We wake up in Invercargill at 5:30 am to finish packing and eat a quick breakfast. Our ferry out of Bluff isn’t until 9:30, but we are hoping we can squeeze in a little time to photograph the tui birds that are hanging out at the B&B’s feeders. We are headed to Stewart Island, New Zealand’s “third island,” where we hear that there are far more birds than people. Sounds like our kind of place!
Stewart Island is definitely off the beaten track, and the majority of people who travel there are either birders there to spot the plentiful birds or backpackers there to hike one of New Zealand’s most remote Great Walks, the Rakiura Track, a 3-day, 32-kilometer loop (39 km including the road portions) that circles the northeast corner of the island.
There is also a much longer trail on Stewart Island called the North West Circuit where you can hike around the entire island. Even if we had the extra week to spare, we aren’t sure this is how we would choose to spend it. Apparently the trails on the North West Circuit are not maintained, and it is petty much a guarantee that you will be walking in mud up to your knees for days on end!
The ferry ride from Bluff to the port town of Oban (population 400) is only an hour, but the waters of the Foveaux Strait between the mainland and the island are notoriously rough. Our Captain tells us that the swells aren’t too bad today, but we are both grateful when the boat finally pulls into the small harbor at Halfmoon Bay signaling that the long roller coaster ride is finally over.
We gather our packs from baggage claim and head into town in search of the DOC Office to pick up our Rakiura Track hut tickets. Oban is teeny-tiny, so nothing is hard to find. We are there in a matter of minutes.
We have hut reservations for both nights out on the trail, but we will be camping at the Stewart Island Backpackers in Oban for one night after we finish the hike so we have our tent with us. The Backpackers is kind enough to allow us to leave our tent in their storage since we won’t be needing it for now. Errands complete, we stop at a cute little cafe to grab a cup of coffee as we eye the weather. It is currently quite gray with a steady drizzle. We’re not in a hurry to hit the trail.
When the rain finally lets up, we throw on the rain gear and get going. We start off with a pleasant 1.5 hour walk along the island’s main road before joining the official trail at Lee Bay. We pass lots of signs warning drivers to watch for kiwi but we don’t see any of the nocturnal birds wandering about this afternoon. We do spot a very random phone on the side of the road. Weird.
When we reach Lee Bay, we stop for a quick lunch at the scenic ocean overlook and then pick up the trail proper. Here we walk through the Anchor Stone (Te Puka in Maori), a giant chain link symbolizing the spiritual connection of Stewart Island to the mainland and the official start of this Great Walk.
From here, we have 8.1 kilometers to Port William Hut. The trail alternates between the bush and the coast. The rain forest is quite dense on Stewart Island, but it opens up every now and then giving us nice views, especially when we cross the long bridge at Little River.
The trail takes us to the ruins of an old sawmill, where there are lots of old rusty objects scattered about. These are remnants of early attempts to create industry on the island, and the big ol’ rusting steam boiler is the most impressive.
According to Lonely Planet, the sawmill began operating in 1913 to log and extract rimu, one of the indigenous trees growing in the interior of the island. A second mill was built at Maori Beach along with a network of tramways to help move the harvested timber to the coast where it could be exported. Living conditions on the island were so tough that it was hard to get families to stay , despite the offers for free land, and the settlements and mills were later abandoned.
From there, the trail takes us out to the beach at the Maori campsite. It doesn’t look like there are any campers today, which is probably for the best. The wind has really picked up, and we put on our sunglasses and buffs to cover our faces and eyes from the blowing sand as we hike down the beach. Our cameras are getting a beating, too, so we pull out our PeakDesign shells to protect them from the sand and mist.
From there, it’s another 4 kilometers to the Port William Hut, most of which is back in the rainforest before a final stretch on the beach right before reaching the hut.
There are very few birds in the bush today, but we do spy a rat crawling around at one point! We also see a cooperative Oystercatcher on the beach who sits nicely while we take his/her photo.
We finally arrive at Port William Hut at 6 pm and get the last two bunks in separate rooms once again. Such is the fate of the slow hiker. We have dinner in the common room and read and journal until it’s time for bed. Good night!
Day 1 Trail Logistics
Start Point: Oban
End Point: Port William Hut
Distance: 13 km
Walking Time: 4-5 hours
Date on Trail: 01 January 2017
Best Done: It is possible to tramp the Rakiura Track throughout the entire year.