Sawyers Beach, evening

Evening at Sawyers Beach, just by Port William Hut

Date completed: 21st and 22nd February 2013

Weather conditions: Stewart Island is the most southerly inhabited part of Australasia and sits, totally exposed, in the path of the Southern Ocean. To the east, the next land is Chile – and to the west, it’s Argentina. So it has a reputation for weather that is, to put it mildly, changeable. However, on these two days I was very lucky – high pressure sat over the island throughout, and while the morning of the first day was cloudy, the rest was very fine. There was a fairly chill wind, though, despite the sun.

Grasses at Sawdust Bay

Grasses at Sawdust Bay, on day two

Distance: The Rakiura track is sometimes advertised as being 29km long and it can be, if you get a lift to and from Oban to the start and end of the track. If you walk from Oban to the track, it’s 36km in total – or about 22.5 miles.

However, I added on a bit at the beginning, walking round Horseshoe Point rather than just taking the short cut to Horseshoe Bay along the road. I think I therefore got it up to about 39km, or just under 25 miles. I’d say I did about 9 miles on the first day, and the rest on the second.

Total ascent: Can’t measure it exactly but although you never get very high (220 metres at most, or about 700 feet), there’s a lot of up and down, over headlands and in and out of valleys. As a pure estimate, but a reasonable one, I would imagine that the whole walk has about 2000 feet of ascent.

Start and end points: Oban is the only settlement on Stewart Island. It is a pleasant little vilage of about 500 people, plus seasonal flocks of tourists and backpackers: though it doesn’t feel crowded. It can be reached only by boat or plane from Invercargill. The walk starts and ends there if you do the whole thing on foot, but officially, the Rakiura track starts at Lee Bay and ends at the Fern Gully road end.

Morning at Magnetic Beach

Morning at Magnetic Beach, near Port William Hut on day 2

Pub at end: The South Sea Hotel is Oban’s only pub. It’s a decent one, though, with good beer, and food, though you do have to wait a while for the latter when it gets busy.

Route card: Can’t do them on these international walks but the New Zealand ‘Topo50’ (1:50000) series, sheet number CH09 (Mount Anglem/Hananaui) has most of the track on it. However, a couple of points to note: first, you don’t actually need a map at all, the track is impossible to lose: even though not always clear among the trees there are lots of little orange waymarkers to show you the way. Second, the map is in any case out of date, at least on the Port William – North Arm section, as the track has been re-routed since January 2012. But at least the map gives you a sense of progress and lets you know where you are.

North Arm inlet

North Arm inlet

It’s also useful to pick up the paper map of Oban village, which is available all over, as this helps you get out of the village the right way.

Route: No one is going to get lost on this route and there are no hazards to worry about beyond, a) lots of errant tree roots which might trip you up and b) in some sections, mud: really quite deep and thick mud. But it can usually be avoided.

The recommendation is to do the walk in three days, as follows: Day 1, Oban – Port William Hut; Day 2, Port William – North Arm Hut; Day 3, North Arm – Oban. However, having now done the walk, I think the first day is easily the best, and the other two are largely a trudge through a green tunnel of trees, without any particularly good views. Breaking it into three makes each day a walk of about 8 miles, and as the walking is not particularly difficult at any point, each would be more than easily done during a full day.

Curtain of foliage

Curtain of foliage, in the endless forests of day 2

Port William is also a much more interesting and picturesque spot than North Arm, and the first day much more worth lingering over. Therefore, although the second day is a long one – 15 miles – I would suggest starting early from Port William Hut and doing it in one go. I think this is best and most interesting as a two day walk, and it means you only need to carry one meal. (See below for a note on what facilities are available at the huts.)

Day One: Take Horseshoe Bay road out of Oban, and then once you’ve gone up and over the first hill, turn right over the bridge, then just keep turning right, following the shoreline. (Or, stick on Horseshoe Bay Road if you want to skip the detour around Horseshoe Point, but I do think following my route leads to a better walk.) This undulates up and down as it goes around the headland, including a dip down to the very pretty, but unfortunately named, Dead Man Beach (pictured), backed by what I bet is the most desirable piece of real estate on the island.

Dead Man Beach

Dead Man Beach, just south of Oban

After a couple of miles the track brings you out at a sort of builders’ yard, at which point follow the road out through the gate; you might as well then walk on the beach. This is Horseshoe Bay. Don’t stick on it right to the end; you need to come off at Lee Bay Road, which is by a large wooden house, and head down there.

At the road end, the path is to the left, through the ‘chain’ sculpture which was built for the opening of the Rakiura park in 2002 (and which has a very visible bullet hole in the top: the declaration of the park was not popular with everyone it seems). Look also to the right; that strange green structure, which I at first thought was for some kind of undersea phone cable, is in fact a predator-proof fence, designed to keep out stoats, rats and possums, the three main scourges of the native bird life.

Old sawmill at Maori Beach

Remains of an old sawmill at Maori beach

Up and down you go, through trees, and ferns (lots of ferns), and more trees, until you come out at the next main landmark, the beautiful Maori Beach: probably the highlight of the whole walk. Have a look at the remains of the sawmill, behind the camp site (see picture) – a rusted old boiler that is all that remains of one of many attempts, all largely failed, to develop industry on Stewart Island. There are a few more examples of this kind of relic on the walk. Note also that you can see Port William Hut from here, if you look across the bay.
The track leaves the beach over the swing bridge and then passes a junction to the left, which you will be coming back to tomorrow morning. Shortly afterwards you will be at Port William Hut.

View north from Sawyers Beach

View north to Mount Anglem (aka Hananaui – the highest point on the island at about 3,200 feet), from Sawyers Beach

A note about these huts: first, be aware that you do have to book the accommodation in advance, via the DOC (Department of Conservation) web site at http://www.doc.gov.nz. You need to bring everything you need, including a sleeping bag, food, cooking gear (gas, a stove, pans) and – worth remembering – toilet roll. However, there is plenty of fresh water (indeed, it’s available all along the track, being quite potable out of the streams).

Even if you dawdle, you’ll probably get to PWH pretty early, so it’s worth having a look around: and if you head north, along the track that is signposted to Bungaree Hut (this is the 12-day North West circuit which goes around the whole island – a walk for the future perhaps….), although it’s terribly muddy in places, it does come out at the spectacular Sawyers Beach (see the picture at the top), which is an excellent place to while away the afternoon and evening: though make sure you head back before it gets too dark.

Fern 'lantern'

Fern ‘lantern’. On this walk you see a lot of this kind of thing.

Day two: Retrace your steps 2km to the junction and then head into the interior of the island, following the signs to North Arm Hut. After a short time, unless you a really big fan of trees, you will start to become rather claustrophobic, but unfortunately, there is not going to be anything other than the most occasional relief for the rest of the day. It is worth stopping now and again just to listen to the sounds of the forest, and there are some outbreaks of variety – like more industrial relics and, once and once only, an open view of Patterson Inlet in the distance, with the central hills behind (see picture at the bottom). But that’s about it.

North Arm hut is worth stopping at even if you’re not staying there, not least because it has toilets and fresh water, but unlike Port William Hut, there’s no beach here. It’s the first real open air for several miles though, and feels refreshing.

After that there are more moments of brief relief, where you get an open view of Patterson Inlet (a drowned river valley), but there are still a lot of trees to trudge through. It’ll pass however, as eventually you come out at the Fern Gully road end, and then walk down, past the heliport, into the town again.

Maori Beach

Walkers on Maori Beach

Commentary: I don’t feel like doing long commentaries in the way that I did on the Wainwright walks, because the point of the blog then was to document my feelings about doing the project (particularly by public transport) as well as the walks themselves – now that’s done, this is more about just the walks, and the photos, and I’m sure you’re all bored hearing about me and my life.

But, OK, give me a little bit. I’m here in New Zealand because I’m on sabbatical at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia, until late May, having arrived in January (in the middle of Cyclone Oswald, which whacked Queensland for a whole weekend). I needed to leave Australia for somewhere in the middle of my time here for visa purposes, being only supposed to stay for 90 days at any stretch, and New Zealand, where I’ve always wanted to come, was the logical choice.

Horseshoe Bay

Sand scene on Horseshoe Bay

I can only manage two weeks, but what I’ve seen so far, I really like, and I do want to come back. I arrived in Dunedin, a nice-looking city, and though Invercargill, where I stayed one night before coming here, was dull, the countryside around it was good and the flight over to Stewart Island was an experience in its own right, on a tiny plane with me sat right behind the pilot.

On the weekend we stayed in Keswick and I finished the Wainwrights, I picked up a book on New Zealand’s Great Walks, these being a set of eight walks of between two and five days’ duration spaced throughout the three islands of the country (North, South and Stewart). This one, the Rakiura walk, appealed mainly because it is the least-frequented of them all, and for some reason, Stewart Island was somewhere I wanted to come. It’s one of the most southerly inhabited places in the world, tacked onto the bottom of south island like a comma, and despite being about the size of Sussex it’s just got this one little town on it. I booked it all a few weeks ago, and here I am.

View of Patterson Inlet

The one view you get between Port William and North Arm huts – looking towards Patterson Inlet and the central hills

I did enjoy the walk, but the second day did get a bit monotonous, with its endless trees and the promise of views which never actually emerged. But the island as a whole has been the real discovery; great wildlife, a fabulous sense of remoteness, and no crowds. You feel as if everyone has come here for a good reason, and it is, after all, a bloody hard part of the world to get to. If you can make it here I highly recommend it. But do only take two days to do the Rakiura, unless you really have a thing about trees.

Next week I’m heading to the north end of South Island to do a 4-day hike, the Heaphy Track – wish me luck, and if I make it through, you’ll read about it here.

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