What draws someone to Stewart Island? Is it the promise of adventure? Is it the possibility of seeing a Kiwi, the iconic and reclusive bird that wanders the forest at night? Or is it the isolation, the chance to be far away from the stresses and problems of modern life? Lisa and I pondered these things as our boat crossed the choppy Foveaux Strait, bouncing ever higher out of our seats as the size of the waves increased. We had earlier disembarked from Bluff on a blustery November afternoon, alongside a small number of queasy looking passengers as the lead-grey sea slapped against the vessel and dark clouds loomed overhead.
The Rakiura Track is a 32-kilometre loop, allowing a hiker to experience secluded bays and ancient forest. With legs like jelly, we staggered through the small settlement of Oban, seeking our hostel. The Kaka, a forest-dwelling cousin of the Kea, was a mischievous presence around the hostel. The tap of their claws outside our dormitory faded as darkness drew in, and we settled down for an early night.
Day One: Lee Bay to Port William Hut
Stewart Island has a population of roughly 400 people. Even that small number was hard to believe as we strode through Oban towards the start of the track at Lee Bay. We followed a quiet undulating coastal road, with Kiwi crossing signs appearing at regular intervals. The sleepy and contented atmosphere of the island was a huge contrast to the awe-inspiring and intimidating peaks that were usually in view as we began a hike. Occasionally an old truck would rumble down the road, the driver behind the wheel acknowledging us with a nod.
Shortly after passing Horseshoe Bay, we reached Lee Bay and the strange chain-link sculpture signifying the start of the track. It was a beautiful morning, and facing the cliff, we climbed steps cleaved into the rock. Within minutes, we entered the forest. The trees enclosed around us, blocking our field of vision and stifling the sea breeze. Port William Hut was a mere eight kilometres away, but our heavy bags, crammed full clothes for all weather weighed us down. Also, our trusty tent was strapped to my rucksack. Our plan had been to camp on the beach that night, but a DOC ranger had advised us to stay in the largely empty hut instead. Being denied a night camping by the sea was a shame, but our battered tent, held together by tape, was unlikely to survive the storm sweeping in that night.
The track led us down from the cliffs to Maori Beach. It was low tide, and we waded through a creek to reach the golden sand. Rusted relics from the early 20th Century demonstrated this idyllic beach had at one point been a place of hard labour. This small community’s livelihood was based on timber milling. What had driven these people to Stewart Island? Despite the beauty of our surroundings, I suspected that to end up here, at the ends of the earth, may have been a desperate decision.
At the northern end of the beach, a large bridge spanned a deep tidal stream, and we once again returned to the forest. Lisa was leading the way and reached a crossroads. To our left, the path led into the depths of the forest, and our route for tomorrow. We instead turned right, back to the rugged coastline.
The hut was deserted as we entered. Our heavy bags were dumped in a dormitory, and we went back out to explore the beguiling Magnetic Beach. We returned to find four other hikers, all of whom were excitable and chatting loudly. I attempted to hide my inner grouch and chat with them. I repressed a sigh when it was revealed they would be copying our plan, to find a good spot in the forest at night, before the storm hit, and attempt to see the elusive Kiwi.
With head torches deployed, we walked back up the forest path to a glade we had identified earlier as a good place to wait and watch. According to the hut logbook, those with enough patience had a great chance of a Kiwi sighting in this spot. It was nearly pitch black, with a sliver of pale blue moonlight filtering through the gathering clouds above us.
“Let’s turn our lights off and find somewhere to hide” whispered Lisa. Endurance and silence would be essential. I immediately tripped and thudded heavily to the ground, earning an exasperated look from Lisa as she moved to the other side of the clearing. Regaining my composure, I knelt behind a bush, looking longingly into the gloom of the undergrowth. An hour passed. Had I not been straining my eyes and ears for evidence of a Kiwi, I would have enjoyed the peaceful ambience of the forest. The wind in the trees and call of other birds was magical. As midnight approached, we left our hiding place and walked back to the hut, looking ruefully back into the trees.
Day Two: Port William Hut to North Arm Hut
Unbelievably, the other hikers had seen a Kiwi during the night. They had been strolling back towards the hut when the bird had walked across their path and into the bush. Bemoaning our luck, we left the hut feeling we may have missed our chance. The previous day had been a sun-baked stroll along the coast. Now, we would be entering the dark interior of this mysterious island. The storm during the night had not been as powerful as feared. However, it had rained enough to ensure we would spend many hours battling up muddy slopes and scrambling down slippery hills.
As we left Port William Hut, a huge rat dashed across our path. It is hard to imagine a Kiwi, or indeed any other native bird thriving in an area with introduced predators such as rats, possums or stoats. An ambitious plan to eradicate these predators by 2050 has caused controversy. The potentially hazardous 1080 poison is believed to be the best method to kill these predators, but it is also fatal to most other animals if ingested. Trapping alone will not be enough, but anecdotal evidence suggests the forests grow quieter of birdsong every year the poison is used.
Half an hour of uphill walking brought us back to the crossroads, and we turned right. The forest glistened with moisture as the early morning sun began to penetrate the thick canopy overhead. Despite the well-maintained path, progress was slow. Tree roots were grabbed and used to pull ourselves up slippery banks, and my bottom was used to slide back down them. Lisa used her hiking poles to navigate a path through the mud and tangle of roots.
The further we progressed, the steeper the climb became. The highest peak on the island is 938 metres, to our north. Numerous wooded ranges were ahead of us, to the west. Without a map, we would have been oblivious to them. The trees were all-encompassing, dominating not just our vision but all of our senses. I had the impression of walking through a green tunnel, focusing on my footing and listening to the sounds of the forest.
In the middle of the afternoon, a lichen-covered sign indicated we approached North Arm Hut. The hut was down a steep hill by the sea. We would be camping that night, and found the site up in the hills, within earshot of crashing waves. The clearing contained a rudimentary shelter, water tank and washing line. To our amazement, rubbish had been left strewn on the floor. The respect in which both locals and visitors treat the great outdoors in New Zealand is commendable. It is a national attribute that should be celebrated. After shoving the rubbish into a plastic bag, we put up our tent and prepared a meal under the shelter.
Day Three: North Arm Hut to Fern Gully
Rain was to dominate our last day on the track. Fortunately, the morning sky was clear. Even so, we hastily packed up our tent and ate breakfast under the shelter. The one positive to take from sandflies is how the swarms get you moving in the morning. There was no chance of a late start as we rubbed our arms and legs, trying to escape the itchy bites.
After passing North Arm Hut, the track turned south. Another track crossed our path, the North West Circuit. I had read about the trials and tribulations encountered on this epic 125-kilometre hike. Even in summer, knee-deep, sucking mud is regularly encountered. It is considered one of the most rewarding tracks in the country, with the promise of rare wildlife and solitude irresistible to the hardy few.
The trees above us began to sway wildly as a storm swept in over Sawdust Bay. The twisted rimu and kamahi trees to our left were distorted and weather-beaten, and rain pelted the side of our hoods like machine-gun fire. On a clear day, the views over Paterson Inlet would have been stunning. An abandoned wharf was passed and the track once again turned back into the forest, providing respite from the wind. Leading the way, I overtook a mother and son, who cheerfully greeted us despite the weather. They were the only hikers we saw all day.
Despite their fragile appearance, the native birds of Stewart Island display an immense amount of resilience to survive. Amongst the undergrowth, we saw the familiar mottled brown feathers of a Weka. No bigger than a chicken, the Weka can be seen often in the New Zealand backcountry, striding around in a lackadaisical fashion. But to survive storms such as these, this unassuming bird must be tougher than one would expect.
After five hours, the trees began to thin, and a solid road replaced the gravel track. I was absolutely soaked and ready to hide indoors. As we reached Oban, the storm began to ease, and I consoled myself at the dock with a large bag of chips. Our boat was not due to depart Halfmoon Bay for two hours, enough time to sample the delights of the renowned South Sea Hotel. A wall of warm air hit us as we entered. Removing our wet coats, we entered the cramped tavern. A seat by a roaring fire was secured, and after drinking a glass of beer in two gulps, I felt immensely contented. Fisherman cracked yarns at the bar, and Lisa and I discussed our adventure. It had been a sensory experience, rather than a visceral thrill ride in the mountains. The Rakiura Track gave us a snapshot of a place with hidden depths, a place happy to go at its own pace. Stewart Island is a perfect microcosm Of New Zealand. Welcoming, friendly, antiquated, but with a hidden resilience that encapsulates the spirit of the country.