Stewart Island SW Circuit

2-10 January 2015

Arriving in Oban our first mistake was setting off without consulting the map. After walking almost a full circle and up and down a hill unnecessarily we finally reached our destination—Tony and Karen’s hostel. A quick gear reshuffle, a short walk over the hill and a pleasant boat ride later and we were settled at Fred’s Camp Hut. Time to wander, walk along the beach and gather mussels for a seafood entre. The verdict on the mussels was good but too small to be worth the effort.

Heading off next day we were aware of dire warnings of “mud to the hips” from those completing the circuit. It started off OK, just a normal amount of mud in the forest, similar to what we would expect in Arthur’s Pass or the West Coast. Further along it opened up into more scrubby country and we were presented with a number of boggy streams to cross. The walking pole test didn’t seem to find a bottom so we all elected to follow Tony as he ably lead us around and over, often utilising fallen trees and branches to get us across. Perhaps because of this it took us longer than the stated 5 hours to reach Rakeahua Hut but our boots were dry and there was still plenty of time to relax. Our plan was to stay 2 nights there and do a day climb of Mt Rakeahua the next day. The climb, however, looked less than inspiring and we were by this time receiving information from several parties and notes in hut books to suggest that the next 2 days would be quite long. We decided to carry on to Doughboy Hut the next day and split the following day in two, camping at what we thought was a deserted town by the beach. Late night Kiwi spotting plans were cut short as just as it got dark at 10pm it started to rain.

Day two started well and we made good time until about 11.40. The day before we had discussed what we required of the perfect lunch spot and at this point we found it. A nice flat, grassy clearing in the forest right beside the river, both sun and shade and even a swimming hole and flat spots for tents too. Too good to bypass we elected to have an early lunch, a brew up and a swim. An hour later we headed off again and after some decent uphill we came out into the open on the tops. We had appreciated any wind reaching us through the trees as a pleasant cooling breeze on a hot day but not here. A section that on the map looked like a pleasant walk across flat tops became quite a drudge as we battled the unrelenting head wind and bush-bashed through scrub to avoid the bogs. Eventually it came to an end and we headed downhill only to find the track deteriorating into a scramble down a steep stream. We were lucky as I later heard it described as a climb down a waterfall. However this didn’t last too long and a good track led us out to the beach with a DoC sign pointing the way back to Rakeahua Hut but no sign pointing to Doughboy. My memory of hut maps left me expecting to go right along the beach to the hut however both Kevin’s map and GPS had the hut to the left. After some time exploring to the left and back up the track, looking for a missed turnoff we headed right and some way along the beach were relieved to spot smoke from the hut’s chimney. Too weary for kiwi spotting that night we instead chatted to some interesting companions. One was travelling with virtually no food and living off the land and the other a local who gave us some good information about an off-track camping spot.

The next day we had a late start after checking out a nearby rock shelter. An uphill section was followed by a boggy flat top similar to the day before but shorter and with the wind behind us we were soon heading downhill again. Following the local guy’s instructions we found the shortcut to the beach and the rope to assist us, then headed south along the beach to Kilbride. A guy on a motor bike pulled up for a chat. He owned the one house there and invited us to camp by his house, sheltered beside macracarpas. We cooked dinner on his porch and chatted about the place’s history. The ladies happily accepted his offer of a hot shower.

In the morning we walked to the end of the beach to a scenic spot known as the The Gutter where a sandbar joins Ernst Island to the “mainland”. The rest of the day’s tramping consisted of a walk along the beach to Mason Bay Hut where we could enjoy a relaxed afternoon. In the evening we went kiwi spotting and Heather and Kevin spotted one lone kiwi.

It was an easy day’s walk to Freshwater Hut with a good track and even a long section of boardwalk. This was the part that people can do as a day walk—fly in, boat out—and was maintained to a higher standard. Thinking we were an hour away from the hut we stopped for lunch then found we’d been only 20 minutes away. We had another relaxing afternoon and Karen and Tony got a good view of a kiwi as it wandered across the path.

We had completed almost the whole circuit with dry boots and so, on the last day it became a challenge to prove it could be done. The first swampy 4km was always going to be the trickiest bit but we rose to the challenge and, with some reasonable detours and jumping, we reached the other side with dry socks. We were lucky in that the recent lack of rain left us with a relatively dry track, making our dry feet feat possible. It was amusing to pass some very muddy people. We decided that where people went wrong was in assuming that the poles on either side of a big bog were indicating that you should walk straight through it from pole to pole but that actually they were to assist you to return to the track after your bog-avoiding detour. Also the friendly advice of the locals to “go straight through the middle” may have had some bearing on the matter. The rest of the track was pleasant forest-walking and we arrived back a Fred’s Camp with over 2 hours to spare before our boat pickup. We’d allowed extra time as on some of the other days we were well over DoC’s times.

Back in Oban we enjoyed a shower and Blue Cod dinner at the local hotel. Tony and Karen left on the ferry the next morning while Kevin and Heather stayed on another 2 days to relax and visit Ulva Island where they saw another kiwi. Ours was a 6 day Stewart Island tramp where all the mud was avoidable and it only rained at night. Is this a first? We were: Karen Taylor, Tony Howden, Kevin & Heather Hughes. (HH)