This track had never really hit our radar in terms of actually walking it, although we had heard quite a bit about it. We have gradually been working our way through the Great Walks and when Stewart island hopped on to our plans it seemed sensible to plan a longer trip South and do both. Getting to this neck of the woods from Auckland is not easy or cheap and it proved cheaper to fly to Queenstown and hire car for 8 days, despite the fact the car would be idle whilst we were travelling.
We stayed in The Last Light Lodge in Tuatapere the night before. Whilst the backpacker’s accommodation is clean, warm but basic, the food is excellent. Try the venison steaks or the venison pie. We checked into the track office in town the evening before and collected our tickets; we were also given a superb briefing of what to expect on day 1.
The start is a 20km drive from Tuatapere and you can leave the car in a parking space near the start of the track. There is a gentle km or so along the cliffs before some steep steps take you down to beach level and across a swing bridge. There is a land rover track along much of this section, but the beach is a far better option if the tide is out. It is a huge, wide and empty space, with waves crashing onto the sand and birdlife filling the skies. Oyster catches wade the shallow. After 10km or so of horizontal walking, a signpost indicates a left turn to start the ascent to the hut. This is where the track loops back to on day three and we had met several people walking out.
It seemed we were going to be pretty quiet this trip, with one Canadian and one German for company. We kept meeting up as we rested for all three days. The first part of the ascent is very gentle and on a boardwalk so we motored through the forest to a shelter for lunch. The forest is wonderfully pristine with lovely trees, great canopy cover and wonderful thick bush and moss on the ground. It seemed very unlikely that anyone had trod on the ground off the track recently if at all. The shelter is by a bridge over a deep gorge: as this is the last water before the hut there is a bucket tied to the bridge which you can throw into the depths and retrieve full of water for the final ascent.
This track likes to let you know how far you have to go and the last 7km of each day are marked off on white posts by the track. It is only 7km from the lunch spot, but they are not easy. The gradient steepens, the boardwalk disappears and the track becomes a genuine tramping track, winding through the forest with tree roots and boulders requiring careful foot placement every step. The gradient steepens all the time and by the time I got to the 4km post I was struggling. The next km took 50 min as I gasped for breath and climbed rather than walked up the track before the hill eased and another km or so took us to Stag Rock and a wonderful lookout over the mountains and the sea. You can see all the track of day 1 from here and there is a welcome glimpse of the hut as well.
After a brief rest, we wandered up and over the final two km to the hut. This is a luxurious place, with hot showers you are willing to pay $10. We had booked dorm beds, but with only four guests and four bunk rooms, we all got a room each – no snorers to worry about. The lounge is comfy with couches and a gas fire, the views from the deck are stunning.
I was tired though and I cramped up later that evening despite some magnesium tablets.
After the efforts of day 1, it is pretty much all downhill from here. The trail guide is quite cautious that it will be hard work, but it is not. Even so, the timings are correct and you do need 7 hours or so to cover 21 km on both days and that is without counting the stops. The lodge serves porridge for breakfast as part of the package so we were well fed as we set off past the tors and tarns and thence down the ridge. This is a lovely switchback through the forest and across open ridges. Much of it is a boardwalk, but some is still a gnarly root filled tramping track. After a couple of hours, you get a final view of the coast (although the best was undoubtedly sunrise from the hut earlier in the day) and head down a lot of steps to lose 1000m to the coast.
The track meets the coast and the South Coast Track after six hours or so, the last of which is a wonderful walk through a primeval forest. The last couple of hours follow an old tramway, across three old wooden viaducts to the second hut. This is set near to a DoC hut, in an old school house. The second hut is just as comfy as the first with the same facilities, but with the extra hindrance of sandflies. The weather had been warm all the time and we had seated profusely in t-shirts and shorts.
This is a doddle if a long one. Another 20km to bring up the total to just over 62km for the whole track. The track follows the tramline, hops onto a few beaches in some coves before it spits you over a headland and meets the incoming track. It is a lovely remote walk, although several people were walking along the South Coast Track in the opposite direction.
The last 10km retrace your steps to the start with those final steep steps up off the beach a kiler at the end of a hard three days. We collapsed at the car and heade dbakc to The Last Light Lodge for more venison.