Talking of history, we almost were history after this walk! After discovering The Humpridge Track through a random meeting with David and Alison at Monkey Island, and finding out more, we decided to take the plunge. They’d insinuated it was a fairly ‘easy’ track from the car park to Port Craig and back. Yeah right in the words of the Tui adverts!
What & Where Is The Humpridge Track?
The Humpridge Track is a 62km, three-day loop walk winding along the South Island’s southwest coast. It’s managed by a sustainable, responsible and charitable organisation, built and maintained by the Tuatapere community. Maybe one day it’ll attain ‘Great Walk’ status, but it’s not run by DOC as the other ten are. Apparently, however, it’s set to become a New Zealand Great Walk by 2022 receiving a NZ$5 million upgrade. We hope so.
It forms part of The South Coast Track, which IS run by DOC – https://www.topomap.co.nz/NZTopoMap?v=2&ll=-46.200242,167.202328&z=11. There are other DOC tracks from Lake Houroko (the deepest lake in NZ) that join the Hump Ridge too if you’re interested – https://www.doc.govt.nz/globalassets/documents/parks-and-recreation/tracks-and-walks/southland/southern-fiordland-tracks-brochure.pdf
The Hump Ridge Track office is based in Tutapere, so we thought we’d get information there to guide us on our chosen walk. Sadly it was like getting blood out of a stone. Twice we went in and each time the young men didn’t seem keen to provide much. We almost had to beg for information. We guessed they were fully booked, so didn’t feel it was necessary? As we weren’t going to book with them, but only use the DOC School Hut at Port Craig for two nights, maybe they didn’t want to waste their time?
Barry eventually found an older man lurking in the office who enabled him to purchase the necessary DOC hut passes. It’s not possible to book the huts on this track, as we did on the Rakiura Track. They work on a ‘first come first served’ basis. Imagine walking for hours then finding no bunk at the end? Interesting. Thankfully that most definitely wasn’t a problem we encountered. We encountered many others, but not that one!
We did meet two of The Hump Ridge Track guides (one called Leon) on their way back from Port Craig with a group of trampers on our first day. These two men were incredibly friendly and helpful. Maybe we just chose two days where inexperienced people were ‘manning’ the office?
Day One – Rarakau Car Park to Port Craig School Hut
DOC describes this section thus:
“Great Walk/Easier tramping track
Time: 7 hours
Distance: 20 km
From the Rarakau carpark, the track follows an old road over several suspension bridges and past beachside baches. Passing the Hump Ridge Track Okaka Lodge turnoff, the track skirts several beaches and headlands before arriving at the magnificent Blowholes Beach.
Hectors dolphins are often seen all along this coastline (look for the round, ‘mickey mouse’ shaped fin in the shallows).
From here the track climbs over another headland to Breakneck Creek, where it re-enters the forest before arriving at the historic Port Craig School Hut (DOC) and Port Craig Lodge (private). Interpretive panels and a short walk around the site may help you learn about the timber milling history of the area.”
Well, that’s not quite how we’d describe it! Even the first section was tasking – about an hour walking flat (that was good), but then countless precarious steps down to the beach. I didn’t manage to count, but I suspect around 300 or more. Just this part took us almost an hour. It certainly wasn’t easy. The first day took us nine and a half hours rather than the predicted seven. Admittedly we’d started out late, just after 11am, as I’d been working till the early hours.
However, it was absolutely stunning throughout. For much of the way, we were surrounded by thriving native bush and birdsong. We also loved walking along secluded beaches with the Tasman Sea crashing not far from us. Numerous swingbridges took us safely over fast-flowing creeks – the first one came with what looked like a stunning naked maiden sat on a log below.
From Breakneck Creek, the track relentlessly goes up and down, up and down, up and down … So much so we didn’t think we’d ever arrive intact at Port Craig School Hut. If you look at the map above, it seems there’s just a couple of inclies and descents. That’s false! Thankfully eventually, we did arrive at 8.27 pm according to the photo I took relieved to finally arrive. But it wasn’t what we’d expected. Read on …
Once we worked out how to open the door inside the hut, we discovered the bunks IN THE KITCHEN! Lindsay and Callum from Invercargill, plus a young man from Czechoslovakia who’d passed us earlier (he’d started at 1 pm and arrived by 6 pm!), were already in bed. Not wanting to disturb them, there was no tea for us. We’d have had to find our stove, and gas, and matches, and food and kettle, plus the dehydrated food. It felt like too much trouble and noise. Even worse, there was no gin from his canteen for Barry. Imagine that? In the 15 years we’ve been together, I recall only two other nights when he hasn’t drunk alcohol. Those were when we were doing Lichfield Calendar Club, and he was really poorly with the Flu. I knew he was poorly because of that!
As we were so tired it mattered not. We walked outside down the path for a wee in the long drop loo, then up the rickety wooden stairs to the top bunk where we’d placed our sleeping bags and pillows. A luxury, I realise – Barry had a blow-up one, and I had a fold-up one. Our old necks won’t cope with rolled up clothes as pillows. We did all this by candlelight, feeling like naughty schoolchildren. As we were in the old schoolhouse, it felt quite appropriate. We slept like logs.
Day Two – History
The second day was the raison d’être of our tramp. Listening to David and Alison telling the story of Port Craig, and the awe inspiring viaducts, we were compelled to come. Of course we wanted to share these wonders with you.
Nearby the DOC hut and the Humpridge Track Port Craig Lodge are the ruins of what used to be Port Craig. Families and men lived here for eight years, struggling to make their sawmilling lives sustainable. One Friday evening, they were told the owners had sold the business. The following Monday morning, they and all their belongings were put on a boat and unceremoniously dumped at Bluff. It’s unimaginable how horrific that would’ve been for them.
The guides had highly recommended a walk to ‘the beach’ – basically, there’s a self-guided tour of what’s left of this once-thriving community. You get a strong sense of the isolation but also the camaraderie and connectedness that would’ve been felt by these brave people. There’s an informative DOC leaflet available at the hut about Port Craig – and you can download your own for free if you want to learn more about this piece of NZ history – https://www.doc.govt.nz/globalassets/documents/parks-and-recreation/tracks-and-walks/fiordland/welcome-to-port-craig.pdf
Barry’s slideshow images portray a far finer story of the ruins. From the beach we watched three pairs of Hector’s Dolphins bobbing up and down in the bay. So very special to see these endangered creatures.
We spent over an hour wandering around this remote and fascinating historic site before returning to the hut and heading on our walk of the day. With a small day pack between us, this time, rather than each of us lugging a 40-litre backpack full of our essentials. As you can imagine, that made a huge difference to our stamina levels.
“DOC Leaflet – Port Craig School Hut to Wairaurahiri Hut
Time: 6 hours
Distance: 16 km
The track follows an old logging tramline for 15 km through regenerating native forest. The Sandhill and Percy Burn viaducts are reached after 2 hours walk from Port Craig. The Tuatapere Port Craig Viaducts Trust hut is sited at Percy Burn.“
We obviously didn’t go to Wairauahiri Hut, just to Percy Burn viaduct and back to Port Craig. This section of the track was very muddy, but flat. Brilliant! I could walk for miles and miles on the flat. It’s the ascents and descents my knees and hips are rather uncomfortable with.
We met many walkers en route, most of whom had completed the journey to Okaka Lodge the day before. From the top, they’d had magnificent views of the tarns and Fiordland. It almost made us wish we’d done that the day before. These walkers had all bedding supplied, hot porridge and brown sugar for breakfast, hot showers and flushing toilets. So understandably, they looked far fresher than we did! The hut at Percy Burn viaduct belongs to the Humpridge Track Trust, but the guides the day before had assured us that the hut is always open, and we were welcome to make a cup of tea there. We didn’t, but we did use the facilities and fill up our water bottles from the drinking water tap.
In Awe Of The Historic Viaduct
We won’t lie. The over 60km of walking we did over three days was extreme for us. However, despite this, the history we saw at Port Craig, and especially at Percy Burn Viaduct, made it all worthwhile.
At 35 metres high, the Percy Burn Viaduct is only 5m shorter than Pontycystll Aqueduct in North Wales. We’ve travelled across the latter several times in our narrowboat. It’s said to be the longest surviving wooden viaduct in the world. Holding up the structure are long tree trunks. It’s at once scary and exhilarating walking over it. Which I did and found a better angle to take.
I also found an informative sign which explained why, when you’re walking this track, the signs change from Fiordland National Park to ‘Private Maori Land’.
While on the other side, Barry walked down into the deep valley below to get the best shots. You’ll find them in his slideshow at the end. By the time he’d walked up the other side and over the viaduct, I was at the helicopter pad to ‘shoot’ him. It’s here that supplies are brought for the Percy Burn Hut.
A Treat Of A Night
We walked back the way we’d come. Having met so many people during the day, we weren’t sure if there’d be other people at the DOC hut. Of course, we’d already placed our sleeping bags on the best bottom bunks before leaving. We were ecstatic to discover no one else when we arrived back or at any time that night. No late-comers struggling in at 8.30 pm! It was complete bliss! We enjoyed our Back Country rehydrated meals. It isn’t easy to describe how delicious these are after a big day walking. Well, maybe ‘delicious is stretching the truth somewhat …
Before dark, I managed to read through the DOC excellently put together large portfolio of information about Port Craig. We were fascinated to discover that Fred and Myrtle from the Bluff Paua House worked, met, dated and wed at Port Craig. I guess when the boat left them at Bluff, they made it their home and thrived. What a fine example of resilient and adaptable kiwis they are.
Day Three – Suffering!
After a peaceful night’s sleep, we were up fairly early (for us). By 9 am people from the private lodge were passing the front window already packed up, walking towards the car park. It’s likely they had to be up for a timed breakfast and out. In contrast, we were able to take our time without pressure. I even had hot porridge and honey as there were saucepans supplied in the kitchen.
I don’t walk to talk. I walk to wonder at the glory and magnificence of Mother Nature. I’ve always been the back-stop over the years I walked with the Ramblers Association in the UK. I see no purpose in rushing, I far prefer slowness as promoted globally by Carl Honore’s bestseller In Praise Of Slow. However, it’s undoubtedly recommended I don’t wander while I wonder as I did on the Rakiura Track!!
The trackburn hut we’d been holding out to sit and have lunch at had someone inside, so we had to keep walking and find a log to rest awhile.
Starting mid-morning, we’d failed to check tide times. By the time we got to the long beach walk, we had to keep jumping up onto the large rocks to avoid the waves.
Along these beaches are incredible stones. Black ones with crustacean and shell fossils embedded in them. And ones with opaque peach stones. That night I castigated myself, thinking, “why didn’t I take photos of them?” Obviously, it wasn’t possible to carry anything else. We were already weary with our backpacks. But I could’ve captured pictures of them. I hoped Barry had. The next morning he said exactly the same. By then, we were merely focused on making it back to the van in one piece!
Fascinated by Fungi
Despite omitting photos of the remarkable rocks, these fascinating fungi are the main reason for my tardiness in our tracking. The quantity and variety on this walk were astounding:
Anyone who knows me well won’t be surprised to hear that the last one was my absolute favourite. Coming almost at the end of the walk too it spurred me on. I’d never have seen such beauty travelling along in a campervan!
Additionally, the incredible insects below, along with the inquisitive fantails and robins who entertained us along the way, caused distractions:
Nine Hours Later
Almost at the end of the track, the countless steps up from the beach were a nightmare. We’d heard from a young man who passed us earlier that a father and son would most likely pass us by at some stage. They’d started the Humpridge track at 4.30 am that day – and walked the whole thing. Yep, 62 km. Sure enough, they passed me halfway up the steps, still looking as fresh as a daisy. Admittedly they said they couldn’t stop, or they’d never get started again. But I doubt that was true. Meanwhile, Barry and I counted the marker posts and forgot how long the initial native bush walk was. When Barry found one that said there was still 1 km to go, he was distraught. We made it back to the van by 7 pm, having started just before 10 am, after walking 22.3 km according to my iPhone ‘Health’ App. I doubt I’ll persuade Barry to do any more long walks …
Heaven May Feel Like This
During the final stages of the track, I’d imagined how it would feel to soak in a hot bath or spa that evening. We decided to stay at the Tui Base Camp in Tuatapere rather than return to the free campground at Clifden. We needed hot showers, and to do some washing. It was one of the best decisions we’d made this trip. A very reasonable $15 a night for an unpowered site, a bar/restaurant still serving food, and washing machines, they had a spa. And it was available that evening. We’d have paid a fortune for this – it cost $25 and was worth every single cent. It was absolute heaven on earth.
Be amazed by Barry’s images below. As usual, click on the first image to commence the slideshow: