NORTH WEST CIRCUIT OF STEWART ISLAND – CLOCKWISE
Day 1 - Tuesday 10 May 2022. Oban to Mason Bay Hut
15.5km. DOC time Freshwater Hut to Mason Bay Hut: 3-4 hours. Our time: 3hrs, 15 minutes.
8am saw us on a water-taxi zooming off in mirror-smooth conditions from Golden Bay wharf up the Patterson Inlet, and thence the North Arm which is only accessible at high tide. Taking this shortcut cut out 11-12 hours of walking what we’d heard was a pretty muddy and boring track. It also meant we only had to carry 9 days provisions instead of 11. My pack was still much more than I’d have liked tho!
45 minutes later we crossed the swing-bridge to check out Freshwater Hut (16 bunks), before saddling up and heading off. Today was a dead-flat dry-track day - a nice innocuous lead-in to the days ahead.
We walked through expanses of old manuka forest, where the bare branches met overhead to create an eerie tunnel effect. On either side of the track were deep drainage channels. It was very dry for us, but in wet weather the track is impassable. We talked to people doing it a week later who had water up past their knees.
On this stretch we also saw our first of many White-Tail Deer - gee their tails are fluffy when they run!
Then it was on to long straight chicken-wired boardwalk through the reedy swamps. One part is called the Chocolate Swamp. Hmmm, very apt for colour but not if you’re looking for something sweet to eat.
About 20 minutes before Mason Bay Hut (20 bunks) we checked out the historic buildings of the Woolshed and then Island Hill Homestead. A wide ‘boulevard’ guided us from there to the hut.
After lunch we headed down to 14km-long Mason Bay beach, about 20 minutes away, wearing sandals as Duck Creek needs to be crossed and it was knee-level deep. We climbed the dunes and walked down the beach a short way. There was quite a bit of birdlife – including lots of (live) Tuturiwhatu / Dotterel and (dead) Titi / Muttonbird / Sooty Shearwater.
We shared Mason Bay Hut with three others, but none of them were embarking on the NWC like us. In the early hours of the morning we heard Kiwi shrieking right outside the bunkroom window but were too warm/comfortable/lazy to get up and investigate.
Day 2 - Wednesday 11 May 2022. Mason Bay Hut to Big Hellfire Hut
15km. DOC time: 7 hours + 1.5 hours high tide route. Our time: 7 hours, 45 minutes.
With sunrise at 8am and sunset at 5pm, we left the hut pre-dawn as we had to allow an extra 1.5 hours for a high tide detour on top of DOC’s 7 hour track time. By 8am we’d exchanged sandals for boots and were heading off northwards up Mason Bay beach. It was a gorgeous still morning with lovely colourful cloud reflections in the wet sand.
After one hour we were at the pinch point, a rocky outcrop that is only possible to get around at absolute low tide, and even then only if conditions are calm.
We headed up the sand dunes of the High Tide Route, following the DOC poles and the coloured marker buoys. It wasn’t too much of a slog and the route was easy to follow … until towards the northern end when the markers disappeared and we became a bit discombobulated. However after a bit of backtracking and harakeke-bashing, we picked up the route again. 40 minutes after setting off we were back on the beach, the high tide detours successfully navigated.
Sidebar - two people coming the opposite direction a week later took 1.5 hours, as apparently it’s much harder to follow the route when heading southwards.
We polished off the remaining short northern section of Mason Bay and then we had our first introduction of the ‘real’ NWC. We headed up Mason Head. It was steep. It was muddy. This was what we’d been warned about.
And then, when totally unprepared, we came across a Kiwi bang-slap in the middle of the track. It scurried off after about a minute, but we got a couple of pics and a short video. These Tokoeka / Stewart Island Kiwis are huge and a light grey colour. We’re more familiar with the small brown North Island varieties of Kiwi, which we’ve only seen at night. On Stewart Island, their Kiwis promenade around 24/7.
After all this excitement I had my first major mud bath. I slipped, went down flailing, and because of the weight of my pack I was like a cast sheep and couldn’t get up again. Pete had to come to my rescue, but by then I was very saturated and very stinky.
We headed down the other side of Mason Head, which was a gentler slope and not as muddy, and on to Little Hellfire Beach. This was another truly fabulous stretch of sweeping western coast beach, again complete with live Tuturiwhatu and dead Titi.
From the beach it was 3.5 hours of gradual up through the bush, steadily plodding on and on, to Big Hellfire Hut (12 bunks) which we had to ourselves. It’s nestled in the bush on the edge of the sand-dunes, from which we had impressive coastal views. There was no easy way down to the water, but it was close to sunset and we were happy with our day.
Day 3: Thursday 12 May 2022. Big Hellfire Hut to East Ruggedy Hut
14km. DOC time: 7 hours. Our time: 7 hours, 10 minutes.
Cellphone reception from spot height 399.
We headed off northwards once more. It was a drizzly cloudy day. We had more mud, more trees…
Then about one hour from the hut we had another Kiwi encounter. Pete rounded a corner and almost stood on him. His feathers were decidedly ruffled by a close call with size 12’s and he quickly scuttled off. But I was very happy all the same. It was my birthday and I’d seen a Kiwi! - what a fabulous birthday present.
One and three quarter hours from the hut and we were on the coast again. And right in our path was the ‘Kaitiaki of Waituna Bay’ - a very large and handsome specimen of a bull Sea Lion. Now we all know that you should never get between large sea creatures and the sea, but it was impossible to go behind this fella. So we sloped across in front, giving him as big a berth as possible. At one point he reared up and bared his teeth, but then we were safely past.
Back into the bush again, with the Ruggedy Mountains in front of us. At about the halfway point of the day we met a Belgian tramper coming the other way (the first of only three trampers doing the NWC anti-clockwise at the same time as us).
We’d just popped up to the lookout (a 2 minute side-track) for some very sketchy views (because of the cloud), including out to Whenua Hau / Codfish Island. It’s famous as being the home of the critically endangered Kakapo. There are only about 200 in existence of these giant, green, fluffy, flightless parrots, so they’re a real Taonga.
About six hours since leaving Big Hellfire Hut we reached the southern end of sandy West Ruggedy Beach. At the northern end we detoured to check out a cave in the hill above the rocky coastline. It is kitted out as a fishermen’s refuge, with netting beds, cooking, seating etc. To walk along the beach, visit the cave and then tramp up through the gentle incline of the dunes and forest to reach East Ruggedy Hut (12 bunks) took an hour.
We reached the hut (a.k.a. The Ritz according to the sign) just as the heavens opened. Three hunters were in residence, having been helicoptered in a week earlier with a huge amount of supplies. They had the fire lit so the hut was warm and welcoming and we were able to dry out our damp kit.
The hunters were very hospitable - to supplement our dinner of dehydrated curried lentils with rice, they gave us a huge feed of Greenbone / Butterfish which was very gratefully accepted. In return we shared with them our tube of Pringles which I’d carted in as a treat. Dessert was a piece of Rockyroad lit with candles.
All in all, not a bad birthday!
Day 4: Friday 13 May 2022. East Ruggedy Hut to Long Harry Hut
9.5km. DOC time: 6 hours. Our time: 6 hours, 45 minutes (my fault entirely).
Cell phone reception from the lookout and at the hut.
From the hut we headed down through the sand towards the coast. The track doesn’t venture on to the small East Ruggedy Beach, instead crossing the Ruggedy Stream at the river mouth. We took our boots off to ford it. Goretex boots are heavy when waterlogged, and my feet are prone to becoming mincemeat when wet.
After an hour we’d climbed up through the bush and were at a lookout which had sweeping views of the Ruggedy Mountains and the coastline. The wind was fierce but invigorating. It was quite fabulous up there.
After two hours we were at Boulder Beach. I renamed ‘beach’ a different word starting with B, as there was a lot of awkward clambering to do over huge rocks and with a full tide added to the mix. Sometimes I’d head up into the cutty grass and reeds to avoid the rocks, but foot placement was difficult and after I slipped over in the swampy ground and got drenched, I gave up on this ploy. Anyways I made a real meal of it, taking well over an hour - Pete could easily have done it in under half an hour.
Could it get worse? Yes. Back in the bush for some more mud, and then we had an introduction to the infamous NWC gullies. Go straight down a steep and slippery root-laden slope, cross a creek, then clamber up the other side. We had five of these quite vicious ravines between Cave Point and Long Harry Hut. They look so innocuous on the map.
Long Harry Hut (12 bunks) is perched on the top of a cliff with fabulous views northwards. It’s the best-designed of all the NWC huts I think, well-insulated and with a separate covered vestibule - plus a brand-new long-drop only a week old. Oh the simple joys!
I went down the track to the cove below the hut to explore at low tide, before the threatening deluge arrived and I scampered back.
At dinner time it was Pete’s turn to have birthday celebrations - a bag of savoury snacks and another piece of Rockyroad cake with candles.
Day 5: Saturday 14 May 2022. Long Harry Hut to Yankee River Hut
8.5km. DOC time: 4-5 hours. Our time: 4 hours, 15 minutes.
Cellphone reception from the hut.
It had started raining just after dark the previous evening, with heavy downpours throughout the night. Normally we would leave the hut soon after 8, but today we waited until the rain cleared and didn’t get away until 9.20.
After two hours of walking through wet muddy bush we arrived at Smoky Beach. The tide was in so we couldn’t immediately hit the beach, so rock-hopped over the stream and took the high tide detour. It meandered inland before crossing a swing-bridge with mirror-clear reflections over Smoky Creek.
Smoky Beach was a long golden stretch of sand, and far in the distance we could see two trampers approaching. We met up at the halfway point. They were two fellow Nelsonians that we’d caught up with in the Oban backpackers before setting off. We were doing the NWC clockwise, they anti-clockwise, so we had a leisurely yarn and traded track intel until the sandflies started getting too annoying.
Heading out of Smoky Beach I had another ‘not-cut-out-to-be-a-ballerina’ moment, fell in the creek at the end of the dunes, and got soaked. Grrr. Then it was more mud, bush and drizzle all the way to Yankee River.
Just before the turnoff to Yankee River Hut (16 bunks) there was a 3-wire bridge. I usually hate them, but this one was fairly short, not too high, and most importantly, very taut. A piece of cake!
Yankee River Hut is prime riverfront real estate, with a lawn out the front and a two-minute walk to the ocean. Three hunters/fishermen and one wife were in residence. They were extremely hospitable and as it was a short walking day for us, we had a very enjoyable afternoon in their company. They had the fire on so we were able to dry out our damp kit, Pete scored a Speights, and we both had a generous portion of bread and butter pudding to supplement our dehy dinner.
The hunters had a spy-cam set up on the track outside, and we watched footage they’d taken of Kiwi, White-Tail Deer and (unfortunately) feral cats.
On an after-dark trip to the long-drop I got momentarily excited about a (supposed) Kiwi sighting. Whoops - Kiwis don’t have four legs and a tail!
Day 6: Sunday 15 May. Yankee River Hut to Christmas Village Hut
12km. DOC time: 6 hours. Our time: 6 hours.
Cellphone reception from the hut.
We retraced our steps a couple of minutes back to the track intersection and crossed the fixed bridge over the Yankee River.
Today looked very straightforward on the map. How could it possibly take six hours? Well…
Climb steeply down a gully of intertwined, slick, black tree-roots, rock-hop across the creek at the bottom, then clamber up the other side. Rinse and repeat about 20 times, all day long. I wasn’t very impressed to say the least.
Also on today’s walk were random track sections of round tree trunk slices to supposedly aid you on the flat muddy sections, but you’d have to be mad to risk stepping on these slimy, mossy, ankle-breakers.
One respite during a day of gullies, creeks and mud was Lucky Beach, but sadly it was short and rather stoney.
However it wasn’t all bad and one big highlight was the birdsong! Every day on the NWC the number of birds and their song had been impressive, but today it moved up a notch and they were fabulously loud and cheerful. The main songsters were Korimako, Kakariki, Toutouwai, Piwakawaka and Tui.
Finally we saw the turnoff to Hananui / Mt Anglem, and we knew Christmas Village Hut (12 bunks) was about 20 minutes away. The hut is on a five minute side-track that is chicken-wired boardwalk - such a treat! - and then there’s a short stretch along the stoney beach.
Christmas Village Hut was absolute beach-front, and we had it all to ourselves.
In the evening from its veranda we had a birds’ eye view of the full-moon rising in a cloudless sky, and then reflecting in the inky calm water of the ocean.
Day 7: Monday 16 May 2022. Christmas Village Hut to Bungaree Hut
11.5km. DOC time: 6 hours. Our time: 5 hours.
Cellphone reception for much of the day.
Our original plan for Day-7 was to do the 6-hour side-trip to Hananui / Mt Anglem, Stewart Island’s highest point at 980m, and stay a second night at Christmas Village Hut.
We’d heard that the first section was the usual tedious mud and roots, but then once you reached the tarns it’s lovely alpine tussock terrain with fabulous 360-degree views. However clear weather was required above the bush-line, otherwise we’d just see the inside of a cloud.
With bad weather on the horizon for the next few days, we decided to save Hananui for another time. So after enjoying beautiful dawn colours from the hut, we saddled up and continued south down the coast instead.
The track improved markedly the more the day progressed. We had random sections of old boardwalk interspersed with the muddy patches, and only a few relatively benign gullies.
Two hours 45 minutes into the day and after an enjoyable long flat section we arrived at Murray Beach via another swing-bridge. We had superb views looking back at Hananui and beautiful blue skies. Murray Beach was golden sand fringed by lush bush, and my favourite of all the NWC beaches.
There was a bit more forest to tramp through, and two hours 15 minutes later we unexpectedly arrived at Bungaree Hut (16 bunks), an hour ahead of the DOC time - my pack is obviously getting lighter! It is in a perfect position at the northern end of Big Bungaree Beach, and in an even more idyllic beach-front location than Christmas Village.
The tide was going out so I went for a leisurely afternoon beach ramble in both directions from the hut.
We shared the hut with three other trampers, one starting out clockwise on the NWC and the other two who had just come in for the night.
Day 8: Tuesday 17 May. Bungaree Hut to Oban
Stats: 22km. DOC time: 7-8 hours. Our time: 6 hours.
Cellphone reception for much of the day.
We were woken at 5.45am by shrill whistling by the woodshed. We got out of bed smartly and one Kiwi was sighted, bringing our final tally to three. There’s approximately 20,000 on the island, but we were very happy with three as many people on the NWC see none at all.
The forecast had the weather disintegrating mid-morning so we got away pre-dawn, but then were side-tracked taking photos of the gorgeous low tide reflections in the sand from the small off-shore islands.
At 8.00 we left Big Bungaree Beach, went up and over the small hill, to arrive at Little Bungaree Beach just as the sun popped up above the horizon. One word - Wow!
We then had our second discombobulation moment of the trip (the first was on the high tide route on day two) and headed for the beach instead of following the track. Rather than backtracking, we took our boots off and waded our way up the stream towards the swing-bridge marked on the map. Unfortunately a tree was down over the water so we had to bush-crash through thick crown ferns to reach the bridge.
The promised rain and drizzle started about 9.30 and then came and went all day. It took us three hours on very straightforward track from leaving Big Bungaree Beach to arriving at Port William.
We stopped at the shelter to drop our packs, then headed off to check out the Port William Hut (24 bunks) at the northern end of Magnetic Beach, part of the three-day Rakiura Great Walk. It has a jetty and is quite an impressive affair compared to our standard NWC huts.
After a half-hour break we loped along the Great Walk ‘highway’ towards the finish line. What a treat - a gravelled track, no mud, no slimy tree roots, no gullies, and only gentle well-graded hills. We were motoring along!
We had a fairly long stop at Māori Beach. It is another lovely beach and a shell-gatherer’s dream. However on leaving the beach we made a bad call, didn’t take the high tide track (I had get-home-itis), and waded through the stream on an incoming tide. Pete had better foot-placement than me, but my boots were now waterlogged and heavy.
We crossed the fixed bridge at Little River in the rain, and one hour 45 minutes after leaving Port William we passed under the symbolic Chain Links at Lee Bay which mark the end of the North West Circuit and Rakiura tracks.
But unfortunately we weren’t really finished. We then had a demoralising 6km hilly road bash back to Oban. The hard surface of the road turned my feet in their sodden socks and boots into mincemeat, but the thought of a hot shower and ‘real food’ kept one foot doggedly trudging in front of the other.
Oban was reached just after 3pm. We’d done it! Our first stop was a very long, very hot shower at the backpackers, and soon after that drinks and Blue Cod & Chips were being hoovered up at the pub.
The rain stopped and a double rainbow formed over the bay.