Happy 2018! I hope you were able to get some time relaxing with family and friends over the holiday season, and that you’re ready for a year with new challenges and adventures.
Speaking for adventures, I’ve just returned home from one of my own. My intrepid hiking buddies and I decided that for this year’s Blisterfest, we’d tackle the Rakiura Track on Stewart Island over the new year. And boy howdy, was it amazing.
If you’re not too familiar with New Zealand’s geography, our country is divided into three islands – the North Island, where the majority of the population live, the South Island, where the big sheep stations and so much of our natural wonders are located, and Stewart Island – a teeny, tiny island right down the bottom of the South Island where … not much is located.
In Maori, the island was originally called Te Punga o Te Waka a Maui (The Anchor Stone of Maui’s Canoe), because of its role in the legend of Maui who fished up New Zealand. (The South Island is his boat, and the North Island is the fish). Nowadays it’s known is Rakiura, (The great and deep blushing of Te Rakitamau) – in reference to its glorious glowing sunrises and sunsets, and also to the Aurora Australis that can be seen from the island at the right time of year.
Maori have lived on the island since the 13th century AD, where they subsisted on fish and the titi (muttonbird). In the 19th century, seafarers began to come to the island and set up mines, fishing stations, boatbuilding, and sawmills to fell the bountiful trees. In the 1920s, the Rosshavet whaling expedition arrived from Norway, and added their Norwegian genes to the already intermingled population of the island. It wasn’t until 2002 that the Rakiura National Park was established on Stewart Island, helping to protect its natural beauty.
Nowadays, only 390 people live on Stewart Island permanently, and contribute to an economy of fishing, tourism, aquaculture, conversation. Thousands more visit every year as tourists, and many of them – like us – choose to hike the Rakiura Track.
Herein follows an account of our adventures:
Myself, John, Sam and Iris arrived from Auckland via invercargill on the 28th December, with designs on hiking the Rakiura Track, one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks” of natural beauty and significance. The three-day hike would take us 32 km around the coast and across the island.
After a fun-filled ferry ride across Cook Strait (like a roller coaster but on water, and apparently it was a calm day!) we arrived in Oban – the single remaining township on the island. A three-minute walk through the thriving metropolis of Oban led us directly to Stewart Island Backpackers, our home for the night.
We went down to the Kai Kart – a food truck selling fish and chips, including Stewart Island blue cod caught that day. They looked as though they were struggling with the ten or so people milling around waiting for orders, which was confirmed to us as, two hours later, we finally received our last order (which had been forgotten). Food was delicious but it certainly was a lesson about the slower pace of life on the island.
Down to the local pub – South Seas – for a drink ($6 handles! $7 cider! Unheard of!) and then to bed, because the next day we’d begin the hike!
Our fifth party member – Andy – wouldn’t arrive until 1:30PM, so we had some time to kill on the island. We started the day with coffee at the local cafe, where we proceeded to sound like pretentious Aucklanders with our drink orders before sitting down in a shack-like building to enjoy probably the most delicious toasted sandwich I’ve ever had. Seriously, if you’re on the island, I can definitely recommend the basil pesto, tomato, and cheese.
We picked up our hut tickets and gas cannisters (no stoves in the huts), and checked out of the hostel. With a few hours still to wait, we hiked up to the Stewart Island cemetery, and read off the epitaphs of the graves overlooking a picturesque bay. Not surprisingly, a significant number of people had died at sea.
After that, we went down to Bathing Bay for a swim. Well, I swam, everyone else looked on. How could you NOT swim when the beach looks like this? #nofilter #nosharks
Freshly swum out, with salt clinging to my skin, I hiked back with the others into Oban to pick up Andy. Hugs all round as though we’d been reunited after five years apart instead of the three weeks since our annual metal Christmas party. I love my friends so hard.
Then it was back to the hostel to pick up our packs, hop into our transfer to head to the start of the track at Lee Bay, and we were away!
Look how clean and fresh-faced we look!
As we drove the 5km out to the entrance to the National Park, our driver, a so-called “local legend”, regaled us with tales about island life, which was mostly about how all his friends owned helicopters.
By this point it was mid-afternoon, and the sun was beating down hard. We passed through the chain link sculpture at Lee Bay (the chain stretches out into the ocean, and there’s an identical sculpture in Bluff, making sure Stewart Island doesn’t float away), then followed the track along the coast to the Little River, which is crossed by a little bridge (no trolls so far).
From there the track headed around Peter’s Point and on to Maori Beach. From here, we followed a small track leading to a rusting steam boiler – a relic from the sawmilling days. This was our late-lunch spot. I was very happy because #ruins.
The Rakiura description mentions a “small” climb to reach the first hut, Port William. The amount of complaining about aching calves suggests that this might have been an oversight.
Not surprisingly given our late start, we were one of the last groups to arrive. Weirdly, there were people in the sleeping area trying to sleep while we were sorting our beds. We tried to be quiet, but, well … sorry people trying to sleep. Not sure why you thought that’d work at 5PM in the evening, though.
Port William hut overlooked a small beach. We went down for a paddle, but the water was that kind of freezing that you’d expect from an island that’s a little too close to Antarctica for comfort. Only Andy managed to get more than her knees under water, a fact for which she chastised us for the rest of the evening.
Post swim drinks and giggles were had. I discovered I left my much-anticipated Whittaker’s Peanut Slabs back at the hostel, which was my main object of complaint for the rest of the hike. (Hills don’t bother me, but missing out on chocolate? I’m crying). After a dinner of chicken italiano and exploded mashed potatoes (quite an epic splatter), we played cards for a bit and then went to sleep. John snored (thanks John), and so did a few other people (I hate you), but I managed a few hours of sleep.
Today was the day most in our group were dreading; 6 hours estimated walking time, 13km rising up to the highest point on the trail. All our research had suggested that we’d be up past our knees in mud and it would be boring and miserable.
There was a bit of mud, but boring and miserable it was not. (Well, maybe I should speak for myself). The track began with a half hour backtrack to Maori Beach, which feels a bit sucky when lugging a 15kg pack around. From there, we passed through a variety of vegetation including previously milled and virgin podocarp forest. There are old cuttings from the tramlines that used to crisscross the forest to aid the removal of sawn timbers. It’s not quite the same as Incan ruins, but I do love seeing the human history on the island.
The forest is something out of Jurassic Park. It feels very primal and wild. We even found a beautiful swimming spot on the way (although only Andy was brave enough to go in).
Beautiful inlet/beach just a couple of minutes from the hut.
We arrived at the hut much earlier, with plenty of time to drink the rest of our wine and scotch, cook dinner together (no exploding potatoes tonight – Andy crumbled parmesan into them and they were actually quite delicious), and play a raucous and ridiculous game of cheat that I somehow won, despite hardly cheating at all (except of the stack of cards I hid under my ass when everyone looked away). I’m not sure the elderly group of clearly Christian hikers (reading their bibles around their own table) were terribly amused to be sharing the cabin with some loud metalheads, but them’s the breaks.
We went for a kiwi hunt at midnight, but with a possum hanging around the campsite, we were unlikely to see any. It was still a lovely walk in the moonlight.
Day 3: New Years Eve
Today was a short three-hour hike to get out of the forest and reach the exit of Rakiura National Park at the Fern Gully car park. The track winds through rimu and kamahi forest, and passes the sheltered bays of Kidney Fern Arm and Kaipipi Bay, where two sawmills operated in the 1860s, employing hundreds of people.
We even got a bit of rain!
But once we arrived at Fern Gully, we weren’t out of the woods yet. Well, we were. But we weren’t done with the hiking. We had to hike an additional 2km back to Oban. I have been wearing the same clothes for three days. It has been warm. I do not smell nice, even by hiking standards.
We don’t look that different to the “start” photo, but boy howdy are you lucky photographs don’t capture smell.
Our first task upon returning was showers. Let me tell you, I have never smelt more delicious. I debated burning my clothes in a ritual fire to appease the hiking gods, but hiking gear is expensive.
Once we were all presentable again, we headed back to the Kai Kart, which seemed to have acquired a different chef who was a lot more speedy. In the time it took Sam, Iris and I to return from the general store with beer and cider, we had our fish and chips – the most delicious fish and chips of my life, hard-earned and perfectly cooked.
Our friend Olya arrived on the 4:30PM flight, and from then on we drank whisky and regaled her with tales of busted toes and exploded potatoes, until it was time to head to the pub for our celebratory dinner.
Olya arrived, and she brought scotch! Bless you, Olya.
I shared a starter of Stewart Island salmon 3-ways, and had a main of baked salmon on a bed of vegetables, and polished it off with several pints of cider ($7 cider! How is that even possible?) For dessert I had one of the Peanut Slab’s I’d been whining about missing for three days, and it was glorious.
The New Years Eve celebrations got underway in earnest. We took another trip to Bathing Bay for shenanigans, and returned to Oban in time to find a place beside the roaring bonfire (and debate the hotness levels of the guys responsible to stoking it).
A covers band started up at the pub, and locals and visitors descended from the homes and guesthouses around Oban to congregate on the beach.
New Years public parties in New Zealand can be prime examples of cesspools of humanity, but the vibe on Stewart Island was just right. There weren’t so many people that it felt unsafe or tense, and everyone seemed to be in a jovial, party mood. At midnight, we all counted down together (two minutes early!) and then the fishing boats let off their expired flares in a mighty fireworks display. A bright, bold supermoon shone down over us – a blue lantern overlooking the festivities.
The next day we said goodbye to Andrea and Iris, and the rest of us walked out to the lighthouse at Ackers Point. A beautiful walk that I would definitely recommend, even if the lighthouse was a bit of a let-down (it wasn’t actually a house. Boo.) Along the way, there is a historic stone cottage that’s one of the oldest buildings in New Zealand, built in 1835 by Lewis Acker.
Then it was back to the mainland by teeny tiny plane (my absolute favourite thing) and on to my next adventure (which you will hear about in another post.)
So that was a brilliant way to say goodbye to the challenges of 2017 and hello to sweet, blissful dreams-come-true of 2018. Stewart Island, we loved you! I know I will definitely return.
If you’re visiting Stewart Island, I recommend:
- Taking a flight from Invercargill.
- Staying at the Stewart Island Backpackers.
- Eating at the Kai Kart, the cafe (try the toasted sandwiches), and the South Seas pub (did I mention the $7 cider?)
- Exploring the various walking tracks around Oban.
- Going for a swim in Bathing Bay (but check for sharks first).
- Taking some awesome friends with you and spending a few days to really enjoy a different pace of live.
- Bringing lots of whisky.