A high bank of clouds hung over the mountain as the hut began to empty itself of hikers. It made for a grey start to a long day of hiking ahead up on the Humpridge, a little over 900m. I had a long descent ahead with my next bed an estimated 8hrs hiking away at an altitude of just 33m. There was a short trek up from Okaka Lodge to the ridge line and shortly after I turned to head downhill, I was greeted by a couple of kea. Kea are such cheeky interactive birds, and I always love to see them. They hung around only for a few minutes before taking off, revealing the bright orange underside of their otherwise predominantly green plumage.
Looking down either side of the mountain, wisps of morning cloud hung around the valleys and trees within view. I was facing directly out over Te Waewae Bay and Rakiura, surrounded by low alpine vegetation either side of the track. By the time I reached the track junction for the ascent I’d done the day before and the descent in front of me, I was walking through what is generally known as goblin forest, an ethereal type of forest typified by lichen-covered trees and moss-covered floors, where goblins and mythical creatures would not seem out of place. They can often be eerily quiet too, but on this occasion there were regular fantail and tomtit sightings as I moved through.
Back out on exposed ridge line, the descent was easy but the path was narrow making for the occasional jostle as faster hikers wanted to pass each other. There were great views looking behind and forwards, and I could make out the distinctive boulders atop Humpridge for quite some time. It looked stormy inland and then out of nowhere, a large cloud began to sweep up the eastern aspect of the mountain, enveloping the trail as I approached the area known as Luncheon Rock. The view was just obliterated and it became suddenly very cold. I waited it out for a bit, knowing from experience that it would only be temporary, savouring the view when it returned before disappearing into thick forest.
The rest of the descent was through forest similar to what I’d hiked up through the day before. I caught glimpses of kaka parrots feeding in the trees, and there was the sound of various bird species as I descended lower and lower. It took about 4.5hrs to reach the South Coast track at a mere 80m altitude and within minutes I found myself at the first of a series of historic viaducts. This coastal route used to be used by loggers and had a historic sawmill train running along it. The Edwin Burn viaduct was first, followed by the Percy Burn viaduct some time later. On the path between them, there were the hints of railway tracks just about visible through the soil. The viaducts themselves were huge wooden structures spanning wide gullies in the forest and as I crossed the Percy Burn viaduct, I could just make out the sea to the south, peaking out above the tree line.
After crossing the Sand Hill viaduct, the track continued to follow the contours of the coastline. I naively assumed I’d get a view of the sea as it skirted round Sand Hill Point but the forest was just too thick. Port Craig felt both tantalisingly close but also still some distance away. I was repetitively distracted by birds though with South Island robins keeping my company as I negotiated what was sometimes a rather muddy track. The foliage here meant sunlight didn’t penetrate well but being a typically wet part of the country, the undergrowth wasn’t getting the chance to dry out. By this point, the clouds had left and as the track started to turn north-east, I was bathed in glorious sunshine wherever the foliage would allow.
I reached Port Craig just shy of 8hrs since I’d left Okaka Lodge. Port Craig Lodge was a series of buildings around a central boardwalk, and my assigned bed was thankfully away from the snorer of the night before. The only view here was down by the helipad, but nearby there was a historic walk which led through some remnants from the sawmill days, as well as a track that led down to Mussel Beach at the edge of Te Waewae Bay. As I followed the beach track there was a lookout over the expanse of blue ocean and as I looked down on it, I saw a dolphin in the water. That was enough to spur me on to get down to the beach pronto.
The tide was out, and there was a gentle lap of water on the sand. I had no swimming clothes but I waded out to my knees to let the water soothe my aching feet and I craned my neck looking for signs of something break the water. My reward was the little rounded fin of a Hector’s dolphin feeding in the surf. Time and time again its fin cruised through the water and I caught it breathe as it moved back and forth across the bay. Sometimes it was tantalisingly close to shore, and then it would go out quite far till I could barely see it. At one point it was joined by a second dolphin and I couldn’t believe I pretty much had this moment to myself, despite how many other hikers had already arrived at the hut.
I spent over an hour either sitting or meandering on the beach. The dolphins kept me company for a large part of that before they moved further offshore. Latterly some other hikers joined me but they had missed most of the show. I felt so privileged to have experienced that. Eventually I headed back up the steps and walked the historical loop track past abandoned and rusting pits and chimneys. Back at the lodge, the common room began to fill up as everyone crowded in to to make and eat dinner. Once again, the presence of a bar meant I could indulge in a post hike cider. For the second day in a row, I’d hiked 21km, and I’d seen so much wildlife. I thankfully slept so much better that night.
The cloud had moved in over Fiordland National Park during the night and I woke up to a cooler and overcast morning. There was no great mountain to conquer that day but there was still a predicted 7hr hike back to my car. Te Waewae Bay is huge, and the trail was effectively following the coastal margin, although within the forest. The vegetation was so dense away from the trail and I was again reminded how easy it would be to get lost or disorientated if you strayed too far. I spotted kaka again as I moved under the trees then the rain began, and despite the density of the canopy above my head, it made it through the foliage and it was time to gear up in my waterproofs.
Despite the rain, I paused on the beach at Breakneck Creek where I could see the rain moving across the bay. It was steady enough to feel damp, and there was only so long I wanted to hang out in the rain before moving onwards. After another forested section, the trail actually cut down to another beach and the beach became the track. Among the debris on the sand I noticed a rock that looked like it had shellfish fossils in it. Among the waves some jagged rocks were being pounded by the surf but this didn’t seem to deter the spotted shags that were hanging out there. As I moved from one beach to a second beach, the rain began to ease a little and I could see that I was going to out-walk the bad weather. Finally though, I reached the track junction that led up to Okaka Lodge, and now I was retracing my steps from day 1.
Exiting Fiordland National Park through the edge of the forest, the long stony beach beckoned once more but it felt a little wilder this time, with the surf breaking on the rocks. A lone shag rested there despite the steady stream of hikers that passed by. The little beach shacks were passed and the last of the swing bridges traversed. Around 2pm I found myself heading up the stairs to the final forest section, eventually popping out at the car park, highly satisfied and tired.
I have to admit that often the first thing I’ll do when I come off a multi-day hike is to head straight to a coffee shop for a decent coffee. I used to only drink coffee on the weekends when I lived in Scotland, but the quality coffee in New Zealand means I’m firmly a daily caffeine consumer now, and I always crave a decent brew when I return to civilisation. I had good reason to on this occasion though as I had a 3.5hr drive to my bed for the night. Always one to pack the most into my time off work, I had one more adventure to go before returning to Christchurch.