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May 2014 Issue
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Between two worlds

Waitutu Lodge is nestled in the virgin forest on the western side of the Wairaurahiri River Photo: Gillian Candler
Two-three days
Port Craig School Hut, 20 bunks; Waitutu Lodge (private, $30 per night), 22 bunks
From Papatotara Coast Road, along the South Coast Track
CG06, CG07
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Waitutu Lodge (gpx, yo 35 KB)
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Waitutu Lodge, Waitutu Forest, Southland

At the gateway of Fiordland’s rugged Waitutu Forest, sits the quirky privately owned Waitutu Lodge. From here, tramping west through the forest, and with a good deal of bush bashing, a hardy tramper could reach Puysegur Point.

For us, it was enough to reach the lodge. We were tramping the Hump Ridge Track and, not satisfied with a three-day tramp, had looked for options to extend it. On day two after descending the boardwalks from Owaka Lodge, instead of turning east to Port Craig we turned west.

The historic tramline led us in a straight line, over the wooden Francis Burn Viaduct, until after an hour it petered out and muddy tracks took over. A further hour of tramping through regenerating forest brought us to the Wairaurahiri River, where a DOC Hut sits on its eastern bank.

Last century the river was a barrier to logging. So what we saw across the river was breathtaking: forest giants, huge rata and rimu. David Bellamy described Waitutu as “probably the most important forest in the world”. It is virgin forest, growing on uplifted marine terraces. We crossed the swingbridge, one by one, awkwardly negotiating the ‘possum door’ on the bridge which prevents possums from crossing the river. As we descended the swingbridge on the other side, we saw the sign welcoming us to Waitutu Lodge.

Unlike the basic DOC Wairaurahiri Hut on the eastern side, Waitutu Lodge provided us with hot water, showers, and an equipped kitchen. Despite these luxuries, there was nothing flash or glamorous about the lodge, instead it exuded character. The friendly hut warden was keen to show us everything from the 10-minute walk to the beach to the orchids growing nearby. The lodge is set in a bush clearing where tomtits, kereru and tui kept us company. And, deeper in the forest, just a few minutes away, we encountered curious kaka and friendly robins. The sandflies at the beach were less friendly, but this was Fiordland and we were prepared for them.

The story of how Waitutu Lodge came to be is written on its walls, but instead of just reading the facts and a timeline, we were lucky enough to encounter two of the landowners, so got to hear the story straight from them. It started with Maori losing their land to European settlers, then, as compensation, being allocated land in Waitutu Forest. Miles from anywhere, it was effectively worthless in the early 1900s. Finally, in 1996, when the Crown decided that conserving the forest had a value, the Waitutu Incorporation representing the Maori owners signed a deal to conserve the forest in exchange for other compensation. They built the lodge in 1997-98 and both the land and the lodge are administered by the Waitutu Incorporation. The landowners we met had also been responsible for building the lodge. Their vision is to make this stunning natural environment more accessible so all New Zealanders can appreciate its value.

We’d added Waitutu Lodge to our Hump Ridge Track walk, which meant returning the way we’d come for two hours before joining back up with the track and heading to Port Craig for our last night. This part of the Hump Ridge Track follows the DOC South Coast Track, and we met three generations of a family that had tramped to Waitutu Lodge along the South Coast track, staying at Port Craig Hut on the way.

– Gillian Candler