By the time I got to Bluecliffs Beach, about a half hour from the parking lot, my legs were soaking wet. My waterproof pants weren’t waterproof I guess. That was mistake number 1. Or maybe it was mistake number 2.
Mistake number 1 was not leaving until 11:30. The sign at the trail head said it was an 8- to 9-hour hike to the Okaka Hut on the Hump Ridge Track, my destination for the night. Leaving at 11:30 meant I had little time to lose, and I was walking the beach at high tide. A couple times big waves surprised me and soaked my feet. Eventually I went up to the rutted, muddy road that paralleled the beach. It wasn’t much better. I splashed through the puddles, since my feet were already wet.
I’ve learned not to curse the rain in Southland. It’s what gives this place the thick, jungle-like forests, the fields, ferns and mossy carpets so green they glow, the deep green beeches under snow-capped peaks, views just made for photographs and paintings that can’t capture them.
A steady rain fell for the first two hours, until I reached Track Burn, at the start of Fiordland National Park. A group of men were staying at a hut on the creek, planning to fish for flounder. They gave me a can of Coke, wished me luck and sent me on my way. The sign said the hut was still seven hours on. Soaking wet, it would be a long walk.
The Hump Ridge Track proper starts at Track Burn. If you have the money, you can buy a ride there for $30. Otherwise, you have to do what I did, which is walk two extra hours from the Rarakau Car Park. The first stretch through the bush is great, with towering native trees and a well-groomed gravel trail. The beach stretch isn’t quite so nice, with the rutted trail and a series of beat-up shacks. At low tide on a sunny day, it’s a pleasant walk over the sand.
After crossing Track Burn, you feel like you’re entering a different world, a long hallway lined with fern trees, roofed by huge rimus and beeches. You pass a pristine beach below the trail and start what will be a long ascent toward the Hump Ridge, which separates Southland civilization from the endless, unspoiled forests of Fiordland. According to Maori legends, the Hump Ridge is one of the waves that sank the Takitimu canoe, one of the original canoes, or waka, of the original settlers of New Zealand. The Takitimu Mountains represent the upturned hull of the waka.
Much of the Hump Ridge Track is benched with boardwalks covered in chicken wire, which protects against erosion and makes the walking fast. The next day, I would hate those boardwalks, but for now they made life easy.
Mistake number three came when I stopped for lunch. I tried to peel an uncooperative orange and drew blood under my fingernails not once but twice before getting my knife out. The knife would lead to mistake number four. Wiping the peanut butter off after applying it to a cracker, I put a deep gash in my thumb that wouldn’t stop bleeding, though I walked with it wrapped in the folds of my t-shirt.
The trail climbed gradually at first, with rimus and kamahi giving way to beeches, and the ferns and fern trees of the understory replaced by thick, spongy moss. Three bridges cross small streams on this stretch. At the last one a “wee billy” (a small pot in US English) hangs by a string from the bridge railing, so you can lower it into the stream to fill your water bottle. A man and woman were resting on the bridge when I walked up. We visited for a few minutes as I dropped the billy into the stream. The man, who was from Israel, showed me how to guide it under a waterfall to fill it up.
That’s where I made mistake number 5. I had left my water bottle on the railing of the bridge, and as I pulled up the billy, I knocked my bottle into the stream below. My companions told me not to worry about it, that they had an extra, but I couldn’t live with the thought I’d left a plastic bottle in a place like that. I worked my way down the steep bank through a tangle of fallen trees and was glad to be there. The narrow chasm was thickly forested on top, but down here, soft rocks had been smoothed into graceful curves in the streambed, something I never would’ve noticed if I hadn’t made mistake number 5. I straddled a log and reached out with a stick, tapping the bottle back until I could reach it.
Another group of four came up while we were on the bridge.
“How far do you think it is?” a young woman asked.
“Three hours,” I guessed.
“I can do that,” she said, obviously less tired than some of us. She and her long-legged male friend walked off, followed by their two companions, a Korean guy and another from Malaysia, who didn’t seem quite as gung ho. I left the Israeli/Kiwi couple behind and soon passed the two slow-moving Asians as the trail grew even steeper.
I stopped for another rest, felt cold, and realized I was in the middle of a damp gray cloud. My t-shirt was soaking wet under my raincoat, which was either not waterproof or not breathable. Mistake number 6: I brought a lousy raincoat. I put on a polar fleece that promised to keep me dry even when wet. I hoped its promise was more reliable than that of my Gore-Tex raincoat.
Now the trail got steeper yet. The beeches were stunted and gnarled, and shrubs with blue-green needles grew out of the moss. Another shrub had narrow leaves and tiny, red, bell-shaped flowers. The trail wound through the moss on a hog’s back ridge, with the hillsides plunging steeply in both directions. On a hike like this, your brain plays tricks on you. You tell yourself that it may take other people three hours to get to the top, but it will only take you one. It can’t be much farther. It’s just over the next hill, just past that tree. When I was in the middle of my delusional soliloquy, a break in the clouds let me see the top of the ridge, which was higher than I ever would’ve imagined. “I’m going there?” I whined the words in my head, realizing I was tired, and that the people who had told me about this hike were right. Everyone I had talked to about the Hump Ridge Track would moan when talking about this stretch of the trail. Now I knew why.
I could feel my heart thumping in my chest, so I stopped every 50 steps or so to let it slow down. Stupid sports clichés ran through my head. “Dig deep.” “Gut it out.” “No pain, no gain.”
On and on it went, up and up, steeper and steeper until finally, at long last, when I was drawing my final breath … it went up some more, even steeper, until I could bend over just a little and grab the roots of trees to pull myself along.
Bare rocks began to poke out of the forest, which could mean I was reaching the top of the ridge. Ten thousand years after the glaciers, the moss and lichens and small plants and shrubs hadn’t created enough topsoil to cover them. The trail grew a little less steep, and less steep, and less steep, and I caught a glimpse behind me of the graceful arc of Te Wae Wae Bay through the mist. A bare rock spot me a view of the Okaka Hut. This must be Stag Point, which the trail guide says is an hour from the hut. As the crow flies, or the kea, it looked about a kilometer away. Uphill.
Ten minutes later, I came to the real Stag Point, with a Department of Conservation sign telling me I was now an hour from the hut. It wasn’t a bad hour. The trail broke out of the beech forest to the open ridge top, where strange plants and shrubs looked straight out of Dr. Suess. I passed the junction of the trail to Port Craig, which I would take the next day, and another junction leading to the “tors and tarns,” a loop track on top of the ridge. That would also wait until tomorrow. For now I’d take the five minute hike down the side of a glacial depression called a cirque, to Okaka Hut, a complex of two dormitories, a kitchen-dining area, a bathroom building, and a helicopter pad. “Hut” doesn’t really capture it. It’s more like a mountaintop resort – Spartan in its furnishings, but luxurious in the setting.
Val, a hut warden from Argentine, was there to show me to my room. I dropped my stuff then went to the fire to drink my Coke and visit with the long-legged kiwis who had passed me on the trail. They had a watch, so I learned it had taken me seven hours to do the hike, though it seemed like the full nine the sign had predicted. Eventually we were joined by their two friends, who turned out to be medical students from Dunedin and Christchurch, and the couple who had seen me drop my bottle in the creek.
There’s a lot to like about the huts along New Zealand tramping tracks. For one thing, it’s nice to have a roof over your head and a fire to dry your wet clothes. For another, you don’t have to bring a ten-pound tent along. One of the best things is what we experienced that evening: eight people at the Okaka Hut, representing six different countries: New Zealand, US, Israel, Argentina, Malaysia, Korea. All of us feeling proud and happy and relieved to be finished with the hike, if a bit disappointed in the cloudy weather. Val talked up the non-existent view, saying on a clear day you could see from the Southern Alps to the sea, Lakes Poteriteri and Hauroko, the Takitimu Mountains and the plains stretching east, Stewart Island and the Solander Islands. We had our supper – or tea, as it’s called here – and went to bed shortly after dark, hoping for a better view tomorrow.
The night was cold, and I slept fitfully. I had brought my light summer sleeping bag (mistake number 7). In the morning I found out that one of the others had borrowed a nice warm sleeping bag from Val. The hut was stocked with them.
When I woke up, the boardwalk paths, alpine shrubs and beeches below the hut were dusted with snow. It didn’t look like we’d get much of a view, though the clouds broke from time to time to reveal the bay. I took my time and was the last one to leave the hut, getting on my way at about 10 a.m.
Even though Val told us we’d be crazy not to see the tors and tarns, there were no footprints on the boardwalk leading to the loop track. The other six had headed down the mountain towards Port Craig, apparently thinking the cloudy weather would make it a waste of time.
Sore as my knees were, I had seen the pictures of the rock formations and glacial ponds, and I knew I couldn’t miss them. I was glad I didn’t. The lack of a view didn’t detract from the experience. In fact, the cloud that hung over the ridge top gave the morning an eerie quality. The great boulders looked like playthings some ancient gods had strewn across the mountain. Some of the small pools were crusted with ice. Others showed the reflections of the monoliths. The odd plant life made the place even more like a dream or a fantasy.
The only disappointment was that my camera wasn’t working better. I had checked the batteries before I left but hadn’t brought another set. Mistake number 8. Sure enough, an hour into the trip, the red light was flashing. I was able to take a few pictures before it shut down, but I knew they wouldn’t capture the strange wonder of the Hump Ridge.
I never would’ve believed the walk down would be harder than the walk up, but I can honestly say it was. I had pushed my old knees to their limit the day before, and now, each downhill step was painful, and there were a lot of them.
The Hump Ridge is about a thousand meters above sea level, an even kilometer, or half a mile. As I walked down, I wondered how to put that in perspective. I know the Grand Canyon is about a mile deep. I hiked down it when I was 20, but even then I took two days to hike out.
I wondered how tall the Empire State Building was, and how this hike would compare. I made up figures in my head: 150 stories, at 10 feet each, would make it only 1500 feet, less than half of the Hump Ridge. At 15 steps per story, that would be 2,250 steps. But if each step is a foot wide, that means climbing the Empire State Building is less than a half mile up, and less than a half mile across, compared to the 10 miles I had hiked the day before, and the 10 miles I would hike today. So imagine this, I tell myself: You hike five miles, climb the Empire State Building twice, then hike another five miles.
My delirious estimations weren’t too bad. It turns out the Empire State Building is only 103 stories, but it’s 1454 feet, or 443 meters, so the Hump Ridge is more than twice as high. There are 1860 steps to the 102nd floor observation deck, so it’s true that you’re moving horizontally less than a half mile. The analogy – a 10-mile hike plus two climbs up the building – was pretty close. No wonder my knees were sore.
The first stop on the way down was Luncheon Rock, a two-hour hike, mostly downhill, from Okaka Hut. The pain made it seem a lot farther. Along the way, I passed exposed rocks with great 360-degree views. Most of the trail was on elevated boardwalks that made me feel eight feet tall. The weather began to clear, and I could see over the stunted beeches and shrubs to the hills near Riverton to the east, and snowcapped peaks to the northwest. I caught a glimpse of Lake Hauroko to the north, and got a feel for the broad expanse of the Waitutu Forest to the west. I could also see the Hump Ridge, where I’d come from. It didn’t look very far away. Toward the ocean I could see one of the viaducts, where I was going. It looked a long way down.
From Luncheon Rock it was a long, gradual downhill hike, the reverse of the day before, starting with the craggy beeches and moss-lined trails, then to a mixture of beeches and rimus, then the ferns replaced the mosses, and finally tree ferns and kamahi appeared among the rimus and totoras.
Finally, I caught sight of the first of three viaducts I’d be crossing, the Edwin Burn. A sign told me it was a mere three hours to Port Craig, where I’d be spending the night. The hike along the old tram line to Percy Burn, the largest viaduct, was a nice change, a wide, flat trail over the old railroad ties. When I reached the viaduct, a sign said Port Craig was only an hour and forty minutes away.
The Percy Burn viaduct is over a hundred meters long and 35 high, the largest wooden viaduct still standing. It’s an impressive structure made of Australian hardwood, ironically, since it was built to bring logs out of the forest by tram to the sawmill at Port Craig. The sawmill was the brainchild of some Kiwis who had seen some of the big logging facilities in the US. Unfortunately for them, the forest didn’t have the timber to supply it, and the market dried up during the Depression, so the mill and surrounding village only survived for about ten years.
The hike down from the Hump is so varied that it’s like traveling to four different countries. From the tors and tarns to the alpine forest to the lowland podocarps, I saw more landscapes in a day than some people see in a lifetime. Now, along the viaducts and tramline, I was walking through history, yet another chapter in an already fascinating book.
As the trail flattened out, I realized my knees were no longer sore. At the same time I realized my feet were killing me. The final two hours were as close to torture as anything I’ve ever experienced. Every part of my feet hurt, with the exception of my big toes. All my other toes hurt from smashing against the ends of my shoes on the hike down. The balls of my feet hurt. The heels of my feet hurt. The arches of my feet hurt. If they hadn’t hurt so much, I would’ve kicked myself for mistake number 9: wearing an old pair of running shoes on a 30-mile tramp.
It wasn’t entirely my fault. I had sent myself a pair of hiking boots in a package from the US before I left for New Zealand. The package had arrived the week before, sans hiking boots, which had been removed because they were contaminated with vegetative matter. It would cost me 70 dollars to get them back.
Those stupid sports clichés came back again. Dig deep. Gut it out. No pain, no gain. It’s not the dog in the fight but the fight in the dog. Ask not for whom the bell tolls. Ask not what you can do for your country. Just do it. Do unto others…
Every exhausted, delirious step was painful. I didn’t know how I would hike another ten miles the following day. I comforted myself by imagining what a relief it would be to walk across broken glass, or have the flesh on the soles of my feet gnawed off by rats.
Finally I made it to the Port Craig schoolhouse, the ten-dollar Department of Conservation hut 50 meters from the 40-dollar Hump Ridge Track hut. My companions from the night before were all staying in the nice hut, so I expected to be on my own. I caught the chills, apparently from exhaustion, so I made a fire and climbed into my sleeping bag. In the hut was a book about the history of Port Craig, which included the journal of an explorer who led a group of men in the 1890s from Preservation Inlet in the far southeast of the country to the Waiau River, near the present-day town of Tuatapere, where my family is living. I thought my hike was hard, but it was nothing compared to their journey over trackless forest and impassable beaches. On his final day, he hiked 40 miles alone on an empty stomach, from Lake Hauroko over the Hump Ridge to the Waiau River, trying to find Mr. Erskine, the first settler in the area, to bring food and horses to his companions.
And there I was, crying over my sore toes from a ten-mile hike over boardwalks and gravel trails. My feet were feeling better, but now my knees had frozen up and screamed with pain each time I moved them. I knew I should stretch them out, so I reluctantly put my shoes back on and walked slowly down to the beach, my sore toes telling me stop. At the ocean, I stood in the water with my shoes on, watching three seals on a rock pile near the old pier. After soaking my feet in the ocean, I soaked them in a creek. I went back to the hut and soaked them again in a pan of cold water. Then I had my “tea” and climbed into bed. As I was reading by torchlight at dusk, a couple from the Czech Republic showed up. I wasn’t in the mood to talk, so I drifted off to sleep while they cooked their tea.
I expected the last day to be an anticlimax or another day of torture, but it wasn’t. I woke up shortly after dawn and felt like hitting the trail in order to get home by the time my kids were done with school. I hiked an hour to the sign pointing the way to the “low tide alternative,” a beach route that parallels the bush track and knocks an hour off the journey. I had asked Val when low tide was, but she wasn’t sure. Besides, she said, you shouldn’t take that trail because it’s too dangerous. If you get trapped by the tide, and you’re lucky enough to scale the cliff, it’s a long bushwhack to the trail.
I sat and watched the waves for a few minutes, trying to decide if the tide was going in or out. I’m from a land-locked part of the world, so I don’t know much about tides. I don’t know how far apart they are, or how consistent they are from day to day. I don’t even know how many there are. Is there one high tide per day or two?
The day was perfect and the ocean calm. The waves were a long way out, and at least a meter below the high tide mark. My feet and knees told me to take the shortcut. I had survived enough mistakes to think one more couldn’t hurt, so I started walking. I was glad I did, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone as ignorant as I am.
It was mostly a sandy walk, with rocks and tide pools between the beach and the water. At times I had to walk across the barnacle-encrusted rocks, or hop from boulder to boulder where there was no sand. The morning light cast beautiful shadows, and the rocky coast and forested bluffs were breathtaking. When I felt like I should be nearing the junction with the trail, I began to get nervous. Suddenly there was no sand, only long ridges of rock perpendicular to the ocean, like the backs of petrified whales. The ridges were covered with slippery algae and rough barnacles. A wrong step and I’d fall three feet into the finger-like channels of water that separated the ridges, varying in depth from a few inches to a few feet. Somehow I made it across and found the trail. What could have been mistake number 10 turned out to be a good decision.
I expected the trail to move inland, but it continued to cross beaches, with some inland stretches where bluffs went straight to the water. More pristine beaches, crazy rocks rising out of the water, tide pools, forested cliffs… I’d been hearing about the Hump Ridge Track for months, but I never imagined it would hold so many unique and varied experiences. The more famous tracks may have more spectacular alpine views, but I can’t imagine they can match the diverse and wild beauty of the Hump Ridge Track. In less than 48 hours, I’d been from the mountains to the ocean, with a whole set of landscapes and habitats in between.
At Track Burn, where I left the park, the fishermen were packing up from their weekend. The offered me a pork chop and sausage, which turned out to be a fine breakfast, which I ate while talking to one hungover fellow who said he’d lost his shirt at cards the night before. They’d caught 20 flounder pulling nets through the surf. I made my way back to the beach and was ready for the final two-hour hike to the parking lot. As I was talking to another flounder fisherman, a Subaru cruising down the beach came to a stop. Two guys I’d seen at the hunting shack asked me if I wanted a ride. Without thinking too hard, I said “sure,” but as soon as I was in the car, I regretted it. Walking barefoot along the sand had been easy on my feet, and the perfect weather was the antidote to my exhaustion. The drive back to the car park over logging roads in cut-over valleys ended up taking about as long as the walk would have.
I had a nice visit with the two men, and I was glad to be back, but accepting that ride was mistake number ten, and the worst mistake of all. I’d robbed myself of one last hour of freedom and wonder on the Hump Ridge Track.