Rakiura Stewart Island Southern Circuit – Clockwise
During the summer of 2022, I was lucky enough to spend three wonderful weeks on Rakiura / Stewart Island for some quality tramping, including this four-day three-night stunner around the Southern Circuit. If you’re a fit, experienced, well-equipped tramper and have already ticked off the North West Circuit, this one is definitely worth a crack too.
As I mentioned in my post on the North West Circuit, the summer of 2022 was a drought year which was unfortunately pretty hard on the locals, but great for tramping. Out of any of the main tracks on Rakiura / Stewart Island, the Southern Circuit is the most infamous for serious mud and is prone to significant flooding in the low-lying areas. We thought we’d be wading through knee-to-thigh-deep mud, but only had one wet boot day out of the four.
These were NOT normal conditions, so prepare for the wind, rain, mud and not much in the way of views.
Check out the excellent DoC brochure for detailed timings. As with the North West Circuit, we found the DoC times for the Southern Circuit to be pretty similar to our pace. Be sure to visit the DoC Office in Oban to check current track conditions and tide times, and if you don’t have a hut pass remember to buy your hut tickets.
Southern Circuit, North West Circuit or Both?
I walked the Southern Circuit with a buddy. He carried his two-person tent on this circuit and we both carried our respective gear and shared the food. Upon planning our Rakiura trip we were originally looking at walking the North West and Southern in one tramp, but as we had three weeks on the island there seemed no point in rushing either.
I have friends who walked both circuits together in 8-9 days, on speedy double-hut missions (skipping one hut, staying at the next etc.). On our North West Circuit we also met a very strong young lady carrying a mammoth pack (which must have been +25kgs) who successfully completed both circuits in one tramp, although I’m not sure how many days it took her. I can recommend walking two separate trips not only to help with the weight but also because they are both so beautiful and varied, you won’t want to rush either of them.
Our Route Rakiura Stewart Island Southern Circuit
Here’s where I admit that we cheated ever so slightly and didn’t complete the entire loop of the Southern Circuit. We didn’t walk the Freshwater to Fred’s Camp section as the boat couldn’t drop us to Freshwater due to low tide on day one. At least that’s our excuse. We could have walked it at the end, but we didn’t fancy another day of lowland river/swamp, which we assumed would be fairly similar but MUCH boggier than the Mason Bay to Freshwater section which, by then, we’d have walked twice already. Our almost-loop was 61.5 km. (We didn’t walk the side trip up Mt Rakeahua).
Day 1. Freds Camp Hut to Rakeahua Hut
- DoC time: 5 hours, 12 km
- Our time: 6 hours including 30 mins break (and lots faffing in mud and water)
The sun was rising over the crystal clear water of Golden Bay as we boarded our 9 am Rakiura Adventures water taxi (the blue water taxis) to Freds Camp. Our Stewart Island Southern Circuit began with our paths crossing again with Anna our skipper, who we’d met at Big Hellfire hut on the North West Circuit about 10 days earlier.
Our serene morning certainly didn’t reflect Anna’s busy day ahead, filled with multiple Ulva Island pick-ups and drop-offs, and water taxiing trampers to various parts of the island. We dropped the first tourists of the day at Ulva Island then shot over to Freds Camp.
We said our goodbyes at 9.35 am and popped into the 10 bunk Freds Camp hut. We dropped off a bit of kit for the Environment Southland team doing some work there and had a quick chat with a hunting party who were preparing to exit – gear scattered all around. A day or so earlier they met the girl who’d been walking the Northern and Southern back to back, with her (now not so) massive pack and they too admired her strength and determination.
As I lifted my pack onto my shoulder I heard the dreaded sound of fabric ripping. I’d been here before on my Te Araroa Trail adventure with my first iteration of this same pack so I already knew what was wrong. Even though the pack itself is practically indestructible (and I treat her like a princess) there’s a point of weakness in the fabric just below the strap, which had torn.
I delved into my repair kit, glad I’d beefed up my quality of sewing thread before this tramp, but it was difficult to sew as it was so close to the stiff back panel. We pointlessly discussed how useful it would be to have a curved needle right now, and I spent fifteen minutes doing my best.
With 99% certainty my pack would last the trip, we set off at 10 am up the hill through the mossy forest. The track was a regular tramping track, nothing too muddy, difficult or strenuous and we followed the coast heading west up the South West Arm of Whaka a Te Wera / Paterson Inlet to the Rakeahua River. It was business as usual – tree roots, numerous small ups and downs, crossing little streams and admiring the occasional views of the inlet and the sights and sounds of the forest. We got an up-close experience with a kākāriki minding his own business in the lower branches rather than the high treetops where they usually hang out.
We spent ages walking ‘just a bit further’ to find the perfect lunch spot and found it in a sun-dappled glade just where the giants of the forest gave way to tall, swaying manuka and the track met the coast.
I don’t enjoy a suffer-fest, but I secretly hoped our this trip might harden me up a bit. Generally speaking, I’m a fair-weather tramper, and as it turned out this trip was hardly an exception. We expected Rakiura to throw some storms our way or at least provide some fun stories about losing legs in mud.
The closest we came thus far was a couple of kilometres before Rakeahua hut when things started to get a bit wet underfoot. Firstly, we found a couple of nice muddy puddles which looked unusually sloppy. We could easily walk around them, but I thought I’d give one a bit of a prod with my pole, just to see. It ate my entire pole… Woah! so this is what all the fuss was about!
Undeterred, we walked around the bottomless quagmire and came to a large bog, or was it a stream? We hoped a stream, so we took our boots off and waded through. Thankfully it was just a stream, but with a bit of a sinky bottom.
Track Prone to Flooding Stewart Island Southern Circuit
It became quickly apparent that there was going to be more water than not on the track, so we left the boots on. The high tide had fully submerged the track – full moon we also recalled. What if we found more bottomless bog underwater? It added an element of excitement that we hadn’t had in our two weeks on Rakiura yet, so we sploshed our way along, trying to perch on the solid bits.
The DoC brochure had warned us that this section was liable to flooding and here we were after eight weeks with no rain. Under ‘normal’ conditions this must get pretty deep.
Rich went first, with the added bonus of being able to see what he was walking into. I went second, into muddied water with the added bonus of potentially seeing Rich drop into a deep bog. We agreed that if anything happened the order of events for the other would be to get the camera out, then attempt a rescue if it didn’t mean you got sucked in too.
Our poles were only useful to feel around for tree roots, branches or slightly more solid ground. They were useless for stability or balance as they sank straight down, deep into the swampy goo as soon as you put any weight on them. The water was bum deep in one section (for me) which was thankfully mostly water and only ankle-deep mud.
After the soaking, the track departed the coast and headed inland across some beautiful, scrubby open flats with a decidedly Jurassic Park feel about it, before reaching the cute 6 bunk Rakeahua hut shortly afterward.
At the hut, we met Dave, a friendly, hardcore adventure guy, who had been volunteering for DoC down at Port Pegasus and had made his way up and over the Tin Range to get here. He was carrying a pack raft and was intending to head to Doughboy and back for an adventure before pack rafting back to Oban. We spent the evening bombarding him with questions. By bedtime, the Tin Range route shot to the top of Rich’s list of must-do tramps. It was a ‘tentative’ for me. An unmaintained, unmarked, bush-bash slog through dense, overgrown, drag-yourself-though-it scrub isn’t generally my cup of tea. But it did sound pretty special, and it would certainly harden me up.
In the evening we wandered back down to the Rakeahua Landing for a bit of kiwi-spotting, but even though we heard one close by, it didn’t come out of the bushes for us. As we walked back we heard our first morepork of the trip.
Day 2. Rakeahua Hut to Doughboy Bay Hut
- DoC time: 8 hours, 16 km.
- Our time: 7 hours 45 mins including 1-hour lunch
We left Rakeahua hut at 8.15 am and headed west through the manuka forest. The track started out dry but after fifteen minutes became progressively boggier. The DoC notes warned that after heavy rain this part of the track could become waist-deep in water! We crossed the bridge over the Rakeahua River thirty minutes after leaving the hut and having successfully managed to walk around all the mud.
After the bridge, we entered a forest thick with crown ferns and followed the true right of the river. Although this was essentially a flat section, there was the usual tree-rooty goodness, undulations and little stream crossings. We heard a kākā and plenty of kākāriki.
About an hour later, the forest opened up to a ferny, boggy area with small tarns and some great views of Doughboy Hill ahead. We picked a dry path across the wet area but were conscious that a foot could quite easily plunge through the spongy, unstable crust.
Back into the beautiful mossy forest, we encountered a few deeper, wet gullies and steeper scrambles. We loved it – especially when the track met the Rakeahua River, coloured brown with tanins.
Doughboy Hill Rakiura Stewart Island Southern Circuit
We began the ascent up Doughboy Hill at 11.50 am. Nothing too taxing, climbing a few hundred metres over several kilometres. By 12.30 pm it was back out into the open and the climb continued. The morning cloud had cleared and we were treated to marvellous views back to the South West Arm, Rakeahua and the rounded granite domes of the Tin Range.
Initially, the state of the track was pretty good, but as we climbed it worsened somewhat and we nicknamed it ‘The Boneyard’ for all the spiked, jagged, parched roots crisscrossing the track. Thankfully it was mostly dry with the occasional shallow mud puddle in between. It would be a nightmare in the wet.
The top of Doughboy Hill was a little boggy in parts and we carefully hopped our way over the more solid, springy patches and avoided wet feet. We sat down for lunch at 1.30 pm for an hour. Dave caught us up and we enjoyed the sun and the breeze. It was hard to imagine suffering the Southern Circuit in gales and rain with no visibility.
We dragged ourselves back onto our feet at 2.30 pm and crested Doughboy Hill. The views down to Doughboy Bay were incredible and made even more special that aside from a few hunters out there somewhere, we were probably the only people around for as far as we could see.
The couple of kilometres downhill was a steeper, slippery, rocky, tree-rooty affair, punctuated by some deep, water or mud-filled hollows. But at there were trees to hang onto either side of the channel, and we made fairly quick work of it. We were on the flat by 3.40 pm.
If you’ve heard of Doughboy Bay it is every bit as lovely as you’ve probably imagined. Another day on Rakiura and another golden-sand paradise with sparkling clear water, reflecting another blue sky.
Just before Doughboy hut, we popped in to take a look at a small cave in the cliffs, which in 1978 was home to Japanese lady Keiko Agatsuma for a week. She had visited New Zealand and Stewart Island to get away from it all but was discovered (unwell) by some hunters. They persuaded her to come out but after having treatment she was later deported for overstaying her visa. At the time, it caused a bit of a stir internationally in the media. She couldn’t have chosen a nicer spot though.
Doughboy Bay Hut
We reached the 8-bunk Doughboy Bay hut at 4 pm. I particularly loved the sealion gate and hoped it wouldn’t be necessary. The hut was in a bit of a state, so we swept the floor and bed platforms to get rid of all the sand.
Even though the day hadn’t been too strenuous, we thought we’d better have a wash given that we hadn’t bothered yesterday, and wandered off down the beach towards the headland. The wind had blown up and there was a definite chill in the air. We had a quick wash in the cold, freshwater stream at the end of the beach and hurried back, the wind keeping the sandflies away. If you have time, you can walk around the headland, but we were cold and hungry so headed back for dinner. We ticked off another dry boot day.
Day 3. Doughboy Bay Hut to Martins Creek Hunters Hut (Via Kilbride and Cavalier Hunters Hut)
- DoC time: 7 hours, 18 km – Doughboy to Mason Bay Hut
- Our time: 8 hours 45 minutes – Doughboy to Martins Creek – including 1 hour 40 minutes break
From Doughboy Bay Hut
We woke to another blue-sky day on day three of the Southern Circuit and left Doughboy Bay hut at 8.15 am with a spring in our step. Up the beach and into the forest, we walked above the stream we’d washed in yesterday. We wish we’d explored a little further up, as beyond all the logs was a beautiful pool and a small waterfall. The track crossed the low stream shortly after, and we easily stepped across the rocks. Then it was straight into the climb up and over Adams Hill.
With Adams Hill only being a couple of kilometres northwest of Doughboy Hill, it was as steady going up as yesterday had been going down. Today’s track started in much better condition and we really enjoyed it – getting into the short, steep initial climb and admiring the all-shades-of-green mossy forest. It turned tree-rooty and muddy for a short stint, which we were able to walk over or around without too much trouble.
Tarns and Bog
At 9.45 am and at around 360m we came out into the open bushy tops. The next stretch remained fairly flat and much wetter around several beautiful tarns. We imagined that under normal (wet) conditions that the entire section around the top of Adams Hill is the true test of mettle, where the Southern Circuit gets gnarly and puts you through its paces. Today, in perfect conditions after an eight-week drought we were able to easily find the firmer areas of ground.
The walk around the tarns led up to probably the worse section of track we’d seen on both the Northwest and Southern circuit. A tree-rooty, sloppy mud monstrosity, which thankfully we could also detour around. The number of people who ’embrace the mud’ on Rakiura must be few and far between because from what we saw, the numerous side-trails, off-shoots and ways around were a testament to most people doing the opposite. Ploughing straight through the deep, dark, stinking depths would be a gruelling, tedious and energy-sapping effort.
At 10.10 am a couple of hours after leaving Doughboy Bay, we reached the first peak on Adams Hill, dropped our packs and climbed the rock outcrop. We enjoyed a quick break with the spectacular views across the island, down to the Ernest Islands and up the full length of Mason Bay to the Ruggedy Range. To the south, we heard the distant hum of a plane and saw it descend into Doughboy Bay.
The track to the 401m peak of Adams Hill wound its way over gently undulating terrain and continued in boggy, tree-rooty, fashion but most of the mud was fairly solid and we only sank ankle-deep at most into the stiff sludge which didn’t ooze any water. We left the sloppy stuff well alone and found alternative paths around the waterlogged areas.
Adams Hill Rakiura Stewart Island Southern Circuit
There is a famous ‘split apple’ rock in Tasman Bay which draws visitors from far and wide. The peak of Adams Hill has a much smaller ‘almost-split-apple-rock’ with outstanding views (if you’re lucky enough to get them) which far exceed those of its northern cousin. I guess it’s partly the 360-degree panorama, partly because of the solitude, and also the added sense of accomplishment of having earned the view.
The mud continued after the peak for some time but after about half an hour we found a dry stretch in the manuka forest and had an early lunch. The long, gentle downhill was very civilised and wasn’t too tree-rooty. We were able to walk over most of the hard-packed mud. Bashing through the final stretch of overgrown ferns and grasses, we reached the sand dunes 500m or so before the coast at 1.40 pm.
The track was clearly marked through the dunes and as we neared the coast we kept an eye out for a not too bashy path to the beach about a kilometre before the Cavalier hunters hut. Then we came across a giant arrow that someone had laid out on the ground with sticks, indicating just such a path. We took it and popped out onto a sand cliff above Mason Bay.
Kilbride Homestead Rakiura Stewart Island Southern Circuit
A small tidal dilemma presented itself upon the sand cliff. Our intention was to go and have a look at Kilbride Homestead 1.5 km to the south with a high tide due and the occasional big wave already approaching the cliffs. We figured that if we got to Kilbride and the walk back wasn’t immediately possible, we’d only have to wait an hour for the tide to go down anyway, so we continued on.
There was a well-marked trail off the beach and a short walk beside the creek up to the homestead. Note that this isn’t run by DoC, so you can’t just turn up and get a bed, but accommodation can be booked in advance. On our return, the tide was fine and didn’t come all the way up the beach. By 2.40 pm we were making our way back and towards Cavalier hunters hut.
Cavalier Hunters Hut
Clouds formed and the wind got up as we walked back up Mason Bay. It was as stark and beautiful as it had been on the North West Circuit 12 days earlier and the giant dune system at Duck Creek was suitably impressive from this distance. A buoy hanging on a large driftwood tree trunk indicated the turn-off up Cavalier Creek towards the hunters hut.
I had been hanging on to go to the loo, with the thought of a comfortable, sit-down-pee hopefully making it worth the wait. The large cloud of blowflies billowing outside the toilet soon erased that fantasy! We popped into the rustic hut for a look and immediately loved it. Outside the sandflies were horrendous, and the sun had warmed the hut nicely so we decided to take a decent break inside and boiled some water for a soup.
Martins Creek Hunters Hut
We had to practically drag ourselves out of the Cavalier hunters hut and at around 4 pm headed back up Mason Bay. The sun came back out intermittently, sweeping the bay with flashes of bright colour.
We ambled, not wanting the walk to end, and reached the turnoff for Martins Creek hunters hut at 5 pm. We had already popped in for a look last time we were at Mason Bay, but this time we were visiting Masio who we’d met at Bungaree hut on the North West Circuit. It was great to catch up and swap stories of our last few days’ adventures.
Day 4. Mason Bay Hut to Freshwater hut
- DoC time: 3 – 4 hours, 15.5 km
- Our time: 4 hours including 1 hour break
We said goodbye to Masio at 9.30 am and headed up Mason Bay to Duck Creek. Mason Bay had been pretty good to us each time we’d set foot upon the golden sands during the past couple of weeks, but this last time was something else. Hardly a cloud in the sky, a strong offshore wind and waves barrelling straight in, sending up sheets of spray.
We didn’t want our three weeks on Rakiura to be over and it was hard to believe that in a few days, we’d be going home. We lingered on the beach looking for treasure, thinking for the hundredth time how lucky we were to be here. The 20-bunk Mason Bay hut was empty when we arrived at 10.40 am, but a quick look in the hut book told us it had been busy overnight. We enjoyed a break on the veranda, used the facilities and were on our way.
The Big Sandhill Rakiura Stewart Island Southern Circuit
If you have time at Mason Bay, it is definitely worth climbing the Big Sandhill about 1.5 km inland from the hut. If you haven’t got time, you should make time (about an hour and a half).
We left Mason Bay hut at 10.40 am, crossed the bridge heading inland, then took the path to the right. We dropped our packs in the bushes and followed the track which led us out onto the sand dunes. A pink buoy opposite marked the entrance/exit to the bush track. Once on the dunes, we followed our noses straight up to the sandhill, keeping generally to the right (to the south) and heading up to a saddle before turning left up into the tall grasses and flaxes.
We found a great lookout point on top and took in the impressive views down the dune system to Mason Bay, the Ernest Islands, Whenua Hou / Codfish Island, the swampy Freshwater lowlands and the mountains beyond.
Mason Bay to Freshwater
The side trip had taken just over an hour, and it was 11.50 am when we picked up our packs and started walking the 15 km flat track to Freshwater. This time we walked in the opposite direction (to the North West Circuit a couple of weeks before). Because there had been no significant rain, the track was even drier than last time and we enjoyed it just as much through the homestead, the manuka and flaxes the chocolate swamp and beside the river. Note that during normal weather conditions, this track is very muddy and can often flood.
We took a long lunch in the manuka forest after the chocolate swamp and listened to the bellbirds give a full repertoire of just about every song they had, chattering and trilling to each other as they searched for bugs in the bark of the trees. It was a nice easy 15 km and at 3.45 pm we were back at the 16 bunk Freshwater hut. We met a hunter there, and a lovely party of four everso-slightly drained walkers, who had just completed their first tramp having been dropped in at Mason Bay. What a great place to start your tramping career!
I chatted with the hunter who filled me in on his hunting adventures and also told me a dreadful story of his discovering numerous piles of human excrement, uncovered, around various locations close to the long drop toilet at the hut. He had a pretty good idea who it belonged to as he’d heard them talking about the state of the toilet the day before (which actually wasn’t bad at all – it was just a long drop). I was almost as horrified to hear the story as he was to discover it. It goes without saying that you should poo in a loo and know what to do if there isn’t one. Ladies, please also take a pee cloth/pee rag with you instead of using paper for pees. (I use half a chux kitchen wipe which I tie to the outside of my pack and rinse every night).
Water Taxi to Oban
We chatted with the other walkers at the jetty, and right on time, our (pre-arranged) water taxis arrived to pick us up. We were collected by Anna and enjoyed our journey back along the Freshwater River, winding through the forest before coming out into Paterson inlet.
What an incredible trip! We will definitely be back to Rakiura Stewart Island! I will have to pluck up the courage to bush-bash my way over the Tin Range, and it would be great to volunteer for DoC down at Pegasus Bay one day.
- Spend as much time on Rakiura as you possibly can.
- Check out some of the shorter walks close to Oban. All the ones we walked were great! Golden Bay Track, Ackers Point, Ryans Creek and Horseshoe Bay (and there are plenty more).
- Ulva Island is lovely and has a very easy network of tracks. We spent 4 hours there and saw heaps of birds, but you’ll need to lose the crowds, be patient, remain silent and let the birds come.
- The museum in Oban is excellent.
- The Sunday quiz at the pub is really fun.
- I spent a morning carving a beautiful stone with Dave at Rakiura Jade.
- Try all the eateries 😊
- See my North West Circuit post for some other random notes