Stewart Island – It really does exist!

With all the attractions in the North and South Islands, it’s easy to forget that there’s a third one hanging out somewhere down the bottom of the country. Growing up I ran into so few people that had actually been there that a small doubt formed in my mind as to whether or not Stewart Island actually existed. When I left the nest to explore further afield I found myself attracted to similarly isolated places in the northern half of the globe and suddenly wondered why I had never made it to the equivalent in my own country. So after travelling to the ends of the earth, I decided it would be pretty cool to check out the ends of New Zealand. And as usual, what better way to do it than by foot.

The easiest way to get to Stewart Island (or Rakiura, ‘The Land of Glowing Skies’) is to take the short flight over from Invercargill. There’s a ferry that goes from Bluff as well, but it’s a much longer ride on a notoriously rough stretch of sea. I opt for keeping my lunch down and book a seat on the plane. Unfortunately this means spending some amount of time, however small, in Invercargill. The highlight of my trip here is making the rather grand discovery that such a horrible place actually exists in New Zealand. Luckily I don’t have to stay long, but even my short adventure here is enough to tinge my arrival on Stewart Island with a distinct feeling of “thank the gods it’s not Invercargill”. It takes me a few hours to truly appreciate the place on its own merits but I’m certainly glad to be there!

Rakiura - New Zealand

At least forgetting to see our own backyard goes both ways.

First stop is the tiny coastal town of Oban where I have a couple of supplies to grab before I hit the trail. The town name strikes me as very appropriate. The forest here is distinctly New Zealand but the little fishing village atmosphere and edge of the world quality have a decidedly Scottish feel. There are two main tracks you can take here, both starting in Oban. The Rakiura is a 3 day loop that gives a little 32 km preview of the island and the North West Circuit clocks in at a hefty 125 km and takes more like 10 days. I’m not quite up for that much of a time commitment so I’ll be sticking to the Rakiura.

Rakiura - New Zealand

Maui’s anchor chain stretching out towards Bluff

It’s already getting past lunch time by the time I get into the National Park proper. The entrance is a fitting sculpture of an anchor chain stretching out towards Bluff. In Maori mythology the South Island is Maui’s canoe and Rakiura is the anchor.

The wildness of the landscape here is really special but there’s something of a homecoming here for me as well. The jungle rolling down to meet the sea is a lot like a mini Abel Tasman, the area where I grew up. The bird life is something else though. No kiwi sightings yet but little kakariki parrots chat cheerfully to each other all along the trail. They seem to know what my camera is and tease me incessantly, posing beautifully right up until I press the shutter and chattering happily at me as they flit into neighbouring trees.

Rakiura - New Zealand

A bit of a mini Abel Tasman

The first beach the track hits is Maori Bay, an old sawmill site with rusty relics tucked away in the surrounding jungle. Information boards talk a bit about the history of the place and make a big deal about the settlers walking barefoot to Halfmoon Bay for their supplies. This may seem impressive to city folk but I walked over an hour to Totaranui for a can of coke once so it seems like pretty normal behaviour to me.

Rakiura - New Zealand

Sawmill relics lurking in the jungle.

My day ends at Port William where, determined to eat my dinner outside, I battle with swarms of sandflies and some unexpectedly aggressive bumblebees as the light starts to fade. The ranger hasn’t seen any signs of kiwis near the hut recently but I go for an unsuccessful scout anyway before tucking into bed for the night.

My second day cuts inland but the beautiful old rimu forest more than makes up for the lack of coastline. The forest is quite open considering how dense it is. Giant rimus tower over a carpet of beautiful ferns and some larger pongas, making well defined layers in the thick jungle.

Rakiura - New Zealand

Perfect lighting in the forest layers.

The birds are out in full force again today. It’s interesting taking in a trail where the magic is more about the wildlife than the views. Instead of powering up mountainsides I find myself trying to sneak quietly through the undergrowth and cursing myself for being such a loud bumbling human being. The birds I do see seem unfazed by my presence but I’m sure there are some shier characters around that I’ve scared off. As if to prove my point, I find a perfectly intact kiwi feather barely snagged on a prickle bush and flatten it in my journal. I’m trying not get my hopes up too high, but I really would love to meet one of the little guys in person.

As I get closer to the North Arm hut the track starts to muddy and a light rain sets in across the forest. I’m snug in my raincoat though and the tuis and bellbirds sing so happily in the rain that the only real downside is that the forest is getting a bit dim to take photos.

The rain creeps in across the hills.

The rain creeps in across the hills.

The sea is a surprise when the track hits the coast again. I’d gotten so used to the towering forest that I almost forgot I was on a small island. The rain is really coming down by this point but I’m not far from North Arm now. I reach the hut only mildly soggy and curl up with my book and a cup of tea. Pretty much everyone staying here was at Port William the night before and it’s kind of nice to be surrounded by familiar faces for a change. This trail seems to attract a different crowd to the other great walks. I’m used to being surrounded by foreigners with a few older kiwis scattered about but there are a lot of people here that are in the same boat as me; younger kiwis that have been away adventuring overseas and realised there was a whole other island in their own backyard that they’d never bothered to visit.

I set off around dawn the next morning before the others have risen from their beds. I’m slightly disappointed that I haven’t spotted any kiwis, they’re mainly nocturnal and this was my last night on the island so I’ve probably missed my chance but the other birds have been wonderful company so I can’t really complain.

Rakiura - New Zealand

A brief rainbow in wild weather.

The rain has really set in now and little hail storms chase me along the path. Even once the sun has risen proper, the forest is dark and gloomy and the sea is wild with the occasional rainbow fighting through the black clouds to kiss the waves. I’m trudging head down and lost in thought when I hear a distinct rustle in the ferns ahead. I raise my eyes in utter shock to spot a kiwi charging headlong towards me as if he’s trying to chase me away. I stop stock still, completely overwhelmed as he pulls up about a meter away from me, pondering his next move. I can’t decide if he’s just very blind or if charging at me was his one idea and now he’s not sure what to do. He eyes me in a slightly puzzled fashion for a long time before slinking off into the ferns. I smile so much that my face hurts all the way back to Oban.

Rakiura - New Zealand

Kiwi in motion.

I arrive back much earlier than I planned for and manage to book onto an earlier flight but I still have some time before the plane leaves and spend the rest of my stay browsing Oban’s local museum. There’s a collection of fishing, sawmilling and mining tools, some sections of maori history, but my favourite is Captain Cook’s original chart of New Zealand. It’s a pretty good representation of the place considering what he had to work with but I chuckle at some of the bigger mistakes, the most applicable being that he thought Stewart Island was attached to the mainland.

The wind is atrocious back in Invercargill and I’m convinced that my short walk to the library to use the wifi is more challenging than the whole Rakiura. My net surfing yields good news though. Glenorchy’s weather forecast is good for the next few days and some beds have opened up at the Lake MacKenzie hut. So no rest days for me. Tomorrow I’ll be resupplying and then hitting the Routeburn Track.

Listening to: The Lyre of Orpheus – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds


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