As a relatively obscure song alludes to in its opening lines: “Passing seasons all but fade away into misty clouds of autumn grey,” so in Southland, seasons change rapidly as I was about to find out.
The weather gods were on our side and the morning mist was soon burning off as we started hiking the Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track. The track is administered by a private trust that offers trampers a three-day hike staying two nights enroute in their private backcountry lodges.
My accommodation for the night before the trip was at the amusingly named, The Wicked Dump near the Hump. This is just outside of Tuatapere, the closest town to the start of the track, on a small rural block where an old dairy shed has been converted into a lovely one bedroom, self-contained cottage. It’s a great place to drink a glass of chardonnay on sunset as the owner’s sheep graze in the next paddock.
The first part of this journey was a four-minute chopper ride to an isolated spot on the coast near Flat Creek. This in effect reduces the track distance by 10 km. Interestingly about 85 percent of hikers who attempt the track are for the most part Kiwis. Our group consisted of a couple from Tauranga, Lyn and Malcolm and Errol from Dunedin as well as our guide Liz from the West Coast.
Our first day’s ascent was only 12 km but it was the last five kilometres that would test our stamina and ability to climb from sea level to 1,014 metres at the very top – literally a ‘stairway to heaven.’
This is an area with more wilderness and less people than you’ll find on other tramping routes in New Zealand – it’s that remote. From the shoreline of unspoilt beaches we walked along the track experiencing the diversity of our beautiful native bush as it changes dramatically with elevation gain from native podocarp forest to soaring limestone ‘tors’ on the mountaintop.
The first couple of hours from Flat Creek are across a fairly level forest track where the sun filtered through the dense canopy into even denser undergrowth. Then the track started getting steeper as our group of five climbed slowly to our first rest stop at Water Bridge. As the name suggests it’s a good place to refill your water bottles by slinging an old billy-pan into the clear stream below and hauling it back up to the bridge with the attached rope.
From now on it was all uphill to our next rest spot, Stag Point where our lunch was consumed looking out over the Southern Ocean. It’s here you suddenly realise how much wilderness you’ve tramped through as the forest below is laid out like a giant jade green carpet stretching to the ocean.
Finally we reached the summit where a wooden walkway loops around a landscape of alpine plants such as the Mount Cook Daisy and giant ‘tors’ with views at one point extending west out over the beauty that is Fiordland National Park.
Dinner at Okaka Lodge was sumptuous. Starters were garlic and chili prawns on a fragrant bed of shaved cucumber and coriander, followed by a ribeye steak with blackcurrant and onion glaze and kumara mash with seasonal green vegetables. For dessert we were offered the most sinful chocolate mousse ever served! This really was heaven.
The start of another day . . . it was 8.40 am. From the warmth of Okaka Lodge it was time to head along the Hump Ridge itself to a spot known as Luncheon Rock, a slab of stone that juts out into thin air off the ridge. However during the night it had rained heavily and we woke to fine misty rain and winds blowing at what felt like gale force. Liz our tour guide blurted out, “It’s a claggy sort of day isn’t it, you can’t see bugger all really.” How right she was. Everyone donned thermal layers, leggings, gaiters, beanie-hats and rain jackets – weather in this part of New Zealand can change dramatically in minutes, so carrying all-weather gear is encouraged even in summer.
Once we reached Luncheon Rock it was downhill all the way . . . over 3,000 steps or more it was later divulged. The boardwalks and steps are all handmade especially on the steeper sections but more so in places where the fragile alpine environment needs protecting.
Emerging from the track we found ourselves on an old bush tramline. The single line ran from Port Craig (once known as Mussel Beach) to the Wairaurahiri River for 14.6 km where a steam locomotive once hauled logs from the bush workings to the new sawmill that had been established in 1916.
Walking this section gives you the opportunity to cross the historic wooden Edwin Burn Viaduct and the Sand Hill Viaduct. Unfortunately DOC have closed access to the largest viaduct in the Southern Hemisphere, the Percy Burn Viaduct which is 35 metres high and 125 metres long, as they deem the structure to be too dangerous. (Since writing this there is new funding in place to strengthen the whole structure and to reopen it in the future)
Sadly the original owners of the Port Craig sawmill and operations had under-estimated the cost of working in such an isolated region and over-estimated the volume of timber that could be extracted. By 1928 with the approach of the Great Depression a decision to close the mill and the tramline was inevitable.
Today all that remains is an old school house (now a DOC hut), the walls of the old Boiler House and relics of a bygone era strewn around the area. This is also where the Port Craig Lodge is situated and after hiking 20 km that day it was a welcome sight for our weary group.
Accompanied by bottle of Otago red, what Lynda described as, “Lunatic Soup,” dinner at the lodge was whitebait fritters for the entree, smoked salmon with a sweet chilli and citrus salsa with citrus and poppy seed rice and seasonal green salad for the main and a pavlova nest with fresh whipped cream and central Otago summer fruits . . . not a bad way to end a 20 km day I reckon.
On day three we departed at 9.15 am along the coastal track from Port Craig, ‘the timber town that pushed boundaries’ heading for Blowholes Beach, which by the way, no longer blows.
Breakfast that morning had been bacon and scrambled eggs, what Malcolm referred to as, “Crackle Berries.” However when there was some left over bacon, Lynda the lodge manager proffered it to Malcolm who gladly accepted it. Sliding the rashers onto his plate she said, “Here you go, a heart attack on a plate.”
Immediately we were under a dense canopy where light hardly penetrated, stepping over corduroy pungas in muddy patches as we slowly made our way back to Flat Creek. The trail was through more podocarp forests of rata, red and white pine hanging like an umbrella above a shag pile floor of ferns, unidentified plants, epiphytes, moss, lichen, vines, decaying trees, bamboo orchids and even a small Prince Charles fern (so named as it’s considered flouncy – go figure). Bouncing over wooden bridges spanning bourbon-stained streams, uphill over and around headlands towards Track Burn, and onto Stony Creek and then finally across the swing bridge that straddles the Waikoau River where a couple of whitebait fisherman had left nets out.
Smack on 4.00 pm we arrived at the end of the Hump Ridge Track at the Rarakau car park. My neck and shoulders ached, one of my knees felt like a hot skewer was passing through the joint as I climbed the last few steps. My left foot was in pain with a bloodied toenail and I could’ve killed a cold beer and soaked my body in a hot tub right there and then – but all that would have to wait.
These are just a few of the things you should expect after hiking 52 km in three days. But make no mistake as I dragged my aching limbs, tired muscles and sore body for 17 km on that last day, I wouldn’t have missed, ‘Hiking the ‘Hump’ for all the whitebait in Southland.
Blog courtesy of Shane Boocock - Editor Let's Travel