Extended Trip - Saturday 12 August 2017 to Monday 21 August 2017 (10 days)
12-August. After leaving Tuatara Lodge in the dark we watched the sunrise at Invercargill Airport while waiting for our half hour flight to Stewart Island. The pilot chose the "scenic route" flying around Rakiura’s northern and westerly coastline instead of the usual inland flightpath to avoid strong winds and so the 9 of us were exhilarated by the views of granite outcrops, isolated beaches and Codfish Island before the vast stretch of sand and dunelands of Mason Bay came into view. With our expected landing area judged to be unsuitable we were deposited at the far south end of the beach with a brief apology for what would prove to be 1.5 hours of extra walking. Despite the chill wind, the play of light on the beach, water and clouds made a magical welcome. At Duck Creek we followed a 20 minute track through the dunes and wind sheared bush to Mason Bay Hut.
After lunch most ventured out to visit the nearby historic homestead and woolshed, remnants of past farming days, and to investigate the hunters huts on the track to Freshwater Hut.
13-August. After severe erosion of the north end of Mason Bay last year DOC had advised us to arrive at the affected part of the beach an hour ahead of low tide, so we left the hut at the carefully calculated time of 7.30am when there was just sufficient daylight for walking. It took 50 minutes of marching up the beach, again in ethereal light, to reach the first crux - a headland for which we had ample beach (thus avoiding the high tide route). Further easy walking on sand brought us to a boulder bank and we were off the beach 1 hour before low tide. After much tide anxiety, a great denouement - I learned later that extra sand had washed up on the beach since last year.
We glurped our way through Rakiura mud at its worst in the climb up Mason Head before a much less fraught descent to the pale sand of Little Hellfire Beach. An early lunch at the sheltered stream at the north end was marred by one of the rare spats of light rain we experienced that day and our first few sandflies.
It was a long climb up to the undulating ridgeline as we refined our mud negotiation skills. Tramping along the ridge we passed the two highest points (nearly 400m) on the NW Circuit track and had occasional views of the swampy Ruggedy Flat and the Ruggedy and other ranges. Finally we began our descent and arrived at the Big Hellfire Hut at 3.40pm after a long day with very heavy packs.
14-August. Expecting another long day we planned a 7.30am start but, as it was too gloomy for the mud obstacles in the bush, we lingered on the sandy saddle adjacent to the hut. Here were kiwi prints and views of Big Hellfire Beach and the jagged granite peaks of the Ruggedy Mountains.
We made slow progress at first on the undulating descent to Waituna Bay but the track became easier as we approached this sandy beach lying opposite Codfish Island. With the impressive profile of the Ruggedys ahead we climbed progressively more steeply to the saddle taking in the birdlife - bellbirds, kakariki, warblers, tomtits, fantails, kereru, tui. On the descent it took time to find a sufficient space between mud expanses for lunch and once walking again we encountered two separate trampers. Fortunately the track improved markedly and we were soon enjoying the smooth sands and granite headlands of West Ruggedy Beach. Towards the south is a pinchpoint blade of granite with a duney high tide route but at half tide there was plenty of beach for us. Seduced by the warm sunshine and rhythm of the green waves we lazed for half an hour before a sapping sandy climb (more kiwi prints) followed by a good bush track to East Ruggedy Hut with its pesky sandflies and nocturnal kiwi calls. We were pleased to arrive 8 hours after departure from Hellfire which taking into account lunch and the extended beach stop meant that we had walked to the DOC time - even with our bulging packs. Some people thought there had been less mud that day than the day before.
15-August. Our 8am day started with a clean sandy track - frosty kiwi prints this morning - leading out onto dunes. We crossed Ruggedy Stream carefully to avoid the patches of quicksand well back from the beach (as indicated by DOC triangles) and tackled a stout 200m climb to a magnificent viewpoint of not only East Ruggedy Beach and the Ruggedy Mountains but of the South Island from the snowy peaks of Fiordland in the west to Bluff Hill in the east.
With brilliant sunshine and an easier day anticipated a breakaway "smell the roses" group elected to travel independently. Again we were delighted by the birds and after a leisurely descent the "roses" arrived at a stretch of rocky coastline as the "rabbits" were leaving. After a sun soaked rest, we rock hopped the near kilometre to the end of the beach and then gained height on a pleasant track before sidling above Long Harry Bay where we found a sunny spot for lunch.
Finally more climbing and a series of muddy insalubrious stream gullies before the descent to Long Harry Hut. Minutes from the hut, at last, I encountered a kiwi but within nanoseconds it had scuttled back into the crown ferns and despite waiting quietly for some time it did not reappear. The first of the "roses", I reached the Long Harry Hut at 2.20pm with 4 already there and 4 to arrive not long afterwards.
16-August. Long Harry Hut is perched above Long Harry Bay with views of this bay, granite outcrops and of the South Island and this morning all glowed pinks and oranges in the sunrise. Off at 8am descending first to the small rocky beach before the 180m climb to Smoky Beach. A group of 4 were delighted to see a kiwi which scurried down the track beside them before taking to the undergrowth. Kaka sightings were numerous this morning as well.
We lingered on the western end of the beach waiting for all to appear - a walking pole had been left behind - before most opted to take the swingbridge over the reflective, tannin-stained water of Smoky Creek. Walking the golden sand in the sunshine, we espied Tony’s group at the other end of the beach and after much chatter and photographs we said goodbye to each other at 11am.
A 260m climb lay between us and the hut during which Terry was lucky enough to be almost charged by another kiwi and I walked past a kiwi rustling unsociably in the ferns. Five stopped for lunch in the dappled sunlight on the track while others went on to Yankee River Hut. At officially 5 hours this was our shortest day and we all arrived at scattered times in the early afternoon. Time to explore the beach and sit in the sun on the verandah watching the waves progressively lift the river level as the tide came in.
17-August. After a shower in the night and an updated weather forecast we expected rain but the day was largely cloudy with some sunny bursts although the wind was cool. This was a ploddy sort of day with two 100m-ish rises and siddles and relatively short rocky Lucky Beach placed between. As the tide was in there were no shellfish for us such as Tony’s group had harvested. The verdict for the day was that the morning was more mud and the afternoon more tree-roots. However the final track to the hut was surprisingly a continuous walkway of boardwalk before a short stroll on the boulder beach to Christmas Village Hut facing out to sea. Most arrived by 2pm after our usual 8am start to particularly fiendish sandflies that attacked us mercilessly as we performed our daily cleaning rituals.
Despite rain after our arrival the sky cleared and I became aware of a glow in the southern sky maximal around midnight. A number of us stumbled out to view what looked like the lights of a distant city or a colourless sunrise but it was later confirmed to be what we suspected - an aurora.
18-August. A drizzly morning and Andrew, Karen, Terry, Alex and I set off up Mt Anglem just after 8am. At first the track was not noteworthy for mud as we gained elevation observing the stunted vegetation and later dominance of leatherwood. The mire did become considerably more challenging for the last section before we reached the dramatic colours of the alpine vegetation at 660m. With cloud obscuring the peak and a very chill wind Terry, Alex and I decided we were content with the views of the east coastal headlands and returned to the hut for a late lunch. Andrew and Karen continued to the summit for a furtive lunch huddled behind minimal shelter but were rewarded with clearing skies on their way down giving them extensive views of the South Island and the eastern coast as well as the alpine lake. They returned at 4pm and later that day a young couple from Christchurch joined us for the night and our first fire.
19-August. A red sunrise was followed by a chill day of low cloud. An 8am start for a day of no high climbs but much undulation and large sections of boardwalk amusingly often stopping just before a boggy abyss - although overall we judged much of the day "trainer mud". The Murray River with its sturdy bridge and its tea coloured estuary was our first milestone leading us down to the long sand of Murray Beach crossed by a series of shallow streams. We sheltered from the breeze behind the sand at the south end for lunch expecting the final bush stretch to be easy but the Rakiura mud was not done with us yet. Most arrived at Bungaree Hut by 1pm and finding it very cold, we lit the fire for the second night.
20-August. With Oban in their sights there was no stopping the homing pigeons. As the first part of the walk was the white stretch of Big Bungaree Beach it was a 7.45am start in the drizzle that came and went all day. It was Andrew’s day to spot the last kiwi seen by us on the track. Shortly after morning tea and only 2 hours out from the hut we reached the great walk just south of the Port William Jetty. We wondered whether the final morass of epic proportions encountered minutes before was a DOC ploy to discourage the less hardy from North West Circuit. Now we were on a multi-layed engineered track as we climbed over a headland to Maori Beach with its long bridge and the beach narrowed by the high tide. Lunch at the shelter further along was brief sped by various anxieties and in no time we were crossing the bridge over Little River and arriving at Lee Bay around 1.15pm. Here we admired the anchor chain sculpture which links Rakiura with Te Waipounamu at Bluff and Karen spotted a seal swimming in the kelp.
We celebrated our trip at the South Sea Hotel and let us modestly say the Mud Pluggers team at the Pub Quiz that night did not disgrace themselves.
Low numbers on the track - we saw 6 other trampers in total and avoided the Autumn hunting season
Track is less churned up after winter inactivity
August has the lowest average rainfall
Tolerable temperature range 10C - 2C with snow unlikely except for Mt Anglem
Sufficient daylight although sunrise and sunset are later than you would expect
Possibility of seeing an aurora
Less sandflies - although still pesky around many of the huts
The beaches and birdlife are stunning all year round!
The deterioration of the north part of the beach of Mason Bay meant that we could possibly fail to get across in adverse weather / storm surges. By going clockwise we had 2 contingency days and an easy retreat to Mason Bay Hut should we fail.
It was hard though carrying our packs at their heaviest over the two hardest days on the trail.
I am so thankful to Martin Woodhead who provided much excellent advice about the tricky sections of the track - much more reliable than DOC. It was a huge help.
Lastly our happy band were Alex Sancho, Andrew Murdoch, Christine Major (scribe & leader), David Holl, Karen Manning, Keith Ayton, Jean Barton, Terry Chubb and Trish Hopkins.