Freshwater Hut to Mason Bay Hut - 3-4 Hours - 15.5km
My New Zealand visa was running out for the fourth time so I needed to get the hell away from my emails. After booking and cancelling the Rakiura Great Walk (thanks bed bugs) a group of us had come up with a nice little adventure plan on Stewart Island. We'd get the ferry to Oban. Have fifteen minutes to hop in a water taxi which would take us to Christmas Village Hut on the North East coast. There we would summit Mt Anglem/Hananui, the highest point on the island and be back to the hut in time for tea. Then we'd spend two days hiking back to Oban.
Problem being, Christmas Village Bay doesn't have a proper landing… so if there are waves bigger than your shins it would flip the dingy and throw us all in the sea. With our heavily laden packs we'd have sunk like rocks! Despite the seemingly lovely weather in Oban, the skipper gave us a "less than 50%" chance of landing that day and if it backfired it would throw a HUGE spanner in the works for the rest of the weekend. We always knew this would be a risk but for the sake of common sense I had to let go of weeks of planning and logistics.
Sod it. Time for PLAN B!!?
The Southern Circuit was much more sheltered so we whizzed down the river towards Freshwater Hut. Squealing with joy as it leaned hard around each bend. The first day was easy going. Literally a straight line for half a day. Glorious weather, good company and 14km of deserted beach to greet us at the end! After some obligatory team skinny dipping that I'll never forget, a quick painting of Mason Bay and a failed attempt to find kiwis (the birds not the people) we rested up, excited to spend two more days discovering the depths of Stewart Island.
The island watched quietly, smiling to itself because it knew what was coming...
Mason Bay to Doughboy Hut - 6-7 Hours - 18km
Day 2 of our hike got a bit messy.
Figuring we had plenty of daylight for a seven hour hike we had a late start and wandered the remaining 10km along the beautiful undisturbed beach of Mason Bay. I say wandered. We couldn't stand still because the sandflies were unreal! After the gang voiced varying concerns about timings, we decided to take a detour to see the Gutter. A cute little inlet that broke between two sides of the island.
What we hadn't factored in, or even COULD factor in, is just how ridiculous the rest of the trail would get. In an attempt to shortcut back on to the official trail we scouted some dunes to cross. This wasted time. Then we considered bush bashing. Wasting more time. Then we doubled back to the trail. Wasting even more time. Then I needed lunch, because I'd been too busy wasting time. Wasting some more time for good measure!
Understandably once we found the trail, the rest of the crew went into hyper-drive to make it to the hut in good time. Georgina and I simply couldn't keep up. Then things started getting… problematic.
It turns out Stewart Islands infamy for being muddy isn't an exaggeration. We were all confident and full of swagger until we started sinking to our shins. Then our knees. Then our thighs! And it wasn't just normal mud. No no. If you were lucky, you pushed yourself through and it rewarded you with an awful stench!
It also turns out Georgina doesn't like mud. Especially mud that smells of farts. And she was having none of it. Stern words were had with Stewart Island as the unpredictable combo of branches, roots and deep mud knocked her flat on her bum. She really didn't want to be on the trail any more but to her credit she kept pushing on. A brief topo and time check revealed we weren't even half way to Doughboy Hut at 4:30pm… I tried to stay as positive as possible for her morale, but a sinking feeling crept over me. Secretly wondering when on earth we'd escape the stinky assault course.
Eventually, to our relief, we found everyone else patiently waiting on top of Adam's Hill. It was Adam's birthday that weekend so we celebrated with an entire cheeseboard and a bottle of whisky (ultralight gear?). It was such a relief to finally catch up with the gang and the next section of mud quickly changed tone. It was absolutely hilarious, with a few of us deciding to embrace the situation and walk in a straight line through everything. One footstep would go ankle deep, lure you into a false sense of security and the next would plummet you down to your waist! Bonkers!
Come 9pm (four hours late) the sun was giving up its last light and we'd made it safely to Doughboy Hut. Quietly waiting for us on its own secluded beach. We disturbed some poor chap who was probably enjoying the peace and quiet. Then celebrated with some birthday cake. Two kiwis (birds not people) gatecrashed the party to sign off a fairly epic day!
Doughboy Hut to Rakeahua Hut - 8 Hours - 16km
Our third and final day on the Southern Circuit got a little intense.
Being separated from my friends and supporting Georgina to get through the forest of mud and farts had really taken it out of me. When I woke up the next day, hearing rain pouring on the roof and knowing we had eight more hours of mud to push through, my stomach sank. I quietly cried while making breakfast. Secretly cried on the loo. Cried in the rain so nobody could see. It was all a bit much!
But why all the stress!? Wasn't the mud fun now?
The challenge was that we absolutely HAD to make Rakeahua Hut by 4pm else the water taxi wouldn't be able to collect us and we'd be stranded another night. In theory it would take eight hours, and we'd given ourselves 8.5. The chap in the hut said it had taken him nine... The problem with Stewart Island is it's wildly unpredictable. After six hours of navigating obstacles in constant rain, we could have almost been there… but for all we knew the last two hours could be impassable and up to our waists in mud! All we could do was maintain a constant sense of urgency, push forward and hope for the best. This was super tiring and a bit of a drag compared to the laughs of the previous day.
It was all worth it though because to everyone's surprise, we actually reached a point where we had 2 hours to hike all of 500 metres! The group sighed a collective sigh of relief and we quickly snapped back to "fun mud" mode. Deliberately walking in a straight line through the boggiest sections we'd come across yet. Squealing with glee when we found "some of that good mud" for people to come and try out.
To finish things off I enthusiastically stepped in one last puddle, sank up to my waist and got well and truly stuck. This mud was particularly sticky and it sucked tight around my legs. Try as I might, I couldn't move my legs at all and the more I struggled, the tighter it held me. I was stuffed. Stewart Island didn't want me to leave. Luckily Adam was there to help drag me out but it did leave me wondering how on earth you'd navigate this trail safely on your own. You'd definitely need a PLB!
Battered and half mud-drowned, we all made it to the hut in good time. We'd done it. We'd been through the heart of Stewart Island and just about made it out the other side in one piece.
Sat on the water taxi, whizzing us back to civilization, I left this hike really conflicted. I'm glad I got to experience everything Stewart Island could throw at me. It challenged me in ways I didn't expect and the island itself is beautiful in it's own way. But would I recommend it? Only if you're up for a challenge and get a kick out of mud! If not you're probably better off staying in the pub!
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