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  • Writer's pictureTAMBLYN

the selfless wilderness

Updated: Apr 9, 2019

Why wilderness? Because we like the taste of freedom; because we like the smell of danger.

- Edward Abbey

There is bushwalking and then there is the Wilderness.

Leave off the trampers, day-hikers and five-star campers – and step out into the untamed Beyond; just you and Mother Nature, intertwined in one of the most primordial dances of Life; survival!

You and Nature. Five elements and the Self.

A delicate balance between agony and ecstasy.

Can one person ever be more closely connected to the greater cosmos than when one is exposed bare to the flux of life - out there, in the Wilderness…?

I can’t put my finger on exactly how, or why the Wilderness is so spiritually cleansing but I will attempt to relate the experience of one who is now a true believer in the power of Mother Earth.

A 7 day hike through the wilderness of Fiordland ( NZ ) earlier this year was perhaps the closest I have come to any sense of spiritual enlightenment – and I’ve been practicing Yoga for more than ten years!!

The Dusky Track is an 84 km trail that stumbles its way through the southern end on the Fiordland National Park in the South Island of New Zealand. All guide books I’d read prior to starting it (and there aren’t many ) suggested that this wilderness trail was not one for the feint-hearted.

Set in rugged, densely forested and ice-chiseled terrain, it crosses spectacular mountain ranges ( up to 1600 metres) and hanging valleys as it links the head of Lake Manapouri (in the north), via the Spey Valley, with the tributary of Lake Hauroko, (in the south). It can be crossed in either direction - A two day detour to Dusky Sound can also be attempted, given the right conditions…

And conditions are paramount to a safe, stimulating and superb wilderness adventure.

My adventure began on a dark, miserably cold and wet day, following on from a deluge of incessant rain – over 350 mm in less than 72 hours!! Far from ideal conditions!!

As I set out from the south to the start of the track on a chartered boat across Lake Hauroko, the ‘skipper’ quietly remarked that he had “never seen the water level so high”.

“Hope you’ve got more than just ya wellingtons ( gumboots ) with you. And plenty of food too. They had to chopper out two foreigners the other day – they were flooded in at Dusky Sound and had to live off dried biscuits for days.”

He went on to say that he was picking up a couple of trampers where he would drop us off; one of whom had broken his arm in a fall only a day in.

“You get into trouble in there and it’s a day or two from anyone finding you”, he said. “Let alone receiving any medical attention. If I was you, I’d wait for the rain to ease before you head out. Most of the track will be under water for now. But it ( the water ) can move through pretty quick – you might just have to sit by a swollen river for a bit til it eases…. Or swim across.”

Cold comfort for someone who was heading solo into the wilderness in terrifying conditions; cold, torrential rain, flooded rivers and little, if any, local knowledge. I’d previously done a wilderness walk in Tasmania and had even ventured to one of the ‘meccas’ of hiking, Patagonia. But this place, here and now, was far more nerve racking. The anticipation of what lay ahead and the regret for arriving in such horrid conditions led to a less than ideal ‘emotional balance’. And anyway, how do you ‘swim’ across a river carrying 20+ kgs on your back?

A quote from Joseph Conrad’s novel, ‘Heart Of Darkness’ continually leapt to mind:

"The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness."

At least I wouldn’t have to contend with fierce savages on the track like Martin Sheen did in Apocalypse Now. No, instead, I had to fight off the swarms of sandflies that intended (and most often succeeded) to prick the skin and drain your blood, and thus, leave you in fits of mid-night itching that led to the verbal cussing of everything within the realm of your demented imagination, including of course, a generous dose of self-pity.

I sat nervously in the boat, shooing away sandflies as the skipper navigated our way through the thick, damp fog and the masses of passing driftwood. Apparently sheer cliffs and the local mountains create a stunning backdrop to the crossing of Lake Hauroko – when one can see the sky, that is.

No tents are allowed on the Dusky Track. Shelter is to be found at various DOC huts along the track. Not certain that I would make it to a hut each night, I carried a bivvy in my pack, should I need to ‘rest’ by any swollen river crossings or, Heaven forbid, should I lose sight of the little orange triangles that intermittently marked the route.

“Only experienced and well equipped tramping parties should attempt the trip” my brochure / map read.

I had all the necessary gear to be warm, dry and sanitized for the week…. Or so I thought.

On the boat, 40 minutes in and not yet even having started walking, I was already trembling, soaked and full of low self-esteem.

“Suck it in”, I thought to myself. “Every journey starts with a single step. At least you don’t have to swim….. yet”.

When we did finally arrive at Hauroko Hut (the start of the track) we learnt that the broken-armed tramper had previously been choppered out. His sullen faced friends were there to greet us. We exchanged completely dispassionate glances as we crossed mid-leap between land and vessel.

It was late morning and my original plan had been to amble the 4 – 6 hours up to Halfway Hut and spend the first night nestled in the valley above Hauroko Burn. However, one learns to openly adapt and modify plans in the Wilderness. Especially when it comes to contending with adverse weather. Conditions can turn on the back of a kiwi pretty damn quick and without warning.

Despite the sandflies biting me in nether regions during trips to the outdoor bog, I passed a relatively uneventful afternoon and evening at Hauroko Hut, praying often for the storms to pass. A hunter and his son shared the hut with me that night.

I was grateful for the company.

Next morning it wasn’t raining! But it wasn’t clear either!

I had checked the DOC 4 day weather forecast prior to leaving the safe-haven town of Te Anau and was eager for the predicted on-coming High to hurry up and arrive.

Despite the track itself being under mid-shin deep water, I decided to ‘bite the bullet’ and start tramping. Boots, gaiters and socks were immediately plunged into the cold and very muddy waters. Traction stepping over logs and around muddy pits was nigh impossible. I had clear visions now of just how that tramper had broken his arm – slipping on the mossy fallen branches.

My peace of mind was already in flux – not just because of the unstable footing and dodgy weather but also due to the weight of my full pack.

“Surely it hadn’t felt this heavy 12 months ago in Tasmania?” I uttered to myself. “ Jeez, had it really been that long since I’d used it?”

( Talking to oneself is an absolute necessity out there, alone in the Wilderness. Hey, there’s no-one to hear your screams!! )

Some sections of Hauroko Burn were flooded and horrendously mud-pitted and took some imaginative course plotting to stay within sight of the track’s orange markers. My first wire-bridge crossing briefly lifted my appreciation of this adventure. Most of the time I was walking under a dense forest canopy and darkening dull skies.

6 hours later I arrived at the Halfway Hut a shell of my former, spritely, city-dwelling self. Shoulders aching, back burning and feet floundering, I managed to disrobe and sneak in a quick dip in the river to help re-invigorate myself. Sandfly bites to the backside I considered to be a reasonable trade off, given the circumstances. Cleanliness was after all, as close as ( I then thought ) I’d get to our mighty creator!!

I was alone at the hut and needless to say, I ate heartily and slept heavy, repeatedly dreaming of a break in the poor weather. I always find my mind unlocks several barriers to my subconscious on multi-day hikes.

The best dreams were yet to come!



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