Stewart Island – The challenging North-West-Circuit (NZ ~ 06.-17.11.2017)

Just coming back from my two hikes on the Milford and the Kepler Tracks I was excited to go further south to the third island of New Zealand – Stewart Island / Raikura. Since I got to know about the 9-11 days self-sufficient backcountry hike, the North West Circuit, I planned to do it as a new challenge. For preparation I thought the three Great Walks would do well.

Little did I know…

Day 0 – Oban:

Fully packed with food for 11 days I try to lift my backpack in the little really cool Bunkers Backpackers in the only township on Stewart Island, Oban. I got my groceries in Invercargill at the big supermarkets and shipped them with myself on board of the little ferry boat. ‘I hope I’ve got everything’, is a repeating thought in my mind. I look at the daily schedule in my black notebook where I tried to write down my whole food and supplies plan. Since there won’t be a chance to get new supplies – except water – and no chance to stop and easily return it has to be enough for the planned 10 days plus 1-2 days extras in case. I feel excitement all over that I’m really about to do this. “But surely there will be a lot of people around on the track?” I hear the voice of a good friend back home who received my outdoor intention form just in case something happens. Actually there won’t be. Not many people do this track as it is longer and challenging. So in worst case I will meet nobody for days.

I take a look at my list again and try to lift the backpack another time. This is heavier than on any hike I did before. Well, maybe I just have to start start tomorrow and see how it goes.

Note: Not included in this pic are the 11 dehydrated meals I got for a full dinner. Just add water and enjoy. Kind of.

Day 1 – Halfmoon Bay to Bungaree Hut:

The wind is howling outside. The rain rattles on the roof and mixes with the sound of waves breaking on the beach. ‘Lucky that I walked here in mostly good weather’, I think while watching the storm outside all wrapped up in my sleeping bag. I couldn’t get a fire started in that little hut since the larger firewood was too wet.

After walking out of the town, I followed the first part of the Great Walk for about 2 hours to have my lunch break at Port William Hut. I got my gaiters on and with leaving the Great Walk and stepping onto the North West Circuit the well paved path turned into mud, roots and more mud. It was slippery and steep to get down and up through all the creeks especially with the heavy backpack. And this has been just 3 hours with these conditions, the next days will be double as long. I arrived so hungry at the first hut and immediately got some food prepared. Just to find out that I forgot my spork back in the hostel. My spork. One of the rather important things when you don’t want to eat porridge and instant meals with your fingers. First I swore than I prayed for something and I couldn’t believe that actually at the sink outside someone left his sturdy plastic spoon when I walked around for a look.

‘This spoon will have to get me through the next 9 following days.’ I’m lying in my sleeping back and look at the little good charms and wishes that I got from family, friends and my former team. Some of them I carry around with me since the Camino de Santiago in 2015, some I just got before I left Europe. It feels good to have them with me.

I look through the window upon the curly ocean. It is just the first night of 9. I hope it calms down until tomorrow.

Day 2 – Bungaree Hut to Christmas Village Hut:

“What a crazy island!” I’m searching for shelter from the shower of hail. The weather keeps changing every 30 minutes. It started with sunshine and a beautiful sunrise this morning but rotates ever then from sunshine to hail to rain and back to sunshine in a constant circle. I touch my ear while I wait beneath a tree to let the shower pass. A sandfly or a mosquito took its chance last night and I woke up with a red and swollen ear on fire (yes, I’m exaggerating here a bit). Today’s walk has been a sequel to yesterday so far. Creeks, roots, mud and scrambling up and down quite often with hands and feet. And then these ambiguous friendships with branches and roots which help you in one moment as a grip or a step and in the next second try to let you slip or give you a push from behind so that you say hello to the mud in a very personal way. I already slipped 2 times today. Enough, I think when I look at my muddy shorts, gaiters and boots.

Funny that I still try to avoid the puddles of mud and water but there’s more than just the state of dry or wet boots. For me it’s a 5 steps scale of dry, damp, wet, soaking wet and swimming pool. You start in the morning with 1 (dry) or 2 (damp) and you never wanna end on 5. Never. ‘I started today with 3 (wet) and I want to keep that state as long as possible’, is yet another thought as I hop over boulders to cross a creek that runs more water than normally due to the rain.

Today I really wish for a nice and cozy warm hut.

Day 3 – Christmas Village to Yankee River Hut:

“Don’t try to be a hero!” The words of the ranger who gave me the information about the hike back in the park office echo in my head as I look upon the brown rushing water in front of me. Lucky river it is called. Not very lucky for me at the moment. During heavy rains some of the creeks can become impassable. When I left the hut this morning I didn’t consider the rain as heavy. It was a nice walk til now. Not too much mud and nice soft paths downhill from time to time. I put my beanie on and decide for a lunch break. ‘How longs does it take for the river to go back to normal, a couple of hours?’ I think while chewing on some bits of cheese and bread. I lose my thought as Lukas, a Dutch hiker who has joined me in the last huts, comes around the corner and looks with his everlasting smile upon the natural border in front of us. “Is there another way across?” he asks as he unloads his backpack and starts to explore the surroundings. I try to follow him through the bushes. Not long after we left the path we come to a tree that fell across the river upstream. Lukas gets into the water, supports himself with his hiking poles, and steps up the trunk. He looks at me with questioning eyes. “It’s not so slippery, I think we should try it. It’s not dangerous here.” His Dutch accent makes it sound calming and encouraging at the same time. I look around and find a branch strong and long enough to serve me as a short time hiking pole. We quickly get back, load our backpacks and return to the new potential crossing hidden in the bushes. I say goodbye to my just damp boots. Today they’ll get soaked.

“Okay, let’s do this.”

Day 4 – Yankee River to Long Harry Hut:

It’s been a rather easy walk today. Easy meaning mostly that it has just been 4 1/2 hours of backcountry hiking and not a full 6 hours walk like the past days and tomorrow onwards. The track itself was again steep, muddy and breathtaking, just how I like it. The mind blowing walk along the beach has been good to refresh the concentration. And take some pictures again. It’s funny how from a look at my pictures even I might think it’s just a nice walk along the coast. But these are so far the only spots where I can stop and take out my camera. ‘In a self-challenging way I really enjoy it’, crosses my mind as I stand at the rocky beach below today’s hut, leaning against one of the bigger boulders and watching two of the three brothers on some kind of low tide hunt at the sea. Lukas and I met the three in their 50s at the last hut where they have stayed for a rest day and night and are now like us back on following the North West Circuit. In one of them I bumped yesterday as he was with his rifle on hunt in the forest. I still try to catch up with their dialect.

I come back to the here and now as Trevor, the hunter brother, suddenly takes a leap, leans down and reaches into a gap between rocks just as the last wave retreats. “Gotcha”, he shouts in joy as he struggles to cut something out from under the stone. It’s a paua (abalone) as I will learn and taste later. “Hey, Leon!” I turn my head to the left to see the eldest brother, Gary, carrying some drift wood in his arms. “Try to find as much dry firewood as possible, it’s starting to rain soon.”

I have a last look at the ocean and the two guys on their search for more pauas. Then I turn around and start my search for firewood. I want to be warm this evening.

Day 5 – Long Harry to East Ruggedy:

When I had a look at today’s track this morning and said goodbye to Lukas who wanted to stay in the hut for another night I thought that I might write tonight about seeing a kiwi (just its butt), hopping over the big boulders at Boulder Beach or my first quick sand experience – luckily it just took my walking stick – while getting lost in the dunes of East Ruggedy.

But instead I’m sitting right now at the wooden table in the backcountry hut with Gary, Trevor and Duane and we’re enjoying a special dinner together: fresh wild venison – with our carried potato mash (made from potato flakes) and peas (dehydrated of course). All prepared with our stoves, pots and a pan we found in that hut. The fire is cracking softly in the fireplace as the three brothers tell the story again how they met the deer on the track, first just took pictures but since it wasn’t going away then reminded Trevor that he could get his first white tail and having to carry parts for another 3 hours to the hut. And their backpacks are already way heavier than mine. We laugh a lot that night I feel being part time-adopted.

This. Being on the furthest spot away from civilisation and having this kind of dinner. It will be very hard to return to dehydrated instant meals

Side note: Deer is considered a pest in New Zealand since they were introduced by Europeans for fun and recreation (hunting) but as they didn’t have any natural predators they instead started to destroy the natural flora and fauna with their growing presence. So hunter for example on Stewart Island can get a permit for hunting deer during the whole year.

Day 6 – East Ruggedy to Big Hellfire Hut:

‘The hut must be just around the next corner.’ The thought repeats itself in my head. But there is still no sign of it. ‘How long am I already on the track today?’ I look at the clock on my phone. I’m pretty surprised how long the battery lasts when the iPhone is set in flight mode and just be used for occasional pictures. I just had to charge it one time since I’m in the park so I might spoil myself tonight with a cream puff video and audiobook. I can’t remember what time the phone display has shown – always the same – so I click it another time. 2 pm. We roughly started around 8 am and walked as a group for the first three hours before I head off uphill in my own pace of continuous little steps.

I look at the time again. Maybe one more hour to go. The last time I saw the guys was at the beach one hour ago. I wonder if we have fish or another paua tonight with the leftover of the venison. They didn’t look like they would leave the beach soon. We’ve been very lucky with the weather during the last days and the forecast on Trevor’s gps device is promising. ‘We can maybe make it dry through the flooding area tomorrow’ pops up in my head before it returns to play ‘Shake it out’ and some Ed Sheerans in an endless loop again.

The hut will be just around the next corner. Or two.

Day 7 – Big Hellfire to Mason Bay Hut:

Another long day lies behind us. 7 hours of walking through rough, steep, and – embrace the glorious! – muddy terrain. A bit of boulder hopping, a bit of ridge walking, a bit along beautiful beaches. We tried several times to stop for kiwis, listening to sounds in the bushes, but so far just two kiwi butts for me. The other day the three of them had a cool encounter with a kiwi stepping out on the path and walking around their feet.

It’s a sunny day and I decide to give my gear for a last time a short washing – not that it really helps but it at least feels fresher afterwards. During the days I always wore the same set of things:

  • My pair of wool hiking socks
  • My light Reebok shorts
  • My gym tights
  • The most comfy Rapha merino base layer shirt
  • The black buttoned sun, wind and light showers shielding shirt from Columbia
  • The MTB gloves from Rose Bikes
  • And my loved Buff – with which I already walked the 800km of the Camino de Santiago in 2015

For wet weather I had my jacket and wet pants – the ladder also from cycling – and for the hut I had a set of a long sleeve shirt, a pair of pants and socks to change into. I’m surprised how well it worked out with these two sets. The weight of my backpack definitely resulted out of the food for 11 days so it’s really nice how light it is these days.

I just get my last things on the drying line in the sun when a couple arrives. People can get a water taxi to Freshwater Landing and then walk the 3 hours easy, mostly boardwalk track to Mason Bay for kiwi hunting – and hunting in this context has a totally different meaning than with our poor deer. It’s strange to have suddenly new people around you after 7 days in the bushes. New people who don’t have the same experiences. “We’re just doing the tourist version,” a girl from another couple will tell me later, laughing. Yes, right. Everyone is doing her/his/their best in their way and abilities.

“You’re coming for kiwi hunting tonight?” Duane asks me. Tomorrow is just an easy 3.5 hours / 16 km walk. “Of course!” I need to find my kiwi still.

Day 8 – Mason Bay to Freshwater Landing Hut:

Today is maybe the easiest of the different legs: 16 km in 3 1/2 hours it says. For comparison: the last days we had 14 km in 7 hours. That’s the normal sloth speed you’re having her with the wicked underground. So during the rather easy walk my mind seems to be bored and starts putting together t-shirts with personalised Stewart Island slogans for all of us. Seems like it needs some creativity and I definitely have to feed it once I’m in cities again.

Gary is easy since he keeps commenting on the good and the bad mud – “50 shades of mud” – and as Trevor got us the venison and the pauas he will always be my “Stewart Island ‘s Surf ‘n Turf Chef”. For myself, after another very unsuccessful kiwi hunt last night, I definitely feel like “I went all the way to Stewart Island and all I got was kiwi butts.” For Duane I can’t really find something catchy so during a rest I present my ideas – sadly without PowerPoint – and ask for help with Duane’s. He thinks for a moment and then pops out with a “There’s a kiwi out there with my name on it.” That’s perfect.

We talk about random stuff like the things we miss most from civilisation. A hot shower is top ranked. A good, nice, fly free toilet follows close. ‘And maybe some chats and virtual hugs via phone’, I think for myself since I didn’t have any service so far. Instead the guys are texting via the one gps device with their girlfriends. So, no, not only generation z sits in the bushes texting back home.

The walk is really easy today.

P.S.: Of course we couldn’t keep our feet still after that short walk for the day. So we did an extra 3-hours-return to the top of rocky mountain for views and mobile service.

Day 9 – Freshwater to North Arm Hut:

“You wanna go for a last kiwi hunt?” Of course I do, says the look in my eyes before Duane and I plan when and where we gonna sneak out tonight for my last chance in a proper environment. I knew that a kiwi would be a nice unplanned cherry on top of my hike on Stewart Island. I didn’t get here for them in the first place. But still, part of me feels like ‘if not here where else?’

After yesterday’s short walk, laughter at the dinner table what we would do if Trevor shot another deer, then suddenly a real deer appearing outside of the hut and sheer luck for that animal that the shot it took was not severe and it could still flee through the forest, we had our last challenging part of the track before us. It can be so treacherous, especially when it’s wet, that the rangers even recommend taking the water taxi there or back. Well, let’s say we were not too sad that the sun kept shining and we passed that last test rather smooth with just a couple of little incidents. ‘This is definitely my NZ’s highlight’, I thought while sitting half on my walking stick, half in midair over the stream in the little creek because I slipped on a rock. My feet were trapped left and right in between rocks, my right hand holding my weight on the walking stick – what a beautiful stick I made myself a couple of days ago out of drift wood – and my other hand trying to get hold of anything to pull me out of this situation. Finally it’s Gary’s hand that saved me. He also had his special moment today when he did a 180 degree roll over a trunk, through branches and down the mud.

‘It’s good to be in company and even better to finish this walk with these guys’ I think while stepping outside after dusk with Duane, red lights in our hands. We walk back the way we came from today, chatting about today’s walk and the people in the Great Walk Hut of whom some seemed to be more complaining than enjoying being out here. We hear a close rustle and stop like we did so many times day and night during the last days.

And there it is. The kiwi with my name on it. It walks keen out of the bush, straight forward to Duane’s left leg and starts poking it. After three pokes it’s too much for us and we burst out in laughters. But just after a small shock our little guy comes back again and again in our direction. We go briefly back to the hut to give Gary a chance to meet our kiwi as well and like it waited for his next show there he is again, this time heading for my boots and after poking them a couple of times he walks straight through my legs to finally head off into the bushes. What a magical moment and what a perfect personal goodbye from Stewart Island for me.

Day 10 – North Arm to Halfmoon Bay:

The last part of the walk gives me lots of time to think about what we and I went through the last days. It’s funny how we partly separated ourselves in the last hut from the Great Walk hikers. We stayed most of the time outside in the sun and the chilly wind, restless, and I had trouble to connect with others than the three fellows. So here we are just before 8 am again all set and ready to go. The sign says 5 hours but we know that this ‘average walking time’ is adjusted to the people on the specific track and not comparable to the walking times on the North West Circuit. “We will reach Halfmoon Bay in 3 hours, I guess”, Trevor speaks out loud as we start the last kilometres.

My mind drifts off. I learned quite a lot of new things during this hike like trace reading and finding proper fire wood, using the fireplace to warm up your water and never leave your pot lid back home to save time and gas for boiling water. I heard my first rifle shot. I experienced different stages of fear in the dark and under the starred black skies. And I got rid of one old fear – raisins. I can have them now. Not in food, but with nuts. Great achievement.

I think about one year ago, my short but very wonderful time in my shared apartment in Munich, all these little special moments with my dear friends there. I had quite a couple of dreams and thoughts to digest and to get over with during my walk and in the dark hours of lying in my sleeping bag. I think about Christmas, Christmas decoration, cold evenings, lights, friends and family.

We step outside the forest onto a paved road. Main road it’s called. And it seems now we are really back to civilisation. The last 2 km into the little town Oban fly by quickly. And you know what? Reaching the only pub in town and having fish & chips outside with a couple of cold beers while getting off the muddy boots and gaiters and listening to another great story of Trevor – who slept on that same bench were now sitting on in front of the pub after a happy and boozed night – that is the one perfect moment to come back after such a trip.

I will miss these guys. Thank you so much. Thanks for that lunch, the beers and even more for adopting me during the last days. It would be a pleasure to do the South Circuit with you some day.

Day after – Leaving Stewart Island:

Laundry done, one rest day at the friendly feel-good hostel, everything set for the return to the mainland. I feel heavy hearted to leave this island. With all the things I learned and experienced here the two weeks have definitely made it on top of my New Zealand experiences. I feel different. Is it strange to write and think that? ‘Character building’ one of the guys has called the 10 days. And a part whispers “I don’t wanna go back to the backpackers’ world.”

Some travellers before and after my trip to Stewart Island asked me “Why do/did you stay 2 long weeks of your just 10 weeks in New Zealand on Stewart Island? There is so much more to see.”

I smile. Little do they know.

One thought on “Stewart Island – The challenging North-West-Circuit (NZ ~ 06.-17.11.2017)

  1. What a wonderful trek and accomplishment! You experienced some very magical moments… may you have many more on your adventures!!!

    Like

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