Gem of the South

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 12 minutes

Located on the South Coast Track along the southernmost edge of the Fiordland National Park, in an area renowned for its natural history as well as the history of human endeavour, Waitutu Forest Lodge is one of Aotearoa’s most remote, privately owned lodges. There’s no road leading up to it. You can only get there on foot, by kayak, jetboat, or helicopter. Alina Suchanski joins members of the Fiordland Tramping and Outdoor Recreation Club on the trip into the wild South.

Our trip starts in Te Anau, where we carpool for the 120km drive to Lake Hauroko.

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 12 minutes

Located on the South Coast Track along the southernmost edge of the Fiordland National Park, in an area renowned for its natural history as well as the history of human endeavour, Waitutu Forest Lodge is one of Aotearoa’s most remote, privately owned lodges. There’s no road leading up to it. You can only get there on foot, by kayak, jetboat, or helicopter. Alina Suchanski joins members of the Fiordland Tramping and Outdoor Recreation Club on the trip into the wild South.

Our trip starts in Te Anau, where we carpool for the 120km drive to Lake Hauroko.

New Zealand’s deepest lake, Hauroko (462m), has a reputation for sudden gale-force winds. Its very name means ‘howling wind’ in Māori, and the lake lives up to this at times, as the wind funnelled by the steep surrounding hills can create huge waves in a matter of minutes. Prior to 1930, the lake was also called Lake Hauroto, from Māori hau – wind, roto – lake (Wikipedia, n.d.).

When we arrive, the Wairaurahiri Jet is waiting for us at the jetty, ready to take us for a river cruise down to the South Coast.

Sandflies arrive in droves as soon as we open the car doors, but the lake is as flat as a millpond when we pile into the boat. Our destination for today is the Waitutu Forest Lodge.

Ready for the jetboat ride
Photo: Alina Suchanski

Johan, the Wairaurahiri Jet’s skipper, fires up the two twin-jet V-8 engines, and we are on our way. He pauses several times to recount some of the local history.

He points to Mary Island on our right, famous for the burial site of a Māori woman referred to as ‘the lady of the lake’ by Southland locals, discovered in 1967. The site, a cave on the eastern side of the island, dates back to around 350 years ago. The woman’s body was placed in a seated position wearing a flax cloak with a dog skin and weka feather collar, suggesting she was a high-ranking member of a local Māori tribe, later confirmed to be a chieftainess of the Ngati Mamoe tribe (Duff, 1968). The burial site has a grille made of steel and wire mesh protecting the woman’s remains from intruders.

Hauroko is a beautiful lake, long and narrow in the shape of a thunderbolt, surrounded by bush-clad mountains. But unlike most Fiordland vegetation being predominantly beech forest, the flora here is varied and includes matai, totara, kowhai, rata, ponga, kahikatea, and rimu.

Johan stops briefly at Teal Bay near where the only outflow of Lake Hauroko, the Wairaurahiri River, starts. He lets us stretch our legs before the jetboat takes us to the river.

Known as the steepest river in New Zealand, the Wairaurahiri drops from 180m to sea-level in 27km. Although Johan drives the boat with expert precision, the river is running fast, and with consistent rapids all the way to the coast, it can be a rough ride. Some of the passengers find it exhilarating, but I feel as if I am on a roller coaster. I’m relieved when we get to the end and disembark onto terra firma.

The lodge is in Waitutu Forest on the west bank of the Wairaurahiri River. Waitutu Forest covers some 45,000 ha of south-eastern Fiordland and is part of the Fiordland National Park. This area is one of the largest tracts of unmodified lowland forest left in the country and contains the greatest abundance and diversity of podocarps in Fiordland.

A large chunk of the area is SILNA (South Island Landless Natives Act) territory. It comprises over 5000 acres of Māori land, covered in dense virgin forest, issued under the Landless Natives Act 1906 as compensation for land taken by the Crown to sell to European settlers. In 1972, the owners of 23 sections in the Waitutu area formed the Waitutu Incorporation to administer the land as one block, which currently has approximately 850 owners.

The Māori owners wondered how to make a living out of this land. They couldn’t farm it, and the place was far too remote and rugged to become a tourist mecca. It seemed that the only way to earn an income from this land was to log it. A sale of logging rights to a Christchurch-based company led to fierce conservation battles in the 1980s and ’90s.

In 1996, the Crown granted the Incorporation cutting rights over beech production forest, in exchange for the conservation of the Waitutu Forest. The land and forest remain in Māori ownership and are managed in conjunction with the Fiordland National Park.

The lodge proves to be excellent; warm and cosy, with a well-equipped kitchen, flush toilets, and hot showers – it’s very good value for money. A real luxury is a heated drying room. After all, this is Fiordland, where rain is measured in metres, not millimetres.

Hosts Rose and Pete are very talkative and friendly. Most of us go for a hike down to the coast and stroll along the stony beach.

The next day we cross a bridge over the swift Wairaurahiri River and set off on a 16km hike to Port Craig over the old railway track.

The extensive rail network was established in the 1920s for the Port Craig Timber Company, following the opening of two timber mills at Port Craig in 1918. However, both closed in 1929 because of falling prices, and constant battles against the unforgiving forces of nature. You could see the incredible effort put into building such a network through the bush – the cuttings, the filled-in swamps, and the three huge timber viaducts built from Australian hardwood in the 1920s to support a logging tramway – only for the entire venture to be abandoned.

South Coast Track, Percy Burn viaduct, photo: Stephen Martin

We follow the South Coast Track to the Percy Burn viaduct, which at 36m high and 125m long is the biggest wooden viaduct in the Southern hemisphere (Grant, 2008).

At this point, the South Coast Track meets the Hump Ridge Track, recently nominated as New Zealand’s 11th Great Walk, and from then on, the two tracks overlap.

The last few kilometres before Port Craig follow a disused tramline – flat and straight, with some railway sleepers and old rusty bolts still in place. It’s interesting to see how the forest is reclaiming the space once cleared for the tramways.

Port Craig Old School hut
Photo: Alina Suchanski

Our destination on this day is the old Port Craig school building, now a DOC hut with 19 bunks, plenty of space for our group of 12. The historic building is well-preserved and better equipped with pots and cooking implements than most DOC huts. We settle in and claim our bunks, when a party of a dozen young people turns up, saying there were ten more coming behind them, all expecting beds in the schoolhouse hut. Unfortunately for them, it’s ‘first in gets a bunk’. After a short discussion the party of 12 decides to carry on to the track end. The balance of the crowd squeezes in with us.

The schoolhouse was built in 1920s when Port Craig was a thriving settlement housing the sawmill workers and their families. At its peak, the village had a school, a blacksmith’s shop, a wharf, a cookshop, a bakehouse, accommodation for the workers, and was home to the largest and most modern sawmill in New Zealand. Life would’ve been very difficult for its several hundred inhabitants. With the ocean being the only connection to the outside world, deliveries of goods and provisions were often delayed or cancelled due to rough seas (Port Craig, n.d.).

Some of us wander down to the port itself just before dark along a track marked with relics of the old sawmill. We walk past the Port Craig Lodge, which provides private accommodation to the Hump Ridge Track walkers. A steep stairway takes us from the high ground of the Lodge, down to the beach with remains of the old port. All that is left today are wooden piles and beams of what was once a wharf, and a rusty rail wagon that would’ve carried goods to and from the ships. Battered by the relentless Southern Ocean waves, the port was a scene of many tragic accidents.

The beach is known to be frequented by pods of Hectors dolphins, entertaining those who happen to be there at the right time.

On our last day, we rise early for the 19-kilometre walk to the Rarakau carpark at the end of the South Coast and Hump Ridge tracks. The track goes in and out of the bush, passing through several small beaches before heading inland again. We pass some old cribs on private land, and the final section is a long beach ending with a motley collection of old huts. The sting in the tail was the hard final climb from the beach onto the plateau then some 2km through primeval bush to the car park.

This track, rich in fascinating history, with many diverse elements including Lake Hauroko, the jetboat adventure on the Wairaurahiri River, Waitutu Forest, wooden viaducts, Port Craig, and the beautiful rugged South Coast, is without doubt one of the most varied and interesting tramping tracks in New Zealand, well worth a trip to the very south edge of mainland, New Zealand.

 

Sources: 1.; 2. Lake Hauroko, Wikipedia; Te Ara 3. Waitutu Lodge, wjet.co.nz 4. The Lodge, waitutu.co.nz 5. ‘Southland places – Fiordland’s coast’, TeAra.govt.nz 6. Viaducts Against the Sky 7. Port Craig, doc.govt.nz

To immerse yourself in more articles like this, Subscribe or Log in