Before man discovered New Zealand, it was a land coated in dense forests brought to life by the sounds of a cacophony of birds. Over the hundreds of years since the first settlers arrived, large chunks of the forest were felled and burned to make way for villages, grazing and farming. With the habitat destruction, the hunting, and introduction of pests and diseases that followed, modern-day New Zealand is a far cry from its natural state. But in some parts of the country at least, there are pockets of nature which feel like a snapshot of the past. I’ve been to some predator-free zones where the bird life sings stronger than elsewhere, and I’ve been to dense, expansive forests where you could really feel lost within were it not for the guiding path through it. And whilst Rakiura (Stewart Island) has not been saved completely from the impact of humans, you only need to look at a map of the island to see how little of the place has been touched. Here, so far south, it is possible to feel a million miles away from civilisation.
Ahead of me lay 3 days of tramping across the headland at the back of Halfmoon Bay, the Rakiura Track, one of the Department of Conservation (DOC) Great Walks. Despite its remoteness, like the other Great Walks, the huts on this route book out far ahead, and with Southland being the wettest part of the country, any trip here is at the mercy of the weather Gods. So whilst I was disappointed to wake to grey skies and inclement weather, I wasn’t surprised. Kitted up in my waterproofs from the beginning, I set off from my hostel in Oban and started the march to Lee Bay. It is possible to organise transport for the 4km trip to the start of the hike, but I like several others, decided to include this as part of the walk. Cutting up over Church Hill, the road skirting behind Bathing Beach and cut down past Butterfield Beach before climbing up and across another headland ahead of Horseshoe Bay.
I was accompanied by a steady drizzle so my camera and phone were tucked away to keep them dry, but even through the rain, Horseshoe Bay with its large expansive curve of sand was beautiful, and aside from another hiker far ahead of me, and a couple of hikers some distance behind me, there was not a soul in sight. At the far end of the bay, the road cut inland across yet another headland, and climbed up over a hill and down to Lee Bay and the official start of the track. Here there was only the raging Foveaux Strait between the bay and the South Island of New Zealand. The rain was whipping in here, and the sea rolled into the beach below it. Off to the side was the massive chain-link sculpture, a twin to the one at Bluff I’d seen the day before, and once through here, I was officially on the track, the rain accompanying me into the forest.
At an undulating altitude, the track sticks close to the coast, although the varying density of the trees affected the level of views from one section to the next. It cut down to a small beach where a boardwalk crossed a river and here the path had a low-tide and high-tide option. As the sea was well out, it was safe to walk across the beach, finding some steps back into the forest at the far side. As the path continued on its snaking route to Peters Point, the rain got heavier and heavier and I was reminded of the fact that my 10-year old hiking boots were no longer waterproof. I hadn’t found a replacement pair since this discovery whilst walking the Mount Somers track a few weeks prior. Eventually it cut down to a river mouth and I had the option of wading across the river or heading up a high-tide route. I knew there was a nearby shelter, and being hungry, wet and cold by this stage, I was keen to get to it sooner rather than later so opted to pick my way across the river as best as I could to reach the sand of Maori Beach in Wooding Bay.
When I reached the shelter and found it packed with a group of fellow hikers I was rather dismayed. There was simply no dry space for me. I saw a sign that pointed to a historic site just behind the shelter so went to look at what was left of an old sawmill before cutting down to the same river a little further upstream. By the time I got back to the shelter, the other hikers were leaving and I was able to get under the roof to eat some food whilst staying dry. I was just finishing my lunch when a few more hikers arrived and suddenly the shelter was back at capacity again. It was only fair to get moving as soon as possible and give the new arrivals some space.
From the shelter, the track followed the beach to an estuary at the far end. The rain was getting a little miserable and I was glad to have had my GoPro with me or would have had no photos from this first day of the hike. Near the far end of the beach I stumbled across an eel in the sand, slithering across a patch of water streaming down the sand. I wasn’t sure whether to leave it or move it, but as it seemed perfectly mobile and partly submerged, I opted to leave it be. Beyond this, the track cut round the bend to a long suspension bridge that spanned the estuary and led the path back into the bush.
The track gained a little altitude and felt deep within dense forest, away from the coastal views. Eventually it reached the junction in the track where the Rakiura Track cut inland, and the North-West Circuit cut back towards the coast. Although I was walking the Rakiura Track, the first night’s hut involved going down to Port William where the Port William Hut serves both tracks. I was just eager to get to the hut with the rain still falling, and when I eventually made it, it was already buzzing with the activity of those hikers who had left the shelter ahead of me. It also wasn’t long before other hikers trickled in and soon the hut was full of hikers stripping off wet clothing and trying to find a dry place to hang their stuff up. When the rain finally eased by the evening, I stretched my legs by taking a wander around the immediate vicinity of the hut, taking in the view of the bay and looking for wildlife.
The next morning started off with better weather and once packed up it was time to move on. I was one of the last people to leave the hut but I was in no hurry to get anywhere, taking my time to walk along the shore of Port William and going out to the wharf to enjoy the view under the sunshine. It took me some time to make it back to the track junction where the Rakiura Track cuts inland, and by this stage the rain was back.
It was heavy as I reached the remnants of some log haulers, another historic site detailing life for the early settlers to the island. I didn’t hang around long, eager to get into the thick forest where I hoped the foliage would offer a little protection from the elements. The theme for the rest of the day was intervals of showers followed by sunshine. My waterproofs were on and off repetitively and under foot, the path was quite churned up in places. The walk threatened to become a little monotonous in places, but then something would spike my interest like an unusual looking tree, or a river to cross, and overhead the foliage changed quite a lot.
One such curiosity was a ball that someone had hung from a tree marking it as the half-way point of the hike. It seemed so out of place there in the middle of the natural forest. On and on the track went, past more quirky trees, more streams and eventually coming to a downhill section that was in the process of being repaired, but meanwhile was an utter quagmire. I had heard that the Rakiura hiking tracks were notorious for being muddy and this section was a challenge trying not to get stuck or slip in the various bogs and mud patches. I was glad to finally reach another track junction and realise I was close to the end of the day’s hike. My second hut, the North Arm Hut, also accommodates those hiking the North West Circuit and was once again booked out for the night.
The forest of Rakiura is beautiful, varying and thick, but I’d still found the hike of day 2 comparatively dull with little in the way of views other than the immediate foliage around me. But now I was back at the coast, this time that of Paterson Inlet and with an evening and another day’s hiking ahead of me, there was still so much of Rakiura’s beauty to see.