Surviving New Zealand’s Hardest Hike

Photograph by Eric Liefer
The Dusky Track is only accessible by boat; South Island, New Zealand; Photograph by Eric Liefer

Fiordland National Park, tucked away far within New Zealand’s South Island, has the notorious claim to fame as one of the wettest locations in the southern hemisphere; and with a mean annual rainfall of 268 inches, it is not just a claim but a rudely saturated reality.

For those who wish to experience the spectacle, your options are quite limited, for the vast majority of the place is simply inaccessible. The most common option: Take the path of least resistance and make the pilgrimage to Milford Sound. Just follow the well-marked road signs, souvenir shops, and the rest of the camper vans and tourists. The much less common decision: Throw yourself off the deep end by accepting the challenge of the country’s hardest trail, the infamous Dusky Track, an 84-kilometer route that impossibly forces its way through this impermeable landscape. Just follow the little orange triangles. Quite simple really. Or better yet: turn back now. Please. It is far too late for this poor soul.

Hour 0. The name of the boat is Namu; and suddenly a cruel hint of irony becomes clearly evident, as namu is the Maori word for sandfly. Both the start—and finish—of the Dusky Track are accessible only by boat. I bid adieu to the captain and the five other individuals I got dropped off with, now doomed to the same fate as I. Two Kiwis, one Australian, and a duo from the great state of Michigan. I won’t see any of them again as I push hard for the first major mountain pass.

Photograph by Eric Liefer
The Dusky Track, New Zealand’s hardest hike; Photograph by Eric Liefer

Hour 4. This is a prison … of sandflies. The first of the three-wire bridges, one of 21 that punctuate the route, is reached. These hastily built structures are quite simple: a half inch wire for your feet, and one for each hand. They test not only one’s balance but your nerve and tolerance of heights as well as they float high above countless creeks.

Hour 10. A steep climb up to Lake Roe Hut ends the first day, as the weather begins to turn. The first drops of rain begin to fall as I seek shelter in one of the many huts that are available to trampers, a particularly nice luxury in a world otherwise completely void of anything comfortable. The rain and I shall get to know each other quite well in the coming days.

Hour 24. Day 2 begins with a push up Pleasant Ridge; a serious misnomer as 80-kilometer winds project rain at a 90-degree trajectory to an unwelcomed collision with my face. At least the sandflies have temporarily returned from the depths of hell from whence they came, though my current state of affairs is hardly an improvement.

Hour 30. After a particularly steep, wet, and muddy descent off the ridge the Seaforth River is reached. This is a major obstacle of the route and can severely affect the next several days of travel. The rain is persistent, yet I find the river running low as I cross an expansive and precarious three wire bridge hanging twenty feet above the river. As the rain continues throughout the night I will soon awake to a very different reality, as the river rises substantially and begins to flood the bridge behind me.

Hour 46. The path ahead is no exception as the river has flooded much of the trail. Countless side creeks are forded and the river itself navigated as I try to avoid submerging myself above my chest. My level of saturation soon reaches a stage I previously deemed to be impossible as every square inch of my body is coated in some form of fluid. Sweat, rain, blood, tears, and other unmentionables occupy every pore and orifice. The day continues on as I fight my way up to Gair Lake and the Kintail Hut. The lake has turned the “trail” into a mix of mud and brush, sorrow and woe, lost causes and drowned hopes as I seek shelter from the storm. I begin to worship dryness like a deity.

Hour 72. I remove myself by force from my sleeping bag, which has become the last frontier of any hopes of warmth and dryness in this cruel and excessively wet world I have chosen to include myself in. My trekking poles are now used for checking the depth of the mud swamps, my hat keeps the rain off my face, sun glasses protect my eyes from stray sticks. My camera becomes the official documenter of agony, and the GPS now tracks my proximity to freedom.

Hour 76. I have finally gone mad. I’m rather surprised it took this long really. I succumb to my encumbered existence, and in what is surely a delirious realization, I begin to enjoy it. I suddenly find satisfaction in the suffering. For what is greater than being embraced by the very element which keeps one alive? To breath it in deeply with every inhalation, to observe it creep its way down the bark of a the Beech Trees, to watch it drip from the tips of a Tree Fern, in precisely the same manner as it does down my own skin? And to see the immediate result of such a moist and maddening world, waterfalls like the walls of Rivendale, ferns that tower twenty feet above you, moss that grows three-feet thick, and so many shades of green that it redefines the very tone? Madness, it seems, is a remarkable attribute.

Hour 80. The rain turns to snow. The trail has turned into a steep scramble up the southern flank of Mount Memphis as the temperature begins to drop as I push to Centre Pass, barely visible in the distance as conditions deteriorate as I gain elevation. I continue to push toward the pass and dare not to stop. For the first time on the track my life is in immediate danger as even a minor injury would likely lead to hypothermia, my clothes soaking wet from the previous 60 hours of rain. The snow is up to my knees as gain the pass and carefully descend down the other side. My feet and hands are numb as I don’t stop hiking until the evening, and the final hut is reached. I find it occupied by two locals and a lone American, the fire blazing inside.

Hour 99. The final 12 kilometers are a cakewalk in relative terms, a flat, muddy walk to freedom. It has now been raining for 88 hours and does not relent until I catch the final boat ride across Lake Manapouri. The sun hits my eyes as we dock and I feel like a prisoner escaping from a cell, laying for an hour with my back on the ground, limbs spread open, soaking in the sun like a leaf. Yet as my clothes begin to dry it is a bittersweet departure; my mind quickly turns its attention to normal and trivial things such as money, cell phones, Facebook, work, time commitments and other thoughts of a functional mind. Bittersweet indeed. For with the moisture, it seems, goes the madness.


  1. Corinne Jordan
    May 29, 2014, 10:45 pm

    Take me with you…

  2. Corinne Jordan
    May 30, 2014, 5:47 pm

    No seriously, I’m very handy. I can campfire cook, paddle (and my specialty just so happens to be cheap paddles), play the harmonica, traverse dangerous terrain while burdened with a heavy pack, and suck venom from snake bites. I would really like to see moss that is three feet thick and in so many shades of green that it redefines the tone…

  3. Scott Henre
    Can not be found
    July 1, 2014, 8:34 pm

    Corinne Jordan, if you go backpacking you are suppose to cook on a portable stove, kayaking is better, can you climb too, and you are suppose to hike with lightweight gear that is actually stronger than cheap gear that is heavy! I can go 5 days with 16 pounds of gear, which includes $1,800 for my DSLR camera and lens. I can also take care of serious wounds, and I can scare off a bear or kill a wild pig.

  4. Annapurna base camp trkking
    July 23, 2014, 11:55 pm

    Experience and helpful guide”

    I met Sanjib during my last year hiking trip to Annapurna Base Camp. He was my guide for 12 days; he was very knowledgeable and organized. Our trip was affected by the bad weather but we managed to enjoy ourselves out of the bad condition. He has now working independent; I will definitely recommend him as he knows the inside out of the trek in Nepal as a guide, a porter or an organize /

  5. Ian Fox
    July 28, 2014, 4:54 am

    No disrespect, as this is not an easy trail, but it’s nothing compared to going off-trail in Fiordland – you can lose a friend by walking a couple of metres from them. Anywhere there is staggeringly beautiful though, even simply looking away from the roadside carparks! Anyway, there are neither bears nor snakes nor scorpions in New Zealand so you can wander about anywhere and the only things to kill you are your own mistakes or the occasional poisonous plant 🙂

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    Sembalun Lawang
    April 16, 2016, 2:09 am

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  7. Nepalplanet Treks
    June 2, 2016, 6:36 am

    “Annapurna circuit with Nepal Planet Treks”
    During my two months in Nepal I wanted to visit Chitwan National Park. I stayed in NepalayaHotel in Thamel, Kathmandu and got in contact with NJ, the owner of Nepal Planet Treks. He informed me about the possibilities and do’s and don’ts. After booking I had a wonderful experience in the National Park. Everything was arranged carefully from the beginning until end of the trip.
    Back in Kathmandu, I decided to also book my trekking with NJ, because the good experience in Chitwan. I wanted to walk the Annapurna circuit. NJ explained me about the trekking; the gear needed, the risks, the ins and outs and I was confident to go! He arranged a guide/porter and also a (very warm, thank you!) sleeping back and some walking sticks. I wished to do the trekking in a group, but when this was not possible, I decided to go alone with the guide/porter. In advance I was a little bit worried about spending almost three weeks with one person, but this was not necessary at all, we met a lot of other people on the way and had very much fun. I did the trekking with Sanjib as my guide/porter. A polite, very kind, warm, responsible and also very funny person. He managed to give me enough space and let me have my own experience, but was always there when I wanted to ask something and took care when I needed something. Back in Kathmandu, when his job was already finished, Sanjib was still involved and so kind to show me some beautiful places. My experience with Nepal Planet Treks was great! I can recommend everyone who wants to receive some help with organizing their trips in Nepal to go talk to NJ. He has very experienced and kind people working for him. They do not only know a lot about Nepal, its culture and nature, but also express that they love their job and are driven to give tourists the best experience. Thank you NJ and Sanjib ! I wish you all the best!