Monday, October 29, 2012

Stewart Island

The day before Ryan and I were to leave for our week-long tramp on Stewart Island's Southern Circuit, a friend who had just returned from there put it to me that "I wouldn't call it fun, but it was definitely an experience".  Tramping on Stewart Island is known for being very rugged and remote, which is part of the appeal, but it is also known for endless mud, difficult tracks, and rapidly changing weather.  Being prepared for the worst but hoping for the best, we set off to have an unforgettable adventure.  And I think it's safe to say that our memories of Stewart Island will be almost all fond memories.

When selfies of our faces don't quite tell the whole story....

To begin our adventure, we decided (based on an unhelpful bus schedule) to hitchhike our way to Invercargill, where the ferry for Stewart Island leaves from.  Neither of us having hitchhiked before, it was a bit of a scary experience at first, but after our first couple rides with a mother and daughter, some German students, and another women with a baby, we were feeling much more comfortable and confident.  After six different rides, we finally made it to our destination - enjoyed giving hitchhiking a try, but glad to be done for now.  The ferry to Stewart Island was the next step in the journey.  It was much different from the ferries I'm used to back home - privately run, with more of a cruise type feel (and consequentially much more expensive).  The ride was a bit like a roller coaster, but fun, and shortly we were in the small harbor of Stewart Island.  There we caught a water taxi to our first hut at Fred's Camp.  Although you can hike the circuit starting from the town, taxing part-way cuts off a couple days and means we never had to walk the same trail twice.  During the water taxi, we saw a whale in the inlet, which is apparently quite rare according to the skipper.  Although he wasn't quite sure what kind it was, he guessed it might be a juvenile Southern Right whale... Regardless, quite an exciting start to the trip!  When the taxi dropped us off at the hut where our adventure would begin, we were quite pleased with how quaint and picturesque it looked perched over the ocean.

Fred's Camp Hut

Sunrise from Fred's Camp

Different weather out each window...

We were greeted by some beautiful sun over the water the next morning, before the weather quickly changed and we started to experience the fickle nature of Stewart Island weather.  Many times during our trip, the weather would rapidly change from sun to rain to sun to hail to sun to hail etc all in one short hour.... It pays to be dressed in the right gear in this climate.  Outfitted in our rain coats and gators, we set out the first day for Rakehua Hut.  We were soon thankful for our gators as we encountered our first mud and river crossings.  Though we were slow at first to embrace the mud, soon we both had both soaked our feet and realized that there was no avoiding muddy feet this trip.  We both had a few knee deep sinks into mud, during which we were very thankful for our gator investments.  Over the course of the week we got better at reading the mud and picking the right path through as to have minimal damage...

Snack break

Views of Stewart Island swamp the first day

Just after Ryan took a delicious knee-deep step in some smelly peat bog mud

Fairly typical trail the first couple days, except sometimes it was uphill or downhill

Sometimes the trail was actually just swamp.... Note the orange triangle literally in the water

Never been so thankful for a boardwalk in my life!

We saw our first kiwi during the first day on the trail.  We were both so shocked by his presence on the trail next to us and froze to watch him waddle away!  Kiwis are curious birds...with no wings, bad vision, and little hearing, they were clearly never meant to fly, and are very susceptible introduced predators.  Luckily, the stoat (their main threat) was never introduced to Stewart Island, so the populations here are the strongest remaining.  One night, we explored the dunes after dark to see find our second kiwi, as they are generally nocturnal and come out to feed on sandflies in the sand.  Our third sighting was again in the middle of the day, and this time we were able to pull out the camera before he ran away, so we could snap a few photos for evidence.

The ability to sight kiwis is one of the big things that attracts visitors to Stewart Island, and another is the remoteness and ruggedness of the tramps.  In our week there, we didn't see another soul on the trail, and had other people at our hut only 2 of 6 nights.  In New Zealand, where tramping is one the main recreational activities, this is quite rare.  But it made the scenery that much more stunning, knowing that no one else has been where you are in days or maybe even weeks.  It's quite a different kind of beauty than much of the stunning, breath-taking sights we've gotten used to tramping on the South's much more subtle, in a wild and rugged way.  On the third day, 6 km of our hike were along the 12 km Mason Bay beach.  It was a little strange knowing that we were absolutely the only ones on that beach.  It was a rare and incredible feeling, and there's no one else I would have rather been hiking along that beach with.

View from doughboy bay

Doughboy bay

Doughboy bay - pointy little dunes! A good place to see kiwi at night.

Adams Hill

Mason Bay, where we hiked 6 km along the beach to Mason Bay hut

Coming over the hill to a view a doughboy bay :)

Dunes for days! Almost a km back in places.

Another great aspect of this trip was the huts.  Doing lots of tramping in New Zealand, I have quite grown to love the backcountry hut system (and it might make going back to backpacking with tents a little bit harder...).  The huts on Stewart Island were especially enjoyable, with most of the ones we stayed in being single room 6 or 8 bunk huts.  Life is so simple and pleasant in the backcountry... we would always arrive mid-afternoon at the hut, explore a little, eat a little (or a lot), light a fire, play some cards by candlelight, and retire to bed soon after the sun.  It's amazing how quickly we got into a rhythm of going to bed early and rising early, to make most of the natural light.  The highlight of the day was always dinner. We put huge amounts of effort into planning light but delicious dinners, from orzo with pesto and tuna, to couscous with curried peas and mussels (which we were lucky enough to be able to collect near the hut our last night!), and it really paid off.

Inside of Doughboy bay hut

Mason Bay hut

Whale vertebrate at Mason Bay hut

View from North Arm hut

Typical trail meal

breakfast set-up for a speedy morning - homemade instant oatmeal, homemade granola, and of course, nutella

Mm...curried lentils and quinoa!
Collecting mussels on the beach

Dinner the last night - couscous with curry, peas, and fresh mussels

Even with all our delicious meals, the first thing we did this morning was to hit up the farmer's market for heaps of fresh fruit and veges, which had been sorely missed in our diet all week.  The 10 kilos of apples may have been a little aggressive.... but after a week it is quite nice to eat such fresh food again :)  I'm sure there's so many wonderful details about our trip that I have failed to mention, but, alas, it's time for me to study for finals and I don't want to put off posting any longer... I'll just have to hope that the pictures will be able to fill in a little where words have failed me.  

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