By Michael Lanza
We step out of the Lake Roe Hut into a persistent drizzle, deep in what may be the most dishonestly named mountains in the world—the Pleasant Range in New Zealand’s chronically soggy Fiordland National Park. Belligerent gusts hurl cups of water into our faces. By the time my friend, Jeff, and I have taken our first 50 steps on the Dusky Track, we have both sunk knee-deep a dozen or more times into some of the heaviest, gloppiest, boot-suckingest mud that I have ever mired a leg in.
Garbed head to toe in rain shells, gaiters, gloves, and waterproof, leather boots, we hike across an almost treeless landscape, the “trail,” such as it is, intermittently fading into a sea of knee-high grass. Boggy tussock masquerades as earth, but the ground seems more liquid than solid: Excavate and wring out a cubic meter of it, and I’d bet my wide-brim, Gore-Tex hat you could fill a bathtub. Our mode of travel falls somewhere between walking on water and wading through land.
We claw up a crazily steep hillside of rain-slicked grass and stop in our ankle-deep-in-mud tracks. The view makes me briefly forget the brackish mix of raindrops and sweat dripping from my nose.
Jeff Wilhelm hiking the Dusky Track in the Pleasant Range in Fiordland National Park.
Before us sprawls a mystical, heaving plateau dappled with scores of tiny tarns and a few bigger lakes. Emerald fingers of land snake between the watery pearls. The plateau’s sawed-off edges fall away abruptly into abyssal, glacier-carved valleys and fjords that stretch for miles to the South Pacific. In all directions, dark mountains loom in and out of the fog, their flanks at once so vertiginous and lush with rainforest that they appear to have gotten a waiver from gravity. It’s absolutely quiet, except for the haunting moans of the wind and the explosive farting sound our boots make each time we pry them from another calf-deep quagmire.
A shaft of sunlight pierces the bruised heavens, throwing a golden beam onto the valley below us. Then the cloud cover slams the celestial window shut so abruptly I’m left wondering whether I hallucinated it. In Fiordland, sunshine is like a mirage: Believing in it can drive a person mad.
Before we descend the other side of the hill, I turn around for a last look back toward the Lake Roe Hut—and see that in the strenuous and sloppy first 45 minutes of our trek, we have covered about a quarter-mile.
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