And a great walk it was

If you go to the southernmost country in the Eastern Hemisphere, and you go to the southern end of the south island, where we live, and then you get on a ferry and go south yet again, you’ll end up on Stewart Island, or Rakiura, an old whaling settlement and New Zealand’s newest national park. We were there in early October to experience our first “Great Walk” in New Zealand, the Rakiura Track, a three-day tramp covering 36 kilometers.

The Maori people, the first residents of Rakiura and the rest of New Zealand, liken the South Island to the waka, or canoe, of the mythic hero Maui. The North Island is the great fish he caught with his magic fishhook, and Stewart Island is the anchor stone of his canoe. At the start of the Rakiura Track is a sculpture of an anchor chain, alluding to the Maori legend.

The Maori cruised the Muttonbird Islands around Stewart Island searching for the chicks of the sooty shearwater, or “muttonbird.” The chicks are so fat that they are easily chased down and killed. The resulting dinner is either a delicacy or an acquired taste, depending on who you talk to.

If you can survive the ferry ride across Foveaux Strait, you can probably survive the Rakiura Track. The hour-long trip was the most challenging part of the weekend for my wife Diane, who doesn’t care much for boats.

We could’ve chosen to fly, but Diane doesn’t care much for airplanes, either, especially the tiny ones that take you from Invercargill to Halfmoon Bay, or Oban (population 390), Stewart Island’s only town. For most people, the flight isn’t much more expensive ($145 round trip compared to $90), but we got a deal on the ferry. Since we live in Southland, we got a discount on adult tickets. And the ferry company had a special on during school holidays, so the kids rode free. The total was $110 for four round-trip tickets.

We boarded at 8:30 a.m. Diane was going to buy seasick medicine from the ticket agent, but the woman told her it was a nice calm day. “You’ll be right,” she said. “No worries.”

Five minutes into the 22-mile trip, it didn’t seem very calm, but we’d heard the Foveaux Strait was known for bad weather, so maybe this was as calm as it gets. Diane’s knuckles really were white as she gripped the back of the chair in front of her. I’d estimate that the waves were six to eight feet. As we crested the bigger ones, the captain would cut back on the throttle and turn the boat to ride down the valley. They say you can sometimes see dolphins, seals and whales on the crossing, but about all we could see was the next wave rising up to meet us. The captain did point out a mollymawk, a cousin of the albatross, that escorted our boat part way over the strait.

The whole thing was rocking side-to-side, but somehow the fear counteracted the seasickness for Diane. A toddler was screaming, but everyone else on the boat seemed unfazed. Maybe they were just better at faking it than Diane was. She finally asked one of the staff if the boat had ever tipped and was assured it hadn’t. That set her mind at ease and her stomach churning, but she made it over without using the seasickness bags provided on the back of each seat.

Leif, of course, enjoyed every minute of it. Half way over he turned to me and said, “I’m sorry that Mom doesn’t like it, but it sure is fun. It’s like a roller coaster.”

Finally we pulled around the point and into Halfmoon Bay. We walked off the dock and into town to the park headquarters to register and watched a video about the kakapo, a flightless parrot on the brink of extinction, with only 80-some left in the wild, mainly on Codfish Island, a predator-free sanctuary off the coast of Steward Island. Something I read was hard to believe: The kakapo was once the most common bird in New Zealand.

Imagine the country before the arrival of humans: No mammals besides bats, no poisonous snakes, just a few small lizards and birds of prey as the only predators. Dozens of birds lost their ability to fly, including kakapos, kiwis, and moas, a relative of the ostrich with a bunch of species, the largest standing over ten feet tall. Those that could fly did not develop habits that protected their nests and young from predators, since predators were so rare.

All the food that mammals eat in other environments – insects and grass and leaves and spiders and worms and fruit and nuts – was easy pickings for flightless birds. Just as squirrels and rabbits and deer and mice and moles and gophers are thick in the U.S. forests, so the kiwis and kakapos and wekas and moas would’ve been in New Zealand, prior to the arrival of humans.

When the Maori came a thousand years ago, moas were easy to kill and good to eat. They were one of the first to suffer extinction at the hands of humans and other mammals. The Maori also brought dogs, and a few rats might’ve stowed away on their wakes. A few hundred years later, when Europeans ships started arriving, cats came ashore and began eating eggs and young birds. Next came the stoat and the Australian possum, which were brought over because Europeans thought the islands needed a fur trade. The stoat, basically the same as the American weasel or ermine, is a fierce predator. It can kill not only the young but also the adults that are many times its size.

A kakapo from Codfish Island has been on display at Ulva Island, a predator-free sanctuary in Paterson Inlet, just five minutes by water taxi from Oban. We were planning on visiting the island after our hike, but we decided not to shell out the $80 per person the Department of Conservation was charging to view the kakapo.

Instead of hiking the first hour of the track, which takes you through town on blacktop roads, we hired a van to drive us to the end of the road. From there, it would be four hours of hiking, which, after the ferry ride, seemed like a walk in the park. Turned out it was.

As much as I enjoyed all three days of tramping, the first was my favorite, partly because of the sunny weather, but mainly because of the awesome views of Stewart Island’s wild, rugged coast, and three stretches of peaceful beach.

The trail wound its way along the side of the hills, dropping down to a sandy cove at Little River, and rising to cross headlands that were too steep for trails to traverse. The track was built up and topped with gravel. Ditches on the sides kept it well drained and free of the famous Stewart Island mud. Wood pigeons, tuis and bellbirds perched in plain view, and smaller birds flitted around the tree tops.

The forest on Stewart Island is primarily rimu, miro and kamahi, with lots of tree ferns and other ferns, vines, and mosses in places. The rimu are the most exotic for those of us who are unfamiliar with them. A member of the podocarp family, a type of conifer, the rimu has flaky bark and scaly leaves that hang from the branches like hair or Spanish moss. Many of the trees are four feet in diameter or larger and tower above the surrounding kamahi. Where the white-barked kamahi are thick, the forest is bright, like a birch or aspen forest back home.

The second beach we came to was Maori Beach. From there, we could see across the bay to Port William Hut, where we’d be spending the night. There’s a campground at Maori Beach with a cistern where we filled our waterbottles. After a long walk along the sand, checking out the shells and the oystercatchers, we came to a suspended bridge where the trail reentered the forest and took us up a long hill to a junction. The hut was down a half-hour spur trail. The next day we would come back to this junction to head off toward the North Arm Hut.

Port William Hut is at the site of a 19th Century community. It sits on a sheltered cove and was a sealing and whaling base. In the 1860s, the government subsidized a group from the Shetland Islands to start a fishing and logging village there. The eucalyptus trees they planted lasted longer than the community. They still stand over the hut as a civilized counterpoint to the wild forest we’d just passed through.

While Diane and I had afternoon coffee, Leif and Cedar made a sandcastle on the beach. After that, Leif and I hiked up a short nature trail, stopping to read the plaques identifying the common trees. It was muddy but worth the walk, which finished on a high headland with a view of the South Island. We could see the Hump Ridge near Tuatapere, our temporary home.

The most surprising thing about our weekend was the small number of fellow trampers. School kids were on holiday, and this was a weekend, yet the only other people in the hut were a Taiwanese woman on a year-long working holiday and a young couple from Invercargill. The boat had about 50 people on it, but most of them must have been local commuters or people staying in Oban. We had a four-bunk room to ourselves, Janice (the Taiwanese woman) had another, and the couple had the big room, which sleeps about twenty.

The guy from Invercargill, who runs a dive shop, was there to hunt and snorkel and spearfish. As we were making supper, we got to talking, and he asked me if I’d ever eaten paua. I said I hadn’t, but I’d been curious about it because people on the south coast of the South Island takes a lot of pride in paua shells. He told me it was the same thing as abalone, but I said I’d never eaten that either.

He disappeared and came back a few minutes later soaking wet, with a rubbery black hunk of meat he’d cut out of its shell. He told me to tenderize it by pounding it with a rock a few times, then to slice it in half and fry it up over a cook stove. I did, and it was good. Even Cedar liked it.

In the evening, he walked off into the woods with his gun over his shoulder and his girl at his side. For an American, it’s hard to get used to. In the US, hunting seasons are short and animals managed carefully to avoid overharvest. Hunters wear blaze orange, and during deer season, everyone else stays inside crouched behind the sofa.

Here, since all the mammals are considered pests, hunters are encouraged to shoot as many as they can.

We had heard that Stewart Island was a good place to spot a kiwi, so after it got dark, we organized a kiwi hunt. Janice came along, following the kids, who talked in loud voices and shined their flashlights all over the place. We heard one odd bird call from the ground, maybe a hundred yards away, but that was it. A better technique for kiwi spotting might be banging pots and pans together and shouting “Here, kiwi kiwi kiwi!”

After we went to our bunks, I thought about waking up late and going on a solo kiwi hunt, but lying in bed felt too good. Diane went out and heard a morepork, the native New Zealand owl, but didn’t see any kiwis.

The morning weather had turned gray, so we packed our raingear at the top of our packs before heading down the trail. The second day’s track crosses land from the coast to the shore of Paterson Inlet. That means the first half of the day is spent going mainly up, culminating with a climb to a small observation tower, and the second half of the day is a long downhill stroll.

This trail wasn’t as maintained as the trail to Port William, but by American standards, it was pretty good. Most of it was paved in kiwi fashion with chicken wire covering 1×3 slats nailed to 2×4 runners, which in turn were fastened to posts driven into the ground. The chicken wire gave us good traction once it started to rain, and the boardwalks kept us out of the mud most of the day. The long morning was broken up by two stream crossings on cable swinging bridges, which the kids loved. The last stretch of the hill up to the summit didn’t have boardwalks, so we got pretty muddy climbing over roots and rocks.

The observation tower gave us a good view of Paterson Inlet and the surrounding forests. You get a sense of how little of the island the Rakiura Track covers. Hikers looking for more of a wilderness adventure can do the Northwest Circuit, which covers the northern half of the island in eight to ten days, with a spur trail to the high point of the island, Mt. Anglem, or Hananui. Maybe someday Leif will be ready for that, but by then his dad might not be.

The downhill trek turned out to be harder for Diane and me than the uphill part. Our knees took a pounding from the boardwalk steps, so by the end of the trail, we were hobbling. The kids ran on ahead while we went slower and slower to protect our tender old joints. The Rakiura Track is rated “easy” compared to most other New Zealand tramps. By the end of the day, we were glad we hadn’t chosen something harder for our first Great Walk.

The rain continued as we settled into the hut. Janice had beaten us there and was trying to start a fire. Diane helped her while Leif and I took a walk in the rain to the beach, which was pretty, with jagged rocks in a protected cove, but not as open and inviting as the one at Port William. When we returned to the cabin, the two American lads had been joined by their hiking partners, two American girls, one from Wisconsin, which is our neighboring state back home. They told us about their experience in Dunedin and their hike from Mason Bay, where they had been dropped off by a small plane that landed on the beach. Soon our final companion arrived, a Kiwi named Blair, who had recently graduated from college and was completing the Northwest Circuit.

We had supper, played cards, and went to bed early, but we were awoken by a spine-tingling screech outside the cabin, and the sound of little feet running across the deck. Again, I was too tired to investigate, but we guessed it might’ve been a kiwi or some other bird that screeched, and probably a possum running across the deck.

A few minutes into our final hike the next morning, Blair came tramping up behind us at a much quicker pace than we were used to. “Blue cod awaits,” he said, a phrase that ran through my mind for the rest of the day. To get to that blue cod, we had another 5- or 6-hour hike through the same beautiful forest, with a couple river crossings and two rest stops where the trail dropped down to Paterson Inlet. With an hour left, we came to an old road, which was graveled and ditched and easier going than the boardwalks. The last half hour followed a blacktop road into Halfmoon Bay. On the way out, we saw a flock of parakeets and dozens of tuis in the shrubbery at the edge of town.

Since we were planning to visit Ulva Island before heading home the following day, we took a room at the South Seas Hotel, a nice old inn with a pub and a restaurant and a great view of the fishing boats in the harbor. We ate a good supper (I had blue cod), and watched New Zealand Idol and another show or two before turning in. At Ulva Island the next day, we saw kakas (native parrots), parakeets, Stewart Island robins, tomtits, and lots and lots of wekas that would not stop trying to steal our lunch while we sat on the beautiful sandy beach.

The ferry trip was nothing like the ride over. Gentle swells rocked Diane to sleep. The woman who had told her it was a nice calm day had been lying through her teeth.

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