Northwest Circuit (New Zealand)
The Northwest Circuit on the Stewart Island, a small island in New Zealand’s South, is a challenging 10-day tour. It begins with a part of the much shorter and easier Great Walk and continues through mud, forest and over sand dunes. As Stewart Island is quite remote, this trek is considered an insider tip.
By ferry I cross the Foveaux Straight from Invercargill to Oban, a town with around 600 inhabitants. After we have landed, I walk straight to the official starting point, the Halfmoon Bay. Of the obstacles described in my tramping book, including knee-deep mud passages, so far nothing is to be seen – I am very glad about this. A bit astonished, I take a look at the the tree to my left a few minutes later. An old telephone with a telephone book is something I would not have expected at this trunk.
What is needed to brighten the mood? Sometimes only a beach walk at a pleasant temperature and sunshine. The anchored ships, a few meters away from the coast, complete the peaceful image. Not even my backpack, which is quite heavy because of the food for 12 days, can take away my smile. A short lunchbreak at the Port William Hut, the first hut on the way, and I continue my way to the Bungaree Hut. I am delighted by the change, as the way is from the sea and crosses a small forest.
I can already recognize the hut on the horizon when it begins to rain. In the hut, I have to realize that the Trek seems to be somewhat more popular than expected – I meet 7 more hikers. Including a young woman from New Zealand who prepared her dinner. For this she pulls a carefully packed plastic bag with the inscription ’20 .02.2011 Evening’ out of her backpack, which contains the exactly weighed meal of her first evening. Fascinated by her organizational skills, I prepare myself a handful of spaghetti with a piece of cheese. While Paul and Rebecca, a couple from England, camp outside, as I occupy one of the bunk beds and fall asleep straight away.
After a relaxing night, I plan an early start to avoid the upcoming rain. Because of my aversion to the local mosquitos and the sand flies, I pack my stuff inside in the hut. The plastic rustling does not seem to please an Australian and he shares his displeasure loudly. Annoyed, I am starting the trek. It continues through a forest, in which my mood quickly rises again due to the breathtaking variety of plants.
I notice the ferns growing on the ground and the green epiphytes, which partially cover the trees. As I reach Murray Beach, it starts to rain. And it continues to rain. It rains the entire day. The ground has become muddy despite opposing hope and my shoes are now covered with a dirt layer. I bypass a passage, where I recognize that hikers have sunk in ankle deep, as far as possible. Slowly the rain gets heavier, and I am more than glad to reach the hut and be able to put up my feet.
I plan to skip the next scheduled overnight accommodation, the Yankee River Hut and aim for the Long Harry Hat. It is an exhausting day; the surroundings alternate between walks through sand and forest. At a higher point, I can see the Lucky Beach through the wood branches.
After this sandy intermezzo, the path leads quite steeply through some passages surrounded by ferns.
At the Yankee River Hut, I would like to take a break to prepare a lunch. Unfortunately, I am bothered by Sand flies seconds later. Since these only attack objects that do not move, the pause is correspondingly short. On the other side of a steep sand dune the power of the sea is recognizable – perfect surfer waves strike on the beach. Soon after, I realize that the tide has its part to play, my way is blocked by the sea. Hiking boots and salt water are an unfavorable combination and so I decide to carry my shoes in my hands for the time being.
This approach ends differently than planned, as the sand flies gather around me within seconds of opening the first shoelace. I shouldered my boots frantically and quickly passed the knee-high seawater – unfortunately without my walking stick. Since I’m not in the mood to go back, I continue towards the hut.
There I meet five New Zealanders, with whom I go on a search for a Kiwi bird at dusk. But we can only see schematically how one is scurrying through the thicket. Later on, the evening’s entertainment is saddened after a short time, when we are told that Christchurch – the largest city on the New Zealand South Island – was hit by an earthquake of magnitude 8 on the Richter scale.
The New Zealanders start their day at 6.30 and are on the track at 8 am. I follow half an hour later. I am starting to realize why the average speed per day is calculated as less than 2 km per hour. The sections with ankle to knee deep mud are increasing. At first I try to avoid this by jumping from root to root and, if possible, walking along the trees along one side of these mud puddles. However, I give up this effort after a while and walk directly through them – my new walking stick comes handy, in order to avoid at least the deepest places. The shuffling sound, when I free my foot from one of these, becomes my constant companion.
Another one I receive, when I join Kat, the fastest of the New Zealanders. On the rocky coast, we wait for the rest of their group, which are harvesting some mussels to enrich the dinner. In the late afternoon, some companions from the first day appear – an English couple and two Belgians. After having some fun with the natural sand slides on the dunes, the river just in front of the hut is not left unused and after 4 days without a shower, I’m looking forward to a change – refreshed and clean I crawl into my sleeping bag.
I start off together with Kat – it continues with the usual uphill, downhill and mud. We cross a hill and get a fascinating view: A crescent-shaped beach section, which looks as if was embraced by the striking waves of the turquoise sea. It ends at a wooded, hilly outcrop, at which end a rock slopes steeply into the water. A few meters farther out, further rocky hills grow out of the sea – all littered with trees. We walk along the sandy crescent, before climbing steeply uphill on the other side to the Big Hellfire Hut. Inside it is cuddly – from the 12 beds 11 are occupied… And once again, I resolve that the next time I’ll think of bringing earplugs.
The sky is only slightly cloudy in the early morning. I look for a view point and gaze over a forest-rich valley surrounded by elevations. The sun, which peaks over the hill chain on the horizon, completes the picturesque scenario. I soak in the relaxing atmosphere, before I start off, again with my companion Kat. Early in the afternoon we hear an unexpected rustling right in front of us in the bushes.
Startled we stop and stare towards it – when suddenly a kiwi bursts out, straight towards us with quick steps, with the long beak constantly pecking on the ground. Not far from my foot, this flightless brown bird stops, turns around and makes its way back into the thicket. As so often, the thoughts about the camera are a bit too late and I manage to catch the back of the allegedly timid national bird of New Zealand, but Kat was luckier with the photo.
An hour later the path leads over stones along the water, where we unexpectedly see the next animal: a blue penguin, which seems to us to be less interested in us than we are at him, and he attempts to escape with clumsy moves.
The evening is initiated by an outstanding sunset – mirrored by the sea, it turns the beach, as well as the individual fleecy clouds into a fiery red. This can only be surpassed by the subsequent, incredible starlight sky on this very fresh night.
This morning the New Zealanders are to be picked up by helicopter from the Mason Bay, which means I am on my own again. I use this circumstance for a faster pace and skip the scheduled overnight stay in the Freshwater Hut. The path is well developed – bridges lead over the marshy sections, trees and shrubs grow like a tunnel, which makes you feel right in the middle of the Lord of the Rings landscape.
The sounds of the various New Zealand birds are very entertaining – I pause briefly to listen to the chirping of the little Robins, Tuis and Bellbirds. At afternoon, I notice how my energy slowly begin to fade. The result is that I lose the track, which is not well-marked at this point. For 20 minutes, I walk through a forest – without signposts – before I turn around, until I reach the last mark and thus find the route again. I am all the happier when I reach the hut and enjoy dinner and bed.
The last day starts early. Already at 7.30 am I take off towards Oban, the starting point. Paul and Rebecca, the English couple from the first day, have camped a few meters behind the hut and are apparently already on their way. Around 10.30 am I met the two in Oban again. We enjoy a portion of Fish & Chips together and take the next ferry back to Invercargill. Tired and contented, I reach the campsite where I left my van, and get the first hot shower after eight exhausting days.