I paused and squinted at the handwritten sign that pointed uphill. “The Grunt”, it read, somewhat ominously. I wiped my face on an already sodden cuff, wondered idly if the rain might be easing and continued to clamber up the rough staircase of knotted beech roots towards Stag Point.
I was walking the Hump Ridge Track, a 60km trail that meanders through the thickly forested southeastern edge of New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park. It takes most people (I am most people) three days to complete the track, although this Friday at midnight competitors will set off for the annual “Stump the Hump” full moon walk, tramping the entire trail in under 24 hours.
Hump Ridge Day 1: Rarakau to Okaka (Up)
Prior to tackling the Hump Ridge Track, my hiking experience was limited to day-long walks in the UK and Hong Kong (where “hiking” often involves climbing concrete steps for hours on end), and a couple of amateurish forays in the Alps – including one memorable descent of the Schilthorn in ballet pumps. I fear that my lack of experience showed when I visited the trail office in Tuatapere, where I had to borrow a backpack and asked a series of silly questions, slightly panicked at the thought of what lay ahead.
The lasso-shaped Hump Ridge Track (HRT from here on in) starts by tracing Te Waewae Bay’s broad, curving shoreline westwards then branching inland. As I turned away from the coast, the thundery-looking sky cracked open and it began to rain. This was not a surprise (Fiordland is impressively soggy, with 200 rainy days and around seven metres of rain falling each year), but it was a bit of a pain nonetheless. An eternal optimist as far as weather conditions are concerned, I had set out wearing leaky sneakers and a jacket that was purportedly waterproof, but that clearly hadn’t been tested in Fiordland.
Fortunately, the community trust that maintains the HRT had thoughtfully built shelters at semi-regular intervals, and it was in one of these that I was able to wring myself out and refuel on cheese sandwiches. Forestry – extracting the slow-growing native hardwoods that thrive here thanks to all that rain – was once the main industry in these parts. When the last of the local sawmills closed down in the late 1980s, the local people decided to draw visitors into the area by developing a hiking trail through the only places that had escaped the lumberjacks’ attentions – the fringes of the National Park and patches of privately-owned land. The impressive trail opened in 2001, with 16km of wooden boardwalks and two fantastic lodges constructed largely by volunteers.
Hikers can tackle the trail independently, as I did, carrying their own food and clothing but sleeping in a lodge each night – or sign up for one of the fancy guided walks with cooked meals and a helicopter to help with your bags. By lunchtime on the first day we had already lost one fellow walker to the rain, when a German girl turned back at the lunch shelter. The rest of us – three Kiwis and me, all walking independently – continued onwards and upwards.
“The Grunt” proved to be a very satisfying climb, short and sharp with plenty of handholds. As I emerged from the dripping forest at Stag Point, the rain slackened and the cloud thinned, giving me a few exciting glimpses of the bay far below. Buoyed by the promise of sunshine and a pleasant sense of achievement, I covered the last few kilometres with a spring and a corresponding squelch in my step.
Thanks to my inappropriate gear choices, I arrived at Okaka Lodge soaked through and cold. Happily and fortunately, Okaka Lodge was a vision of everything you could wish for at the end of a long, damp tramp, with a welcoming lodge-keeper, a toasty gas fire, a well-stocked bar, meringue-like beds and hot showers, plus stacks of old gossip magazines and books on the area’s birds and trees.
It was around this point that I discovered that my phone was swamped with water, having been left in an open pocket during the worst of the wet weather (my thanks to the Hump Ridge Track for providing the photos in this post). Leaving phone and footwear to dry by the fire, I walked the short distance to the open top of the mountain, where sandstone tors and tea-coloured tarns reflected what had become a beautiful evening and clouds whipped across the clearing skies.
Hump Ridge Day 2: Okaka to Port Craig (Down)
The following morning, I reluctantly extracted myself from my bed (Okaka’s put most hotels’ to shame) and continued along the open ridgeline for the second section of the walk. There were fantastic views out over the coast to Stewart Island and inland towards Lake Poteriteri as the path dove in and out of the low-lying bush. My cycling adventures have left me entirely unembarassed about talking to myself and anything else that happens to be about (birds and trees, mainly – I’ve yet to graduate to rocks), so I had a fine old time talking to the fantails and tomtits that flitted through the undergrowth as I walked.
Eventually, the trail descended steeply towards the shore. My knees and I had been dreading this descent, but this turned out to be almost as much fun as the previous day’s ascent and it was enjoyably challenging to pick one’s way down through the thickly tangled roots that sprawled across the path. The trees seemed to unfurl as the altitude dropped; stunted mountain beech gave way to crooked red and silver beech, which later made way for the soaring rimu – some 50 metres tall – that flanked the muddy path.
Once back at sea level, the HRT follows the path of an old logging tramway. The track is wonderfully flat, but the sleepers have been left in situ, making it oddly challenging to walk along, and the mud was ankle-deep in places. I set out to pick my way around the worst of it, but cared less and less about keeping my trainers dry as the afternoon wore on and plunged straight through the last few. I’d just been researching Stewart Island’s North-West Circuit, a ten-day tramp that regularly develops thigh-deep mud pools, which certainly helped to keep some perspective, but this was still the draggiest part of the walk.
In the early years of the twentieth century, Port Craig was a burgeoning logging town. The Marlborough Timber Company threw huge sums of money into developing this remote site, building New Zealand’s most technologically advanced sawmill and constructing a 15-kilometre long tramway that crosses four impressive viaducts to transport enough timber to feed said mill. The Depression intervened before the company had recouped its investment, and the mill closed after less than a decade in operation. The only building still standing is the Port Craig School, which has been converted into a Department of Conservation hut for walkers, but it’s possible to make out the remains of half a dozen more poignantly crumbling and rusting structures. I stayed the night at the Port Craig Lodge, which – as long as you could ignore the voracious sandflies – was just as comfortable as the Okaka Lodge.
Hump Ridge Day 3: Port Craig to Rarakau (Along)
The last section of the HRT simply follows the coast back to the Rarakau trailhead, winding up over fern-draped headlands and dropping down to a series of sandy beaches studded with bleached driftwood. I set out before the other walkers, my footprints joining those of a single sun-seeking deer in the pale wet sand.
The highlight of my walk came just a few kilometres from its end. I was plodding along, sunk deep in daydream, when I happened across a fur seal laboriously hauling itself up the beach just metres ahead. Mutually startled, we looked at each other for a long moment, before the seal turned awkwardly and flopped back into the water. Once in the security of the surf, it arced gracefully in and out of the waves until it reached the flatter water beyond the breakers, where it surfaced once then disappeared. Just magical.
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If you’re in the market for a multi-day walk in New Zealand and want to avoid the crowds on the country’s Great Walks, I thoroughly recommend the Hump Ridge Track. The lodges, boardwalks and guided options make it less daunting for those new to tramping, yet the trail is challenging and varied enough to interest more experienced hikers. Find out more at www.humpridgetrack.co.nz.
For my part, I’ve been inspired to do more long walks – just as soon as I’ve bought some proper hiking boots…