Conquering the Hump Ridge Track

02:08, Mar 24 2015
Hump Ridge
ULTIMATE REWARD: The first day's 12-kilometre walk finishes with the Okaka loop track.

As a Londoner, albeit an outdoorsy one, my previous tramping experience has been limited to day-long ventures and weekend wanders in the Port Hills. But my 52-kilometre Hump Ridge Track gallivant is three days (two nights) in Fiordland National Park, so I feel obliged to pack everything but the kitchen sink.

This is no ordinary tramp. The Hump Ridge Track is privately owned by the Hump Ridge Charitable Trust and my forest frolic includes packed lunches, three-course meals, hot showers and comfortable beds.

Nevertheless, Fiordland strikes me as wilder territory, a weather battleground and a place of variety - thick green forests, alpine gardens, tors, tarns, ancient forestry, sand and stone beaches and even remnants of man's attempt to live in the vast wilderness at Port Craig.

Tuatapere, which is an hour from Invercargill, is the home to the Hump Ridge Track office and it's there I meet my guide and group at 8am one Friday. It's a mild day and, fortunately, the rain is expected to hold off. There are two women joining me, a Canadian and a New Zealander who has made the two-hour drive from Queenstown. We are led by guide Jenni Templeton, who is originally from Invercargill, but now lives in sleepy Tuatapere, which she confirms is the sausage capital of New Zealand.

The van delivers us to Rarakau car park. Other vehicles left by eager wilderness types are lined up. A group is push-starting a car down the gravel road, presumably awakening the engine after days of wandering the tracks.

As we wait by the "helipad" - a flat grassed area - for the chopper that will give us a jump start on day one, a puff-chested wood pigeon startles me, its huge wings beating in the blue air. Bags are loaded into the hold of the helicopter and we climb in, lifting off horizontally and drifting left, before taking off upwards. For a first-timer, it's unsettling, until I realise the ease with which the pilot navigates his vehicle - just like driving a car.

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Weaving along the coastline of Te Waewae Bay, on this clear day, I spy the outline of Stewart Island on the horizon and the patchwork sea below. We descend towards the bush. Wide eyes and sweaty palms respond to what I'm thinking. Yet, we land smoothly, and it's only when I'm told our short helicopter hop to Flat Creek has shaved 2.5 hours from our trek that I'm thankful for the scare.

The chopper takes off inland to today's destination, Okaka Lodge, with our packs. We're left with day bags stuffed with a supplied lunch and essentials in case the temperamental Fiordland weather changes.

Much of the first hours of the tramp are on boardwalk. In the past, the track was often too wet to navigate. I'm immersed in vivid flashes of green - dense bush, scattered with birds and alive with birdsong - sounds I'll become accustomed to in the next few days. But for now, every call is in sharp focus and when I attempt to record the sounds of the forest, the calls pause. It's a game the birds and I play for three days.

Lunch on this day is munched at the Water Bridge, which has a shelter and toilet facilities. Then we refill our water bottles. There isn't a tap. Instead, there's a metal pan tied to a rope and a stream below. The bucket is hoisted down and various techniques are tested before Jenni shows us the most effective method. Fresh, cool water surfaces and we replenish our supplies before the trudge up to Okaka Lodge. The day's 12-kilometre walk ends there at 970 metres above sea level.

The ascent starts; we wade through a green sea of foliage, with limited views through the forest of mountain beech trees. Some have fallen at the roots; others have toppled from the waist. Nature is a powerful landscaper at work.

Along the boardwalk, neat rows of plants pop up, looking like they've been trimmed to perfection in contrast to the tall canopy above; it's disorientating to be so small in a forest so large. Fortunately, orange markers guide our way.

We see nothing but trees and patches of blue sky until we climb above the canopy to Stag Point, complete with sign and matching stag skull. The view from here makes the hill scrambling, and grabbing at tree trunks and roots for support, worth it.

The bay comes into focus and the clear day reveals distant mountain ranges. The kaka swoops overhead, making its screeching call - a reminder of our visitor status.

From Stag Point, boardwalk staircases take over as we climb. We begin to get our first looks further north and west. Reaching the turn-off for Okaka Lodge, there's an optional extra loop, which is a must.

Moody grey tors jut from soft ground and it's difficult not to get swept up in the whimsy of it all. Looking to the south and east, we can see more of Stewart Island from this ridge. An information board points out Bluff, the Longwood Range, the Takitimu Mountains and Tuatapere township. The view from the other side, evoking a loud "wow" from our party, reveals the Cameron Mountains and Lake Poteriteri, on which light lands in cascades upon the water, a dull sun breaking through the clouds. The day's hike becomes cheap penance.

Nearby is Lake Hauroko, on which Mary Island sits. That evening, Jenni shares the story of Mary Island and the discovery of a Maori princess's remains.

Okaka Lodge is made up of several cabins, a communal kitchen and lounge area. Lodge manager Maramar "Ma", greets us with a cold drink, and presents a cake stand of goodies, hot drinks and a platter of fresh fruit.

Later, we indulge in a three-course meal, the highlight of which is the chocolate mousse. The store is open, too, and there is quite an impressive assortment of beer and wine from which to choose.

The visitor book reveals that trampers from all over the world have stayed here. Many are from Canterbury. A few readings of: "Fog. No view." make us realise our good fortune at having a clear day, especially when the next morning is similarly fine.

With fresh legs, we don our packs, including lunch, and set off for Port Craig. We'll traverse the Hump Ridge today, stopping at Luncheon Rock, where there's a toilet and shelter, for snacks and views. And we'll descend through a forest of mountain beech until we reach the viaducts and emerge at the old sawmilling town of Port Craig.

The morning starts brightly and I have thoughts to match. "Who needs an office job? This walking suits me. Perhaps I'll quit my day job and work as a guide or at least move to the bush. This is the best day."

The track is undulating along the ridge line before disappearing beneath the canopy and popping out among the beginnings of the old tram tracks, which once transported rimu trees from the forest to the port town. Wood was then shipped to Auckland and Australia, with Australian hardwood returned to Port Craig to build viaducts.

And then, with seven kilometres to go, the tide changes. The fantasies give way to a wave of fatigue, negativity, burning shoulders, aching feet and a pack that feels like it contains that kitchen sink. Taking a 30-minute break to gather stock would be the intelligent choice. Instead, I let something I call "bush delirium" take grip and, with the countdown on to reach Port Craig and a bunch of ominous clouds chasing my tail, I push on.

With 5km to go, I catch up to another group of trampers. They are sprawled on their backs and looking quite merry. We exchange pleasantries, mine summoned from the strongest part of my soul, and "joke" about it not being far to go.  

When they catch up and pass me while I'm on a horizontal water break, with my pack still attached to my back, we're all forced smiles.

When I reach Port Craig, the relief is tangible. My bag is thrown down and upon meeting the lodge manager, Sue, I could - but don't - cry. As I step into my room, the skies open and offer ample replacement for my tears.

It's amazing what a hot shower can do. The beauty of the sweeping sea view from the shower block is enough to silence the struggle of the past few hours.

Add the playful swooping of fantails, an overfriendly bush robin and the sweet song of the bellbird, and I have my antidote.

The private room is relatively sandfly free, my bed is comfy and the onslaught of good food - cheese board, smoked salmon and pavlova - and company, channels my thoughts towards staying in the retreat-like Port Craig for a few days. The beach is close and the surrounding bush is lively. There is even cellphone service and 3G. I cannot resist - I call my folks in London for a much-needed pep talk.

Sue tells me about a recent dolphin rescue when she returned a beached baby Hector's dolphin to the sea and, subsequently, to its mother. It had then jubilantly jumped out of the water. Although not mine, it's a story I've captured as my own and will never forget.

In the morning, after porridge, toast and fruit, I explore the village. There are remnants of old equipment - wheels, a boiler and the likes - left behind in the hurry to desert the village in 1937. Founder John Craig drowned at sea and the sawmilling town's driving force faded during the Depression. At the nearby beach, I imagine the Port Craig residents hurriedly loading their worldly possessions on boats at the wharf.

Day three of walking begins through the bush and within two hours on the track, I hit the glorious coastline at Blowholes Beach. It's difficult to comprehend that I've emerged from the rainforest, spat out on to an unrivalled beach.

We've missed high tide and as we make our way across the beach, we spot tracks in the scorched sand. There are a set of larger prints and smaller ones beside them, extending for a few kilometres.

We've missed the deer, but out to sea we catch the slick charcoal fin of a Hector's dolphin breaking through the choppy Foveaux Strait. Then another and another ... and the blisters on my feet are all but forgotten.

The track winds on and off the beaches until, with 5km to go, we hit stony beach for the home stretch. It's a brutal slog with rain falling hard and swampy sand swallowing our feet.

After a 200-step climb, the final 40 minutes is through forest. The countdown begins and our pace quickens.

When we rush through the final gate to an awaiting van, it's a mixture of relief, excitement and accomplishment. The shuttle's velour seats, which we had mocked, are now thrones and as predicted, we arrive through the office door doing the "Hump Ridge waddle".

A few days later, and it's the stories of emotional havoc and near breaking point I tell to friends for a laugh. But it's the scenery I remember with fervent fondness - the greens, the beaches and the birdsong.

On the taxi ride home from Christchurch airport, my driver delights in telling me I could have stayed home and seen the Fiordland views on television. Or next time take a donkey to carry my luggage. Fortunately, it was only the Hump Ridge Track I was walking, not Mt Kilimanjaro. Days later, I am already making plans to tackle the Milford Track.

Daisy's trip was hosted by Venture Southland Tourism.