Date of Adventure: 4-6 April 2021
Stewart Island is the lesser known ‘South South Island’. It’s Maori name, Rakiura, means glowing skies, as it is often graced by the Aurora Australis. Though it looks small on a map compared to the real ‘South Island’, it is a very large swath of wilderness area with just one small settlement on it.
It sits in the roaring 40s latitudes, with no land to the east or west until Chilè, so it is known for it’s wind and rain. Our boat ride down there certainly confirmed those reports, and many passengers (including Kadi) got sick from the hour long roller coaster.
We got to Halfmoon Bay and the town of Oban in low spirits, but the sun had broken through and we bought some crackers to help regain some energy.
Our first hut was still 13km away, so we trudged our way across town to the start of the track and got on our way.
The track was a stark contrast to the rocky, rugged mountains of the Fiordlands. It was gentle, with a small hill to climb at the start, before heading back down to the sea.
We had heard horror stories about the mud, but so far we had just sullied a couple centimeters up the sides of our shoes.
Due to our late start, the sun seemed to set early and a thin layer of clouds beset the east horizon. A brisk wind started blowing, and it suddenly felt pretty bleak after a long day.
Getting to the hut late, we found that all the pegs on the walls meant for boot drying were full, and we had to leave our shoes leaning sideways against the wall. Looking back, this was a portent of the day to come…but we’ll get there in a second!
This was a unique day at the hut, as it was the end of daylight savings the night before. Everyone had to deal with the night being an hour earlier. One hut-goer found the candles stashed in the hut and lit up a few of them around, giving a nice warm light for the rest of us!
The hut warden gave us a talk about the walk ahead (muddy and maybe rainy), and warned us about what we had all heard about: bed bugs in the hut. They had been treated, but he pointed out the wall they inhabited. Of course, since we were the last ones at the hut, we had the privilege of sleeping right next to that wall! In the end, it turns out that I (Cameron) got a couple bites on my back–we reported it to the DOC to let them know they weren’t fully under control.
After a fairly restless night, we set out in soggy shoes the next morning. We were set to hike 13km that day, and the daylight was already weak in the late fall at the far south of the world.
As we left, a white tailed deer was moseying around the back side of the hut. Though we are used to seeing them everywhere in Colorado, they are quite rare here in NZ and everyone was excitedly peeking at it through the windows!
At first, the trail started as a gentle winding path through the forest with ample undergrowth and busy canopy. It was much different than the previous two Great Walks as it was missing the constant elevation change. The unique challenge of this track was coming soon, though!
There are all sorts of strategies to combat the mud on the Rakiura track. We had heard suggestions to just bring gumboots (tall rubber boots), wear tall gaiters over your hiking boots, and saw plenty of people wasting tons of energy and time trying to hike around the muddy spots, widening the trail in the process. Our strategy was simple: just accept that our light trail running/hiking shoes (and legs) will be caked with mud, and have fun with it!
We had a blast just squelching our way through the long sections of nearly knee-deep mud! Neither of us lost any shoes (it was close though), and we could laugh about the mess and muck, rather than letting our souls be mired in it!
The late afternoon brought light sprinkles of rain as we ascended the last hill past some rusty logging equipment, the final attempt to commercialize the wild Rakiura before it was turned into a large wilderness park.
Approaching the second (and final) hut for us, the path skirted the ocean, showing us glimpses of a rainbow across the harbour.
As a long beach opened up beside us, we looked at each other, then walked straight into the ocean. The mud that had hardened onto our shoes and shins softened and sloughed off with each new wave.
After our impromptu leg wash, the hut was just a few hundred meters away. The hut warden had his four kids with him at the hut, so it was loud and busy just with them! Dusk came quickly, an hour before we were used to, so we continued our conversations with the other walkers in the dark.
We chatted a bunch with an american and her kiwi partner. She introduced Kadi to her new favorite hiking socks, injinji toe socks! They seemed super impressed by Kadi’s backpack, and she even recognized my backpack brand (Hyperlight Mountain Gear). We exchanged our ultra light tips for recommended places to hike and contact information.
A light rain followed the dusk in, playing us to sleep with a soft melody against the tin roof. It continued into the morning, so we started in our rain gear the next day.
We retraced our steps for just over a kilometer to get back to the main trail, going up a decent incline to get there. Stewart island is certainly very hilly! The overcast weather lent itself to photos of the small details around us, like the ferns and leaves.
The rain let up as we continued down towards the beach, and we encountered our first swing bridge of the track.
We got to do our first bit of beach tramping, a nice break for feet and mind, as you don’t have to think about every step. We collected a few cool shells too!
The trail twisted along the rugged coastline, offering more beach walks before rising up to present dramatic views hundreds of feet down a rocky cliff. The rain started again, but it wasn’t light or misty this time.
Eventually, the massive chain sculpture representing the Maori tale of Rakiura/Stewart island came into view down the trail. It is said that Rakiura is the great anchor stone holding Maui’s Waka (canoe), the South Island, in place. This chain sculpture continues down into the ocean, representing the island’s connection as anchor stone.
Though we were excited to see the end of the trail, we had another four km of road walking to get back to our hostel! Since cars are so difficult to get into the island, shuttle services are elusive and expensive. I don’t think either of us were happy during our tarmac walking in torrential rain, but at least we saved money!
At long last, we crested the last hill up and over to the village of Oban. We were staying at the only backpackers hostel in town, so we saw a couple of our fellow trampers there again. This was Kadi’s first ever hostel experience!
We ate our lunch in the communal kitchen, then found some instant ramen in the free food bin that we also devoured. A couple people had gone out to get some fish n’ chips after their hike, and we were looking on in envy–definitely going to get that for dinner!
We played games, took much needed showers, and napped for the rest of the afternoon as the rain continued outside. Dinner time was finally here, so we pulled on our (mostly dry) raingear again and walked down the block to the Kai Kart, a tiny trailer with a sign outside that simply read ‘Fish and Chips – Open’.
There was just a dude wearing a hoodie and a lady helping prep inside, telling each other crude jokes as they fried our food. It got wrapped in the traditional white paper double wrap, then we were off! We saw a few people kiwi spotting as we walked back in the dark, since Stewart Island is one of the best places in NZ to see the elusive, nocturnal bird.
Our dinner was by far the best Fish and Chips either of us had ever had. It could be that we had just finished a long hike, or maybe it was just that good! You should go find out for yourself!
The next day we went to Ulva Island, a small bird sanctuary just off Stewart Island. More on this in the next post!
It was the perfect way to end the backpacking adventure, so I guess I’ll stop writing there!
Thanks for reading!