New Zealand: The Northwest Circuit

The Bluff Lodge is located in the old post office. I enter in my oversized hat and mask like a New World outlaw about to rob the place. All I really intend to steal is a little sleep, and maybe some real milk, from the fridge, for a cup of tea. Paula and I get to business. We’d already half commited to doing the North West Circuit in a week. The advised time is 9-12 days. Maybe that’s the case if you don’t have 1500 or 2000km in your legs by the time you arrive. Hills? No worries. Beaches? No worries? River crossings? No worries. There will be a few big days, but 10 and 12 hours are nothing to us. So it’s settled, we book the ferry for the morning and fall asleep in the old sorting room with empty beds all around us. In the morning nowhere is open for breakfast. I end up spending just as much in the Four Square on a pie and some juice. We have to run down to the ferry terminal as we had too much time, which quickly became no time at all. The ferry skims like a stone across the Favreaux Straight. The bow blasting over the top of rising southern swell, crashing back to sea. Spray of foam launches over the windows. The small crowd onboard chuckles with the first few big bounces. Groans start to follow. I shift away from Paula, who sat behind me, concerned by the noises she’s begun to make. With the horizon being thrown up and down, she soon joins in. I laugh at her misfortune most of the way but I imagine we’re all quite glad the bumper boat ride only lasts for an hour.

There’s no room at the Stewart Island Backpackers but we’re welcome to pitch our tents. Paula makes a booking for our return. “What are you doing?” the owner asks. “The Northwest Circuit.” “It’ll take you longer than that.” We explain we’ve been walking Te Araroa, we’re used to long days of undulating terrain. We’ll be fine. “Oh, I thought that was all flat road walking.” Some people really have no idea. She tells us to talk to the Department of Conservation, but to take what they say with a pinch of salt. The DOC visitor centre worker poo poos us too. “It’ll take you at least 9 days,” she says. “Have you done it?” I ask. “No.” I refuse to take anything else she has to say about the North West Circuit seriously. Apparently there are no bridges. The topo map says otherwise. There’s no water. Most streams aren’t mapped. Some boulders on a beach are the size of houses, we shouldn’t hop across them. There’s quicksand at one of the river crossings. There definitely aren’t bed bugs in the Great Walk huts. Paula and I know what we’re capable of. We’ll find out when we get there.

Paula is hitting the trail as I’m getting up for breakfast. She’s likely to have at least an hour’s head start. I’ll be chasing all day. I’d be surprised if I catch her before Port William Hut. Cars pass me by. A man pulls over on a white sand beach to walk his dog. I half expect a shuttle bus to run past. Rakiura Great Walk walkers skipping the 5km road walk out to Lee Bay. If there is one coming, I’m well ahead of it. I didn’t bother putting on my trail shoes this morning, I stayed in my sandals. From last time out I remember the track being a footpath from the start right the way through to Port William. Absolutely nothing technical. I can take it either way, an invitation to speed or cruise. With a heavy pack and all day to get to Bungaree there is no need for speed. When I first lay eyes on Maori Beach I half expect to see Paula’s pack cover heading down the sand. I don’t see anyone. When I hit the sand myself I surprise two ladies enaged in their morning yoga practise. I spot Paula’s rainbow Buff in the dunes and make to join her for morning tea. Tents remain scattered throughout the campsite behind the beach. Our get up and go remains stronger than most. The two ladies move their stretching into the breaking waves. The incoming tide washing their toes.

I walk with Paula the next hour to Port William Hut. We lunch on the wharf, overlooking the inviting sea. This is as far as some people will come today, for us it’s an early break. Signs on the hut door indicate bed bugs have been found in the Great Walk huts. Deep cleans and fumigation has been happening regularly. I’m still relieved we’re bouncing over both. I take the opportunity to change my footwear before the serious tramping begins. I notice I’ve already begun to burst out of the side of my Altras. That’s going to pose a few issues, I was hoping to get from Cape Reinga to Auckland still before having to replace them. A problem for later. I step away from the sand, into the trees. The umbrella spread of ferns. The feathered iron bark and heavy drooping needles of Rimu trees. The snapped heads of supplejack vines. The podocarp forest making a wonderful change from the beech. There’s an occasional spread of boardwalk underfoot. Some of the streams are bridged. Surprise surprise. That’s two times the Department of Conservation information has been inaccurate to say the least. The canopy rattles with the chuckle of Kakariki, buzz of cicada. In the deeper bush there are big rustles in the fern beds. Too big, too fast to be kiwi. A flash of gold and bounce of white. Deer. The forest sings with the constant gurgle of streams and tui.

I remain in the bush until Bungaree Beach. Golden sands underfoot, turquoise waters in the bay. Old footprints march across the top of the beach. I come in to the empty hut. I hang my damp tent out in the breeze, in the sun on the deck. The hut tank is empty. One truth from DOC. Once Paula arrives I set out to find water from a creek cutting down the beach. I like the idea of a swim more than the action. The day not quite warm enough. When I paddle I find the water even less inviting. To begin, Paula and I take a room each in the hope we’ll have the place to ourselves. Our hope doesn’t last. People trickle in across the late afternoon. Paula moves in with me, she talks the rest in to the other room. “My alarm goes off at 5:30am,” is all it takes. People claim the sound of the sea is soothing. Breaking waves shatter along the beach erratically. Give me a river. I’ll take the endless hum of a motorway over this. Ear plugs go in and I sleep through the noise. The sweeping red light indicates Paula is awake. Which means I’m awake. The courteous thing to do was to interrupt my morning, because I’m used to it. I shouldn’t mind really, I fell asleep at 8pm last night. I’ve had enough, not that I’d complain were more available. Sunrise threatens to deliver but never amounts to much. Neither does the rain, for now.

The hollows of heel and toe line the beach. Hard edges rubbed smooth by sand and sea. Heavy skies sit inland. Clouds build over the coast. From Murray Beach a boardwalk runs all the way through the near flat forest. I notice the trunks are thin, the track is wide. Untouched wilderness remains a stretch but at least decisions have been made to allow the bush to recover. As the terrain becomes more rugged I sidle around hillsides, through trickling stream beds. The forest glows stained glass green in the breaking sun. Deep gloom green comes as clouds cover the light. I come off trail to stop at Christmas Village Hut for lunch. Discarded pearlescent paua shells mingle with white and grey pebbles along another stretch of shore. Paula comes in and I set out again. From Lucky Beach I can see the soft from here mound of the Longwood range. Distant but still sharp, the edge of Fiordland. The prevailing wind here clearly from the North West. Shrubs grow in permanent limbo. I’d made the decision we wouldn’t take the side trip up Hananui. With the big day we were pulling, we’d be hitting 1000 meters of elevation without even trying to go up anything.

It’s a long day in to Yankee River Hut. I hit a wall. Trail fatigue. Cynicism ripe. What am I even doing any of this walk for? Where am I going? What am I achieving? What is the point? After the joy of arriving in Bluff. Finished but not finished. The trail family breaking apart. Ends upon ends. There’s a logistical nightmare coming up, as I have to find my way to the top of the North. I’ve blown my budget through the South Island, enjoying a few too many breakfasts, coffees and beers with the boys. There’s still 1200km to go. How many more weeks of this? 4, 5, maybe even 6. I’ve lost presence. I’m living in the future, on beaches I haven’t walked yet. I come in to the hut and find there’s stuff from inside the hut all over the deck. Benches, mattresses. DOC are in the house. Doing a deep clean for the bed bugs that definitely are, definitely aren’t, there. Old mate Kiani, from way back in the early days, among them. I had kind of assumed they wouldn’t be here by now but I’d no real reason to trust the front of house staff who’d claimed the circuit isn’t bridged. It’s hard to catch up on the last 18 months. Where have I been? Everywhere. What have I seen? Everything. Not even close. It’s a good reminder, a reflection of how far I’ve travelled, how fortunate I’ve been.

The sleep piercing scream is close. I jump to action. I had told myself I wouldn’t make an effort to see the kiwi. I wanted to wait, for them to simply be there. Another part of me suspects I move too fast, feet to heavy. Paula sees the kiwi but I don’t. She admits to breaking one of the golden rules of kiwi spotting. She took a flash photograph. The bird looks as spooked as you can imagine. I wonder if the kiwi gods will curse us? Rain hardened crusts of sand turns to powder underfoot. I slide down the dune I’m supposed to climb. Prints cover Smoky Beach, human, bird and deer. I pass a couple on the climb up from the beach. They don’t stop to chat and say very little. When I plateau, something rustles in the bushes. It’s 10:37am. It’s tokoeka time. The feathered bum looks like a weka, which is weird because I haven’t seen any others and have heard even fewer. Only when the bird turns to reveal its probing beak do I realise I’m staring at a kiwi. Magnificent. I didn’t have to go out looking. I didn’t have to go off trail. I pause to watch the kiwi waddle off deeper in to the bush.

Long Harry Hut is a classic tease. You emerge from the bush, the hut clearly visible in front of you. Unseen is the small creek gorge running through to the coast. I’m pushed out around another headland, down on to the boulder beach where I cross the creek. Then I have to climb back up. Not that it really matters, like Yankee River, Long Harry has been fumigated this morning. The inside toxic for at least another hour. Fortunately it’s a beautiful day. I’ve finally rearranged my kitchen to include tea bags and coffee sachets in my pan. I can now easily enjoy a hot drink on my breaks, like everyone else was doing for ages. I boil up some water, make up a wrap and wait for Paula to come in. It’s barely lunchtime. If I had the food, the time, I’d consider calling it a day here. The hut is nice, the weather is good. The three further hills on route to East Ruggedy Hut hardly motivate me to move.

Stewart Island gives everything today. Golden sands, deep podocarp forest, rocky shores, and manuka scrub. Shimmering dunes, turquoise waters, white waves, and dark blue seas. Not a cloud, never a cloud. They’re all hanging out over the mainland. I stop to watch barreling waves break over a crop of black rock. A tor straight off the moors dumped in the sea. I leap across boulders along another beach. I was explicitly warned not to do this by the Department of Conservation. “You’ll find some of those boulders are two storeys tall,” she claimed. Maybe one of them looks to be bigger than a car. The rest, perfectly leapable and surprisingly stable. I’m starting to enjoy this sort of thing. After the beach I’ve one more hill to climb. Flax and fern have overgrown the track. Progress is slow, and then I stop. Staring straight down the track in my direction is a small whitetail stag, with needle antlers and batwing ears. We lock eyes. The animal unphased by my motionless presence. I take a few steps forward. Those big ears flicking towards me. Close enough I guess, as the golden deer takes flight, thundering through the bush. I make my way to the lookout over East Ruggedy beach. Nobody tells you about this place. There were no specific recommendations to come here. A line of jagged islands crawl back from the sea to join an inland range. Pinnacles of stone that wouldn’t look put of place along the Coromandel. A valley of golden sand dunes. An endlessly clear ocean crested with pure white waves. Down in the dune valley I’d be warned of quick sand. I don’t find any. All I find is painfully slow sand, soft powder underfoot. The last stretch to East Ruggedy Hut shifts a little to soil and I’m glad to be off my feet again.

Another big rustle turns out to be people. They’ve not seen any kiwi yet, no deer either. I let them know there’s one hanging around East Ruggedy Hut. I crash out on Waituna Beach. The steam as the end of the beach is damned with driftwood. The pool of water behind is a disaster. A rainbow of ocean plastic floats at the edges. You can’t boil out plastic which means I’ll have to filter. I just about beat the incoming tide which begins to flood the pool with salt. The time it takes to boil a cup of water in the wind makes me think the whole performance wasn’t worth the effort. Paula’s pulled one back. A big male. I’m sure I heard her scream wow, but that could easily have been the forest talking. She’ll get another one in the next section, running across the track to do battle with a worm. I don’t even get another deer. Something else instead for me. I’m stationary, standing upright when it happens. It hasn’t happened in a while but it always seems to be at moments like this. My right pole disappears. I go to ground. I bounce off my knees and on to my back. I’m facing the wrong way. Nothing hurts and I know I’ve gotten away with it again. I dust myself down and keep on moving towards the scar of sand that stretches from the coast a kilometer inland.

I finish my sink shower just in time. A pair of ladies emerge from tomorrow’s trail. I greet them wearing only my towel. There’s a shake of gas left in a tall cannister. Paula and I have no qualms about boiling it off. Our fellow guests have already crawled in to bed when we decide to head out on to the dunes to check out the sunset. A mass of cloud hangs on the horizon. Flickers of yellow and orange never amount to much. Dakrness climbs across the sky and we retire to the hut. Paula is charged with waking up our overnight associates. She grabs the younger of the two by the foot and gives her s good shake. She gets a panicked kick for her efforts. I think about lying in but everyone is moving. Red light, white light. Packs rustling, stoves burning. I ask Paula to go back to the dunes to take a photo of the sunrise so I don’t have to go. In the end I make a cup of tea and follow her out. “You’ve missed it,” Paula tells me beneath a sky of pink. “It’s barely begun,” I reply as she wonders back to the hut. I stay for the further 15 minutes to allow the show to really begin. The strips of cloud flicker peach and amber. The sky turns purple. Light flares through mist in the island’s interior. It’s all a bit “everything the light touches is our kingdom.” By the time I get back to the hut everyone has left. The ladies have left a banana smoothie on the work top. That’s coming with me.

Along the ridge I catch and pass Paula. As I start the long descent to Little Hellfire Beach something flashes across the track. Was it a kiwi? Maybe nothing moved at all. There’s a tree stump. It’s 9:09am. It’s tokoeka time. Beyond the stump a kiwi rummages around ferns. I did see something dart across the open ground. Moments later, on the other side another! Paula catches me, assuming I’m stood on the bush edge to take a leak. I shush her with a finger over my lips. We watch for a while, until the kiwi decides it’s time to cross the track. In the open, aware of our presence, there’s a turn of speed before foraging begins again. A little further I can hear more rustling. I don’t see them. The female roars like an angle grinder. The male responds like someone who has lost several fingers in an angle grinder. I stop on the beach where Paula catches up again. At the end of the beach is the shark fin shaped hill that delivers us in to Mason Bay. A feathered bum wiggles on top of a fallen tree. It’s 11:52am, it’s tokoeka time. I’ve stormed into an unassailable 3-1 lead today. This kiwi potters about the tree trunk, having a look every where for snacks to haul out of wood and ground. I slowly approach until it moves back in to the bush edge. Paula might see this one too.

Either the tide times I’ve got are wrong, or the high tide sits somewhere up on the cliff face. A headland we have to go around is already cut off. I know there’s a high tide route somewhere along the cliff line. I know I can get at least halfway before I’d need to turn back. Streams cut down to create escape routes if things get hairy. Paula’s too far behind. I message her through the GPS. “Don’t do anything stupid if the tide is too high.” Then I change my mind. The call isn’t mine to make. It’s up to her, but I can’t leave. I wait at the high tide route. I can get off the beach. If she’s fast, I think she’ll make it. Can Paula do fast? Does she have any other gears? She comes. I get wet feet watching for her. I took my eyes of the sea and it took me by surprise. She grows larger as the beach becomes smaller. I step incrementally higher up the foot of the cliff. She might get wet feet but she’s going to make it. Only at the end of this small ordeal to I realise if the high tide route starts here, it’s got to be accessible at high tide. The size of the crashing waves made me nervous, the soft collapse of cliff along the way. You don’t know until you know. We clamber up sand dunes, the ground collapsing beneath our feet. What I don’t want is to go with it. The effort of coming up once is enough. On the tops the track is hardly walked, barely marked. We bush bash, hunting for markers. Searching for the flattened grass, trampled flax that suggests someone else has been here. We’re dumped on the far side of the wave beaten headland, on to the firm damp sands of Mason Bay.

At last it’s easy going. From the beach there’s one scramble up a sand cliff. At the top Paula gives up, slumping down at the feet of a pair of hunters who’ve seen fewer deer than us. The old farm track makes a quick finish in to Mason Bay Hut where other people are. We manage to get a room of our own and settle in. The following morning holds a treat for us, a short day across the flat marsh, possibly in the wet. The morning is damp but the threat of a downpour never turns to anything stronger. There’s a single packet of instant noodles left on the worktop. They’re coming with me. The track doesn’t undulate. The route isn’t convoluted. Boardwalk cuts a direct route across the marshy interior of Stewart Island. I’m convinced I’m going slightly up hill. The stream beside me, flood rich and coffee brown, is flowing in my direction if travel so I can’t be. There’s some kind of illusion happening because I can see where I’m going and I’m simply not used to it. “I thought you’d found a kiwi but you’ve found two.” Paula says coming up the track. I’ve stopped to chat with a couple carrying small packs. Day trippers who flew in to Mason Bay. They walk to Freshwater Hut where they catch a water taxi to Oban. One couple offers us an apple, because it’s been 6 days since we last had fresh food. I’m pretty sure Paula still had an apple in her pack this morning. The other couple insist we eat their peanut M&Ms, we are too happy to oblige. They depart as others slowly arrive. This one German did the Hollyford-Pike. He’s done both circuits while he’s been on Stewart Island. He’s talking about doing the Dusky. He wants to bounce over Rabbit Pass and then Cascade Saddle in one trip. There’s always a bigger bad ass on the trail. The tall German’s confidence grows, I laugh as he flirts obviously with the Czech woman who’s arrived. She’s gives as good back. We sit around the table and talk about my options for getting wealthy without working. 1.) Win the lottery. 2.) Marry a rich woman 3.) Start a pyramid scheme 4.) Invent dehydrated alcohol for tramping communities. Option four seems like the most likely of the three. There’s another option on the hut wall. I could of course always spot, photograph and provide evidence of the definitely extinct South Island Kokako for $10,000. That would be enough to keep the dream alive a little longer.

Cold creeps in. Toes like blocks of ice. Starting cold is not anywhere close to my mind as I set out still in my down jacket. I’d hoped for 10 minutes before I took it off. I stay wrapped up for half an hour. Just before I catch Paula, who’s in all her coats and gloves, I strip down to hiking gear only. I keep on climbing. There comes a time when walking up a mud covered, rooted track starts to get a little repetitive. Day 7. I hear the distinctive whistle of a Kaka in the canopy and remember things can still be different, the same can always change. As I approach the summit of that final climb, a pair of kiwi burst into definitely not a song, more a screaming competition They might be close to the track. I might yet increase my score of 5. Worse would be if Paula walks luckier than me and comes from a kiwi behind to win. From the top I catch sight of the golden glow of the sea now less than 20km away, in that direction anyway. I round North Arm and come into the hut on the Rakiura Circuit for lunch. As I’m sitting on the picnic table, a deer wanders between me and the building. She does pause to consider me when she notices, decides I’m not a threat. Dangerously confident, her fawn emerges from beneath the hut to suckle. They seem completely unafraid of the slow building crowd who’ve come to watch. I break for long enough to allow Paula to catch me and then I take off again, down the footpath, along the road, into town.

The backpackers forgot to book us in when we booked in when we came through last week. “Fortunately” someone has cancelled and we can get beds in a dorm. The Kai Kart isn’t open, despite the internet, and their opening hours at the kart suggesting otherwise. I flat out refuse to pay $40 for fish and chips at the pub. This town is a joke. I end up buying a packet of pasta and tuna, incredibly underwhelming after a week in the wild. The group of late arriving fisherboys come in hard, drunk, and heavy footed around midnight. I wake up and remember that I too have recently behaved in this way and decide I can’t be too annoyed. Things improve in the morning when a hunting group leave sausages, eggs, and beans for early arrivals in the kitchen. Paula texts me to hurry up and I come and eat my fill. I hang out in the hostel for the morning while Paula goes across to Ulva Island to spot a few more birds. No more kiwi. We grab an ice cream on the beach before I catch the ferry. This is as sentimental as a goodbye is going to be between us. After so many already that haven’t been real, it’s hard to believe this one will be forever. She’s got around a week’s headstart on me. I know she’s not going to take many breaks. From Palmerston North to Bluff and beyond, the bubble finally finishes bursting.

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