A Journey Towards Fiordland National Park
New Zealand’s unique avian fauna has seen me morph into a bird nerd. I enjoyed the sight and sound of birds in my Homeland of Scotland, but I never went out my way to go bird watching, or cared enough to photograph them. But since moving to a country which has a high rate of endemism, having species found here and nowhere else, I found myself increasingly interested in watching them, photographing them and conserving them. With many ground nesting or flightless birds, the introduction (both deliberate and accidental) of predators has decimated many species causing extinctions or near extinctions across both islands.
One of my favourite places in Wellington is Zealandia, a predator-proof ecosanctuary behind the capital city where parrots, saddleback and hihi are free to fly without risk of predation, at least if they remain within the boundary. I’ve known about Dunedin’s version for a while, but never had the time to visit, so when I made plans to go hiking in Southland in February 2020, I decided to head down via Otago, stopping off at Orokonui Ecosanctuary on route. I’d returned home from a week away in the Chatham Islands just the afternoon prior, which was enough time to unpack, repack and recharge ahead of the 5hr drive south. Arriving at lunchtime, I stopped for lunch in the cafe before heading into the sanctuary proper. Although smaller, like Zealandia, its perimeter is a predator-proof fence, and likewise the birds are free-flying and capable of leaving the sanctuary.
Immediately outside the entrance-way was a wetland and the surrounding hills had their tops shrouded in clouds. It wasn’t long before I began to see birds. A welcome swallow watched me as I walked towards an open area where a takahe was wandering about. An artificial landscape had been created for native skinks and some of these were sunbathing on the rocks. There’s paths of varying altitude and length throughout the park, with feeding stations marked to give an idea of where birds may be best spotted.
I was mindful of the fact that I still had a few more hours to drive that day, but also wanted to get a good feel for the place and cover as much area as I could whilst still being able to stop and bird watch. The feeding stations were a great place to spot tui and korimako, and when I headed into the wooded areas, I was joined by south island robins, a bird I regularly hang out with while hiking. There was a surprising variation in vegetation as the paths circled over, round and down the nearby hillside. Sadly, there were no free-flying kaka to be seen here which was one big difference from Zealandia. However, there were some parakeets which are very camera shy but always noisy.
I sat for a while at a nectar station watching more tui and bellbirds feeding before I found myself at an area with a view down the hillside towards Blueskin Bay. Nearby there were some caged parrots which I found unusual, but I later discovered these were birds that had been rehabbed post-illness, and were being temporarily held for monitoring and wing-stretching pre-release. Beyond here, it wasn’t long before I found myself back at the entrance and back on the road.
I had two choices to get back onto State Highway (SH) 1: go back the way I’d come or cut over to Port Chalmers and drive through Dunedin. I decided to follow the road to Port Chalmers which I’d never been on before. A lookout above the port gave a good view over the port itself but also across the Otago harbour and the islands within it. I’ve been around parts of the Otago Peninsula before but I hadn’t previously explored the northern side of the harbour. I didn’t have time to stop anywhere else, instead making a mental note to come back and explore this headland another time.
It was a long 3.5hr drive to the far south-western corner of both Southland and the South Island. Driving is exhausting, no matter how well rested you are prior. I was pretty eager to get to my destination, with the last hour or so being particularly tedious and tiresome. Finally I pulled into Tuatapere, a small and quiet little settlement which felt deserted this late in the day. Tuatapere is ‘famous’ for the tuatapere sausage, so after checking in at the local backpacker lodge, I headed to the pub to see what all the fuss was about. When you know you’re going to be eating dehydrated food for several days, you tend to savour the last proper meal before a multi-day hike, and whilst I don’t really know what makes their sausage that different from others, the bangers and mash was a welcome feed.
The Humpridge Track is a privately run multi-day hike in the south-western corner of the South Island, starting at Te Waewae Bay before entering Fiordland National Park at its south-eastern perimeter. Bunk beds need to be pre-booked and are pre-assigned, and it is necessary to visit the Tuatapere Humpridge Track office prior to commencing to sign onto the trail. Shuttles are an option, but I had my own wheels so I headed off down the back road out of Tuatapere. Like a lot of hikes in New Zealand, the access road was unsealed for a large section of it. I only have a 2-wheel drive car, but this has done me fine for most back country roads that I’ve traversed. Only when its a steep gradient do I really hate driving on unsealed roads, and this was the case to reach the car park.
When at last I got there, the car park was mobbed and there was limited room to park. Although the Humpridge track is limited by the number of available beds, there are public walks utilising Department of Conservation (DoC) huts that also start from here. Multiple groups were setting off at the same time, so although geographically I was quite away from the bulk of the country’s population, I certainly didn’t feel alone.
With 21km to cover on day one, the track immediately ducked into forest, heading downhill towards the coast. Brief glimpses of the sea breaking on the coast below me began to open up into wider views of Te Waewae Bay. A flight of steps lead down to a lower track which broke out at a suspension bridge across the Waikoau river. I was surprised to see some beach shacks here, but there was nobody around despite a couple of them looking like they were occupied.
Shortly after, the track cut down to the beach, and in doing so, the view along the coast opened right up in all directions. The others who’d set off around the same time as me were ahead now, and in the distance I could see other hikers spaced out along the stony beach. I could also see the mountain I had to climb to reach my bed for the night, a 900m elevation from where I was standing. But I was excited for the three days of hiking ahead of me, grateful to be doing it under a blue sky.