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Kiwi Redux: The Second Time Around

From Rakiura National Park, New Zealand's newest, to old favorites like the Greenstone Track, the varied backcountry landscapes down here make the second or third trip even more interesting than the first.
By Peter Potterfield - February 14th, 2007

Liz Cave is obviously a pro as she paddles her kayak tirelessly across the choppy surface of Stewart Island's Paterson Inlet toward our secluded camp on the small beach. After a week on the trails of this stormy island, it's a relief to give my knees a break and put the load on my upper body as I crank along beside her. After doing the Rakiura Track, one of New Zealand's "Great Walks," and portions of the more interesting--if much more strenuous--Northwest Circuit Trek, it's good to be on the water, and even better to see blue sky and some Southern Hemisphere sunshine for the first time in days.

I first came to New Zealand three years ago to try renowned backcountry routes such as the Milford and Routeburn Tracks. But every first trip to a far-away place is really a recon, and I found myself intrigued by talk of Stewart Island, and some of the lesser known backcountry routes on the main islands. So I'm back for a second visit to venture deeper into the unique landscapes of this isolated island country.

Liz is putting a pleasant coda on my long backcountry sojourn, showing me by sea kayak some of the seldom seen places she finds alluring here on Stewart Island, at the extreme southern tip of New Zealand. Down here in the Roaring Forties, where the weather is mostly wet and windy, 98 per cent of the island's terrain is either national park or Maori preserve. Separated by the stormy Foveaux Strait from New Zealand's South Island, Stewart Island is the most remote inhabited place in country, but it's a wilderness paradise for hikers and kayakers.

The South Island city of Invercargill is as far as Air New Zealand flies, so I arrived here a week ago on a classic bush plane operated by Stewart Island Flights. Pilot Daryl Mason landed the rugged Britten Norman Islander in a driving rain on the hilltop airstrip above the island's only town, Halfmoon Bay. That night in town I picked up hiking maps at the ranger station, and met up with Graeme Scott for dinner at the hotel bar. A local guide, Graeme's got the stove fuel and food we'll need for the five day backcountry outing that will cover most of the northern part of the island.

The Rakiura Track

We start out on the Rakiura, one of New Zealand's nine "Great Walks," and the only one on Stewart Island. These signature tracks are maintained to a high standard, and well marked, with huts located a day's hike apart, from 12 to 15 kilometers. The good trails make for moderate backcountry travel, allowing experienced hikers like Graeme and me to cover two "stages" per day when schedule demands. We begin the route at Lee Bay, the road end a short drive from Halfmoon Bay, where we hit the trail, side-hilling along the gentle coastal hills toward Peter's Point.

Graeme knows his natural history, and identifies the tiny bird that follows along the whole way out, flittering from tree to tree just in front of us, as a fan tail. From Peter's Point, the track rounds the corner to spill on to Maori Beach, where the route follows the perfect crescent of sandy beach in a tight, secluded arc. The detritus of a lost settlement and its sawmill, just inland of the dunes, remind us that this wild place early in the century was home to some very hardy pioneers.

An elaborate suspension bridge spans the stream at the head of Port William, and we follow the Rakiura Track and the sandy stretch of Magnetic Beach to the other side. More than a mile farther, we reach a Department of Conservation (DOC) hut on the point jutting from the north end of the big bay the Maori named Potirepo. Most people call it a day here, about 13 kilometers in, but it's only the beginning for Graeme and me. I've got a lot to see in a short time, so we backtrack almost an hour before picking up stage two of the track. The trail starts steeply upward right away, ascending almost a thousand feet, up through dense rimu forest and thick, green subalpine undergrowth interspersed with huge ferns, to the crest of the ridge. We reach the top, where a small tower affords a view out over the trees, just as a major squall blows in from the strait. The storm assaults us with such force and suddenness, we quickly descend the other side to escape the worst of wind and rain in the shelter of the forest canopy, reminded that weather rules down here on Stewart Island.

It's not till late afternoon, and 30 kilometers from the trailhead, that we make the long descent back to the water's edge. Finally, an elaborate set of boardwalked stairs leads down to the North Arm hut, perched right on the shore of a quiet inlet. The calls of tomtit and bellbird reverberate through the trees of the primeval forest along the water. Virtually undisturbed by humankind, the untouched landscape here is perhaps the best reason to come to Stewart Island.

I learned on my first visits to New Zealand that the huts on the DOC's Great Walks are likely to be populated with hikers from all over the world. Tonight is no exception. In residence we find Brits, Germans, Israelis, and Kiwis, a French student, even another American. The huts have propane stoves for cooking, and coal fired stoves for warmth, which eliminates the need to carry tents and stove. That can significantly lighten one's pack, a reason New Zealand's major tracks are growing in popularity, even way down here at the extreme southern tip of the country.

Everybody got wet on the trail today, so the coal fire is well stoked to help dry out all the gear. All over New Zealand, where the weather is often wet, the cardinal rule of hiking (they call it "tramping" down here) is to always have a dry set of clothes, always. Experienced hikers arrive at day's end soaking wet, some not even bothering with rain pants, and quickly change into their dry gear. In the morning, those precious dry clothes are put carefully away in dry bags for the next stage, while the hiker sets out in the still damp gear from yesterday. The huts make this a viable strategy.

The third and final stage of the Rakiura Track leaves from the North Arm hut to follow a mostly level route along the shores of Paterson Inlet, past several old town sites, finishing on the remains of an old road back to town. That's a part of the landscape we'll see later from the sea kayaks with Liz, so Graeme and I embark on a more demanding route, one of the toughest trail days on Stewart Island in fact: the notorious section of the Northwest Circuit trail that climbs up and over Thomson Ridge.

The Northwest Circuit

If the well maintained Rakiura Track is a reasonable outing for almost any fit hiker, the Northwest Circuit trek is long, strenuous route through the rugged and varied terrain of Stewart Island. Unimproved, and at times difficult going, the 120 kilometer Circuit offers access to such amazing places as Mason Bay, perhaps the last place on earth to see a Kiwi bird in the wild, and Ruggedy Beach on the exposed northwest corner. This is an entirely different sort of backcountry travel, but one that's unrivaled for any hiker seeking genuine solitude, and a chance to test one's mettle on a rigorous 10 day route through the pristine podocarp forests and steep backcountry of this remote island.

In the morning, as our hut mates set out on the easy track back to town, Graeme and I make another long, steep backtrack up the trail to the intersection with the Northwest Circuit track. After the well-groomed Rakiura, this new route takes some getting used to. The going is only muddy at first, and dense with inaka and rata undergrowth, but by lunch we're headed steeply up the muddy track, gaining elevation through the tall, dark forest toward the ridge. Soon the rain begins in earnest, and we trudge on in a typical Stewart Island deluge, which down here translates into a cold, hard, steady rain. The 1,200-foot ascent starts out reasonably enough, but as the rain picks up, the track itself becomes a muddy stream flowing in braided channels down the slope. We find ourselves in a mudfest of the first order.

The secret to loving backcountry travel is to have a short memory, where one forgets the pain of long ago routes. But that process takes time and today I can't recall a tougher day on the trail than our six hour slog in the river of mud flowing down from the summit of Thomson Ridge. Every step was an opportunity to break an ankle, so we had to remain alert, careful of our footing on the slippery slope. There was no lunch stop today, just a few bites from food bars to keep us going up the steep slope.

By the time we crested the top of the ridge, the downpour was reaching crescendo, but we could still see well enough to spot new snow dusting the top of Mount Anglem, to the west, the highest peak on the island. Snow there is rare, especially this early in the fall, so we knew this was no ordinary bad weather. The descent was as tricky as the climb up, but, psychologically at least, the hard work was mostly over as we carefully picked our way down.

The rain relented a bit as we reached the bottom of the ridge to work west along the flats by the big river. Graeme and I were both pretty beat when we got to the hut on the Freshwater. We had the place to ourselves, so set about stoking the fire (on the Circuit, there are no rangers to supply fuel, so the stoves are fired by wood, not coal), drying our wet gear and getting comfortable. A few sips of whisky and an elaborate pasta dinner by chef Scott restored our good humor as we marveled at the wild, lush country we had come through, and the extraordinary efforts of the day.

Going with a local always makes traveling more interesting, and after dinner I was able to learn a little about life on a South Island sheep farm, where Graeme grew up before he began guiding for Kiwi Wilderness Walks. He's very much in tune with the backcountry, can identify a bird by its call alone, and earlier in the day had actually smelled a deer before we saw it. With only the two of us in the hut, it was a pleasant conclusion to a hard day as we talked by candle light. We crashed hard that night in separate chambers, real luxury for a hiking hut, and slept soundly as rain pelted the roof and walls of the simple structure.

Morning dawned gray and wet, but if the hard work was over, the anxiety wasn't. We had arranged to be picked up by water taxi, but here on the Freshwater, tide is everything. Only a brief window at high tide on the Freshwater permits enough depth for the boat to get upriver. By 10 a.m. we had nearly reached the time-out period and still no boat was seen or heard. We had resigned ourselves to another night at the hut when the roar of Ian's boat drifted in, and we hurriedly scrambled down to the shore and climbed aboard for the fast run out. Ian had been held up by another party, and had raced out to get us. It was a near thing, as we went aground (softly) once as the river dropped with the tide, but eventually made it back to Golden Bay without getting stuck. From there, Graeme and I finish the final steep miles into Halfmoon Bay by lunch.

Halfmoon Bay

Once back in town--while the village is called Oban on maps, it's correct name seems to be Halfmoon Bay, but everybody here calls it simply "the Bay"--I walk wearily back to my comfortable lodgings at Peter and Iris Tait's guest house, Sails Ashore. Perched on a scenic hillside just above the village, with an unobstructed view of the Foveaux Strait, the Tait's place is truly a luxurious refuge in a very rough part of New Zealand. Iris lays on some hot soup, and laughs when we tell her of our trials going up Thomson Ridge.

"Twelve hours for me last time we went up there," she says, knowingly. "Worst weather I ever saw." It's a relief to know we weren't the only ones to be tested by the island's infamous ridge.

Peter and Iris not only boast perhaps the finest accommodations on what is otherwise a pretty funky Stewart Island, they know the place as well as anyone. For decades, Peter Tait WAS the government here, acting as sole park ranger for the entire island. His encyclopedic knowledge of the place is reason enough to stay here, as he can tell you what you need to know. If I had known that before, I would have let Peter plan my visit, start to finish, and could have made even better use of my time in this remote spot.

The other guests that night included a doctor and his wife from Auckland (both had left India to escape the stigma of a mixed caste marriage), who had a bottle of Laphroaig Scotch whiskey to share. That inspired Peter to get out the Talisker and Oban, and me my duty free Glenmorangie, for comparison, and our impromptu single malt tasting moved into full swing. It's the kind of evening you'll never have at a hotel, the kind of socializing that happens even on a backcountry trip when you're at the ends of the earth. The Taits have a couple of border terriers, Piglet and Penny, and, as I'm partial to the breed, the dogs increased the sense that I had found a home away from home during my long stay down here at the bottom of the world.

Life in The Bay is pretty relaxed. A ferry from Invercargill, and surprisingly frequent air connections to the tiny hill-top strip, bring hardy travelers, backpackers, birdwatchers, fly fishermen and kayakers here in small but growing number during the summer season, October through April. There's a couple of restaurants, including a famous fish and chips place run by a German woman who discovered on a visit she liked Stewart Island so much she moved here. The bar at the venerable South Sea Hotel, right on the water, is the center of the action, and the post office next door also serves as the airport ticket counter.

South Island Redux

It was at the post office where I checked in for the flight back to Invercargill and Queenstown, New Zealand's most popular tourist town. Raucous and cosmopolitan, the heavy action here is the very antithesis to Stewart Island's funky remoteness. I'm back to do the Greenstone Track, not just one of the country's storied trout streams, but one of the prettiest valleys on the South Island. I had seen the Greenstone while doing the Routeburn Track several years ago, and vowed to return for a closer look.

Simon Wilkinson, a renowned New Zealand fly-fishing guide, had a few days between commitments, so he agreed to come along. He's keen for spending some time on the Greenstone without clients and so agreed to arrange the logistics for our trek. From the airport, we climb in to his Nissan four-wheel-drive, complete with roof-top snorkel for fording rivers, and off we go, winding along both sides of Lake Wakatipu, taking in the stunning landscape as we round the bend past Glenorchy. The Remarkables are behind us, the Richardson Mountains ahead, and the blue waters of the big lake in between. There may be a more scenic drive to a trailhead, but I can't remember one.

We're on the trail by mid morning, hiking up through the storybook valley and its forest thick with the full complement of South Island beech species--mountain beech, red beech and silver beech. On a warm, blue bird day, it is a beautiful hike in dappled sunshine, the kinds of conditions that draw hikers to Queenstown and its environs from all over the world.

The Greenstone

If the Routeburn Track is an alpine classic, the Greenstone Track is a venerable route steeped in legend and character. This valley system was the historic first track to Lake Wakatipu, and when combined with the Routeburn surely ranks among New Zealand's most interesting backcountry routes. We stop in the bright sunshine on an exposed ridge for a lunch of ham and brie sandwiches, but I'm afraid I haven't offered much of a challenge to Simon by asking him to take care of the transport and food and fuel for the Greenstone. The company he works for, South Island Guides, caters mostly to dedicated fly fishermen who come from all over the world, or film companies looking for logistical support, or well heeled visitors who want to be . . . well, taken care of. Simon and his colleagues can do just about anything, including choppering in a stream-side picnic with chilled champagne. There's no such luxuries for us, but we're both enjoying the more simple pleasures of walking through this epic valley in good weather.

By mid-afternoon we reach the Mid Greenstone hut where we stash our gear but don't tarry, as there is blue sky and sunshine, and the Greenstone awaits. The river is divided into sections, called "beats," on which only certain guides are permitted to fish. We hike back to Simon's stretch, and, incredulous, I watch him catch four huge New Zealand browns in about 45 minutes. It is a tour de force of fishing skill. Of course it's all catch and release here, so Simon places them back in the water, unharmed, as soon as he lands them. As I walk back up to the open meadows and set up the tripod to get some shots of the nearby mountains, I'm thinking Simon's reputation is well deserved.

Back at the hut, a few other hikers have arrived. There's an American millionaire hiking alone, fishing his way along the Greenstone, and some young British and Canadians guys trying to learn the sport. For them, Simon holds court on the porch of the lodge, generously offering tips and spinning yarns of survival in the region's famous bad weather. For dinner, Simon cooks up a ginger pork number on the hut's propane stove, with me doing clean up duty. But later that evening, Simon takes me aside to issue a warning: "Tomorrow will be miserable," he says quietly, "with really nasty wind and rain. Just be ready for it." How he knows that escapes me, as outside the weather is clear, and now with the sun down, growing very cold as the moon appears over the ridge.

The next morning dawns gray and ominous, but dry. We don't get even two miles from the hut, though, right in the prettiest part of the Greenstone valley, when the weather Simon predicted hits out of the northwest like a hurricane. At first it's mostly wind with a little rain, but the storm soon turns into the usual New Zealand downpour, only this time driven by 50 mile per hour winds howling right in our face. Even the "weather proof" zippers on my parka fail as I watch in amazement as my pockets fill with water. There's nothing to do but grind on toward the next hut in the teeth of the storm as it roars directly down the narrowing valley.

A young girl from Germany we met at the hut last night, marginally equipped, had started ahead of us. But we quickly catch her, as she is lagging in the weather, and beginning to shiver. I drop far behind Simon to keep an eye on the unprepared teenager. It would be easy to lose the track in this storm, and conditions like these can easily result in hypothermia. I thought I had seen my share of extreme weather on Stewart Island, but I'm being reminded once again that this island country is stuck in the middle of a very big ocean surrounded by what can be serious atmospheric disturbances. I can't help but think what an astonishingly beautiful day this COULD have been, but anyone who spends time in the backcountry knows that each time you go, you must take what you get in terms of conditions.

When the aroma of a coal burning fire drifts out on the rain-soaked wind, I know I'm getting close to shelter. By the time my charge and I reach the McKellar hut after maybe six hours of walking in the storm, Simon has saved us a couple of bunks and is already trying to dry out his gear. We are all soaked to the skin, so the first order of business is off with the wet stuff and on with the dry. The small hut is packed with people, as those that arrived last night never left, and more are arriving from both directions as conditions approach being dangerous. As usual, it's a virtual United Nations of hikers crammed in the building, but a polyglot scene of civility, too, as we all try to make the best of crowded conditions.

There's no thought of fishing today, so Simon spends his time making a feast of the venison he's brought, enough to feed many startled but thankful hikers in the hut, who quickly put away their freeze dried rations for use another day. The storm blows out near sunset, allowing me at least a brief stroll on the nearby plain before dark. The stars, a welcome sight, bode well for tomorrow. Back inside, conversations in half a dozen languages finally conclude as the hut, packed to the rafters with hikers, quiets as its denizens begin to drop off to sleep.

We finish the hike on an overcast day, walking past the long, steel-gray Lake McKellar and the much smaller Howden Lake before reaching the trailhead at the Divide. Simon, ever resourceful, has a vehicle stashed at the trailhead. So we load the packs and head for a lunch in Te Anau, the formerly isolated village that has grown in the past few years into a busy and somewhat hip hub for backcountry activities. From there it's on to the quintessentially rural village of Lumsden, where Simon has a cottage he uses for fishing trips. This is a part of South Island that's cut through by some of the most renowned fly fishing rivers on the planet--the Oreti, the Mararoa, the Mataura, the Waikaia and the Aparima--teeming, as Simon puts it, with "large, cunning brouwn trout."

The Remarkables Lodge

A day in Lumsden is like visiting the New Zealand of 20 years ago. It's full of Morris Minors (a British car that found a home in this country in the 50s and 60s) and sheep herders and farmers. Lumsden was especially festive when we arrived as the once-every-two-year county fair was in full swing, complete with a celebrity look-alike contest (which explained why our waitress looks, a little, like Elizabeth Taylor). Dinner that night is at the famous Mayfly, a venerable favorite of fly fishermen, where an appetizer of green lipped mussels and a main course of New Zealand lamb (served with a tasty Hawkes Bay cabernet) emphasized that you don't have to be in Auckland for the culinary pleasures of this laid-back country to be world class.

I finish up my long journey at the Remarkables Lodge, the place that some say set the standard for comfort in Queenstown a decade ago. It's recently been restored to its former glory by a British couple who, after sailing around the world, thought it might be fun to be inn keepers. The rocky Remarkables--the mountains you saw in Lord of the Rings--rise just behind us, dusted with new snow from the storm. But lodge owner Brian Savage and I are sitting on the lawn in warm sunshine, talking a mile a minute over an outrageous sauvignon blanc, as we await the other guests for dinner. The food at the lodge is famous around Queenstown, but even better is the way it's served, at the "lodge table." Here is a place where visitors from around the world, and around town, gather like a family over good conversation and fresh local ingredients expertly prepared.

Tonight I'm reminded of what a small country New Zealand is. I've learned that Brian, and his wife Colleen, have arranged with the Taits down on Stewart Island to create a package for people who want to experience both Queenstown and the wilds of Stewart Island. One of the guests is Louisa, who grew up here and now operates a helicopter company in Queenstown that actually picks up guests from the lodge and flies them to remote cabins in the back country for a few nights of adventure, complete with a chef. Simon is here, too, as he frequently sets up a few days of fly fishing for lodge guests so inclined. For my last day in New Zealand, it's hard to imagine a sharper contrast to the recent stormy miles in the mountains, or a better way to end an adventure: in extreme comfort, among friends. It's the Kiwi way, and that's what makes it so much fun to come back again, and again.

Getting There

Despite the long distances between New Zealand and North America or Europe, travel in this island nation is laid back and easily planned. Start with an overview from New Zealand Tourism, and get flight information from Air New Zealand or Stewart Island Flights . Get information on the country's Great Walks and other trekking routes from its Department of Conservation. Kiwi Wilderness Walks offers a number of guided hiking option, and South Island Guides can arrange adventures from fly fishing to hiking. Sails Ashore and The Remarkables Lodge illustrate the kind of relaxed luxury that is synonymous with the best of New Zealand lodges, and the two even have an offering that allows guests to stay at both places.


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