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Stewart Island/Rakiura: New Zealand's Isle of Blushing Skies, and its Tracks (Part Two: Into the West)

Published
November 18, 2021
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In case you haven’t read Part 1 of this post, it is here. If you have, read on!

The northern part of Stewart Island/Rakiura, with Codfish Island / Whenua Hou at top left. From DOC Brochure ‘North West and Southern Circuit Tracks, Rakiura National Park’, February 2017.

On my latest trip, I finally had a go at the North West Circuit. This involved a fast water taxi ride from Golden Bay, just south of Oban on Paterson Inlet, westward to Freshwater Landing opposite the Freshwater Hut, well up the Freshwater River (it’s all in the map above).

From a signboard at the landing

Freshwater Hut

It was about a four hour hike to Mason Bay Hut, through a flat wilderness between three ranges of low mountains. The first part of the hike is in the Freshwater Valley, which according to a signboard I saw, “supports a wetland of international importance.”

On the way from Freshwater Hut to Mason Bay

Mason Bay is a huge bay on the west coast of Stewart Island. Just before you get there, on the way in from the Freshwater Valley, you come to the Island Hill Run, a working sheep farm (‘run’) from just over a hundred years from 1884 till 1985. The now-retired farm has a historic homestead, plus New Zealand’s most southerly woolshed!

The Island Hill Station woolshed

DOC conservation workers stay at the run. One of the things they are doing in this area is to try and eliminate the marram grass planted in sheep-farming days. The farmers planted marram to stabilise the invading sand dunes that otherwise kept blowing inland from Mason Bay onto the pasture. The trouble is that the marram grass is not native, and invading sand dunes are in fact the natural ecology in this area.

From Island Hill Run it is just a little further to Mason Bay Hut, which is near the bay of the same name but not quite on it.

Mason Bay Hut

Mason Bay Hut has been enlarged lately. It now has twenty bunks on a no-booking,first-come-first-served basis.

It is also quite swept-up inside, as huts go.

Mason Bay Hut Interior

The stove inside Mason Bay Hut

All the same, it was full of sandflies when I got there. It’s pretty vital to carry insect repellant and preferably flyspray as well, in these parts!

It is also best to take a tent in summer, as you will not be assured of a bunk at that time of year.

From Mason Bay Hut, you can either go north along the coast to continue the North West Circuit, or southward on the Southern Circuit, past Doughboy Bay Hut and Kilbride, a historic homestead and present-day lodge for hikers.

Even if you don’t do the whole of the Southern Circuit, it is quite a pleasant walk from Mason Bay Hut to Kilbride and just past it to the Gutter, the southern end of Mason Bay.

The Gutter is a neck or tombola of sand that joins the mainland to Inner Ernest Island, plus an associated lagoon. The Gutter was historically important as a mahinga kai (food-gathering place) for Māori.

The Gutter is also very scenic, as you can see from this link on a guide company website which, as of the time of writing, shows a photograph of the site by Peter Latham. I have done the Southern Circuit in the past but haven’t got such a good photo myself!

Even the Southern Circuit only goes a short way further south beyond Mason Bay, to Doughboy Bay, before scooting back up north toward the Freshwater Valley. Practically all the tourist attractions and walks in Stewart Island are thus in the northern part of the island.

The southern part of Stewart Island is a complete and total wilderness — albeit with a few huts, and a couple of small tracks leading into the Tin Range, the object of a past attempt at mining — and I suspect that DOC likes to keep it that way.

The southern part of the island is also more exposed and subantarctic than the northern part. Some people like to hike the trackless Tin Range past the mining tracks, but, as I noted earlier, you have to be pretty experienced.

I spent NZ $20 on a detailed NewTopo map called Rakiura NW Circuit, available from local DOC offices and some outdoor stores. The map had a little red notice on it at the northernmost end of Mason Bay, saying “access difficult at high tide.”

Though this map has been described as “the most useful” for the area concerned, I thought it could stand further improvement. For, what it should really have said with regard to Mason Bay was ‘access impossible except at extreme low tide’, and not just at the northern end either.

I set off at low tide, at 6 a.m. on that date, and soon came to an area of beach that was now flooded all the way up to the sandhills. I assumed that I had come to the end of the beach and lost the track. So, I hiked inland over the sand dunes and then back down to the northern end of Mason Bay thinking that I was now past Mason Head at Little Hellfire Beach.

My advice is to start doing Mason Bay at about an hour and a half before low tide. At least that way the water will be going down rather than up for the first hour and a half, and you will have as good a shot at getting along the beach as possible.

Another reason I got lost was because the proper DOC markers were hard to find, partly because they kept getting buried in shifting sands. The way was marked, instead, by informal markers made of recycled beach rubbish. So, after a while you might start to follow the actual beach rubbish and go around in circles.

A route marker!

I later complained to DOC about the feeble nature of the usual advice about the Mason Bay tides and their poor waymarking practices. And about distances that were optimistic as well, with tracks that were supposed to take seven hours really taking nine or ten, and one supposedly of 15 kilometres actually 18 kilometres.

But don’t let these gripes put you off! For, the route was really lovely. The photos that follow speak for themselves. They include some amazing views from the sandhills.

Mason Bay at Low Tide

A Pebbly or Bouldery Portion of the Beach

Little Hellfire Bay. Note the pink sands which make the glassy waves seem bottle-green in the shallows, though it is blue further out.

Pink Sands

Pink sands and blue water

The Ruggedy Range from the pink sandhills

There are also white sands in other places

The Little Hellfire Hunters’ Hut (New Zealand Deersstalkers’ Association)

There are several hunters’ huts in and around Mason Bay, including the comparatively new one (2018) at Little Hellfire Beach, which isn’t yet marked on official New Zealand topographical maps as of the time of writing. The NewTopo map I purchased did not seem to show any of these hunters’ huts, in any case.

I wish the hunters would stay in their huts, as they made me nervous turning up at DOC huts with guns and ammo (and beer). Having said that, the hunters’ huts are a bargain and I was tempted to pay $80 a year to join the New Zealand Deerstalkers’ Association, and thus have access to them.

The Big Hellfire Hut (DOC)

Forest near Big Hellfire, with sign pointing to the East Ruggedy Hut

Where I bivouaced while waiting for the tide to go down at one spot

My Bivouac

An hour out of Little Hellfire Beach, I saw a kiwi run across the track. Stewart Island is definitely the place to see kiwi. And in full daylight too, which the Rakiura tokoeka don’t seem to mind. Other sorts of kiwi are only active in the dark. All in all, I saw three kiwi on this trip out west.

(To be most sure of seeing kiwi, it is best to go out onto the section of track that is between Mason Bay Hut and Island Hill Run at dusk, which fell at around 9 to 9:30 p.m. when I was there in November.)

The name Hellfire possibly refers to St Elmo’s Fire, a natural phenomenon associated with thunderstorms in which streamers of glowing electricity flow from things such as masts.

Or, perhaps just as likely in these parts, the aurora australis or southern lights, which are quite often seen from this area. I saw the aurora myself while I was at Mason Bay! There is also a locality near Oban where people go to see it.

Northern and Southern Lights. Collage by 14jbella (9 February 2012), CC BY-SA 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I had planned to do the whole North West Circuit, on past East Ruggedy Hut, Long Harry Hut, Yankee River Hut, Christmas Village Hut and Bungaree Hut before arriving at Port William Hut.

However, with all this scrambling around in the sandhills, and on muddy tracks as well, I had injured my knee. I wasn’t able to go down the hill from Big Hellfire Hut to Big Hellfire Beach, as I had planned.

Nor did I fancy going over the Ruggedy Range and beyond with a sore knee.

Also, a person I met said that my gear was too heavy and that I would never be able to do the North West Circuit unless I had a lightweight pack, a lightweight sleeping bag, and so on. Lightweight gear is usually more expensive, though there are some places that you can get cheaper versions from, such as the Mountain Warehouse in New Zealand.

And so, I went back to Mason Bay and back out to Freshwater Hut again.

My journey up and down Stewart Island’s west coast, with its misdirections, is all in the following video!

Incidentally, while many people arrive at Oban by air, you can also fly into Mason Bay if you want to start out from there.

If you liked the post above, check out my new book about the South Island! It's available for purchase from this website.

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