We slip out in silence, a lake in the darkness before dawn. Each paddle-stroke ringing infinite ripples, reflecting the dark, wet bush. The moon shines in the bay as the light slowly lifts and, paddle by paddle, we see just how lucky we are. On the ‘lake of the sounding wind’ all is calm. Lake mirrors bush and dawn-sky, as two little packrafts move out beyond the bay, and point straight south. Lake Hauroko in Southern Fiordland is New Zealand’s deepest lake, and although accessible by road, it is little touched by the hand of man. The deep, long lake is well known for its viscous wind, which can churn waves several meters high down the lakes long, narrow arms. But this morning, it is calm.
As the veil of night lifts, Fiordland is revealed, in full charm. Deep Rata burns in the dark bush as the last trace of moon reflects on the small bay, and we push further down the lake, into the growing dawn.
We pass the small Mary Island, where a Maori ‘princess’ lays interred in a cave. Complete with intricate coat of bird feathers and dog skin, she was carefully interred in this spot sometime around 700 years ago. The wealth of her cloak and style of burial speaks of her rank but who she was we know not. We opt not to paddle past the cave and the ‘lady of the lake’ this morning, happy just in the knowledge that she is there, resting. Instead we push on, southward toward Teal Bay.
Teal Bay Hut sites neatly at the bottom of lake Hauroko, but rather than the destination, this is where the adventure begins. Draining the lake is the Wairaurahiri river. A gem for packrafters, and what will soon become a classic Fiordland trip in this fast-growing sport. Over its 25km length, the river drops 196 meters to the sea at Foveaux straight. The steepest commercially jetboated river in the world it offers paddlers a near continuous stream of grade II/II+ rapids. For those who have mastered some packrafting basics, this intermediate trip offers 6 hours of whoops and hollers. A journey through a tunnel of beech and blossoming rata, down a truly wild valley of southern Fiordland and out to the South Coast sea.
And at the mouth of the Wairaurahiri, a simple lodge is run. On land returned to Maori in the ‘South Island Landless Natives Act’ of 1907, Waitutu Lodge offers a spiritual home to descendants of the deal, and a welcome bed to those exploring this wild Foveaux coast. Styled on a Rakiura mutton-bird hut, the basic lodge offers a truly unique backcountry experience. An exemplary model of minimal impact tourism, a visit to Waitutu feels like a rite of passage for anyone wanting to understand how backcountry tourism can function in a positive way. Deep in Fiordland National Park, there is nowhere quite like Waitutu Lodge.
From here we deflated the kayaks and transitioned to walk mode, having thankfully consumed a few days food. After just a few hours walking we began to hit the viaducts. Mighty viaducts of Australian Jarrah stand tall above the trees. Built by a steam hauling timber-baron fresh from the Californian redwoods; the rail line remnants of a once ambitious plan now lie lonely in the Fiordland forest. Rumour has it that one of the steam haulers still sits somewhere out in the bush, rusting and forgotten at the end of a branch line. The mill at remote Port Craig operated between 1917 and 1929, but never truly achieved the yields anticipated. The podocarp forest of southern Fiordland proving more challenging than the dry, Californian redwoods. The ‘company town’ at Port Craig was disassembled and shipped off, leaving just the rusting wharf and the cosy schoolhouse; undoubtedly the cutest doc hut in the country.
After a brief dogleg to see the most impressive of the viaducts (150m high) we begin the long slog up to the hump ridge. Leaving the coast, turning north to close the loop along the ridge and back to the car. And here begin the ‘hellos’. After days travelling through the more rugged sections of Fiordland, we now find ourselves heading counter clockwise on the popular Hump Ridge Track, encountering trampers of a different kind. Cleaner, with smaller packs, these bawk at our ungainly loads, with split-paddles and PFD’s (this is what adventure looks like).
The popular track, a wannabe Great Walk, is billed as NZ’s only private walk on conservation land. The track has been incredibly positive for revitalising the once struggling town of Tuatapere in the post-logging age. We follow the well-maintained tracks and boardwalk, popping out above the trees to impressive views over Solander Island, toward Rakiura and Whenua Hou. Giving the private Okaka Lodge a wide berth, we set up camp a kilometre further along the ridge. Nestled between tors and tarns, we eat dinner tracing our route down over last few days, sitting a kilometre below.
During the night the clag blows in, and it’s amazing how quickly we leave the world behind. Through misty tors and glistening alpine plants we traverse the hump; gone are the people, and the helicopter pack drops, gone are views too. Gone was everything, to the alpine fog. No cares for anything but a cup of steaming tea, behind a limestone pillar, out of the wind. Somewhat forgotten since the Hump Track was started, the rest of the ridge offers wonderful alpine travel along a pleasant ridge from the coast straight north toward Lake Hauroko. All too soon we arrive at the steep track that drops west off the hump and back to our little Teal Bay hut, on the edge of Lake Hauroko.
And so, it ends as it began, on the lake of the sounding wind. Back in the boats under the beech and rata. This time a cross breeze makes us work as we hug the shore back up the lake, past the ‘princess’ and to the waiting car. Not quite ready to leave, we camp a night at the car, before reluctantly re-joining the world.
Jamie was a recipient of FMC’s packrafting training scholarship in 2018. He is a member of the Packrafting Association of NZ (PRANZ) and has also written a route guide for this trip on www.PackraftingTrips.nz