Southland: Hoofing it on Hump Ridge

By Pamela Wade

The legs get a workout while the eyes are dazzled by the view on this lushly-forested Southland track, writes a weary but astounded Pamela Wade.
The boardwalk stretches enticingly downhill on the Hump Ridge Track in Southland.
The boardwalk stretches enticingly downhill on the Hump Ridge Track in Southland.

Standing high on a bare rock, we watch a distant helicopter buzz along where the bush meets the blue sparkle of Te Waewae Bay.

There's something immensely satisfying in the knowledge that it's the only engine we'll hear today - and, further, that inside the chopper are our bags, left this morning at Okaka Lodge, and which we'll see next on the veranda at the Port Craig Village lodge this afternoon.

Carrying only a small day pack is one of the many good things about taking the guided option on the three-day Hump Ridge Track in Southland. Others are the comfort of hot showers, soft furniture, private bedrooms and excellent food at the two lodges, the head-start chopper hop over the bay on the first day, and the minibus shuttle at each end.

Best of all, though, is the company and commentary of the guides: for us, enthusiastic Liz ("Well done! You're a third of the way up The Grunt!") and reassuring Ray ("I use my stick to push myself up and to ease myself down").

There's no getting past the fact that the first day is a challenge: deposited on the hillside above the beach, ahead of us lie 12km climbing up to almost 1000m, most of it along a track that picks its way around tree roots and over rocks.

To begin with, though, we're reassured by a well-made path and long sections of civilised boardwalk that allow us to enjoy the ferns and orchids, rimu and beech, the birdsong and a perfect day.

Lunch marks the end of the easy part. For the next four hours or so, we grind upwards through bush increasingly wind-bent and stunted by the altitude.

Moss and lichen hang from branches in this goblin forest, framing occasional glimpses of the sea, now far below. We measure the distance in numbered stoat traps, and are distracted by stories from Liz and Ray about the history of this loop track, built by a community trust to bring employment to the area after sawmills were closed.

Finally, we emerge on the top, to a chilly mist that has us scuttling along the chicanes of a boardwalk into the welcoming light and warmth of Okaka Lodge, tucked under the ridge with, we're assured, fine views back towards the bay and Tuatapere. There's no chance of checking that this evening, but we go to bed full of hope.

Photos: The Hump Ridge Track

As in all the best stories, we wake to a clear blue sky and, from the nearby summit, a 360-degree panorama of peaks and valleys from Fiordland through Southland all the way to the distant mound of Stewart Island.

Even more spectacular is the foreground: the weather-sculpted tors whose grotesque shapes, honey-glazed by the low sun, are perfectly reflected in the alpine tarns at their feet. It's stunningly beautiful and is followed by a series of other sights as we trail mostly downhill for the rest of the day.

There's the fresh green of the filmy ferns setting off deep red rimu trunks, the artistically-arranged moss gardens over which the blessed boardwalk seems to float, and the sea of crown ferns spotlit by shafts of sun piercing the canopy of totara and miro.

These trees are the reason the rest of the day is less demanding. About a century ago, Daniel Reese and John Craig decided that Waitutu Forest was a timber goldmine, building at great expense, and with even greater labour, 14km of tramway to haul logs out to the coast.

It was a monumental effort, but supply and demand didn't live up to expectation and, by 1930, the bush was silent again. All that remains are rusting artefacts, the level track we follow so gratefully, and three wooden viaducts - simply astonishing in their scale and construction.

The biggest, at Percy Burn, is 125m long and 36m above the river, a marvel of timber triangles in this remote spot where we stop for our second lunch.

This is an even longer day, 20km, but the easy walking along the tramway makes it less of a burden, and there are distractions: a wild pig rooting through the bush, irritated by the flock of twittering fantails following him for the insects he disturbs; cheeky robins using us for the same purpose; and, when we finally reach the Port Craig Village lodge, right on the coast, a yellow-eyed penguin on the rocks and a glimpse of Hector's dolphins in the bay.

Fittingly, given our location back at sea level, our dinner is delicious hot-smoked Stewart Island salmon, and it's a jolly evening as everyone takes heart from the briefing on tomorrow's walk: bush and beach.

In the morning, though, one tramper's knee has seized up, and once more we're glad of the helicopter as she's whisked away, leaving us to amble through the bird-filled bush, spotting kaka and bellbirds.

We emerge on the beach, the sea bright blue, and take real pleasure in walking on a hard, smooth surface. Behind us, we can see Hump Ridge and the distant spikes of the tors at the very top; and we're proud to have walked all the way up there, and back down again.

Sitting on weathered driftwood logs for our last lunch, no one's in a hurry to leave. Ray, who's turned out to be a real character, performs some Stanley Holloway routines for our amusement.

We stretch, breathe deeply, watch the waves and the sudden rush of helicopter traffic ferrying hunters into the bush for The Roar. We perform a Mexican wave for one of them.

Then it's time to go: another flight of steps, another suspension bridge, more bush and beach, and here's a road, cribs, and Ali and Trish waiting for us with the minibus. Sadly, it's all over.

CHECKLIST

Details: For information on guided and independent tramps see humpridgetrack.co.nz.

Accommodation: Wicked Wee Dump Near the Hump is highly recommended, especially for its outdoor bath.

The writer was a guest on the Hump Ridge Track.

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