New Zealand’s hardest hike is muddy, wet and teeming with sandflies. But there’s beauty there; raw wilderness and a challenge for even the most grizzled hikers.
- A hut-to-hut hike through New Zealand’s glacier-carved fiordlands
- Crossing two mountain ranges
- New Zealand’s hardest hike
- Breathtaking scenery without the crowds
Happy as Hikers in Mud
We landed on a tiny river beach in the middle of New Zealand’s Southern Fiordland. We were a mismatched collection of strangers, but we emerged on the other side a soggy, dirty group of friends. The Dusky Track offers some of the most beautiful and rugged terrain in New Zealand that you simply have to experience to understand. I’ll recreate the experience the best I can.
The track can be described as a sufferfest. But for enduring the sandflies, waist-high mud, extreme winds, endless kilometres of knotted tree roots and torrential rain you’ll be rewarded with uninterrupted pure New Zealand wilderness.
Day 1: Lake Hauroko to Halfway Hut
Time: 4-6 hours
It’s Boxing Day morning as we zoom across New Zealand’s deepest lake to the trailhead in a small boat. We unload on a sandy beach at the edge of the rainforest. As the last of the bags are passed overboard our captain yells out, ‘Look after each other out there! Either you walk that way for a week or so,’ she says, motioning to a dark hole in the trees, ‘or I’ll see you back here in a week!’.
With a wave, she circles the boat and disappears around the next bend. Suddenly it seems very quiet.
There are about a dozen people in 5 separate groups who’ve booked places with the local shuttle service. We murmur a few nervous introductions before we step from the beach into the rainforest and set off through a tunnel of ferns and hanging lichen. It’s not long before our first encounter with the dusky mud. It begins with a few puddles, then long swampy sections, and before long the marked trees seem to be floating in a dark liquid mire.
Our attitude to mud follows the same progression. I begin naïve and hopeful, thinking that if I step carefully there might just be a chance of dry feet. But before long the mud is knee deep and we’re laughing that we even tried to go around that puddle at the start.
The track follows the river before gradually climbing and coming back down to cross a wire footbridge. There are 21 of these bridges along the track. During times of flood the bridges can sustain damage from trees, giving them varying degrees of stability. All you can do is try to keep you balance centred and take them one step at a time.
Halfway Hut sits in a little clearing. Like all the huts on the Dusky Track, it’s a small timber structure with communal bunk beds, a woodfire stove, tables, tank water and a composting toilet. But most importantly they offer sanctuary from sandflies for the night.
Day 2: Halfway Hut to Lake Roe Hut
Time: 3-5 hours
The day begins gently, meandering by the Hauroko Burn and across a number of tributaries before climbing steadily. Low cloud is swirling through the Fiordlands today and we’re treated to the first of many days of rain. In a region that measures its yearly rainfall in meters, it’s more likely to be raining than not.
Huffing and puffing, soggy inside and out, we pop out of the trees and into an alpine meadow. The tree markers are replaced with snow poles that guide us up a little higher around to Lake Roe Hut.
We leave our packs inside the hut and take advantage of a change in the weather to explore. Wind has pushed the clouds over the peaks and the sun is glistening off wet rocky outcrops as we walk up to Lake Roe. This isn’t part of the main track but an unmissable side trip that gives breathtaking views across the glacier-carved mountains and back down the U-shaped valley to where we started our hike.
Day 3: Lake Roe Hut to Loch Maree Hut
Time: 5-7 hours
The track out of Lake Roe hut is a climb, and it keeps on climbing up and over the ironically named Pleasant Range. Progress is slow up the sodden tussock slope. It feels like we’re walking twice as far as every second step slides backwards.
There’s nothing more deflating to look back and realise we haven’t even made it 500m from the hut and are already gasping for breath. The track winds between two alpine lakes before climbing further. After countless false summits the landscape changes and we crest the range with views stretching out to Dusky Sound.
The next Dusky lesson we learn is that what goes up must come down, and the descent to Loch Maree is a combination of down-climbing knotted tree roots and bum-shuffling down slippery moss-covered rocks. We embrace our inner Mowgli and plough on. A number of the drops have permanent chains to assist, but mostly it’s just ankle-twisting endurance.
There’s a reason all available information on the Dusky Track breaks days into hours of hiking rather than distance and today is a good example. During our descent we are averaging just over one kilometre per hour! It’s a moment of relief when we emerge from the trees to find a long wire bridge and flat trail the remainder of the way to Lock Maree Hut. As the burning in my shins subsides and I stop swatting the sandflies long enough to look around, I’m struck by the absolute beauty of this place.
The sun is beginning to set behind our newly conquered mountain. There’s a picturesque valley to the right with wisps of sunlit clouds trailing through the lush pines and to the left, Loch Maree sits like a vast mirror.
Day 4: Loch Maree Hut to Supper Cove Hut (Side Trip)
Time: 6-8 hours
Supper Cove is a side trip off the main through track, but not one that you’re going to want to miss. It’s a relatively flat day following the Seaforth River to Supper Cove. There are waterfalls dotted the whole way along the track and the width of the Seaforth River provides a gap in the thick rainforest canopy that gives spectacular views of the surrounding snow-capped mountains.
Around lunchtime we stop next to a pool with a spout waterfall pouring into it. Looking around, we’re a far cry from the bright-eyed, clean-faced individuals that started the hike. The group is the most dishevelled, dirty tribe I can imagine and the trials of the track are painted head to toe on us all. But there is not a face without a grin and there’s an unspoken comradery. We’re muddy and smelly and need a wash, no matter how cold the water is!
Moments later we lie on the rocks to dry and thaw out, thoroughly content with our lot.
We continue down the river until it opens into Supper Cover. The cove is tidal and a little bit of study into the tides before we left has paid off now. The main track weaves over the usual tree roots and mud around the outside of the cove. However, if you time your arrival with low tide you can simply walk out across the sand to the hut. The last section crosses a channel and, with bags overhead, we wade through the thigh-deep freezing water.
Supper Cove Hut is one of the most frequented huts as it can be reached by boat through the cove. A generous fisherman has left a bag of potatoes that we gratefully tuck into. I love the simplicity that hiking gives you – a fire-roasted potato looking over the sunset lit cove is absolute bliss.
Day 5: Supper Cove Hut to Loch Maree Hut
Time: 6-8 hours
The return hike to Loch Maree is the same route as yesterday. We set off bright and early to catch low tide. The water is a lot fresher at 6.30am. But while my toes lose feeling and a deep ache sets into my calves, I’m too distracted by the beauty of the place to care. Our early start meant we arrived at Loch Maree for a late lunch and spent the afternoon relaxing, playing cards and reading our books.
Day 6: Loch Maree Hut to Kintail Hut
Time: 6-8 hours
Our track follows the river again through thick, mossy rainforest. As my boot sinks into a mud hole I’m struck by a startling realisation. There are no leeches! Never have I spent so much time in thick, wet rainforest without being covered in those slimy little buggers. Another tick for New Zealand.
This section of track travels through intermittent grassy clearings and the local population of deer and possibly pigs have created a network of tracks. After following down a number of dead ends and having to backtrack, marker spotting becomes an expert skill!
Day 7: Kintail Hut to Upper Spey Hut
Time: 5-7 hours
The trail out of Upper Spey Hut climbs through thick rainforest before the canopy breaks and the view back down the valley can only be described as prehistoric. It looks like a scene from Jurassic Park – I’m just waiting for a pterodactyl to swoop down and carry me off.
We continue to climb into the clouds and rain. As we approach the centre pass the wind has picked up and we have to yell to communicate to the person next to us. The previously falling rain has frozen and is now coming at us horizontally, stinging out cheeks and eyes. There’s nothing for it but to pull our hoods a little tighter and tramp on. It’s a steep little climb down to Upper Spey Hut but once below the crest, we’re protected from the wilds above.
Day 8: Upper Spey Hut to Lake Manapouri
Time: 4-5 hours
By this stage I think I’ve mastered anything the Dusky Track can throw at us. But once again, the Dusky will teach me not to be complacent.
The Spey Valley is a network of tree roots and bogs. We’ve got a beautiful day and the sun is cascading through the low canopy, making everything a sunny green. There’s no telling how deep the next bog will be until you stop sinking. The problem isn’t necessarily the entry, but trying to get out. The suction is often so strong you’ll need a tree (or an obliging friend) to pull you out!
I was caught in one of these moments and had just managed to rescue my lost leg when I realised it had come out without my boot! After ten minutes of lying across tree roots and frantically digging, I finally recovered my boot.
I tied my laces a little tighter.
Unexpectedly, the mud and trees give way to Wilmot Pass Road. We follow the road past the signposted West Arm Hut to Lake Manapouri and have a late lunch while we wait for our ferry back to the ‘real world’. As much as I’m looking forward to a hot shower and a burger, I can’t help but wish we were carrying on to the next hut.
The Dusky Track will make you earn your views and, at times, you can feel like the landscape has swallowed you whole. But as much as the Dusky takes from you, you can trust that it will leave you fuller than when you started.
- Personal Locator Beacon (can be hired from Te Anau)
- Detailed topographic maps (there’s no reception out there!)
- Backcountry Hut passes, booked in advance through New Zealand’s Department of Conservation.
- Durable waterproofs and pack
- Walking boots with good ankle support
- A set of good dry bags
- 11 days of food (anticipated 8 days on the trail + 3 spare in case of flooding)
- 3 season tent (huts are first come first serve and you need to be prepared to camp in an emergency)
- Usual hiking gear: sleeping bag, stove, fuel, clothes
How To Get There
Arriving at the Southern trailhead: private transfers can be arranged from Te Anau or Manapouri through companies like Trips and Tramps. They operate transfers on Mondays and Thursdays to the Lake Hauroko trailhead. Spots are limited so book in advance.
Leaving from the Northern trailhead: Ferries operate 3 times a day across from West Arm visitors centre to Manapouri and can be booked through Real Journeys or any of the water taxi companies.
The Dusky Track is recommended for experienced, fit and well-equipped hikers and should only be undertaken with proper planning. Adverse weather can make it difficult to navigate and extreme mountain conditions can change rapidly.
Hikers should be prepared with safe river crossing techniques. Sections of the Dusky Track flood readily and you should always carry extra food in case you need to wait for river levels to lower to cross safely.
Distance Covered / Elevation Gain / Duration
- 85 km one way
- 8-10 days
- 1600m elevation gain
- Seasonal December to March
- Sections of the track are subject to snow, avalanches, heavy rain and flooding. Always check local weather for the full duration and check-in with Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre before setting off.