The Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track will add to its pioneering narrative when it becomes a Great Walk next year and creates history as the only such walk not managed by the Department of Conservation (DoC).

Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track Inc will continue to operate the 61km three-day loop on behalf of the Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track Charitable Trust when it becomes New Zealand’s 11th Great Walk at the start of the 2023-24 season.

Glenn Thomas, chair of the trust, and board director, says the trust and DoC are getting down to the “nuts and bolts” of an agreement on how the partnership will operate. “It’s a process and it’s going very well,” he says.

Work to bring the track up to Great Walk standard started in April.

Aaron Fleming, DoC’s director of operations for the southern South Island, says since it was decided to make the track a Great Walk a few years ago, much has happened behind the scenes to get ready to start digging holes and building stairs.

It’s been about relationships, he says: working with landholders, iwi – particulary Ōraka Aparima Rūnaka – carrying out track assessments to determine where upgrades are required and developing an initial business case so DoC could tender for the work.

The project is entering the “exciting phase” where things are happening on the ground and DoC can give visual updates on progress, he says.

DoC-funded work includes easing gradients, building boardwalks and future-proofing the track against climate change and natural hazards.

“The end result will be more accessible for more people because as it is now the track is actually quite a tough walk. Our job is to make it a bit easier,” says Fleming.

Uphill grind

The path to becoming a Great Walk has had challenges. The project is a year behind largely because of Covid and costs have increased.

When the intended change in status was announced in 2019, DoC allocated $5 million for upgrades. But after “more detailed scoping”, the estimated cost has climbed to $7.9 million, says Fleming, and could go higher once a detailed business case has been confirmed.

Rises in material, labour and fuel costs have also pushed up the price.

As costs mounted, plans to add a hut and make it a four-day hike were shelved. When track improvements were factored in, the extra day was deemed not necessary, he says.

As details of the partnership with DoC continue to be worked through, the trust’s non-negotiables include keeping the original booking system and business plan, says Thomas.

DoC’s booking system is considered inflexible and unable to provide Hump Ridge trampers with the desired range of options from basic to upmarket.

Hump Ridge walkers are able to pay for home comforts such as hot showers, a double bed and pre-booked meals with wine at the track’s two Okaka and Port Craig lodges.

About community

The track makes a profit, unlike most of the Great Walks, with revenue being reinvested in the Tuatapere and Waiau communities. Thomas says the trust wants to continue that successful model.

“The Hump Ridge Track was created by the community for the community and that is something that Great Walk status is not going to change,” he says.

The trust subsidises camps for students of the two schools in the Waiau valley, and it wants to provide more support to the area’s young and old, Thomas says.

As services are centralised and lost, the town’s elderly in particular are having to move away for such necessities as medical care, he says. The trust wants to help fund services that will allow them to stay.

Hump Ridge Tarn. Photo: DoC/Chris Rance

For the younger generation, it might, for example, financially support a local child with a special talent where their parents aren’t in the position to do so.

Roots in adversity

In its heyday, Tuatapere was a bustling town with more than 30 sawmills. But when the government ended native-timber milling in the mid-1980s, all but one mill shut. That coincided with a farming downturn.

Fearing it could become a ghost town, locals got together in the late 1980s to create the Hump Ridge Track as a source of employment and tourism dollars.

Don Brown, the only original member of the trust that was formed in 1994 to pay for and build the track, says raising the money and doing the work took time.

With the money in the bank and screeds of required paper work done, track building took 12 months to build. Getting there involved numerous resource consents to allow the track to traverse, iwi and private land as well as the DoC-administrated national park.

Fifty to 60 volunteers toiled over the track.

“The volunteer hours were quite horrendous – I think they totalled 30,000 when it opened,” says Brown.

They were fortunate to receive a lot of government and local government backing, he says.

The prime minister, Helen Clark, who opened the track in 2001, and Southland mayor, Frana Cardno, “pushed a lot to get the final bit of money for us”, says Brown.

“I think Frana dug her [Clark] in the ribs and said, ‘Hey, what about another $500,000 to make sure we get it going,’” says Brown.

Great Walk brand

The track has grown in popularity since it was announced that it was to become a Great Walk and strong bookings continue this season. “The exposure it has given us so far has been very beneficial,” says Thomas.

Domestic walker numbers have also climbed as a result of Covid border closures.

Once visitors start to come back to New Zealand, Fleming expects Hump Ridge to join its Great Walk neighbours the Kepler, Routeburn and Milford tracks as one that overseas walkers will want to tick off.

Summit to sea … Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track traverses alpine and coastal parts of Fiordland. Photo: DoC/Brian Dobbie

The track’s allure

Although in Fiordland, the Hump Ridge Track is very different from the other three Great Walks in the area, says Fleming.

“It offers everything because it has sections of coastal environment, alpine environment with the biodiversity of alpine plants, and there is a strong heritage story.” Walkers pass through stunning scenery that takes in sub-alpine wilderness and sea-level views.

Walked anticlockwise, the first day follows the coastline, climbing to almost 1000m before reaching Okaka Lodge. Day two follows a ridgeline south, then turns east and crosses historic viaducts before ending at Port Craig Lodge. The final day takes trampers north again, mainly close to the shore.

The track is 21km from Tuatapere, an hour’s drive from Invercargill, 90 minutes from Te Anau and two and a half hours from Queenstown.

Rural struggle is real

George Harpur, a Southland District councillor, is hopeful Great Walk status for the track might “slow Tuatapere’s decline and even reverse it”.

Like any other rural New Zealand town, it is struggling as services are centralised and can do with a boost.

Another positive development in the town is the planned recladding of its railway station, which will help preserve it.

“We are not all doom and gloom around the place. We are not walking around looking for pennies in the footpath. We are looking around for things to do.”

Tuatapere Te Waewae community board chair Margaret Thomas says two cafes in the town are due to reopen soon after changes in ownership and makeovers, and there have been signage updates for some shorter walks in the district.

She says the Hump Ridge Track has created more through traffic and accommodation opportunities for the town.

Says Glenn Thomas: “Having lived here all my life, knowing how hard it was to get off the ground and how many local people have given hundreds of hours making it happen, to see this is extremely satisfying.”

Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund

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