Stuart Island is remote. Situated twenty miles off the Antarctic end of New Zealand, it is home to about four hundred Kiwis of both the human and the bird variety. It stands in the way of the winds that circulate the southern oceans and has a reputation for weather - lots of it. A friend told me he'd experienced twenty eight inches of rain in two days so I'd purchased a brand new Gore-tex anorak as insurance in the half price sale at the outdoor shop in Nelson before heading south. There are nine so-called 'Great Walks' in New Zealand of which the well groomed, duck boarded, Milford Track is the most famous. The North West Circuit, some-times referred to as 'The Muddiest Walk in the World', is not one of them. It follows a mountainous coastline and has a reputation for length and toughness. The Lonely Planet Trampers guide says 'Hard - one hundred and twenty five kilometres', and suggests ten to twelve days - twice the time needed for anything else in the book. A quick calculation and you realise that this means an average of eight miles per day. What, I wondered, do you do after lunch? Getting first hand information was difficult. Everybody knew someone who had done it but nobody had actually done it themselves.
When I disembarked from the ferry from Bluff to Half Moon Bay, I had already walked the Keplar Track, hiked the Routeburn, the Greenstone back to back and `tramped', as the Kiwis say, the Milford Track. I was not only fit, but had got my food requirements and cooking routines sorted out and my gear honed down to a comfortable minimum, except, that is, for my Voigtiander and lenses and my Leica, which formed an awkward weight beneath the lid of my pack. I had also rented a special radio beacon that would alert the authorities to my whereabouts if I hit the panic button. So on the morning of the 25th January I set off down the metalled road which soon gave way to a good grassy path shared with the Rakiura Great Walk. I had lunch at Port William Hut which marks the end of the first day of that much shorter and easier route. Thereafter, a less well made, and increasingly difficult path took me along the coast to Big Bungaree Beach where I arrived shortly before five pm. It had taken me six and a half hours for what the guide book reckoned twelve to fourteen hours. I was cruising. I had the hut all to myself and so was somewhat annoyed when a couple of hours later I saw a lone figure heading along the rocky beach towards the hut. I like to think I hid my irritation at having to share the simple accommodation with Anna, a very fit, bronzed, nineteen year old from Australia.
The next morning I was just a tiny bit miffed to find, on waking up, that Anna was ready to leave - but I'd soon catch her up. When I arrived at Christmas Village Hut, five hours later, (the book said nine hours), Anna was finishing lunch. I had confided to her the previous evening, that I hoped to climb Mount Anglem, at 3180 feet the highest point on the island, and best approached from Christmas Village. Had I been by myself I would have left Mount Anglem for the next day, or possibly even for ever, but it was quite clear that Anna was intent on the summit and after cup-a-soup, salami, black bread and coffee I found myself climbing a very steep path which involved root pulling and tree climbing. The way was difficult to follow and the only mitigating factor was a very light pack with minimal gear. It was a tough climb and even after emerging from the trees the path, if you could call it that, was intermittent and difficult to follow. It was agreed that, come what may, we would turn back by 5.00pm. At 5.40 we reached the summit and spent twenty minutes admiring a view of the whole island and had to chase the daylight back to the hut which we reached just before dark.
It had been a particularly hard day and when I look my boots off I was dismayed to discover blisters on my toes, something I'd not had for years. They were big and messy and I couldn't believe I hadn't felt them developing. I spent a couple of hours next morning trying to protect my toes and didn't get off till ten thirty. It took me four hours to get to Lucky Bay, a real misnomer, where I had the utmost difficulty leaving the beach by way of a very steep sand slope, and a fight with an aggressive tree which had fallen across the path. I couldn't climb over or round it. There was not enough room to get under it and climbing through it just seemed to bring out the worst in it. I considered hitting my panic button, but there is a hefty fine for anything less than a broken leg. I reached Yankee River at five thirty with my blisters in shreds and flu like symptoms. There was no sign of Anna.
I slept well and felt much better the next day which started with a big climb followed by a lot of scrambling on tree roots leading to Smokey Beach, which was defended by sand dunes amongst which I succeeded in loosing the path. The beach itself was about a mile and a half long. The sand was too soft for easy walking, and at the end a river-crossing led to an interminable section of steep and densely wooded ridges and gullies. The day ended with another long descent which reduced my blisters to a bloody mess. Long Harry is the smallest but on the route with just three double bunks and is famous for its colony of Yellow Eyed Penguins which showed up at sunset. Perhaps there is a God because the next day was short - the guide book said four hours whilst I took five, but my feet now had a chance to recover. The powerful healing qualities of the juices of the tea tree plant were working their magic and the walking itself was becoming easier with good views out to sea and to offshore islands.
I shared the hut at East Ruggardy Bay with two DOC (Department of Conservation) workers. Throughout the walk the weather had been warm and summery, and at this but I had to go in search of water - normally unheard of on Stuart Island, but the rain water tanks contained only a few inches of brown, brackish water.
The next two days were perhaps the best. My feet felt better, my pack was lighter, the walking, whilst hilly was more straightforward, the views were great and the isolation and remoteness were very real. West Ruggardy Beach was the first place I'd been able to walk, uninterrupted by vegetation, mud pockets or boulders for five days. On West Ruggardy Beach I met a fit looking Australian travelling very fast and light and who, I later learned over a welcome pint, completed the walk in four days. Before leaving the beach a small plane circled overhead. It then flew down the length of the beach at about twenty feet before finally, to my amazement, landing and deposited a family of campers on the far end of the beach. My route took me up the long ridge line of the Ruggardy Mountains and eventually to Hell Fire Hut, high above the sea with views across to Codfish Island where the rare Kakapo flightless bird receives special protection and where I was treated to a great sunset.
The Port William Hut: Image-Tramping.Net NZ
An early start was rewarded by a fine dawn and temperature inversion across the wide expanse of the Freshwater valley. The hilly ridge continued to Mason Bay where ropes provided hand holds down the steep descent to the beach. A thunder storm was brewing out to sea and rain drops chased me down the three miles of boulders to the accompaniment of raging surf and thunder claps. At Duck Creek I turned my back on the sea and soon arrived at the well equipped Mason Bay but where suddenly the world became a different place. The hut was full of people - tourists who had arrived by air and walkers who had hiked the easy track from Freshwater Bay, where they had been delivered by water taxi. Because I'd arrived the hard way, I was treated with a degree of deference. One couple insisted that I share their two litre wine box, something I felt obliged to do, rather than have them carry it back the next day. A party of hikers quizzed me about the route that now lay behind me, but ahead of them. Perhaps it was the wine, but I was persuaded that the best way to finish was to take the boat from Freshwater rather than join day three of the Rakiura Track.
On that last day I eventually saw a Kiwi - the bird, that is - in broad daylight. The walking was level and my pack hardly weighed anything. One section provided a photo opportunity through a tunnel formed by tall Manuka plants - like walking through giant heather, twenty feet high. At Freshwater Landing I lay in the sun for a couple of hours, waiting for the water taxi which whisked me back to Half Moon Bay and a hot bath. I ran into Anna and the speeding Australian, who took me to the caravan on the sea front where we had the best fish and chips in the world, washed down with beer from the pub across the street.Mark Vallance with his highly acclaimed autobiography-Wild Country. Image-Vertebrate Publishing
On my way back north I tramped the Copland Track, the Inland Pack Track and finally the Heaphy Track, a total of thirty days of hiking. During all that time I only put my anorak on once. All the walks were good. The variety was amazing and I'd recommend them all, but the one I'll remember for ever is the North West Circuit.
Mark Vallance: 2005. First published in Loose Scree.