The North West Circuit is one of the longest well known tracks in New Zealand, an epic 8-12 day 115km loop around the northern part of Stewart Island / Rakiura, infamous for deep mud and rough terrain. I walked a 100km version of it over seven days in March 2021, in a clockwise loop from Freshwater Hut to Oban, rather than the more common anticlockwise direction starting in Oban.
The adventure started before I even left Invercargill with an unexpected alert on my phone the night before that the country would enter it’s fourth COVID related lockdown / restrictions. A year earlier I’d gone into Nelson Lakes on a five day hike while at level 2 and come out into level 4 full lockdown. I hoped that history wouldn’t repeat itself…
I also learnt that night that Wellington airport security in their wisdom had decided that the three AAA batteries for my head torch were too dangerous for checked luggage and had removed them. So at 6pm in Invercargill I had to track down some new ones, it was beginning to feel an ill fated trip.
My luck continued after arriving at Invercargill Airport at 6.30am to find my flight to Mason Bay would be delayed due to low cloud over both Invercargill and Stewart Island. There’s a limited window to land on the beach there due to tides which closed and the flight was cancelled. I could try again tomorrow but the forecast was the same so instead I quickly worked out a Plan B.
Stewart Island Flights had one space left in a replacement shuttle bus to Bluff to catch the ferry over to Oban. The Foveaux Strait is a notoriously rough stretch of sea, which had previously put me off the ferry, but thankfully the low wind conditions that prevented the cloud from shifting helped the crossing. It certainly wasn’t smooth, but was about as good as it gets on average once a week.
In March 2021, with the border effectively closed Stewart Island / Rakiura was having a tourist boom. New Zealand’s third main island is home to about 400 permanent residents (and 600 cars), and it was busy (relatively). The Rakiura Track (a New Zealand Great Walk), flights and ferries, and accommodation on the island were nearly all fully booked, quite a contrast from when I last visited in 2014.
Also busy was the smart and well presented Rakiura Museum, which only opened a few months before in December 2020, and was well worth a visit.
Plan B involved starting the track from Freshwater Hut rather than Mason Bay, adding an extra 15km onto my walk, and effectively losing a day so a double hut day would required. Not ideal on what I was expecting to be one of my tougher hikes, but it was the only option.
I caught a water taxi from the southern end of Oban to Freshwater Hut, an alternative experience to the planned flight and landing on the beach at Mason Bay. It was pleasant heading through Paterson Inlet / Whaka a Te Wera, and then rather exciting heading at speed up the highly tidal Freshwater River, only accessible at high tide.
I was dropped off at an empty Freshwater Hut, reached from the jetty by a rather wobbly bridge. After getting myself sorted I started the track carrying my heaviest ever pack, weighing ~28kg. This was the longest hike I’ve done in New Zealand, carrying everything I needed for seven days in the backcountry, including 14 dehydrated meals, 24 energy bars, and 1.5kg of oats and raisins.
The 15.5km to Mason Bay Hut was unlike the rest of the track, being inland, flat and basically straight. I didn’t have to go far before coming across my first patch of infamous Stewart Island / Rakiura mud. I was lucky though as the previous fortnight had been mostly dry, unusual on an island where it rains 275 days a year, meaning that the mud was about as manageable at it gets here.
The track passes through the most extensive lowland area on the island. This colourful boggy area caught my eye.
As did this brilliant blue stream aside the track.
These tunnel like mānuka formations were a striking feature.
Thankfully this bridge had a new neighbour.
A significant part of the track runs along by a tannin colour stream, with signs saying not to proceed if it is flooded. The bundles of wood suggest that it can get pretty muddy along here but it was sandy when I walked it.
From here the track turns to boardwalk, understandable when you see how deep the bog is.
This was a rather atmospheric section, with long grass rising out of the water.
There were some striking views after reaching firmer ground, of hills in the distance, and huge sand dunes ahead.
The track passed by an historic woolshed built in 1953. Amazingly between 1922 and 1987 up to 1,500 sheep were farmed here, a tough part of the world for farmers to get their wool to market.
Further along was Island Hill homestead, once home to generations of farmers, now accomodation for DOC workers.
After three and a quarter hours of walking, and a generally epic and exhausting day before I had even started the track, it was a relief to reach Mason Bay Hut. The twenty bunk hut was large and functional. It was expanded in 2005 to cope with the number of people flying into Mason Bay and walking to Freshwater Hut to catch the water taxi to Oban, plus the hut is on both the North West Circuit, and Southern Circuit.
A couple of volunteer DOC wardens visited to collect hut tickets. They were ten days into their two week stint, and said that there had been 24 people there on their first night. Thankfully there was only four of us the night I stayed, far quieter and more enjoyable. A couple from Dunedin had nearly finished the Southern Circuit. This is a slightly shorter, but harder track than the North West Circuit, rougher and far more flood prone. Incredibly for the woman in the couple this was her first multi-day hike!