I felt empty after reaching Bluff, purposeless, and after two days of sitting still in Invercargill somewhat confused as well. Why are we not walking anymore? Regardless of the weather forecast we booked a flight to Stewart Island. We all wanted to go. Marylène and Patrick joined in the enthusiam. They would only come along for the Northwest Circuit, but we resupplied for the longest possible loop: a combination of the Northwest and Southern Circuit Tracks. We’d see how it goes when we got there. Onwards and southwards!
At the airport checkin we were asked to take our poles with us on the plane. “A bit tricky to load”. We took our pointy objects with us and waited. “The four people flying to Stewart Island can now come to Gate 1”. The flight was beautiful and even though there were clouds in the sky, we got plenty of breaks in them to look around. We flew over Bluff. The island loomed up in the distance, rugged and rough. We saw the snow covering its highest peaks, and after a little while notices that it was on the lower hills as well. The polar front from the past few days had brought winter in. Again, we’ll see how it goes! As we approached the landing strip, soaring over the bays and hills, we were already stunned by the island.
Our first stop was the DOC office for fuel and track info. We got a full tour from the ranger: “this section is flooded now, this will flood if the forecast holds, you’ll sink knee-deep into the sand here,…” With flooded, he did not mean ankle-deep short sections underwater, but whole plains engulfed by rivers reaching you up to chest high. Ah. For a moment I felt slightly intimidated by our “leisurly trip”. I just knew about the notorious mud. A voice in the back of my head went “oh Eef, you could be sitting in a café in Invercargill now with a hot chocolate and take a nice shower later”. The instinct replied from deep down inside:” now where is the fun in that?”.
The first few days were not as muddy as we anticipated. “I’d like to ease into my mud” Patrick said, and there was no knee- or waist-deep wading yet. We constantly gazed around. Stewart Island is for most part still covered in pristine native forest, and some of the most vicious pests like ferrets and stoats don’t live on the island. This makes the birdlife much more vibrant than on the mainland. Soon we saw a rare New Zealand parakeet, a kakariki, a kaka (a big forest parrot), a kingfisher. The tui were back, and once more the forests were filled with sounds to the like of 80’s computers breaking down and R2D2. I love them. We kept an eye out for kiwi birds, who are also day active only on this island. This was wonderful, as we are still completely K.O. by 9 o’clock. On our second night out Marylène found one by the hut toilet, and we all rushed out to get a glimpse of it before it vanished in the bush again.
PJ and I wanted to make the summit trip up to Mount Anglem, the island’s highest point. We had an early start and would meet the others at the next hut, Yankee River. At first attempt we had to turn back at about 850m due to low visibility, gusting snow and winds. “You have to pick your battles and you can’t win them all” PJ said, and with clouds ever rolling in we started descending again. When we came to about 700m PJ pointed up again. The impossible had happened: the clouds were gone, and there was the peak, shining in the sun. No. No no no no no. No!
Usually I’m pretty calm in dealing with these situations, but this time I was mad. The mountain was slapping me in the face and then laughing at it. We turned around and ran back up. We ran as if we were running for dear life. We ran to beat the elements. We ran up in half the time we later walked down. Once at the top we sat in the sun for a long time, looking at the ocean, the Fiordland peaks shining above the clouds, the island’s interior peeping out of the fog at times. It was beautiful.
We rose early again the next day to catch up with our friends, as our extra round up took too much time and we didn’t make it to Yankee River Hut. When we came to Yankee River for lunch we found out that they had planned to reration their food and wait for us. I was touched by how deep this friendship had grown. One half of the group was going to go hungry, the other half got up before dawn and walked all day through the rain to catch up with their buddies. But just seeing those surprised faces and for that warm welcome it was all worth it.
As we walked along the Northwest Circuit every day stunned us. From those pristine, old-growth forests we were put out on golden beaches, rolling dunes and rocky shorelines.Big breakers several meters high crushed onto the shoreline and often we could hear their thunder echo in the woods. There were few other people on the tracks. More than once we told ourselves that this is paradise. One of the few untouched places on Earth.
Murray Beach. the Rugged Islands, the Ruggedy Range, Smokey Beach, they were all mindblowing places to walk by. The landscape became rougher and rougher in parallel with the tracks. While high cliffs and islands with sharp ridgelines stuck out from the sea, deep going, steep ascents/descents and thick mud made going slow. The scenery culminated at Big Hellfire Hut, where on one side a steep and narrow sand dune dropped 200 meters to the sea, while on the other side the big Ruggedy Plain stretched into the distance with towering rocks bordering it. What a lost world this was. We stood on the dune to watch the sun set over the rugged coastline. Getting to that hut was the hardest of our days, yet it brought the greatest reward.
Slowly the terrain started taking its toll. Every day brought a surprise of awe-inspiring scenery, kiwi birds running through the forest or a jaw-dropping sunset over the ocean. It kept our minds prevailing over our bodies. At Mason Bay PJ and I had to decide whether or not to continue on the Southern Circuit Track. After two days of debating we settled on doing it, doing every bit of the island. We wanted to reach the absolute southernmost point possible at Doughboy Bay.
At Mason Bay Hut we found a warning on the ranger board on the conditions of the track. It had taken them 8 hours to cover half the distance to Doughboy. “Did not make it to hut.” We redebated. Going could mean 12 hour days, walking from dawn till dusk. We did not have tents with us to camp out in case we didn’t make it. We did not have 12 hours of daylight left. And we would have to say goodbye to Patrick and Marylène then and there which was a heartbreaking thought.
The decision took a long time, and in the end we realised that no matter how hard we wanted do, we couldn’t under the current circumstances. It was tough, a hard decision not to go to that ultimate goal at Doughboy Bay. But we had to recognize our limits. Every day we felt the exhaustion kicking in more and more. 3000km across New Zealand had taken their toll. We had a beautiful, mind-blowing time on the island. It was too beautiful just to push through for the sake of it, without enjoying the walk. And after all, we had walked here all the way from Cape Reinga and added almost 140km on some of New Zealand’s roughest and most remote tracks ‘just for the hell of it’, we should not feel like we needed to prove anything.
Yet we felt defeated, coming so close to the absolute southernmost point and not being able to get there. In the morning we went for a walk on the beach. Now that the decision was made and the mind stopped ruling the body, we could feel how exhausted we were. It was an easy day down to Freshwater Hut over the flats, and again we were surprised about how beautiful it was. At the hut we met two hikers who just finished the Southern Circuit and told us the info at Mason Bay was wrong. It was a bitter pill to take, especially for PJ. But it had been done, and the scenery and company helped a great deal to forget about it. We worked with what we had and gave it all we could.
The final two days of the walk we were out in brilliant sunshine. It’s amazing how much luck we once again had with the weather: out of 11, we had 1,5 days of rain on an island where it rains almost 280 a year. We joked that karma was still repaying us for those 1000 kilometers of misery on the north island. PJ was a bit bitter, that we could have reached that southernmost point in brilliant sunshine. I felt it too. But I developed a fever and was greatful that we were walking out. I was happy we were still with our friends. One way or another we would have missed out.
PJ and I stayed one more day to visit Ulva Island, a pest-free sanctuary for native plants and birds. The difference between the forest on the island and everything we had walked through was staggering. Not only were the birds more abundant, with a few that are hardly seen on mainland New Zealand, but its outlook was totally different. It was an interesting experience to see what New Zealand actually would have looked like, after all that time imagining it.
Almost exactly 6 months after we started off from Cape Reinga we were on the ferry back to Bluff. We managed to get one of those few days where the Foveaux Strait is not a whirl of wild water and high waves, so our crossing was nice and comfortable. We had a celebration dinner with Patrick and Marylène before having to say an emotional goodbye in the morning. The fellowship was broken. No more bonus rounds. This is the true end of our great journey.