The Dusky Track through Fiordland National Park is infamous for being New Zealand’s hardest hike. New Zealanders even have their own word for this kind of hiking: “tramping”. Mitch Stewart and his crew were up for the challenge.
Adventurers find their next exploit in all kinds of ways. Some look to books or ask their friends for suggestions. Others pick a spot on the map and work backwards to suss out a route. And in this techy age, more and more people jump online to sites like ours in the search of their next weekend epic.
Other people do harebrained things like type “Hardest Hike in New Zealand” into Google. That’s exactly what Mitch Stewart did.
When I ran into Mitch at Mountain Equipment in late 2016 (he was stocking up on dry bags) he told me that he was going to attempt a hike known as the “Dusky Track”. I was captivated as he described waist deep mud, snowy ridgelines, wire bridges and unclaimed mountain peaks in the nonchalant manner of a seasoned explorer. “Oh and we’re doing it for charity” he added as an afterthought.
How’s it going Mitch? I just saw a post on Facebook, you’ve been in a canyon today?
Hey Tim, yeah that was actually on Sunday. The canyon had quite a lot of special meaning as we attempted it last year, it was uncharted and unmapped and we ended up being in there for 14 hours.
And we never finished it. Had to climb out the side.
You like the places that aren’t explored aye?
I love ‘em.
So how’d the Dusky Track hike go?
Well there were no injuries and everybody had a great time but it was a mega-challenge, which is what we were after. I was googling hikes and I went “Oh, what’s the hardest hike in New Zealand?” and this just came up. It just looked bonkers and I was like, “Why not? If you’re gonna fly over there.” All the guided walks like Kepler and Milford, the track’s so graded now, every man and their goat can do it.
So this one requires a bit more route finding? It’s not as signposted as those hikes?
There are some signs but not really, you’re following ski-pole triangles because the track is just so muddy and overgrown.
Did you ever lose them?
Yeah numerous times. We had snow down to 900m and to keep our schedule we had to hike through white-out all day. But the worst thing about the track is that even at alpine elevations the track isn’t necessarily going to be dry. We were still knee-deep in mud all day.
Far out, in the middle of summer!
Yeah, even on the first day when it was really sunny we got mud up to our waist. As soon as you walk out the door you’re knee deep in it.
Doesn’t sound like much of a “track” aye?
Yeah it’s wild, definitely takes the title.
So who was in your crew?
We had my girlfriend Greer, one of my best mates Duncan and two mates from Uni, Griffo and Gev.
Were you behind the organising or was it a team effort?
I did most of the logistics and Greer organised all of the first aid and medical supplies with her paramedics knowledge. Griff and Gev didn’t know much about hiking.
They’re just two very fit people who were adventurously-minded, they’d never done a multi-day trek. But Duncan took care of all the charity organisation.
Yeah tell me about the charity aspect.
At University in Armidale we have colleges and our college’s charity is Camp Quality, so we thought it was a perfect opportunity to raise money for them. It’s a great cause and we managed to raise $1200 dollars with a few simple posts and links online.
That’s awesome. So where exactly in New Zealand is the Dusky Track?
So it’s located in the very southern part of Fiordland National Park on the South Island, further south than the bottom of Tassie. It’s pretty remote though; the only way to get to the hike is by helicopter or boat.
Far out, so what’d you do?
Oh boat, we’re not millionaires! Yeah we had to charter a 4WD to drive us to New Zealand’s deepest lake, Lake Hauroko, then we chartered a boat for an hour and a half ride to the start of the hike. It was wicked.
And when you finished the hike did you need someone to pick you up?
The hike comes out onto a fire trail that tourists use to get to Doubtful Sound, but it’s a 16km hike down that road to a ferry back to civilisation.
It sounds like the most remote place ever.
Yeah it really was. Having strong navigational skills and an EPIRB was super important. The track’s known for frequent calls for rescue from the unprepared and the weather can change quickly. We regularly had 4 seasons in a day. From sun on day 1 to white out on day 3 and rain for the rest of it. On the final day the track flooded and we were walking through waist deep mud for kilometres while it hailed on us for 9 hours.
At this point I’m really starting to wonder if the Dusky Track is just the back road into Mordor! You mentioned before the hike that you were planning on bagging an unnamed peak you found on the map, how’d that go?
We didn’t get to climb it unfortunately due to a looming thunderstorm when we got to the saddle where we’d have had to turn right. But the hike is 84km, starts at sea level, goes up to 1000m, back down to sea level and back up to 1000m, so given that the track is just mud, fallen trees and slippery roots we were pretty challenged.
Yeah sounds like it! Did you get up any of the named peaks?
Duncan and I went off to try and climb Mt Tamatea (1634m) but the snow was still down to 1400m. We got all the way up onto the summit ridge and 60m away from the summit but between us and the minor peak was a knife-edged saddle, covered in snow which we weren’t trained or equipped to deal with.
I can imagine your packs were already pretty heavy without ice climbing gear.
Yeah everyone was carrying 8 days of full rations, plus 2 days worth of emergency rations. I had 11 days worth of food ‘cause I knew Griff and Gev would eat their food too quickly, which they did. Even with the lightest gear around we were still past 20kg.
What about water on the trail? Drinkable?
We were all carrying a Sawyer Squeeze, which is a great 300g water filter, but the bloke we chartered the 4WD from said “I’ve been drinking straight from running water sources for 30 years and I’ve never gotten sick” so I thought “I’ll go with that” and didn’t use my filter at all. Everyone else did though, haha!
So big ups for the Sawyer Squeeze, what else would you recommend to someone taking on the Dusky Track?
A really, really, really good rain jacket. Gev bought a $3.50 poncho from the gas station and said “I’ll be right with this”. We had a big old argument about that but yeah, spend the money and you will be well rewarded. I didn’t let Gev take the poncho by the way.
What else is going on on the South Island?