This 3- day (61 km) loop track is in the Waititu Forest at the bottom end of Fiordland National Park – where the Southern Alps ends into the Southern Ocean. The hike goes along the rugged southern coast beaches and rise to sub-alpine zone through lush rainforest of beech, totara, ferns and podocarp forest; historic viaducts and timber mill relics, and diverse landscapes. It is accessed from Tuatapere, a small rural town located between Te Anau and Invercargil. This is a private walk run by a charitable trust – a partnership between DOC and the Tuatapere Community. It is open all year round. A moderate to high level of fitness and appropriate gear is essential. Between six to nine hours walking is required. See my track photos.
“Humpridge Track is poised to become a New Zealand Great Walk in 2022. It is a track through diverse landscape, heritage and nature – moss draped native forest and sublime coasts; climb a 1000 meters from sea to sky; through historic milling sites and crossing bygone era wooden viaducts; experience ‘goblin’ forest, native birds, spectacular views plus treacherous muddy and appreciated boardwalk tracks”.
I organised a small group and booked several months ago. Early booking is essential especially for the private rooms. Booking is easy and done directly on Humpridge track. There are several options, including heli-packing! We chose the Freedom Walk (NZ$245) with an upgrade to Private Room (NZ$100/couple/night) – comes with linen, towels and hot shower. The basic is a 8-bed bunk room. Limited food is available for purchase including the famous Tuatapere sausages. Tip: with the private room option, the idea is to pack as little as possible.
“Humpridge Track hike is themed as more wilderness and less people”.
We were picked up in Invercargil by Humpridge Shuttle ($NZ95/person). In an hour, we reached Tuatapere. The journey here was stunning, along the coast with views of sprawling farmlands, isolated bays and Solander Island. Tuatapere looked like a one road frontier town. Our accommodation Tui Camp, was centrally located. Great facilities with pub and eatery.
Day 1 – Rarakau to Okaka Lodge (20km)
Our arranged shuttle picked us up at Tui Camp, around 0830, and within 1/2 hr, transported us to the starting point of Humpridge Track. Past a farm gate, we immediately entered Waitutu Forest, a mixed coastal lowland forest. On a rather slippery and narrow track, we were encapsulated by giant trees including silver beech, rimu, totora, podocarp, broad-leafs tree ferns and rata. The canopy was not dense. Bird songs filled the forest. Tui and fantails flew close-by. South Island Robin jumped without fear near my boots and tree branches to investigate. High in the canopy, the heavy flapping of the Kereru can be heard. A steep set of steps brought me downhill and through a clearing, view of the crashing Southern Ocean at Te Waewae Bay.
The muddy track continued along a pebbled beach to my first suspension bridge over Waikoau River across a collection of corrugated tin roof houses. Sea sprays drifted inland with swiping views of bluish-green craggy mountains in the background. That is Hump Ridge, the bottom end of Fiordland National Park. An alternate to walking on muddy and sometimes water log track, is to walk on the white sandy Blue Cliffs Beach. This sweeping crescent shaped beach stretched a long way. Beyond in the west, the daunting Hump Ridge Range and a cloudy sky. In the south, the ocean stretched all the way to Antarctica. I could see all the hikers that started earlier than us. I kept a sharp eye for seals and the highly endangered Hector Dolphins. The beach is littered with stones and drift wood. A truck passed us on the beach with a couple of happy kids and dogs at the back. After 3/4 hour walk on the delightful beach, we re-entered the forest joining the South Coast Track. It is important to observe the orange triangle markers. Around 1030, we crossed Stoney Creek swing bridge surrounded by lush vegetation and rounded stones. We continued on the South Coast Track (past a detour to Teal Bay) onto Track Burn over Waikoko Stream. The track weaved through Maori land and Fiordland NP. The coast is often seen through breaks in the forest. The track so far had been relatively flat but muddy in several parts.
We arrived in Flat Creek at 1130. and the track diverted inland and immediately began to 900 meters climb. It is very sheltered in the bush. The forest ground is dominated by crown ferns. Lime green lichen and moss dripped from matured trees. Moving away from the coast, humidity increased. This part of the track was mostly walking on wooden board walks. The rest of the track was muddy and slippery in patches. The diversity of the forest is stunning. At 1300, we arrived at the half-way point, a shelter near a water bridge. A great place for lunch and refill our water bottle from the stream. A bucket had been conveniently placed on the bridge to scoop. Refuelled, we climbed higher aided by more boardwalks and bridges. Along a ridge, sphagnum moss dominated the ground. However, as we dipped into the valley, ferns reappeared. Besides lichen, with constant rainfall, epiphytic plants, including flowering orchid, flourished abundantly onto matured tree trunks and branches. This is a multi-tiered forest.
My body began to take its toll from the long hike. My pack was weighing me down as I walked slowly to keep track with my hiking mates. The vegetation dramatically changed with altitude gain.
“I walked amongst pristine beech forest – draped in lichen and moss, twisted and stunted. I decided to walk at my pace. Although uncrowded, walking in solitude is quite inspiring” .
Parts of the track was inter-twined with exposed tree roots. A marker indicted another 3km to go. Walking on the Humpridge is uncrowded compared to other great walks. Temperature dipped as mist rapidly flowed through. I scrambled up large boulders and rocks along a ridge. The track is well marked. Finally, I arrived at a clearing – Stag Point at 1615. Dark cold clouds descended rapidly in the west and Hump Ridge was obscured. However, the views of Te Waewae Bay towards the south-east, although hazy, was visible.
“The twisted and structural forest became a magical and dreamy landscape as the mist settled onto the tree canopies. It felt like walking through a primordial landscape”.
Fortunately, aided by more board walks, the hike continued upwards and out of the forest. Trees became stunted and spiky grass-like shrubs dominated the ground.
As the hike progressed higher, this was replaced by sub-alpine vegetation. Once I exited the tree line, apart from the boardwalks winding it way, it was a white-out. Dark dense cloud descended onto the mountains and track. The boardwalk climbed over the ridge and descended into a bush to a junction – one to the Summit Loop Track, the highest point at 1000m, and the other to Okaka Lodge. With poor weather and no views, I arrived the lodge at 1715 . What a welcoming sight. The last 3km, of literally scrambling over rocky outcrops, is demanding.
Then it rained. My arrival could not have been timely. A hiking mate offered some hot tea. It was bliss. The rest of the team arrived half an hour later. The private room is superb. Out on the balcony, the clouds suddenly parted to reveal sweeping views of the crescent shaped Te Waewae Bay, moss drenched stunted forest, tussock land and the Southern Ocean. The brief view was magical. After a hot shower, we settled for dinner with the fire place going. The mood in the lodge was jovial. Quietly, most were just relieved to have completed the hardest part (21 km) of the partially muddy track. Rain continued through to late evening. With a hot water bottle and tucked under a warm blanket, life was good.
Day 2 – Okaka Lodge to Port Craig (21km)
Oats porridge and coffee is offered at the lodge at breakfast. We left the delightful lodge at 0840. The landscape was engulfed by the heavy fog. Although the weather was poor and definitely no views, I headed towards the summit of Hump Ridge. The bush was replaced with golden tussock grasses and alpine tarns. This is the highlight of the hike – a loop boardwalk that encircled limestone tors interspersed with tarns and panoramic 360 degrees views of Fiordland in the north-west and the rugged Southern coastline.
“Today, we were greeted with high cold winds, mist that ‘rained heavily’ and completely engulfed in clouds. There were no views. Even the Kea knows better not to dwell in today’s windswept weather “.
The surface of the tarns were transformed into choppy sea. The wind scooped up chunks of water and spread it along its path. My sense of direction was in disarray. In the same token, the wild and windswept raw beauty of the landscape was captivating.
“It was like wandering on ancient earth“ .
Back tracking below the ridge, clarity improved. The heavy drench of the mist disappeared. Form hereon, its downhill to Port Craig, on the coast. We descend aided by wooden boardwalk into a stunning “goblin” cloud forest – mountain beech, gnarled trees with gray-green lichen and black fungus, ground carpeted with soft yellowish sphagnum moss and the canopy covered in gray mist and eerie glowing light. It was strangely silent. We emerged out of this enchanting fairytale forest after an hour. The boardwalk, covered with chicken wire mesh, that stretched for kilometres were particularly useful in this perpetually wet weather.
“The forest along the track is extraordinary – twisted ans stunted beech, rata, totara and pines, crown ferns, epiphytes, lichen, moss, flowering orchids, tree ferns, tussock grasses, alpine shrubs and coastal grasses”.
The track descended and acended along a ridge. It was hard to access the distance as visibility was limited to about 50 meters. Still, the expansive views were impressive. We were surrounded with alpine scrub and colourful vegetation. When not on boardwalk, it was a muddy and slippery track. We scrambled carefully under a huge boulder. With wet conditions, we treaded carefully over the boulders. Thank goodness for the boardwalk which aided the steep descent immensely. Took the pressure off my knees. At 1130, we approached the almost invisible Luncheon Rock. We stopped at the nearby shelter for lunch. It was good to get out of my wet gear. My thought were the warm room at Port Craig. Hereon, it is a 600 meters descend. A handsome lean looking man stopped for a chat. He is running the full 3 day track in one! I praised him on his athleticism. His response was humbling – “look at you guys, heavy packs on your back, trudging up and down the mountain. I’ve only got a water bottle and little snacks”. The light rain did not relent. This made the track slippery and muddy.
With descent, vegetation changed with taller trees and broadleafs. It felt drier too. Both, matured and saplings of rimu dominated the forest. At 1445, we reached a junction. To the right, the track led to Wairaurahiri River. The left, is the first wooden viaduct – Edwin Burn Viaduct. In the heyday of the 1920’s timber industry, a 14 km tramway was built between Port Craig and Wairaurahiri River. To cross the rugged terrain and streams, viaducts were built high above the tree canopies. Soon, we approached, the 36 metres high and 125 metres long, Percy Burn Viaduct, said to be the highest surviving wooden viaduct in the world. It was stunning. A piece of living history. The wooden planks loomed wobbly yet sturdy. At the end of the viaduct is the 18 bed Percy Burn Hut. The onward track is a cut gully in the forest. I found it hard on my feet souls with continous pounding on the embedded railway sleepers. Beware, some of the iron railway spikes are exposed. Within 10 minutes, we crossed the 59m Sandhill Viaduct. These are living museum pieces. Then, back on the never ending wet, dark and often muddy gully.
“The monotonous and bleak walk on mud soaked railway sleepers was the low point of the hike. I had to slow down”.
At dragging myself for 7 km, we emerged out into a grassy clearing at the old 1920’s, once thriving, milling settlement. Little remained today. The old Port Craig School is now an 18-bed DoC Hut. We continued on and relieved to reach Port Craig Lodge at 1730. The first to greet were the notorious resident sandflies. I looked forward to the hot shower. However, not before scrubbing off all the mud glued to my boots and rain pants. The common kitchen was buzzing and delicious aromas. With a cup of hot tea, it was good to be indoor…. resting. My feet was happy now!
Just minutes away from the lodge is the Southern Ocean. Next stop is Antarctica. I kept a sharp eye for dolphin and penguins. Not fortunate though. The weather had been kind and presented a wonderful sunset. Time for hot dinner and a yarn.
Day 3 – Port Craig to Rarakau (20 km)
Today’s morning weather was great – blue sky and no rain. We had a relaxed breakfast knowing today’s walk is relatively flat. Furthermore, no more feet hurting tram tracks. We left at 0800 and entered a forest of ferns – ground covered with crown ferns and structural tree ferns. The track skirted along the coasts’ undulating terrain and crossed a few streams, including camp creek. The morning sun penetrated through gaps amongst matured beech, covered in lichen and moss. Occasionally, the coast is revealed. Humidity increased as the hike progressed. Boardwalk helped cross wet and boggy terrain. At 1030, we reached Breakneck Creek. I followed the meandering shallow river towards the stunning Southern Ocean. The beach is lined with picturesque haystack rocks – looked like stacked pancakes. As the ocean crashed onto these rocks, it created spectacular views. The track crossed into Fiordland NP.
Eventually, track led into white sandy Blowholes Beach. I looked back towards the west, Humpridge was cloudless against a blue sky. The weather here is unpredictable. After 15 minutes, we detoured back into the bush as the tide was too high to continue walking along the coasts. If beach walk is not possible, an alternate bush track is available. We rejoined our day 1 track at Flat Creek, the turn off to Okaka. We retraced our hike on Bluecliff Beach towards Rarakau.
“Walking on the beach is definitely refreshing. It also gave the best opportunity to see dolphins and penguins. Stewart island seemed to be engulfed in an ocean of blue”.
We re-entered the forest and crossed a long suspension bridge. The track alternated between the beach and bush. The sea was a stunning cobalt blue. The sun was intense. Visibility all the way to Hump Ridge was clear. Chorus of Tui, Wood Pigeons and Fantails returned. After an hour walk on Bluecliff Beach, we climbed a series of steps into the dense coastal forest. After all the ‘flat’ walk, this was demanding. However, under the tree canopy, it was cooling. We weaved through the forest and arrived at Rarakau at 1400. A little tired but my body held the long hike. The other hikers were just relieved. Our pre-arranged transport returned us to Tuatapere and onward to Invercargill.
The weather played a vital part as views may not appear as suggested. Furthermore, the track, wherever boardwalk is unavailable, can be very muddy and slippery. The distance of 20km a day may further contribute to a ‘bad day’. However, the weather cannot be controlled. Therefore, kitted with appropriate gear is essential. Humpridge Track is still one of the finest tracks I had hiked. The diversity of the landscape and terrain is equally good. Plus, the low number of hikers, ‘luxury lodge options’ and potential to see rare wildlife, made it a desirable prospect.