”More wilderness, less people” is the tagline for New Zealand’s Humpridge Track and it certainly delivers. For those who are tired of the crowds on the Great Walks but still want to experience all of the stunning scenery that Fiordland region offers then this is the walk for you. Covering 62km over three days and with some steep climbs on the first day to take you from sea level to Okaka Lodge at 978m, hiking the Track is no walk in the park but the rewards more than make up for the effort. Conceived and built by the nearby community of Tuatapere to provide a boost the local economy following the closure of the timber industry, the Track and lodges are privately operated through a charitable trust. This means it is a bit more expensive to walk the Humpridge Track than most of the Great Walks. At the same time, however, the lodges are a fair step up in comfort level from the Great Walk huts, the Track is a bit more challenging and, so far, there are no real issues in booking to walk the Track at a time that suits you. Most importantly, the scenery on the Humpridge Track is the equal of any in New Zealand and includes beaches, beech forest, temperate cloud forest and, on a good day, sweeping mountain vistas.
There are two lodges on the Track – Okaka and Port Craig. Both lodges have a mix of room types available (bunk and private), hot showers, a kitchen with all cooking and eating facilities, a lounge and small shop (wine, beer, snacks and backcountry meals). There are also two lunch shelters on days 1 and 2 with toilet facilities.
Walkers must book to hike the Track through http://www.humpridgetrack.co.nz/. The cost depends on the option you select. A payment of $175 per walker permits you to walk the Track, stay in each Lodge in the bunkrooms, all the tea and coffee you can drink and porridge each morning. We also paid for a private room, which included a double bed, linen and hot shower ($100 per couple per night). There are, apparently, some who complain about the expense on the basis that the cost of Great Walk huts does not exceed $54 per person per night and backcountry huts don’t exceed $15 per person per night. However, given the comfort level of the Lodges that is an unfair comparison. It is perhaps better to think of the Track as a good mid option between the DOC huts and the very expensive privately run operations on the Milford, Routeburn and Hollyford Tracks.
Tuatapere (pronounced two-ah-tep-er-ee) in the south of the South Island, New Zealand. Tuatepere is where the Humpridge office is located (you need to go in for a quick briefing before you start your walk) and has a couple of accommodation options, cafés (the Yesteryear Café run by the redoubtable 78 year old Helen was particularly good) and supermarket.
Getting to and the from the Track.
The Humpridge is a circular track with the trail-head about a 25 minute drive from Tuatapere. There is no regular bus service to Tuatepere, although with sufficient bookings Tracknet will run a service from Te Anau which needs to be booked through the Humpridge Track office. The Humpridge Track also runs a bus from Tuatepere to the trail head. We found that the easiest and cheapest way to get there was to hire a car and park it at a farm 300m from the trail head ($5 donation for parking).
Things to know before doing the Track
Having just completed the Track I think that there are a few helpful things to know for the uninitiated. First, as the Track is located in New Zealand’s Fiordland there is a reasonable prospect of bad weather – cold, lots of rain or even snow, so it is essential to have appropriate clothing. Secondly, even though a lot of the Track is boardwalked, all of the rain in the region means you can expect at least some mud and exposed tree roots. Thirdly, some of the best views are to be found at the optional 45 minute circular walk above Okaka Lodge so, even if you are knackered when you get to Okaka Lodge, this circular walk is a must do. Lastly, the Track is not easy, requiring more than 20km a day over terrain which can in places be steep and difficult. When we undertook the Track there were 11 hikers walking the Track at the same time and, of that number, 3 were sufficiently tired after the second day that they paid $300 per person to get a helicopter to skip the last day. One of those explained that, while she had thought she was fit, she was just not used to spending 8 or more hours either walking up or down a mountain. If you want to enjoy the Track and not just experience it as an episode of endurance, it is a good idea to get enough fitness beforehand so that you are comfortable walking 8 hours a day over sometimes steep terrain.
Day 1 Rarakau Car Park to Okaka Lodge (21km, 7 – 9 hours).
Advised by the Humpridge office that we should start the Track by 8.30am if we wanted to get to the Lodge by 5pm, we were at the Trailhead just after 8.30 and were soon enjoying a meandering stroll on a remarkably flat track through forest. All good things must, however, come to an end and we left the forest to descend steep steps to the shoreline (remember these steps as you have to come back up them on the last day). After crossing the Waikoau River swingbridge (3km, 0.7 hours to this point) it was on to a 4wd track past some beach shacks and then, following the track notes we headed out onto the beach. After about 10 minutes of difficult walking on soft sand and stones the decision was unanimous – back up on to the 4wd track running parallel to the beach. Whilst this was not a particularly attractive 4km, the 4wd track had the benefit of reducing the time it took to get to the bridge at Track Burn (4km, 0.8 hours from the swingbridge). Confusingly at this point there was a DOC sign indicating that we now had 17km and 7-9 hours to get to Okaka Lodge (confusing because we had already walked 7km – we concluded that the DOC sign must be wrong).
Once over Track Burn we left the 4wd track behind and entered Fiordland National Park on a very well maintained, slightly undulating DOC track. After 3km and just after Flat Creek we reached the turn off to Okaka Lodge (0.8 hours from Track Burn to this point). After the turn off, the Track narrowed and twisted and turned through forest before reaching the first long stretch of board walk. The board walk maintained a fairly easy gradient upwards and it wasn’t until it ended that the Track began to get steeper. Thankfully, it was not long before we reached the Water Bridge luncheon shelter and stopped for our lunch break. Apparently there were a couple of kea and some chicks in the area (Kea chicks are raised on the ground and can’t fly in the early part of their life) but they failed to turn up while we were there. After lunch it was time to fill our water bottles at the stream using the rope and billy can provided for that purpose on the bridge.
A few minutes on from the bridge and it was the first of the kilometres to go signs – in this case 5km. We had been told about these signs by a family we met on the Heaphy Track. Their advice had been that the first 2km from this point were steep, the third km to Stag Point was even steeper and took them about an hour and the last two kilometres were steep but a bit of relief from the section up to Stag Point. They were right in their difficulty levels, although we did not take quite as long as they had suggested. We took a break at each kilometre sign, which besides allowing me to catch up with everyone else in our group also meant that we could take in the beauty of the surrounding temperate cloud forest whilst not gasping for oxygen. The lodge was visible from Stag Point and it was probably the thought of a beer and rest which made the final couple of kilometres pass by quickly.
A suitable relaxation period in the lounge combined with food and alcohol re-energised everyone enough that we all headed out at some stage that evening to do the 45 minute loop walk around the boulders and tarns on the summit above Okaka Lodge. We were fortunate in our weather with clear views in all directions. It is the views from this loop track for which the Humpridge Track is perhaps most famous, and justifiably so. I won’t try to describe them as words cannot do them justice. Suffice it to say that I was glad that I made the effort to experience them for myself and didn’t just hand the camera over to Rob with instructions to take lots of pictures (my original plan immediately after finishing the walk to the lodge).
Day 2 – Okaka Lodge to Port Craig Lodge (21km, 7 – 9 hours).
The day began with a healthy helping of the Humpridge Track’s famous porridge and brown sugar. Our instructions the night before from the hut manager on the day’s walk were as follows: two to three hours of up and down through the forest and along the ridge to Luncheon Rock shelter, two to three hours down from Luncheon Rock to Edwin Burn viaduct, and two to three hours of mainly flat walking from Edwin Burn viaduct to Port Craig lodge. We took three hours to walk to Luncheon Rock, not because it was particularly hard but for the simple reason that we were enjoying ourselves and didn’t want the section to end. The track which was predominantly boardwalk, alternated between stunted beech forest and open rock sections providing views out across the forest to the ocean.
From Luncheon Rock it was mainly downhill, interspersed with the odd flattish bit, which at least gave the knees a rest. To begin with the downhill section consisted of a lot of boardwalk stairs – which unfortunately for me and other height challenged people are designed for people with longer legs. Once past the boardwalk, however, I found the going easier, even though it was fairly muddy and tree roots were everywhere, as I could better adjust the depth of each step. We picked up our pace in this section and made it to Edwin Burn viaduct in a bit over 2 hours where we stopped for lunch.
From Edwin Burn viaduct to Port Craig village it was a trip back in time as we walked along the old tramway built in the early 1900s to serve the Port Craig sawmill. It was nearly all flat from here to Port Craig, the only exception being the diversion under and around the Percy Burn viaduct, the largest wooden viaduct in the Southern hemisphere. Both ends of the Percy Viaduct have been sealed off by DOC due to safety concerns and, with an estimated cost of $500,000 to repair, it is unlikely to be open any time soon. From the hut near the Percy Burn viaduct the signs indicating the kilometres to go to the Lodge re-appeared, the final 6km taking us about an hour and a quarter.
At the Lodge we were told by the managers that, provided the seas were not too rough, we were nearly certain to see Hector’s Dolphins in the bay. So, with that promise and even though it involved more stairs, we headed down to the beach. Of course, once we got there it was readily apparent that the ocean was too rough and even the trick of banging a couple of rocks under the water failed to result in a dolphin appearance.
Day 4 – Port Craig to Rarakau Car Park (20km, 5 – 7 hours).
Our brief from the hut managers the previous night had been to get going early to avoid any difficulties on the beach which may be caused by the high tide. So we headed off from Port Craig and through the forest at around 7.30am. As promised by the hut managers, the track was undulating – heading down and then back up gullies to cross numerous small streams. After 2.5 hours through the forest we emerged out of the forest and on to the beach at Breakneck Creek, only to immediately climb through the forest again and over a headland before descending back to the coast at Blowholes Beach. Two beach sections followed, interrupted only by a short stint in the forest. From the second cove the track headed back up to the Okaka turn off and from here it was back the way we had come in on the first day. This time, however, we were the ones wishing good luck to those heading in the opposite direction on their first day of the Track.