Walk 13 - Hump Ridge Track

Having enjoyed our first real experience of a private track in New Zealand, we headed to the far south west corner of the South Island to tramp another - the Hump Ridge Track. The existence of this track is a testimonial to community spirit, as it was set up by the residents of nearby Tuatapere to help the town recover from the closure of the timber industry. A trust was set up in 1994 and, following years of voluntary labour, preparation, legal issues and negotiations over access to private and public land, the track opened in 2001. All funds are put back into the trust for further development of the track, evidenced by the several kilometres of new boardwalk over fragile areas.

It is, however, a serious tramp, with an almost 1000m climb on the first day and despite the boardwalking, plenty of good New Zealand mud. For that cost, you get to experience pristine World Heritage listed wilderness, from coastal forest to sub-alpine herbfields, and a sense of the human history in the area.

Day 1: Rarakau to Okaka Hut - the big climb

The day was still and overcast as we set out from Rarakau on this 19 km stage; a short section through dense coastal forest brought us to a narrow gap in the long cliff-line of Te Waewae Bay, down which we descended to boulder lined Bluecliffs Beach. Heading westward along the beach, we crossed the industrial-strength swing bridge over the Waikoau River, past a small group of cribs (the kiwi term for a beach shack) and along a long isolated stretch of beach beneath low forest-clad cliffs.

Coastal forest near Rarakau

Stoney foreshore of Te Waewae Bay

New Zealand beach house or "crib"

Blue cliffs of the Waikoau River mouth
The grey sand of the beach was strewn with multi-coloured stones and lined with the bleached-white trunks and stumps of trees washed up on the shore. To the west, the cloud-covered ridgeline of Hump Ridge awaited us.

Dead trunks cast up on Bluecliffs Beach


Heading toward the cloud-covered Hump Ridge

Crossing a small swing bridge over Stoney Creek, we followed a vehicle access track slightly inland to arrive at Track Burn and a scroggin break on the verandah of the nearby hut. Once across the swingbridge, it was walkers only, as the track undulated through increasingly beautiful coastal forest, with magnificent specimens of giant rimu, matai and kahikatea rising high above the fern and moss-covered forest floor.

Occasionally gaps opened up to offer glimpses out over Te Waewae Bay to the distant cloud-covered silhouette of Stewart Island. One more swingbridge over Flat Creek and the Hump Ridge Track started in earnest, the narrow path soon transforming into a boardwalk highway that meandered its way for several kilometres over a broad forest terrace, the fragile boggy surface carpeted with ground-covering ferns.

Track through the coastal forest

Tannin-stained stream in Waitutu Forest

Sandy cove in Te Waewae Bay

Crossing Flat Creek swing bridge

Some of the curious forest fungi

At the end of the boardwalk, the track took us through a series of short steep climbs and flatter traverses of higher terraces, as well as a series of ankle deep muddy stretches; the soft squelching sound of our feet often the only sound in the forest, apart from the harsh screech of kakas high in the forest canopy. As we climbed, the trees became shorter and more moss-covered, until a final steep 200m ascent up the ridge of Stag Point brought us into the realm of the subalpine cloud forest, with its dwarfed, gnarly, lichen-covered trees and knobbly green carpet of mosses and dwarf ferns covering every boulder and stump.

Boardwalk through the beech terrace

Deep in the Waitutu Forest

Topping up from a clear mountain stream

Another muddy stretch of track

As we reached Stag Point, we broke through the swirling clouds to see the distant shape of Okaka Hut, another 130m above us on Hump Ridge. We continued on, gradually climbing up through this almost surreal dwarf forest landscape; from 40m high trees in the coastal forest, we were passing through beeches that barely reached 3m. Finally we stepped up onto another long stretch of boardwalk that continued to slowly climb the ridge, the first yellow and white flowers of alpine herbs appearing on either side, until, in a series of elegant curves the boardwalk brought us down to the very large, modern, comfortable and solar-lit Okaka Hut, nestled above a grassy bowl on the leeward side of the ridge.

In the mossy forest below Stag Point

Sub-alpine mountain beech forest

Dwarf trees on Stag Point

The misty outline of Hump Ridge

Cloudy wisps floated over from the west, sometimes obscuring, sometimes revealing a sunlit outline of Hump Ridge above us. After a rest and cuppa, we climbed back up to a circular boardwalk passing through the fragile alpine bog community high on the ridge. The alternating mist and sunlight illuminated the rocky tors and crystal clear tarns in a strange ethereal light - it was a truly special place to be.

Through a mist darkly

Looking up to the alpine tops of Hump Ridge

Tors and tarns in the mist

Finally the mist won and we descended back down to Okaka Hut to enjoy our dinner as a lone kea arrived on the balcony railing, either to entertain the 12 trampers staying the night with its antics and chatter or, more likely, to amuse itself with its ability to draw a crowd of strange humans whenever it wanted.

The cackling kea



Day 2: Okaka Hut to Port Craig - mud, mud, mud

We rose early to a spectacular sight - overnight Hump Ridge had transformed into a sunlit island in a sea of dense white cloud. A quick pre-breakfast climb back up to the rocky tors to better appreciate this was called for - to the north was another distant island formed by the Kaherekoau Range, while across the cloudy sea to the west, the morning sun bathed the snow-streaked peaks of the Cameron Mountains.

Dawn over Okaka Hut

Hump Ridge Island in a sea of cloud

The tors and tarns of Hump ridge in the early morning light

Cameron Mountains floating above the clouds

It was a great start to the day and we set off for our long descent of Hump Ridge in good spirits, following another long section of boardwalk once more through the sub-alpine beech forest with its dwarfed moss- and lichen covered trunks. The change in vegetation would mostly be a reverse of our climb up the day before, with the addition of a few areas of low shrubs and alpine bog communities on some of the more exposed sections.

Hump Ridge and the Kaherekoau Range

Boardwak across subalpine shrubs
The track undulated along the ridge, the more fragile sections on boards, with an occasional stretch of ankle deep mud. To the east the cloud persisted, while to the west it began to break up, exposing views across the green mantle of Waitutu Forest to the southern coastline and the outlines of a series of old marine terraces, once beaches but now verdant forest. To the west we could catch glimpses of Lake Poteriteri and its mountainous backdrop.

Bog community on lower Hump Ridge

Looking across Waitutu Forest to Lake Poteriteri

Track up to Luncheon rock

Wisps of cloud began to rise up over the ridge line from the east as we approached the viewpoint at Luncheon Rock and, by the time we had arrived, the cloud to the east was finally breaking up to uncover a glorious view out over Te Waewae Bay. Out to sea, the silhouette of Stewart Island emerged from the clouds on the horizon.

Two inhabitants of subalpine bogs

View over Te Waewae Bay from Luncheon Rock

We had donned gaiters for the first time in anticipation of a muddy descent down through the forest; this began in earnest as we started the 5km long, 600m descent from Luncheon Rock. Apart from some early boarding of steeper sections, this is one long narrow band of mud, varying from quite firm to verging on liquid, but, with judicious stepping and the use of walking poles, never really more than ankle deep. At first it was almost fun as we squished our way down the steeper slopes, but the incessant mud gradually ground down our wills, particularly across the lower flatter terraces where the water did not drain as freely. It was a great relief to finally emerge onto the broad solid trace of an old forest tramway. We had reached the old wooden viaduct across Edwin Burn and the route from here would follow the flat course of the tramline to Port Craig.

This tramline was built in the early 1920s as part of the infrastructure of a failed logging venture on the South Coast. To cross the rugged terrain, a series of wooden viaducts was built above the steep watercourses flowing off Hump Ridge. The track followed the tramline, crossing three restored viaducts, including one at Percy Burn, which at 36m above the stream bed is the highest remaining wooden viaduct in the world.

Lower level forest

Edwin Burn Viaduct

Percy Burn Viaduct (36m high)

Sandhill Viaduct

Old tramway track near Percy Burn


Leaving the viaducts behind, we followed the old tram track for another 4km, past the dense, spindly trunks of regenerating forest and through the occasional dark, damp cutting, until we eventually emerged at the hut complex at Port Craig. This ghost town was the hub of the logging venture and once was a thriving community based around a huge sawmill and port complex. Today, little remains but a few rusting boilers, winches, train wagons, the decaying posts of the old wharf and the occasional dead 1920s shoe. The bush has reclaimed the land from the failed ambitions of men and the sandflies inhabit this coastline in their thousands to ensure that now we only pass by.

After demudding our boots and cleaning up, we wondered down to the beach where we finally saw a small pod of the elusive Hector's dolphin swimming around the old wharf pylons. This is the smallest and rarest dolphin species and it was great to be finally able to sit and watch them in the evening sun at the end of a hard day at the office.

Dark damp cutting on the old tramway

Old rail car at Port Craig

All that remains of Port Craig Wharf

Te Whata Point

Day 3: Port Craig to Rarakau

Yesterday had been the best day's weather in 3 months, the hut warden told us, but there would be no repeat. Although warm, fits and starts of light drizzle greeted us in the morning - it would be the pattern of the day. Leaving early after a fill of free porridge, we walked quickly through the forest to Te Whata Point, where we descended down the cliff onto the shore of Te Waewae Bay. There are two possible routes from this point, an inland route through more forest, and a shoreline route below the green-mantled cliffs of the Bay. Because of these backing cliffs, the latter can only be done safely at low tide - hence our early start. We had experienced enough forest on this walk and were starting to crave a dose of open spaces, marine ambience and negative ions.

Changing weather near Te Whata Point

Start of the low tide track from Te Whata to Ohoka

Fossiliferous rocks

Passing sun shower

Ohoka Stream

Marine ledges with forest backdrop
It was a great and varied coastal section, crossing at various times - broad sand and pebble beaches, areas of sand-buried boulders, long sections of sharp wave-eroded sandstone ribs and platforms running parallel to the coast, fossil-filled sedimentary beds and the occasional spill of smooth water-tumbled stones washed out on to the beach by streams cascading down through fern-lined gaps in the cliff. In places the rock platform had been eroded into a series of jagged rock islets, covered in beds of green-lipped mussels that made our mouthes water with thoughts of gastronomic delight. Remember though - only at low tide!!

One last look back to Hump Ridge

It was with regret that we finally left the beach to rejoin our outward path and reach the hut at Track Burn. It was a good place for a hut as the rain had begun to fall in earnest. We sat in the shelter for an hour in the company of other trampers, some returning like us, others heading out into the rain (and mud). Eager to get back, we did not wait for the rain to stop, but donned wet weather gear for the last 2 hour trek, retracing our footsteps of the first day back along Bluecliffs Beach to the car park ar Rarakau.

The beach near Ohoka

At 55 km in 3 days with a 1000m climb and descent on muddy paths, the Hump Ridge Track is not an easy walk, but it does take you through some of the most remote, pristine and beautiful forest of New Zealand and those who complete it will feel a real sense of achievement. It will become easier as the track is developed further and more boardwalking added and the Track Trust is to be commended for their efforts. My only criticism is that one A4 sheet of paper with a few brief notes and hand-drawn, scale-free map (dare I say "mud map") of the area is not good enough. Trampers like to be informed about the flora, fauna, geology and history of the areas they pass through; much of this is on the track website or in hut posters and could easily be transformed into a small guidebook (like the excellent one produced for the Banks Peninsula Track). The map particularly needs improving with proper topographic features and waypoints indicated; the fair Nello commented that it would be easy to get lost following such a map - a pair of Israeli trampers proved her right the very next day! We heard about their adventures and wet night in the bush at the backpackers after returning from the walk.

With this "wee" addition, the Hump Ridge tramp would be an even better experience.

"Foot" note: The Hump Ridge Track has recently found itself the centre of controversy in the newspapers over the state of certain sections of the track, with vigorous criticism by some trampers and equally vigorous defence by others. It had not rained for 2 days when we passed through the notorious muddy descent of Hump Ridge and, expecting worse, were surprised not to be sinking up to our knees. The mud is ever present, an inevitability in this wet climate, and occasionally there are quagmirish sections, but nothing more than ankle deep when we passed. Given the length of sections already having solid raised boardwalks and the amount of new boardwalk about to go in, the Track Trust is tackling the problem. While it is essential to protect the more fragile areas from walker's erosion, it would be a sad day if there were no muddy sections left for this quintessential New Zealand tramping experience.

One thing became clear to us; muddy is a very relative term and, by the end of this walk, our tolerance of mud had shifted considerably. On the return trip we strode straight through muddy sections that we would have carefully stepped around on the way up. We have become connisseurs of its many forms, taking comfort in the soft squish of firmer walkable mud, but ever wary of the the boot-sucking slurp that sucks you down into the mire and holds you firmly in its sticky grip or, worse, removes your boot from your foot.

Not really that bad?