Northwest Circuit:  The Northwest Circuit is a 125-km trail that follows the northern coast of Stewart Island.  It's know for it's beaches, kiwi sightings, and mud.  It's even possible to be knee deep in the slop & see a kiwi at the same time.  Well, it's a great track, read on for more.

Bungaree Hut:
Sand Patterns The Northwest Circuit begins on a pleasant bay that looks across the endless ocean.  The first section of the track is easy as it’s part of the Rakiura Track and soon comes upon Maori Beach, where a stream glittered with gold flecks, which in the brilliant sun looks like liquid metal.  From there, it goes back into a forest so thick with tree ferns that it was as dark as the evening.  It was a casual walk with the track gently going up and down before descending to Magnetic Beach, which was covered in interesting patterns in the sand formed by water flowing down to the ocean.  The sun was warm but the breezes just enough to stay cool.  A few hours later, I reached the Port William Hut where a DOC worker warned me about a group of hunters at the next hut who had generated some complaints.  Hmmm...does not sound good.

Stewart Island MapAfter the hut, the Northwest Circuit diverges from the more popular Rakiura Track and there would be less maintenance and more mud, so it was time to put on the gaiters.  It didn’t take long for the gaiters to prove very handy.  There was a section where the boardwalk stopped and the track ascended a steep, muddy, and slippery section.  It was exhausting pushing through brush, enduring thorns, and hanging onto tree branches.  I looked for the track, but couldn’t follow it.  After 5-10 minutes, I descended back to the boardwalk to see if something had been missed.  I looked fifty meters to the right and saw more boardwalk.  The trail was right next to me, but completely overgrown, and I had followed the footsteps of others who made the same mistake.  D’oh!

The boardwalks ended and would not be seen for another 110 km. but the track continued through the forest where I met a guy coming the other way who warned me about the hunters hassling him.  Hmmm...does not sound good.  The skies clouded up and the rains fell.  By the time I reached Bungaree Beach, the rain was pouring down and the winds were howling.  I was getting sandblasted on the beach; so crossing with my head down was the only option to reach the hut.  Half an hour later, two forlorn figures crossed the beach, they too getting sandblasted, heads down.  This couple was Tom and Anne, from England and Germany, with whom I would walk the track until nearly the end.

Typical Bush SceneReflections Later the hunters arrived back at the hut.  They were friendly and shared their venison stew.  They got a big kick out of me running around in striped long underwear and called me "Moose."  They weren’t bad guys and didn’t get too drunk, but it is unlikely to have six hunters and a quiet hut, though some might take their bantering as hassling.

Stewart Island is known for its mud, but it really wasn’t that bad.  Certainly not as bad as on the Dusky Track, but it was a long track and given that it rains about five meters (200 inches) a year on Stewart Island, there was plenty of time for things to change.  It was a good day as a whole.  Most of the time, the weather was exceedingly pleasant and the skies and oceans wonderful shades of blue.  The last little stretch of harsh weather, oh that wasn’t so bad.
Christmas Village Hut
Upon leaving the hut, the track started to climb.  The track would go up a ridge, then down the ridge, come to a stream with a short, steep, muddy descent to the water’s edge followed by a short ascent away from the steam and then a long climb up a ridge.  This pattern would continue the entire day; actually this would be the pattern for most of the track.  I came upon Tom and Anne and we were joined by a couple of fantails.  Trying to photograph a fantail can be difficult as they constantly flit around.  They land on a branch, turn around once or twice, and fly to another branch, resulting in many photographs of empty branches.  I kept trying to get their picture, but the fantails followed Tom and Anne through the forest instead of sitting with me.

Murray BeachAt Night Up and down, up and down, it continued.  The mud wasn’t that bad, it was frequent but not deep.  The track descended to Murray Beach, which was sunny and windy.  There was a steep climb on the north side of the beach where trees became fewer and the undergrowth thicker.  Still, the track continued the pattern of up a ridge, down a ridge, across a stream, then back up a ridge.  Occasionally the trail became tedious, but not too much.

At the end of the day, I started to tire a little but was buoyed when I heard the ocean surf and knew the hut was nearby.  It was a pleasant day with a lot of good times and the weather so very nice.  I had a few doubts whether I wanted to continue.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to hike 8-12 days of this type of track.  It wasn’t bad or difficult, but it wasn’t as spectacular as Fiordlands.  My friend Gareth said the track could be a slog through the mud and bush that seemed to go on and on.  I was starting to feel that way.  However, there were pleasant times sitting by a stream, listening to the water, and feeling the warmth of the sun.

Yankee River Hut
Lucky Beach Yesterday I sauntered and today was the same, frequently stopping to enjoy the pleasant weather.  It was a muddy, muddy day.  Again, the mud isn’t thigh-deep like the Dusky Track, rather boot-deep to maybe calf-deep, but it keeps up all day.  There are sections of the trail with half a kilometer of nothing but mud.  Up a ridge, down a ridge it continued.  At the halfway point for the day was Lucky Beach.  It’s a nice break from the forest, sitting and watching the ocean, but then it was back to the bush.

I began to tire of the mud and had doubts about finishing.  The forest was luxurious but one hour was hard to distinguish from the next.  The track continued and it was mud, mud, and more mud.  Late in the day, my energy started to flag.  I ate a little and forced myself into a set pace.  It’s important to eat adequately when tramping and it’s been a little light on the food the last days.  I heard the ocean surf and saw a very tall ridge.  The thought of climbing that ridge was an unhappy one, but then the track turned and followed the river downstream to the sea.  I knew the hut was close when seeing placid swells rolling upstream from the surf.

Anne at the Yankee Hut It was a decent day of walking but there were doubts about continuing due to boredom.  Tom had previously tramped the track and said, “I was a little bored with the first few days, but best part starts tomorrow.”  I didn’t realize how right he would be.  The hut was right along the ocean and we each had a room of our own.  I went outside to wash my clothes but was absolutely mobbed by sandflies, dirty clothes it will be.  The day wasn’t that bad and my spirits revived, so if the worst part was sandflies, it was ok.

Long Harry Hut
Just as we were getting ready to leave in the morning, six fishermen arrived with an unbelievable amount of gear.  They were nice guys and undoubtedly would have shared whatever they caught, but I was glad I was moving on for the night.  Right out of the hut, the track climbed steeply for a few hundred meters, muddy all the way up.  I was fresh for the day and had eaten properly, so the ascent was easy.  At the top, I could hear the ocean waves breaking on next beach ahead.  Then the track started the typical up and down, but eventually turning gentle and dry and finally into the scrubby trees found along the ocean.  From there I got my first view of the extensive sand dunes along Smokey Beach.  The track descended into the dunes, where I met Tom and Anne.  The dunes are so atypical of the track, normally there is something growing absolutely everywhere, but the dunes were barren.

FootprintsSmokey Beach Panorama We crossed the sand dunes and beach and forded a stream and started a steep (and muddy) climb.  From the top, a gentle trail surrounded by moss began, gradually undulating up and down, but slowly descending to the Long Harry Hut.  The forest was lush and green and as nice as anyplace on the entire trail.  It’s such a magic feeling to be in such a forest.

At the hut was a tiny tent not even big enough for a child.  It was for a penguin-tracking dog that belonged to a researcher.  This woman had also done some work trapping cats on the island.  I asked her what she did when she found a cat.  “Kill it.”  “How?”  “With a hammer.”  She didn’t like that part of her job but said, “What’s the alternative?  Let the cats kill all the native wildlife?”  She’s correct, but that hammer thing sounds pretty graphic.

Today was a turning point.  I started to appreciate the track and for the first time in two days had no doubts about being there.  It wasn’t that the last few days were bad, just monotonous and the trail would only get better.
East Ruggedy Hut
It was raining in the morning and we waited until noon to leave.  It’s often pointless to wait as you can be waiting for days, so if it hadn’t stopped, we would have still gone tramping in the showers.

The day started with a steep and (and you know word that comes next…It begins with an ‘M’) climb and began the M-word ups and downs.  This continued until there was a steep, slick downhill.  I finally caught up with A&T on this hill.  Why?  Because the descent was “EYAH...YA..EEE….Oh, avoid that tree….EEEKKK…watch out for that rock”, sliding all the way down.

Bigfoot I got out ahead of them and walked through calf deep mud when something crossed the track ahead.  It was too upright to be a possum but hard to tell what it was.  “Could it be a....?”  I heard it running through the forest and circled around, emerging from the trees, no more than 1.5 meters away.  Yep...a kiwi!  It looked at me and went back into the woods.  It was an attractive bird, light brown with whitish spots and yes, a long beak.

A&T were not far behind and I motioned to them to be quiet.  Tom walked on while Anne & I waited for the kiwi.  A few minutes later the kiwi appeared on the left side of the trail but disappeared.  Then it appeared again, but on the right side of the trail.  We didn’t know how it crossed the trail, but a minute later, the kiwi walked a meter away from us, probing the ground for food.  It went:  poke, poke, poke, poke and slowly went back into the woods, sheltering under a tree.  We waited ten minutes, but it was still hiding.  At a certain point, one has to leave it alone to go about its business.  This forest belongs to it, not us, and we were preventing it from feeding, so we took off. On the way past the tree, I quickly looked underneath and saw two beaks.  No wonder “it” was able to cross the trail without us noticing because “it” was a “they”!

Ruggedy Islands From there, we continued to push through the brush and the mud turned knee-deep.  There was a steep descent to a rocky beach where we met back up with Tom and sat in the mid-day sun.  Then guess what!?  An M-word climb, after which we got our first view of the Ruggedy Islands, which are rocky islands jutting out of the sea that are quite rugged—just like their name.  The winds had been picking up over the last hour and the weather started to look questionable.  If you stayed low, it was ok, but climb above the vegetation to look at the Ruggedys and one was pummeled by strong winds.  From there, it was a steep descent down to a sandy plain and the rains began.

We walked inland, getting sandblasted in the raging winds and had to cross a river.  There was no obvious crossing point and everywhere was too deep to see bottom.  I chose a spot and forged across the river.  It was a strange sensation to feel my feet sink deeply into the sand, but a stranger feeling was tripping on an underwater tree and going face first into the water.  I stood back up in the middle of the river in the howling winds and rain and raised my hands to the heavens yelling ‘AAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!” as if to say, “Yes, I fell, but I’m back up!”  It sure felt good and seemed like the thing to do.  It was a tiring twenty-minute walk to the hut through the soft sand.  Step...sink, step...sink, step...sink.  It was nice to get into dry clothes after that up-close-and-personal encounter with the river.

A short time later, we were joined by three Americans, Mike, Rob, and Sarah.  At first I didn’t like them, nothing they did wrong, rather I had gotten used to being with Tom and Anne and anyone else seemed an intrusion.  Sometimes in the bush, it takes time to get used to people.  The day had a few hard parts with weather and trail, but we had seen a kiwi and nothing could take that away.

Hellfire Hut
Codfish IslandUnder the Spires It was an easy forest walk out of the hut and then a climb down rocks that looked more at home in a desert than southern New Zealand. The last two days, the trail had really diversified and was becoming more and more interesting.  The track descended to the dunes of West Ruggedy Beach and the first glimpse of Codfish Island.  It’s one of the last homes of the kakapo, a big, fat, friendly, musky smelling, green, nocturnal, and flightless parrot.  Yep, it’s all of those things.  Only eighty-six kakapo remain in the world due to harmful introduced species.  They’ve been taken off of mainland NZ and placed on three offshore islands that have been rendered pest-free.  This way they can, hopefully, recover their numbers without threat of man or other pests.  I looked at the island and thought, “It has to happen there or they all go away.”  It’s kind of sad that it’s come to that point, but seeing the island gave me hope that maybe humans are realizing some of their mistakes...well, at least a few humans are.

I crossed the beach and the winds were blowing and the waves were correspondingly large.  The beaches that face the prevailing western winds have quite a bit of debris, from driftwood to fishing nets, floats, and crayfish traps.  Trail markers are often made from this refuse and I followed the fishing markers up the requisite steep climb after a beach.  Some parts of the track were ok while other parts were wonderfully mossy.  Most of the streams had foam in them.  Tannic acid from the trees makes the water dark and foamy.  It’s not harmful to drink, though not appetizing.  One stream was the color of root beer and completely covered in foam.  I didn’t know how deep it was and kept reaching for the bottom with my foot while holding onto the riverbank.  Next thing I knew I was waist deep in the water, surrounded by foam.  Can’t say I liked that, but if you want to stay clean and dry, it’s best to stay off the Northwest Circuit.

Ruggedy FlatsRocky Spires The climb continued up and up and eventually crested and then back into the scrubby trees of the exposed ridges.  Had some fun bush bashing (going off trail) walking to some rocky spires, from where I could see Codfish Island and beyond that the swells of the sea that went to the horizon.  The trail descended into mossy forests and came upon Waituna Beach.  I could see the Ruggedy Islands and high above on the ridgelines were the spires that I encountered earlier in the day.

After that it was, naturally, more muddy climbing up the ridge.  Upon reaching the top, the mud became the worst of the track. My journal read, “It was demoralizing.  Deep, long, and sticky.”  Or was it “stinky,” I can’t read my writing there and could well have been both.  The trail descended into a sandy area; from there it was back into the forest and then the hut appeared.

 The Hellfire Hut was on a tall, sandy ridge that descended to the ocean and overlooked the Ruggedy Flats.  This is a large, low-lying area in the center of the island surrounded by the tall ridges.  In a few days, the track would be crossing the flats and one could only surmise that it will be quite sodden.  The weather was windy, but pleasant.  The beaches were nice and the waves were breaking large.  Yes, the mud was a pain in the backside, but the trail was diverse and view from the hut was quite simply, out of this world.

Mason Bay Hut
North and SouthView on the Ridge As is so common, it was raining in the morning and I waited until it cleared up at 11:30.  Anne and Tom decided to spend another night at the Hellfire Pass Hut, so I said goodbye to them.  Most of the time, I’d rather be in the huts by myself, but if someone had to be there, they were a pretty good pair.  They’re both pleasant and kind with a gentle sense of humor.  Once the rain stopped, it would become a fantastic day for tramping.  The skies were blue and it was warm, but not too warm.  From the hut, it was a couple hundred-meter climb, naturally with some mud, and then the track followed along the ridge top for seven km.  In one view, there was Codfish Island, Hellfire Beach, and off in the distance was Mason Beach, which was the destination for the day.  The winds were blowing, but the scrubby brush protected me.  When standing on a rock above the brush, the full force of the wind would nearly knock me over.

Eventually the trail descended, it was extremely muddy, mid-calf to knee deep.  Actually, the mud made descending easier.  Shallow mud is slippery as you constantly fight your downhill momentum.  In many places, the mud was deep enough to absorb your momentum, making it safer, albeit messier.

The trail was absolutely endless mud during the long descent to the beach.  It was downhill in the mud, downhill in the mud; in the steepest places, hanging onto branches for safety.  The forest was mossy, green, and beautiful, but eventually turned into the coastal scrub and Little Hellfire Beach.  There were large waves breaking on the shore from the strong winds; I had to lean into to avoid being blown over.  When walking across a pile of driftwood, a gust of wind blew me off my feet onto the wood.  I wasn’t hurt but it’s scary how easily one could break a rib or wrist.

From there it was the standard climb through the different forest levels.  It looked like a very short climb.  I started to tire on it, mostly because I was expecting a short one, not one that was 250 meters high.  The trail leveled out and soon the sounds weren't the last beach but the next one, which would be the last beach of the track.

It was another Northwest Circuit descent and I could look down far along the ocean’s shore.  It made me sad to think that this would be the last of the muddy descents.  I know that sounds bizarre considering how fed up I was earlier on the track, but I was already missing what lay behind.  There were a few raindrops on the descent and the track turned from green to the brown scrub and gave way to Mason Beach.

SeabirdsStones on the Beach The beach was covered in driftwood and then a few hundred meters of rounded rocks strewn across the beach followed by a wide, five-km long sand beach.  The winds died down and I watched the overlapping waves form rings in the water that covered up my footsteps.  Inland was a bizarre landscape of dunes and hills.  All along the beach were lots of oystercatchers and gulls.  I don’t like gulls in a city, flying rats they be, but in their natural element, they are a pleasure to watch.  It was so nice with gentle sun shining down.  I crossed a wide, shallow river with nice ripple patterns in the riverbed and then headed a km. upstream to the Mason Bay Hut.  I met the three Americans again and spent some time with them.  Eventually everyone went to bed.  I passed the evening reading by candlelight and daydreaming.  It’s nice to do that after a day of tramping.

I had some idea of what lie ahead as I had tramped most of the remaining track during my first trip to NZ and it was sad to leave behind the ridges of the north and west coasts.  Stewart Island had really started to grow on me.

North Arm Hut:
It rained all night but stopped mid-morning.  I started the tramp to the North Arm hut and it immediately started to rain again.  The wind blew so hard that the rain came in horizontally.  I was not comfortable, but not so uncomfortable as to turn around, and it would rain off and on the whole day.  The track was very wet, but the puddles in general weren’t deep.  However, there was one round puddle that for some reason didn’t look so good.  I went around it, but slipped backwards into it.  One leg went in…all they way in…nearly to my hip.  Hanging onto the grass, I have no way of knowing how deep it was.  I pulled out of it and thought how uncomfortable that could have been.  The track continues on through the Ruggedy Flats, switching between moderate mud and shallow puddles as well a boardwalk through permanently flooded wetlands.  To the west were the mountains of Hellfire Pass and did they look beautiful.

Vaults of the Trees The low-lying scrub gave way to small trees, which arched over the trail and covered it like the vaults of a cathedral alongside a stream.  The trail was knee-deep water in places, but the track bed was of solid sand.  Probably as easy a surface as there was the entire track. 
The forest changed back to scrubby brush, which would continue until reaching the Freshwater River.  There were DOC workers at the Freshwater Hut doing renovations and it wouldn’t be possible to stay the night and DOC had just closed the next section of trail.  I asked why and how bad the track was.  They said it was flooded and didn’t recommend going on, which was both a professional and personal opinion.  I couldn’t see it being as anything worse than I’ve done in Fiordlands and I struggled with what to do.  I didn’t come all this way to skip part of the track but here were four very experienced people advising me.  I didn’t want to end up in the newspaper with the headline:
Tramper rescued after ignoring warning.  All agree he is a bonehead.

I debated what to do.  I met Sarah, Mike, and Rob at the hut.  Sarah, who isn’t that tall, asked me, “Did you see..”  I interrupted her mid-sentence, “Ah-Ah-Ah!  Yes, up to here (motioning to my hip) with one leg.”  She said, “Ugh! Both legs.  Up to here (pointing to her chest).”  I imagine we weren’t the first to be snagged by that puddle.  The workers radioed for a water taxi back to Oban.  It was the only option and reluctantly I took it.

The taxi negotiated the deeply flooded river, but I still had doubts about not doing it.  I was sure that I could have made it, but caution was the word for the day.  On my next trip to Stewart Island I tramped the bypassed section and now know that track would have been quite dangerous with the amount of rain that had fallen.  On the way back to Oban, I asked the driver if he could drop me off at the North Arm Hut.  At least that would give me the self-respect of walking the last day.  We arrived near the hut and I said goodbye to the four of them.

The hut was quiet with only one other couple there.  A short time later, another couple arrived.  They looked at me strangely (a lot of people look at me strangely, but it’s usually because I’m wearing my tights with penguins on them or running around in a loin cloth yelling something about the End of the World), and said, “We met you on the Caples Track.”  It was the couple that stayed at the hut in the meadows.  I spent some time with them that night and stayed up late reading and writing by candlelight.  It was here, some years ago that I met, Rob and Valerie, with whom I had some of my best travel times ever.  It brought back a lot of memories. It started to rain and winds blew so hard I expected to hear the cracking sound of falling trees.  The rains came in horizontally all night.

Typical Mess It was still raining and blowing in the morning, but by the time that I left, the rain was at least coming down vertically.  The forest was surprisingly pleasant, lush and green, with gentle ups and downs in the track.  It wasn’t a hard day, but a good day.  The track went along Paterson Inlet and through the bush.  It kept raining, but that’s ok, it was nice to be walking.  The last time through this section, it was raining the same way, I’ll be o.k.  The track crossed a small stream and reached a road that would lead to Oban.  I met two guys, Al and Trevor, who saw me walking in the rain and took my picture.

Trail's End I’m really glad that I tramped the Northwest Circuit.  Lots to see, rocky outcrops, lush forest, great beaches, and...kiwis!  What more do you need?  I really had doubts about the first few days and am glad I stuck it out.  The last time I was on the island, I turned back from the track.  Something didn’t feel right about it.  The track wasn’t too tough nor was I unfit (to the contrary, I was extremely strong), but a little voice inside me said, “Nope, this doesn’t feel right.”  An experienced tramped learns when to heed that voice, even if it’s not completely understood.  The only regret this time was having to take a water taxi but that was a good, safe decision.  Some people will be turned off by the amount of mud on the track and yes, it is a lot of mud but this is a wilderness experience in an area that gets 4-5 meters of rain annually.  If you want an easier trail there is always the Rakiura Track.  Mud isn't something that is going to stop me.

I spent the day in Oban and had a good time with the people in the hostel.  One couple cooked up fresh cod they had caught and baked homemade bread for every one.  If one has to be off the track, one might as well have that.

The following afternoon, a group of us went bird watching on Ulva Island and then it was off to the ferry back to the South Island.  I started to feel woozy on the way back and a cheerful guy brought several others and myself to the back of the boat.  “It’s much more stable there and the air is fresher” he said.  The swells were up to four meters tall and we had to look up to see their tops.  I asked the guy, “Do you work here?”  He said, “No, but I’ve done this hundreds of times and thought I would help out.”  I’m sure many people, many woozy people, thought of him quite highly.  I met Al and Trevor on the boat and they gave me a ride into Invercargill.  And so went my time on Stewart Island.

If you've enjoyed reading about this track, there are several other tracks that might be of interest to you. They're all good stories, I think you'll like them.  If you want a slideshow of these pictures, click here.