Well, it's official. I've got a new favorite walk in New Zealand that's been a bit of secret. And like usual, I'm going and shouting about it to the world. Can you forgive me? It's too good not to share. Can't help myself.
Everyone already knows about New Zealand's Great Walks, because well, they are epic. From the Routeburn to the Milford Track, so popular they almost book out a year in advance. But there are tons of other equally amazing adventures to be had on New Zealand trails, and my new favorite has to be the Hump Ridge Track.
62 kilometers. 3 days. Some of the best landscapes in New Zealand. Few people. What more could you want?
Oh, and tiny dolphins. But I'll get to that later.
Tucked away on the very bottom of the South Island, the Hump Ridge Track is a private track, and really cool and unique collaboration between the NZ Department of Conservation and a charitable trust.
The local Tuatapere community in Southland decided to share their beautiful part of the world almost thirty years ago, and got together to build the Hump Ridge Track and huts and boost their community after many years of trying to bring it all alive. 25,000 volunteer hours went into building the track (and you can tell, trust me!) by the local community along with many more to keep it in ship shape for people like me to enjoy.
It's now maintained by the local trust, volunteers and DOC, and is a little bit different from most of the other hikes in New Zealand in various ways. It's a place I had heard about over the years but never had the chance to visit. I spent three days walking the beautiful trails earlier this summer with friends and couldn't wait to shout about as soon as I could!
Day 1: Rarakau Car Park to Okaka Lodge – 21 km (7-9 hours)
The Hump Ridge is a unique track in New Zealand in that it's private and also in how it operates. Instead of just rocking up when you feel like it to the different huts, you actually book in on various walking pack options in advance, and a lot more amenities are provided – almost like the huts in Europe.
The huts you stay in (if you can call them huts) are a nice step up from the usual backcountry huts of New Zealand, even the Great Walks huts in that they are much more homey and settled, like sofas and fires, and bedding provided, options to upgrade to private rooms, HOT showers on offer, real toilets, and even to buy wine and extra food. There are lodge managers around too!
It certainly makes the tramping experience much more comfortable, and I really think it's a great option for people trying out there first multi-day hikes in New Zealand, or who want to hike but don't have as much experience yet. It's also great for serious trampers because it showcases a part of New Zealand few experience.
Walking with my friend Hollie from Say Yes to Adventure along with some friends from DOC, we went all in for the fully guided walk option. Eliminating all of the decisions and stress of putting together a big multi-day tramp along with walking in style with locals who know the stories and trails like the back of their hand, if you want the best experience on the Hump Ridge, go big.
We arrived the night before in Tuatapere after a 2.5 hour drive from Queenstown to stay at a local B&B which is included, repacked our bags and passed out before waking up to a stunning sunrise and a forecast of sunshine and 30 degree days for the whole trip – what a treat!
Lots of kiwis think of Southland as rainy and cold, but let me assure you, that is definitely not the case. By the end of the trip I was cooked!
On the first day of the Guided Option, you skip the first 10 kilometers of trail (don't worry, you'll walk this section on the last day) with a scenic helicopter flight over Te Waewae Bay before getting dropped off while your packs get flown up to Okaka Lodge! The first day without a heavy pack on the only big uphill? Awesome! Unless you're me, and you fill it with camera gear. Sigh.
It was a bit overcast but warm and with the promise of the clouds burning off by midday when we climbed inside the local helicopter and zoomed over the water to the track. With our guide we jumped straight into the most incredible native forest, stoked on skipping a few hours walk, whizzed across fun swing bridges, stopped and check some of the pest control traps (caught three stoats!) and began the climb up towards the track's namesake, the Hump Ridge.
A stunning ridgeline in the mountains with a big hump in it. Obviously, right? Our destination was Okaka Lodge, the first hut of the trip sitting at around 1000 meters above sea level.
The hardest uphill of the track, it's not really that steep or challenging I would imagine anyone someone fit could make it up and it pales in comparison to some of the steep beech forest climbs I'm used to. Speaking as someone who is never in as much shape as I'd like to be in, the climb was the perfect amount of challenge and was over before you knew it.
Once you arrive in the alpine section, you'll start to notice the bush changing, becoming less dense with cooler breezes sneaking through and glimpses of great views of the bay and surrounding mountains as you make your way to the Lodge.
While the clouds had burned off by the afternoon, when we got to the top there was just a bit of low cloud obscuring the hut and the tops of the mountains, blowing in the wind and giving an ethereal vibe to the day. This was perfect for me because I kicked off my boots, grabbed some tea and cake (OMG yes cake!) and sat by the fire spinning yarns and telling tales with everyone while dinner cooked away.
Be warned, the Hump Ridge might spoil you for hiking in New Zealand! Did I mention I had my own private room with a bed, hot water bottle and pillows? Definitely a step up from sleeping on the ground or in an overcrowded hut with snorers using my puffer as a pillow.
With long summer days here in New Zealand the sun often doesn't set til 10pm, so by the time we sat down to a three course dinner, nothing freeze-dried, the last cloud had blown away revealing the insane alpine views from the top of the track!
Above the Lodge, there is an incredible looped boardwalk that offers incredible views in all directions through the alpine landscape. After dinner as the sun started to dip down towards the horizon, we all made our way up to the Loop Track to check out the views and reminisce on an incredible first day.
Honestly, nature is so often the best therapy.
Day 2: Okaka Lodge to Port Craig Lodge – 21 km (7-9 hours)
Hollie and I started day 2 off with a bang and getting up for sunrise back on the Loop Track behind the lodge. This time we had it all to ourselves and stood in awe watching the sun climb above the bay.
It was so clear and beautiful you could even see Stewart Island in the distance. In fact, it was such a fine day you could even see the beaches on Stewart Island, a rare treat.
And what was even a better treat? Returning to the lodge to find hot coffee waiting for us along with a full hot breakfast!
By the time we set off, we knew it was going to be a hot day.
A long and steady downhill, with a few short climbs up and down as you make your way along the Hump Ridge towards the sea, you'll explore more beautiful native forest and bush along the top canopy, and if you're lucky, you'll hear some great birdsong and even see a kaka parrot or two.
With great views along the tops, it's easy to stop a lot and take breaks to soak it all in, especially with treats and beverages that the guides bring along with them. And chocolate, always essential on big hikes.
On a hot summer's day like we had, you'll be very grateful once the trail descends back into the shade of the forest as you slowly make your way to the old Port Craig village, which used to be a little logging village back in the day. Once you hit back closer to sea level, the trail evens out and you'll walk along old wooden viaducts and old rail lines, something pretty unique to New Zealand walks.
By the time you reach the older Port Craig Lodge, you'll have said goodbye to the alpine terrain and hello to the beach. Next to a beautiful but sandfly inhabited bay, it is pretty inviting for an afternoon swim, especially knowing you can shower afterwards!
With relics and historical bits and pieces around the lodge, you're in for a treat!
Day 3: Port Craig Lodge to Rarakau Car Park – 20 km (5-7 hours)
Most people wake up on day three of the Hump Ridge with sore calves from the long and gradual descent from the day before to Port Craig. Just stretch it out, drink a lot of water and fill up on another hot delicious breakfast before popping your light pack back on and hitting the trail.
Little did we know that our last day of the Hump Ridge Track would be one of the hottest days in Southland on record – coming in at over 33 degrees at its peak. In fact, we have had such a hot summer in New Zealand that the sea temperatures on the south coast have risen over 5 degrees, making it almost balmy!
The first part of the day winds through the forest along the coast, and it wasn't long before I was dripping sweat and seriously regretting only packing leggings for the trip. Luckily before long you'll pop out at the beach and can take your boots off and dig your toes in the sand or swim in pristine bays that you don't have to share with anyone except for the local dolphins!
Yes, that's right, I promised tiny dolphins!
So my favorite moment of the entire Hump Ridge track happened almost at the end of the very last day. Taking my time with one of the guides, we slowed down to be the last ones on the trail towards the end of the day. While everyone was a bit further ahead, we popped out to one of the bays around lunchtime and sat down on a huge driftwood log to chow down on our sandwiches when we realized we could see dozens of Hector's dolphins playing in the surf.
One of the smallest dolphins in the world, coming in at around 1 meter to a 1.5 long with a round dorsal fin, the Hector's dolphins are super endangered.
Without thinking twice I stripped to my undies and ran straight into the water, swimming out and whispering “come to me tiny dolphins!” And they listened!
It felt so good to cool down in the water, and before I could even think about it, dozens of dolphins zoomed right up to me, playing with me in the surf, swimming around my legs and jumping in the air for a solid half an hour while I laughed and cried from happiness. What an incredible moment and way to wrap up a big mission!
The Hump Ridge Track is a beautiful alternative to the busier Great Walks around Fiordland and Mt. Aspiring National Park on the South Island.
With incredible nature, a fair bit of history, a really diverse landscape on what's probably the nicest trail in New Zealand, if you're after a taste of the best New Zealand can offer, head to the Hump Ridge Track. Fun to walk solo or with friends, it has the best of everything and it's no surprise it's one of my new favorite walks in New Zealand!
Have you walked the Hump Ridge Track? Is hiking in New Zealand on your bucketlist? Share!
Many thanks to DOC and the Hump Ridge Track for hosting me on this adventure – like always I'm keeping it real – all opinions are my own, like you could expect less from me!
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