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Soul food

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June 2022 Issue

There are people, other walkers and hunters, on Rakiura’s North West Circuit, but it can also be lonely, primeval and exceedingly beautiful.

Torrential rain, boot-sucking mud, voracious sandflies; a perfect storm of nasties that breathe life into the legend of tramping around Rakiura / Stewart Island. It’s so isolated that one is entirely on nature’s terms, removed from the comforts of urbanised society and a world away from the usual safety nets. Evocative names like Hellfire Pass, Ruggedy Range and Christmas Village fire the imagination. It is at the bottom of Aotearoa and was at the bottom of my bucket list, waiting for an opportunity that never seemed to come.

In the autumn, my friend Malcolm and I flew to Invercargill, boarded a bus to Bluff and then sailed across Foveaux Strait on a ferry to Oban, a compact village where there are more kiwi than Kiwis. The numerous small boats anchored in Halfmoon Bay reflected the primary industry on Rakiura: fishing for blue cod and cray. Locals joke that they live in a drinking town with a fishing problem.

Next morning, we shouldered packs full of food for 11 days and set off from Lee Bay on the Rakiura Track Great Walk. Soon we were spat out of the forest onto Māori Beach, where golden sands arced around to a distant headland. This would be a feature of our trip; the contrast between strolling empty expanses of beach and then slogging over forested headlands on muddy tracks. Beach then bush. Rinse and repeat.

At the far end of Wooding Bay a footbridge spans a small estuary where tannin-stained fresh water seeps into saltwater. We tramped to the shores of Magnetic Beach and on to Port William, where we spotted a pair of white-tailed deer in a clearing. I boiled the billy inside the spacious hut while a young warden checked everybody’s vaccine passes. 

Beyond the Great Walk, the track standard deteriorated. We were dancing around the fringes of bog for a while. However, the region was experiencing the longest drought in 50 years, so most of the mud had dried up. What was taxing was the undulating terrain; dropping into streams and then climbing up the valley walls.

We marched along an idyllic sweep of white sand towards Bungaree Hut squatting on a shelf above the incoming tide. Throwing open the door, I dropped my pack with a satisfying thump. Time for a brew.

Rock tor above The Gutter and Ernest Islands. Photo: Ray Salisbury

When we departed, we were promptly swallowed by a great podocarp forest; rimu, miro, tōtara, mānuka, and coastal shrubs. Our route led to the wild wastes of Murray Beach. Lost in thought, we trudged north on golden sand. A lone fishing buoy marked where a sandy trail wound through dunes to a hunter’s hut hidden among the foliage. Time for another brew.

Later, as we meandered through the ancient forest, we were serenaded by pīwakawaka. The prolific birdlife on the island was encouraging, and probably due to the absence of stoats. Hopping along a stony shoreline, we reached Christmas Village Hut on a terrace facing Foveaux Strait. The tide’s advance, and a biting easterly, had us scurry indoors.

With lightened packs, we set off to ascend Mt Anglem / Hananui, the highest hill on Rakiura. As we climbed, the open podocarp forest gave way to groves of mānuka. A steep section of track slowed progress as we negotiated muddy embankments and hauled ourselves up staircases of tree roots. Higher and higher we climbed.

Two hours after leaving the leatherwood, the 980m summit was sighted towering above a large tarn. After three hours, we topped out and discovered the broken remnants of the trig station on an extensive tussock plateau punctuated by dozens of rock tors. There are 360-degree views, including gazing north to mainland New Zealand.

We raced back down the hill to Christmas Village Hut, where it was time for a brew. Leaden limbs and aching feet carried us to Lucky Beach where we frightened a trio of deer. Bone-weary, we struggled up a     scrappy sidle track to gain some altitude and distance from the coast. Sheer willpower drove us on into the impending darkness. The final hour was by headlamp.

I began hearing rustling sounds in the ferny fringes of the forest. Then I saw him. Off to my left, through a gap in the foliage. A grey kiwi, much bigger than I expected, frozen in the torchlight’s glare. Seeing New Zealand’s national bird in the wild was a rare treat, one to be tucked away and remembered. Finally, we stumbled along Yankee River to the hut.

Nothing stirred early on day four. When I finally shuffled outside, it was to follow the beautiful estuary, fringed with the lush greenery of coastal bush, to where the Yankee River emptied into the ocean. It was a magical place at the northernmost tip of Stewart Island.

Ray on the summit of Mt Anglem. Photo: Ray Salisbury

We departed after midday. First up was a three-wire bridge. Next was a punishing 200m climb, followed by a delightful descent to the eastern end of Smoky Beach. Here, Malcolm shed his clothing and dived into the warm water for an impromptu swim. We then ambled along a beautiful sweep of sand, washed by waves with screeching gulls standing defiant.

We waded across a lagoon and climbed another hill, where treefall slowed progress. Soon we emerged onto a grassy trail which threaded through remarkable rock formations. Dropping into a cove, we rock-hopped over white-washed boulders to an access track which led abruptly to Long Harry Hut.

Next day, we tackled an unforgivingly steep track through coastal scrub and tea-tree. Here, in broad daylight, we saw another kiwi. Mostly, the day’s route was easy, the climbs gradual, the weather glorious.

A pathway had been cut through crown fern and mānuka to a prominent lookout where rock pinnacles stabbed into the sky. Far below, a stream widened into a lagoon, filtering into the Southern Ocean at East Ruggedy Beach, a pristine arc of golden sand lapped by aquamarine water. Beyond the bay, the jagged ridges of the Ruggedy Range were repeated in the serrated profile of Rugged Islands. Stunning.

We splashed across the lagoon barefoot. A couple of kilometres plodding over dunes and through a corridor of tea-tree brought us to East Ruggedy Hut. Time for a brew.

On day six we left late, rambling over the hill and then careering down a giant sandy gulch to West Ruggedy Beach, where we visited a rustic fisherman’s hideout. It was a gloomy sea cave set high and dry into a cliff face with a cooking bench, fireplace and sleeping platforms made from fishnets.

We peered off-shore about four kilometres away to the silhouette of Codfish Island / Whenua Hou. It’s now a refuge for kākāpō but was originally the first mixed Māori and European settlement in the region.

Tramping along the expansive sweep of Murray Beach. Photo: Ray Salisbury

Along the beach, the exit point was again marked with faded fishing buoys. In my opinion, the North West Circuit is sparsely marked, just enough to keep experienced trampers on track, but novices would find navigation difficult.

A demanding descent brought us to Waituna Bay, where Malcolm once again stripped his clothes off and jumped into the water. Meanwhile, I photographed the Ruggedy Mountains rising above a lagoon choked with driftwood.

From here, a goat track climbs a scrubby hillside, sometimes gnarly and rooted, sometimes boggy. A gradual climb sidles onto the ridge before emerging on the top of a gigantic sand dune at Hellfire Pass.

Windblown sand stung our bearded faces as we searched for the nearby hut. Eventually, we found a fishing buoy, a   signpost, a track, then the dark cabin hidden in the rimu forest. That night, searing winds screamed past, misty clouds enveloped the building and we drifted off like dead men.

We rose early on day seven, whispering in the pre-dawn murk. Diminishing supplies were stacked into packs. The morning’s route began at Little Hellfire Beach where we were confron-ted by row upon row of monstrous rollers.

We followed poles into the sandhills, pushing through scrub, topping out at 300m. A gruelling descent to the northern end of Mason Bay was boggy, rooted and had sizable drops. Care was needed to avoid a muddy baptism.

At first, we were excited to be at New Zealand’s most exposed beach, at 47 degrees latitude, where howling westerly winds scream in from the subantarctic. But a freak wave rushed ashore, catching us off guard. We frantically raced up a steep slope to our left, digging fists into the sand, bracing for impact. The wave slammed into our legs and gave us a fright. Providentially, we discovered a detour where marker poles climbed steeply up soft sandhills. Then, somewhere above Mason Head, we lost our way and found ourselves crawling on all fours under stands of mānuka trees. This high tide route is seriously overgrown but it finally brought us onto the main beach. We set our sunburnt faces to the south and continued walking.

East Ruggedy Hut – a.k.a. ‘The Ritz’. Photo: Ray Salisbury

At Duck Creek, a tall mast was adorned with recycled buoys. We blindly followed a sandy vehicle track inland to find the hut. Seven hours of rough travel had worn us out. Time for a brew.

Mason Bay Hut is a nowhere place – a backwater surrounded by flax, cabbage trees and low-lying scrub. It’s also a bottleneck where wayfarers converge from all corners of the compass. In the sunny and spacious living area, we talked with 14 other occupants, all seasoned Kiwi adventure-seekers.

On our eighth day, we headed south along Mason Bay on a hut-bagging mission. We located two hunting huts up Martins and Cavalier creeks. At the southern end of the bay we came across a troupe of deerstalkers sweating under heavy loads. They had flown in for the roar and were man-handling 450kg of supplies up 800m of track to the historic Kilbride homestead. We wondered how much hunting they would do, considering how much beer they were carrying. Perhaps this was a drinking hut with a hunting problem?

After a tedious slog, we arrived at The Gutter, a sheltered haven where the high tide ebbs through a narrow passage between Rakiura and the Ernest Islands. Sitting on a bleached log, I boiled the billy, drinking in the beauty of the place. As the empty lagoon was replenished with water, so was my soul.

Back at Mason Bay Hut, we packed up and trekked the 15km of old road toward Freshwater Landing, passing the historic homestead of Island Hill station before the track narrows to a boardwalk across the Chocolate Swamp. Back on solid ground, we sped through stun-ted tea-tree and used a swing bridge to gain the hut at Freshwater Landing.

On our penultimate day, Malcolm and I were mentally fatigued by the repetitive nature of the journey. Living off pasta, we had both lost over 2kg. Nevertheless, we set off along the track, skirting the base of Rocky Mountain before the path began to steepen. Kereru whooshed overhead while kāka cackled.

The descent off Thomson Ridge included challenging sections that would be lethal in wet weather. Next was an undulating route above Paterson Inlet. Outside North Arm Hut, a white-tailed deer grazed; inside, the human occupants played cards and cooked dinner. During the evening, a Māori warden gave us a mihi and informative talk.

Our last day was spent on the Rakiura Track. We entered the lush rimu and  kamahi forest and sped along the tourist trail in half the track time. Near picturesque Kaipipi Bay, I was delighted to see a pair of kākāriki. From the trailhead at Fern Gully, we walked the last kilometre into Oban and checked into the backpackers. A hot shower never felt so good.

We’d come full circle on over 125km of challenging track. We’d seen three kiwi and eight deer in the wild. We’d visited 18 huts. Incredibly, no raincoats, nor insect repellent were used during the eleven days. We had side-stepped the usual trifecta of inclement weather, ferocious namu, and boot-sucking mud holes – these had mostly dried up. Instead, it had been warm sunshine, idyllic beaches and beautiful podocarp forest.

My experience of Rakiura was above and beyond my wildest expectations. The empty beaches, the granite headlands, the quirky kiwi, prolific birdsong, outstanding scenery, the engaging conversations with other hut users and the warm welcome of the locals. Someday I shall return.

9-11 days
Numerous huts separated by 3-7hr of walking
Regular ferries cross Foveaux Strait from Bluff. Flights depart from Invercargill. This challenging circuit starts and ends in Oban.
CH08, CH09, CJ08, CJ09w

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