North West Circuit – Stewart Island – New Zealand – trip report

Quick facts:

  • Separated from the South Island by Foveaux Strait, Stewart Island/Rakiura is New Zealand’s third largest island and most southerly national park.  It is a rugged, bush-clad island, roughly triangular in shape, and covering 168,000 hectares
  • Approximately 9 – 11 days should be allowed to tramp the full circuit, which is 125 kilometres in total.
  • Mud is widespread and often deep and thick on the track, regardless of the season
  • Archaeological excavations have shown evidence of Maori habitation around Stewart Island from the 13th Century.
  • The island’s weather is unpredictable, with rain falling on about 275 days of the year. Strong westerly winds are frequent
  • Huts are supplied with mattresses, a wood burning stove for heating, running water and toilets. Cookers and cooking utensils are not supplied – it is essential to carry your own portable stove, fuel and utensils.

The above information is from North West and Southern Circuit Tracks, Rakiura National Park by the New Zealand Department of Conservation. A must read before planning this trek.

In this guest post, Dorothy Tomlinson reports on her “tramp” around the North West Circuit Track on Stewart Island, New Zealand. Dorothy, generally tramps with her local “Third Age” group and we take great pleasure in sharing her trip report. (Note: Tramping is the term used in New Zealand for hiking, bushwalking, backpacking  or treking)

Muddy Track - Stewart Island - New Zealand

Mud Track - Stewart Island - New Zealand

The group (seven of us to do what is called the North-west circuit tramp and nine to do the three day Rakiura Great Walks tramp) left Timaru early on Monday 23rd March.  We reached Invercargill at 3 pm and caught the plane for Stewart Island an hour later. Good to get all that way in one day.

After staying the night at a Backpackers we were taken by small bus to our starting point at Lee Bay. Our circuit was a long one of about 130 kms, basically following the coastline around the top half of Stewart Island. Although roughly following the coastline, most of the travel was actually in the podacarp forest through rimu, kamahi, miro etc – no beech – up and down, up and down as we climbed up over headlands between bays and down into gullies and up out of them again. It was undulating indeed. There was very little flat walking whilst in the forest. But the forest was beautiful with many huge specimen trees and tree and crown ferns.

The track is renowned for mud – thick, squealchy mud, suck-you-in mud, sticky, clingy mud and sure enough, it could not be escaped – even in the relatively dry conditions that we experienced. It was all part of the fun and if one couldn’t ‘hack it’, as a couple of young overseas trekkers that we met soon after it started to become bad could not then, as they were doing, the best thing to do was to turn around and go back! But we were mentally and, with our leather boots and long gaiters, physically prepared and considered it all part of this unique Stewart Island experience.

After walking for long periods in the forest, often with only intermittent, far away views of the sea, it was always a highlight to come to a beach. They were all beautiful, some stony, some bouldery, some had golden sands and some were sandy with a backdrop of huge dunes, some had really impressive granite headlands at one or both ends, some were strewn with seaweed and/or driftwood. The size of some of the huge tree trunks lying as driftwood was amazing. Especially on the beaches facing the west, the seas pounded and roared, creating a wild, away-from-it all feeling. At one beach, I spotted a couple of yellow-eyed penguins swimming in the surf, ready to come in to their nests. After I had removed myself from their line of sight they, sensing danger was over, later waddled up the beach and skittled away to their nest in the scrub.

During the first few days westerly conditions prevailed and though it rained a little on the second day, it was not at all cold. Indeed, for nearly the whole of the tramp we enjoyed warm temperatures, especially noticeable at night when one was sleeping in a hut where the wood fire had been on and its heat warmed the room to a more than desirable temperature for sleeping. One day was particularly windy and it was on this day that we had to cross a river running into the sea. The crossing point was not far from the beach and the river had a sandy bottom as it was tidal. I was the last of the group to begin crossing and half way across I stopped as the wind was so strong I thought I was going to be blown over. But alas, when I went to get moving again, I realised I had sunk and that I was stuck in quicksand! I was thankful that two other members of the group were able to come to my rescue and pull me out.

Quicksand Rescue - Stewart Island

Quicksand Rescue - Stewart Island

We were so lucky with the weather. We did not have one really miserable day where there were no views to reward us for our days tramp. Even the day we climbed the Island’s highest peak, Mt Anglem, the weather was clear enough for us to get good enough views of the coastline along which we had come, the coastline which we would be following in the next days and views away to the south and toward Mason Bay where we would be, all going according to plan, in the next eight days.

It so happened that there was another group of five from Geraldine and Timaru, well known to most of us, who were doing the same tramp at the same time, having begun a few days before us and going in the opposite direction to us. We all met up at the same hut on the day our group climbed Mt Anglem (980m) and it was great to see them and exchange talk about our respective trips so far. This was our third night. We, like the other group too, were carrying a mountain radio but on our second night we found that the batteries iun our unit were flat. Very kindly, the other group, whose long tramp was three-quarters over, offered to give us their mountain radio while they took our battery-shot one out with them.

Mason Bay - Steward Island

Mason Bay - Steward Island

Before leaving Timaru we had arranged with this group to get a food drop delivered by helicopter from Invercargill to the Long Harry hut which was the half way point for both groups. Dividing the $500 cost of such an exercise between the two groups it proved economical and, for many of us in the two parties, made the difference between being able to accomplish the lengthy tramp and not being able to even begin it. As the other group comprised two men aged 77, another well into his seventies, a woman sixty-five plus and our group ranged in age (apart from our leader) from mid-fifties to seventy-four we were pleased to be setting out at the beginning of the tramp with five days worth of food rather than ten. To start out carrying a 14 kg pack rather than one of about 18 or 19 kg made the tramp achievable. I’m not sure that I would have coped otherwise.

It was a great delight to arrive at Long Harry hut on our fifth night and find our boxed up food parcels awaiting us. Instead of the usual dehydrated meals, we feasted on dutch sausage, fresh potatoes, pumpkin, carrots and steamed pudding. It was like Christmas dinner, all enjoyed at a hut high above the sea whilst the wind tore at high speed around us. On our second night at Bungaree hut (where we looked across Fouveaux Strait and saw Bluff Hill and three lighthouses along the coast, and also where there had been a pretty sunset and brilliantly coloured sunrise) a 32 year old Englishman who had done two days tramping in one, arrived to join us. From there on he accompanied us as we moved from one hut to the next and he became firmly welded to our group. I’m sure for him it was  a marvellous experience, joining us in our celebration dinner at Long Harry as we feasted. (How different his experience of the North-West circuit would have been had he been doing it solo.)

Bungaree Sunrise - Stewart Island

Bungaree Sunrise - Stewart Island

Most of the huts were situated near the sea and most had a wonderful views from them. They all had wood fires which very quickly warmed the place with a delightfully cosy heat which, could make it too hot on some nights as previously mentioned, but which most of the time was marvellous, especially for drying clothes. Each had an outside bench and sink for ablutions and washing clothes. With being on the track for ten days the washing of body and clothes was very necessary though I learned quickly that there was no use trying to remove all the sticky mud from my legs as to rub too hard was making them chaffed and sore and anyway it was a certainty that there’d be more mud on the morrow!

Unlike most kiwis, the Stewart Island breed forages for food during the day and some of us were lucky enough to see two. I was third in line as we were walking on the morning of the fourth day and the first three of us got a great view of one until it scurried away quickly leaving the last four members of our group disappointed at missing the sight. However, on another day the whole group spotted and was able to watch a kiwi feeding for quite some time. So all members of the group were able to go home satisfied that they had seen at least one kiwi!

Yankee River Hut

Yankee River Hut

We spent two days at the Mason Bay hut, our 8th and 9th days. Just as well that this rest day had already been planned as coming along Mason Beach the previous afternoon when it was almost high tide three of us had been dunked by the roaring sea and in the process I had been thrown onto the boulders hurting my knee (and ruining the camera in my bum-bag. Fortunately the photos on the memory card were alright. A camera can be replaced but not the photographs!)

Ruggedy Beach - Stewart Island

Ruggedy Beach - Stewart Island

Our final day was the shortest day of the whole tramp, being just three and a half hours compared to two days of eight hours and several of five or six. Besides it was flat country and with a good part of it being through very boggy country a lengthy section of the track was board-walked. A nice change! Soon after mid-day we arrived at Freshwater hut and were picked up by water taxi at 7 pm just as the sun was going down. We had to be picked up at high tide as it is the only time the water taxi can come up the navigable Freshwater river, the entrance to it being marginal even then because of the minimal depth of the sea water at that point. At low tide this whole area of Paterson Inlet is nothing but mud flats. It was an unforgettable sight coming back in the water taxi, looking back at the cloudless, glowing red sky with all the upland areas of the island – Mt Anglem which we had climbed and the Ruggedy Mountains which we had crossed, standing out so majestically.

Ruggedy Mountains - Stewart Island

Ruggedy Mountains - Stewart Island

To add to the thrilling boat ride we were lucky enough to pass a pod of dolphins playing in Paterson Inlet and our driver turned the boat around and followed them for a while giving us wonderful views of their antics.

At 7.40 pm we finally arrived back at Golden Bay in the Inlet, off loaded our packs and then donned them once more  for the ten minute walk up over the hill to a rented holiday house to sleep the night. The flight from Stewart Island back to Invercargill the next day was made in the same glorious weather conditions as we had had going over and, after a six hour drive back to Timaru, were home by 6 pm.

It was a wonderful tramp and while no-one in our group would have finished the tramp without at least some scratches and bruises, we will have great memories of beautiful forest, beaches and headlands, wild seas,fabulous sunsets and sunrises, great huts, plentiful birdlife including penguins and kiwis, all capped off with memories of mud, mud, glorious mud!

Many thanks to Dorothy for sharing this great walk!  Her son, Dave is a regular guest poster on Our Hiking Blog so “tramping” is certainly a family affair.

You can read Dave’s trip reports by clicking the links below:

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