woensdag 11 februari 2015

Hiking the Dusky Track

Click here for the (automatically translated) Dutch version of this blogpost.

For this post, I relieved myself from duty and assigned Mark with the task to write a guest-blog (clever, huh?!). It describes our most recent undertaking: hiking the Dusky Track. 'Recent' means less than a week ago, so this post doesn't follow my usual way-behind chronology at all (since Mark isn't really busy with spinning, and knitting, and crocheting, and reading, and sewing and...well, just messing around :P ). So we hop from September to a timeframe in January-February, to keep you folks confused. Soon, I will be back with more about October! In the meantime, enjoy Mark's essay on our hardest adventure ever.

Day 1 – Lake Hauroko – Halfway Hut

We were picked up at 8 in the morning at the Manapouri long-term carpark. A “Trips and Tramps” van took us to Cliffden Corner, where we transfered into Lake Hauroko Tours' truck. We picked up their boat and drove to Lake Hauroko. Captain Val and his assistant Joyce quickly launched the boat and soon we set off across Lake Hauroko to its westernmost point, one of the Dusky's trailheads. 

The boat journey across New Zealand's deepest lake was spectacular. Fiordland's steep mountains drop straight into the freezing cold black waters of the lake. The dense forests surrounding the lake climb almost vertically into the low clouds, adding a mystical touch to the journey. Towards the end of the boat trip the clouds suddenly cleared and made way for sun and blue skies, allowing for amazing views of Fiordland's mountain ranges. The boat landed, we grabbed our incredibly heavy backpacks and jumped on shore. As we got off, four rough looking guys boarded the boat, heading back to civilization. Obviously in bad need of a shower.

Also on the boat were a young Czech guy, Daniel and a German lady, Bettina, and her guide Tosh. They all quickly started walking while we had a coffee. We realized there was no going back now.

Goodbye civilization - on our way to the trailhead, Lake Hauroko.

The Dusky Track is a 6 to 10 day tramping track in the remote Southwest of Fiordland, New Zealand's biggest and oldest National Park. Unlike the Milford Track and the Keppler Track, the Dusky Track is not a “Great Walk”. Great Walks are very popular hiking trails in New Zealand, with high quality gravel tracks, boardwalks across muddy areas and stairs up and down steep sections. The Dusky is no such track. The track is completely unformed, which adds a lot to the natural feeling of the tracks but also means you have to go straight through rivers and mud pools and make your way up and down steep areas by grabbing roots, scrambling up boulders and hugging trees. Huts on Great Walks can sleep up to 50 people and in the peak seasons they are often fully booked. To walk the Milford Track, Fiordland's most popular Great Walk, you will need to book the huts up to a year in advance. The length of the Dusky, and the roughness of the track, make it a lot less popular than the Milford and Keppler. The huts on the Dusky only sleep 12, and they hardly ever get full, which means you don't need to book them. These so-called backcountry huts are very basic, they have bunks and mattresses and often a fireplace. Drinking water is provided by a rainwater tank, which gets filled by rainwater running off the hut's roof. You will need to bring your own cooking gear and fuel, also a sleeping bag and enough food to last you the length of the trip. You will also need to bring clothing suitable for absolutely any type of weather, and dry clothes to wear in the hut, as you are guaranteed to get wet during the day. All this results in a very heavy backpack.

We finished our coffee and set off on the first section, to Halfway Hut. The clouds had cleared completely and the weather had become incredibly muggy. The mid summer sun shining down on the wet rainforest quickly makes the air very humid. This section is supposed to be relatively flat, but we soon learned there is no such thing as a flat track on the Dusky. Even though you don't gain or lose any elevation you're still scrambling up and down short steep sections, often pulling up on tree roots. Going down these steep parts is harder than going up and you'll often have to go backwards off these near vertical parts as if descending a ladder. We soon realized the difficulty of the Dusky lies not in the length of the sections you have to walk, but in the roughness of the track and the extremely heavy packs. After about 5 hours we were happy to see a sign that said it was another 10 minutes to the hut. We arrived at the hut 20 minutes later.

Halfway Hut.

Day 2 – Halfway Hut – Lake Roe Hut

Our sleeping bags are rated for winter use, which means they are comfortable in subzero temperatures. This is nice when ski touring, but not so nice in an incredibly hot and humid hut in the middle of summer. I woke up several times sweating, sticking to the plastic mattresses. 
Morning eventually came, we had a coffee and a bowl of porridge with chocolate and nuts and set off for the next section. Today was going to be another relatively easy day with a gentle climb of about 500 metres evenly spread over 5 hours. It had rained a little bit the night before which cooled the air down and the sun wasn't as strong as the day before. Combined with the increase in altitude it made for comfortable walking weather. Liset's stomach was acting a little funny, so we took it easy today. The upset stomach was probably caused by a mix of hard physical exercise, hot and humid weather and very calory-dense food. We made it to Lake Roe hut. Situated at 850 metres above sea level you get nice views of the surrounding valleys and it's also considerably cooler than at sea level. Its location above the treeline also means there are no sandflies, which is an incredible relief.

Everything (réally everything) is green and mossy, some scenes could've
jumped right out of a fairytale....

Apparently sandflies like dense, humid forest, making this part of Fiordland ideal for them. Unlike mosquitos, sandflies are out during the day, and the last couple of days they had been out by the millions. Sandflies are like little mosquitos, they'll suck your blood and leave an itching bite, which can itch for days when scratched. They are very slow and will not be able to catch up with you as long as you're walking, but as soon as you stop walking for a few minutes hundreds of them start to gather around you. They especially seem to like our sweet and fresh European blood, I'm guessing it's because our veins make an easy target beneath our thin white skin... Kiwis seem less bothered by them, I'm not sure if they actually develop a resistance against their venom or they just learn to ignore it. In these parts of New Zealand there are so many of them they basically make it unbearable to be outside without moving. Going for a swim or having a nice long lunch is pretty much impossible. Fiordland's sandflies don't seem bothered by regular insect repellent, but someone recommended us to mix eucalyptus-scented Dettol, a type of rubbing alcohol, with baby oil, and use this as a repellent. It seems to work a little bit, for a little while... Sandflies don't seem to like the unforested areas above the treeline, and they seem to disappear in heavy rain as well.

For dinner we had our first every Backcountry Cuisine meal. These are bags of freeze-dried food, in as much as 20 different flavors. Because there is no moisture in them they are very light, and they are packed with calories and proteins, making them the perfect tramping meals. You just add half a liter of boiling water and 10 minutes later it's done. I was positively amazed. I wasn't expecting much but the beef teriyaki one we had today was actually really good. They also really fill you up considering the small amount.

Day 3 – Lake Roe Hut – Loch Maree Hut

After a slightly better night's sleep we set off on another day tramping. Again, it had rained during the night but by the time morning came the skies cleared. The first part of today's walk was absolutely amazing. We climbed to the top of the Pleasant Range and walked on the ridge for a few hours. The views were breathtaking. We could see hundreds of the steep mountains, some of them still snow-covered. In the distance we could see Dusky Sound and behind that on the horizon was the Tasman Sea. The most amazing thing for us Europeans is to be able to see the horizon in all possible directions and realize there is only untouched wilderness. To me it's unbelievable that such massive areas of uninhabited land still exist.

A couple of tarns and a bit of mist over Pleasant Range...
...with views on the Dusky Sound on the horizon. 

After walking on the tussock covered ridge for a few hours the track started to drop steeply into the valley. As our next hut was pretty much at sea level we had to drop over a 1000 meters in only a few kilometers on the track. The next few hours was a scramble down through the dense forest, descending backwards by holding on to roots, bushes and trees. Rocks and roots get very slippery in the wet rainforest so you need to watch closely where you put your feet. In some extremely steep parts chains are provided to hold on to. It would probably be possible to climb up without the chains but for descending they are absolutely necessary. Descending so quickly you pass through a variety of micro climates. In the high mountains, it's all tussock. Tussock is a tough, brown grass. These high areas are littered with tiny black lakes. They range from a few meters to a hundred meters across, they are very deep and filled with inky black water. Below the tree line it's all temperate rainforest. Most of the trees are beech trees, all of them covered in moss. As you descend the forest gets greener and greener. The wettest parts of the forest are completely covered in thick carpets of moss, which is an amazing sight. It's incredibly green. Other parts are covered in massive ferns, which sometimes almost completely cover the track, making it hard to follow. Wondering about the amazing nature, we finally made it to the valley floor. We crossed a wirebridge and then it was only a short walk to Loch Maree Hut. 

A wirebridge is exactly what the name suggests. They are basically 3 steel wires strung between trees on opposite sides of the river. One wire for walking on and a wire for each hand to hold on to. The wires are held together by V-shaped metal profiles. The first wire crossing can be a bit intimidating, but you soon learn that they are safe and crossing them is easy, which is good, as there are 21 of these bridges on the Dusky Track.

One of the many 'three-wire bridges'. 

Water levels on these first days were low enough that we didn't really need the wirebridges, we could have walked straight through the rivers. Arriving at Loch Maree we noticed hundreds of tree stumps sticking out above the water level. Loch Maree is a relatively young lake that formed recently when a landslide, probably caused by an earthquake, blocked the Seaforth River and thus formed a little lake, flooding the forest around the riverbed. Only the parts of the tree trunks that are underwater at high water levels are preserved, making the amount of stumps visible a good indicator of river and lake water levels and track conditions. As it had hardly rained for the last few weeks, hundreds of the stumps were visible as the water level of the lake was unusually low. We had been told that the track might be flooded further down if a dozen or less stumps were visible.

Stumps, signs of an old forest at eery Loch Maree. 

Bettina and Tosh arrived at the hut shortly after we did. She was exhausted by the steep descent to Loch Maree and the general roughness of the track and considered calling a helicopter to pick them up and take them back to civilization. They had had a box of food dropped at the hut by helicopter earlier, so they wouldn't have to carry the food for the entire length of the track. Later they decided they would walk another day to Supper Cove and get picked up by helicopter there. This meant they would leave the box of food in the hut, which was good news for us as we were quickly getting sick of eating only porridge and nuts and chocolate.

Later that evening Daniel, the Czech guy who started the same day as we did, entered the hut too. He had skipped the first hut and had today gone on a day-trip to Supper Cove, walking 28kms... Reading the logbooks at the other huts, we realized later he had walked the entire Dusky Track in 5 days. It's impressive that he can do it, but I wonder if he took the time to enjoy it, walking hard for at least 12 hours a day.

Day 4 – Loch Maree Hut – Supper Cove Hut

Loch Maree hut is situated halfway along the Dusky Track, and from here on trampers can choose to do a 2-day sidetrip to Supper Cove, part of Dusky Sound, one of Fiordland's fiords, or sounds, as they call them here. We figured we couldn't possibly walk the Dusky track without visiting Dusky Sound, so off we went.

We both didn't feel like we could stomach another bowl of porridge with nuts and chocolate this morning so we had crackers and cheese instead. Bettina and Tosh left the majoity of their box of food in the hut for other trampers. We could take whatever we wanted when we'd return from our trip to Supper Cove.

Again it had rained during the night but this time it didn't stop when morning came. It rained on and off all day and we got soaking wet. As the lake level was very low we could walk along its banks, making for a much easier walk then following the track through the forest. The track followed the river all day, this part of the Dusky Track is the only part that can actually be called flat, and we made good progress. We crossed several wirebridges and eventually walked through an incredibly muddy section of mangrove forest, where the Seaforth river meets Dusky Sound. We had read at Loch Maree that the last part of the track is very rough and slow-going through dense forest on the steep mountains besides the fiord. At low tide Supper Cove drains and exposes large mudflats at the head of the cove. The advise was to walk the last section on the mudflats if possible, we arrived at low tide, so we did. It was a surreal feeling walking in the fiord on the mudflats, the weather cleared slightly and we got spectacular views of the fiord and the surrounding mountains. I couldn't help but feel a bit like one of the explorers that discovered New Zealand back in the 18th century. The tide started to come in as we walked on the mudflat, it first got to our ankles, then to our knees and eventually we were thigh-deep in the water. I was worried we wouldn't make it to the hut and would have to somehow climb up the steep shore and find the track, but luckily, after a short waist-deep section the water got shallower and we found an orange marker signaling to leave the mudflat and get back on the track for the last section. From here it was another half hour walk until we reached Supper Cove hut. We were soaking wet, cold and dirty when we got to the hut. Lisette decided to jump in the deep fiord beneath the hut with all her clothes and boots on. I went for a quick swim as well, the water was amazingly warm and refreshing after the cold rain. Swimming in the deep dark water of Dusky Sound was an amazing experience.

Still smiling, not knowing yet we'd be in waist deep 10 minutes later ;)

Day 5 – Supper Cove Hut 

We had already decided today would be a resting day. We were halfway through the trip and had taken food for 2 days extra so this seemed like a good place for a rest. It turned out it poured down with rain the entire day, so we were glad we weren't on the track. Today was also my 24th birthday. Last year I spent my birthday snowed-in on a mountain top in the Dolomites, it seems to become a ritual to spend my birthday on the most unusual places. I doubt I will ever top this location at Dusky Sound, though. The place is so incredibly remote and inaccessible. Unless you own a seagoing yacht or a helicopter the only way to get here is to walk for 4 days. 

I tried a little bit of fishing in between the rain storms. There is an incredible amount of fish at Supper Cove. I've never seen anywhere near so much fish as here. As it is part of Fiordland's marine reserve there is no commercial fishing allowed, meaning hardly any fish is every being caught here. There was a handline someone left at the hut, so I walked down to the sound. Val, the skipper from Lake Haroko, had said I didn't even need bait, the fish would just take a shiny hook. I didn't believe it, but cast out anyway, and, surely enough, on the very first cast I caught a fish. I caught 3 or 4 little “spotties” this way, I was going to use one of the fish for bait to catch something bigger, but unfortunately it started raining again and didn't stop for the rest of the day. Just standing on the rocks I could see large fish and small sharks swimming close by. A few times a large eel climbed out of the water and laid down on the rocks next to me, completely unimpressed by my presence. Further offshore, massive schools of fish surface every now and then. I'm sure if it hadn't rained so much I would have been able to catch a bigger fish for dinner.
The view from Supper Cove Hut. Salt water!

Bettina and Tosh had left that morning by helicopter, leaving us together at the hut. We enjoyed our day of rest, relaxed our sore legs and backs and attempted to dry our clothes. A very special birthday. I had already received my birthday gift before starting the tramp, figuring I could use it on the track. Lisette had organized, together with my family, to get me a outdoors watch, one that has among many features an alitmeter and barometer, which are very handy to have. It even plots the air pressure into a graph, which allows me to play the weather geek and forecast the weather for the next few hours, something I thoroughly enjoyed while tramping. Tosh had left me a bag of chocolate chip cookies as a birthday present, which I ate at once, feeling slightly sick afterwards but having enjoyed them a lot.

Supper Cove Hut's interior.

Day 6 – Supper Cove Hut – Loch Maree Hut

Having rested the day before, today it was time to head back to Loch Maree hut. Low tide was at 6 this morning. Needless to say we decided to sleep in and take the hard route through the forest rather than getting up early. More or less rested we started off into the rain, which wouldn't stop pouring down the entire day. The track through the forest was indeed unpleasant, and I recommend anyone to take the low-tide route if at all possible.

Apart from the fact we got soaking wet, the walk back to Loch Maree was pretty uneventful, as we already walked it two days ago, we knew what to expect and made good progress. The rain had turned the Seaforth river from an almost-dry stream into a massive river, which was impressive to watch.

Arriving at Loch Maree, we noticed a lot of the stumps had disappeared and the lake level had come up quite a bit, walking along the lake shore was no longer an option and we had to take the track through the forest, eventually we reached the hut after a long 8 hours. Walking the same track the second time always seems to take longer than the first, as you know what to expect. We quickly got into the box of food Tosh and Bettina had left, and were thankful to find a lump of cheese, a salami and vegetarian sausages, as we had both gotten pretty sick of the porridge. Note for the next tramp: crackers and cheese instead of porridge.

Day 7 – Loch Maree Hut

It had been pouring down with rain the whole night and when we looked out of the window of the hut all the stumps in the lake had disappeared completely. Unbelievably, in only 2 days time the level of the lake had risen at least 3 meters. As the lady at the DOC office had told us the track would be flooded if no stumps were visible, we decided to stay in the hut and wait a day.

Before, and after. The difference 2 nights can make!

We lit the fireplace and put a mattress in front of it. The day was spent reading “Wilderness” magazines and National Geographic Journals and playing chess. Heaving been beaten by my former chess student twice in a row, I was excited to finally win a game again. All the time the rain kept pouring down.

Mattress in front of the fireplace, our comfy place for
the day. 

To say Fiordland is a wet place is a massive understatement and does not do it justice at all. It is by far the wettest place in New Zealand. As it is surrounded by ocean on 3 sides, it gets rained on whatever the wind direction. Rain here is measured in meters, some parts of the National Park receive up to 8 meters of rain a year, which is an incredible amount. The Dusky Track is located right in the middle of the wettest part. Heavy rain for days on end, as we experienced, is not exceptional at all. It rains more often than it doesn't. Sometimes it drizzles, sometimes it rains gently, sometimes the rain pours down in thick gray curtains, limiting visibility to only a few meters. Even if it has been dry for a while, the forest will still drip for hours afterwards. However, Fiordland wouldn't be Fiordland without the rain. Often you'll be standing in a downpour and the sun will be shining on the opposite mountain, or the other way around, which is an amazing sight. The rain also fuels thousands of waterfalls, flowing and thundering down the steep mountainsides, to form streams in the valleys, which form massive rivers. As we experienced these rivers can go from gentle creeks to fast flowing massive rivers in only a few hours. Several sections of the track are close enough to the river that they can flood in high water, which sometimes makes parts of the track inaccessible for days or even weeks.

Day 8 – Loch Maree Hut – Kintail Hut

Luckily the rain had let down a bit by the end of the previous day, and in the morning a few more stumps were visible. Another thing we noticed were the snow-covered peaks in the distance, the snow had come well down to around 600 meters, in the middle of summer.

We put on the raincoats and warm clothes, as the temperature had dropped a lot. We knew it was going to be a close call whether the track would be flooded or not and started walking, hoping for the best. At a few places we had to wade through waist-deep, freezing cold water, only barely keeping our backpacks dry, luckily the water never got higher than that, or we would have been forced to turn around.

Something else the rain does is produce a substance for which the Dusky Track is famous: mud.
After spending 8 days on the Dusky track, I can say we're now experts on the subject of mud. There's mud here in every imaginable color, depth and consistency. There's gray mud, green mud, red mud, yellow mud, blue mud, brown mud and black mud. There's thin mud, fat mud, gooey mud, chunky mud and oily mud. There's grass-covered mud, moss-covered mud, mud covered by branches, mud covered by bushes, and, my favorite: snow-covered mud. Some of the mud looks soft but turns out to be solid when you step on it, which is favorable over its opposite: mud that looks like solid ground but turns out to be thigh-deep, smelly black mud once you step on it and least expect it. Sometimes you get sucked into the mud so deep that you need help to get out, and even then it can be a struggle to get out. Sometimes you can go around the mud pools, bashing your way through bushes, but often there is no way to get past other than going straight through it. At some places DOC workers have cut small logs and tossed them in the mud to provide stepping stones across the mud pools, but most mud pools don't have them. The downside of these logs is that they get slippery and you might fall off when trying to stand on them, still ending up in the mud. When walking the Dusky Track you have to accept mud as part of your everyday life. There is no way to go around every single mud pool, it simply takes too much time.

How we looked on an average day of tramping.

Having encountered every single type of mud we arrived at the Kintail Hut after 6 long hours. We were soaking wet and absolutely freezing cold. I quickly lit the fireplace. Having worn almost all my clothes today, I had no dry clothes left, so I sat by the fireplace naked. Thankfully there was no-one else in the hut. We curled up in our sleeping bags, now very thankful for their polar-rated quality. We filled our drinking bottles with boiling water and stuck them in our sleeping bag, slowly defrosting our feet. After several hours, hot dinner and cups of soup and tea, we started to feel a little bit alive again. 

Day 9 – Kintail Hut – Upper Spey Hut

We knew we would have to conquer Centre Pass today, at 1050m, it's the track's second highest point. Looking out the window we could see the snow-covered peaks and we realized there would be snow on Centre Pass as well. There is absolutely nothing pleasant about waking up in a freezing cold hut, realizing you have to put on your wet clothes knowing you will be walking in the snow a few hours later.

We left the hut in a slight drizzle, which was a lot better than the day before. The track first started to climb slowly but soon became very steep, comparable to the descent to Loch Maree. Lisette was complaining with every step, but I much prefer going up these steep sections than descending them. The trick is to take your time and find a rhythm. At least the steep ascent got us nice and warm. At about 650 meters above sea level, we started to come across the first patches of snow. I still find it incredible it actually snows here in the middle of summer. Early February is the equivalent of early August in Europe. 

As we left the forest and got above the treeline, the snow quickly became deeper. Visibility wasn't great, but luckily it was just enough to make out the next orange marker, which indicate the track. It started to get windy and there were rainclouds coming in from behind us. We were both freezing cold and I seriously doubted whether it was a good idea to head out today. Maybe we should have called for a helicopter to take us out? We struggled through the snow, which became ever deeper until it got knee deep at around 800 meters, we still had a long way to go to the pass. I was impressed with Lisette leading us through the snow, still complaining with every step but setting a good pace.

My boots aren't snow-proof at all, in fact there are quite a few big holes in them, and wearing only leggings and boardshorts I felt terribly under equipped for this kind of weather. It was a struggle getting up the steep, slippery slope in the deep snow. You never know where you put your feet, sometimes there's tussock underneath, sometimes slippery rocks. Sometimes you're walking in a stream and you sink through the snow into deep, smelly mud. I still couldn't believe how the weather had changed from the start of the week, when I was walking shirtless in the 30-degree, humid heat.

At Centre Pass (sorry for all the waterdrops in the pictures by the way! It's
impossible to keep your camera dry in such wet conditions...)

I was glad when we finally made it up and over the pass. On the other side of the pass the wind quickly died and it seemed like the clouds weren't going to make it across. There were a few patches of waist-deep snow on this side of the pass. Descending the steep snowy slopes was way quicker than going up and we quickly made it back into the forest. Just before we entered the forest we saw some strange bird tracks in the snow. We later looked it up, and we're pretty sure they're made by a Kiwi. Kiwi's are very rare and they only come out at night. We didn't see the actual bird, but we're lucky to have seen its tracks. From here it was an easy walk to the Upper Spey hut. The last part to the hut was a very muddy section, but there was actually about 200 meters of boardwalk across this, which we were very thankful for. We were amazed how quickly you can walk on a flat, smooth surface.

Arriving at the hut, we saw smoke coming out of the chimney. Apparently someone had gotten there before us, and this person had lit a fire, which was a great welcome. This person turned out to be Yannick, another Czech guy, who had started the Dusky Track from the Lake Manapouri end earlier today. We told him about the snow on Centre Pass. He seemed unimpressed. He either doesn't know what's waiting for him, or maybe he's some sort of supertramper. He did look pretty tough, and surely a lot better equipped than we were.

We were excited about making it across Centre Pass and even more excited about finishing the track the next day.

Day 10 – Upper Spey Hut – Lake Manapouri

The last section of the track is a flat, 14.8km section. We started off early, excited to finish the track and get back into civilization. Miraculously, the sun started shining soon after we took off. Having the sun on our backs felt great after almost a week of non-stop rain and cold. The track was rough and muddy, but nothing unusual and we kept a good pace. After 4 hours we arrived at the end of the track. Here, the track meets the road that runs from Lake Manapouri to Doubtful Sound. It's about another hour walking on the road to the Lake Manapouri wharf. At this point we didn't feel too excited yet, mostly sore, wet and tired. 

Arriving at the wharf, one of Real Journeys' boats was docked at the wharf, waiting for one of the tours to finish. We quickly boarded and made ourselves comfortable on the top deck. We took of our wet shoes and socks and baked in the glorious sunshine. Not much later the tour group boarded as well, and the boat left for the Manapouri Wharf, where our van was parked. It's a bit of a shock returning to civilization after 10 days in the wilderness, and I felt a bit dazed during the boat ride. I enjoyed the sunshine and the amazing Fiordland scenery. 

Tired and a bit dazzled, but happy.

We got off the boat and walked up to the carpark, where our faithful van was waiting for us. We got in and left to Te Anau for a much needed shower. Feeling too tired too cook, we went to get a pizza and a beer, which was amazing. 

I think, shortly after finishing a long tramp like ours I didn't really realize it yet, but now, lying in a warm campervan, looking back, I think it's been one of the most amazing things I've ever done and will look back upon often. I'm not sure I will ever do something similar again, definitely not within the near future. But I can say it's been an awesome adventure in one the most amazing places of the world.

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