Walk 14 - Rakiura Track 'Great Walk'


The Rakiura Track on Stewart Island is New Zealand's southern-most Great Walk and, at 35km, is one of the shortest. Traditionally, it is done in three days with two huts dividing the walk into equidistant blocks. The problem is that, on Stewart Island, it rains for an average 273 days per year, so the chances of three consecutive dry days are fairly remote. With a forecast of only one consecutive dry day during our stay, we chose to do the tramp in two days, with an easy first day and a long second day to bring us home. One good point is that the Rakiura Track is in fact a circuit and you can start it virtually from where you choose to stay in the Island's residential hub, Oban.

We left Invercargill on a bleak rainy day for a bleak short drive to the small bleak industrialised town of Bluff with its paint-peeling buildings and ferry terminal. As we headed out of the harbour in the steady cold rain, we were not feeling very positive, but the sight of shearwaters and mollymawks soaring above the waves in their own unique styles cheered us up and by the time we arrived, the rain had lessened and our spirits had lifted.

Day 1: Halfmoon Bay to Port William

The Rakiura Track follows a curious mix of surfaces from bitumen to mud; the first section of the track following the sealed road that leads out of the village of Oban for a few kilometres to the north. We left the backpackers to join this section in bright morning sunshine. By the time we reached the bottom of the drive and headed out, it was raining.

Such was to be the rhythm of the day; within the first hour, we had been rained on four times and experienced four periods of sunny blue skies - and when the rain squalls passed it was as if someone had turned the shower on and off. Welcome to Stewart Island!

The track follows the sealed road around
Half Moon Bay - the sun shines brightly

Half Moon Bay 10 minutes later

Time lapse photography of the sky over Stewart Island during a one hour period (you get the picture)

We followed the tarred road past a series of picturesque coves in Half Moon Bay and over a saddle to the broad sweep of Horseshoe Bay, before switching to a gravel road to cross the next saddle into Lee Bay.

Watching the weather changing over Horseshoe Bay

The sun returns to Horseshoe Bay (what Nello was watching)

At Lee Bay a sweeping panorama of the Stewart Island coastline awaited us, as far north as our destination of Port William. It was also the official start of the "track" section and gateway to newly gazetted Rakiura National Park, marked by a large sculpture of an anchor chain, symbolising Maori mythology that Stewart Island is the anchor stone for the great canoe of Maui (i.e. the South Island).

Looking north toward Port William

Te Puka a te Waka a Maui (the anchor of Maui's canoe)

Rocky shore of Lee Bay

As we turned more westward and followed the well-benched blue metal surfaced track around the steep bush-covered shoreline of Lee Bay, a strong squally wind arose and grey clouds chased the sun away - nothing new, but the sound on our wet weather gear was quite a bit chunkier. The shower pipes must have frozen over - it was hailing!

Not to worry - ten minutes later and we were in bright sunshine again as we crossed the wooden footbridge over the tannin-stained waters of Little Creek (the locals say that you can have four seasons in a day here; this is a gross exaggeration - you never have summer).


Bridge over the Little River mouth

Looking back along the track

First taste of Stewart Island mud

Tea-coloured waters of a coastal stream

A short tide-induced detour over a small headland north of Little River gave us our first taste of the famous Stewart Island mud - good practice for the next day - but soon were back on the even metalled track making a gradual climb up and descent down through the forest beyond Little River. Again we went through a brief sun - hail - sun cycle before descending down to the broad expanse of Maori Beach, site of a failed timber cutting venture in the early 20th century.

View over Maori Beach

The icy south-westerly squall as we stepped onto the beach announced yet another hailstorm, this time storm being the operative word, as the large hailstones began to carpet the sand of Maori Beach. Luckily we were close to a campsite and could escape the storm under the cooking shelter built there. As expected, twenty minutes later we strolling across the broad greyish sands of Maori Beach under blue skies in the warmth of the sun, the hut at Port William enticing us from across the bay, one beach further along.

Pilot whale skeletons - Maori Beach

Another rain squall on the way

Crossing the Maori Beach swing bridge

A pair of giant rimu

We crossed the swing bridge over the river at the northern end of Maori Beach, turning northward again to climb up and over a spur running down from the island's centre, where tall rimu and southern rata reached out above the broad-leaf kamahi. On reaching the shore of Magnetic Beach, we were please to see that the tide had receded far enough to allow us to rock-hop and sand-stroll our way northward, rather than squish through the mud of the high-tide track. One final heavy hailstorm chased us into the hut clearing; the welcome sight of smoke drifting from its chimney guaranteeing us a warm, dry repose for the rest of the day.

End of the hailstorm over Magnetic Bay

The welcome sight of Port William Hut

Track through the swamp
After a late lunch, it seemed that the weather was improving, cloud bands passed over without actually raining on us and the sunny breaks seemed to get longer. We took the chance to wander across a low swampy area of dense, vine-covered bush to Sawyer's Beach, a beautiful isolated spot where we could watch the bull kelp swirling with the rise and fall of the swell, the mollymawks soaring on the ocean winds off-shore and the babbling waters of a small stream cutting its path through the grey sand on the last leg of its journey to the sea.

Sawyer's Beach

It was a pleasant way to spend the afternoon and we were sorry to have to leave, but we did have to - another band of icy rain chased us back to the warmth of Port William Hut.

Bull kelp swirling in the swell

A good place to contemplate the world

The sea seemed almost viscous

View north from the rocks at Sawyer's Bay

There were 9 other trampers at the hut when we went out for our walk and 26 when we returned - the hut only had 24 bunks. Lucky for us that we had arrived early, but a few late trampers had to sleep on the kitchen floor. It was our first experience of an over-full hut and I hope our last. Still, we were a sociable lot and Nello had a good game of scrabble with a nice couple from Hawaii.

Day 2: Port William to Halfmoon Bay via North Arm Hut

An early start was called for, as this was going to be a long day (24 km). The good news was that the weather forecast seemed to be holding and, after a final rainsquall at 7am, fair weather took over for the day. The bad news was that the tide was in and we had to take the muddy high-tide route that undulated through the forest just above the rocky shore-line. However, we had soon retraced our steps back along Magnetic Beach and up to the top of the ridge, where we finally left our track of yesterday and headed inland, down a long series of boardwalk steps and along what seemed like a boardwalk monorail through low swampy forest; the superb old growth giant podocarps found on the ridge being replaced by lower, denser, spindlier trees, regenerated from areas cut down during the early failed forestry ventures.

Boardwalks make for quick progress and we soon found ourselves crossing the swing bridge higher up the river and climbing up a series of boardsteps to a higher terrace, once again deep in superb Stewart Island old growth forest, where rimu, totara and miro reach tall above the canopy of kamahi, and mosses and ferns carpet the forest floor. Finally the long boardwalk monorail ended, to be replaced by smaller sections of boards interspersed with increasingly longer sections of muddy track. It was as if the track developers wanted us to get sufficient taste of the alternative of soft muddy track, slippery gnarly exposed roots and incipient hippo wallows so as not to take the boardwalks for granted. As we clambered up and down deep fern-lined gullies on boot-sucking or -tripping terrain we were grateful for the short sections of boardwalk that regularly appeared to take us over more fragile / difficult parts.

Judging from comments in hut books, there seems to be a certain macho disdain for boardwalks amongst some trampers. My view is that, while the occasional wallow in mud can be fun, such trampers should put things into perspective; the boardwalks are not so much there for our comfort as to protect the fragile habitats they cross - those who poo-poo the scale of damage caused by walking tracks should remember that the Grand Canyon was a great track until the Neanderthals pulled up all the boardwalk.

Rimu reaching above the canopy

Forest stream

Boardwalk climbing up a ferny slope

Tree fallen across the boardwalk

Looking back over the climb up from Port William

Reaching the high point (290m) of this inland crossing, we emerged at a viewing platform offering a sweeping outlook over Paterson's Inlet to the south. Personally, I preferred the rimu-framed glimpse back along our path toward Port William that we had a bit later. On the southern side of the ridge, a long series of planked steps took us down to the inlet and shortly to modern open-plan North Arm Hut, where most Rakiura Track trampers spend their second night. For us, it was an excellent place for a long lunch break before the second half of our return leg.

North Arm Hut

View over Paterson's Inlet

North Arm of Paterson's Inlet

Price's Inlet

Heading off again, we climbed up and over a series of low ridges as we followed our way along the shore of Paterson's Inlet, although most of the track is enveloped by the dense Stewart Island bush, with only the occasional glimpse of the Inlet waters. Above, the southwesterly wind whistled through the canopy and tree-trunks creaked as they swayed against one another.

Alternating once again between boardwalk and mud wallow, we pushed on quickly - our Hump Ridge Track experiences proving of great value, as the mud barely slowed our progress; there always seemed to be a rock, root, carefully placed branch or stone to plow straight through the widest wallows with little loss of speed.

Creek flowing into Kaipipi Bay

Incipient hippo wallow on the track

The only dry spot to sit on the track

Reflections in a tannin-stained backwater

Crossing the swampy areas behind Sawpit Bay and Price's Inlet, we reached the wooden footbridge at the back of Kaipipi Bay 2 hours on from the hut; at last a dry and sunny spot to sit down for a rest and scroggin break above the reflections in the calm tea-coloured waters of the inlet.

Soon after our stop we joined up with the wide stoney trace of the old access road from Oban to the long-disused Kaipipi sawmills. Following the road steadily up and then steadily down a long ridge, we found ourselves at the back of Oban village. The signs of human settlement began to replace the native bush.

The old Kaipipi sawmill road

The final stretch through the streets of Oban

The route now followed the paved streets back down past the local pub, where we broke off our trek for a well-earned handle of Speight's dark malt ale; it had been a long 10 hour walking day. Technically though our trip was not over and the clock kept ticking until we crossed the driveway of our backpackers, another kilometre on near Mill Creek.

We enjoyed the Rakiura Track, but, apart from the amazing weather, it was not a track that we would wax lyrical about - a 'Great Track' not a great track. Perhaps our enthusiasm was dulled a bit, having just completed the Hump Ridge Track with its very similar structure of lots of magnificent, pristine and very damp forest with a touch of pleasant coastal scenery. Hump Ridge is a sort of Rakiura Track on steroids, so, depending on whether you want a gentler or tougher experience of these southern New Zealand landscapes, you can choose to do one or the other.

Ulva Island

The day after returning we decided to profit from a rainfree, if somewhat grey, day to visit rat-free Ulva Island, a 10 minute trip by water taxi out into the entry of Paterson's Inlet. This was not because we particularly wanted to avoid rats, but because this island is an open sanctuary for endemic flora and wildlife and the eradication of rats between 1994-1999 has enabled a number of native birds to flourish, as well as providing a sanctuary for the release of other endangered species.

The old post office - Ulva Island

There is certainly a lot more birdlife on the island, though, apart from the fearless weka, this is much more an audio than a visual experience, with forest canopy replete with the sweet songs of the tui, grey warbler and bellbird, the high pittering of other small forest birds, the calls of parakeets and the raucous cry of the kaka. It reinforced how quiet the forest has been on most of our mainland walks and how destructive the introduced mammals are of New Zealand's natural heritage; normally we would only hear the odd calls of bellbird, tui or warbler and rarely a chorus of several species. How unlike a bush walk back home, where the forest is almost always full of a variety of bird songs. Ulva Island made us nostalgic for good old Oz.

Weka chick

Southern rata

Kaka hunting for wood grubs

Kekeru - chief seed disperser of the forest

Southern rata

Weka- now the top predator of Ulva Island (scary place!!)

We did see for the first time the New Zealand parakeets and were able to watch a kaka ripping apart a fallen log to get at the wood grubs within; it was good to see such a conservation project on the way to success. While on Ulva Island we reached the most southerly point of our trip (46º55'54''S) at the lower end of Boulder Beach.

Southernmost point of our NZ trip (46º55'54''S)

Looking across Paterson's Inlet from Boulder Beach

The following day we awoke to steady rain and a promise of more to come over the next three days - it was time to head north again. Our planned overnight trip to the sand dunes of Mason's Bay would have to go in the "next time" basket. We left Stewart Island under the same bleak grey skies as when we arrived, but in between we did have a few opportunities to appreciate its unique environment. I think we need to return another time when the weather allows us to see the island at its best.

Farewell to a bleak Stewart Island