North West Circuit Track, Stewart Island, New Zealand
Isabel Allende — ‘We all have an unsuspected reserve of strength inside that emerges when life puts us to the test.’
North West Circuit Track, Stewart Island, New Zealand: Allow 9–11 days to walk the full 125 km circuit. This track is suitable for fit, well equipped and experienced backpackers. Track times are an indication only and extra time should be allowed in adverse conditions. This is a personal account of the circuit along Stewart Island written primarily on the trek, as done in February 2017. This report includes all personal photos except for the island map and elevation chart.
Two of the 54 treks featured in the Lonely Planet New Zealand Trekking guide are listed as the “difficult” and the North West Circuit on Stewart Island is one of them. The description reads, “Coastal epic around a remote island featuring isolated beaches, sand dunes, birds galore, and miles of mud.” This island is a wild beauty and tested me more than any trek I’ve done before.
This is a hut to hut trek, or “tramp” in the local New Zealander dialect. You can buy a pass for the huts once on Stewart island and they are first come first serve. However, the first and last two huts of the circuit, Port William Hut and Northarm Hut can and should be reserved in advance because they tend to fill up as part of the popular Rakiura loop.
For official information: visit the New Zealand Department of Conservation website including what to pack, what to know before you go and all relevant information:
Day 1: Oban to Port William Hut – 13km
We started from town early with full bellies from the beer and salmon dinner the night before. We were there to hike so opted out for taking a taxi to the trailhead 6km down the road. As we strapped on our packs to set out we were greeted with a heavy downpour. Thankfully, our indomitable spirits weren’t dampened by the rain and we enjoyed a wet day of easy mud-free boardwalks to Port William Hut. We arrived just before dinner time, hung up our wet clothes and Shannon and I headed to the ocean for a post hike dip in the frigid water (despite the rain).
Day 2: Port William Hut to Bungaree Hut – 6km
We woke to sunshine and quickly realized that the boardwalks were gone and the rain from the day before had turned the trail to mud. I was told about the mud but until you trek for nearly a full 6km through it – and not horizontally – mostly vertical with wet roots – it turns your mind clearing jaunt in the wilderness into a fully physical and mental struggle. Though there were no major climbs the constant roller coaster of roots and knee deep mud challenged our bodies just as much as our minds while navigating the maze. The shell shock of what we were up for fully kicked in. Thankfully we were greeted at the end of the day with the beautifully isolated Bungaree Beach where we searched for shells, swam in the cool waters, and enjoyed the warm sunshine.
Day 3: Bungaree Hut to Christmas Village – 12km
We rose early with the daylight and packed up prepared for another tough day of roots and mud. We immediately resumed a large climb followed by a series of hills and gullies full of mud. This was the first day that I started to take in the awe of the wonders around me. The landscape was marshy and lush and covered in unfamiliar ferns, spiky grasses, purple thistles, and tiny flowers. As we navigated the steep descent to Murray Beach we were rewarded with golden sand and sunshine which we took advantage of with a long lunch. After another full afternoon of constant up and downs we landed for the night in Christmas Bay at Christmas Village Hut. We found out through another tramper that from this point the trek was to get progressively harder aaaannndd this would be our last opportunity for cell service and a ferry out. There was a lengthy discussion about whether the risk outweighed the reward. Stewart Island had had one of the coldest and wettest summers in 20 years meaning this difficult trek would be more difficult than usual. We opted to sleep in and decide in the morning.
Day 4: Christmas Village to Yankee River – 12km
We slept in, ate a long breakfast, and enjoyed hot coffee. We called the ferry serviced and found out that they could pick us up at 5:30pm. It was like a switch went off – as soon as we found out we could get out then we didn’t want to. We knew we could do it – we just had to prepare ourselves for the challenge. We loaded up our packs and set out for one of our biggest climbs of the entire trek. A couple dry days meant that the trail was slightly less dangerous as we wound through a stunning rimu forest. We hit Lucky Beach in the early afternoon and pushed to navigate the large boulders before the tides came in and blocked the path. After a quick lunch we hit a shorter climb with some undulated terrain before finding our stride and making it early to Yankee River Hut.
Day 5: Yankee River to Long Harry Hut – 9km
Looking forward to a shorter day we started out with a skip in our step as we climbed an undulated 200m to Black Rock Point before a very steep descent on to Smoky Beach. The steep climb and descent took all the power from our legs and just when we thought we had no juice left we were met on the beach by a towering sand dune that sunk 1ft for every 2ft high step. I would best compare it to running up a down-escalator except double it’s height. A true example of how much further you can go when you tap into your reserve tank. We were ready for lunch and a refuel but needed to cross the 2km long soft sand beach before high tide came in. By the time we reached the end of the beach slog we had missed the low tide route and decided to stop and eat. Instantly, sand flies and bumble bees attacked us. We would later find out that they are attracted to the color blue, which Shannon and I were so fashionably donning, but not before Shannon was surrounded by over a half dozen bees and stung on the leg. We raced to a local hunters cabin (that are sparsely located on the island) to doctor up the large sting and finish our snacks before moving on. The high tide route added an extra climb to the day but we hunkered down and moved forward onto Long Harry Hut. When we finally caught view of the hut it gave us the fuel we needed to descend and ascend the steep drop down to the ocean needed to get there. Fortunately, the sun was shining and it gave us a nice afternoon to dry out all of our waterlogged boots and clothing.
Day 6: Long Harry Hut to East Ruggedy – 9.5km
We started out slow with the hopes of not losing our “juice” midway through the day like we had the day before. This day would be much like the others and best described by the Lonely Planet guide: “Tough tramping continues as you climb in and out of four more bush-clad gullies and streams, until descending near the north end of Long Harry Beach.” We pushed to get through Long Harry Beach (again) before the tides came up. We barely made it through one section, I found my boots being washed by the incoming tide as I waited my turn to climb the steep rocks ahead. Fortunately after leaving the beach, three days without rain brought us one of our easiest and most pleasurable days on the trek. Graduated climbs, beautiful viewpoints on the northern coast, and kiwis greeted us before descending to East Ruggedy Beach. We had been warned to not cross at high tide and to move fast through the quicksand. I must admit I was excited – I had never experienced quicksand before. The D.O.C. ranger told us days earlier, before we set out, that if we did sink it would only be down to our hips and we would need a friend to pull us out. Thankfully I had two friends and was ready to forge ahead. With my boots tied around my neck and my water shoes on I set out to cross at the mouth of Ruggedy Stream. I kept waiting for my feet to sink but only felt a slight sucking on my feet as I expediently tramped my way through. After a short celebration I set down my pack and headed back towards the stream looking for a soft spot. “I found some,” I exclaimed to Joe and Shannon! As my feet sank I felt so excited to check this off my proverbial bucket list. Joe yelled back, “get out of it.” Not wanting to have to pull me out – he was always the sensible one. Joe washed our feet before putting our boots back on to finish the 45 minute trek to the hut. We ended the day with smiles and a big dinner.
Day 7: East Ruggedy to Big Hellfire Hut – 15km
After a day off to heal our aching muscles, we headed out at dawn with headlights expecting one of our longest and most difficult days of the trip. We made it in record time to the scenic West Ruggedy Beach. We followed the beach before a steep ascent to Ruggedy pass and a steep d
escent into Waituna Bay. After a quick touch and go on the beach we began our gradual ascent to Hellfire Pass. We ended the day after 11 hours of hiking at the top of one of the longest sand dunes in the world at 200m above sea level. The rain hit us on and off all day so we tried our best to light a fire and dry things out but the hut was so cold and the wood was so wet we had to hunker down for our coldest night on the trek. All in all it was a good day.
Day 8: Big Hellfire to Mason Bay Hut – 15km
Since we were looking at another long day we got an early start and were treated to a morning call from a female kiwi. We were looking forward to some lovely ridge walking and beach walking but were deeply disappointed by the near constant mud. It rained all night and most of the day before and wasn’t letting up yet. The mud was deeper and constant. Our boots were instantly wet. As we were coming down from the Ruggedy Mountains we found ourselves descending steep puddle after puddle grasping trees and trekking poles to keep our feet from going out from underneath us (which happened multiple times). We finally arrived at Little Hellfire Beach. We were immediately pummeled by high winds that tore off our pack covers and swept at our feet. We hurried across the beach as a large storm was looming on the horizon and took shelter under some trees. We decided to grab lunch here and wait out the storm which ended up being pea size hail. According to the map we had a 150m climb over Mason Bay Head and were hopeful that this would be an easy climb. Due to the extreme weather and mud from days of rain this ended up taking nearly twice the time if should have. We were excited to finally make our way to Mason Bay but due to the high tide and the storm the beach was nearly impassable. We attempted to dry out our boots but had to take shelter under my emergency rain cover to keep ourselves dry and warm while we waited out the storm and the tides. Finally, the tide lowered enough for us to begin our 4.5km trek down Mason Bay towards the hut. We were blocked by a steep rocky outcrop and had to add another hour onto our day by taking the high tide route. We were met with more wind, rain, and hail. Finally we left the beach and enjoyed a sunny trek to Mason Bay Hut after a 13 hour day of hiking.
Day 9: Mason Bay to Freshwater – 16km
We slept hard and woke with sore feet in the morning. We grabbed breakfast and were happy to have a nice flat day ahead of us. Some people can do this route in 3 hours. Being sore from the days before we took our time and finished in 5. The scenery was constantly changing as we made our way across the middle of the island back to where we started. Due to flooding we took the water taxi from Freshwater back to Oban. There was a calm sense of accomplishment and we looked forward to beers, dinner and sweets at the local pub.
Written by Emily White, additional writing and editing by Kayla McKinney and photos by Joe White.