Soon to be recognised as one of New Zealand's Great Walks - a series of multi-day hiking trails through spectacular and significant landscapes - the South Island’s Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track has a fascinating story to tell.
Located in remote and little touched Fiordland National Park - New Zealand’s largest national park - and nestled just outside the historic timber town of Tuatapere, the three-day, 61km Hump Ridge Track takes walkers on a journey of natural discovery across remote wild landscapes typical of the rugged south-eastern coastal region.
Sweeping views of Fiordland, the Southern Ocean and Stewart Island, and heritage sites are just some of the gems to be found on the track.
Unusual sub-alpine flora and fauna, historic viaducts, natural wonders and potential encounters with endangered New Zealand wildlife in the towering prehistoric native forest infuse this pure wilderness experience - and then, there’s the tale of how the track came to be.
‘Viaducts to the Sky’
Almost 117 years have passed since government workers first cut the coastal section of the Hump Ridge Track to provide an alternative transportation route for the unreliable shipping service operating from this remote region.
During the logging boom of the 1920s, another section of the track was created at Port Craig - then the site of the biggest sawmill in New Zealand. Logs were transported to the mill along a remarkable tramway system from the forests to the west, between Port Craig and the Wairaurahiri River.
The tramway system involved a series of viaducts spanning deep ravines.
One viaduct, the Percy Burn, refers to Warren Bird’s book Viaducts to the Sky. Believed to be the largest wooden viaduct still standing in the world, the Percy Burn viaduct is one of many magnificent historical edifices on the track.
Timber milling ceased in 1929 leaving a path of devastated forest around Port Craig - remnants of this time can still be found, and walkers are never far from old wharf piles and historic building materials.
The old Port Craig School is the only building still intact from that era and has since been converted into a 20-bunk hut used by walkers on both Hump Ridge Track and the Department of Conservation maintained South Coast Tracks which link to Hump Ridge.
For almost 60 years the beginnings of the track lay untouched until a big idea conceived by a small rural community set the wheels in motion to bring the track to life.
In 1988 the idea of building a track and facilities was discussed at a local meeting, which led to forming the not-for-profit Tuatapere Hump Track Charitable Trust.
The community used the pioneering spirit of those who had lived, worked and built the town before them to create a plan to help the environment, bring visitors back to the area and regenerate the town.
Over the next few years, the Trust set about raising over three million dollars to help make this dream a reality. Permission from private land owners and government was also needed - it took locals 12 years to break through the red tape in order to gain the consent needed.
An estimated 25,000 community volunteer hours went into the construction of the Hump Ridge Track. It took nine months to build the track, and every piece of the 10km of boardwalk has protective netting - hand-stapled by volunteers.
The track was finally opened by former New Zealand Prime Minister RT Hon Helen Clark in 2001 and to this day is still run and maintained by the Tuatapere Hump Track Charitable Trust.
Since that time many community members have continued to offer their time and energy to the upkeep and maintenance of the track - with the aim of benefiting the local community and the conservation of the area.
The Hump Track Charitable Trust - in conjunction with the Department of Conservation (DOC) and the Sustainable Tourism South project - have a variety of initiatives and programmes that are helping to reduce the environmental impact on Fiordland’s relatively untouched natural landscapes.
Emphasis on sustainability
Sustainability is a key focus for the Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track and walkers are encouraged to learn about the history of the area, enjoy the wild wilderness and immerse themselves in the ‘leave no trace’ philosophy - which promotes responsible eco-tourism.
The Tuatapere Hump Track Charitable Trust also promotes and supports a wide-range of conservation efforts around the South Island region.
One of these is the conservation work undertaken by Peregrine Wines, an award-winning winery in Gibbston, Queenstown.
Owners and staff at Peregrine Wines work closely with the Fiordland Conservation Trust running a conservation programme with the aim of protecting some of New Zealand’s rarest birds including the native New Zealand falcon - the peregrine, for which the winery is named.
The saddleback and the mohua are two other species that the winery is hoping to help bring back from the brink. The Hump Ridge Track Charitable Trust helps these efforts by selling a variety of Peregrine’s award-winning wines.
Unique marine creatures
Another focus for the Trust, in conjunction with WWF - the World Wide Fund for Nature - is the Hector’s dolphin.
Hector’s dolphins - named after 19th-century New Zealand zoologist James Hector - are among the rarest of the world’s marine dolphin species and listed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as ‘endangered’.
These wonderful marine creatures can often be spotted from the track at Port Craig beach, and the Trust actively promotes the WWFNZ’s ‘Adopt a Dolphin’ campaign.
Supporting DOC is also high on the Trust’s agenda. Many staff volunteer to help sustainability efforts in the Waitutu Forest. This includes planting trees, flora and fauna along the Hump Ridge Track.
The Hump Ridge Trust also supports a trapping line along the Hump Ridge in an effort to eradicate exotic wildlife predators such as stoats.
These efforts are in conjunction with Wairaurahiri Jet, a tourism company that provides 90km of exhilarating jet-boat action into the heart of Fiordland National Park. The owners of Wairaurahiri Jet have been using their business to help conservation efforts for a decade and can also provide pick-up and drop-offs on the Hump Ridge Track.
Enviro Gold Award
The efforts of this remarkable project have not gone unnoticed.
In March 2012, the Tuatapere Hump Track was awarded Qualmark Enviro Gold - approved by New Zealand’s official tourism quality assurance authority. The Wairaurahiri Jet has also earned Enviro Gold status for their success in mixing business with community, ecology and sustainability.
Qualmark Enviro Gold - tourism’s top environmental award - is judged on impact and sustainability in a business, community and ecological environment.
Hump Ridge Track highlights
There are a variety of natural sights and highlights to be found on the Hump Ridge Track which takes in Fiordland National Park, privately owned land and links into parts of the DOC-operated South Coast Track.
The track follows a loop route that begins and ends at Rarakau carpark.
The first day from Rarakau to Okaka Lodge is a 19km trek - said to be the most gruelling part of the journey - that takes in the natural beauty of Bluecliffe Beach and the Waikoau River before leaving the shoreline for the gradual climb to the lodge.
At 1000m, this is the track’s highest point and offers panoramic views of southern Fiordland and Stewart Island.
The next two days travel from Okaka Lodge to historic Port Craig for a second overnight stay, before heading back to Rarakau.
Abundance of natural beauty
Throughout this journey walkers can expect to experience an abundance of native New Zealand vegetation, wildlife, beach and bush tracks, natural history and features left over from the logging boom.
Unguided and guided walks can be done on this track - although a good level of fitness is required.
Guided walks cater for up to 10 people at any one time, and walking seasons are broken into three categories - high, shoulder and winter.
Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track New Zealand offers a variety of guided walks and track facilities.
The ‘no-frills’ walk includes one-night stopovers in the bunk-shared Okaka and Port Craig lodges and a bowl of hot porridge, while the more luxurious heli-packing package offers private rooms and a helicopter that transports luggage from one overnight stop to the next so walkers only ever have to carry light provisions in a daypack.
Hump Ridge lodges must be booked in advanced. The changeable weather in the Fiordland region has to be taken into consideration and walkers are advised to bring weather-appropriate clothing for all seasons.
The Hump Ridge Track walk is a rare New Zealand gem with a unique story of creation. The people who made this walk possible have an unequivocal passion for helping the environment whilst giving back to the community - a fact that makes the beauty of the incredible landscape encountered along the track just that little bit more enthralling.
KEY INFORMATION: The Hump Ridge Track
Time: Three Days
Shoulder: early Nov - mid Dec
High: mid Dec - early April
Winter: mid April - Oct
The easiest place to stay and access the Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track is the timber town of Tuatapere itself but the track is also just a short distance from Invercargill (1 hour) Te Anau (1.5 hours) and Queenstown (2 hours).
Day 1: Rarakau car park to Okaka Lodge
Day 2: Okaka Lodge to Port Craig Lodge
Day 3: Port Craig Lodge to Rarakau car park
The track can be walked independently or with a guide but all lodges must be booked before embarking on the walk. Both the Okaka and Port Craig lodges are comfortable and fully-equipped and can sleep 40-people - there are also premium upgrade rooms which can be booked at an extra charge. Both lodges also have a licenced bar and a shop. Seasonal restrictions apply so it is best to contact Hump Ridge Track before planning your journey - especially in the winter months.