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Humpridge Track – Beyond Humpridge

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.

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Humpridge Track – Te Waewae Bay to Humpridge

I was torn between looking out into the surf and staring at my feet. The waters of Te Waewae Bay in New Zealand’s Southland are home to Hector’s dolphins, the World’s smallest dolphin species. I hoped to see some riding the waves as I strolled along the beach on the first section of the multi-day Humpridge Track, but the stones and shifting sand under foot meant I was constantly having to watch my footing.

 

It took about 1.5 hours to walk the expanse of the bay from the car park at Rarakau. I knew I had a decent climb ahead of me but I also wanted to savour the fresh sea air before the sweat and slog began so I hadn’t hurried myself too much. Once off the beach, it was an easy track that hugged the contours of the coastline, following the edge of the forest where the odd bird began to appear. Beyond a swing bridge across a river, the sun burst through the clouds properly, bathing me in sunlight as I came across a pretty little beach just down from the track. Eventually, the track headed into thicker and thicker forest until I found myself at the junction to begin the hard slog up into the mountains. Here, I was stepping into Fiordland National Park, the largest national park in the country, and one of my favourites. Down here, in the south-west corner of the country, the land feels so remote and so far from civilisation, and I was soon to discover, it was full of wildlife.

 

From the moment I took the turnoff the forest felt deep and impenetrable. A mix of cut trail and long boardwalks, there was a sense that moving just a few metres off track could see you lost and disorientated. For an hour and a half, the track meandered through tall dense trees with the sound of forest birds intermittently accompanying me. Somewhere off to the side a river was snaking through the forest but it was out of sight until eventually I reached Water Bridge Shelter where other hikers had also stopped to take a break. Ahead lay the climb, an over 800m ascent up to Okaka Lodge where my bed for the night awaited. But by now I’d already be on the trail for 4 hours, and with the altitude gain, the prospect was of another 4 hours to go. As I replenished some spent energy with snacks and water, a South Island robin watched with great interest, cocking its head as it flitted about.

 

The climb was exhausting but as I made my way up higher and higher in the forest, I saw flashes of tomtits following close by, and even kaka, a shy forest parrot. At one point I stumbled across a large group of riflemen, a really tiny bird that are normally very difficult to photograph due to their shyness and incessant need to keep moving. I would have been able to snap a photo of this group if I had thought to, but I was so caught off guard at the number of them just partying in the ground vegetation that I ended up just watching them without daring to move. There was a constant tag team of passing or being passed by fellow hikers but despite that, I still felt for the most part that it was just me and the forest and it was total bliss despite the effort of the hike.

 

After a couple of hours, a low ridge provided a break in the trees, and the higher altitude meant the trees were a little shorter. For the first time the Okaka Lodge came into view and it looked tantalisingly close. There was also a lookout called Stag Point which gave an incredible view over Te Waewae Bay and I could see over to Rakiura/Stewart Island. The cloud had moved in and the sun had faded but the view was still expansive.

I was by now exhausted and eager to reach the lodge, so I was a little disappointed to see a sign stating there was still another 1.5hrs to go. I could see and hear kea, an alpine parrot flying up by the lodge and the bluffs off to the side of it, and hoped they’d still be there when I reached it. As much as seeing kaka in the wild is exciting due to their rarity, they are typically shy and hide out of sight, unlike the kea which are inquisitive, comparatively bold and more likely to interact. Therefore, I’m always more excited to see kea than I am to see kaka.

Once more delving into thick forest, I finally came upon the ridge junction that would take me onto the alpine ridge towards the lodge. Shortly after making the turn, the track broke out of the trees and I was surrounded by stubby alpine plants and a chill in the air. To protect the fragile plants here, the track became a long boardwalk snaking across the ridge, depositing me at the turn off to the hut. There it was a drop down of about 20m to reach a beautiful lodge nestled between two ridges with a prospect overlooking Te Waewae Bay. I’ve stayed in many Department of Conservation (DoC) huts where it’s first come, first served for bunk beds, but the Humpridge Track is privately run and on arrival I discovered I had a pre-assigned bed. I was to be sharing a bunk room with a family group, of which the matriarch proudly declared to me that she was a loud snorer and laughed as she told me not to expect any sleep that night. I realised I hadn’t brought any ear plugs with me and sighed inwardly.

 

It was by now 5pm, but being summer, sunset was still several hours away, so after I felt adequately rested in the legs, I decided to head back up to the ridge to walk the Humpridge Loop track. Up at around 1000m, the ridge is littered with large and unusually shaped boulders which gives a distinctive skyline. I could see rain moving in from deep within Fiordland National Park, and the sky over me was growing greyer and greyer. I headed clockwise round the loop, where I could see across a span of mountains to Lake Poteriteri to the west. A couple of mountain tarns sat near the top and a few hardy alpine flowers were in bloom. In the far distance were some tall peaks with a dusting of snow still clinging to their slopes.

 

A few spots of rain began as I skirted round the top of the loop to come back on the eastern side. From up here, Rakiura was now in full view and I could see so far along the Southland coast also. It wasn’t quite the blue sunny sky I’d had earlier in the day but the cloud was staying high enough that the view thankfully wasn’t occluded. I took a quick second loop around the trail before the spots of rain became more of a drizzle, sending me back to the lodge for the evening.

 

Away from the bunkrooms, the common rooms felt packed with all the hikers congregated in one space preparing meals and chatting together. The novelty of this being a private lodge was the cupboard full of dehydrated meals, snacks, soft drinks and booze. It was a nice treat to end the long day of hiking by grabbing a can of cider to wash down my dinner and the evening was buzzing with chatter as people got to know each other. I much prefer hiking on my own, and am incredibly introverted in large gatherings. Nonetheless, huts on a hiking trail are a good chance to mingle and meet people from all over the country and abroad, and so I always force myself to talk to people in huts more than I would in my day to day life.

As I retired to bed, it wasn’t long before I discovered that my bunk mate was not kidding about her snoring. It was like a foghorn. I tried and tried to shut off to it but I just got tired and cranky. After a while I grabbed my sleeping bag and walked to the living room where I discovered two other outcasts asleep on the couches. Thankfully there was a spare couch, and I settled in for an awkwardly positioned sleep in a much quieter space. In the early hours of the morning we were disturbed by the early risers. Anyone who has slept overnight in a DoC hut in New Zealand knows that there are always those that rise early, and don’t seem to care who they disturb. As the three of us were occupying the common room, it was difficult for them to tread around us, so in the end, I acknowledged that it was time to get up. I’d hiked 21km to Okaka Lodge, and ahead of me was another 21km to my next bed. I might as well get moving.

Southland Roadie – Coastal Gems

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a desire to go to Antarctica. This desire has only grown stronger over the years, especially as it now remains the only continent I have not been to, and I’m particularly interested in the geological, climatological and biological studies that take place there. With the cost of travel there being prohibitive, the continent forever feels just out of reach and yet I am regularly taunted and teased with its closeness due to New Zealand having strong ties with the place. So when I found myself standing near Stirling Point, back on the mainland of the South Island, after a fantastic week in Rakiura (Stewart Island), witnessing the Heritage Expedition ship sail out of Bluff, I immediately knew that the lucky souls on board were at least going to the Sub-Antarctic Islands if not the great continent itself, and I was hit by a pang of immense jealousy.

 

It was a pleasant evening to watch it set out though as I stood by the chain link sculpture and way marker once more. I had a bit of time to head round the Foveaux Walkway around the coast and was aiming to make it to Lookout Point, but it was a longer walk than I thought and the light was reducing. I spotted a sickly looking mouse on the track that I presume had consumed something in the many pest traps around the place, and in the trees I saw a tui, a melodic song bird that I tend to associate with the north of the country rather than the south. At a wooden structure where I could see across to Rakiura on the horizon, I turned round and headed back to the car.

 

At the back of Bluff, a road leads up the hill to the Bluff Hill Lookout. By now late in the evening, there was barely anybody there. From this vantage point I could again see across the Foveaux Strait to Rakiura and it was also possible to see how narrow the isthmus of land that leads down to Bluff from Invercargill is. Bluff itself looked industrial as indeed it mainly seems to be, a frontier town that revolves around the comings and goings of the harbour. Heading north to Invercargill, it was dark by the time I found somewhere to park and reached my hostel. I’ve passed through Invercargill before and never really had any great desire to explore the city itself but it was a handy place to call it a night before hitting the Southland tourist circuit. Thankfully my hostel had its own restaurant and bar as I was hungry after all the fresh air.

 

I left Invercargill early the next morning as I had a lot of ground to cover. I headed north then west, cutting inland to cut round the back of the Longwood Forest Conservation Area. For the most part, I could have been anywhere in New Zealand, the rolling hillsides and fields being so typical of many parts of the country. As I neared Clifden, I took a detour off the main road to visit Clifden caves. The cave was in the middle of a sheep paddock and I negotiated the dung to reach the entrance and climb inside. This is very much an enter-at-your-own-risk style of caving, and as much I like going into caves, I tend to err on the side of caution when I’m on my own and never go beyond the lit section even though I had a torch with me. I’m an adventurer at heart, but the problem with solo travelling is that I often do things on a whim and nobody knows where I am if something goes wrong, so sometimes I have to listen to my brain when it tells me to be more sensible.

 

Back on the main road and it wasn’t too far to reach Clifden itself and here the back road joined onto State Highway 99 (SH99), the road that cuts down from Te Anau. I was now officially on the Southern Scenic Route, a tourist road that heads south along the Southland and Otago coasts and up to Dunedin, and I was excited to be driving it and visiting a part of the country I’d never been to before. The Clifden Suspension Bridge was the first stop on the drive and I was a little bit underwhelmed by it. Crossing the broad Waiau river it sits alongside the highway and is the country’s longest wooden suspension bridge. It was built to replace a ferry that used to carry stock across the river. On the track nearby, reams of sheep watched me as I walked by, crossing the bridge and then returning.

 

Reaching the Southland coast, under a grey sky, it was clear to see how wild this coastline could get. At McCracken’s Rest, a lookout over Te Waewae Bay, the sea looked calm with some steady waves rolling in, but the shingle shore and the battered dunes gave a hint of how bad it must get here. After initially having it to myself it wasn’t long before a group of motorbike riders joined me, and although this part of the country doesn’t get the level of tourists that some other parts do, I shared the many stopping points with plenty of other people, a stark contrast to the solitude and peacefulness of Rakiura.

 

Following the coast east, I pulled in at Gemstone beach. This time I was able to get down onto the beach itself and stretched my legs whilst looking for gemstones. I’m not very good at identifying rock types, so whilst there were plenty of mixed colour stones, I have no idea what any of them were. The surf looked rough here and the cliff behind it was heavily eroded. In one spot, someone had even built a house into the eroded cliff, a little part of it visible through a natural hole in the rock. This great sandy expanse is still part of Te Waewae Bay and at the very end of it was Monkey Island, a small bump of land that is connected to the beach at low tide. When I reached there the tide was receeding but it wasn’t quite low enough to get out to the island without getting my feet wet which I wasn’t really in any hurry to do. By the beach is a freedom camping spot so there was a lot of people around and being a Saturday, there were plenty of visitors on the beach too. I watched some motocross riders race each other along the sand and behind them, above the sandstone cliffs, low cloud hugged the mountains behind.

 

Keeping off SH99 for a while, I cut across some back roads and down a gravel track to reach Cosy Nook, a tiny fishing settlement snuggled into a small cove on the coast. The small houses themselves were sheltered but at the end of the road where it overlooked the wild coast, it was completely exposed to the brunt of whatever weather comes across the Strait. I could imagine the solitude being divine but I’m sure the residents have endured their fair share of storms blowing through here. Leaving it behind, it was time to find my way back to SH99 and keep heading east. By the time I reached Colac Bay, another broad sweeping arc of beach, the grey skies were starting to break a little and hints of sunshine were peeping through. Colac Bay is one of the region’s surf beaches and where the highway skirts the edge of the settlement, a giant sculpture of a surfer greets those passing by. Had it been better weather and had I had more time to explore, I probably would have taken a nice long walk along this beach, but as it was I already wasn’t covering as much distance as I thought I would so after only a brief stop to breathe in the sea air, I headed onwards.

 

On reaching Riverton, I took the road up to the Mores Scenic Reserve where I could see across to the start of the sweeping bay that cuts round to Oreti and Invercargill. I took the track through the forest to the Hilltop Lookout which overlooked the Riverton coastline below. This was a popular spot as was the Howells Point Recreational Reserve at the point which I drove to next. I had wished I’d brought a picnic as this would have been a great place to have it. Riverton seemed to be a popular place for holiday makers and campers and I could see why. I really liked the place, with several beaches to choose from and a really chilled-out vibe, and I could picture myself coming down here for a Southland break in the future. Even with a lot of ground still to cover before reaching my night’s lodgings, it was worth taking some time to explore further…

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