Dolphins at Dusk – Port Craig

Dolphins at dusk, pikelets at the Percy Burn Viaduct and poetry at Port Craig . . . the Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track sure turns on the charm, writes Shane Gilchrist of the The Otago Daily Times......

It is three days since I opened the door to a four-wheel-drive, slid the remnants of the driver’s lunch along the bench seat and hopped in, thus turning my back on the beaches, bush and bluffs that vie for attention on the Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track.

Yes, half a week has passed, but the experience lingers long after laces are undone and boots are thrown into a corner, where they will likely remain for a while. They deserve a rest, as do the legs to which they were attached, the calf muscles twitching with lactic acid, that residue of effort.

The brain, too, has its fair share of spasms, random images continuing to arrive in some undefined system of delayed reward: dolphins at dusk, rain in the west, the sweep of Te Waewae Bay, pikelets at the magnificent 125m-long Percy Burn Viaduct, poetry at Port Craig and the patient jostling for dominance of kahikatea, totara and rimu.

Other memories resurface. At Tuatapere, the Waiau Hotel’s massive fillets of Blue Cod, so juicy they’d have Gollum salivating, are digested overnight to the sound of flax being whipped by a mean sou’ wester that brings brief rain on the first day.

And so begins the tramping. Four of us farewell the vehicles carrying the rest of our party and begin an optional 6km trek along the wild Te Waewae Bay. Had we known what was ahead, we might have chosen to be deposited closer to our destination.

The slog from sea level to 900m begins in earnest an hour or so after entering the bush. My walking companion, Jan, makes a weekly commute by plane from Auckland to Wellington where she works as a banking project manager. Though she is good at calculations, she prefers not to estimate neither the steep gradient nor the number of the steps required to reach Okaka Hut

Eventually, our destination comes into view, framed through trees that become sparser the higher we climb. The hut is approached via an artistic series of curves, the boardwalk makers’ concession to design flourish evoking images of a child’s wooden train track. I put off walking the extra few hundred metres to the top of the hill, thinking the loop track can wait until after dinner.

Alas, or fortunately – it depends on how you look at these things – the clouds come in, obscuring the view and rendering pointless any additional effort. It is probably just as well as, following an attempt at a late afternoon nap, my left leg, from groin to knee, locks with cramp. Thankfully, there are no witnesses to the urgent ministrations

Later, inside the main dining room, fellow walkers play cards, chat quietly or ponder the day’s efforts. A bunch of herbaceous peonies, incongruous in a world dominated by dark green foliage, brighten up a corner. Outside, mist swirls around the hut. Combined with the condensation settling opaquely on the windows, it suggests we are cast adrift in some nautical doldrums.

Porridge is downed, sandwiches packed and feet coaxed into boots as the 20-strong group splinters into natural and new-found partnerships at the start of the second day. Some make the trek around the aforementioned loop track and take in a view that encompasses the long sweep of Te Waewae Bay and beyond to Bluff Hill in the east, Stewart Island to the south and the mountains of Fiordland to the north and west, where rain offers an embrace common to these parts.

The 19km haul from skyline to sea begins. The stubble on the face has grown longer, razor and mirror a distant memory. Still, the bush offers other ways to contemplate oneself.

Described by eminent botanist Dr David Bellamy as “probably the most important lowland forest in the world” and accorded World Heritage Area status, the nearby Waitutu Forest features 13 marine coastal terraces, with each level 100,000 years older than the last. Plants once found on ancient super-continent Gondwanaland live here. In comparison, my 38 years on Earth are but a steamy exhalation amid the undergrowth.

The human effort in this area is also worth considering. Pre-European Maori used the South Coast to gather seafood; later, in 1876, run-holders grazed sheep on the Hump Ridge; and in 1916 the Marlborough Timber Company conducted a two-week survey of the area, the result of which was the establishment in 1918 of the first of two sawmills at Port Craig (named after mill manager John Craig). Though a second mill opened in 1921, the venture closed in 1928, then reopened briefly in 1930 only to close later that year. The operation was eventually dismantled in 1939.

The mainly downhill leg from Okaka Hut to the coast benefits from the kilometres of boardwalks built and maintained by the Tuatapere Hump Ridge Trust. Though the impressive wooden viaducts at Edwin Burn and Percy Burn are more obvious engineering achievements, the boardwalks are also testament to endeavour in the bush.

So, too, is the spread that awaits walkers at the eastern end of the Percy Burn. Pikelets, some as big as side plates, lie in a warm stack next to several flavours of muffin, all whipped up by a local volunteer by the name of Julie. The warm, dark hut is a popular resting place. I join Jan, my walking companion the previous day, and Invercargill woman Kath, whose sense of humour helps propel us along 6kms of old tramline sleepers to Port Craig.

There is plenty of wildlife at the old sea-level settlement. Sandflies crowd the airspace and prompt the “Port Craig wave”, a manoeuvre involving furious swatting of hands but, ultimately, spray-on poison seems the only option. At nearby Mussel Beach, the company is much more relaxing. A small pod of Hector’s dolphins plays beyond the breakers, luring a few keen souls into the frigid water.


Later, after venison steaks and Tuatapere sausages have been washed down with wine, beer or water, entertainment of a human nature begins. A quartet from Tauranga conjure forth a skit based on Charlie Drake’s 1961 song My Boomerang Won’t Come Back an American woman gives an impromptu display of poi twirling; and others come and go at the front of the room.

The highlight, however, is provided by Ray Willetts, one of two Te Anau-based guides on the trip. In his early 70s, Ray carries with him a list of 33 poems, covered in plastic to protect it from the elements. Note: the list comprises just the titles; the details are in Ray’s head. All that is required is a brief pause before the words flow. Tonight, Ray ranges from Heading Dog to The Hot Vindaloo, from Broke Me Who’s He Wots It to The Hands That Shook.

The sublime performance, from a man who says he rarely gets the chance to recite, echoes long into the final day. A 17km amble through forest and along beach, it is made easier by the company of Jan and Kath and others. We talk, laugh and fall silent, only to resume conversation.

Having retreated from the world of machines for a few days, we find ourselves more open to others. The background hiss and hum has been replaced by mechanisms of the bush. Like the shush of parent to child, this place urges us to go quietly.

*Shane Gilchrist walked the Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track as part of the Meridian Energy Celebrity Walk Week from November 21-24 and was a guest of the Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track Trust.