Stewart Island: Rakiura Northwest Circuit

I’ve been told that I could write the following and call this post complete: ”Stewart Island. Up up up, down down down, mud mud mud, FAFBAB barfed. The end.” And while that wouldn’t be inaccurate, it also wouldn’t be the whole story. Like, we never saw a Kiwi. And there were beaches and crashing waves and the warm sun shone brightly sometimes. And some fishermen gave us fresh cod and abalone. And some hunters gave us single malt scotch. And the strait was so violently tumultuous that all ferries were cancelled yesterday and we had to spend an unplanned night on the island. And I nearly puked on the gnarly crossing back to Bluff. The fleeting moments that made the trip what it was might be lost if I don’t take the time and put in the effort to commit those moments to paper. So for your enjoyment, and even more so for my own future satisfaction, I’ve composed a proper update below.

Stewart Island’s Rakiura Northwest Circuit, a 6-day anticlockwise Te Araroa victory lap.

March 30, 2018

START: Halfmoon Bay @ 1330
FINISH: Bungaree Hut @ 1810
DISTANCE: 18 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,729 km

We spent the evening at a backpacker in Invercargill, the five of us, all together for one last night. While it is possible that we may reunite at some distant time and place, it is far more likely that the five of us will never again sit in the same room. So what do we do? We clean out the bottle store, watch Pitch Perfect 3, and have a dance party late into the evening in our private three bunk room. It was far less raucous than our hoorah in Bluff last night, but an evening befitting our silly, giggly nature all the same. (I can’t believe we haven’t been kicked out of a backpacker yet for disturbing the peace.)

McKenzie and I split off this morning for Stewart Island. Kirsten is heading back to Piha soon, and Rob and Elizabeth are going to walk the NWC with Rob’s dad and sister next week. We’re hoping to see them again in Bluff as we’re getting back and they’re departing. The five of us shared a sappy group hug and a mini dance party in the entry way of the backpacker. The song, you ask? Tay Sway: We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. Seemed appropriate.

FAFBAB and I rolled out of the hostel around 0900, thinking the hitch to Bluff would be easy peasy. Got to the edge of town and found very little traffic going our way. It didn’t take long for a little anxiety to build in my chest. Our ferry was scheduled to depart at 1100, and it was already after 0930. Of course, I just reminded myself that I’m a millennial and that nothing bad will ever happen to me. Then a car pulled over and snatched us up. Too easy. Naturally our ferry was then delayed for over an hour. Then I got motion sickness during the hour long crossing. Had to stand outside against the luggage bins with my head buried in my crossed arms. You know, because the Universe balances itself out. A little sweet, a little bitter, then all is right in the world.

The walk today was pretty easy, or it would’ve been if I hadn’t spent the whole thing choking back the urge to vomit. Woof, y’all. Started with a road walk to the start of the Rakiura Great Walk, which we followed for the first section before splitting off at the Port William Hut to pick up the Northwest Circuit. From there, we walked six kilometers through dense forest to the Bungaree Hut, which is beautifully situated above a beach overlooking a bay.

The quality of the track quickly deteriorated when we left the great walk, which I expected. Almost as soon as we split off of the Rakiura, the ankle deep mud started and continued uninterrupted for a few kilometers. It was everything we’d been told to expect: lots of little steep ups and downs, relatively few trail improvement efforts, mostly forest walking with some short beach sections, and hardly another soul on the trail. Until we got to the hut, anyways. We arrived to find a half dozen hunters/fishermen and a few trampers. Pretty full house, but the hut is big enough to accommodate all of us. The hunters/fishermen were cooking up some dinner and shared their battered and fried blue cod and their abalone. I’d never had the latter and found it quite good, though I wouldn’t want to make a meal of it. The blue cod I could eat all day long. It was all so fresh. They’d literally caught it right out front of the hut.

Though we were surprised, and a little disappointed, to see so many others at the hut, we were also grateful for the company tonight. Curious what we’ll encounter the next few days as we get further into the bush.

March 31, 2018

START: Bungaree Hut @ 0845
FINISH: Yankee River Hut @ 1740
DISTANCE: 23.5 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,752.5 km

We didn’t exactly race outta Bungaree Hut this morning, but I’m not as concerned about our itin as some other TA hikers seemed to be. They’d just walked the NWC clockwise in like 10 days. We’re skipping every other hut and shooting for five days. I’m expecting that doing 20-30 k days here will be a little tougher than the TA equivalent, but not prohibitively so. And if today’s walk was any indication, then we’re gonna be just fine.

We made pretty good time this morning despite stopping over for a quick break at a non-DOC hunters hut. Made it to the Christmas Village Hut in time for lunch and just as a proper downpour began. Though I could nearly see the hut when the rain started, I got completely soaked in the few minutes it took me to cover the distance. The hut is situated similarly to Bungaree- above a beach overlooking a small bay. But the layout is more open, which I really like. It has the so-called orgy bunks on one wall and a big, open common area with no walls separating the two. Bungaree is a small common room with two separate bunk rooms that are walled off. The former just feels bigger and more inviting. Hope to see more like it on the circuit. McKenzie arrived a few minutes later, and we ate lunch as the storm blew through.

The wind and intermittent rain today made for some choppy breaks along the beach walks. In places, the route closely follows the water’s edge. We hit Lucky Beach around high tide, which meant there were a few pinch points to work around, but nothing too sketchy. I rather enjoyed being right on the water listening to the fist-sized rocks roll beneath the power of the surging ocean. It’s a deeper thud sound than the higher pitch made by the drag of small pebbles in the ocean’s waves.

It rained intermittently, sometimes hard, throughout the day. But I actually really enjoyed it. The thick forest canopy absorbed some of the action, and the rain always stopped for a time between downpours. The sun was often shining while the rain fell. It was stunning to stand at the edge of the forest and watch the pebbles of rain shimmer in the sunlight as they fell. It was a scene that I didn’t know how to capture, but one that I hope will live in my mind’s eye.

We raced the last 11 k to the Yankee River Hut, covering the distance in three and a half hours. Neither of us wanted to walk all afternoon in the rain. Lovely hut very similar to Bungaree last night, except we have this one to ourselves. I got going right away on making a fire for McKenzie who arrived maybe 20 minutes later. It’s cozy in here right now as we listen to the fire crackle and watch her flames dance through the little window of the wood burning stove. So grateful for the dry wood scraps after a wet day. We‘re both exhausted, but not really sure why. The walking wasn’t that terribly difficult, and the day wasn’t that terribly long. Regardless, we got going on our evening routine and have knocked out early. Bed by 2030 tonight.

April 1, 2018

START: Yankee River Hut @ 0835
FINISH: East Ruggedy Hut @ 1625
DISTANCE: 18 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,770.5 km

Another short day today, and pretty easy. Fair bit of ups and downs through woods and mud, but also a few nice beach walks. And the weather was increasingly fine. I wasn’t exactly cruising, but I rarely do on short days where I’m not going to town. What’s the rush, eh?

Loved watching the ocean waves break during the two beach walks today. Hit the latter, noted on the map as a difficult crossing at high tide, right at high tide. And it was, indeed, a difficult crossing. But way fun. And man, it was awesome watching the big waves roll in and crash against the coastline as we bush bashed over low cliffs above the beach. As we neared the end of the beach, I nearly stepped on what I believe was a dying sea lion. He barely moved, though I wasn’t even a meter away. It looked like he was crying, large tears periodically falling from his eyes as he gazed at me, our eyes locked. I just stood there, crying gently with him. Nature is beautiful, and brutal. I wanted so badly to ease the suffering that I perceived, and also understood that I couldn’t. Petty as it felt, I recited aloud the poem “Invictus,” a favorite of mine. And as I turned to leave, my heart sank, anchored by guilt. I wanted to at least offer meaningful comfort. Was it enough to stop and bear witness, to share an unbroken gaze which I can only hope conveyed the compassion that I felt? I dunno, but it seemed all I could do.

We arrived a few hours later at Ruggedy to find it near-full. Fortunately, McKenzie and I were able to snag a few bunks before the remaining members of a large 8-person party arrived. We literally arrived just in time. Love this hut setup. It’s an open floor plan with orgy-style bunks split into two three wide by two high segments, a large common space, and a wood burning stove. This hut is tucked in the trees, so it’s not my favorite location, but it’ll do. Long Harry Hut, where we stopped for lunch earlier this afternoon, was my favorite location so far. It sits on a high cliff overlooking the beach and coast below, expansive views in either direction. Absolutely gorgeous.

April 2, 2018

START: East Ruggedy Hut @ 0735
FINISH: Mason Bay Hut @ 1815
DISTANCE: 30.5 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,801 km

Today was a long haul through some pretty challenging terrain, which is to say the same terrain we’ve battled since splitting off of the Rakiura Great Walk. (Apparently the Northwest Circuit is way more beautiful and badass, which I believe, so let’s say it’s worth the extra effort.) Long forest walks filled with muddy bits followed by relatively short lengths of gorgeous beach walking- typical. The mud has been a staple of our experience, though it’s generally quite firm, a testament to their dry summer months. There are occasionally deep, wet sections of mud, and those often take me by surprise, so I end up calf deep in the stuff, but even that isn’t so bad. There were bits of TA that found me up to my mid-thigh.

The climbs tend to be steep to the point that exposed roots make staircases for the slippery inclines. There are endless slide marks showing where others have slipped, and in attempts to avoid those spots, I often slip and slide, making my own track marks. The descents are more of the same. I often feel like I’m on the verge of tumbling down the steep slopes. And almost anywhere it’s flat, the mud is prevalent. There are dozens of footsteps in the mud patches, and they all look quite fresh, as if there are hikers just ahead, but we know they’re not. There are very few of us out here.

Arrived at Big Hellfire Hut for lunch today and was tempted to stay. It was a sweet hut with a nice porch and a view through the trees. But mostly I was just done-zo. I dunno why I’ve felt so weak recently. I’m just exhausted all the time, and I’ve really noticed it the last few days. I’m dragging some serious butt on the climbs. It’s taking all of my mental fortitude to will myself into taking another step up, then another, and another. I feel totally spent even as I lay in my bunk composing this post. Thirty kilometers on Stewart Island’s Northwest Circuit is formidable, but I’ve felt much better following many of the far more difficult days I’ve walked over the last few months. I’m confused about what’s changed. I don’t remember feeling this way toward the end of my PCT thru hike, but maybe I did. After a short mental battle, I stood up and carried on. The kilometers aren’t gonna walk themselves.

Little Hellfire Beach earned its name today. The ocean was wreaking havoc in the bay, waves coming in fast, stacking up one after the other, breaking at seemingly random intervals. The wind was strong, blowing the white caps off the break. It was cool chaos! The climb up and over the headland that separates Little Hellfire from Mason Bay was a chore, though. I actually hated it; I just wanted to be at the hut and really hated that there was another big climb standing in the way. And this one wasn’t even necessary. They could’ve had the trail climb some, then contour around the end of the headland. But no, straight up and over the high point. The up and down never ends. Ugh.

My frustration waned when we descended to Mason Bay. The beach walks are my favorite, and I think the long walk along Mason Bay was the best of the best. The sun hung low in the sky and the wind roared. It was fun. We saw hundreds of itty bitty jellyfish washed up on the beach, which - more than the cold, I think - deterred McKenzie from taking a quick dip before we reached the hut.

We haven’t done any actual kiwi hunting, so we’re gonna go out later tonight and have a look around. This is supposed to be one of the best areas to spot them. Time for a power nap.

April 3, 2018

START: Mason Bay Hut @ 1050
FINISH: Freshwater Hut @ 1430
DISTANCE: 15.5 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,816.5 km

Rats, no luck on the Kiwis. I skipped the walk last night, because I was totally out as soon as my head hit the mat. But I went out early this morning for about half an hour. Nothing. Didn’t even hear ‘em. I’m thinking Kiwis are mythical creatures like griffins and unicorns.

We had originally planned to race out to Oban today, which would’ve been nearly 40 k’s. Instead, we decided to do a short day to Freshwater Hut where we can spend the night for free, then race out tomorrow and catch the late ferry back to Bluff. Figured we’d get in too late tonight to get accommodation, and there is supposed to be a storm coming. Don’t wanna camp in the rain, of course. We might melt. As a result of this decision, which we came to this morning while we laid in bed looking for excuses to be lazy, we had no reason to rush. It was almost 1100 before we put on our packs and started walking.

The rain came and went, but never lasted very long despite the forecast which calls for storms today and tomorrow. The trail was cruiser, smooth and fast along an old, overgrown, grassy road. We got to Freshwater by late afternoon to find 8 hunters and about as many hikers. If the hikers weren’t taking the water taxi out, we would’ve been outta luck. The hut has sixteen bunks, but the common space is very small, so there would’ve been very little room for us to squeeze into. But the hikers left, so we were all set.

I was surprised to see Foxy get off the water taxi to start her circuit with her Kiwi friend, Baggins. She was one of the first hikers I met on the trail. Haven’t seen her since the start of the Richmonds, so it was cool to catch her by chance.

McKenzie and I had fun staying up and talking with the hunters. A few of them were older guys, and they were happy to share all sorts of stories and history with us. We’d heard tales of hunters spoiling hikers with venison stew and other ambrosia, so we got excited when we saw two of the younger guys return with deer kills earlier this evening. No venison dinner tonight, unfortunately. But they did offer us some real mashed potatoes and peas, which I was stoked to accept. And a night cap of single malt whiskey, which I was equally excited to accept. The wind howled outside while we sat around the table enjoying the company of our new friends and the warmth of the wood burning stove. Anxious about the weather tomorrow, and so grateful to be inside tonight.

April 4, 2018

START: Freshwater Hut @ 0715
FINISH: Halfmoon Bay @ 1520
DISTANCE: 23 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,839.5 km

Woohoo, finally heard a Kiwi call first thing this morning! It was the enchanting sound of a male Kiwi that echoed through the forest as we left the hut. One of the DOC crew played the calls for us from her phone a few days ago. The male is a nice whistle and chirp. The female sounds more akin to a prehistoric velociraptor, so I’m grateful we heard a boy. Actually the forest was alive with all matter of birdsong today. Just the second time this trip that I’ve really noticed the chorus. It seems the forests have often been rather quiet.

We’d heard rumors of folks getting sick at Freshwater Landing but chose to stay the night anyways, thinking it would be fine. Unfortunately McKenzie was sick this morning, which made for a rough day getting out to town. She puked first thing (ending a thirteen year streak without doing so), then battled nausea and fatigue the rest of the day. What a trooper. If she were a millennial, then nothing bad would ever happen to her- like me. Unfortunately she’s a Gen-Xer, so...

The track from Freshwater Landing to North Arm was the most rugged of the whole NWC, I thought. The mud was wetter, deeper, and generally more difficult to avoid, though that could’ve been a by-product of the intermittent downpours we experienced today. Hard sayin’ not knowin’. We started with a stout climb, our last big climb of the circuit. Then there was a creek crossing during the descent. There was a warning sign at Freshwater that the bridge had been taken out and that the crossing could be dangerous in inclement weather. Fortunately, it was just a rock hop for us. I waited there for McKenzie who was trailing more than usual due to her illness. I wanted to make sure that we were checking in during the day to adjust our strategy as needed. She was still trucking along, so we agreed to meet again at North Arm Hut.

It took me a little under four and a half hours to cover the 11 k’s to North Arm, which would’ve been a better spot to spend last night were it not a great walk hut. (Didn’t wanna spend the extra money when we could stay at Freshwater for free with our hut passes.) Shortly after McKenzie arrived, a proper downpour started and we watched for about 40 minutes from the comfort of the common room before deciding that it didn’t really matter. We set out amidst the storm, which only lasted another ten minutes before subsiding. Shredded the last 12 k’s to Oban.

Our plan was to catch the last ferry back to Bluff this evening. We arrived with a few hours to spare, but all ferries were cancelled today. The strait is apparently far too tumultuous for a crossing, so we reserved two spots for the first crossing tomorrow morning, then headed over to the backpacker where we got a few beds for the night. Not what we’d hoped, but heaps better than having to camp tonight. And the backpacker is really nice, so we’re not complaining. The food situation was a bit frustrating tonight. First, we wanted grilled cheese and tomato soup from the local supermarket, but they had no bread. Then we wanted takeaway from the restaurant across the street, but they don’t do takeaway. Then we went to the local takeaway cart, but they’re closed on Wednesdays. Then, annoyed, we returned to the market and got torts to make quesadillas and tomato soup. Beggars can’t be choosers, as they say.