On a sunny day back in December we were thumbing from Richmond to Nelson Lakes and got a ride with two Germans. During the drive, they told us stories about hiking on Stewart Island. We made a note to head down there ourselves, if we got the chance.
On February 8th, we caught an 8am hitch to Bluff and a 9am ferry to Stewart Island. Grey skies and light mist met us at the small port town of Halfmoom Bay/Oban. Walking through the small fishing town with its little box houses overlooking the water, I felt I could’ve been in Newfoundland.
We went first to the Department of Conservation (DOC) station to buy our hut tickets. We told the man working that we were setting out to do the 125km North-West Circuit Track. He came over to us with a three ringed binder full of pictures of the track and took five minutes trying to convince us of how rugged a hike it was and why it would take us at least a week. Mud and roots! Bad weather! Oh my! The pictures seemed familiar to us. The Appalachian Trail doesn’t hold the same mystique over here that is does in the U.S., so I learned a long time ago to stop telling any Kiwi within earshot that I had thru-hiked it. I managed to avoid the name dropping here, but I couldn’t help getting a bit smug. We thanked him for his help and started out.
We walked a few kilometers on the road to get to the trail head. We found the trail to be occasionally very muddy, but easy enough. Within an hour, we saw a kea. Kea are beautiful big birds that look a bit like a dark parrot. This one was hopping about on some branches just out of our reach, stripping bark, and paying us no mind. Stewart Island has fewer predators than the mainland, so we hoped to see more native birds over the next few days.
We passed by Port William Hut and continued on towards Bungaree Hut. On the way a hut warden ran into us headed the opposite way. She exercised her DOC power, demanding to see our hut tickets, then began to tell us about how rugged a track we were undertaking, and that there were water taxis that would bring us back to Oban should we find it too difficult. I think it gave the woman pleasure to discourage hikers. We were happy when she was gone and it was only us and the trail again.
I’m going to spoil the ending a bit here and tell you that we are not still stuck in the mud on Stewart Island dying of hypothermia. Our shoes got a bit muddy, and we walked through some rain, but somehow we survived. Actually, this track turned out to be one of our favorites partly because there was hardly anyone on it. So if the DOC employees are intent on scaring off would-be hikers, good for them.
Bungaree Hut was a bit crowded, but it would be the first and last one to be so. There was a group of five hunters who were staying there for a week, as well as some German hikers. We watched from the porch of the hut as a sea lion appeared from out of the depths to chase a swimmer out of the water. The hunters laughed like mad when the sea lion gave out a deep bark and sent the swimmer skittering up the beach. The hunters were displeased that they hadn’t bagged a deer yet, but they were eating well just the same. They had a big pot of blue cod fillets that they had reeled in that day, as well as abalone/paua they collected. They were happy to let us sample their food. I had left briefly to try to get a picture of the sea lion, which we watched eating an octopus, and came back to find beautiful Claudia with a plate filled with blue cod, peas, and potatoes, bounty from the joyful and generous hunters. I’m grateful they took care of my lady.
The next two nights we had the huts all to ourselves. We didn’t know where to find abalone, so instead we collected limpets. I had protested carrying cook gear on our trip to New Zealand–I had enough of that on the A.T., and we found the extra weight didn’t much improve our diets. Though sometimes I regret not eating hot meals, here we had the abundance of the ocean to pull from and the space for creativity. Lucky for us, each hut had a wood stove and a stainless steel ash bucket. The bucket would have to make due as our pot, and it did a fine job of it. And as it turns out, limpets taste a lot like mussels.
The track winds up and over short, steep hills, occasionally dipping onto the beach to ensure the native sand flies get a feed. The east and north coasts were especially nice, as the track was fairly dry and the native bush green and glowing. We had mostly great weather on our trip. Our first four days were mostly clear, and our last two not so much. By the time we got to the west coast, some nasty weather was starting to come through, but the terrain flattened out and we got to do some bigger days.
It was on our third day that we finally saw our first kiwi. The flightless birds are generally nocturnal, but the ones on Stewart Island would come out during the day to feed. Their brown color blends in perfectly with the ground and consequently we rarely saw them until we were about a meter away. Fortunately, they are mostly blind and don’t hear too well either. We watched them stick their long, narrow snout into the dirt, searching for grub, then snort out the dirt from their nostrils and shuffle over to the next promising patch of leaves and mud. They are truly too strange to live, but too rare to die.
We are grateful for the clear days we did have, when we got to have a good look at the beautiful island. The island is truly unique, not like any place we had ever seen. The forests were full of native trees, palms and beech and mystery plants. Ferns carpeted the undergrowth. The land rolls in hills and valleys. The taller hills were naked of vegetation at the top, craggy rock pointing to the sky. Big stretches of coastland track took us through massive sand dunes and along flat and shallow shores. In addition to kea and kiwi, we saw kaka, fantails, bellbirds, tui, and, on the return ferry, a royal albatross. We saw quite a few sea lions, one battling an octopus, and the weird insect weta.
It was an incredible tramp.