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The boardwalk loop through the tors of the Hump Ridge Track.

Exploring the latest Great Walk: The Hump Ridge Track

Shaun Barnett explores the Hump Ridge Track, the latest addition to Fiordland’s treasury of Great Walks.

Storm-scattered seaweed and wave-washed boulders. Ocean lapping the forest edge, which rises in broad terraces, then climbs again to mountaintops – tarn strewn and wind assaulted. Higher still, monumental tors protruding from the tussock almost like the remnants of a Paleolithic culture. Views across Fiordland’s expanses, one of the world’s greatest national parks. Flocks of kākā, acres of feathery ferns and ancient forests stretching to the ends of the horizon. All of these natural features make the Hump Ridge Track a worthy addition to New Zealand’s canon of Great Walks, those greatest of tracks in a land of great tracks.

In July, Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage announced the Hump Ridge Track had beaten out competition from two other shortlisted trails. Over the next three years, the government will work with the Tūātapere Hump Ridge Trust, which – with DoC’s support – established the existing track and two huts in the early 2000s. By injecting $5 million, the government will help the trust upgrade the 61km track and build an additional hut, spacing the tramp over a more manageable three nights and giving visitors more time to enjoy the area.

A large part of the region’s attraction is the remnants of its fascinating sawmilling past, centred at Port Craig, on the track’s coastal section. Arguably, these give the Great Walk-to-be its remarkable features – perhaps even more than what nature has provided. Viaducts Against the Sky is what author Warren Bird called his book about the history of the milling settlement. And when you stand beneath one of these enormous wooden viaducts, neck strained towards the sky, you can’t help but be impressed. The largest of four, and possibly the largest wooden structure of its sort in the world, the 125m-long Percy Burn Viaduct rises 36m and spans a forested valley. Such a huge industrial structure amid a great tract of (seemingly pristine) forest is a juxtaposition no other Great Walk offers. There’s a compelling irony about this scene: awe at a human structure built to exploit the area’s forests.

The Percy Burn Viaduct 

Port Craig was once the country’s most isolated sawmilling operation, and the viaducts that remain from this era represent, says Bird, “some of New Zealand’s finest industrial heritage”. As well as the viaducts, there are also miles of the original bush tramway (which much of the track now follows), the sea-gnawed ruins of the original wharf and breakwater at Port Craig, bricks, boilers, bottles and – delightfully – the settlement’s short-lived schoolhouse (which now serves as a hut). Here, the teacher used to play his flute to encourage the children to file into the classroom “pied-piper fashion”.

Port Craig’s origins begin with the Marlborough Timber Company (MTC), which ran a profitable mill at Nydia Bay, in the Marlborough Sounds, in the early 1900s. Seeking to expand into fresh territory at a time when New Zealand’s native forests were in rapid decline, company owner Daniel Reese and manager John Craig decided on Mussel Beach – an isolated cove on Fiordand’s southern coast. It lay adjacent to broad terraces holding vast stands of rimu and other merchantable timber. In 1916 (during World War I), the MTC began its ambitious programme to establish a port, mill, township and network of bush tramways in this unlikely spot at the bottom of the country. Fuelled by optimism, the buoyant price of timber and a thirst for great enterprise, John Craig set about his Herculean task, using the latest American timber technology that he had observed on a tour of the continent.

But within a year, Craig was dead: drowned after setting out in the company’s boat, ill advisedly, before a storm, to collect a crucial piece of machinery. Renamed Port Craig, the settlement carried on with a new manager. By 1925, bush locomotives were hauling sufficient logs out over the tramways and viaducts for the mill to produce some 4.2 million board feet of timber annually, later rising to a peak of 6.9 million. While most timber went to local markets, some was exported to Sydney. Enough families lived at Port Craig township that the school boasted (briefly) 35 pupils. New investors injected fresh capital for expansion. It seemed success was certain.

However, Craig’s death came to symbolise all that was wrong with the place. The port was too isolated, and the fickle sea meant transport was always a problem. Both factors pushed the costs of establishing the mill and tramways far beyond the company’s limited capital. The budgeted £20,000 expenditure ballooned to £100,000. The talented contractor who built the Percy Burn Viaduct lost £500 on the deal, and went bankrupt soon afterwards; the timber estimates proved overly optimistic too. As Bird explains: “Port Craig timber was good, but it wasn’t good enough.”

The Port Craig schoolhouse, first built in 1922, and one of just two former schoolhouses now serving as backcountry huts (the other is Whakahoro, on the Whanganui River Journey). It was the sole building left at Port Craig when the town and mill were dismantled during the 1930s, because the schoolhouse was a government building – the only one not belonging to the company.

In May 1928, Port Craig produced more timber than any other mill in the country. But just six months later, the 140 people who lived and worked there were given one day’s notice to pack up and leave on the last boat. Operating the mill simply cost too much. It was the eve of the Great Depression, and many faced an uncertain future. One wrote, “Here endeth happy days at Port Craig.”

This industrial history gives the Hump Ridge Track a narrative unlike any other Great Walk. Certainly it was the viaducts that most drew me on a recent tramp around the trail.

My companion, Otago Tramping and Mountaineering Club stalwart David Barnes, is a veteran of some 20 trips to the area, and has witnessed its development from the rough tramping routes of the early 1980s to a graded track during the early 2000s. Barnes rates the tors on the Hump Ridge as the most outstanding in the country. At first, he harboured mixed feelings about the track’s development by the Tūātapere Hump Ridge Trust. “I liked it for its untracked ruggedness, but as we’d been campaigning against logging in the area, a track seemed a reasonable compromise.”

Limestone tors & a frozen tarn

 

During the 1980s and then again in the 1990s, the forests surrounding the Hump Ridge, known as the Waitutu Forest, were being sized up for more logging, and conservationists like Barnes wanted the area added to Fiordland National Park. International conservation heavyweight David Bellamy added his voice to the campaign, calling the area “an ecological staircase of marine terraces covered in forest”. By 1998, the conservationists had won the battle, and Waitutu became part of the park. Locals from Tūātapere, a sawmilling town in decline, hoped tourism might instead be its saviour. They had already established a trust to restore the viaducts, so why not develop a high-grade track, with the option of guided and independent walking?

The Tūātapere Hump Ridge Trust used some existing tracks, but constructed significant new sections, including 10km of boardwalks, and two new huts – lodges really, with comfortable rooms; bedding and food are available too. Then-Prime Minister Helen Clark opened the track in 2001. It’s a circuit, mostly, apart from a few hours walk along the South Coast that has to be traversed both ways. DoC manages significant parts of the track, and the trust does the rest.

It begins from Te Waewae Bay, south of Tūātapere, and crosses the forested terraces at first, sometimes emerging onto beaches, following the original coastal track used when sea conditions made boat access to Port Craig impossible.

At the Pipi Tuariki Stream, the track reaches a junction where the circuit proper begins. Those walking in the usual anti-clockwise direction take the branch that climbs steadily through virgin forest, and across a delicate wet terrace, spanned by a boardwalk that holds the record for being the longest in New Zealand. As you gain height, the beech forest grows ever more stunted until the track crests the Hump Ridge, where the comfortable Okākā Lodge occupies an alpine basin. From here, more boardwalk leads around the tops, taking in tousled tussock, wind-rippled tarns and those incongruous limestone tors. After a night at Okaka Lodge, trampers descend a long ridge southwards, passing a shelter at Luncheon Rock, and eventually reaching the bush terraces that had so attracted the Marlborough Timber Company over a century ago. The Francis Burn Viaduct is a detour westward; otherwise the track now heads east, crossing the Edwin Burn, Percy Burn and Sand Hill viaducts in turn.

Dawn over the remains of the historic Port Craig wharf.

Fiordland forest, fed by rain, has smothered most of the damage inflicted during the Port Craig sawmilling days. The American technology used to exploit the bush consisted of an aerial hauler, which by an ingenious use of overhead cables lifted logs instead of dragging them, causing less damage than traditional ground-haulers. Ironically enough, the viaducts themselves were not constructed from the forests they were erected to exploit but from more durable, imported Australian hardwood. It’s for that reason they survived so long.

After rounding Sand Hill Point, the track reaches Port Craig itself. A trail leads down to the coast, where the remains of the wharf finger into the sea, and various rusting remnants lie scattered about in the regenerating forest. The former settlement boasts two huts: the quaint historic former schoolhouse, and the newer Port Craig Lodge, really a series of cabins. The final day’s tramp arcs back to join your inward route.

Not everyone was thrilled with the announcement about the Hump Ridge Track’s forthcoming Great Walk status. Auckland-based tramper and long-serving editor of Wilderness magazine, Alistair Hall, had hoped Northland’s Te Paki Track would get the nod. As an advocate for increasing outdoor opportunities in the north, where the majority of New Zealanders live, he greeted the Hump Track announcement with disappointment: “It bumps the number of such walks in the deep south to five – two more than the number of Great Walks found in the entire North Island.”

Hall has a point. Fiordland already has three existing great walks: the Routeburn, Kepler and Milford tracks. If Great Walks are to attract overseas visitors to provinces yet to get their share of the tourism pie, wouldn’t something in the Far North have made better sense? Yes, but unresolved treaty claim issues and establishing a fair partnership with iwi meant Te Paki could not yet be considered. And the other contender, Marlborough’s Queen Charlotte Track, also faced an uphill battle, with significant sections crossing private land.

Read more: The Routeburn Track: A walk on the wild side | How the Milford Track became 'the finest walk in the world'

Tūātapere locals point out that Fiordland is vast. Lying at the southern end, the Hump Ridge Track is some distance away from the national park’s other great walks, which are instead serviced by Queenstown and Te Ānau. Invercargill gains little benefit from those walking the Routeburn, Kepler or Milford tracks, and Tūātapere gets none.

In the past, the Hump Ridge Track has struggled to attract the numbers it needs to be viable. Great Walk status will raise its profile significantly, both here and internationally. Cedric Wedderburn, operations manager for the Hump Ridge Track, says they were “fairly optimistic” the track would win Great Walk status. “It’s always been our long-term goal, and the local community has wanted this for over 20 years. We’ve been operating at about 30% capacity, so we have plenty of potential to expand.”

Much of the funding, Wedderburn says, will be used to upgrade the track along the south coast, which needs the most work to bring it up to Great Walk standard. And a new hut will be sited in the Percy Burn area, giving trampers more time to absorb the area’s fascinating past.

The Hump Ridge Track will still have to compete with the longer-established tracks. Any new Great Walk needs more than just great scenery; it needs a good story too.

How about this one? Timber viaducts, made out of Australian hardwood, were built to extract New Zealand timber to sell to Australians. They lasted long enough to become the symbols of the area, be restored and be part of a locally-instigated tramping track, now one of the country’s famous Great Walks.

It seems more happy days lie ahead for Port Craig.

Making Tracks

The addition of the Hump Ridge Track will bring the number of Great Walks in New Zealand to 11 – the latest step in a project that began three decades ago.

The concept of Great Walks began in the late 1980s, during the early days of the Department of Conservation. DoC decided to develop a few select tracks to a high standard: benched and graveled, well-marked tracks; large, comfortable huts; gas cooking facilities; and even flush toilets. New Zealand’s most famous tracks came into the fold – the Tongariro Northern Circuit, the Heaphy, the Abel Tasman, Routeburn and Milford among them. As a marketing tool for Tourism New Zealand, they were a gift.

The Milford Track has always been popular, but others have become increasingly so, with online booking meaning anyone, anywhere in the world, can book a bunk on a Great Walk months in advance. It took a while for casual Kiwis to realise they had to book well ahead, too. And for a period, hut fees were too expensive for many families to afford, until DoC made under-18s free in 2007.

Overseas visitors outnumber New Zealanders on most Great Walks. With demand often exceeding capacity, DoC faced increasing pressure to add more tracks to the list. Resistance came from tramping clubs and the Federated Mountain Clubs, who didn’t want some of the “second tier” tracks, such as the Rees-Dart Track in Mt Aspiring National Park, to get the upgrade, booking system and inevitable hike in fees.

In 2017, DoC called for suggestions of new Great Walks, and eventually shortlisted three: the Te Paki Track (Northland), the Queen Charlotte Track (Marlborough) and the Hump Ridge Track. While an unsuccessful bid was made by some Taranaki locals for the Pouakai Circuit, in Egmont National Park, it was announced in October that the existing huts and 30km of tracks will be upgraded to create a new Taranaki Crossing, scheduled for completion in 2022.

The 10 existing Great Walks, listed from north to south, are:

  • Lake Waikaremoana, Te Urewera
  • Tongariro Northern Circuit, Tongariro National Park
  • Whanganui Journey, Whanganui River
  • Coast Track, Abel Tasman National Park
  • Heaphy Track, Kahurangi National Park
  • Paparoa Track, Paparoa National Park, West Coast
  • Routeburn Track, Mt Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks
  • Milford Track, Fiordland National Park
  • Kepler Track, Fiordland National Park
  • Rakiura Track, Rakiura National Park, Stewart Island.  

This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.