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A dusky diversion

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February 2022 Issue

In an effort to save money on the cost of Dusky Track transport, Sam Harrison navigates a tougher route and is rewarded with the most spectacular scenery he’s ever seen

The Dusky Track is said to be one of the hardest tracks in Aotearoa. Treacherous mud, notoriously fickle weather, wild rivers and untameable wilderness greet trampers between lakes Hauroko and Manapouri. 

I had been trying to organise an expedition there for several years and when the weather opened up early last summer, friends and I seized the opportunity.

We were students and would cut transport costs by tramping the track as a loop from Borland Road. It would take two days to climb up Florence Stream and its tributaries before dropping over the Merrie Range to Lake Roe Hut. At the other end of the track, we would cross Percy Saddle and return to Borland Road.

We crossed the Grebe River near its confluence with the Florence and continued on the true right of the Florence, bush-bashing through damp beech forest and island-hopping through waist-deep marshland. 

We eventually crossed to the true left of the Florence and after pushing through dense forest littered with tree fall came across a lake at 645m.  Deer trails around the lake’s eastern side provided easy travel and eventually, near its head, was a spot flat enough to pitch the tent. It had taken 13 hours to get here and we were exhausted.

The next day we had a choice between following the route we had marked on our map or that in the most recent Moir’s Guide South. We opted for our route which took us up the true left of the creek between Pt894 and Pt881. It was steep and we soon found ourselves clinging to tussock ladders whilst climbing through a series of bluffs. Miraculously, we made it to Pt881 and a ridge, where there were expansive views to the lake where we’d camped the night before. We followed this ridge to a series of tarns in a spectacular cirque, where water cascaded down a powerful cataract

The Merrie Range is a secret marvel hidden behind Tamatea Peak and Lake Roe. Photo: Sam Harrison

The pain of the trip so far was forgotten, replaced by a sense of immense wonder and awe.

We followed the cataract on its true left, initially on a steep tussock slope then rounded rocky slabs to the top. From here we could see another grand lake (at Pt1023), fed by an even more powerful cataract than that we had just followed. Descending via the lake’s eastern side until close to the torrent, we could see that halfway up it briefly mellowed to a ford bracketed at either end by immense walls of flowing water.

It was an easy walk up the ford to the ridge which revealed the valley’s final jewel – another massive lake at Pt1101 sitting in a cauldron of snow-capped mountains.

From the lake, it was climbing again, south-west across snowgrass slopes and between icy tarns until we emerged onto the top of the Merrie Range. On one side was the end of the spectacular string of lakes we had passed. On the other lay an expansive view of Lake Roe, the Pleasant Range and Dusky Sound. Two of us took the opportunity to use our ice axes for a side trip to Tamatea Peak which lay just to the north.

The Pleasant Range is, well, quite pleasant. Photo: Sam Harrison

Our journey down to Lake Roe Hut was a simple affair as we followed a rolling ridge to Lake Roe then a marked route to the hut. It had taken 10 hours – possibly the most spectacular hours of my life.

Now on the Dusky Track proper, we went from Lake Roe Hut along the Pleasant Range, where lakes were strung out like pearls on a necklace. From the top of the range, the track drops 900 vertical metres to Loch Maree. I had read that the man who marked the original track in the 1960s had assumed that zig-zags would be added; they weren’t. Eventually, we emerged next to the Seaforth River – the last obstacle before Loch Maree Hut.

The walk-wire across had been destroyed earlier in the year so we were forced to ford it, sometimes chest-deep.

We stashed some gear at the hut before continuing along the trail to Supper Cove Hut, a straightforward there-and-back walk. We took the high tide route which had muddy sections and a rough section just before the hut, where we spent a night and a restful day fishing off the rocks and swimming in the Seaforth River.

It was then back on the move, first to Loch Maree Hut to collect our gear and then on in rain up the Seaforth to Kintail Hut. The rain continued overnight but cleared as we set off toward Centre Pass. There is a steep section climbing through tree roots but otherwise it’s just a grunt.

We left our packs at the pass and continued up Mt Memphis. It’s an easy climb up snowgrass and then rocky slabs to the summit where there’s an uninhibited panorama of the surrounding country including the Wall and Matterhorn mountains.

Three-wire bridges help keep boots dry when crossing the many waterways of the Dusky Track. Photo: Sam Harrison

On the way down from Centre Pass, there’s a swamp and finally a boardwalk to Upper Spey Hut.

From here, the track goes down the Spey River to Wilmot Pass Road. The road seemed absurdly large to us, having spent nearly a week on a track barely wide enough to walk on. The South Arm of Lake Manapouri might not seem like civilisation to many, but it was to us and we even saw a couple of cars. We reached West Arm Hut by midday and pushed to Percy Saddle. The 800 vertical metre ascent to the plateau took just over two hours, but a stream not far from the road end offered an attractive camping spot and positioned us for one final push next day.

It was raining heavily in the morning and our route from Percy Saddle was littered with loose rocks and slippery trees underfoot. After 45 minutes, this route joined Borland Road. It was then a simple matter to walk to the bridge spanning the Grebe River, where we had stashed bikes for a ride back to the car.

Wilmot Pass Road links both ends of the Manapouri Power Scheme, cutting a distinct line through the dense Fiordland rainforest. Photo: Sam Harrison
Distance
111km
Grade
Difficult
Time
8-10 days
Access
Borland Road near the Southern Scenic Route
Map
CE05, CE06, CE07

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Dusky Track via Florence Stream (gpx, 68 KB)

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