Bright sunlight breaks over the top of Mount Larkin. The cloud has lifted, leaving behind the pristine white summits of the mountains that rise all around Glenorchy. What a beautiful day. I spread the remaining damp gear over the roof and the grass, hoping things would be at least touch dry by the time I hit the road. They were. I drove back towards Queenstown with a huge grin pasted across my face. I stopped to stretch my legs around the Mount Crichton Loop Track. Mostly in the shade, a few stops to take the briefly available views then I carried on. I followed the shore of Lake Wakatipu, the length of the lightning bolt lake carved out of the rock by the former expanse of the Dart Glacier. I passed through Kingston and then back to Lumsden. My freedom camping home in Southland. I crashed in the night. The restless nights of the Rees-Dart Track catching up with me. I dropped in at the Route 6 Cafe again for another mega big-time breakfast. I pulled together something like a plan for the day. Get to Invercargill, buy gaiters, buy food, find somewhere to sleep for free.
Leaving Lumsden for Invercargill feels temporarily momentous. The furthest South I’ve been so far. With every passing mile the feeling fades, I’m always going further. Invercargill is a weird place. Low, earthquake safe buildings. A mix of paint chipped colonial facades and concrete. None of the cities outside of Auckland really feel like cities. Another resupply, one I need to manage better than normal. Either side of the Rakiura Track I’ve got a night in a hostel in Oban. What I don’t want to end up doing is eating out for the extra four meals. I pick up each variety of muesli, reading the calories. Looking for the highest number, which happens to be the last one I pick up. I then accidentally spend $7 on peanut butter stuffed pretzel pieces which turn out to be as good as they sound. I then left Invercargill, heading for the freedom camp at Thornbury. The sky wobbles in and out of tantrums, threatening to cry at any minute. I do my best to pack everything I need. Going over and over the same list in my head. Tent, bed, food, gas, stove, clothes, water. I think I have everything and yet the bag feels strangely light. I imagined it would be heavier. I’m looking at 30km in 3 days. On those numbers alone this should be a proverbial and literal walk in the National Park. This is another one of those situations in which now I know what I’m up against, what I’m capable of. I probably didn’t need a night in a hostel either end. My ferry bookings were moved due to the drop in demand. I’ll be on Stewart Island by 10am. No reason I couldn’t have walked off the boat straight on to the track. At least this way I have a bit of time to explore, not enough time to do the serious tramping tracks. Other things I’ve learned about after it’s too late. I park the van, drop my bag off and wait in the ferry terminal. Even arriving at the specified check in time I’ve got time on my hands.
We pile on to the boat. I don’t know why but I was expecting something bigger. The Interislander is massive. No cars go to Stewart Island. This is foot traffic only but the boat is still full. We leave the calm of Bluff and head into the Foveaux Strait. Out in the open water we begin to rise and fall, riding waves like a rollercoaster. Eyes close, people put their phones away. The crew count down until the first passenger runs down the boat to evacuate the contents of their stomach over the back. The low rising hills of Stewart Island appears through the spray. The other, lesser known, Third Island. The answer to Australia’s Tasmania, if Australia’s Tasmania were a question that needed an answer. We have arrived. I head to Stewart Island Backpackers in the hope I can drop my bag and the receptionist hands me a key and tells me the room is ready. One of my room mates is already in bed, he looks familiar in the way everyone on this tiny island will come to look familiar over the next three days. He just arrived as well. I drop my stuff, move over to offer my hand, “I’m Chris.” “Jannik” he replied. “I’m going to catch the ferry to Ulva Island, do you want to come?” I ask. Already Stewart Island Backpackers is proving more social than the YHA in Auckland. Jannik is keen so we head over the hill to Golden Bay.
A wise looking lady sells leaves for a safe passage. A man of the water checks we have a leaf before allowing us on board his boat. “Do you have a leaf?” he asks a man. “No,” says the man, “we just booked over the phone.” “If you don’t have a leaf you’re not getting on. Maybe you booked another boat.” “We just booked, on the phone.” the man repeats, taking the louder and slower approach despite speaking the same language. “Go and see the woman in the booth, if she gives you a leaf you can get on. Otherwise, you’re probably on a different boat.” The man doesn’t return with a leaf. Jannik and I take a seat, we’re the only two people on our side of the boat. As the swell breaks over the side, spraying us with salt water we realise why. The sun is out, the wind blows up from the South. We’ll dry out. Those same low, gentle hills sit quietly above the blue waves. Ulva Island appears before us. The green forest blushes red with the blossom of the Rata trees. The boat docks at the Old Post Office Wharf. There is no Post Office here anymore. There are no people to send post to. On the beach, a colossal creature of the deep lounges in the midday sun. The biggest sea lion I have ever seen. The only predator on this island.
Away from the water the clamour increases. The dawn chorus continues all day. Screeches and screams. Whistles and whirs. Ulva Island is a magical place. A window into the past, how thing used to be, before we ripped the magic out of the land. A possibility of how it could be again, if we have the courage to allow the magic back. A flash of lime green through the canopy. Something small stops on a branch. A kakariki. A tick off my mental list of New Zealand birds. The chiming of bell birds and the gurgle of tui never stops. Other sounds come, some i know, some I don’t. Jannik points to burrows, potential nests for kiwi. Not that we’re likely to see one in the middle of the day. Kaka sit meters from our face, stripping the bark from trees, hunting for bugs. South Island Robins sit at our feet, investigating our shoelaces. Are these lunch or no? At each unusual sound, one of us, sometimes both stop and stare into the canopy. Trying to find the owner. A yellow head appears in the nook of a tree. Another tick. Then in the leaves someone new. A rare one, I can’t remember his name. Little red cheeks. Jannik calls him the blushing bird and I think that fits. Later I learn he’s a tieke. The saddleback. I still prefer blushing bird. The screams from on high remind me again and again of a bigger, older ancestry. Dinosaurs do exist, they are all around us. We have seen and heard the children of the forest. We return to the boat. Our leaves of safe passage are taken from us. Our names are ticked off the register. It seems no one is left behind. As we cruise back to Golden Bay, Jannik points out the penguins leaping through the shallow water. Again, his water trained eyes catch an octopus pulling itself through rock pools. The magic coming back with us.
We return to the mainland. The island off an island off an island. We stop in the centre of Oban. One hotel, one shop. More cars than are sensible for the length of the road available. Two have stopped either side of the road, windows down, a conversation flowing. The evening comes, Jannik and I head to observation rock to watch the slow death of the day. Light spreads and fades across the inlets, the points, the low, rolling hills. Kaka dominate the sky. We are here, they say. This is where we belong. Tui fold away their wings and drop like falcons into the canopy. The night comes and the voice of the birds is eventually silenced. Stewart Island by night holds our best chance of spotting a kiwi. I have heard many legends, head to the rugby field, walk the streets of Oban, wait until you’re on the Rakiura Track, don’t want until you’re on the Rakiura Track. Jannik and I agree that if everyone goes to the rugby field, we’ll be unlikely to see anything. We make our own plan, walking the track from Golden Bay to Deep Bay. Waves lap on sand. Wind rustles trees. In the deep, dark bush something moves. We stop dead. Listening. Waiting. Is it moving closer, or further away? The rustling sounds like two feet, something of reasonable size. Surely, it must be? We see nothing. We carry on. Stopping every time we hear the continuous shuffle. There is so much to hear, but we see nothing. It’s dark, it’s later. I’m start to get tired. We still have to go back. We reach the end of the track, out in the open on the side of a road. The clear, moonless night blows us both away. Stars beyond stars beyond stars. White flashes of satellites. The distant, ancient glow of the galaxy’s edge. It’s not a kiwi, but it’s not bad. “it’s not been our night,” I say to Jannik, “I’m gonna head back.” I still have tomorrow night, and the night after, and the night after. We go up and over Peterson Hill. “Do you know where we are?” asks Jannik. I stop to check my phone to show him. The unmistakable shuffle starts up beneath a streetlight. We stop once more, for one last chance. “Come on buddy, come out,” whispers Jannik after every rustle. We wait. I am running out of patience. It doesn’t matter. If I don’t see a kiwi they can hold on to their mystery. And then, as if in response to Jannik’s plea the bigger than a chicken, surprisingly big actually, kiwi steps out of the bush on to the road. It has a tiny head, a straw long beak, beady little eyes and a seemingly wingless body that makes no sense. He seems curious about us. Looking at us as if to say what are you up to then, out here in the dark? Jannik and I lose our minds to excitement. I can’t believe we walked all through the bush for one to appear on the road, beneath a streetlight. The kiwi loses interest in his audience and waddles up the road. At the next streetlight he disappears once more into the bush. I am satisfied, I have seen enough. “I’m going Jannik,” I say, to a man so wrapped up in the moment he doesn’t hear me. He doesn’t follow either. I leave him to it.
For whatever reason I decide sleeping in a hostel room with four others will somehow be different to hut. It isn’t. Someone snores. The room is too hot. I find myself beyond the reaches of the washing machine spin cycle and sleep well for a change. I’d committed to starting slow when the kiwi hunt stretched into the early hours. I use and abuse the facilities while I have them. In an action hero montage I lace up my boots, strap up my gaiters, click my pack straps together, and then readjust everything underneath. I wish Jannik and his fishing rod luck for the day. I check in at the DOC office, who have my name on a list, tick me off and then tell me I still need to carry some form of confirmation for bureaucratic reasons known only to themselves. I take a screenshot of my email booking and disappear down the road. The Rakiura Track is a loop from Oban into the Rakiura National Park. The track doesn’t technically start for 5km, some people have arranged transport to save their legs. In what is already a short day I don’t mind using the time to get used to Iain’s gifted poles. The sun shines, the beach looks subtropical. How is this possible, again, this close to Antarctica? Were in not for the roaring 40s wind and the tent based anxiety rising with every gust, I could easily be convinced I was on my way to paradise.
I insist on keeping Iain’s poles in my hands, no matter how much I want to put them away I need to learn. I need to get comfortable. It takes me a while to figure it out, I have to adjust the height. Work out which strap goes around which wrist. To begin with, obviously I overthink walking. I try to get the pendulum action happening. The asymmetrical swing of an arm and a leg which will happen on its own if I stop thinking about it and let it happen. On the packed gravel track at the beginning of the Rakiura Track things start to come together. I’m not sure if I’m travelling faster or if the addition of the swing-clank of my third and fourth leg make my pace more obvious to me. I spend a lot of time looking down, foot and pole in line along the gravel. No mud. Everyone had warned me this one would be a mud-fest but I’m starting to think this might be the highest quality of the Great Walks so far. I’m not sure my new gaiters would have much to do. These of course, would become famous last thoughts. The track runs mostly flat through the bush. I drop out on to the golden sands of Maori Beach, another slice of paradise. Almost, the wind flying straight down the beach gives me a good sandblasting. Whipping around the frames of my glasses, by the time I reach the turquoise waters beneath the swing bridge i’m almost crying. Over the clunking of Iain’s poles I hear the tell tale rustle of kiwi. In the middle of the day. Surely not? I approach the ferns, poles bent behind like wings. A tiny face peers back at me. The smallest deer I’ve ever seen darts over the undergrowth and descends into the belly of the forest. The gradual descent is lined with massive Rimu trees. I come to a section of track taped off. There was no warning of track closure. The tape marks a steep drop back down to the track. Looking back, one fo the giant Rimus has taken a fall. Strange to have a diversion, rather than the expectation to find my own way around the obstacle. A jetty appears in the window frame of leaves and branches. Port William. Tonight’s place of rest.
Even with the additional weight of camping I find I’m too fast. Four hours on the track. I arrive to find a few others in the camp shelter. Bruce, and his two boys, Joe and Calvin. I say hello and get to the serious business of finding a wind-sheltered spot in which to test my tent. The Abel Tasman patch up job has held firm. I’m grateful for this one less problem to deal with. I get the tent up, the sun is still shining. I realise that while camping in the rain is far from ideal, camping in good-to-glorious weather is incredible. There is nothing comparable to a night almost outdoors, separated from the wilderness by paper thin walls. The Boys are conked out in the sun. Typical, not Nanas enjoying a Nana nap. I eat lunch and watch the wind toy with the tent. This is nothing like Paine Grande. The wind is only coming in one direction at any given time. The tent ripples but never bends. I’m feeling confident, happier we’ll last the night. More campers join us. I’m surprised, having been alone in the rain on the Abel Tasman. More surprising is I’m the only one who’s camping without children. I look at these parents and I think good on you. I get chatting with Orlando, asking him if his kids are enjoying it. “I don’t ask,” he tell me, which I guess is better than knowing for sure. I hope they are. They’ve come from the other way, they’ve already washed the mud off their boots. Those gaiters might come in handy after all. When the evening finally arrives, Joe lights the fire. We sit for a while, enjoying the flames. The Boys head off to bed. I decide to sit up and wait. Who knows, maybe the kiwi will come to me. The increasing darkness, the shifting light, the movement of wind in the trees. The world plays tricks on me. Is that dark patch that definitely wasn’t there a moment ago a kiwi? No, it’s the shadow of a fern. I can hear them, their rustling in the undergrowth. A few distant screams. They’re out there but they’re not here.
There can be few things as satisfying as waking up to find the forecast rain still hasn’t arrived. The tent is dry. The tent is still here, in one piece. Several victories to celebrate. I drop the tent while the air remains clear. Everything else can wait. The tea towel I left hanging in the shelter has departed from the hook. Maybe the wind claimed one victory. I look through the nearby bushes to see if it’s caught anywhere. A minor inconvenience to have to let things air dry. While I’m cleaning my teeth I spot it, trapped beneath the shelter wall and the floor. Take that, wind! I am walking out of camp at 9am. Grey skies hang over head, the threat of rain is imminent. This is another short distance day that I expect to be over fairly quickly. The Rakiura Track doesn’t have the same “oh wow” factor that the other Great Walks so far have had. It is a three day bush walk, that at a push, could be completed in a day. There are no big climbs, no river crossings, the only thing anyone talks about is the mud. The mud comes. The gravel disappears. Black netting that may have once held something like a track together passes through the puddles. In the end, the mud isn’t all that much to worry about. Maybe I’m lucky, the last few days have been dry. This isn’t super squelcher territory. There are many other routes around the worst of the mud. The one miss-step I take places me ankle deep in bog. The mud sucks on my boot, the bottom of my gaiter and I pull myself free. The poles, however, i lose more frequently. This at least is a benefit of a quiet, mostly well formed track. I can learn a little bit more about my new equipment. How to get the best out of them, or at least how now to avoid getting them stuck. My rhythm on the flat is mostly good, on the slight ups and downs I find I start thinking too much. Adjusting the length at every change in gradient seems wasteful so I power on through. The bush at least maintains its power over me. Deep greens, tall trunks, a mix of tree ferns and Rimu. A fallen rimu bridges the path. The vines of a rata wrap around the split, building a new trunk that rises to the canopy. Nothing is wasted in the forest. Dense groves of juveniles cling together. In areas that must have once been cleared for milling Manuka scrub forms the canopy. Scattered throughout the bush are the rusted remains of a dying industry. Bruce told me “you can either remove the rubbish from the trail or you can put up a sign and call it heritage,” which seems to be the case here. The signs don’t explain why the machinery was left to rust. Like carrying your rubbish with you, it would always be easier to leave it behind. The Boys let me pass. I don’t think there’s anyone else on the trail ahead of me. I’ve seen no one from the hut. You wouldn’t know it was there if you didn’t know it was there. One other family passes going the other way. For a Great Walk, I feel remarkably alone. The track is endlessly quiet.
The sky finally lets go, rain starts to fall. The trees play their own song. Creaking and squeaking in the wind. I hold off on putting my waterproofs on. I can’t be far away. For now, the rain is refreshing. A 5 minute to the camp sign appears. I step into the shelter as the water flows heavier. Another man, one I haven’t seen before comes in just after me. “Perfect timing, eh?” he says. “We beat the rain.” Indeed we did. Nadav brews coffee in his pan. I’ve heard of this technique but never seen it done. The rolling boil helps the grounds gain weight, they settle in the same way they would if encouraged by a plunger. He lets me have a taste. Not bad. In fact, it’s pretty amazing what you can do without equipment. He disappears towards where I think the sea might be. There were rumours of good mussels. I wouldn’t know what a good mussel looked like, or how to remove it from the rocks. Nadav comes back with a small bucket full of shells and invites us all to try his ocean bounty. The Boys are having apricot crumble for dessert. Nadav thinks he can make an apple crumble. I’m interested. I have an apple. The Boys contribute some condensed milk. The other couple add some cinnamon oats and dark chocolate. Nadav puts me to work. I chop the apples, a handful of dates, some almonds. The apples go in one pan with a splash of water, a squirt of condensed milk and the dates. “And what are you doing, while I do all the work?” I ask Nadav. “I’m waiting for the apples to soften before I toast the crumble” he declares. We call the other’s cooking skills into doubt, which is brave considering neither of us know how this is going to turn out. The rest of the shelter guests are kept entertained at least. Once Nadav is happy with the texture he begins to fry the oat mix with a Nature Valley granola bar. Now that the apples are done we kill the heat, put the dark chocolate over the top. Nadav sprinkles the crumble on top. We are all of us impressed. The apples are soft and sweet, the chocolate is chocolate, and the crumble is crisp. We would have struggled to do as well in a fully equipped kitchen. Everyone has several spoonfuls.
At North Arm the kiwi are loudest. Marking their territory with a curdling scream. Beneath their cries a ruru hoots his own name. How near, how far? I don’t bother to get up. In the morning the rain has ceased. The sky between the trees is big, empty and blue. A chance for the tent to dry before it’s packed away again. I take my coffee in a pocket of sunshine. Nowhere to go today but out. Nothing to do but wait. The Boys go early, with a ferry to catch. Nadav goes next, he wants to get to Ulva Island this afternoon. I enjoy the slow morning with Richie and T. More names to add to the list of good people I’ve met while hiking trails in New Zealand. I start walking close to midday, the tent isn’t dry but it’ll do. The bush is verdant. The trunks are thin. The new growth of secondary forest. A post-industrial recovery. Thicker, older trunks of forest elders that survived the lumber mills tower over their siblings, their offspring. I assume that not all of the new trees will make it to the canopy. There seems to be too many of them. All fighting, all racing to the top. The track turns through liquid mud. How does it form? Why isn’t it consistent? What even is mud, and perhaps more importantly why? I skirt the edges where possible. Keeping the boots clean. Clean in a not adding new dirt sense, not that they were clean to begin with. The salty smell of brine comes over the leaf rot. The beaches smell like mean low water. Islands bob in the inlet. The green merge with the red blushes of the rata blossom. The water reflects the sky. Beyond, the gentle, rolling hills of Stewart Island’s North-West climb. Nowhere near to touching the clouds. Bigger than I imagined but small by New Zealand’s scale. I pause, tell myself to listen but really I’m tiring. Late nights and tent sleep aren’t a walking combination. When I do listen, I hear the flutter of tui wings and koramiko dings. The high pitch squeak of a rifleman. Distant, the screech of a Kaka. A forest full of life. Life overflowing from those pest-free islands. Reconquering. Taking back. I have to take the long way. The weather is gorgeous. I don’t want to finish yet. The track an old road, a new path weaves through, avoiding the deepest mud. The bays are Adriatic. Croatian clear water with boats afloat. The sound of a strimmer and the smell of freshly cut grass tells me I’m back in Oban. This wasn’t an oh wow walk but it was Great. I unclip my pack. Fold away Iain’s poles. I unstrap my gaiters. Untie my boots. I step into the reception to a sign that says be back at 3pm. Only a few minutes to go.
Nadav and I had agreed to meet at the Kai Kart for fish and chips. I was waiting to hear from him when I realised it closed at 7pm. I was hungry, if Nadav was still on Ulva Island he wouldn’t be back until close to 7. I stopped waiting and went to order. “I’d like fish and a full scoop of chips please.” “I’ll show you what half a scoop looks like first, then you can decide if you want a full one.” the man says. I’m definitely going to a full one. My only regret is he didn’t tell me how small the piece of fish was. He’d have done better had he told me to order two of those instead. Is the fish fresh? I hope so. Does it taste good? Does white fish taste of anything at all? I don’t know. Are the chips good? Yes. I’m about 10 short of finishing the whole scoop. Nadav sneaks in and gets his order in. We sit in the last light of the sun. Richie passes by, picking up and order that he’s instructed to take back to his hotel room where Tee is waiting. I wake up early in the hostel after a full night of sleep. I clean up what I can, pack away and drop my bag at the ferry terminal. Rain threatens for most of the morning. I sit on a bench by the harbour for a while, letting the sandflies snack of my exposed knees. A mistake. I get up and start moving. Still too much time left until the boat leaves. I walk out to Ackers Point for something to do. Returning with just enough time to watch kids jumping off the pier before the ferry departs. The sailing is smooth and over quickly. I get back in the van, top up on supplies and move on again. I’m at a half way point, the point at which I turn around and start slowly heading back. I’ve come as far South as this adventure will allow. Now time to back fill, to follow new roads. To see more, new things.