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We’re just recently back from doing one of New Zealand’s more challenging multi-day walks, the Dusky Track which runs between the northern end of Lake Hauroko and the West Arm of Lake Manapouri. It’s a relatively undeveloped route, notorious for its sandflies, mud, and rivers that rise rapidly after each of the intense rain storms that regularly sweep in from the Tasman Sea. We knew that it was going to push us to our limits, but the opportunity to do it with friends was too hard to resist, and on a soggy morning in late March we stood in the rain and watched the Namu depart back down Lake Hauroko after dropping us at the Lake Hauroko Hut.

Lake Laffy at dusk

A selection of photos from the stunning landscapes encountered on this trip can be found here.

Getting there and doing it…

The Dusky Track is a difficult place to get to – from Te Anau there is a lengthy drive to Clifden, where we were picked up for the drive to Hauroko and boat-trip to the top of lake. Then follows six days of walking – eight if you do the side-trip out to Supper Cove at the head of Dusky Sound. We opted for seven days, bypassing Supper Cover but allowing a spare day at Lake Rowe Hut on the rolling plateau between the Hauroko Burn and Seaforth River – a spectacular landscape with its glacial-carved hanging valleys, rock outcrops, and more lakes than you will find in most parts of NZ.

After ten minutes of organizing, we eventually set off in light drizzle up the muddy track that would take us to Halfway Hut, five hours up the valley. This is forest walking at its best – tall southern beech trees hung with copious moss and epiphytes, the ground densely clothed in low shrubs, ferns, and mosses, the river murmuring noisily off to the side, and enough mud to keep multitudes of pigs in a prolonged state of bliss! Keeping on the move is generally best, a strategy dictated by the large numbers of sandflies – known as blackflies in other countries, the Fiordland ones are particularly large and pesky.


Walking the Dusky…

In many respects, that paragraph can be read as a generic description for most of our trip: apart from the last day of sunshine, the dominant weather conditions were cloud, drizzle and the odd bit of rain; the track itself varied little in its ease of travel, it was often painfully slow, and in places its vulnerability to flooding was easy to see, particularly in the lower Seaforth. It includes some very steep climbs, although these are generally well supplied with natural hand and foot holds, occasionally supplemented by sturdy lengths of chain. The river crossings were all by way of three-wire bridges, most of which were well tensioned – the two just past the Kintail Hut were the exceptions, and we were disconcerted by their looseness until we discovered that having a large party member hold the upper wires apart at one end steadied them no end.

Yet another 3-wire bridge

The Highlights

What were the highlights – it was full of them! The country is spectacular both in its breadth and its detail. Better weather might have enabled some photos that better captured that, but what we encountered is very much southern Fiordland as it is for most of the time – a high rainfall environment in which the surrounding peaks are often only partially visible, the valleys are often hung with mist, the vegetation drips relentlessly, and the ground squelches with every step!

That aside…

  • Lake Rowe proved to be an absolute gem – a landscape that is full of rock outcrops, lakes, tarns, wetlands, and patches of scrub and forest. On a blue day it must be an astounding place to be, but even in passing cloud the views are gorgeous. One could use this as a base for several days exploring and not exhaust the place.
  • The walk across the open tops of the Pleasant Range to the steep descent into Loch Maree is similar – panoramic vistas of the peaks disappeared and emerged from the cloud as we walked, with glimpses down into the Seaforth River below and out to Dusky Sound to the west. Even with intermittent rain it was a memorable walk.
  • Loch Maree was magical – a striking example of the dynamism of Fiordland’s landscapes, it was formed by a large earthquake-triggered landslide in 1826. This dammed the Seaforth River, forming a lake that killed the beech trees that once grew on the surrounding river flats. Nearly two centuries on the trees have long died, but their stumps remain, dotting the lake and providing a reliable guide to the likely state of the track to Kintail Hut – don’t set out when the stumps are under water’ is the terse directive in the hut log-book!
  • The lower Seaforth River is remarkable for its deep, slow flow; overhung by tall trees that in places meet overtop, it looks more like a canal than your typical back-country New Zealand river. Numerous logs and debris snagged high up the banks give silent testimony to times of much greater energy – it must be a fearsome sight in full flood.
  • The two gorges further up the Seaforth are equally spectacular in a totally different way – noisy places of steep descent and high energy, they are a sight even in times of relatively low flow, and make one thankful for the safety of the track and the provision of three-wire bridges.
  • Our brief glimpses of the peaks that surround Centre Pass indicated that it too would have been a spectacular place to linger, had it not been for the newly arrived southerly with its wind, rain, and dropping temperatures. Some photographs were possible between showers as we descended into the Warren Burn, and that southerly also delivered the long-hoped for (brief!) spell of fine weather, which we would enjoy that evening and on our last day walking out.
  • While I’m not one for late nights, I have no regrets at all about setting the alarm for 11.30 pm on the last night, so that we could leave the warmth of our sleeping bags to watch a full lunar eclipse. While most of the hut’s occupants stood on the verandah, three of us walked out to the nearby helicopter pad, where we had uninterrupted views of the night sky with fading moon and brightening stars, while kiwi, weka and a love-sick stag gave voice in the forest surrounding the open flats – magical is probably the only word that comes close to capturing the moment…
  • Last, but not least, the kind folks staying at Upper Spey Hut undoubtedly provided the culinary highlight of the trip. They had helicoptered in all the doings necessary for the creation of a pavlova – our eyes must have stuck out like they were on stalks, so much so that we were all offered a piece. Talk about nectar of the gods! (ps. photo included for documentary evidence, rather than a reflection of pictorial quality)
Alina and Marek and their magnificent creation

Alina and Marek and their magnificent creation

Camera gear

For those interested, my camera gear for this trip was limited (by weight!) to a Sony A7R, Canon TS-E 24mm, Canon 40mm USM, Canon FD 100m F/2, a mini-tripod, and Benro GND and ND filters. I agonised over what to take for some time beforehand, but this kit worked well: being small and light, the 40mm was great as a walking lens, even though its focus speed on the Metabones adapter is atrocious. By contrast, when not on the move, the TS-E was perfect for a landscape like this with all its scale and complex textures – it was the first major trip I’ve done with it, and its considerable weight (900 gm) was more than compensated for by what it delivered. The 100mm was the lens I used least, but for people shots is just perfect.