Affordable Great Walk with hot showers? Try the Hump Ridge Track, writes Monique Perrin
There are many pleasures of doing a Great Walk, from challenging yourself physically to communing with nature. But, unless you're on a pricey private tour, ending the day with a well-earned beer and a hot shower usually isn't one of them. Southland's Hump Ridge Track, however, is not like most Great Walks. It fills a gap for independent walkers, offering a remote wilderness experience with some welcome creature comforts.
"It's pretty nice at the end of the day, especially after a day of hard hiking," says Kim Mackay-Wallace from Cromwell, who walked the track in early November. "You've just climbed this massive hill and then you get there and there's a super-king bed with a down duvet and a hot shower."
The three-day, 61km loop trail winds over the sub-alpine Hump Ridge in the Waitutu Forest and traverses the very edge of the south coast along the beaches of Te Waewae Bay, 21km south of Tuatapere and 120km south of Te Anau.
The track's sweeping vistas and fern-lined rainforest walkways are easily equal to the best of the Great Walks, says Mackay-Wallace, who has completed six of them. "The views from the top are amazing, you can see across to Stewart Island and the whole coastline. It's quite unique and there's a lot of variety because you have the alpine views and then the beech forest and the coast, and there were dolphins on both the first and the third day for us."
The Hump Ridge Track will become the 11th official Great Walk in 2022, with a new lodge under construction at the Francis Burn viaduct, which will extend it from three to four days. In the meantime, the walk is done over three quite demanding days, with 19km or 20km to cover on each one. On the first day, there's a solid 6.5km climb up to Okaka Lodge to contend with, the second day is downhill to Port Craig Lodge on the coast, and the third is a fairly easy day traversing the coast.
"The first day, fitness-wise, is the toughest because there's a really big climb and 3km of it is quite steep, so you're huffing and puffing up the hill," says Mackay-Wallace. "And then the second day is a bit harder on the knees because there's a lot of downhill, but both really nice days. And the third day is just gently undulating so it's quite a nice way to finish."
The trick is to pack light, says Cedric Wedderburn, General Manager of the organisation that runs the Hump Ridge Track. "You don't need to take too much because the lodges offer a lot of stuff. You can buy your food there, for example. You don't have to carry it in with you. The fact that you can get a cold beer and a glass of wine in the evening too makes a big difference. And we give everyone a nice big bowl of creamy oats porridge for breakfast to get them going in the morning."
While Fiordland's Great Walks to the north, such as the Milford and Kepler, are becoming more popular – and crowded – every year, one of the drawcards of the Hump Ridge Track is its low numbers of trampers.
"On the trail itself you pretty much don't see anyone all day, except for maybe at the lunch shelters, so you get the whole wilderness effect without crowds on the trails," says Mackay-Wallace. "It feels a lot quieter than the Great Walks, especially since there are not really day hikers."
Wedderburn agrees, "Our punch line is more wilderness, less people."
The track, which opened in 2001, is a labour of love of the Tuatapere community. They built the track after the native timber industry was shut down in the area in the late 1980s. The community raised $3 million for the project.
"It's tremendous for them, it's so encouraging because it took a long time for it to actually become viable and sustainable," says Wedderburn. "There have been about 70,000 man hours put into building the track, and that's all voluntary."
The track crosses three massive viaducts, including the impressive Percy Burn Viaduct, the largest surviving wooden viaduct in the world. It winds through forests of rimu, miro and tree ferns, with sections of silver beech, podocarp and yellow-silver pine. There's abundant birdlife to spot, including kea, kākā, bellbirds, fantails, grey warblers and South Island robins, as well as Hector's dolphins playing in Waewae Bay. But the true highlight is reaching the top of the Hump Ridge range on day one, with its atmospheric limestone tors backed by sweeping views of Fiordland, Stewart Island (Rakiura) and the Southern Ocean.
The Hump Ridge Track is now the only private trail on national park land in New Zealand. There are a number of options for the walk, from a freedom walk (from $245) staying in dorms through to an all-inclusive guided walk ($1745) staying in double rooms, with three-course meals and heli transfers, as well as options in between. Freedom walkers can hire bedding ($20), upgrade to a room ($100), get their packs transferred up the steepest hill ($100) or purchase hot showers ($20 with towel provided).
Everyone can access the bar and shop; the bestsellers for dinner are the famous Tuatapere sausages with peas, mash and gravy, though dehydrated meals are also available, including veggie options.
Unlike DOC-run Great Walks, the Hump Ridge Track can be booked at any time, in fact, you can book now for the 2022 season when the trail opens as a Great Walk.
Wedderburn's tip for the best time to go is February to April, which offers the most stable weather in this notoriously unpredictable part of the world. Winter season walks can be arranged (when the track reverts to basic facilities), and the trail can be extended to Big River along the South Coast Track. There are also options for shorter walks combined with jet boating and 4WD transfers.
CHECKLIST: HUMP RIDGE TRACK
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