No need to rush in and rush out, Stewart Island is extra rewarding when drawn out over seven enjoyable days, writes Eleanor Hughes.
Twenty minutes after leaving Invercargill the 10-seater plane lands, somewhat hairily in gusting wind, on Stewart Island's short airstrip. We're shuttled to Oban in Stewart Island Flights' van, the driver confirming the weather forecast. It's disheartening.
Dropping backpacks at Stewart Island Backpackers, we head back to Halfmoon Bay's waterfront and turn left. Another left at two-storeyed South Sea Hotel, the Four Square opposite, we pass a bike hire business, Bunkhouse Theatre, and newly-built Rakiura Museum. Rakiura National Park Visitor Centre, the DOC base, is next door. Assured that despite heavy rain the three-day, 32-km Rakiura Great Walk is still doable, we leave with a track guide, hut tickets and gas canisters for our camping stoves.
The next morning, rain, thunder and hail accompany our 2km walk from town to the walk's start at Fern Gully Carpark. Once in the bush we're semi-sheltered by its high, verdant green canopy. Coastal views; small footbridges crossing clear waters stained bronze; ferns like Gulliver-sized leaf lettuces - the 11km, easy trail that takes us five hours to North Arm Hut is picturesque. It's a longish afternoon and evening peering out rain-battered windows over North Arm, the beach two minutes' walk away.
On the following day's 13km walk to Port William Hut, gently waving trees protect from constant rain. When wind strengthens, they creak like rusty hinges. In the green landscape, the trail is a black quagmire, water running down banks to stream along it or down gullies alongside. A bronze-coloured river thunders below bridges. We spot two, rusting, 1930s log haulers protected by iron roofs, a bush tramway once running through the area. The wind's roar is finally deadened by a ridge as we approach Port William. All is peaceful in its still bay where a whaling station stood in the 1850s and in the late 1860s a "maritime gold rush" was experienced when an oyster bed was found.
Rain is intermittent on day three's 8.1kms. Gusting winds sway the swing bridge leading to sandy, sweeping Māori Beach where a rusting steamboiler, from sawmilling days, is tucked in bush. At Peters Point, sea lions loll in clear, bluish-green water far below. Tannin-stained Little River flows out to sea below a bridge we cross just before reaching the large "chain" link sculpture marking the Great Walk's start/end at Lee Bay. We walk back to Oban via the road, what's another 5km …? A few homes dot Horseshoe Bay; the narrow inlet of Mill Creek, a white sandbank crossing it where tannin-stained and turquoise waters swirl to stunning effect. We book for dinner at South Sea Hotel on our way past. In mid-September it's the only dining out option, the Kai Cart closed. The marmite and honey-marinated pork belly, bacon-wrapped beans, and red wine-soaked yam is divine. Apparently, the blue cod is too.
Late next morning, with accompanying gusts, we follow Halfmoon Bay's waterfront heading to Ackers Point Lighthouse. Rakiura Jade advertises carving workshops; boatsheds cluster shoreline; colourful wooden fishing boats bob in the harbour. At the road end, a bush track leads to secluded Harrold Bay and heritage-listed, dirt-floored Ackers Cottage, built around the 1830s. At Ackers Point, we discover the lighthouse is merely a beacon. With views out to Foveaux Strait and Tītī/Muttonbird Islands, we read about their history, muttonbirds, and little blue penguins before returning on the easy, 1½-hour walk to town.
It's only early afternoon, so we detour up Wohlers Rd which becomes Petersons Hill Rd, passing the golf course, and reach deserted Deep Water Bay. Waves rock a derelict-looking barge.
Golden Bay Track leads from there along bush-lined coast, looking out over Paterson Inlet to distant Ulva Island. Forty-five minutes later we emerge just up the road from Golden Bay wharf. Back in town, where kākā tear into a rubbish bag and a sea lion waddles up Ayr Street before returning to the harbour, a hot chocolate in Just Cafe warms me.
At 8pm. I join Ange at Beaks and Feathers to kiwi spot at the airfield. In pitch blackness, along the bush line parallel with the airfield runway, we quietly walk with red light torches. Calls, like fingernails on a blackboard, break the silence… one is spotted. We get within 10 metres as it busily digs the ground with its beak. It's bigger than expected. A smaller one is nearby. Awesome!
It's a 7.30am start for the eight-minute flight to Mason Bay, for our Coast to Coast walk, timed for a low-tide beach landing. Sea and wind roar as we battle past eroded dunes and scattered tree trunks, fishing nets, buoys and plastic crates to Duck Creek, disgorging across the sand. Quietness descends as we follow it inland. Empty Mason Bay Hut is reached by 8.30am. Signs state "Freshwater Hut - 15km, 3-4 hours". Rakiura Charters' water taxi will pick us up from the landing there at 1.50pm.
A driveway-width, grassed trail takes us to Mason Bay Historic Homestead, a bach-looking building. Further on a rusting tractor sits outside the Historic Woolshed, the area farmed from 1897 to 1986. Rain sprinkles.
The flat trail narrows, orangey/bronze tussock and flax alongside, bush-covered sand dunes surround. Ponds are passed; Manuka, bare but for their canopy, form tunnels; the trail becomes slushier. A boardwalk takes us over Chocolate Swamp, trees growing in its rich-brown water.
A "DANGER" sign warns against proceeding if water is above its orange marker. Thankfully, there's none. Otherwise, we would've been overnighting at Masons Bay. A tannin-stained stream alongside the track occasionally runs swift and noisy beyond which Manuka form a maze. Reaching the danger zone end, three hours in, we're slowed having to skirt ankle-deep puddles. Freshwater Landing, a jetty on orange-tinged, blackish Freshwater River, is reached with 30 minutes spare.
We blatt jetboat style, tilting and turning, along the dark, twisting waterway. Vegetation-lined, it widens to disgorge into Paterson Inlet where bush-clad hills, peaks and coastline surround. Thirty minutes from the jetty the boat reaches Golden Bay.
On the way back there to catch a water taxi to Ulva Island the next day, I walk up steep Leonard St to Observation Point. Apparently a great spot for sunsets, the views are panoramic over various bays and out to islands.
Rakiura Charters water-taxi takes eight minutes to reach the pest-free 260ha sanctuary of Ulva Island which became protected in 1899, one of the country's earliest reserves. We land at Post Office Bay, where the island's Post Office, built in 1872, operated until 1923.
Instead of taking a guided walk, for a $2 donation, I grab a self-guiding booklet at the bay's shelter and take the History Story Walk to Flagstaff Point. A flag was hoisted here whenever the mail boat from the South Island arrived. The walk continued to Sydney Cove where a Māori village once stood. I read about the Paterson Inlet Marine Reserve and muttonbird harvesting. Signs warn of the presence of seals and sea lions but all I see is a South Island robin. Leaving turquoise water and golden sand behind, gravel track, boardwalks, bridges and stairs take me below ancient miro, tōtara, and rimu. Supplejack hang like tangled fishing line; ferns and moss carpet fallen logs; trunks peel bark. Trills, squawks and whistles are sporadic. I stroll, stopping frequently to peer into towering foliage and across the forest floor. A saddleback, black with a burnt-orange back, pecks in dead foliage; bright green kākāriki dart amongst darker greenery; a kākā sleeps on a branch, another rips a tree trunk apart.
Wild and windy Sandy Boulder Beach, on the island's western side, is strewn with logs and thick dead foliage along the high-tide mark. On the trail from there to West End Beach, two kākā entertain, chasing each other along branches and hanging upside down. A weka stalks across the beach's golden sand towards me before skittering into tall grasses.
Four hours after leaving, I return to Post Office Bay for the water taxi.
Back in Oban, I visit the Red Shed on the wharf. An information centre and souvenir shop, they have motor scooters for hire, too.
A 15-minute road and bushwalk, passing by the white Presbyterian Church perched on the hill above Halfmoon Bay, leads to the whitish-sand cove of Bathing Beach where clear, turquoise water laps. A bush track midway along the beach emerges on to Horseshoe Bay Rd. Further along and up Mapua Rd, the cemetery gives fantastic views over Mill Creek. Gravestones mark Norwegian whaler's graves and I spot surnames that I've seen on road signs.
Views of the harbour from South Sea Hotel's windows slowly disappear into darkness as we await the Sunday night quiz having arrived at 5pm to get a table. Other tourists join us to make a team and by the 6.30pm start the bar is packed. Locals banter across the room, it's a lot of fun.
We walk back to the backpackers under twinkling stars, the night cool but still. The weather has finally improved, but despite having endured the worst rain and winds they've seen here all year, it hasn't affected our week. In fact, it probably made it more adventurous.
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