Rakiura Stewart Island North West Circuit – Clockwise
An absolute corker of a trip! Ten days, nine nights on the 125 Km Rakiura Stewart Island North West Circuit. DOC describes the circuit as Advanced, and if you’re a fit, experienced, well-equipped tramper, I can’t recommend it enough for the beauty, variety of landscapes, beaches, cool huts, wildlife (kiwis on the track in daylight!!) and the challenge. I went with a buddy but carried my tent/gear/supplies etc. as if tramping solo, and with wet weather/cold weather tramping in mind. On day one my pack weighed about 16 kgs with food & water and Rich’s weighed 20 kgs. Check out these separate posts:
- Rakiura Stewart Island North West Circuit – Gear List
- Rakiura Stewart Island North West Circuit – Food/supplies
If you don’t mind a bit of type 2 fun, you can do the double with the Southern Circuit as part of your loop. We had three luxurious weeks on Rakiura and didn’t feel the need to rush anything, so took a day off in Oban between the North West and Southern circuit.
1. As the rainforest and wetland habitat indicates, it usually rains a LOT on Rakiura Stewart Island. The annual rainfall is around 1600 mm to 1800 mm (approx 60-70 inches) and there are around 200-250 days of decent rain per year. I walked the North West Circuit in late summer during a drought year. Locals told us they hadn’t had proper rain for 8 weeks (which mostly continued when we were on the island). Unfortunately, this meant very testing times for the locals but fortunately for us, great tramping conditions. I thought we’d be wading through knee-deep mud but only had 2 wet boot days. My experience is NOT of normal conditions, so prepare for the rain-and-mud-fest, and factor it into your timings.
2. As it was a long trip, this is a long post. It’s hard not to include everything, and even harder to whittle down 800 photos. I haven’t included any history/culture of Rakiura nor anything on biodiversity, conservation or hunting I’m afraid, because you can find so many excellent sources elsewhere, and I wouldn’t be able to do it justice.
Clockwise or Anticlockwise?
Most people walk the Stewart Island North West Circuit anti-clockwise. I walked clockwise, and I was really pleased I did.
The awesome DOC brochure describes the route anticlockwise, and it’s considered the easier direction because the section from Oban to Yankee River is the easiest part of the trip.
When I asked people which direction to walk in and why the anticlockwise walkers mostly mentioned the difficulty of carrying a pack with 10 days’ worth of supplies over the hill (around 350m elevation) between North Arm to Freshwater (if you go clockwise). This wasn’t a problem for us at all, as we regularly tramp +1000m elevation. That stretch took us about 6 hours (DoC recommends 6-7). Conditions were perfect (no previous rain for weeks) and we double-hutted, skipping Freshwater and staying at Mason Bay that night. It would be slippery and treacherous in wet conditions, but if you take it carefully, are ok with elevation, and don’t overload your pack with stuff you don’t need, you’ll be fine.
Reasons to go clockwise
- You’ll meet different people in the huts every night. We even had a couple of huts to ourselves.
- If you get to Freshwater and are struggling, you can get out by water taxi, and/or do an easy side trip over to Mason Bay for a night before pulling out.
- The last few days are really easy. From Yankee River, you have relatively little in your pack and the track is a breeze compared to the previous sections.
- If your food supplies are looking healthy, you can decide at the end of the trip whether to spend an extra day summiting Hananui / Mt Anglem (We’d recommend it).
- If you summit Hananui / Mt Anglem, you can reminisce about all the amazing places you walked, which you can now see from above.
Preparation Stewart Island North West Circuit
We prepared well for our trip, down to weighing and measuring the food. Because I’m a tiny tramper, middle-aged and having walked Te Araroa trail, I am very realistic about what I’m able to carry. I packed for wet/cold conditions and carried full camping gear and a tent.
It’s definitely worth visiting the DOC office in Oban before you go, to photograph a copy of the tide times from their folder (note the 2 hr time difference on the west side of the island) and talk to the staff about track conditions. We got less of a ‘stern’ pep talk than some other walkers we met, but it’s great that the team care about trampers being prepared for the trail. It was valuable to learn about the location of the headland on Mason Bay.
We have yearly DOC backcountry hut passes but if you don’t, you can get your hut pass for the circuit at the DOC office. If you stay at North Arm, Port William huts/campsites or Māori beach campsite these are on the Rakiura Great Walk and are NOT covered by the hut pass so you’ll need to book them separately.
I read a few blogs** prior to the trip, and most said that the DOC times were spot on – which I would agree with. I can usually walk 5kms per hour on the flat on a good day, and usually cut DOC times by a third or a half. Not so here. Looking at the timings for the NWC you may think they seem a little long/slow (for the kms). I would say take it as read. Bear in mind that you’re usually climbing up/down slippery hills, gullies, climbing over or balancing on wet tree roots, crossing streams, avoiding or plowing through mud, scrambling, bashing, rock hopping, wading up or down a sand dune, walking into a gale etc.
We neither hurried nor dawdled, and took it at a pace that felt comfortable over the technical ground with plenty of photo stops and bird watching. As it’s such a special trip my advice would be to take it as slowly as you can. You won’t want it to end.
** Speaking of other people’s blogs also read Naomi Brook’s excellent account of the North West Circuit from a traditional/muddy point of view.
Day 1. Halfmoon Bay (Oban) to North Arm Hut
- DOC time: 5 hours, 12 km
- Our time: 3 hours 30 mins
Whichever way you start the North West Circuit it starts with a road walk (or you could get a taxi, which we considered cheating). We left Oban at 9.30 am and arrived at Fern Gully a couple of kilometres away at 10 am. As this first stretch is a leg of the three-day Rakiura Great Walk. There was a pristine loo (with toilet paper!) at the road end.
It being a Great Walk, the gently undulating track through the forest was wide, easy-going and dry, with bridged streams. I could probably have worn my slippers. We heard lots of birds – kereru, kakariki, fantails tuis and bellbirds, and enjoyed the easy start. I still can’t name many of the trees of the (non-beech) forests I’m afraid, but I did recognise some rimu among the many giants. The track led down to some lovely little beach coves and several sites of interest from the island’s saw-milling days.
We reached the spacious and beautiful campsite at North Arm at 1 pm and got the pick of the large site (just two tents joined me later). It had an enormous shelter and a separate toilet from the hut. Note that because it’s on the Great Walk, you must book in advance. It is not first come first served like most other huts on the Stewart Island North West Circuit.
Rich went to claim his pre-booked bed at the 24 bed North Arm hut and we met several other trampers. After lunch, we whiled away the afternoon at the beach a short walk away and bumped into the ‘hut deer’ a few times.
Later on, as the hut filled up, we made our way back to the campsite, ate dinner and chatted to the other campers. Apparently the best chance to see a kiwi was at dusk from the campsite or close by so we walked a kilometre or so back down the track to the last bay. Our only encounter was with a shadow that passed across the path in front of us, which I was 95% sure (hopeful) was a kiwi, but we didn’t count it as a sighting.
Day 2. North Arm Hut to Mason Bay Hut (via Freshwater Hut)
- DOC time North Arm hut to Freshwater hut: 6 – 7 hours, 11 km / Our time: 5 hours 50 mins with 2x 20 min breaks
- DOC time Freshwater hut to Mason Bay hut: 3 – 4 hours, 15.5 km / Our time: 4 hours 10 mins including 2x 20 min breaks and detour to hunters hut
We woke at 6 am with the Southern Cross shining brightly almost overhead through the trees in the clearing. A rapturous dawn chorus accompanied our breakfast, and the deer family wandered through for an inspection. We were underway at 8.10 am. From here it was ‘advanced tramping track’ all the way and we were straight into the infamous ups and downs, hugging the coast for the first few km.
There was no real mud to speak of (by the usual North West Circuit standards) but a few squelchy bits.
At around 11 am we began the climb over Thomson Ridge. It was a short, damp, sticky, tree rooty, reasonably steep and fairly athletic climb with a couple of bits of scrambling. But in the relatively dry conditions, it wasn’t difficult and we really enjoyed it. Forty minutes later we were at the top and enjoyed the relatively flat section, before stopping for a 20-minute lunch break when we got a glimpse of a view over the ranges.
The downhill proved slippery – mainly mossy rocks with a small stream running down the middle and a twisted mass of gnarly, mossy tree roots. We were thankful there were few puddles and little mud.
Back on the flat, the next couple of kilometres seemed to take forever but was just another couple of hours. This part was wetter with some significant muddy bits, but nothing we couldn’t walk around.
We arrived at the 16 bunk Freshwater hut at 2 pm and met Trevor and Marcel. Turned out that Marcel was also a Brit, and from a small town only 15 km away from where I’m from (!). They skipped North Arm hut the day before and arrived at Freshwater shattered, in the dark. Trevor decided he’d bitten off a little more than he could chew and was getting a boat out on the evening high tide. Marcel had taken the side trip up the Rocky Mountain track (3 hr, 5 km return) and was divvying up their food as he was continuing on the circuit.
Freshwater Hut to Mason Bay Hut Stewart Island North West Circuit
- DOC time Freshwater hut to Mason Bay hut: 3 – 4 hours, 15.5 km / Our time: 4 hours 10 mins including 2x 20 min breaks and detour to hunters hut
The Freshwater lowlands is a wetland of international importance covering 75 square km, almost untouched by humans, hosting a spectacular diversity of plants and animals. The track to Mason Bay crosses the wetland, including an area known as the ‘chocolate swamp’ which needs no further explanation. Having crossed the swing bridge from Freshwater hut, the flat and mostly straight track begins in the shade of manuka trees.
About 50 mins later we arrived at the signage telling us not to go further if the water was higher than the marker (at the bottom of the post). We had a bit of a laugh about it, but as we walked on with the low-flow river to our left about 2 metres below the bank, we reflected that we certainly wouldn’t want to be there if it rose up and over the banks!
About half way along the track we met Helen, who was walking the Stewart Island North West Circuit as part of her Te Araroa Trail journey. It was very exciting to be able to chat about TA again and nice to give the legs a rest.
The manuka eventually gave way to flax bushes then tall, swaying grasses and we were finally out into the open and onto the boardwalk of the chocolate swamp – which you certainly wouldn’t want to stray from. The swamp was beautiful and offered excellent views of the entire area. We wondered if it was fern birds we could hear chirping amongst the grasses.
With 3.5 km to go, we were both flagging and our shoulders felt the weight of our packs. We sat down for 15 mins at 5.30 pm and listened to the roar of the ocean in distance. The huge sand dunes of Mason Bay rose up in front of us to the West. We paused at the historic woolshed and Mason Bay homestead and read the information boards about the families who attempted to farm here from 1879, and the difficulties of farming in such a wet, windy, swampy, barren and isolated area.
A little further we met the first of many hunters on the track, had a bit of a yarn, and took a detour to look at the hunters’ huts. If you get time, it’s definitely worth a trip up the ‘Big Sandhill’. We walked it as part of the Southern Circuit a couple of weeks later. It took us an hour and ten minutes return and offers a unique perspective of Mason Bay.
We arrived at the 20 bed Mason Bay hut (separate wing for beds) at 7.10 pm with clean, dry boots. After washing and battling the sandflies at the stream, we ate dinner chatted with Marcel then all went out kiwi-spotting as dusk. Marcel saw one on the track to the homestead, but we didn’t see any close to the hut. We went in as it began to gently rain.
Day 3. Mason Bay Hut to Big Hellfire Hut
- DOC time: 7 hours, 15 km Stewart Island North West Circuit
- Our time: 7 hours 30 mins from Duck Creek Mason Bay, including 40 min wait for tide at Mason Bay headland, kiwi watching, 2x 10 min breaks and 30 mins lunch.
I woke at 6 am to discover someone sleeping on the veranda. I learned from the lads that he arrived at 2.30 am. He’d left far too late from Big Hellfire and again from Little Hellfire hunters hut and ended up making his way in the dark, got drenched, and didn’t know about the high tide headland/high tide route on Mason Bay so had a long wait. He didn’t want to wake anyone by coming into the hut so slept on the cold, windy veranda. We were relieved he’d made it to the hut, but it sounded like he’d probably learned a couple of lessons along the way.
Having donned the raincoats, we left at 8 am on a cold morning in light drizzle and followed Duck Creek to Mason Bay. Just before the beach we climbed the dune to the left and dropped packs on top next to the marker pole. There were spectacular views up and down the 14 km length of Mason Bay which has one of the most extensive sand dune systems in New Zealand. NZ Geographic describes it as ‘arguably the most exposed beach in the country‘. I’d say it’s one of the most beautiful too.
Martins Creek Hunters Hut Stewart Island North West Circuit
We headed a couple of km south down the beach to visit Martins Creek hunters hut. There was an enormous rigid inflatable jet boat on the beach, and as we walked to the hut we met the dad of a lovely North Island family as he was heading down to the beach. We met mum and their beautiful kids at the hut, had a bit of a chat about their hunting expedition before heading back again.
The towering, wind-carved dunes of Mason Bay were spectacular. There was an offshore wind and the waves were rolling into the bay, in perfect giant barrels. We wondered if surfers ever had their gear flown in for an adventure here. (The plane regularly visits Mason Bay in a few locations to drop off walkers and hunters).
Mason Bay to Little Hellfire Beach Stewart Island North West Circuit
Having picked up our packs we headed up the beach. We arrived at the headland at around 10.25 am – 1.5 hrs before low tide, but the waves were still crashing over the rocks at the base of the headland. We took a break and waited until 11 am when we were able to get around. The upper section of the beach above the tide line was made up of beautiful big round rocks which we carefully picked our way over until making our way up to the grasses a couple of km further up.
Picking up a track, we spotted the marker leading us inland over Mason Head to Little Hellfire Beach. From Mason Bay, it was initially a very bashy climb up the hill through the thick bushes and grasses. Light drizzle fell but was too warm for jackets. We got stuck into a steep, dirty, muddy and slippery 200m climb up and over a saddle near Mason Head. This was the first real ‘wet boot’ and significant mud experience so far.
Just as we exited the muddy climb we came face to face with our first Tokoeka – Southern brown kiwi. It ambled out of the bush and I almost tripped over it. The three of us looked at each other stunned before it headed off up the track away from us. We were surprised how big it was, with more of a shaggy cape than feathers. It wandered into the bush and began vigorously poking around in the tree roots next to the track. We got a couple of short videos as below.
Kiwi are endangered, and usually nocturnal. Rakiura is one of the few places where you may see them during the daytime.
After about 20 minutes our kiwi wandered off and we did the same. As we were climbing into the bush we’d seen Marcel make his way around the headland on Mason Bay. He caught up with us about half an hour later as we made our way down to Little Hellfire Beach. (Stewart Island North West Circuit).
It turned cold, wet and windy, so it was coats, hats and gloves on for the brisk walk up the beautiful beach.
We decided to lunch at Little Hellfire Beach Campsite and instead found a hunters hut. The lovely gentlemen inside had just returned from a successful morning and were about to demolish a big breakfast. The hut was full, but they kindly offered us their veranda, gave a chair to the lady and boiled us a kettle for some soup.
Little Hellfire Beach to Big Hellfire Hut
After lunch, it was still drizzling, but it was raincoats off again as we started the long, easy climb towards Big Hellfire hut. This section was pretty muddy, and nothing but mist at the top, but not at all unpleasant. At the high point (Pt 399) near Richard’s Point, we got enough of a phone signal to download the latest weather. The mist made sure we didn’t get any views on the stretch down to Big Hellfire, nor at Big Hellfire hut – which we were sad to miss.
We arrived at the 12 bunk Bill Hellfire hut at 5.30 pm. It was already occupied by Anna a lovely kiwi girl, and summer skipper for Rakiura Adventure water taxis (the blue water taxi/Ulva island boats). Anna had lit a fire and as I set about getting the water on, the boys gathered some wood. No one else arrived, and we spent a relaxed evening chatting and eating.
During the night, I came back from the loo, just as Marcel got up to go. He thought he was seeing things – the deck by the woodshed was glowing in the dark! We found a big piece and turned our head torches on to investigate. Turns out there was some kind of glowing fungi on the branches in the woodpile and wood shards, which I’ve never seen before.
Day 4. Big Hellfire Hut to East Ruggedy Hut
- DOC time: 7 hours, 14 km
- Our time: 7 hours 30 mins including 15 mins break and 1-hour lunch.
Today I celebrated my 50th birthday. My half-century was the main reason for the trip and given that I don’t usually bother with birthdays, I was determined to make this one memorable. We enjoyed a leisurely start and headed down to the dunes for a bit of kiwi-spotting. I was gifted a birthday costume, and even though it weighed at least 300g there was no question I wouldn’t bring it 🙂
We left at 9 am and the first few km were pretty straightforward through the beautiful, mossy, muddy forest. Rich spotted our first kiwi of the day within 20 minutes, half way up the first hill from Big Hellfire hut. The clouds cleared just as we came out into an open section above the magnificent Waituna Bay.
Waituna Bay Stewart Island North West Circuit
It was 10.40 am when we clambered over the huge piles of driftwood and onto the beach. This beauty was one of my favourites with a backdrop of the magnificent Ruggedy Mountains. The sun was out now and we had excellent views of Whenua Hou / Codfish Island – one of only a few places in New Zealand that is home to the critically endangered kākāpō a large flightless parrot. The Kakapo Recovery program works hard to protect these beautiful birds.
After climbing out via the sand dunes from Waituna Bay fifteen minutes later, we were into a gentle gradient mossy forest. Today was a wet boot day but the mud was mostly of the stiffer squelchy kind and nothing like the knee-deep sloppy bog we’d expected. There was nothing we couldn’t easily walk over (ankle deep at most) or easily walk around.
About an hour later as we were nearing the saddle through the Ruggedy mountains, we dropped our packs and scrambled up to the signposted outlook for a 15-minute break. It was well worth a visit with views back over Waituna Bay and across to Whenua Hou. We saw our second kiwi of the day just up from the lookout.
West Ruggedy Beach
By 2.10 pm we were heading down the huge golden sands dunes of West Ruggedy Beach. The sun was out in full force, so we clambered around the dunes and huddled in the shade of some bushes for lunch, close to West Ruggedy beach campsite.
An hour later we wandered down to the beach itself – another incredible and unspoiled paradise. Almost every beach on the Stewart Island North West Circuit could be a contender for the most beautiful beach in NZ. The tide was out, which made walking easier. There was no reason to hurry, so we ambled along a couple of kilometres of golden sand taking in the magnificent views and occasionally (and delightfully) popping nature’s bubble wrap of washed-up seaweed pods.
Half an hour later we spotted the orange marker indicating our exit from the beach and turned inland to the dry, rocky moonscape – which climbed gently to 80m but felt more like 200m. By 4.10 pm it was back into the bush for the last stretch to East Ruggedy hut.
East Ruggedy Hut
We reached ‘The Ritz’ a.k.a. the glorious 12 bunk East Ruggedy hut around 4.30 pm. We were greeted by Kirsty, Jo and Diana (Welly) and Claire (Invercargill, practically a local) – a wonderful, fun bunch of ladies all walking anticlockwise. I found the perfect little tent spot just off the track a short distance down from the hut.
Marcel, Rich and I headed off to explore East Ruggedy beach, but when the oldies saw that it would mean more sand dunes down (then up) from the beach, we flagged the swim in favour of a wash at the little creek not far from the hut. I was caught starkers by a hunter, who was very polite about it. I thought about how fortunate I was to be in a place where you can bathe outdoors, and when a man with a gun walks by – neither of you are bothered about it.
Birthday Celebrations Rakiura Stewart Island North West Circuit
Clean and sparkling in the birthday tiara, I went up to the hut for dinner. It turned out most of the ladies were celebrating a milestone birthday this year too!
We opened the bag of chippies we’d carried for the occasion (sour cream grain waves) along with 250ml of ginger wine, which we could justify as a health drink. Dinner was home-made dehy venison stew, and dessert was home-made dehy cake which rehydrated into a sloppy, cake-tasting mush. But our hut buddies came to the rescue. Marcel had real cake, Claire had a candle and our new friends sang an enthusiastic round of ‘Happy Birthday’. To top it all off, Marcel pulled out a (glass !!) bottle of spiced rum. One thing I love about the Brits is that nowhere is too remote and no amount of effort is too great to muster up a drinking occasion, so we all enjoyed a nip. We spent the evening getting to know each other and still managed to be ready for bed by 8.30 pm.
As my chaperone and I made our way down to the tent, our third kiwi of the day was poking around on the track. It was still light enough to see without torchlight so Rich raced back to the hut – the ladies hadn’t seen a kiwi yet. We spent about ten minutes watching in silence before it wandered off into the bush and we went our respective ways. As I was cleaning my teeth in the light of the half-moon, the kiwi popped out of the bushes right at my feet and we spent ten minutes alone together. It was still poking around the ferns close to the tent as I fell asleep. I am a very lucky girl.
Day 5. East Ruggedy Hut to Long Harry Hut
- DOC time: 6 hours, 9.5 km
- Our time: 6 hours including 15 min break and 40 min lunch
We didn’t have a particularly long or strenuous day ahead, so we got up fairly late and didn’t leave the Ritz until around 9.35 am. We were walking as a pair again today, as Marcel was on a time limit and was double-hutting to Yankee River.
The tide was out at East Ruggedy beach and we wandered up the river for a look. We’d been warned about soft/sinky sand here but didn’t encounter any. It was a solid 200m climb up from the beach, bushy and overgrown with grasses and ferns. It started to rain gently but was too warm for jackets so we sheltered under an impenetrable roof of thick manuka. We made good work of the climb, arriving at the lookout point on the top by 10.45 am.
The lookout at the top was definitely not to be missed. Luckily the clouds cleared and we were lucky enough to get some of the best views of the trip yet, back across the dune system of East Ruggedy beach to the Ruggedy mountains and beyond. If you need a weather update there is also a phone signal there.
From the lookout, it was downhill to the boulder beach which we reached about an hour later. It took us 40 minutes to cross the beach. The tide was low, the wind had calmed and the rocks were nice and grippy and we enjoyed the difference in mind/body experience that comes with boulder/rock hopping.
It was a steep scramble out at the North Eastern end of the beach. We ate lunch on a grassy spot overlooking the beach, under the shelter of the bushes, and it occurred to us that we had experienced minimal sandfly activity on the trip so far.
At 1.40 pm we continued on for the few remaining kilometres to Long Harry hut. From the headland a couple of kilometres away we heard the whirr of a helicopter and caught sight of it leaving the hut through a gap in the trees. The remaining track to Long Harry hut was slippery and slow-going with lots of incised gullies to clamber down and out of. It took us longer than expected to there.
Long Harry Hut
We arrived at the 12 bunk Long Harry hut with dry boots at 3.20 pm.
A party of hunters and lots of gear had been dropped into Long Harry by helicopter. The team was led by a wonderful, strong woman who I first thought was heading up a guided party. Turns out she was “camp mum” to a group of friends – a role comprising of CEO, logistics, operations, health and safety manager, technical specialist, GIS consultant and chef – on arrival day at least.
I put up my tent and we walked the short distance down to the white stone beach. Just before the beach was a stream to the right of the track with perfect plunge pools for bathing. Unfortunately, the sandflies were out in full force, both here and back at the hut.
It was another warm day, so we ate dinner in the shade on the hut veranda, trying to find a breeze so the sandflies didn’t catch us. We headed back to the beach in the evening for a bit of yellow-crested penguin spotting but were driven back by the sandflies.
We went to bed at 8.30 pm. Not long afterward the wind got up considerably and I checked the tent pegs and guy ropes – all good. By 11.30 pm it was gale force and I hadn’t managed to get any sleep as the tent thumped and boomed around me. I’ve experienced numerous storms in my trusty Hilleberg fortress, but this wind was something else!
I gathered up my belongings and took them to the covered vestibule of the hut, where I tried to sleep but the wind found me there too – coming up through the floorboards in huge gusts. At 1.30 am I admitted defeat and went inside. Rich offered to help me take the tent down, and we successfully managed to dismantle it without losing anything, using the following technique: Hold one end – take pole out – lay on tent – grab lines and pegs – count pegs – bundle quickly.
Day 6. Long Harry Hut to Yankee River Hut
- DOC time: 4–5 hours, 8.5 km
- Our time: 4 hours including 15 min break
As the foundations of Long Harry hut shook gently around us, we eventually managed to get some sleep. We woke at 7.30 am when almost everyone else had left for the day. We spent breakfast chatting with a couple of the lads who weren’t keen to go out in the weather yet, then left at 9.35 am.
Today was a cruisy day – only four hours to Yankee River hut. From Long Harry hut we headed down to the beach again then up through the manuka and a gentle climb to 180m before heading down to the beautiful estuary at Smoky beach.
We took the high tide route and cursed the amount of hook grass there. By 11 am we were crossing the swing bridge estuary and popped into the unoccupied hunters hut for a look and a break without sandflies.
Smoky Beach was beautiful with enormous waves crashing up towards us. It was still extremely windy but at least it was behind us, sandblasting our legs. A storm was threatening, and we made our way up the beach to the dunes three-quarters of the way along. The exit off the beach was easily missable with the first marker barely visible, but as we headed inland we found the line of white marker poles guiding us to the trees.
It felt like a never-ending climb out of the dunes but was only 260m. The early part was spent bashing through head-high grasses and bushes, which gave way to more beautiful mossy forest. The rest of the track was undulating downhill towards Yankee River and we enjoyed listening to the numerous kakariki and bellbirds.
We crossed the three-wire bridge over Yankee River and arrived at the 16 bunk Yankee River hut at 1.30 pm. Another dry feet day successfully completed on the North West Circuit – we could hardly believe it.
Yankee River Hut
Yankee River was my favourite hut yet, with a beautiful lawn and a tidal river outside and the main room with 2 sets of bunkrooms on the inside. It was located in a glorious setting a short walk to the beautiful sheltered, shell-strewn bay. We dropped our packs and wandered down to the beach. It was sunny and warm with millions of sandflies. We donned our mossie head nets for the very first time. At only 20g they are a welcome and permanent addition to my tramping kit.
We headed back to the hut and ate our lunch whilst watching the seagull and oystercatcher families stake their claim to the best fishing spots in the river. I would thoroughly recommend Yankee River for a half days’ rest. We spent the afternoon lazily playing Yahtzee in the sun and wandering to and from the beach. I gave the outdoor sink the best clean it had seen for at least a year, while Rich made a fishing line and tried his luck from the rocks.
No one else arrived at the hut, and I slept the best sleep I’ve had in months.
If lack of time had forced us to double-hut on this side of the island, we reflected that the best option would be East Ruggedy to Yankee River (skipping Long Harry) if daylight, good weather and tide permitted.
Day 7. Yankee River Hut to Christmas Village Hut
- DOC time: 6 hours, 12 km
- Our time: 5 hours 20 mins including 20 mins lunch
Today was the easiest day so far. A lovely, slow amble through the forest. We slept in and started walking at 9.30 am straight into a very gentle 100m climb. The track was wide and mostly in decent condition with the usual ups and downs into little streams. There were lots of wooden/tree trunk steps built into the track. We nicknamed it ‘the greasy challenge’ as they were slick with moss, mud or dew, and it was much easier to walk around them.
We heard numerous kakariki chattering in the canopy above and wondered if they would be interested in the bird caller. We stopped and gave it a go and managed to tempt bellbirds, tomtit a warbler and a fantail over instead.
By 11.30 am we walked the 5 km or so to Lucky Beach, where we were easily able to cross along the rocks at the top. We ate an early lunch on the grass at the far end of Lucky Beach, donning our mossie head nets again for a sandfly-free experience.
The Wasp Nest
The afternoon was equally as easy, though the forest with no major obstacles and just a few small streams to cross. The ladies of East Ruggedy, and the Yankee River hut book warned us of a wasp nest on this section a couple of km before Christmas Village hut. We waypointed it – but if you’re coming from Christmas Village you won’t see it before you’re upon it – a couple of the ladies were stung.
We saw the hole in the bank on the opposite side of the stream, with hundreds of wasps streaming out of it. We bashed right, to a small waterfall, crossed there and popped back out onto the track again. We made a sign on the track for the next anti- clockwise walkers and continued on.
Christmas Village Hut Rakiura Stewart Island North West Circuit
It was only another couple of kilometres from the wasp nest to Christmas Village hut. We passed the sign to Hananui / Mt Anglem and took the boardwalk down to the beach. We arrived at the 12 bunk Christmas Village hut at 2.50 pm – another dry boot day.
We left the packs and went down to the southern end of the bay to wash in the river. Little Mt Anglem can be seen from the beach, and we hoped for continued good weather for our trip up Hananui/Mt Anglem tomorrow.
Back at the hut, we discovered there was phone reception, so we got a weather report and played cards for the afternoon. We enjoyed the last of the sun on the grass overlooking the ocean, with a view of the mainland. We had the hut to ourselves again. After dinner, we had a spring clean. Rich cleaned the windows and I went up and cleaned the toilet.
I Cleaned the DOC Hut Toilet
If you walked the North West Circuit during the summer of 2022, it won’t have escaped your attention that the Christmas Village hut toilet was single-handedly letting down the entire toilet experience with its bog-fly-ridden, filthy, nastiness… There was a bucket, a good brush, some DOC disinfectant and a cloth, so I got stuck into my good deed for the month.
If you know me, you also know I am very thorough in my work, and this was no exception. When I finished the walls gleamed, the seat and lid were fresh, clean and dry, all flies eradicated and you could have eaten your dinner off the (broken) floor. The only disappointment was that I didn’t take before and after photos. I believe I might be entitled to a lifetime DOC hut pass for such a selfless act 🙂
Day 8. Side trip: Christmas Village Hut to Hananui/Mt Anglem
- DOC time: 6 hours, 11 km (return)
- Our time: 6 hours 45 mins from the junction. 2 hours 40 mins each way and 1 hour 25 mins on the summit
It was a cracker of a day for the 980m (3,215 ft) climb to the summit of Hananui / Mt Anglem, the highest point on Rakiura Stewart Island.
We left the hut at 9.40 am and ten minutes later were back at the signpost for the Mt Anglem turnoff with 100m elevation already done. The climb continued steadily up through a tree rooty, boggy trench for a significant portion with a few scrambles here and there. The track fell into roughly three sections – the forest, the manuka/bushy section and the subalpine/above the bush line.
By 11 am we reached 500m elevation where we took a quick break. We enjoyed our first good views around a couple of flat, swampy areas a little further on. I generally love a big climb, but to be honest I found walking a tree-rooty ditch quite tedious and didn’t really enjoy it so much, until it all changed above the tarn, around 780m. Rich liked it though, so don’t let me put you off.
From the tarn onwards it was glorious – a rocky alpine garden with absolutely superb views which got better and better. It took a further hour and a half to reach the summit from the tarn, quite deceptive because it doesn’t look far on the map. To be fair, we did stop every few minutes to take photos and marvel at our surroundings.
Hananui Mt Anglem Summit Rakiura Stewart Island North West Circuit
We reached the summit at 12.30 pm and between the cloud swirls were rewarded with stunning views of the island. We were really glad we’d walked the North West Circuit clockwise because now we could identify the landmarks we’d walked over the past week, and it was great to reminisce.
The cloud gradually cleared, and we wandered off around the large flat summit to see the island from as many of the rocky high points as possible. We mulled over the potential of an overnighter up here. It would be great to explore the high ridges heading off to the South and West.
It was pretty windy on the summit, so we sheltered behind a large rock for lunch. We ate the last of the outstanding ‘sausage press deli company‘ pork and fennel salami (one of the successes of our trip! Drier than most and keeps well for 10 days in the heat). As we ate our lunch a helicopter flew below us and around to the East Ruggedy direction, and we saw it return via the swamp flats down the centre of the island. It headed out a second time and we wondered if it was dropping hunters and gear in.
We gradually cooled down and ended up in jumpers and jackets. We left the summit at 1.55 pm and saw numerous skinks on our way back down to the lake. From there, going downhill was as tedious as going up had been (for me at least). We reached the junction at 4.30 pm.
When we arrived back at the hut, some lovely new hut buddies had arrived – Bex and Max (Kiwi/German) on a side trip from Te Araroa trail and Rebecca and Benji (Auckland). We enjoyed an evening eating and chatting, before enjoying another early night.
Day 9. Christmas Village Hut to Bungaree Hut
- DOC time: 6 hours, 11.5 km
- Our time: 5 hours 10 mins including a detour to hunters hut and 20 mins lunch
It was another easy, unhurried day ahead, so we had a leisurely breakfast and left the Christmas Village hut at around 9.25 am. After about twenty minutes, we took a left and popped down to investigate the hunters hut on Christmas Village Bay. Twenty minutes later we were back on track.
The track was very similar to yesterday, through the forest full of birdsong with no major climbs, but small ups and downs in and out of the gullies. There was a fairly long, straight flat section before Murray beach which had some random boardwalks and some muddy sections.
Murray Beach Rakiura Stewart Island North West Circuit
At midday, we crossed the bridge just north of Murray Beach and had a quick chat with the guys at the hunters hut. It was cold, windy and spitting on Murray Beach so we piled on the warm layers and hurried down the golden sand. The weather meant that we probably didn’t appreciate it as much as some of the other beaches, but it was another unspoiled delight, with kiwi prints dotted around the dunes.
Fifty minutes later we were glad to get into the shelter of the trees again and climbed up a little before finding a relatively dry spot for lunch.
The afternoon continued through the forest to Bungaree hut, with a giant fallen tree providing the best entertainment and further on, the realisation (when we crossed a bridge with a handrail over a tiny stream) that we must be close to Bungaree hut and great walk territory. We reached the hut at 2.35 pm.
The 16 bunk Bungaree hut at the north end of Bungaree Bay was another beauty. It was exactly the same hut as Yankee River, except on an incredible golden sand beach fringed by forest.
We met Masio (Welly) a cheerful, friendly, interesting all-round good guy, who was enjoying an extended trip on the island whilst getting to grips with a spot of bow hunting (a recent endeavour). We got a fire going as the temperature had dropped considerably over the day and played a Yahtzee challenge until bedtime.
Day 10. Bungaree Hut to Halfmoon Bay, Oban (via Port William hut)
- DOC time: Bungaree hut to Port William hut: 3–4 hours, 6 km / Our Time: 2 hours 30 mins
- DOC time: Port William hut to Half Moon Bay (Oban) via Lee Bay: 4 hours 12 kms / Our Time: 3 hours 30 mins including 30 mins lunch at Māori Beach and time at Lee Bay
It was hard to believe this was our final day! The whole trip had flown by without any drama or too much difficulty. We were sad this part of the adventure was coming to an end, but equally as excited that we had a day of rest then the Southern Circuit to look forward to.
We left Bungaree hut at 9 am for the walk up Big Bungaree Beach with our coats and gloves on. The temperature seemed to have dropped ten degrees since yesterday. The tide was out and we had a quick explore around some of the little rocky islands in the bay.
Like the past couple of days, the beautiful forest track was gently undulating, but today had the added bonus of occasional boardwalk, steps and bridges – what a treat! The time passed quickly as the track was easygoing, and when we dropped down onto Sawyers Beach we knew Port William was just a short distance away.
We arrived at the 24 bunk Port William hut at 11.35 am. No one was around except for the hut deer, so we took our boots off and had a quick break inside. Port William hut and campsite are also part of the Rakiura Great Walk, so must be booked in advance if you’d like to stay.
Port William hut to Halfmoon Bay (Oban) via Lee Bay
- DOC time: 4 hours, 12 km
- Our time: 4 hours including 30 mins lunch and a stop at Lee Bay
We left Port William hut at 11.50 am. The final stretch to Lee Bay was along the pristine Rakiura Great Walk track, but still had its fair share of ups and downs. We met numerous great walkers, and just before the bridge at the north end of Māori Beach chatted to a couple of guys from Nelson just starting their North West Circuit. We hoped the weather would be as kind to them as it had been for us.
We stopped at the Māori Beach Great Walk campsite for lunch and enjoyed the lovely surroundings. We got going again at 1.20 pm and were able to step across the river at the end without getting wet boots.
At 2 pm we arrived at the beach at Little River and thought we’d give the beach walk a go. We couldn’t be bothered to go up the 40m high tide route and thought this would be our last micro-adventure, so we took our boots off and waded across the bay, narrowly avoiding wet shorts. We sat at the bridge on the southern end and washed the sand off our feet.
We reached Lee Bay at 2.30 pm and walked under the chain link which signifies the physical and spiritual connection between Stewart Island and the South Island. We stayed a while at Lee Bay and read the beautiful plaques in the anchor stone and footpath there. It was actually quite emotional for me, having completed Te Araroa Trail a few years ago, now standing here having completed this beautiful circuit too.
The remaining couple of kilometres were along the road back to Halfmoon Bay and Oban. We had walked most of it before the North West Circuit as part of another walk around Horseshoe Point. It was cold and windy, but we got stuck into it and by 3.50 pm were settling down to a well-deserved beer in the South Sea Hotel with Masio (who had water taxi’d from Bungaree hut).
- We usually use one pole for tramping but were very glad we took two on this trip.
- The weather reports (from numerous sources) were mostly inaccurate. Assume it’ll be a bit sunny, rainy, windy, warm and cold.
- We would definitely recommend a mossie headnet. You look like a dork, but they make for a pleasant lunch experience and weigh next to nothing.
- Toilet roll – I took one for 10 days and had plenty left. Ladies – use a pee cloth not toilet roll for pees.
- Gas – A 230g canister lasted two of us 5-6 days with the pocket rocket.
- Take a photo of tide times at the DOC office in Oban. We used it heaps. (Include the note re. Mason bay -2 hours on Oban tide times).
- We stayed in the Stewart Island Backpackers during our visit. Very friendly helpful staff, clean and tidy with a very clean and well-stocked kitchen. We stayed in rooms and camped there and left our other belongings there while we walked.
- The chips from the Kai cart in Oban are much better than the chips from the pub/South Sea Hotel.
Rakiura Stewart Island North West Circuit / Southern Circuit – Gear List
Excellent write-up, and brilliant photos. I saw your post on the NZ Tramping Facebook page and came over to read your blog. You describe Rakiura, the scenery and the experience beautifully. It certainly brought back a lot of good memories. We (The Moa Hunters) did the NW Circuit back in 2015 and thought it was amazing. Our choice was also to go clockwise, although we cheated a bit and skipped the walk from Oban to Freshwater hut and caught a water taxi. We did the Southern circuit this year, but I haven’t finished the write-up of that one yet!
I’ll link to our account of the walk below, but WordPress will likely strip it I suspect…
Hi Adam – Ah! Moa Hunters!! I read & enjoyed your blog too beforehand, will definitely re-read it. Saw you in the hut books too I think