On the Hump Ridge track

Views from the Hump Ridge Track, Western Southland.
Views from the Hump Ridge Track, Western Southland.
Views from the Hump Ridge Track, Western Southland.
Views from the Hump Ridge Track, Western Southland.
Views from the Hump Ridge Track, Western Southland.
Views from the Hump Ridge Track, Western Southland.
Views from the Hump Ridge Track, Western Southland.
Views from the Hump Ridge Track, Western Southland.

The weather is throwing itself wholeheartedly at a tin hut on an exposed ridge at the end of the South Island.

Inside, curled in a sleeping bag and loving the decadence of a pillow, I'm torn between the delicious cosiness of listening to the rain's rage and the deep dread of morning bringing more of the same.

It's unwise to expect unmarred fine days when tramping in the Fiordland National Park and we've come to the Hump Ridge Track despite a grey forecast, but I'm still dismayed to wake to near-horizontal rain.

A steaming bowl of porridge and brown sugar does wonders for my spirits, as does sitting fireside with my book, wilfully ignoring suggestions from the Okaka hut host that we head out.

In many ways, this hut is like the flash Department of Conservation huts trampers have come to expect of well used walks, but there are few welcome exceptions.

All walkers on the Hump Ridge - a 55 kilometre private walk created by phenomenal community effort - get the porridge and pillow. However, there's all other manner of luxury you can opt for, including a made-up bed, cooked dinner and hot shower.

You can even rent a hot water bottle, sweetly encased in a knitted woollen sleeve.

Some people get their bags choppered up on the arduous first day and most will take money to buy wine and treats from the well-stocked tuck shop at the top.

Those are the people who read the background material properly, and don't assume a catered track is likely to be an easy one. They don't opt to carry a hard-cover book, bottle of wine and plenty of unnecessary extras.

A literal walk-in-the-park it may be, but the near four-hour climb to Okaka, after a 2 1/2 hour beach walk, was anything but a figurative one, and had me lamenting too little training and too much gear.

It's not all I underestimated. When the rain finally stops and we leave Okaka, we're also surprised by how breathtakingly beautiful this sub- alpine spot is.

Board walks laboriously created by volunteers in Tuatapere, and put in at great expense to the Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track Trust, wind through a beautiful landscape of rugged rock and hardy plants, which are as stunning as they are understated.

We descend into a lichen-draped beech forest, drenched in mist and moss, before dropping down, down, down, through wonderful bush, to viaducts that add a fascinating history to an already world-class tramp.

The track joins the Department of Conservation's South Coast track at the Edwin Burn viaduct, a 22-metre high structure built in 1917 by the Marlborough Timber Company.

Further along, the 125m long and 36m high Percy Burn is the biggest of four viaducts used in getting timber on 14.6 kilometres of tramlines to Port Craig on the coast.

It was a mammoth venture, foiled by the cost and effort required to move the logs and the impact of the Depression, and it was closed by 1930.

Mark becomes the source of all information about the logging community and its work, reading some of the many track copies of Viaducts Against The Sky at every free fireside moment.

We're only able to walk across one of the viaducts, with another two closed for repair, but looking up from below it's even more mind-boggling to imagine them being built and used 100 years ago, apparently regardless of the weather.

There's a long flat walk along the old tramlines to finally reach Port Craig hut, where we explore remnants of the old milling operation, then sit on the rocky shore, with its derelict wharf, and watch hector's dolphins play just metres away.

Soon after, a hail storm reminds us how fortunate we've been with our walking weather. It's not been so kind to the two couples who set off in the morning's downpour and got caught in the afternoon's hail, but by then we're sitting in front of the fire, with a hot cup of tea, chatting with our friendly host, our sleeping bags and pillows (and tonight a delicious hot water bottle for just $3) at the ready.

Our final day is an easy walk along the beach, which is a welcome relief after a tramp that's proved itself far harder and far better than I expected.

Sophie Preece was a guest of Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track.

COMMUNITY EFFORT The community effort behind the Hump Ridge is all part of its charm. The Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track Trust was formed in 1995, and negotiated with private landowners while raising a whopping $3 million (and 30,000 volunteer hours) to build the track and two huts. The track opened in 2001.

For more information on the Hump Ridge track, or to book, go to humpridgetrack.co.nz.