Tuatapere: The little town with a big backbone

By Andrew Stone

Walking the 55km Hump Ridge Track is like stepping back in time. Photo / Supplied
Walking the 55km Hump Ridge Track is like stepping back in time. Photo / Supplied

When 29 of Tuatapere's 30 sawmills closed in 1987 the Southland town was handed its death sentence.

Forestry was its lifeblood, and Labour's decision to end native logging was a hammer blow.

But southerners are a resilient breed. Rather than wailing, the community opted for survival.

They formed a trust, raised $2 million and built a track into the heart of their hinterland.

As word of this spreads, people are heading back to Tuatapere, gateway to the Hump Ridge Track and southwest Fiordland, a World Heritage area.

Taking its name from a single line of hills that climbs to a little more than 1000m above sea level, Hump Ridge forms the spine of a loop tramp that takes a grunty three days to complete.

The trail covers 55km and winds through a rich mix of untouched native forest, sub-alpine grasses and a slice of pioneer New Zealand. Ten kilometres are formed by boardwalks, which protect the forest floor from marching feet.

Unlike most other tracks, Hump Ridge is a privately managed operation. This journey offers hot showers, flushing loos, central Otago pinots - or Speights if you prefer - from the cellar, porridge for breakfast, double bedrooms if you crave privacy, and for $65 a helicopter to ferry your pack. It's tramping, but not as most know it.

First stop

Bobbie greets weary walkers at the end of a 19km slog to Okaka Hut, the first overnight stop on the track. Nestled below an exposed spur, the comfy modern lodge is a beacon of relief after a late-spring southerly blast. It is so cold that 100m above the lodge, ice has formed on the tarns beside a track that circles a striking collection of limestone tors.

Hump Ridge Trust boss Al King urges - in his rolling southern accent - everyone to see the tors before dropping down to the lodge.

It is tempting to ignore his advice and head for the hut. Big mistake. The tors are worth the detour: sentinels that speak of geological forces which played out here millions of years ago.

Helipack walkers arrive toting light day packs and smug expressions. "Terrific idea," says Neil, a 60-something Australian, who is tackling the Hump with his wife, Ann. The couple paid for a deal to get their packs flown to each stop. The helicopter does the donkey work and they soak up the walk.

Tonight everyone cooks their own food, but for guided parties Okaka's menu offers Southland lamb shanks or venison casserole, cooked in Tuatapere and dropped in by helicopters with gas bottles, provisions and the flying packs.

Early start

Day two starts with hot porridge at 7.30am. "Best start early," advises Bobbie. Ahead lies another 19km, mercifully mostly downhill to Port Craig, where the bush has reclaimed what was once a visionary timber-milling town. The track drops through stunted mountain beech and towering rimu, rata and totaras growing on ancient marine terraces that rise from Te Waewae Bay. Finally, the trail reaches the coast.

The forest clears to reveal a sturdy wooden viaduct spanning what Scots and Southlanders call a "burn", or stream. Built with Australian hardwood, the viaducts were constructed early last century to support the weight of loaded steam trains hauling logs. The daddy of the viaducts, the Percy Burn, built in 1925 and restored in 1994, is 125m long and a scary 36m high. It is said to be the world's highest surviving timber trestle bridge.

Rusting relics of the Port Craig mill lie in the bush near the lodge. A concrete toilet stall has resisted decay, and the iron base of a mighty 90-tonne steam-driven American log hauler hints at the scale of the enterprise. As you wander along a heritage trail, beside the brick walls of a boilerhouse and the charcoal ground under the blacksmith's forge, it takes just a little imagination to capture the spirit of this isolated settlement, where as many as 300 people once lived.

The Great Depression spelled an end to the timber town, and much of the mill was dismantled and shipped away before World War II. The Port Craig lodge has a collection of local histories to pore over.

Home stretch

The final leg is a 17km easygoing stretch which includes a couple of hours on Te Waewae beach. Hector's dolphins and even whales are frequent visitors in the bay, and on a warm Southland day, the water is tempting enough to lure some of our braver walkers in for a dip. All that remains of our journey is to sign out at the Hump Ridge HQ back in Tuatapere, the town that wouldn't die.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air NZ has regular flights to Invercargill. See airnz.co.nz.

Tramping: Hump Ridge is a three day, two night tramp in western Southland. The season is from late October until the end of April. Bookings are essential and many guided packages for this season are already full. See humpridgetrack.co.nz

Andrew Stone flew to Invercargill with Air New Zealand and was hosted by the Hump Ridge Trust. But he carried his own pack downhill.

- NZ Herald

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