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Seeking solitude in the deep South

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April 2023 Issue

Four women explore the challenge and reward of remote expeditions on a traverse of the rugged Dark Cloud Range in southwest Fiordland.

In the age of inReach devices, GPS and helicopters, there remains something profoundly moving about being somewhere truly remote. For me it is pure freedom along with a heightened awareness of the need for self-reliance. How we fare out there is largely down to our decisions and how prepared we are. It will show how we measure up, who we really are when faced with life at its most raw and real.

These thoughts ran through my mind as I waved goodbye to a float plane near the mouth of Chalky Inlet, deep in southwest Fiordland. We had been dropped with 10 days’ food and a line traced on a map running roughly 100km from where we stood to the Borland Road south of Lake Manapouri. We planned to traverse the Dark Cloud Range, a continuous line of mountain tops that, despite the ominous name, beckoned us to several days of above the bushline travel. Fiordland bush travel can be extremely steep and rough, but the opportunity to stay high was appealing – and the views promised to be fantastic.

There were four in the party – Ana Richards, Lydia Mclean, Dulkara Martig and me. All women and friends from different chapters of my life. All were experienced Fiordland trampers, and I felt excited to be in such fine company.

We set out in high spirits, dreaming of easy tussock. But first we had to get above the bushline. Our packs were cumbersome and heavy, and as we gained elevation we encountered a treadmill of subalpine scrub. We pushed and pushed, yet seemed to make no progress. The stunted vegetation was just tall enough to be a hindrance but not enough to provide good shade and the sun beat down. Sweat dripped down our backs, mingling with leaf litter and dirt. Shallow tarns provided a welcome, though brief, reprieve: we walked straight through the water to escape the scrub. When we emerged from the bush onto the flanks of Treble Mountain, we could see occasional boats at sea, or lights from a hut on Chalky Island, somewhat tarnishing our hard-fought sense of remoteness. Civilisation was not yet ready to let us go.

After a night camped up high, we traversed Treble Mountain and then dropped back into scrub; clocking a mere eight or nine kilometres each day and eying our line on the map with growing unease. The sheer distance weighed heavy on us all. With a few bad weather days, the trip could take longer than planned.

Camped on the seashore at Cliff Cove, we swam in the ocean and ate mussels with breakfast. The following day we climbed to the main trunk of the Dark Cloud Range and our attention was increasingly drawn from the island-dotted sounds to the north where we could see our map line unfold as a chain of tussock and granite. We traced it as far as we could see and someone captured the mood with a breathless, “Woah”. It was beautiful, rugged, sinuous and bumpy.

Ana Richards and Lydia Mclean approaching Mt Solitary. Photo: Dulkara Martig

This was the remoteness we had sought; nothing in sight but mountain ranges, no one but us. I felt giddy with excitement, drunk on the beauty and the sense of being so far from the world.

After the slow days battling scrub, we now revelled in the fast travel of tussock tops, setting our sights on Needle Peak. I had read that a geological survey party in the 1970s had found a stunning rock bivvy in the boulder field under the south face of this peak. We reached the boulder field after a long day and scrambled about in a search of the bivvy, but couldn’t find it. It’s an interesting irony, that while we seek reprieve from humanity through retreat into the mountains, small signs of human habitation still draw us.

Beyond Needle Peak, the terrain became more interesting as we negotiated rock steps and skirted picturesque tarns. Clouds began to build and darken, and the weather changed with dramatic speed. I was in front, tracking a stag over a rocky section of ridge when fat droplets of rain began to fall. It was a delightful contrast to the heat of the day, and the moody lighting added drama. We grinned at one another, laughing at our recklessness as the rain soaked us. Eventually we pulled out raincoats even though our clothes were now soaked through. The shower cleared as quickly as it had begun, but the ongoing orogenic rise and fall continued. This range was brutal, and I loved it. We all did.

The way people come together as a group in the wilderness is one of my favourites of the human experience. The four of us had never done a trip together before; some of my friends had never met each other before. I enjoyed how the rhythm of moving through the mountains allowed us time and space to become acquainted with one another. I felt my usual sense of self-reliance expand to include the other three, as we became interconnected in the sharing of resources, knowledge and ideas. In the hills we are free from society’s complexities. Life is stripped to essentials – food, shelter, warmth. I feel like I get a truer sense of myself, and my companions; the camaraderie, cooperation and shared experiences create a deep sense of connection. I treasure that.

At this point there was a warning via our inReach that serious weather was approaching. We would be exposed to the storm if we remained above the bushline but dropping into a valley seemed equally grim: there were few route options, as the terrain dropped off precipitously in every direction and substantial extra distance and elevation loss and gain would be added to our trip. We decided the most appealing option was to step on the gas and attempt to beat the weather to Lake Roe Hut on the Dusky Track. This required back-to-back 12-hour days, with constant forward progress. Breaks became snappier and several gorgeous campsites were wistfully bypassed. The days were long and hard and we covered a lot of ground, despite the relentless ups and downs. Whenever we crested a new high point, we would see ano-ther chain of awaiting high points, with significant dips in between. Watching my friends soldier up yet another “blimmin’ hill”, I felt a rush of admiration for their tenacity and grit and it helped me to press on.

Yet despite this, or maybe due to it, these were the best days of the trip. We bore witness to so much unforgettable beauty – an endless procession of mirror tarns, chunky granite outcrops, glacially carved valleys and majestic peaks.

Ana Richards on the Dark Cloud Range with Cunaris Sound and Chalky Inlet beyond. Photo: Tarsh Turner

We hummed ‘Here comes the bride’ as we hiked between two striking seams of pure white quartz. We lay awake as a gang of juvenile kea spent a night slowly dismantling our tent and we felt the joy of the first rays of sun on our skin after a frosty morning. We were encased in absolute timelessness. The gear may change over the years, but the essential experience of an expedition like this endures. The days blurred together, and time became a fluid concept. Hike, sleep, repeat.

Our sense of solitude took a hit when we encountered a fresh-looking bootprint north of Staircase Saddle. We stood staring at it in surprise. Someone had beaten us here. Unbelievable. We continued to find the odd print from this point on, and it became a hot topic: so little – one footprint in the gravel – to break the spell of solitude. Around this point though we felt we were in the final section of the trip. Thoughts were turning to the outside world.

We had one more treat in store though. On the section of ridge adjoining Mt Solitary, we discovered delightfully grippy rock slabs and easy scrambling under a bluebird sky. Fully absorbed once more, we climbed ‘Solitary’s Mate’ (Pt1438) and were rewarded with views down Dusky Sound to the faraway ocean from whence we had come. Contemplating our journey in the rear-view mirror was remarkable – we struggled to trace our line to the horizon, as our ridge was swallowed by so many other peaks. Fiordland, I thought, has enough mountains to entertain me for a lifetime. A circus of 14 kea engulfed us late in the afternoon, swirling and chattering, throwing us within a rowdy avian snow globe. This was a day for the memory bank.

Walking a short section of the Dusky Track on the approach to Lake Roe Hut felt foreign: it was too hard and compacted. It was also a mix of disappointment and relief to find the hut empty. We unpacked our food cache with equally mixed feelings, given that we were three days ahead of schedule and had food in abundance. Potato chips were a thrill though, and we polished off three packs. We learned that the predicted weather bomb had shifted west, missing the South Island entirely. A brief sprinkling of rain overnight was all we would get. We felt on the cusp of being home, and conversation about taking a pit day to enjoy the sunshine was influenced by thoughts of what we could do with some extra days at home. A half-pit day it was.

It seemed the spell was well and truly broken.

The trip was not done with us yet, though. Our final day, via Florence Stream, threw every hurdle at our tired selves. Thick bush with scarce deer trails, a very steep descent that required several attempts to find a line, copious swamp, we were even bluffed at one point.

Twelve hours after leaving camp, nine days after leaving town, we reached the road and sighed with relief. Sometimes the relationship between remoteness and distance from civilisation is not quite so linear – we may not have been far from the road throughout that final day, but travel in that valley sure made me feel removed from the world.

I am deeply grateful that Aotearoa New Zealand still has large enough stretches of wilderness that enable remote experiences, such as on this trip. It is a great joy to me to trace a line on a map and then go see what can be found. A little uncertainty, or lack of information about an area, adds to the adventure, and a little adversity adds to the sense of accomplishment and resilience fostered. The days and weeks following such a trip are imbued with heady significance, the imagination roaming remembered peaks and valleys, wondering about far-off half-glimpsed ridges.

And so, the scheming begins anew….