Logging the Rakiura
Our Track Story
It might be NZ’s third main island and one of the best places to see kiwi in the wild, but most of us human kiwis have never visited Stewart Island. Until just recently I too was in that camp despite living less than two hours from Bluff’s ferry terminal. Today is my lucky day. I am lucky because the weather is settled and that means the waters of the notoriously treacherous Foveaux Strait are too. Today is a pleasant crossing with a cold nip in the air. The chill is not unexpected given it’s the middle of winter in the deep south.
This time of year is a good opportunity to tramp with few others on one of the NZ Great Walks that remain open all year. As the ferry nears Halfmoon Bay I pop outside and watch the bobbing fishing boats moored out from Oban. It takes only a few minutes to land, put my pack on and walk to the Department of Conservation Visitor Centre. Here I find a friendly ranger who offers up the current track conditions, the weather forecast and points me in the right direction to the start of the track.
I head for the hills behind the settlement as I’m going to walk the track clockwise. My late arrival to the island suits overnighting in North Arm Hut before walking the scenic coastal stretch and looping back to Oban. Outside the visitor centre, I turn on my three GPS units ready to log up to date mapping data for The Great Hikes App, put my camera around my neck and follow the suburban gardens which become less nurtured and more natural as I climb.
Near the top of the rise, the road terminates and the Rakiura Track begins with its damp soils ready to capture my footprints. I add a GPS waypoint and enter the dark green forested path. I am excited to start as this is my first winter walk in over a decade, I’m on an island I have never visited and it’s a mini adventure given it’s NZ’s shortest Great Walk. Unlike some of the NZ Great Rides which are generally completed in shorter timeframes, these premier walks are 3-6 day hikes. Even so I think I can complete this 32km flattish walk in two days, not the recommended three.
The track is initially wide, surprisingly wide and in places is even cobbled. It was once a log hauling road and for me, it’s the first introduction to the logging heritage that makes up the fabric of the track. After rising over a small saddle I descend to the edge of Paterson Inlet and come across the remains of Gallon’s Sawmill.
Little remains of the mill, although you can see some dam walls and a diversion channel to where William Gallon set up the island’s first mechanical sawmill. In 1861 behind the dam wall would have been a cleared forest, a 3km long lake and just downstream a large waterwheel that straddled the creek bed. I take a GPS waypoint, some photographs and stand in quiet contemplation. How different things were for this remote pioneer.
I continue along the track towards the sheltered bays of North Arm. I love the patches of dense forest that somehow escaped Gallon’s saw. The track is gentle, muddy and narrow and soon in the shallows, I spot two rusting relics of a log hauler and boiler. They are sitting alone in the inlet and are slowly being eaten away. It’s like nature is fighting back here on the island. Just like the forest has reclaimed Gallon’s sawmill, here the water and oxidation reclaims the iron back into the earth.
After rounding a few more bays I reach North Arm Hut. It’s painted green as the forest and sits alone overlooking the Arm. Tonight I am not alone. Before nightfall a woman reaches the hut, on twilight two deer graze beside the deck and after dark two young blokes come in late. With a hut capacity of 24; the four of us sleep in isolation making the most of the space in the empty hut. This is winter tramping rest at its best.
Next morning is clear, cold and calm. As I leave the hut I take care not to slip on the icy deck before entering the forest track which leads inland and crosses the island. This track section is renowned for being muddy even in summer, and the ranger’s earlier report proved very true. While there has been a lot of upgrade work to this Great Walk; I was still surprised at the extent of the inland section of the bog. The track started with tread deep muck, this deteriorated to boot deep mud, then just before the highest point of the track there were places I dared not pass even if I had gumboots.
I managed to find enough logs and stumps to avoid the deepest holes but my lingering memory of this part is not of rising to the tops … but more of sinking to the bottom. Soon the track begins its descent to the coastline and dries out as I reach two more historic log haulers. The haulers are well protected from the elements and are over 100 years old. They stem from a time when most of the rimu logs used for shipbuilding had been felled on the island. The coastal fringes where these massive machines stand were milled until the 1930s. It is incredible how densely the forest now closes around these relics as it did around Gallon’s mill.
Leaving the haulers behind the track nears the coast. In the distance, I can hear kiwis calling. Their squeals get louder as I near a group of young folk. They beckon me closer and in whispers tell me of a kiwi (bird) just around the corner. I thank the party and begin to quietly step along the track, avoiding snapping twigs and peering left and right for this elusive bird. Was I going to squeal too like the others I wondered?
Next, I initiate my search and rescue training as if deployed to look for a lost party. I begin purposeful wandering looking for a sign around dead spars, rotten logs and any homely grotto that would be kiwi friendly. I give up the search and it all seems like a prank - I am not sure if these young ones were just pulling my tired legs.
With the day and tide receding, I begin to lengthen my stride. I take a quick detour to Port William Hut to log it for the Great Hikes App. As far as coastal huts go, this one is one of the best I have seen and would have made a perfect overnight retreat. The hut has a large grassed lawn overlooking a white sand beach in a sheltered cove. I can see why this area would be a good place to settle.
Over 100 years ago the government attempted to encourage 1,000 Shetland Island emigrant families to this coastline. Barracks were initially built for 150 settlers, yet only five families arrived. With no community services, the families fled to the mainland and the settlement was abandoned. Today the only evidence of those times is a line of large eucalyptus gum trees on the shore above the bay.
I flee too as I am also keen to return to civilisation today. My next stop is at a suspension bridge that overlooks Maori Beach; the name is derived from a former pa site that once occupied the south-eastern headland. This is an idyllic spot too, as there is a long sweeping sandy beach with a conservation campsite at the far end. There was once a sawmilling settlement where the present campsite lies; the community had several houses and a school. All that remains of the pioneering settlement today are some iron relics including a boiler.
Leaving the sandy beach behind the track scales the rocky headland and climbs high above the sea and coastal bluffs. There are great views over Foveaux Strait before I pass through the massive chain-link sculpture marking a return to the trailhead carpark. From here most trampers get a shuttle pickup 5km back to Oban, yet I elect to walk and follow the coast into town. Once back, I save the GPS tracking logs, wash the mud off my boots and wait for the next ferry home.
My time on the island was brief. Walking all the Great Walks over just a couple of months leaves little time for lingering. There are still many weeks worth of work back in the office to compile and launch the Great Hikes App before the summer walking season. Looking back from my warm office the Rakiura experience for me was mellow, muddy and magnetic … the attraction of the island is so much more than just the Great Walk. There was no time to retrace my steps to find the elusive kiwi and it was too cold to swim in winter’s waters.
The next time I visit (and there will be a next) will be in summer, where I will make time for viewing wildlife on Ulva Island, catch a flight to land on the beach beside the dunes of Mason Bay and delve deeper into the island’s other tracks to climb up to Mt Anglem (980m). What struck me most is the recovery of the forest from milling. How yesterday’s needs contrast with today’s national park protection where the only logging during my trip was that taken by my GPS unit.