“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” As I took my first few steps out of the backpackers in Oban on Stewart Island/Rakiura I kept reminding myself of this famous quote by mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary everytime the nerves threatened to overwhelm me.
I was setting off on a continuous circumnavigation of Stewart Island/Rakiura, tramping the Southern & North-West Circuits solo. Tramping on Stewart Island/Rakiura has been on my wish list for years as Rakiura National Park is a very unique place and this quote by the Minister of Conservation in 2001 sums it up: “We now have a national park of unspoiled native ecosystems from the mountain tops to the sea in a full circle around the compass. It is the only one like it in the world.” However, never did I envisage I would have the confidence to make the journey solo. It was a decent step up for me as my longest tramping trip so far had been 6 days with the club and the longest solo trip had been 3 days. I was planning to spread my trip over 12 days as I wanted to take it slowly and do the purist route – walk Oban to Oban including all the side trips and not use a water taxi either end. I also didn’t want to skip any sections out.
The day before I left I went into the Rakiura DoC Visitor Centre to check up on track conditions. Possibly getting a bit concerned after learning I was going solo, they wound up giving me a full briefing which I have to admit scared me witless. They talked to me about quick-sand, long hard days and how I might get myself stuck so deep in mud that a solo extraction might be difficult. Unfortunately my imagination ran wild with this and now I was having terrifying visions of having to activate my PLB because I was reenacting that game from my childhood of “stuck in the mud”…………I was starting to have doubts now but kept repeating that quote by Sir Edmund Hillary to myself and reminding myself of all the tramping I had done over the last few years.
So there I was on day 1 leaving the backpackers in Oban nervously checking my heavy pack multiple times to ensure I hadn’t left anything behind as I was heading into the bush for 12 days! Woohoo!! I was headed towards Freshwater Hut for the night, aiming to have an early lunch at North Arm Hut which is on the Rakiura Great Walk. I met many trampers finishing the Rakiura Track as I was walking in – they were all very interested in what I was going to do especially since I was solo so I spent a good portion of that morning in a stop-start motion.
Once off the Great Walk, the track became more rugged. Tree roots and rocks to clamber over which I had been really looking forward to after the well groomed Rakiura Track. I made it to Freshwater Hut and promptly got chased inside by a swarm of bees that were intent on hunting me down because of my blue pack and t-shirt. I was now regretting my blue t-shirt choice but it was too late to do anything about that now! Those bees would make a constant appearance throughout the trip.
Inside the hut I met a few people who were waiting for a water-taxi pick-up, including one local who took much delight in warning me about a chest-deep mud hole on Mt Adams but didn’t want to tell me exactly where it was because he said it was a rite of passage to let people inadvertently walk into it, as a number of locals had. Uh oh!! I tried to weasel more details out of him but he was keeping mum on it and instead kept up a steady stream of warnings about knowing how to read the mud or suffer the perils of deep submersion. I decided I would cross that bridge when I came to it……….Mostly to escape his dire warnings I decided I would burn off my excess energy by doing the side trip up Rocky Mountain which gave fab views of Freshwater River snaking its way out to Paterson Inlet & the Freshwater Flats that I would cross the next day to Mason Bay Hut.
Day 2 was super cruisy but not without a few challenges to keep me on my toes. The first challenge of the day was battling the bees in the toilet & boot room – one person had written in the hut book that the “toilet could be in a Stephen King novel about bees” and another had rated it as the “best DoC toilet in NZ so far.” The floor of the toilet was alive and moving as it had been completely coated in bees and the boot room was like playing a round of fear factor. I was glad to get across the swing bridge and head off on my way to Mason Bay Hut…….little did I know the bees had a few more nasty surprises in store for me.
The walk between Mason & Freshwater consists of tussock and manuka flats that is prone to flooding so it has little signs that indicate when the water level on the track would make it too dangerous to proceed. The track was pretty dry and I caught up with a group of nurses from Whangarei doing the North West Circuit just before the historic woolshed where we all stopped to have lunch together. We sat inside the woolshed to escape the ever present bees, enjoying the faint traces of lanolin still in the air. From here it was a short walk to the historic Homestead and onto Mason Bay Hut where even more bees were waiting – I set a record and got stung by a bee no less than 5 minutes after arriving at the hut.
Mason Bay is known as a kiwi hotspot so that night I went out kiwi spotting but had no luck initially – I was walking back to the hut feeling a bit disappointed at having not seen any kiwi when I nearly tripped over a poor unsuspecting kiwi on the lawn of the Homestead and a few minutes later I saw another kiwi happily hunting for food right next to the track! It was the first of many kiwi to come and I was buzzing when I finally trotted back to the hut.
On day 3 I was finally heading off the beaten path a bit more and starting my loop around the Southern Circuit. It was an hour of beach walking before entering the bush but before leaving the beach I decided to do the side-trip out to the Gutter and Kilbride since the tide was low. I had lots of fun at Kilbrite playing on the buoy swing hanging from a tree there and enjoyed the walk out to the Gutter. From the Gutter you could jump right across to Ernest Islands at low tide. There were lots of pilot whale skulls along the beach from a stranding a number of years ago which was heart-breaking to see. Unfortunately Stewart Island has had a number of pilot whale strandings over the years as the gently shelving waters distort their echolocation signals.
Once I was back on the track I started up the hill happy to be finally getting into a steady climb but before I could set into a good rhythm I fell backwards off a fallen tree that I had been trying to clamber over. Feeling annoyed at my very clumsiness, I stopped to get my first-aid kit out when suddenly a kiwi emerged from the ferns and nearly ran across my feet – I held my breath and tried to do my best impression of a statue while trying to ignore the throbbing pain in my elbow from my fall.
Back on my way up Mt Adams, the mud was getting progressively deeper and I was testing the depth of it with my walking pole remembering all the dire warnings about the mud monster. I eventually found that infamous mud hole the local had warned me about – when I put my pole down to test the depth of some mud it completely disappeared – I reckon it would have easily been chest deep as my pole could have gone down further still but I didn’t want to lose it! Luckily there was an easy way to go around this mud hole. I felt very sorry for all the people who have unwittingly walked straight into that…….
Up on Mt Adams, it was pretty boggy……above knee-deep mud at times but I often found ways to skirt around it. There were clear views across to the Tin Range, down to the Gutter & Doughboy Bay. On arriving at Doughboy Hut there was a group of friendly hunters who cooked blue cod for us all that night. I put up my tent for the night as the French group I had met at Freshwater Hut who were doing the Southern Circuit in the other direction from me arrived and they didn’t have mattresses or tents.
On Day 4 I wandered along to Rakeahua Hut and did a trip up Mt Rakeahua. It was so windy up there that I was struggling to stand up (made me miss Wellington a bit!) but I had good visibility – views of the South West Arm and the flats between Freshwater and Mason Bay huts. By the time I wandered back down at around 8pm a group of 4 had turned up at the hut after being dropped off by the water taxi at Fred’s Camp.
On Day 5 I planned to go all the way through to Freshwater Hut as I knew some rain was coming on Monday night/Tuesday morning and the section from Fred’s Camp Hut & Freshwater Hut was prone to flooding after heavy rain. The first hour out of Rakeahua Hut was very muddy but the group I had met at the hut the night before had put some logs down that I could jump along – sometimes I misread the mud and found myself in thigh deep mud. I learnt to just embrace the mud monster and go with it. Not long before Fred’s Camp Hut I decided to have lunch as it was getting a bit late to wait until the hut – I ended up having company for lunch with a kiwi turning up and hanging around me for the entire time!! I guess I wasn’t really solo after all! It was pretty special and one of my favourite memories from the trip.
At Fred’s Camp there was a group of hunters again with lots of gear and I even spotted some of their camouflaged trail cameras secured to trees. They probably have some rather unusual footage as I initially had no idea what the devices were and went closer to investigate them wondering if it was some sort of tracking device for DoC. Just after Fred’s Camp I got a surprise when there was lots of rustling just off the track which I thought was a deer only to have two people emerge from the trees – they were DoC workers looking for sea lions pups. I told them the French group had seen sea-lion pups in the bush near Doughboy Bay. I continued on my way to Freshwater Hut enjoying all the different shades of green amongst the ferns. After crossing the swing bridge over Tolson River I found myself in a very swampy valley, probably best described as bogfields. I have vivid memories of spending that afternoon getting chased through waist deep bog at times by a swarm of angry bees. I didn’t even stop for a break as those bees were determined to hunt me down and just didn’t give up! It was a relief to see Freshwater Hut and scamper inside while leaving my cloud of angry bees outside! Someone wrote in Freshwater Hut book that there “wasn’t enough mud – want a refund” – the mud wasn’t anywhere as bad as I expected that’s for sure but I imagine in winter it could be pretty interesting out there.
We had 10 people in Freshwater Hut that night – most of them had come from Mason Bay hut after being flown in and were getting the water taxi out the next day. I was extremely grateful for them as my food and gas drop was hitching a ride off their water taxi service. We all lazed around the next morning as the taxi wasn’t due until 11:30 to fit in with the tidal times. This lovely group of people offered to take my rubbish out and then donated me a surplus cucumber. Best cucumber I have ever had as I was really missing fresh fruit and veges by then and I had been so envious when I had seen them with it the night before!
Once the boat turned up and I repacked my bag to include my new food cache and gas canisters I was off across Freshwater Flats again to Mason Bay Hut just as the sun came out. The rain that morning had been my first bit of rain on the trip so far! At Mason Bay Hut I went for a walk up Big Sandhill. It was pretty incredible to look across to Mt Rakeahua knowing I had just come from there. The DoC hut wardens were pretty excited to see me again and interested to hear how I had found the Southern Circuit.
The next morning I was off to Big Hellfire hut. Rain was forecasted and I had decided if it was too heavy I was just going to stay put at Mason Bay rather than push on but it started off only as light drizzle. The tidal times meant I was on my way just after 7:30am but when I got to the high tide route I decided to give myself an extra challenge. DoC and the hut wardens had said not to take the high tide route as it was just awful. Well now, this sounded like it just had my name all over it so despite my start time to get my timing right for the tide, I headed up into the sand-dunes onto the high tide route. I can confirm that this route is most definitely type 2 fun and only something you would want to do if you are feeling a bit sadistic…….especially when you realise the route punishes you with an extra 45 minutes or so of struggling up and over deep sand dunes to only spit you back down onto the beach 100metres away from where you went up!! Not to mention the extra 30 minutes I spent up there walking around and around in circles trying to find the next track marker! I was disappointed my GPS watch battery had died by then as looking at my GPX file for that day would have been hilarious. By now it was raining very heavily so when I got to Little Hellfire beach I had a nice surprise when I found Little Hellfire Hunters Hut to have lunch in. Powered by some hot raro I was up and over the saddle to Big Hellfire Hut wading through deep mud – at times not knowing where the mud ended and I began. Someone in the Big Hellfire Hut book wrote that they were turning into ogres out there in the mud and wanted people to “get out of my swamp”! I could easily see how that could happen. They also wrote that they saw a few unicorns – sadly I didn’t see any of these mysterious creatures -possibly you had to be delirious with exhaustion to see them. I finally arrived at Big Hellfire Hut looking like a drowned rat but still very cheerful as while the rain was bucketing down it wasn’t cold.
The next morning it dawned clear and I enjoyed a beautiful sunrise over the Ruggedy Range before making my way to East Ruggedy Hut for the night, waving hello to Codfish Island where all the kakapo live. My Garmin watch gave me a laugh when the altimeter showed I was 196 metres below sea level somehow when I was walking along West Ruggedy Beach. I contemplated pushing onto Long Harry Hut but as this was the first time on the trip I had a hut all to myself I decided to stay the night there and did a short walk down into the sand dunes spotting lots of kiwi footprints everywhere and saw yet another kiwi before doing a walk back to West Ruggedy Beach to enjoy the sunset. The next morning I decided to have a lazy start as I only had a short walk to Long Harry Hut so I lay in bed and read until late – I only started walking at around 11am! First up was the quick-sand! Luckily I had got some advice from a tramper at Big Hellfire Hut who told me to cross further down towards the sea away from the DoC buoy markers. This worked a treat and I didn’t even sink past my shoes whereas I heard the group of trampers from Whangarei had one member in their group sink waist-deep in the quicksand and they had to throw down driftwood to extract her.
I meandered along to Long Harry at a slow pace as I had been told this was another kiwi hotspot and was rewarded with 3 kiwi along the way plus a number of white tail deer. There was about 1km of boulder hopping along the coast and I got there at high tide which made it a bit more adventurous. I got my timing a bit wrong trying to skirt around one rocky outcrop and had a wave wash over me and while trying to quickly extricate myself after the shock of the cold wave my pole got stuck in between some boulders so when I got around the rocky outcrop I found I only had the top half of my walking pole…….I then had to climb back over the rocky outcrop to fetch it as I didn’t like my chances of getting my timing right skirting around that rocky outcrop again! Pole back together again I continued on but slightly more damp after that inadvertent cold shower. I got to Long Harry Hut that night to meet a really lovely group of trampers from Auckland and Taranaki who were a lot of fun. They went paua hunting while I went down to the beach to explore the sea tunnel. I loved Long Harry Hut as it is right on the edge of a cliff with amazing views out to sea. Yellow-eyed penguins sometimes hang out on the beach down below the hut too apparently. The group cooked up paua that night and offered me some (I found out the next day that paua did not agree with me when I struggled with an upset stomach all day) and played a hilarious game of Eureka. They were very envious when they heard of all the kiwi I had seen as they hadn’t yet seen any.
The next day there was some drizzle in the morning that only got heavy right before Yankee Hut Ignoring the rain I had fun crossing on the 3 wire bridge just before Yankee Hut and I had another fantastic kiwi encounter – it came running directly at me to the point that I thought it was going to sprint straight into me so I had to move to avoid it – even though I was seeing lots of kiwi every encounter was truly special – it felt a bit surreal seeing them out in the wild and so close up. The rain stopped while I had lunch so I headed onto Christmas Village Hut for the night which was busy and very multicultural. This hut is in a very cool location – right on the beach; with the waves right on its doorstep pretty much.
It was really claggy the next morning. I had planned to go up Mt Anglem as it is Stewart Island’s highest point. I decided to still go for it anyway and hope it would clear. I saw another kiwi scuttling round on my way up and by the time I reached 700m the weather had cleared up there and I had a nice view of the tarn and once on the summit I got a great view across the ridgeline although it was still claggy beneath me. I was in my own little micro-climate up there – it was hot enough that I was worried about getting sun-burnt but down below the bushline it was a completely different story! Once down I was on my way towards Bungaree Hut for my final night on the track. Again this hut was right above the beach in a really nice setting.
I was sad about my final day and heading back into civilisation and had fun jumping in the mud just for the sake of it! I stopped at Port William Hut for lunch (and to clean off all the mud so I didn’t alarm all the people on the Great Walk track) before heading out along the Rakiura Track where I bumped into lots of people and enjoyed talking their ears off about all my adventures. Despite most huts having people at; I hardly met people on the track during the day until I hut the Rakiura Great Walk Track. I decided to detour over Garden Mound since I planned to run the Rakiura Track a few days later and it would save me doing that part of the track twice. Once over Garden Mound I was on the road for the last few kms of road walking back into Oban. The first car I saw coming towards me I completely froze and wondered what to do for a minute as I was so used to only having kiwi run at me! From there I gunned it back to the backpackers for a well deserved hot shower and some fresh fruit and vegetables.
The mountaineer John Muir said that “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” From my solo tramp I gained so much……….improved self-belief, confidence and problem solving skills; greater appreciation of the amazing place we are lucky enough to live in and a better understanding of how important predator control work is to protect our nationally vulnerable and endangered species like kiwi. But most of all I fell in love with Stewart Island/Rakiura and it showed me that it’s not the mountain we conquer but our own doubts and self-imposed limits.