Guide and Director, Dan Murphy, gives his account of the Dusky Track Expedition run by Hiking New Zealand in January 2011.
The dark inky waters of Dusky Sound are a welcome sight, as the helicopter flies low over the pass and down one of Fiordland’s many deep dark valleys. From studying the map later it turned out to be called the “Pass of numerous Tarns”. I guess in an area as vast as Fiordland (1.2 million hectares) one can start to run out of names, or maybe that is just the way of the Southern Man - telling it like it is!
The complete and utter silence and feeling of remoteness is even more intense given the fact that we have just spent the last forty minutes inside a helicopter flying from the hangar near Tuatapere across New Zealand’s largest wilderness area to land at Supper Cove. As our adrenaline levels drop to normal levels we have a chance to look around and take in this powerful landscape. Just when we think we are all alone, a man in a bright yellow raincoat appears on the shore. He quickly introduces himself and proudly tells us this is the 52nd week (not consecutive) he has spent in Dusky Sound. Alan has been coming here since the 1960’s in search of the elusive moose that were liberated here over 100 years ago. There has not been a confirmed sighting since the 1950’s but Alan passionately believes there are still moose out there wandering around in these unexplored valleys. While it’s great talking to Alan about moose hunting and the good old days, we are all keen to get started with the hike. We have got four days to get ourselves back to Lake Hauroko for a scheduled boat pick up that will take us across the lake and back to our vehicle. We say good bye to the fit, sprightly Alan who will be spending his 75th birthday in the Dusky, and start out down the track.
Towering rainforest, thundering waterfalls, 3-wire bridges and hopscotch are the highlights of today’s walk. The wetter sections of the track have become submerged with the recent rains - this calls for a "hop scotch” style of hiking. One desperately scans the track ahead for something that looks a little bit solid, like an old log, to land on after a giant leap. While balancing on this precarious island, maybe with the aid of a spindly branch, you try to find the next object to hop to. We also learn quickly that the light grey colour mud is safer to aim for as it’s usually less than ankle depth, not like that dark peaty stuff! We give up this silly energy sapping activity after a while. A couple of ‘concrete pills’ each and we are powering through the mud, looking out for moose and trying our hardest to be Southern Men.
Later in the day I make the classic mistake that good guides should not make. Crossing yet another 3-wire bridge I do a quick check of the map and correlation with our surroundings. I have been counting the bridges, and I quickly deduce this is the last one we will cross and we are in fact only 1km from the hut. Two hours later we cross another 3-wire bridge, and we catch sight of the hut at Loch Maree, still about 1km away… “Distance is pretty deceiving in this sort of country” I mutter as I scurry away.
We have Loch Maree Hut to ourselves, the beef stir fry goes down a treat as does the carefully measured dram of Irish whisky before bed. We are a group of four, Jingyi and John from Australia, who met while doing the West Coast Wilderness Safari and Andrew (also known as Chook) from Wellington. It’s been a long day, which means it will be a short night, so we head to bed pleasantly fatigued from a solid days hike.
The only way is up today, barely above sea level at Loch Maree, the track climbs abruptly and gains about 1000 metres in altitude before it tops out on the tussocky tops of the aptly named “Pleasant Range”. It's hard work today and we all agree that this is “Young Man’s Country”. But gradually as the tall Rimu and Beech trees give way to the gnarly sub-alpine vegetation, we start to glimpse a bit of daylight on the ridge above us and we know that the hard work of the climb will be soon forgotten. The views from Pleasant Range are more than pleasant they are truly humbling. Looking to the south west we can see all the way out to Breaksea Island at the entrance to Dusky Sound, in other directions the view is more alpine - high craggy ridgelines and hanging valleys dotted with tarns (alpine lakes). Later on relaxing in Lake Roe hut, we are already looking forward to tomorrow’s side trip to the summit of Tamatea.
Standing on top of a large boulder complimenting himself on his great dress sense, and telling us he is starting to feel like a real Southern Man – we refrain from telling Chook he actually looks a bit out of place here. But I think it is just the floral beach shorts and the eighties style swandri shirt that seem to contrast rudely with the soft colours of the landscape up here on Tamatea. Alpine basins filling with boulders and scree from the flanks of Mt Tamatea make for a harsh and unforgiving place. The dark and brooding clouds lingering out to sea add to the atmosphere and remind us that we shouldn’t hang around for too long. The return to the hut is livened up by a close encounter with a Chamois (Austrian Mountain Goat). With the wind in our faces we stand still and marvel at the agility and speed these creatures move with in such rough terrain. Moving towards us he suddenly freezes to the spot, it’s the brightly clad Chook he spots first - obviously sounding alarm bells for the poor Chamois. After a quick snort he then disappears in a series of bounds into the misty valley below.
Rubbing sleep from my eyes I know it’s going to be a big day today, it’s about 20 kilometres to Lake Hauroko Hut where we will spend the night and be picked up by the boat the following morning. The boggy sections of track slow us down and sap energy, but we remind ourselves that we are hardened Southern Men now and refrain from any silly hop scotch style of tramping. The track follows what is known as the Hauroko Burn, the term ‘Burn’ is Scottish for a small river and a reminder of the hardy Scots who settled the southern parts of New Zealand. We have lunch in the appropriately named “Half-Way Hut”. It seems to be a particularly hungry type of Sandfly occupying these parts so we imprison ourselves inside the hut and don’t open the door until we are completely ready to leave. The gradient now is mostly flat and more opportunity to gaze up and around the luxuriant bush. Massive log jams in the river give some indication of the size the river would get during heavy rains, but today it looks idyllic with deep clear pools reflecting the forest above. We share the hut tonight with an Australian called Matt, who arrived by kayak after 10 hours of paddling. Tired and weary from a 9 hour day we hit the sack and look forward to a sleep in tomorrow.
We are met the next morning by Val Mackay of Lake Hauroko Tours. The forty minute ride in his boat back across the lake today provides time to reflect on the last 4 days. The roar of the twin engines means conversation is too much of an effort. Scanning valleys, mountain peaks, and ridgelines surrounding the lake we take comfort that there is still plenty of ‘wild’ left in the world, and look forward to returning to this part of the world for further adventures.
Thanks, Jingyi, John and Chook – it was a great trip!