Stewart Island Northwest Circuit

Stewart Island sits at the south end of New Zealand, about 15 miles offshore from Bluff. It is about 20-30 miles across (third largest island in New Zealand), and can be accessed by ferry from Bluff (as I did) or can be flown to. There is one town, Oban, and pretty much the whole rest of the island is undeveloped parkland and accessible only by foot, boat or air — light tourist traffic. Overall, the island reminded me strongly of Afognak Island, in Alaska (where I kayaked 10 days in 2009): a quiet, beautiful, wild place. Coming here was absolutely the highlight of the New Zealand trip.

I spent a week on Stewart Island backpacking the Northwest Circuit, a 125 km track that starts in Oban, winds its way along the coast of the northern third of the island, then cuts across the center back to the start. As with about all other multiday tracks in NZ, the track is dotted with huts to stay at. Each hut has maybe 10 – 25 bunks (bare mattresses, dormitory arrangement), sinks and counters to prepare food, tables, an outhouse, a roof, etc. The huts on some tracks (not the NW circuit) have stoves and propane for cooking. Nice arrangement, and quite a contrast from the general total lack of facilities when backpacking in the western US. Two nights there were several people staying at the same hut, two nights there were one or two, and two nights I was by myself; the track is much quieter than any others I did in New Zealand.

View Stewart Island NW Circuit in a larger map

NW circuit map

This was the longest backpacking trip I’ve done, and the hardest. The island gets a lot of rain and the track is largely unimproved (though well marked and always easy to follow), so consequently very muddy and very rooty for most of its length. Much of the mud is at least calf deep, though can generally be managed/avoided by walking on roots, logs or where the mud is thick enough to support one’s weight (the mud here has a surprisingly elaborate taxonomy!). Still, I slipped too many times (never badly) trying to avoid deep mud and should have just used gaiters and walked through, for less injury risk (I would have brought gaiters for this hike, if not for the need to carry them by bike across the country).

NW circuit mud

NW circuit trees

Despite the mud, the forests on the track are nice but get a little dull after a while. The best scenery is on and around the beaches which the track visits regularly, especially on the northwest part of the track. The first really nice beach is Bungaree Beach; Bungaree Hut, where I spent the first night, is set right above the beach and has an excellent view.

Bungaree Beach

Bungaree beach has excellent snorkeling. I had been admiring the extremely clear water (50’+ visibility) since arriving on Stewart Island that morning, and this was the first place I went for a swim. The water is cool, maybe 65 F, colder than other places I swam in NZ, but I managed without a wetsuit. Lots of fish, many pretty good size, and a small thick forest of giant kelp (the same kind that grows in California). There were a couple hunters staying at the hut who had been spear fishing here, but fish numbers were very good. Oban has a good size fishing industry but I would guess they don’t bother with near-shore fish, and given how remote things are I can’t imagine spearfishing or recreational angling putting much of a dent in populations here (a nice contrast with California).

After Bungaree the next really nice stuff is along the north of the island, from Yankee River Hut west to East Ruggedy Hut, which I found the prettiest section of the whole track (nice weather helped). This starts with Smoky Beach, the first of several big sand-dune covered beaches, after which the track goes along the coast to Long Harry Hut, situated above the coast with great views of the surrounding bluffs.

Smoky Beach

Long Harry Hut

I didn’t stay the night here, but continued on to East Ruggedy Hut. This hut is situated between two beautiful dune beaches (East and West Ruggedy Beach). This viewpoint is of East Ruggedy Beach and the Rugged islands which the beaches are named for.

East Ruggedy Beach

More excellent snorkeling at the east (near) side of this beach. No kelp, but clear water and thick seaweed on the bottom, with lots of fish that just come right up and crowd around you. The rest of the beach is beautiful, along with a 2km walk inland through dunes to get to the hut. The footprints in the photo below are from a Kiwi. Stewart Island is thick with Kiwis, about which I’ll be making a separate post.

East Ruggedy footprints

East Ruggedy inland

The next photo is from West Ruggedy Beach, looking back at the Rugged islands on the following morning. The footprints on the left are mine, the ones on the right are from a deer. There were very few people on the track.

West Ruggedy beach

After leaving the Rugged islands, the track climbs and drops to beaches several times over 20km or so before reaching Mason Bay, a beach maybe 15km long along the west side of the island.

Mason Bay

The waves are due to a gale that was tailing off as I approached the bay. These were the only severe winds I saw while on the island, and the only real waves. I think weather this nice is pretty atypical, but it did get me wanting to come back and kayak around the island. This would/will have to be done in perfect conditions, but fortunately the island is not that big and has places to hide from the weather along most of its coast.

Situated 1 km inland from the center of Mason Bay is the aptly named Mason Bay Hut. This hut and the following one at Freshwater Landing are more accessible than the rest of the track: a water taxi is available from Oban to Freshwater Landing, after which it is a walk of a few hours on a friendly trail and boardwalk to Mason Bay. Flights are also available to Mason Bay itself, as the beach is plenty wide to land on. The evening I stayed there, a plane and helicopter landed on the beach and were ferrying equipment to nearby Codfish Island, a predator-free, visitors-prohibited sanctuary for much of the world’s remaining Kakapo, a critically endangered bird which is the world’s only flightless parrot.

Mason Bay

Mason Bay

After crossing the island to Freshwater Landing, there was a nice climb up nearby Rocky Mountain (more of a hill), with an alpine zone at the top and good views. Getting expansive views on this track requires luck; there were usually clouds covering up the higher peaks. Earlier on in the track there was a side trip going up Mount Anglem, the highest point on Stewart Island, but it had been and was going to remain cloudy and drizzly, and there wasn’t much sense in going. The view from Rocky Mountain, looking down towards Freshwater Landing:

Rocky Mountain

From Freshwater Landing the track reverts to a long muddy slog for a while, then getting easy before coming in to Oban (the beginning and end of the track overlap with the Rakiura Track, a better graded and maintained Great Walk). It’s hard to overstate how much mud there is on the track; approaching it with good conditioning, equipment and experience is essential. The rewards are big, though, and Stewart Island is a unique place.

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