I found myself thinking a lot about Dennis Franz a week or so ago.
Remember when his NYPD Blues character was always saying “What a hump” or “Mutha-humper” because the show was all edgy-like? Yeah. What a hump.
That described the Hump Ridge Track in more ways than one.
First, the backstory, because the Hump Ridge Track has a great one. Locals in a forgotten corner of the South Island (the southwest corner, to be precise, centered in the rather dumpy little town of Tuatapere, known as “the sausage capital of New Zealand”) got together and created a 60km trail through their area, one they designed “to rival the Great Walks” run by the Department of Conservation. Through volunteer labor, they built huts and swing bridges and long stretches of boardwalk across boggy bits, all with the hope that, once completed, the trail would revitalize their region by bringing in hike-happy tourists.
What a great story, right? A community coming together, showing entrepreneurial smarts, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, etc., etc. The Hump Ridge Track was expensive – they don’t allow camping, so you have to stay in the pricey huts which are $45 a night – but I was smitten with its story, plus my Lonely Planet guidebook noted it had “scenery to rival any Great Walk” and I didn’t want to miss out.
I won’t say it was the most miserable three days of my life, because there was that time I was riding filthy public buses in sticky heat while dealing with unwanted male admirers, intestinal distress and an oozing eye infection in Tunisia, but, well… the best thing I can say about the Hump Ridge Track is that it’s only three days.
It was an ugly combination of boring, tedious, painful and sandflies. The trail was almost entirely in the bush, as in, thick trees all around with little to see. It was hot. It was humid. There were sandflies everywhere, despite the woman at the booking office claiming I might encounter just a few, near the beaches. Doing 20km a day is a push regardless of terrain, but I felt it was a long and brutal march to nowhere, with little to see.
Day One started out on the beach, then followed an exceptionally muddy 4WD track up into the hills. The steep climb started soon after, often so steep and rooty and rocky that it required scrambling and pulling myself up from tree root to tree root. I don’t mind that kind of terrain if there’s a sweet scenic payoff at the end, but the reward was… more trees.
At the very end of day one, I did get above treeline, on a rocky ridge known as The Hump, beside which stands the first hut. There’s a loop walk you can do along the limestone-littered summit of The Hump which was mildly interesting but absolutely infested with sandflies.
The hut itself was basic, full of sandflies with rather worn foam mattresses and squeaky bunks. For $45 I didn’t even get a shower (those are $10 extra), but they did do a lot of talking about the free breakfast… a bowl of the second worst porridge I’ve ever had. I take porridge pretty seriously, because I love a proper bowl of it (really), but this was a crime against oats.
Day Two was all about what goes up must come down. After flirting with the open land above bushline ever so briefly, the trail dropped back down into the trees where the air was thick and hot. I felt bad because it’s clear the people who made the trail put a ton of effort into it… long stretches are boardwalked or have stairs, but they weren’t really helping. The group of three cranky menopausal women on the trail the same days as me were constantly complaining about how the boardwalks and stairs were hard on their knees.
For me, it was a toss-up… yeah, my bad knee started kvetching about the hard wood stairs a few hours into Day Two, but the long stretches of steep, muddy sections that weren’t boardwalked made my ankles deeply unhappy. The worst offense, however, was that there just wasn’t anything to see. Trees. Trees. Mud. Trees. Boardwalk. Trees. Mud.
The highlight of Day Two was a kea, one of New Zealand’s alpine parrots, checking me out from close range on the trail, even though I had the feeling it was thinking “sucker.”
Once back down at sea level, the remainder of the day was an exercise in mind-numbing tedium. Tramlines. The area was once home to New Zealand’s largest sawmill operation, which used trams to get the timber and men and equipment from one part of the coast to another. The trail followed disused tramlines through – what else – the trees for hours. The wood planks and iron nails used to build the tramlines weren’t completely gone and were often hidden under calf-deep, sticky mud or standing pools of tannin-stained water, just waiting to catch a toe. Bastards.
In a desperate attempt to find meaning in it all, I took a lot of pictures of the three wooden viaducts still standing along the tramline, including the Percy Burns Viaduct, which is the largest such structure still standing in the world today. So there’s that.
The second hut was located at Port William, the remnants of the 19th century town where the sawmill trade was centered. There’s not much left of the town, but there was allegedly a pod of Hector’s Dolphins that liked to hang out by the wharf and swim with tourists. I went to find them and was greeted by clouds of sandflies. The Menopausal Three, who got there before me and went swimming, said they hadn’t seen dolphins, either.
Day Three began by being served a bowl of porridge that made Day Two’s seem edible. It was even worse, and had strings of coconut in it. Coconut in porridge is an affront on so many levels. When the hut warden who made the porridge saw me stirring it with something less than enthusiasm, she said “isn’t it delicious?! Vote for it, we’re having a contest!” and showed me a ballot to pick the best porridge of the Hump Ridge Track. Uhm. I wanted to say it was hard to find a winner between the two worst bowls of porridge I’d ever had, but instead, trying to distract her, I said “oh, is this coconut?”
“Yes! It’s great, isn’t it?”
Looking again for an escape route, I replied: “Huh. That’s interesting. I never thought of putting coconut in porridge. It might be a problem if someone was allergic to coconut-”
Like a sudden storm in the mountains, her whole being darkened in a moment. Total shift in expression and tone. She scowled and snapped “Some people are really pedantic about allergies!”
(Note: I have discovered that Kiwis use the word “pedantic” a lot, and much in the way Americans would use “anal retentive” or “obnoxious” or “uppity.” Not a judgment, just an observation.)
To be honest, after two nights of crappy and expensive sleep, without coffee, vexed mightily, with throbbing ankles and knee, gnawed upon by sandflies, I was not in the mood for her and snapped back “there’s nothing pedantic about food allergies. A lot of them can kill you.”
“That was the recipe I was given!” she shrieked and stomped away.
Alrighty then. I’m sure you’re shocked to learn I abstained from voting in the “best porridge” showdown. Good God.
I got the hell out of there quick as I could, mostly because I wanted to be done with the damn thing. More walking through trees. And more mud. Eventually the trail opened onto the beach and, at long last, up 170 stairs to more trees and, oh happy day, the carpark and freedom.
I’ve thought a lot the past several days since doing the Hump about why I found it so disagreeable and decided it was the marketing. I’m convinced the Lonely Planet Tramping Guide writer only did the trails that had access to good trout fishing, because he does go on about what a great fisherman he is and how much he loves it. Based on the fact that he often repeats word for word the trail descriptions found in promotional material, I think he just called the Hump booking office and wrote whatever they said, and they do talk a good game. If they’d been honest and said it’s a long walk through bush, I might still have done it. I’d just be less bitter about it.
Coconut in the porridge. Fer crissakes.