Mud. Sandflies. Howling southerlies. Freezing cold. Don’t even think about going for a swim. That’s what I had heard about Stewart Island. Well, maybe it was El Niño (or is that La Niña?) or maybe it was just serendipitous good fortune, but whatever the reason, it wasn’t like that at all. The mud wasn’t too bad (except for one atrocious day), the sandflies didn’t seem any worse than anywhere else, it was mainly sunny and warm rather than freezing cold, and we seemed to go swimming virtually every day. In the middle of January, while the rest of the country seemed to be suffering miserable weather, Stewart Island basked in a long, glorious summer. And as luck would have it, we were there.
There were six of us, Stuart Palmer, Ann Kempster, Phil Kendon, John Holt, Harriette Carr, and myself. Stuart and Ann and I met up in Christchurch. Stuart and Ann had come from a kayaking trip to D’Urville Island while I had come straight out of the hills from a trip to Ivory Lake. We drove down to Bluff, throwing in a bit of penguin spotting at Dunedin along the way. At the ferry terminal we met up with John. A couple of hours later we were in Halfmoon Bay, relaxing in the Backpackers along with Phil and Harriette, who had arrived a couple of days earlier, also straight from another trip, and had spent their time doing some walks around Halfmoon Bay and a trip out to Ulva Island in Paterson Inlet.
Next morning we set off along the road to the start of the track at Lee Bay. As soon as we reached the beach Stuart and Ann and some of the others plunged in for a swim, the first of many for the trip, although I thought of how cold the sea was supposed to be at Stewart Island and sat this one out. Then it was off along the beginning of the Rakiura Great Walk, winding along the coastline and out onto one glorious, sunny beach after another – like Abel Tasman but without the hordes of people. Birdlife was abundant, both forest birds and seabirds. Before our arrival Harriette and Phil had secretly named everybody after a species of bird they resembled, and we had to play a game of guessing what we were and trying to spot a specimen. We got to get rid of the dinner meals we were carrying for the course of the trip in the order that we successfully identified what bird we were and spotted one of them! I turned out to be a kiwi (short-sighted, long shaggy hair – yeah right, thanks Harriette!), John was a little blue penguin because he was always so neat and tidy (although he was the tallest, thinnest little blue penguin I had ever seen!), Harriette was a kaka (CarrCarr, geddit? Groan…), Stuart was a shag (we didn’t enquire into this), Phil was a heron (due to his long legs), and Ann was a wood pigeon or kereru (you’ll have to ask Phil why). And other club members didn’t escape, even though they weren’t on the trip. Shane was a robin, Ferrida was a fantail, John Thompson was a blue duck, Lisa Lee-Johnson was unquestionably an oyster-catcher, and Allen and Sue Higgins just had to be wekas!
After a few kilometres we left the Great Walk behind us and stopped for lunch at Magnetic Beach. Then it was inland through the bush for a while. The bush was a beautiful mixture of podocarp, hardwood, and broadleaf coastal species, with large rimus and totaras in abundance. Ferns of all sorts were also abundant in the undergrowth, and Ann had brought along a fern guidebook and impressed us all with their Latin names. That evening we finally stopped at Bungaree Hut, overlooking another glorious beach.
Day two saw more bush and beaches, leading us to Christmas Village Hut by early afternoon. Later in the afternoon we set off on a side trip up to the top of Mt Anglem, the highest point on the island. Bush gave way to manuka as we gained height, which in turn gave way to deep, rutted tracks through leatherwood scrub, swampy herb fields, and finally open, grassy sub-alpine tops. From the summit the whole northern half of the island was spread out round us like a map, while nestled at our feet lay a lake in a rounded cirque – a sure sign of ancient glaciation. But was it really the highest point?? We could have sworn a point a couple of kilometres away along the ridge looked higher! But the map gave the honour to Mt Anglem by a nose, a mere five metres, and we were prepared to take its word for it. After the obligatory group photo, during which I first failed to remove the lens cap and then failed to switch on the self-timer, it was back down to the hut for the night.
My photos for day three show cloudy skies but I don’t remember it that way. What I do remember is a series of fiendish ups and downs across the lie of the land through streams and gullies before we reached Yankee River Hut, out destination for the night. As I sweated in and out of one gully after another with a heavy pack I began to regret deciding to bring a club fly with me. “Just in case”, I had told myself, “for emergency purposes. You never know.” But of course we never used it.
Yankee River was a magical spot, the hut tucked in beside a meandering tidal river a couple of hundred metres from the sea. We spent the afternoon fishing off the rocks – and the results served as entrees for dinner!
That evening’s meal was Phil’s green Thai curry. “Whoa, that’s a wicked brew!”, gasped Harry, choking back tears, “Just how much of that curry paste did you put in?”. “The whole packet”, said Phil. “Is it a bit hot?” “Just a bit”, I replied, turning red, breaking out in a sweat and gasping for air. We reached for the packet and found that you were only supposed to put in one tablespoon! Well, I like hot food but even I could only manage part of it.
Next morning brought some light rain, but it soon cleared up. At the far end of Smoky Beach Phil mysteriously went missing, vanishing into thin air or so it seemed . We waited and waited but there was no sign. When he eventually turned up he revealed sheepishly that he had taken a wrong turn off the swingbridge, heading inland instead of back out to the beach!
We sidled round to Long Harry Hut for lunch. Now this was my sort of hut! Whoever named it was obviously a genius! Harriette (a.k.a. “Harry”) and I lined up to get our photos taken stretched out by the hut sign!
From above, Long Harry beach looked brilliant, one of the nicest yet, but somehow we missed the turn-off down to it, so we missed out on our midday swim. We climbed and sidled, then dropped down to a beach of large boulders. Seals basked on the rocks in the sun as we boulder-hopped past. Then we climbed up and up, until we came to a lookout point giving breath-taking views out over the whole north-west corner of the island. At our feet, 200 metres below us, was East Ruggedy Beach, with the Ruggedly Islands beyond. Round to the left lay the appropriately named Ruggedly Mountains, and beyond in the distance lay Codfish Island (immediately re-christened “Codpiece Island”!), home to most of New Zealand’s remaining kakapos. We quickly set off down the track to the bay, where we took off our boots and socks to cross the stream (which goes to show how dry the track had been). Stuart amused us all by sinking in up to his knees in quicksand in the middle of the stream. Then it was down to the beach for a quick dip before heading back inland to the hut.
Next morning we got up early and went for a quick side trip down to West Ruggedy Beach. On the way in the early morning light we suddenly heard rustling noises in the bush, and stopping to take a look we came face-to-face with a genuine, live kiwi! Stewart Island, of course, is renown for its kiwi population, and I had been looking forward to seeing one – I had only ever seen one once before in the wild and that was on Little Barrier Island. We stood and watched it for a while and Harriette managed to snap a great photo before it shuffled off into the bush.
We emerged onto West Ruggedly beach down a long corridor in the sand dunes. This place was awesome – wild and remote, dark and brooding in the cloudy, early morning light, flanked by rugged (or even “ruggedy”!) headlands at either end, with Codfish island offshore in the distance. If I had to name my favourite place we visited on Stewart Island it would be a hard choice of course, but I think it would be here.
It began raining as we returned to the hut and collected our packs. And then began the most miserable day of the trip. The track led inland along the flat, through mud and swamps and bogs. We passed through one swampy wallow after another. Then we climbed up over a saddle in the Ruggedy Mountain range and dropped down to Waituna Bay. This was our lunch stop but the rain set in and cut it short. We were off again, gaining height and sidling south along the ridgeline, heading towards Hellfire Pass.
This section of track would have to rate as the most miserable on the whole trip. The drizzle kept up. The mud became worse and worse. The final kilometre to the hut was just one continuous wallow, a continuous trough, knee deep or deeper, without a let up. Squelch, squelch, squelch – thick, oozy brown mud. There was no avoiding it, no way round it. You just had to keep going through it, one foot after another, hoping all the time that it would ease up around the next corner, but it never did; it just seemed to go on and on, without a let-up. But then, just as I was despairing of it ever ending, we magically stepped out of the mud wallow and the bush and into firm sand! We were there at last – Hellfire Pass, the end of the day! We crossed a short section of open ground and piled with relief into the hut.
Hellfire Pass, when it cleared up in the evening and we were able to appreciate it, was an amazing place. There you were, 700 feet above sea level, and you were in sand, almost like being on a beach. A gully of sand dunes extended all the way down to the sea. From the beach far below us, sand must get blasted up the hillside in the prevailing westerlies, right across the crest of the range and far down the other side into the interior. “Hellfire” is what it must be like all right, to be there in the teeth of a howling westerly gale. Other people saw kiwis that evening in the surrounding scrub, and I slept out under the trees that night in the hope of seeing some, but though I heard some calls I didn’t spot any.
Next day was brilliantly fine. We travelled south along the ridgeline, with occasional awesome views inland across the low-lying centre of the island, and back up the coast, with the Ruggedy mountains and Codpiece, err Codfish, Island in the distance. Then it was back to the coast for lunch at Little Hellfire Beach.
This was another awesome spot (I seem to be using the word “awesome” a lot in this report!). The beach was long and sandy, the sun was hot, and the sea rolled in in huge thundering breakers. We played a game of beach soccer with a plastic fishing buoy as a ball, Kiwis versus the Poms, with the incoming tide slowly reducing the size of the pitch. The Poms, I’m ashamed to say, sneaked a win by one extra goal! Then it was lunchtime, followed by swims in the sea, playing around in the waves like dolphins. The water was so warm that I could have stayed in for hours. Finally we had to leave, and it was, up, up, up over the headland, and immediately back down, down, down to the huge sweep of Mason Bay.
Mason Bay is the largest beach on the island, a single sweeping curve of sand 12 kilometres or more long. We wandered south along the beach in the afternoon sun until we came to the marker indicating the track in to Mason Bay Hut, a kilometre inland up the stream. Everywhere around the coast festoons of multi-coloured fishing buoys showed where the track entered onto or exited from the beaches, but here the buoys were joined, incongruously, by an old TV set! And a bit further inland a bright orange rubber glove with outstretched finger surreally showed the way!
Compared to the rest of the island Mason Bay was a busy metropolis. The hut was crowded and lots of people were camping outside. More people were arriving by small plane, landing on the beach at low tide. That evening I again slept out under the trees to avoid the crowds. Sometime in the night I was awoken by the noise of something running through the bushes a few feet from my head. A kiwi! Unfortunately before I had time to grab my torch it had vanished into the scrub.
We decided to make the following day into a rest day and headed south to the far end of the beach for a spot of fishing off the rocks. The distance proved deceptive and it was lunchtime before we reached the end, but it was a pleasant stroll in the sun, barefoot in the sand. The fish were plentiful and Phil and Ann and Stuart were soon hauling then ashore – though Ann somehow let the biggest one of all slip through her hands and back into the sea. Back at the hut that evening we again dined on fresh fried fish.
Day eight, and it was time to leave the coast and head back eastwards across the centre of the island. The track was long and straight and flat and boring, through tussock and swamp, with long sections of wooden boardwalks and elevated “pipe bridge” walkways through the swamps, though some long sections of mature manuka forest had their own special beauty. Eventually we reached Freshwater Hut for lunch, where we found Wayne and Jeanine’s names in the log book from the week before. They had been kayaked around Paterson Inlet and had come in up the Freshwater River, left their kayaks at the hut, and done a side trip across to Mason Bay. Phil and Harriette and Stuart were disgustingly full of energy so they went off on a quick side-trip up Rocky Mountain behind the hut. But they returned in very quick time, claiming that the reason they were unable to describe the view from the top was because it had clagged over – very, very suspicious, if you ask me!
That afternoon the track led up over a high saddle, very rough with lots of mud; then it was back down to sea level and around the head of the North Arm of Paterson Inlet to North Arm Hut, which turned out to be sandfly heaven. We washed the caked mud from our boots and retreated inside.
Day nine, our final day. We were back on the tourist track now, the Rakiura Great Walk, and the boardwalks had to be seen to be believed. Wooden walkways stretched hundreds of metres without a break; great flights of wooden steps ascended and descended every hill. I don’t know why they don’t just put in a horizontal escalator the whole way and be done with it. We stopped for lunch in the sun beside the sea in Kaipipi Bay, and a final swim. Then it was the last few kilometres down the track before emerging out onto the roadway leading into downtown Halfmoon Bay. The trip was over.
Or nearly over. That evening, after a beer or two in the pub, we wandered up Observation Hill to watch the sunset. As the sun sank down into the distance, leaving a glowing pathway across the waters of Paterson Inlet and turning the cloud on the horizon golden, none of us felt like leaving this magic, enchanted island. And did we really have to leave? Could we perhaps stay one more day? Could we possibly change our ferry tickets? Could we perchance hire sea kayaks for a day? A few enquiries, and it turned out that, yes, indeed we could. The decision was very easy to make, and so we were able to spend one more day in this paradise, one more day exploring the bays and islands of Paterson Inlet by kayak, before we were finally forced to say our fond farewells to Rakiura – the Island of the Glowing Sunsets.
The Taxonomy of Stewart Island Boardwalks (With apologies to Kelvin Lloyd)
No account of a trip to Stewart Island would be complete without a description of the various types of boardwalk to be found there. The range is wide and varied, with a number of distinct species and subspecies recognised. Trampers on the North West Circuit will come to have an intimate knowledge of the main types before the end of their trip.
Boardwalkus steppingstonii: round discs or slices of tree trunk, found in long, linear sequences. Preferred habitat seems to be muddy sections of track inside the bush. Found mainly up the eastern side of the island. The species does not seem to occur on the western or central part of the island. Reappears towards the end of the trip, along the northern side of Paterson Inlet. Appears to spread along underground and pop up at regular intervals, much like mushrooms. A number of sub-species or varieties are found, distinguished by the pattern of the number 8 fencing wire stapled on top. These include var linearis, var crescentii, var wavii, var ying-yangii, var s-curveii and var irregulatus. All seem to prefer the same general habitat, and members of the different sub-species can often be found in mixed associations. The evolutionary relationship between the various sub-species is still under investigation.
Boardwalkus demi-roundus: round posts, split in half lengthwise, laid side by side and wired together with the rounded surface up. A fairly common species, found in various populations around the track. Seems to prefer swampy habitats. Extremely slippery and dangerous. An upside-down mutational form is also occasionally found.
Boardwalkus railwaytrackii: short manuka poles wired in groups of 3 or 4 across long manuka sleepers to form regularly spaced steps. An uncommon form with only isolated populations, notably in the vicinity of Freshwater Hut. An ancient native species, this appears to be being slowly driven out, possibly into eventual extinction, by a number of aggressive introduced species of boardwalk (see below). However substantial populations are rumoured to still exist in less frequented parts of the island.
Boardwalkus semi-submergeous: irregular logs, branches or poles found in particularly deep, swampy sections of track. A very simple and ancient group, with diverse forms, all of very basic anatomical structure. One notable sub-species, found particularly in the low-lying country south of East Rggedy hut, is semi-submergeous longplankus. This appears to like growing with its two ends dry on the bank but its middle section completely submerged below water level.
Boardwalkus commonwoodus: wooden plank walkways. A sturdy species of boardwalk, increasingly common throughout New Zealand and found in various places around Stewart Island, most particularly on the Rakiura Track near Halfmoon Bay and on the inland section of track between Mason Bay and Freshwater Hut. An introduced species, bland, uniform, and highly functional in nature, though not completely unappealing when found in its proper muddy environment. It appears to be gradually replacing the more primitive, diverse, and interesting native boardwalk species.
Boardwalkus greatwalkii: a more robust and elaborate form of boardwalkus commonwoodus, this is found exclusively on the Rakiura Great Walk. It is extremely thick on the ground between North Arm Hut and Halfmoon Bay. An aggressive foreign, invasive weed, apparently spreading out of control. It smothers everything it encounters. DoC should be attempting to contain and erradicate this species, but in fact appear to be encouraging its further spread. Also known as podium ploddus, and painus anus. On hilly sections of track it appears to be replaced by an even more elaborate subspecies known as grandiosus staircaseii. Boardwalkus greatwalkii andgrandiosus starcaseii together form the ridiculatus group of boardwalks. These differ from all other known boardwalk species in that they are not confined to damp, muddy habitats. They appear to be quite at home in completely dry locations, well away from any water or mud.
Finally we have Boardwalkus pipebridgeus: elevated walkways on pipe bridges. A highly specialised introduced species, found only in deep, swampy habitats. Its only known occurance is midway along the track between Mason Bay and Freshwater Hut. Appears to be unlikely to spread further.