An exhausting and exhilarating three days on the Hump Ridge Track – Fiordlands National Park

As a result of our continued and increasing enjoyment of hiking, we have been very keen to do a multi-day walk and New Zealand, with its gorgeous countryside and abundance of tracks, is the absolute ideal location for this. Unsurprisingly, these tracks are hugely popular with locals and tourists alike, with some huts being booked up months in advance. As we didn’t have specific plans of exactly where we were going to be 6-12 months ahead of time, we weren’t able to get ahead of the game and secure a place on one of New Zealand’s 9, soon to be 10, Great Walks. The Department of Conservation (DOC) also runs hundreds of backcountry huts, lodges and campsites on a vast number of other multi day tramping and walking tracks. This, combined with private huts and lodges and a multitude of guided walking options, means that the walking opportunities are practically endless and there is guaranteed to be something for everyone.

With our plans and available equipment, we decided that it would be best to stay in privately operated lodges as these would provide cooking equipment and facilities, saving us the expense of buying and carrying additional equipment. With this in mind, we settled on the Hump Ridge Track, nestled in the south-eastern corner of the Fiordlands. The track seemed to offer a bit of everything from mountains and panoramic views to beaches and the potential to swim with dolphins and, joy of all joys, it wasn’t forecasted to rain.01The Hump Ridge track is a community run undertaking and it truly took a village to build it. The town of Tuatapere was the home to the Forestry Department, which made up a major part of the local economy. Upon its closure, the community came together in search of an alternative source of income and decided to pursue setting up a multi-day waking track in the neighbouring National Park. This would bring visitors in to the town and any profits from the track itself would be invested back in to Tuatapere. After lengthy negotiations with the DOC and local government and what must have been thousands of hours worth of paperwork they were granted permission to build two lodges and the linking walking tracks, it took 12 years to get permission and just 9 months to build. There are 10kms of boardwalk covered with wire nets, these were stapled on by hand by volunteers from the town and the entire track is still maintained by volunteers. The whole enterprise was and is a community labour of love and knowing this truly added to our enjoyment of it.

Day 1

We arrived at the walk car park at 8.30 am in nervous anticipation of what was before us. Caro had never done a multi-day hike before and James hadn’t since his DoE and scouting days so we weren’t sure if we were physically or emotionally cut out for it. Nonetheless we loaded up with gear and strode off.02We made it out of the gate of the carpark before we realised that we didn’t know the way, we could still see the car and we were already lost. A quick check of our walk instructions set us back in the right direction and we strode off with slightly less confidence than previously. The first couple of kilometres wound along the edge of farmland and through forest until we reached a set of very steep and very numerous stairs. We knew we had to retrace our steps along this section at the very end of day 3, and it was already registering in our minds quite how unpleasant that was going to be. 03The steps led down towards the beach and we walked for several kilometres across sand or, at times, a track just behind the beach. IMG_4924The track swung inland and we were about to reach the 10km mark when we came up behind our first co-walkers, a large group of Kiwis. We walk fairly quickly and they kindly let us past them across a slightly rickety swingbridge.05We had reached the junction where the walks on day one and day three meet and, knowing that we should be back here in around 48 hours with 50+ kilometres under our belts, we took a deep breath, took the right fork and immediately plunged in to forest. This section has been almost entirely boardwalked which certainly made it easier going and protected the forest floor. We wound our way around before stopping for a cereal bar, perched on the side of the walkway.06Shortly after setting off again we passed a French-Canadian couple who had found a clearing to spread out in and were enjoying a lunch of hummus, crackers and cheese. Their meals became something of a running joke over the next couple of days as all of their food seemed completely unsuitable for hiking/carrying in a backpack on a trek with no refrigeration options at any point.

The track continued to wind through the forest and then started to “climb gently”, as our walk instructions put it. If this was a gentle climb then the prospect of the intense climb that was waiting for us would have made our blood run cold, if we weren’t so damned hot from the “gentle climb” we had just undertaken. It was, fortunately, fairly short-lived and wound through absolutely beautiful forest until we descended to a shelter for lunch.07We had made it two thirds of the way and were feeling pretty good about ourselves. However, it was time to face what we had been dreading all day; the climb to the lodge was ahead and this was the hardest part of the entire walk, squeezed in to five and a half kilometres of uphill. We were sat with another group of walkers at lunch and one of the chaps proudly informed us that he had had 3 knee reconstructions, at which point we figured we should probably suck it up and get our arses up the hill. If you think we are exaggerating about the climb ahead, here is the elevation profile, we’re currently at Water Bridge.08We won’t go in to that much detail, the beech forest was beautiful and the climb was absolutely brutal. Just before we reached the really tough ascent to Stag Point we came across a couple sitting having their lunch with their dog. Dogs aren’t normally allowed on the track but an exception was made for this one as she was accompanying her owners, Johan and Joyce, who have installed and maintain over 300 predator traps along the track. (There is very little birdsong in this part of the forest, and that’s because there aren’t any birds due to predation from stoats and rats). About once a month the couple are choppered up to the top of the hill and walk back down checking and resetting the traps. This is yet another example of local investment in the area and the dedication they feel towards it. To cap it off, Johan and Joyce’s jet boat business was unable to run this year because the river is so low, yet they continue to give their time free of charge.09Johan cheerily informed us that there was a “fairly steep bit ahead” and we set off on the last three kilometres for the day. The kilometre strectch before reaching Stag Point has to be some of the hardest walking that we have ever done and it seemed to go on for a very very long time.10We were rewarded for our efforts and for our speed in getting up there so quickly with panaromic views across the mountains and oceans, the clouds were rolling in and many of our fellow walkers missed this amazing vista.1211aOur accommodation for the night was Okaka Lodge, perched at 980m above sea level and we ran the last few hundred metres to make sure that we arrived there in under 6 hours. The cloud was engulfing the lodge as we arrived but as we settled down with cups of tea the weather cleared again briefly and we got marvellous views of the surrounding National Park.13The lodge was run by the nutty-as-squirrel-poo Alex, who informed us that we were the second lot to arrive and asked us if we could possibly identify the first, he had apparently run up the hill and then passed out on the sofa. According to Alex, he didn’t know what group he was hiking with which seemed odd then and even more odd later when it turned out that he was hiking with his family.  We enjoyed some fabulous people watching from the sofa as the others gradually arrived and all attempts at reading were abandoned as more people piled in to the lodge, all apparently keen for a chat. We met with our bunk mates for the night, Chris and Sally, a lovely English couple who have been in New Zealand 38 years. We learned the next evening that Chris had a pacemaker and any smugness at our achievements quickly evaporated.14It appeared a good number of our fellow walkers had had their packs helicoptered up to the lodge, rather than carrying them on the first day. This meant that when it came to dinner and we tucked in to our pasta and pesto, others around us were enjoying far more exciting meals. The French-Canadian couple, who had carried their packs, were dining on a gourmet pasta dish topped with crumbled feta, accompanied by a side salad and dressing but even they were to be outdone by Mr 3 Knee Reconstructions who had flown up an entire fillet of beef which he proceeded to cut in to steaks and barbeque for the family.

Day 2

We were the first up and were faced with the very real drama that there was no milk for our tea and coffee. In New Zealand, despite the fact that the dairy industry is enormous, the use of powdered milk is fairly widespread and a necessity when you are up a mountain. Unfortunately, neither of us knew how to mix it up and stood eyeing the jar of powder on the side before the need for caffeine drove us to wing it and see where we got to. We were on our second cups when Alex arrived to show us just how badly wrong we had gotten it and to give James a lesson in powdered milk whisking.

It was still pretty cloudy as we tramped out of the lodge with slightly achey legs and we thought we would give the weather a chance to clear and our legs an opportunity to warm up by taking a small detour from the main track to do the loop walk of the summit. It takes about 30-45 minutes and is absolutely beautiful even shrouded with cloud as it was that day.15aAs we reached the top of the track we emerged in to dazzling sunshine with cloud swirling around the incredible rock formations which, in turn, were reflected in the water of the tarns.16On a clear day the views are supposed to be stunning, and we were sorry that we had missed them, but the mist presented a completely different kind of beautiful.17aThe cloud would continue to cling to the mountain for the next two days so our walk along the ridge was sadly without views and we walked in our rain jackets to keep the damp air from giving us chills.18Once we started to descend from the ridge the mist against the incredible green of the leaves and moss lent an eeriness to the forest of tangled trees and really did make the place seem mystical.

The walk down, though not as tough as the day before, was still hard on the legs and as we scrabbled over roots and stomped down hundreds of boardwalk steps we felt incredibly sorry for Mr 3 Knee Reconstructions who we thought must be suffering terribly. When we saw him arrive at lodge number 2 that evening he was sweating buckets and said it had been quite an ordeal.

The further down we climbed the more the mist lifted and the bird noise increased, clearly birdlife was faring better on this side of the ridge. The sun was just battling its way through as we emerged from the forest at our first viaduct for the day and we stopped for lunch and to enjoy the warmth.20We were joined by a couple of South Island robins which, if you stay still for long enough, will come and peck at your shoes. This chap got so confident that he was in fact pecking at Caro’s legs eventually.21As we were finishing up, another group of walkers arrived and somehow convinced us that an hour long detour to see another viaduct was a good idea, that way we would have “seen all four” which apparently was a good thing. To be perfectly honest, it probably wasn’t necessary but as we were due to arrive at the lodge before 2pm it did mean that we weren’t sitting around for ages. The remainder of the walk was flat, along the tramlines of the now deceased logging industry trams and across 2 more viaducts.2223Sadly Percy Burn Viaduct, the longest wooden viaduct still standing in the Southern Hemisphere, has been closed for maintenance and we weren’t able to cross but got a good look at it from below. This also meant that instead of the nice flat walk we should have had we had to descend in to the ravine and up the other side, yay more climbing.24Through the last 3 kilometres along the tramline our legs were really starting to ache and, despite being flat, it was actually fairly tough going through the mud, avoiding the enormous nails and trying not to slip over on the damp wood. It was a relief to arrive at the lodge and take our boots off, to be immediately attacked by sandflies, it looked like an indoor evening. Port Craig is where you can potentially swim with Hector’s dolphins and having had a couple of fortifying cups of tea we made our way down to the beach. Given that we had packed very light, we didn’t have spare shoes or really anything more than what was absolutely necessary except for swim suits, this meant that Caro cobbled together a particularly fetching outfit to walk down to the beach.25The sea was absolutely freezing but we both plunged, mainly to avoid the sand flies. We saw the Hector’s dolphins but they were about 40m further out to sea than we dared to venture in the ferocious current. We lingered for a while but the dolphins were clearly enitrely uninterested in us so we stomped back to the lodge for a refreshing baby wipe shower and an evening of canasta, which James won (6-5 Caro). Despite the fact that there were 4 spare bunks in our room, Caro, being a big kid, opted for a top bunk. Our room mate who was travelling impressively light, had carried a 1kg Harry Potter book with her, and so enjoyed a quick gush about Harry Potter and cemented her desire to visit the Harry Potter Film set before calling it a night.

Day 3

We both woke to extremely tight legs and were only partially revived by coffee and porridge before hitting the track again.27The first section of the walk was through peaceful rainforest and we crossed many streams as we wound our way to the first beach of the day. The forest was again beautiful with the trees covered in lichens and the lower foliage dominated by ferns. At Breakneck Creek we stopped for a snack, and the sand flies descended. This combined with a few backpack issues resulted in a minor hissy fit from Caro.IMG_0137This soon subsided once we started walking again and the smile reappeared as we crossed several headlands, emerging on to lovely bays. The coastal scenery made for a nice change after a day and a half of forest and we both felt that the varied scenery was one of the big pluses of the walk.

We were joined for the last half of the 3rd day by Paul, speedy gonzales from day one. It turns out he had spent several years in the military and had been assigned to the NZ special forces for a while. He set a fairly brutal pace that had our legs screaming for mercy but regaled us with some excellent stories about his travels and other mountains that he had run up around the world with a fair bit of detriment to his own health.. Particularly memorable were hypothermia on Kilimanjaro and altitude sickness on Everest.

We passed the junction for the day 1 track, wishing good luck to a couple of walkers who were eyeing the track with a touch of apprehension, and began to retrace our steps along the dramatic length of beach. We could see several others from our walking cohort ahead of us, a few stopped to take a swim and we overtook them leaving only our roommates from the first night ahead of us.29aBy the time we crossed the final swingbridge our legs were feeling very wobbly and maintaining balance was a challenge. We took the final steps along the beach and reached the foot of the dreaded steps, which turned out to be every bit as awful as we had expected. Paul, of course, was perfectly happy with them and scampered up the whole lot in one go, leaving us gasping for breath. We had, however, caught up with our roommates and Mr Pacemaker had taken a seat on the conveniently located bench looking a little worse for wear. Mrs Pacemaker was a doctor and appeared to be quite unconcerned at his heaving breaths so we assumed that he would be alright in a jiffy.

Notwithstanding the fact that we neither of us have undergone serious surgery at any point, we were just a teensy bit proud of being the first and second people to stroll over the finish line after three days and just shy of 70 kilometres. Paul, perhaps sensing our ridiculous competitiveness, had settled for third.

With enormous relief, we removed our hiking boots and deposited our packs in the car. We said our goodbyes to our walking companions, checked out at the track headquarters, bought an obligatory T-Shirt, and hit the road to Invercargill and the completely non-Bavarian Bavarian Motel for an evening of pizza and Harry Potter films.

The Hump Ridge Track was absolutely amazing and we would highly recommend it to anyone, particularly as your first walk.  We are already planning another trip to New Zealand to tackle a few more of the walks, hopefully including some of the Great Walks. We both enjoyed walking before New Zealand, but our love of a long stomp has definitely been cemented here.




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