After visiting some hot spots on the South Island I figured it would be nice to get away from the New Zealand summer crowds. Yet I couldn’t think that Rakiura by its Maori name, Stewart Island in the colonized language, will provide such a remarkable escape from the civilized world.
North West Circuit Track: Allow 9-11 days to walk the full 125 km circuit. This track is suitable for fit, well equipped and experienced trampers. Track times are an indication only and extra time should be allowed in adverse conditions.
This introduction states on the front page of the official track brochure I intended to do. While it doesn’t lie about one’s experiences and fitness, it kind of does misalign some figures. The whole circuit from the visitor center and back including two side trips – two ascends of the highest track points – is covering about 143 km. It also doesn’t count with the thrill of individuals to escape the crowds so I slighty planned the route allowing myself a week. Although I tried to reconcile with the usual rainy conditions, the forecast promised the sun for next couple days so there was no more thinking about making this happen.
Only a few minutes after boarding to the ferry between Bluff and Stewart Island I realized it can’t get much worse. I’ve never seen such big waves before and the one hour ride changed into the who’s gonna throw up first game. Even though I felt like all my body cells were uncontrollably flying through the air as the boat swung on the waves, I came out of the game as a survivor. So the first feeling in Oban, the only island’s settlement with about 500 people living in, was a mix of the thrill and sickness. I visited the visitor center to be warned about difficulties of the track. I bought a detailed map to make myself feel better and after a short coffee break I set off. I packed very lightly with minimum of clothing and basic sleeping and cooking equipments, but also with food supplies for roughly eight days, which turned out to be a rushing element later on.
My day one covered 18 km of mostly easy walk to the first Bungaree Hut. Backcountry huts are considered here as little cottages in the bush, formal refuge for hunters or fishermen, now served mostly for hikers as a convenient sleeping and cooking shelters. My shoulders and hips hurt but I was happy to get started. This feeling remained until the second day of muddy walking to Christmas Village Hut and the steep ascend of Mt Anglem/Hananui rising up to 980 metres. The sun was on and the views were captivating. There were no signs of human influence as far as I looked including the perfect silence. I lay on the summit like a monk in quiet contemplation. I was in peace but tired as hell putting all my outset energy into the summit climb. This was my hardest day of the track, 22.5 km with the highest total altitude. On these two days I walked alone but met a Czech couple, two Israeli guys and two German girls in both huts. However, they didn’t make it to the mountain the same day so I seperated the next day, skipped Yankee River Hut and finished 18 km long day three at Long Harry Hut. Days were dry, beaches beautiful and happiness lasting.
With a perspective of remaining days, Long Harry Hut became the nicest hut with a view award winner. What was even more exciting, for the first time I saw a kiwi bird just from the hut window in the morning. All the days I tended to get up early and didn’t get much of a good sleep. Together with reduced food and calories income it’s hard to understand where I got all the energy to walk to the next hut East Ruggedy distanced 9.5 km in 4 and half hours when the guiding brochure says 6 and half. Well it was 12pm at the time and again perfect weather so I kept walking another 14 km to Big Hellfire Hut. Sincerely, this part of the track was the most beautiful one in both, views and challenging ups and downs. When I arrived to the hut at 6:30pm there were already three hikers who I eventually spent the rest of the circuit with. There was Jane from Auckland in her late thirties and Aussie couple John and Lisa in their sixties (?). I heard the curiosity in their voices when they were asking where the hell did I come from to Hellfire hut this late hour. When I said from Long Harry they just shook their heads in surprise of 23.5 km of a muddy nonflat walk. From there on I knew I will make it until the end. Concerns about food provisions and rainy weather were still the case but it was now only three days left, most of it promised easy track conditions. I almost forgot the fourth person Rene, a guy from Switzerland in about same age as me, who didn’t have a lot of English skills which he compensated with a steadfast trekking. No doubt, he recently finished over 3000 km long Te Araroa walk through the lenght of New Zealand, that’s something. Although we all walked separately we knew where we approximately are and when are we going to meet in the next hut.
From Big Hellfire Hut it was 15.5 km to Mason Bay, my shortest day on the track. Only the rocky crossing in waist-level ocean made this sunny day a bit wet. It had been the fifth day of no rain. Very odd on Stewart Island. People in Oban must have been running outside naked in excitement. The beach stroll on the way to Mason Hut became the day highlight number two, when nothing can beat my morning close catch sight of a kiwi bird in all its beauty and mysteriousness (video). After five days of occasional encounters with people there was now Mason Hut full of backcountry tourists flying in by plane for the kiwi spotting. We tried to keep together with Jane and other hikers, because we thought we are tougher than them. Evenings and stays in backcountry huts were eventually very pleasant. The reason wasn’t chatting with the others or cooking an artificial meals but keeping out of reach of bloody sandflies. This insect follows you everywhere, stay safe and sand.
The day number six was about cruising on Freshwater Flats which are usually flooded. Fortunately not in these dry days, so we could easily make our way with Jane and Rene to Freshwater Hut and then to ascend Rocky Mountain for wide views of empty Rakiura lands. It was nice and enriching to spend last days in some company, but I have to say that even more enriching was to be and walk by myself. Hours and hours of walking are mostly fulfilled with focus on track and admiring the surroundings but that interpolates with either deep or shallow thinking, brainstorming and clearminding. And that’s what I love about the whole walking thing the most. I came up with so many less or more useful ideas, noted them down and will keep them alive for the future. If in any mean I can answer someone’s asking ‘Have you found yourself or what?’ I say ‘Yes, I have found myself in walking.’ At the end I hate cars and cycling is harsh so what else is left then my own legs…
From Freshwater there was the last strenuous 11 km long muddy part of the track before entering the highway, meaning The Great Rakiura Walk, well-maintained track towards Oban. Early after morning set off of the day seven at 7am I took over everyone who was in front of me in excitement to finish and also because I had except two muesli bars no more food left. The easy-going weather conditions with the sun hiding in clouds and the light backpack with all provisions eaten I made it to Oban at 1:30pm, flying through the last 23 km in less than seven hours. When I glimpsed first houses and streets I dropped a tear of happiness. Happiness and pride.
I will always be wondering not if I was the fastest hiker of the track in Rakiura history, which I definitely wasn’t, but I will wonder if I was the only person who ever accomplished North West Circuit without any signs of rain, reversely with seven sunny days. Certainly this was nothing but good luck, because if it started raining, commonly raining hard, me and my four-dollar-emergency-poncho from Warehouse together with the accurate amount of food would be screwed. I would have to improvise much more. Fortunately this didn’t happen and I could enjoy and fell in love with this remote island as well as with its only town Oban with couple of charming streets and harbor.
I decided to hang around the town until the next day. But before that after I finished my walk I came straight to the supermarket. I knew what I wanted, I had been thinking about these five items for previous six hours . I paid 20 dollars and 40 cents for bread, salami, chocolate, chips and cold beer. I sat on the bench in front of the only town hotel/bar and feasted. The range of flavors was overwhelming. The beer did the best job though. I settled in a local backpacker and had one of the best showers of my life. Later I met up with Jane and Rene for the dinner at Church Hill restaurant, the dinner we dreamed about for the last three days. Got steak, and relief. I have to admit the civilization felt great. However, the feelings and joy I experienced being out there will surely make me to return happily to the wilderness.
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more…
(Lord Byron, from the book Into the Wild)