Sometime in January Bill said he wouldn’t mind doing a track like the Dusky track. I was kicking around for ideas for a 12 day trip and it immediately occurred to me that the Dusky would be perfect as its suggested length was 8-10 days. With the time required to get to the track it was a ready-made fit. If only it is were that simple.
The cheapest way to complete the entire track involves getting a boat across Lake Hauroko, completing the alpine crossing of the Pleasant Range, taking a day trip to Supper Cove and then returning via Lake Manapouri. The Lake Hauroko boat runs two times a week meaning that timing is critical. As it turns out my Tuesday flight coincides nicely with the scheduled Thursday morning departure. In order to get back to Dunedin by the following Thursday I will need to complete two legs in the one day and have outstanding weather. I target the first day when the minimum times given are four and three hours. If I push it I can reach the alpine area of Lake Roe on the first night and continue from there.
I am up until 2am packing, searching with increasing frustration for my annual hut pass. I forget to pack a cup for the trip but end up travelling with two torches, two gas canisters, food packs for two people, many pairs of socks, two walking sticks, a tripod for the camera, a lighter as well as matches and 70+ sunblock. With Fiordland in February sunset isn’t until about 8.30pm and it doesn’t really get dark until 9.30pm. I find myself carrying an oversupply of candles, reading material and wet weather gear.
The thoroughness of this preparation isn’t immediately apparent when I arrive in Dunedin. After declaring my boots and food I’d delayed by Customs. Sure, I had an uneaten cheese sandwich in my pack but it seems that the dried pack food I’d bought on sale in Australia may be my undoing until it is pointed out that it was made in New Zealand. The real trials begin once we arrive in town. On my previous excursion I’d called up a backpackers who offered me a four bed bunk room at a single room price. How hard could it be, I thought. That had been April and most likely the mid semester break.
The end of February is the start of the university year and it is orientation week. There are thousands of students and their families booking out accommodation. I learn this after trying my second backpackers. They simply tell me they don’t think I’ll find accommodation at this time of the year. It’s a slap in the face.
After going through ten establishments I begin to feel a tinge of desperation. I am offered a glimmer of hope by a doddering fool at one hotel who has a couple of unclaimed rooms. He wants me to give him a contact number but I don’t have one and I tell him I’ll ring back at 6pm when he tells me he will re-let the room.
This gives me an hour to wait and I make my way to the local church grounds where there are some welcoming benches. The church itself is typical of Dunedin’s architecture, all spires, beautiful lines and a calming sense of proportion. Do I still have the option of getting out of town? The intercity timetable suggests I do, in the form of 5.15 bus to Invercargill. It is 5 past the hour and this gives me ten minutes to present myself at the Octagon.
There is no sign of a bus and I don’t know how to go about conjuring one. And so I find myself trudging back to the church grounds. I wait and at 6 o’clock make the call, fully expecting to get what is coming to me. This time I speak to a woman who tells me the man I had spoken to is no longer there, there are no rooms, they have all been given away. I give her my name and suggest one may have been kept in my name and she tells me to hold on and then cold cocks me by way of hanging up. I’m not impressed and ring straight back. I mightn’t get a room but I will get an apology. And there it is, three hours after arrival and not even close to a room, with options running out.
I consider somehow getting to satellite towns or quite possibly the peninsula. There has to be a better way. In the meantime public facilities have to be found. I make my way once more to the Octagon. The Information Centre is now closed but they do at least have a booklet relating to accommodation and there is a sign pointing to facilities. Unburdened I am able to focus on what I am trying to do. It is time to go upmarket. This means paying $70 for a room in a central hotel. I could have saved myself a hell of a lot of hassle if I hadn’t been so “spontaneous” in my lack of planning.
Opportunities have been lost. A performance of “The Blue Room”, a saucy play involving a modicum of steamy nudity was scheduled for 6 o’clock on Tuesdays. I have missed it. I vow to get back to Dunedin next Wednesday night so I can see it. There are some positives, a one day cricket match on the radio, a television in the room, the opportunity to unwind. The room phone isn’t working so I venture out to a public phone and book my transport and accommodation for the following day. Again I am taking a chance, booking for Manapouri when the transport will only take me to Te Anau. There was a 20km distance between the towns but I figure I’ll be able to find some way of bridging them. I want to go bush walking in Manapouri that afternoon and I’m not going to let practicalities get in the way.
The streets are awash with students wearing togas on their way to a party. Earlier in the day they had taken part in a Scarfies’ parade, Scarfy being the local term for a student. The phonetic associations of the term seemed to link them to Wharfies or brickies and gave them allure they didn’t have anywhere else. But it was like the city claiming them and giving them a role. In Dunedin students are big business.
I venture towards the foothills but don’t get far before returning to the main street. In my scruffy, creased trousers and scuffed up, worn down sand shoes I feel more like an impoverished student than the eighteen-year-olds striding confidently about in their white sheets. I venture into a Sportsman’s bar to see that the cricket match was all but over and after failing to get service slink back out. I scurry into a McDonald’s to see that they were still selling Salad burgers and Banana shakes but walk out again. On seeing my furtive glance I imagine the blue stocking in the off the shoulder sheet saying that I am too old to be in here.
I take solace in the supermarket lining up a Dusky Track’s worth of food, nuts and berries, chocolate powder, breakfast cereal, powdered milk, muesli bars, emergency noodles, cookies and a couple of treats for tonight. I visit the pizza shop I had been to 2 years before for a vegetarian serving which I can take back to my room. The 2 hour repeat of the cricket is on television and it turns out to be a very palatable way to turn 7 hours of a highly predictable match into something watchable. I am all set.
I’ve never stayed in a hotel before. I understand breakfast to be free, a small bonus for the exorbitant charges. I stride to the obvious help yourself area and take a small bowl of cereal. The girl behind the counter is obviously startled and asks me for my room number. I give it to her and she asks me for my order. I tell her I will just be having the cereal. The older manager looks at me, looks at her staff member and says “That’s the order”. By now I sense I have breached protocol and take a seat with my cereal. There is no point trying to retrieve the situation so after a brief moment of panic I commence eating and get out of there. Only then do I see the sign that says “Please wait to be seated”. Oh well, it won’t happen again. I gather my pack and stumble outside to be collected by the bus.
We are soon, uneventfully, in Te Anau. I ask to be dropped off at the DOC centre where I bought maps for the Dusky Track and consider how to pay for accommodation. Eventually I opt for the Annual Pass. The DOC worker asks me if I knew what I was getting myself into and I look somewhat sheepish and say “sort of”. She advises me to take a radio and a lot of wet weather gear. Doesn’t mention garters though which would have been more useful. This left a handful of matters to attend to. The first of these is to buy gas for my cooker from a camping store. There is one of these on the main street and I notice that they also sell the dehydrated meals I have transported from Sydney. It seems to me they are selling them at a cheaper price. To ameliorate the sense of frustration I purchase the apricot crumble. I replace the cup I have forgotten to bring. I think I now have everything.
How to get to Manapouri is my next task. I could have hitched there in 30 minutes or found myself standing on the road at nightfall cursing. Tracknet offers to take me there for $35, somewhat less than value for money for a twenty minute trip. Travel Fiordland can do me a $6 job if I am prepared to wait until 4 o’clock. I am. I spend the time sitting in the park reading the fantasy novel I have brought to read in the enchanted forests. In between times I try out the tripod I had bought for my brother’s camera and try to fathom how the timing device works. I get it to play the tune but can’t get it to take the photo. And then it comes together and I have myself a shot of the trees in the park. At 3.45pm I have a sinking feeling of panic as I can’t remember if I have been told to be at the centre at a quarter to four or quarter past. I seem to remember quarter past but this doesn’t make sense. I’m not prepared to take chances and five minutes later the bus driver arrives, a busy, weather beaten man not in the mood to waste time. He complements my choice of accommodation as there is a bar there. Sounds tempting.
I fall asleep on the trip and miss the first sighting of Lake Manapouri. Instead I get the full viewing, majestic, serene and unspoiled. Scenically it left the lakefront town of Te Anau for dead. It has been a bit of extra effort but I am a happy man. Everything is locked in. I’ve already booked both my transport links for the following day as I am determined not to repeat the Dunedin stuff up. Nothing can go wrong now. I proceed to the booking office and give my name. The attendant scans the list and announces indifferently that I’m not on it. She asks me what priced room I had been quoted. I hadn’t been quoted anything, I assumed I would be getting a $20 room but I hadn’t specifically asked for it. She begins to check for elsewhere for an indication of my booking when I scan the list from my upside position and see my name. Ah yes. “That will be $50 thanks”. What the hell, I think, I’m getting fleeced but I can afford it, trying to rationalise yet another stuff up.
I want to get to the walking tracks on the other side of the river. Time is getting short and after stripping down my backpack I am quickly on my way. At the general store I hire a pair of oars and am pointed in the general direction of the river to where the row boats are stored. I wonder what kind of scam I am getting into. The river will probably be a thigh high creek I think bitterly, recalling other entrepreneurial exaggerations I have encountered. Turns out the river is probably seventy to eighty metres across with a hefty tidal pull. The row across is straightforward once I work my way out of the tugging weeds and decide where to aim. There are three row boats already moored making it difficult to find a spot to park. I manage to finesse the bow into the jetty and scramble onto the dock and secured the rope. I am on my first track for the trip.
There aren’t too many options listed in the Manapouri Walks pamphlet which I’d owned for five or six years. The most obvious is the Circle Track which is listed as taking 3 hours and promises to offer various views from the lake shores and to provide vistas of Te Anau from on high. I press forward at quite a rate having been hopelessly caught out on this kind of seemingly innocuous day walk before. I didn’t want to find myself making a perilous descent in plunging darkness so employ rather stringent time keeping.
My first stop is a sandy beach which opens up nicely to Lake Manapouri and also offers some interesting cairns. It offers a good opportunity to examine the possibilities of the timing device on the camera and find myself sprinting along the beach to take my position before the shutter flashes down. And then I am off again, striding out through the pleasant forest, taking in the lush enclosure, occasionally glimpsing the watery expanse between the trees.
I am speeding through, intent on making good time over the forgiving mossy track when I look up to see a young woman slowly making her way over the uneven ground, the jutting logs, the gnarled tree roots, the dishevelled rocks. She is using a pair of supporting walking sticks and it occurs to me that I've seen her before, featured in an article in Wilderness about access to tracks for those with a walking disability. She and her brother had written a book reviewing New Zealand tracks and were doing a promotional interview.
She is concentrating on her own striving and appreciation of the quiet forest. Surprised to stumble by someone on the track I manage a startled “Hi” and she smiles and says hello in a light voice. She is wearing a light back pack but nothing substantial. West Arm Hut is another 2 and a half hours along the track and the light is fading. It occurs to me that she's not only undertaking the track she's taking in what would be useful to her readership. To her each walk is also a writing opportunity. Moments in time.
The views over the lake are good though the haze of setting sunlight makes it difficult to capture on film and blurs the lines between lakes and mountains. I am more interested in working with the camera tripod I have purchased and the timing function I have learnt to operate after five years. The first thing I learn is that great views from head height were often lost from the ground height of a camera on a tripod. Cliff edges, tree logs and rocks in clearings are indispensable tools. Getting the tripod to balance usually requires a bit of finesse but are successful nine times out of ten. There is a strap attached to the tripod which could wrap around posts or thin tree limbs although these tend to be unsteady assistants given to droop when trying to get the horizon through 90%.
And then there are the difficulties with sun when trying to set up the timed shot. An early attempt to take a photo of myself standing on the forested cliff face overlooking the islands in Lake Manapouri ultimately required settling for a tree set some way back from the drop and tucked behind the shade of one of the larger trees. The result is a vague sliver of the hazy islands in front of which stands my silhouetted form among the shadows and thin trees of the mossy precipice. It’s a good photo but not what I am hoping for.
Nonetheless I am ecstatic about the possibilities that the timing mechanism and the tripod open up. My brothers and I had been big fans of photographing the human figure in the landscape, usually favouring putting the figure in the mid-ground as a means of conveying scope. The New Zealand wilderness puts the photo fanatic in a playground. My biggest fear is that I will be in thrall to my surroundings and perpetually in danger of being enveloped by darkness, far from safety. As it turns out this doesn’t happen, mainly because darkness doesn’t fall until 9.30pm so I can afford to linger and stray, wandering contentedly among the scenery.
In my haste to escape the forest enchantment’s I haul in time. The descent from the lookout allegedly has panoramic views of Te Anau but these never eventuate and I dropped quickly to the forest floor, slightly unnerved by the agitated creaking of derelict stumps resting on more rooted trees. I get back to the boat in good time. Most of the other rowboats have departed, though there was an additional boat in moorings along with another boat that hadn't been there when I had arrived. When I had left the Manapouri shores some hours before I had noticed two youths watching me as if they too intended to get across. I took the boat with two life jackets to be a manifestation of that wish. The other boat with the single life jacket I attribute to the solitary walker I had stumbled upon before.
On the row back I am more preoccupied with playing with the timing device and the tripod on the camera than efficiently rowing the boat. I attempt to position the boat so that it points down river to the Lakehead but when the timer completes its circuit I'm not ready. It proves difficult to master in the strong tides and I end up taking photo after photo of blurred figures and obscured landscapes. The most farcical moment comes when both oars slip out of their holders and float away from the boat. I am able to grab onto one oar but the other seems to be on another current altogether from the boat and drifts away quickly. It takes a concerted effort to stroke the boat in its direction and pull the oar back into my reach. One photo captures the moment of the oarless boat and the clueless rower, certainly not a vanity photo.
By the time I have finished fooling around on the river it is close to nightfall, with the sun completing its setting. Given that it is close to 9 o’clock, the amount of light still available is quite remarkable. I take the opportunity to amble home trying to get a decent mountain silhouette and failing miserable. The store from which I’d hired the oars and lifejacket seems to be long closed and I deposit them behind the building.
When I get to my apartment I consider my eating options and decide I should got to the restaurant at the hotel. Mains start at about $16 and I decided against it. I wasn’t after a pretentious eating experience and opted to blow $2 for ten minutes of internet time. There aren’t any e-mails of interest but I do send out a laughable 2 minute e-mail to a friend in Brisbane.
Back in my apartment I settle for some dried food but fail miserably in my attempts to re-hydrate the tasteless cous cous meal and I glumly wonder if this will be the standard of food I will find myself chowing on the Dusky. It doesn't bode well.