those lakes.
Lake Hauroko Tours (wjet.co.nz/pages/lake-hauroko-tours) offers scheduled boat service across Lake Hauroko, dropping trekkers at the Dusky Track trailhead on the lake’s northern end, on Mondays and Thursdays from early November until late April. The Hauroko Burn Hut is located at that end of the Dusky Track, convenient for trekkers finishing there who may have to wait for the next available boat across Lake Hauroko.
Regular boat ferry service across Lake Manapouri is provided by Adventure Cruises—Manapouri (kayaksandcruises.co.nz) and Real Journeys (realjourneys.co.nz). From the Dusky Track’s northern trailhead (a sign marks the trailhead), the dock where you catch the ferry on the West Arm of Manapouri is a 45-minute walk down the Wilmot Pass Road.
Trips and Tramps (tripsandtramps.com) provides shuttle buses to the Dusky Track boat transports on Lakes Hauroko and Manapouri from Te Anau and Manapouri, as well as to other tracks and destinations in Fiordland.
Alternatively, you can start a shorter trek on sections of the Dusky by taking a floatplane to Supper Cove with Wings and Water (wingsandwater.co.nz), or a helicopter to Lake Roe Hut with Southern Lakes Helicopters (southernlakeshelicopters.co.nz).
Huts on the Dusky Track are small, one-room structures categorized as “standard” New Zealand huts, with no warden. They have water, a wood-burning stove, mattresses on platforms with space for 10 to 12 people, and a pit toilet. Trekkers bring their own sleeping bag (and optional inflatable pillow), cooking gear, fuel, and food. Unlike in huts on popular tracks, there are no wardens and weather forecasts are not available on the Dusky.
Some trekkers may want to bring a sleeping pad for the floor in case all of the sleeping platform spaces are full upon arrival; but that’s rare on the Dusky, and you can ask your transport provider how many other Dusky trekkers are also starting on the same day as you, to give you an idea of how many people will be sharing huts with you.
Purchase hut tickets ($5/person/night) right before your trek at the Department of Conservation (DOC)/Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre on Lakefront Drive in Te Anau. No advance reservation is needed.
The Itinerary The entire Dusky Track can be hiked either south to north, from Lake Hauroko to the West Arm of Lake Manapouri, or in the opposite direction; neither direction is physically easier—any trek on the Dusky is very difficult—but going south to north is logistically easier because of the transportation issues mentioned in the Getting There section (above). Those two trailheads are reached via boat ferry across Lake Hauroko (at the track’s southern end) or Lake Manapouri (at the track’s northern end).
The full Dusky Track, which is Y-shaped, totals 44 miles (71k), but trekkers choosing to do it all must backtrack one leg of it, usually the shortest and easiest one from Loch Maree to Supper Cove, which is roughly eight miles (13k), making the entire trek about 52 miles (84k).
The DOC advises planning a minimum of eight days to hike the entire 52 miles (84k), plus an extra day or two in case you get delayed by bad weather. The daily itinerary for trekking the entire track in the DOC’s Dusky Track brochure describes it as six days to go directly from Lake Hauroko to Lake Manapouri without the side trip to Supper Cove, and adding two days out-and-back to visit Supper Cove.
While the DOC provides a total distance for the Dusky of 71k, the DOC’s Dusky Track brochure only provides an estimated range of hours of hiking per day rather than each day’s distance between huts; the DOC says it does this because the actual distances do not reflect the difficulty. I found the daily time estimates are realistic for strong hikers: I’ve taken many long, hard dayhikes at a strong pace, and a friend and I averaged barely more than a half-mile (1k) per hour on the three days from Lake Roe Hut to Upper Spey Hut.
Alternatively, you can take a shorter trek on sections of the Dusky by taking a floatplane to Supper Cove or a helicopter to Lake Roe Hut, or by skipping one of the three legs of the Dusky. Shorter itinerary options include:
* Lake Roe Hut to Supper Cove—two days.
* Lake Hauroko to Supper Cove—four days.
* Supper Cove to Lake Manapouri—four days.
* Lake Roe Hut to Lake Manapouri, skipping Supper Cove—four days.
* Lake Roe Hut to Supper Cove and Lake Manapouri—six days.
* Lake Hauroko to Lake Manapouri, skipping Supper Cove—six days.
The above optional itineraries do not include building in an extra day or two in case you are delayed by bad weather or flooding.
There are many highlights along the Dusky Track, but certainly two of the best are the alpine traverses of the Pleasant Range and Centre Pass. While it’s expensive to take a helicopter flight to Lake Roe Hut, it does enable a shorter, four- to six-day trek (depending on whether you add on the two-day side trip to Supper Cove) that includes both of those scenic high points of the Dusky, as well as some of the best rainforest stretches in the Seaforth and Spey river valleys, and the beautiful boat shuttle across Lake Manapouri.
If the helicopter flight isn’t in your budget but you want to spend less than eight to 10 days on the Dusky while hitting both alpine areas, hike from Lake Hauroko straight to Lake Manapouri and skip Supper Cove.
A Four-Day Itinerary: Lake Roe Hut to Lake Manapouri
The following was our itinerary for a four-day, 23-mile (37k) section of the Dusky Track, from Lake Roe Hut to the track’s northern terminus at Wilmot Pass Road, on the West Arm of Lake Manapouri, without the side trip to Supper Cove. I was able to obtain daily distances from DOC staff in Fiordland for this trip.
Day 1: Helicopter flight to Lake Roe Hut, then hike the Dusky Track north through the Pleasant Range to Loch Maree Hut, 3.7 miles (6k), 5 to 7 hours.
Day 2: Hike from the Loch Maree Hut to Kintail Hut, 7.4 miles (12k), 6 to 8 hours.
Day 3: Hike from Kintail Hut to Upper Spey Hut, 4.3 miles (7k), 5 to 7 hours, with an optional, off-trail side hike up Mount Memphis from Centre Pass (if the weather’s clear; plan two hours round-trip).
Day 4: Hike from Upper Spey Hut to Wilmot Pass Road, 7.4 miles (12k), 4 to 5 hours, then walk 45 minutes east down the road to the West Arm of Lake Manapouri. There, take one-hour boat transport to the town of Manapouri, then a shuttle bus to Te Anau.
Permit No permit is required for trekking the Dusky Track, and there is no backcountry camping or tenting along it—nor would it be advisable to attempt it, given the extreme weather, steep, rugged terrain, dense rainforest, ubiquitous mud, and possibility of flooding.
Map 1:50,000-scale Topo 50 maps Cooper Island CE05, Lake Roe CE06, and Deep Cove CD06, available at the DOC visitor center in Te Anau. See doc.govt.nz/map/index.html.
• Although marked by orange triangles on trees in the forest and orange poles above treeline, the Dusky is a primitive, intermittent track that can be difficult to follow in low visibility above treeline and is frequently obscured by blowdowns in the forest.
• The extremely rugged, largely unmaintained track has difficult footing most of the way, and involves many hours of slow, strenuous scrambling in wet terrain. Calf- to thigh-deep mud is common, and the elevation range is about 3,000 feet (1,000m) between valley bottoms and the highest points in the Pleasant Range and at 3,448-foot (1051m) Centre Pass.
• Piles of tree blowdowns are common and you will ascend and descend long stretches of “root ladders”—literally climbing roots protruding from the earth on steep slopes.
• Do not set out on the Dusky if heavy rain is in the forecast; it can cause the river valleys along the route to flood, potentially stranding trekkers in a hut or even—quite literally—up a tree. If a major storm strikes while you are on the track, consider staying in a hut until the weather improves. At Loch Maree Hut, check the water level in Loch Maree before departing: If around 30 or more tree stumps are visible above water line, the valleys of the Seaforth River and the valley route to Supper Cove should be passable; if few or no stumps are visible, those valleys are likely flooded and impassable.
• Unlike in huts on popular tracks, there are no wardens and weather forecasts are not available on the Dusky.
• The Department of Conservation (DOC, New Zealand’s equivalent of the National Park Service) recommends Dusky hikers carry a personal locator beacon, a mountain radio—both available for rent locally (see the Dusky Track brochure under Resources below)—and emergency bivy sacks.
• The entire Dusky has 21 walkwires to cross, which are three-wire “bridges” that offer the only relatively safe crossing of rivers when water levels are high, which occurs frequently. They are shaky and some hikers will not feel comfortable or safe on them.
• Carry extra food in case the trek takes more days than planned.
• Sandflies are notoriously bad on the Dusky (as in much of Fiordland). Cover skin with clothing as much as possible, use insect repellant, and bring antihistamine to treat bites, which have been known to cause itching and swelling bad enough to prevent some hikers from sleeping well. The sandflies are not as thick in cooler temps, which are more common in late spring and fall.
• Water tanks are available at each hut and plentiful along much of the Dusky Track. New Zealand trampers commonly do not filter or treat backcountry water sources, without any negative consequences, and we did the same on the Dusky.
Gear Tips Bring clothing layers for moderate to cold temperatures in spring, summer, and fall, including high-quality, reliably waterproof-breathable boots and shells (jacket and pants) and a rain jacket with an adjustable hood that provides full coverage. Even on days of no rain, you will be wet from the muddy track and vegetation that’s almost constantly wet hanging over the trail. Waterproof-breathable, knee-high gaiters are almost mandatory for keeping feet and pant legs dry. A backpack with capacity of 50 to 65 liters is adequate for the food and gear needed on the Dusky Track.
See my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside and these reviews for my top recommendations:
Other articles at The Big Outside that may be useful in preparing for a Dusky Track trek include:
Food, Lodging, Supplies There is a range of numerous, excellent lodging options and restaurants in Te Anau, the gateway town for the Dusky Track and other tracks in Fiordland National Park, where you can also buy food, stove fuel, gear, and other supplies. See teanau.net.nz.
For lodging, I recommend Te Anau Top 10 (teanautop10.co.nz) and. For restaurants, we had excellent meals at Redcliff Café (theredcliff.co.nz), The Ranch Bar & Grill (theranchbar.co.nz), and La Toscana (latoscana.co.nz).
New Zealand Department of Conservation, doc.govt.nz.
DOC/Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre in Te Anau, email@example.com.
Destination Fiordland, fiordland.org.nz.
DOC Know Before You Go resources, doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/know-before-you-go.
New Zealand Mountain Safety Council, mountainsafety.org.nz.