Southern Circuit:  Tramping Stewart Island is known for mud and the Southern Circuit has lots of it.  Yet there is more than that.  It's quite a diverse track that goes through the mountains, along the ocean, into mossy gardens, and yes, some really muddy marshes.  If you want to see all the environments Stewart Island has to offer in a single day of tramping, the Southern Circuit/Bog Snorkel is for you.

North Arm Hut:
Paterson InletIt was early in the season so there was no problem getting a standby flight to Stewart Island.  Compared to the ferry, the flight was $3 more, 2.5 hours less, and no seasickness.  I've ridden the ferry three times and each time it was awful.  After picking up a personal locator beacon (used in case of a rescue) and registering with DOC, there was nothing more to do, so off to the track.

At first, the Southern Circuit followed the Rakiura Track, which is maintained for the typical tourist rather than the hard-core tramper and wasn't difficult with moderate mud and extensive sections of boardwalk.  It went past the ocean and through pretty forests that abounded in ferns, both the small ones and others big as trees, and lots of green.  It was an easy and pleasant day of walking.  It did hail a little but that didn't take away from anything.  Three hours later I arrived at the North Arm Hut.  Today was easy; but I knew the next day wouldn't be that way.

Fred's Camp Hut:
The trail out of the North Arm Hut was very civil, boardwalked and all, but then the two tracks split and the character of the trail immediately changed.  There were tree roots, rocks, mud, no boardwalk and much less maintenance.  There were several streams with deep channels.  Luckily it wasn't raining; they would be impassable in heavy rains.  It was rugged but not so bad.  The track started its climb over Thompsons Ridge and then the track was looking bad.

Stewart Island MapThe winds started to blow quite hard, requiring me to put my jacket on.  Putting it on was a good idea anyway as it started to hail too.  It was a steep climb that soon turned into a real mess, very muddy and rugged.  As the track went higher, the trail turned into a stream, with logs jumbled every which way.  I've had tracks with logs across them but here I had to climb over logs sticking out and up toward the sky, while a stream poured down around my boots.  It was sloppy, very uncomfortable and no fun whatsoever.  I've done more rugged tracks but this part sucked.  That's the only way it can be described.

The track crested the ridge and started the descent.  It was exactly like the way up: no fun.  I have since met many people who have tramped all over New Zealand, both Kiwis and foreigners, and many people agree that Thompsons Ridge is as unpleasant as it gets. 

Once getting past the mess on the descent the sun came out and it was rather pleasant.  The track was still muddy but nothing too unusual; besides, it was good to see the forest in the sunlight again.  The track continued through the bush to Freshwater Hut on the banks of the Freshwater River.

I had a little lunch and looked at the topographic maps.  The next section looked easy with few hills but the map did say 'numerous swampy patches'.  I started off and found it to be quite accurate as there were 'numerous swampy patches'.  The track followed a ridge that was two meters higher than the overlying swamp.  However that ridge ended and the trail descended into the marsh with sections of open water that went beyond boggy.  The track had one section that looked ominous.  I eased into the puddle and found a muddy shelf just below the surface.  I took a step, felt good.  Took another step, felt good.  Took another ste.....sploosh!  The water was flowing, too slowly to see but just fast enough to form a channel that one could tumble into.  I went up to my chest in soupy mud.  It was hideous and smelled of rotten eggs.  I've been in some pretty goopy situations when tramping but this was by far, the worst.  With the mud, my jacket was shiny black on the outside...shiny black on the inside too.

There was a lot of open water in the marshes and I found that the ground (if you could call it "ground") would give way and I would go deep into the slop.  There were often logs below the surface and sometimes I banged my knees on them plunging into the muck.  This section was no fun.  I try to appreciate every natural environment and there was a haunting starkness to the area but I didn't miss it once the marshes were over and it was back into the trees.

The forest was nice and relatively dry.  I heard birds singing and the surroundings were green.  The track followed a sinuous, deep and placid stream that was so peaceful to look upon (though I suspect in a rain this stream wasn't quite so idyllic).  I noticed that there were no more track markers and I wondered if I was off-track. Was this an animal track?  I've gotten onto animal tracks in the past and sometimes it's hard to find the way back.  I was about to turn around when an inviting orange trail marker appeared on a tree.  The track started to have straighter, more open sections but there were long stretches completely under flowing water.  Not that I'm complaining; after that marsh this was a cakewalk.

Later the track started to resemble Fiordlands, with a deep green forest, interspersed with deep puddles and thick, luxuriant vegetation and mosses.  It's quite beautiful and could be described as an enchanted forest.  It was absolutely magic.  There was something about this forest that moved me.  It was so green, so lush.  It was so very peaceful, quiet, and still.  The trail started a series of up and downs during which it hailed quite heavily.  There were times the track was going up but the hail was very much coming down and the entire forest floor was covered in pea-sized balls of ice.  Some people might find hail annoying.  I found it wonderful.  I'm always happy and feel a sense of wonder in these places.  There is a naturalness to it, a feeling of being alive.  It's good to experience the sun, it's good to experience the winds, and it's the same for hail.

 A few more climbs and from the top of one of them I could see water on three sides and it was likely the hut was nearby.  A short time later, the track was along the inlet waters and a few more minutes led to Fred's Camp Hut.  I had it to myself, which was nice.  I passed the evening sitting quietly and looking over the waters.  Later I read by candlelight and that night I dreamed of the forest.

Rakeahua Hut:
It was a casual morning as there was no hurry to leave.  The weather was pleasant (at least for now) and it was only a five-hour walk to the hut.  The track followed Paterson Inlet and then pulled away from the water.  It was pretty much as expected, small ups and downs with a few mid-sized climbs.  It rained a little and then on one of the climbs started to hail.  No biggie, put the jacket hood up and keep tramping.  The forest was nice and the trail gentle.  The birds were singing and the fantails were fanning their tails.  I even saw a kiwi from five meters away, now that's a treat.

The trail turned wetter and based on the topographic map, it looked likely to stay that way for a while.  There were warnings in the hut logbook as to how wet the track could be and yes, it was a terrible mess.  There were long sections that were deep mud covered by standing water above the knees and there was not a single a section that could be called dry or even remotely approaching dry.  The track followed the Rakeahua River.  The river was within centimeters (inches) of overflowing its banks but in some ways that didn't matter as the entire floodplain was already waterlogged.  Was it unpleasant?  Well, one needs to accept the forest as it is and...nah, it was unpleasant.  It was about 4 km. (2.5 miles) of really wet trail but the sun came out and that was a saving grace.   Eventually the track climbed ever so slightly, just enough to get above the slop and there were some dry, grassy sections and then came the Rakeahua Hut.

The muck of earlier today became part of the past as it turned into a pleasant evening with gentle breezes, birds singing and a pretty setting sun.  I had forgotten about the slop but had a sneaking suspicion I would see plenty of it the next day.  I fell asleep that night listening to the calling of kiwis rolling across the valley.  That's nice to hear drifting off to the nighttime world.

Doughboy Bay Hut
It was quite cool in the morning and I didn't feel like getting out of my sleeping bag, besides it was raining off and on.  I had been thinking about going to the Tin Ranges to the south of the track, but with the weather being what it was, this had to be given a pass.  The first few km. out of the hut were not quite as sloppy as yesterday but close enough.  A few places were thigh-deep mud and boggy fields.  If I could make it through yesterday and still enjoy it, today I could do the same.  Eventually the track gained enough elevation so as not to be quite so wet.  The track returned to the forest of thick mosses.  It's the sort of area that I never tire of.  The track crossed the Rakeahua River on a wire bridge and continued up the verdant valley.  I walked through some really nice spots with small openings in the forest allowing me to sit in the sun next to the river. The sun felt good and the water tasted sweet.  Eventually the track started to climb away from the river and up the side of the valley; it was the main climb of the day.  I could catch glimpses through the trees of the valley ahead and what greeted me were waves of successive ridges.  It was going to be a good tramp.

 I continued on up and up through the forest and could see the top of the climb.  It wasn't such a long distance.  Turns out that it wasn't the top, and the next ridge was the top, and then the next ridge would be the top and so on.  The forest thinned and turned into alpine tussock.  The higher the track went, the wetter it became.  The winds started to blow and then it rained, then it snowed, and then it hailed.  Eventually it stopped, well, except for the wind it stopped.  The tops were glorious.  One could see the Tin Ranges and the mountains to the south reared up behind the ridges and beyond it all was the endless ocean.  It was somewhat unexpected, but the tops were as boggy as down lower.  The track meandered across the tops and it wasn't clear where the track was in the distance so one just kept following the snow poles.  I was soaked, the temperatures dropped and the wind blew harder.  For the first time, I started to get a little cold.  No worries, I was well equipped, experienced, strong, and felt good about the day.

 The track continued following the ridges up and then down.  The mountains were covered in short brush and I eventually reached the descent where the forest once again turned thick.  It was a steep descent and as long as you're cautious in your navigation and footsteps, you'll be ok.  The descent moderated and carried on through the hills.  Off in the distance I spied the first view of Mason Beach, a fifteen-km (nine-mile) long expanse of sand, which would be tomorrow's destination.  Then the track started its steep, tricky downhill to Doughboy Bay.  More vertical than horizontal, lots of tree roots and rocks, with a stream flowing down the track.  It was a good idea to hang onto the trees for safety, one false move and it's a broken ankle.  The descent ended and it was a short walk to Doughboy Bay and then a little further down the beach to the hut. 

Today the views went to the edge of forever, the weather was somewhat adverse, it was more than somewhat muddy and wet, but it was a fine day of tramping.  I looked forward to more of those conditions and would certainly get them.

Mason Bay Hut
I walked down the beach toward a thundering waterfall and thought, "Glad the track doesn't cross that stream."  Three hundred meters later, the track did cross, D'oh!  The stream was flowing fast and more than knee-deep, in other words, uncrossable.  However, there were two flat-sided rocks that nearly spanned the stream which were just under the water's surface.  Hmmm...I went upstream of these rocks and tested the waters without my pack.  If I braced myself against the rocks I could make it but had those rocks not been there, I would have returned to the hut and waited until the stream lowered.  In general, the biggest hazard is flowing water and you need to take it seriously. 

The track then climbed steeply (and muddily) to the open tops similar to yesterday.  Lots of sharp deadwood in the mud puddles and again, views near and far; it was nice.  I saw a couple of birds and stopped to watch them.  I thought them to be common but when I asked DOC about them, it turns out there are less than one hundred of them left in the world due to invasive species.  It saddens me to think that its come to that.  I really wish people would get a clue and realize that this is for real and once gone, these animals aren't coming back.  I'll cherish my memories of the Southern New Zealand Dotterel and hope they never disappear into that long night.

The track started to descend and would be correspondingly steep to the tramp earlier in the day.  It was so overgrown sometimes I wasn't certain I was on the track anymore.  As the path went lower, it moderated and turned into a comfortable, relatively dry forest walk.  It did rain and hail some parts of the day, but not the majority, not so bad considering what's been seen so far. 

I caught a glimpse of the ocean and before long one could see the backsides of sand dunes.  Fifteen minutes later I was on Mason Beach.  It was a seven km. (four mile) walk along the beach but the conditions deteriorated and the winds blew very hard.  Luckily they were coming from behind as I was getting sandblasted.  I walked very fast as the weather was becoming quite unpleasant and the tide was rising.  I wasn't sure how far up the water would reach at high tide in these conditions.  There was some concern as I didn't see the hut turnoff as I approached within two km. of an island that I passed when tramping the northern part of the Mason Beach two years ago.  Having to walk back into that wind was not an appealing prospect.  Shortly afterward, the turnoff to the hut was spotted and it was a twenty-minute walk inland to shelter.

There was only one other person there, Andrea from Italy.  He was a nice guy and worked in Oban as a cook and we had a good time together.   Earlier, I thought I had missed the hut but when I looked at a map, the island that looked a couple km. away was actually seven km. away.  No worries.  It rained in the evening and would continue to rain all night.  This didn't bode well for tomorrow.

North Arm Hut
It was raining in the morning as we took off for the North Arm Hut.  The trail up to the to the Freshwater River is pretty flat and well maintained.  There were some muddy sections but not that deep.  It was an uneventful, but pleasant walk across the Ruggedy Flats with Andrea.  The rain wasn't that hard nor was it too cold and it was still raining when we arrived at the Freshwater Hut.  It had been raining non-stop for thirty hours and I knew the streams on Thompsons Ridge would be impassable.  Every time the rain would stop I'd say, "It will clear, it will clear" but five minutes later, it was back to raining. 

Andrea was waiting for a water taxi in the evening and I was beginning to suspect I would have to take it.  When the boat arrived, the captain said it was going to continue to rain and Thompsons ridge would be a no-go.  I didn't like the idea of taking a boat but crossing Thompsons Ridge was not an option.  I had the taxi drop me off at North Arm Hut and said goodbye to Andrea and Ian, the captain, who recognized me from two years before.  The hut was pretty quiet, which was good.  Late that night a kiwi called right outside the hut.  It was out of bed and there it was.  We could see it in the indirect light of our headlamps, well, that is until someone took a flash picture and it ran away.  Some people are lacking in brains, but that's the way it is.

It was a standard Stewart Island day, raining off and on, and that's certainly no barrier to tramping, is it?  The walk was slow, relaxing and pleasant, why hurry?  There were kaka (a type of parrot), fantails, wood pigeons, bush robins and bellbirds calling.  The forest was lush, green and vibrant.  When I walked into Oban, it was raining.  I've done three tramps on the island and each time it was raining when I walked into the village.  Thinking back, out of the seven days, it had hailed five of them.  It's ok, it's Stewart Island.  I checked on flights, "One leaves in ten minutes" they said.  I probably should have relaxed for a day or two, but impulsively took the flight and it was back to Invercargill.

A few people have asked about the Southern Circuit and I ask why they want to tramp it.  I tell them it's a weeklong bog snorkel.  The track is nice but I would recommend they tramp the Northwest Circuit instead.  It's nicer, more varied and not quite as wet.  If you don't have the time for the longer Northwest Circuit, then the Southern Circuit might be the better choice.  One thing you can do is to combine the two tracks and skip the hike across Ruggedy Flats, but this is a very long tramp. 

Now that said, there were lots of really nice sections and great views.  I got to see two unusual birds, Kiwis and Dotterels and that is quite rare.  Am I glad that I tramped the Southern Circuit?  You betcha!