New Zealand’s Wild West — Part II
Paua to Penguins, steep hills to sweeping bays, shabby couscous to sly spoons… we had it all on the Northwest Circuit, Stewart Island.
Continued from New Zealand’s Wild West — Part I
Day five — East Ruggedy Hut to Big Hellfire Hut
Peter kept us entertained long into the morning and it was late before we made it out of the hut. It was only about a thirty minute walk from the hut to West Ruggedy beach. Before leaving the hut the third hunter told us that there was a cave nestled into the hillside on the right hand side of the beach. With time on our hands we decided to check it out. What we found was any little boys dream; a small cave hidden in the cliff, furnished with ramshackle creations. A bed with space for three made out of fishing nets, a table of driftwood, a stove… It was the kind of place you would expect to find smugglers out of a Famous Five novel.
We rummaged around here for a while before setting off back down the beach. Eager to redeem herself Cara picked up a knotted handreel that I had spotted in the sand and proceeded to try and untangle it. The sky above was moody, a fact I did not complain about, remembering the heat of the cloudless day before. Walking down the beach I remembered the eye patch and beard that had been sitting in my pack. What better to decorate a buoy with? With the scallywag hanging from a DOC marker for his crimes, back into the bush we went.
I decided to help the others pass time with a stirring rendition of Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall. Safe to say by the time I finished the song became embargoed. The mud on this section of track was meant to be the worst of the circuit, but due to the number of dry days it was at its deepest up to the knees with a good misstep. A sign informed us it was two hours to Waituna bay, another two hours to the hut. It was a step climb up and over the Ruggedy Range. Nik powered off ahead whilst Cara plodded up the hill. Waituna bay was stunning. A sandy beach flanked on both sides by rocky outcrops. After days of dehydrated food we were keen for a bit of a change in diet. Paua sounded just the treat. We staked out the right hand side of the bay to no avail. I set my hopes low, taking my boots off to walk through the sand to the left side of the bay. Still no Paua. I hobbled awkwardly across the rocks. Then a cry from Cara — “I found one!”.
We searched a bit further and saw another. Cara, still in her boots, raced back to grab her knife.
This knife is notable enough for its own paragraph. Given to Cara by a friend, it was a tourist replica of the knives carried by Gurkha. She had it in her pack with the intention to leave it in a hut because she didn’t want it. It came in a pointy metal sheath, the blade itself being curved and engraved. The knife was ornate and heavy, absurd and mysterious. It was still with us because it came in handy to hack up tinder at Bungaree. Since then the hunters had admired it and it was almost vested in Peter, to become the kernel of another story no doubt.
Returning with the knife we ventured a few metres further along the rocks. And there the paua were. In great clumps they sat all over the rocks. Paua on paua on paua. A buffet of seafood before us (Edit: Cara complained about the lack of choice in the buffet). We plied three of them off with the knife, wrestling their muscular black feet off the rock with the blade. While Cara was busy doing this I let my eyes glance upward. There standing on the rocky outcrop in front of us was a Fiordland Crested Penguin, giving us his best “P.O.” pose.
With dinner in the bag we headed back to the packs. As I fiddled around with my boots Cara said she would just start plodding up the hill with the bag of paua on her pack. Nik soon followed her and I was left alone on the beach struggling to get my gaiters on. Not wanting to spend the walk alone I switched into racing mo de. I strode across the beach and started up the hill. I passed Nik in ten minutes, surely Cara would not be far ahead. I overtook and crashed up the track in pursuit of a girl and three paua. With five feet between them they must have been going bloody quick because no matter how much I pushed myself I could catch no sight of them. In my haste I put caution to the wind, deciding I could spare no time to skirt around the mud. This nearly proved to be my undoing. On two occasions I found myself up to my knees in mud, left struggling and clinging to trees to heave myself out. Suddenly I burst out of the bush onto… sand, at 300 metres. Looking down I saw I was on a dune that dropped all the way down to the sea. How bizarre. Not long after this I stumbled around the corner to see a smiling Cara having a quick wash in the hut sink. I was fuming! She had beat me even with the paua! This was the same girl you might remember I coaxed up the Ruggedy Range just hours before.
After around twenty minutes Nik followed up behind, wondering what all the fuss was about. Then it was paua time. Cara ‘shucked’ the paua, taking a knife around the skirt of the paua, plying it from it’s shell, making sure not to cut it’s intestines. She informed me about the paua’s ‘creepy teeth’, too human like for Cara. Then it was my job to give them a good beating. I started by trialing the back of the hut axe. It took one swing for the paua to come flying out of the bag and onto the hut lawn. Bugger. I resorted to putting the paua in the sink and pounding it with a rock. After a good workout I took them inside and Cara cut them up, ready to be fried in the butter I had carried specifically for this purpose. Soon we were sitting down chowing down on their lovely butteryness. Paua isn’t for everyone, some describe it as tough rubber, but it certainly made a welcome change in diet for three weary walkers. The rest of dinner that night was unexceptional, instant mash and soup, but it all went down with no need to clean the plates. Oh and the fire was lit successfully by none other than myself.
Day six — Big Hellfire Hut to Mason Bay Hut
What a view to wake up to. The hut has a ranch slider looking out across the expansive and impressive Ruggedy Flats. We were in no hurry to leave the hut, we had a small window around 4:30pm, low tide, to make it down a section of the beach at Mason Bay. I decided it would be fun to have a bit of a change so I swapped packs with Cara. It’s a vintage Macpac, solid exterior frame pack ideally worn with too short shorts, a flannel shirt and a healthy mo. Turns out that for all it’s age it was actually not too bad. The problem was that Cara has an obsession with carrying a heavy pack and had secretly been taking things out of me and Nik’s packs. Boy did hers weigh a ton. We climbed up and along the range before dropping down onto Little Hellfire Beach. We mucked around on the beach for bit, stopping there for lunch. The wind cut fiercely across the waves. It might sound unwanted, instead it was a welcome change as it carried all the sandflies away.
After lunch we started up the hill that stood between us and Mason Bay. Up, up, up we went. It was a steep climb up to the saddle, I was left bathed in sweat. Just as steep as the climb up was the clamber down. Occasionally the trees would part and we would get a view across the bay (see the top of the post). One of the most beautiful views I have ever seen. The coast curls around, battered at all points by savage surf erupting from the tranquil blue of the ocean. Soon we were down again on the beach hopping along the rocks. We disturbed a pair of oyster catchers in our jolly jaunt. It’s the sort of place that, on a nice day, just makes you go wow. I mentioned earlier (maybe ten minutes ago) that Cara had spent ten days at Mason Bay looking at plants. I was bombarded by facts about dune composition, the difference in the layers of sand, the species of grasses (Edit: Not grasses, but sedges — Cara).
Me and Cara had come up with a fun game a couple of beaches ago. Washed up on the shore are little blue jellyfish that swell and bubble in the sun. When stood on they make a satisfying popping sound. Imagine a line of bubble wrap stretching across the beach. Safe to say the jellyfish got the last laugh. One managed to get flicked up onto the back of my leg. Ow! I was a little more cautious after that. After running through our ABC’s of animals and of culinary dishes we found ourselves at Duck creek, which winds all the way up to and past the hut. We crossed over the creek at Cara’s designated crossing point, ‘the two big trees’, and saw a cloud of whitebait make its way downstream chilling out in the eddies. It wasn’t far from here to the hut. On arrival we were treated to a barrage of human contact, something we had grown very unaccustomed to.
After claiming a bunk Cara and I went for a jaunt up on the dunes with her film camera. I hobbled along on my tender feet as she bounded up the track towards the sand. Don’t ask me how she does it. The sand on the dunes was full of shifting, swirling patterns. The surface of a great golden ocean, the sands move with an ebb and flow. Her Olympus OM-30 35mm film camera was fun to play with (I was even allowed to take a photo!), makes a change from my Canon DSLR.
Back at the hut we decided it was time for dinner, pumpkin curry. I was allowed to help with dinner for once. Surprisingly it didn’t turn out too bad. Sitting down for dinner we began talking to a retired couple that we were sharing the hut with. Peter (numero dos) & Marilyn. They were a well matched pair, in the midst of playing cards they yarned to us, Peter speaking, and where he failed to say the right thing Marilyn would correct him. For once Niks university studies in philosophy actually came in handy, the conversation delving into the depths of the topic of ethics. We also met Lucas, the mysterious Dutchman we had been following along the Northwest Circuit through the hut books.
There was also a British couple that lived in Queen Charlotte Sound, and a father — son duo. They had just come off the Southern Circuit and they’d had enough of the mud. Apparently the track turns into one great slip and slide with the slightest rain, with mud that can come up to the waist. They made an interesting duo. It was clear that the son had planned a Stewart Island getaway which got hijacked by his father. His father was certainly interesting, a man that never stopped talking and one might be forgiven for thinking he wore a tinfoil hat in his spare time. Bedtime was upon us when the subject turned to 1080 should be banned in New Zealand…
Day seven — Mason Bay Hut to Freshwater Hut
I got up just in time to see the retired couple leave. They assured me that we would see them on the track (we didn’t). We started the day going over the creatively named ‘Big Sand Hill’. On the way to the top we got completely sandblasted by the wind picking the sand up off the dunes. I decided that I knew the best route to the top so I sped off in front, tackling the scrubby summit head on. I heaved my self into it from the sand only to find the scrub came up up to my chest. I waded through it only to find Cara had come up the right of the summit and jaunted up easily on the sand. The view was worth it, with the moody sky hoovering over the dunes and the rugged beach of Mason Bay
We clambered down the other side towards the homestead. It was a trip down memory lane for Cara, who had spent ten days staying at the homestead before. She did not have the luxury of a multiple (or any) showers on this trip. The track across the Freshwater Flat is well… flat and goes over a lot of fresh (albeit stagnant) water. Some would say it’s in the name. Cara decided that this was not acceptable. She told me there was a very tempting hill positioned adjacent to the track, labelled as ‘Lower Island Hill’. Sounded good to me. Oh if I had known. The gradient of the hill was steep. The flora on the hillside was almost exclusively spikey and unpleasant. We crashed up through the undergrowth. The ground started to flatten off up the top, but there was hardly a view with dense tree cover. I climbed a rimu tree to see if we truly were at the summit. I thrust my head up through the hostile canopy. Even then I could not get a view, the gradient at the top being too shallow to see over the tree tops. We turned in defeat from our quest for a view, back down the way we had come. Eventually a view of sorts opened up as a consolation prize of sorts.
Bleeding and battered we made it back onto the track. From there it was a couple of hours walk to the hut. We made frequent stops for Cara to run wild and botanize. Other than that the trip was uneventful, although we had the quote of the day from Cara
“I feel like I’m looking after a kid with you running off all the time” — me
“Well since you want kids you can practice with me” — Cara
We arrived at the hut in the early afternoon, greeted by the people we had met at the last hut. After a long discussion about nothing in-particular we took the opportunity to teach Peter how to play Spoons. If you haven’t played it the rules are rather simple. You get dealt four cards. The objective is to get a set of four cards of the same type. One player draws from the deck, checks the card and then discards one card. The next player picks up this card etc. In the middle of the table there are spoons (or in our case matchsticks) for each player except one. The first player to get a set picks up a spoon and then everyone else must grab one. The player that doesn’t grab one loses. It was hilarious to watch Peter slowly pick up the game. From initial frustrations to his end game slyness, it was quite a progression.
Another notable thing came out over that hut table. Cara’s parents are German and she speaks the language fluently. Cara had neglected to tell Nik this. So I found it hilarious when the father of the father-son duo asked Cara if she was German. Cara hesitated for a second before saying yes. The look on Niks face was priceless (Edit: Apparently I didn’t stop laughing for five minutes).
Just around the time I was planning on going for a swim the son came out with a handline with the intention of catching an eel. Peter had given him a piece of salami for bait. I was just ambling down to the the river when I saw the line jerk. When it was pulled up the bait was gone. I voted against my swim and instead went back for more salami. In the end we caught a nice sized eel which went into the hut embers bucket and was cooked over the fire in rice oil. It tasted, unsurprisingly, a little bit fishy and not much like anything else.
Cara wasn’t feeling too well and went for a nap. This was all well and good, except she had been group cook. It was dinner time and Nik was hungry so reasoned it was my time to step up. Only problem is I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Nik eventually rescued the dehydrated dahl, whilst I messed up the couscous, hydrating it with cold water. It all was edible, just. All day we had been dreading the walk the next day. The retired couple and the father-son duo were taking the water taxi out from Freshwater and it sounded awfully tempting compared to the eleven hour trek ahead of us. However, just as we were wavering, Cara came up with a cunning plan, we would get our friends to take our packs on the water taxi whilst we walked. Being the good sorts they were it was all agreed, so we emptied one bag for essentials, warm clothes etc and left the other two on the bench for them to take. Our alarms were still set for a long day, 5:30am. To our surprise that night, just before we went to bed the Norwegians burst into the hut, shocked to see so many people. Apparently Peter (numero uno) had got a deer after all, even if it was a day late! We knew this as the Norwegians boasted venison steak for dinner that night.
Day eight — Freshwater Hut to Dunedin via Oban
We got up that morning as quietly as we could and made it out of the hut by 6:20am. Cara took it upon herself to carry the pack first. We rumbled down the track at a lightening pace. Eventually Cara had to take a layer off and I took the chance to nab the pack (for the sake of my fragile masculinity). The track climbed steeply (very steeply) up and over a saddle. I was buggered by the time we got to the top and more than happy to pass the pack on to Nik. We descended quickly down till we found ourselves sidling around Paterson Inlet. This was all a bit of a plod but we didn’t mind much, we were just so happy to not have three packs. It took three and a half hours to get to North Arm Hut. The track time was six to seven hours, we had smashed it.
Cara wrote a deceptive comment in the hut book about our happy short jaunt from Freshwater and, after some chocolate, we were on our way again. The track was now part of the Rakiura great walk so it was a highway. Hardly any mud to be seen. We grew to miss our old friend mud. Cara and I kept ourselves entertained by seeing how much of the track we could run whilst alternating carrying the pack. We got a good fifteen minutes ahead of Nik before we stopped to wait for him at a sign. From there it was a boring road walk of sorts over a saddle and then down into Halfmoon Bay. It was a bit surreal being back in civilization, if you can call Oban that. All in all the ‘eleven to twelve hour’ walk had taken us just six and a half. Not a bad effort.
I bought an icecream at the dairy and then rallied the troops over to Golden Bay where the water taxi docks. Once over there we had the leftover of our food and provided bait for the local sandfly population. We were so chuffed to have beaten them back to Oban, their water taxi picking them up at 1:30pm.
We were nearly too fast for our own good. When the water taxi docked there was much laughing and smiling. The driver said “that will be $100 thanks”. We awkwardly laughed, and awkwardly paused. Then he remarked “I’ll let you off this time”. Phew. Turns out Marilyn had spun a story about us being tired, injured students needing assistance, which the driver couldn’t possibly charge. Whoops. It all worked out in the end however and we merrily made our way back over the hill to Oban.
Upon discovering the fish & chip place was closed (of which we had dreamt about for several days) we decided to change our ferry from the 5pm to the 3:30pm. The little time we had left in Oban was left snoozing in the sunny waiting area for the ferry. The trip back to Bluff was even less rough then last time. Entertainment was provided by the older tourist guy sitting in front of us who had his phone on a selfie stick, who proceeded to record everything. Us in the background, out the window, him sleeping on his wife’s lap, the drivers personal space… However the driver safely docked us in Bluff and we were back on the mainland. Cue Nik, who started to freak out as he had lost one stud off his piercing to which he didn’t have a replacement and it was closing on 5 o’clock. He sped up to Invercargill, with me as a co-pilot holding on for dear life. After we eventually got that calamity sorted it was time for fish & chips, aioli and lemon, lime & bitters. Boy did we all eat a lot. Stuffed full to the brim we set off on the final leg of the journey, back to Dunedin. Unwilling to hear my run mic again, I had one last stab at the radio. Although I couldn’t get that to work, to my surprise I found a CD in the CD player. It provided a tolerable soundtrack for the ride home.
And so ends my adventures (for now) on the Northwest Circuit! If you’re keen on more stories on the outdoors please follow me!