A hiker trekking the Dusky Trail in the Pleasant Range, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand.

Jeff Wilhelm trekking the Dusky Trail in the Pleasant Range, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand.

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.

 

A trekker hiking the Dusky Track in the Pleasant Range in New Zealand's Fiordland National Park.

Jeff Wilhelm hiking the Dusky Track in the Pleasant Range in Fiordland National Park.

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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A trekker hiking the Dusky Track in the Pleasant Range in New Zealand's Fiordland National Park.

Jeff hiking the Dusky Track in the Pleasant Range in Fiordland.

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?

 


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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.

Early morning at Loch Maree on the Dusky Track in New Zealand's Fiordland National Park.

Early morning at Loch Maree on the Dusky Track.

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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A trekker hiking the Dusky Track in the Seaforth River Valley in New Zealand's Fiordland National Park.

Jeff hiking the Dusky Track in the Seaforth River Valley in Fiordland.

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.

A trekker descending a steep section of the Dusky Track toward Loch Maree in New Zealand's Fiordland National Park.

Descending a steep section of the Dusky Track toward Loch Maree.

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.’”

 

Inside the Loch Maree Hut on the Dusky Track in New Zealand's Fiordland National Park.

Inside the Loch Maree Hut on the Dusky Track in Fiordland.

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.

 

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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.

 


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A trekker climbing to Centre Pass on the Dusky Track, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand.

Climbing to Centre Pass on the Dusky Track,.

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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Centre Pass

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.

A hiker ascending a "root ladder" on the Dusky Track in New Zealand's Fiordland National Park.

Jeff ascending a “root ladder” in the Seaforth Valley.

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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A trekker on the Dusky Track in the Warren Burn forest, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand.

Jeff Wilhelm on the Dusky Track in the Warren Burn forest in Fiordland.

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.

 

A hiker wading deep mud on the Dusky Track in New Zealand's Fiordland National Park.

Jeff wading deep mud in the Spey River Valley on the Dusky Track.

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.”

 

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