© NZPocketGuide.com
© NZPocketGuide.com

Hiking Coast to Coast on Stewart Island

© NZPocketGuide.com

161 Days on the Road

A loud high-pitched hissing noise echoes through the forest-covered sand dune surrounding the Mason Hut: the unmistakable and (not very graceful) call of the female kiwi bird. This is our most likely chance to spot a kiwi in the wild!

We get up at around 5am, much easier than getting up so early when staying in a hostel or our campervan. Perhaps it’s the promise of a hiking adventure that gets us so quickly out of bed, or the fact that the Department of Conservation (DoC) huts are more meant for sleeping – not particularly comfort. In saying that, the Mason Hut is a more modern hut with three different bunk-style rooms – probably in better condition than some hostels. Nevertheless, we roll up our sleeping bags and head outside to do some kiwi spotting.

Early morning kiwi spotting

About 30% of people staying in the Mason Hut spot the New Zealand national icon around the Mason Hut. As we slowly creep along the forest tracks, we keep our eyes open for any rustling in the bushes.

An hour later and… Nope, nothing… We can hear some kiwi birds calling in the distance but we’re not about to go rustling through the bushes and getting lost. Damn, with a population of around 25,000 of the southern brown kiwi on Stewart Island, we really thought we’d stand a chance. However, the good thing about this species of kiwi bird is that they are known to still be foraging through the day, so we are just going to have to count on luck for the rest of the day.

The plan for hiking Stewart Island’s coast to coast

After eating a grim breakfast of crackers, tinned chicken, cereal bar and an apple, we set off on our journey from coast to coast. Last night we arrived on Mason Beach with Stewart Island Flights. Today, we are walking from the Mason Bay Hut to Freshwater, where our journey takes us in a water taxi onto the Freshwater River and across a hue inlet to Golden Bay, and finally, a 15-minute walk to Oban, where we started yesterday. Because the water taxi can only pick us up during high tide, as the inlet is left with bare sand at low tide, we have to make it to Freshwater by 2.45pm. Can we make it?!

The hike is meant to be 3-4 hours, easy right? However, the track has experienced recent flood damage so we don’t know what state we’ll find the track in. Plus, the DoC hiking estimations are notorious on Stewart Island for being a bit tight. We give ourselves 7 hours to do the hike just in case. (And so we have time for photos, of course).

The southernmost stuff in New Zealand

We follow a wide grassy track away from the Mason Bay Hut, still keeping an eye out for kiwi birds, until we reach “The Southernmost Woolshed in New Zealand”. Oh my God! A worse-for-wear tractor is parked up with grass profusely growing around it and a wooden shed that isn’t looking too shabby to be honest. Token photos taken, we continue into sand dune land with vegetation mostly growing up to our waists. Purple and green shrubs cover the land up until the much higher hills. There is also a whole lot of flax, which is a plant that has been utilised by the Maori for centuries.

Avoiding the mud

We follow deer tracks but no large kiwi footprint… The walk across the shrub land steadily gets muddier and muddier, especially as the trees start to make themselves known again. We hold onto tree branches trying to swing ourselves around the edges of the muddy parts that go about ankle deep.

For the worst of the swampy sections, a long thin boardwalk keeps our feet dry. And there are a lot of boardwalks.

The forest and the creek

From low-lying shrub-land, we move into a podocarp forest with long thin tree trunks leaning over to create cover over the track. With barely a twist or turn in the track, it looks like we’re walking into a tunnel of trees.

Beside us, a creek emerges then a sign saying: “Danger! Do not go beyond this point if the water is above the orange marker.”

The water is well, well, well below the orange marker, but we are guessing this is the section of the track that might be a bit gnarly. We tentatively continue to find… It’s all gooooood! Just small sections of the track fall into the shallow creek below, but sh*t happens. We can continue on our easy and flat hike to Freshwater feeling more reassured.

A sandy forest

It’s an odd concept, walking on soft white sand in the middle of the forest. Usually you have to find yourself a beach at Mason Bay, for instance, or along the Abel Tasman National Park to find such paradise-like sand. But, no, not in Stewart Island!

The Mason Bay Hut to Freshwater hike across Stewart Island is definitely unlike anything else we have done in New Zealand. And it’s just about to get a little more different…

Welcome to the Stewart Island swampland

The track and boardwalks take us across long stretching swampland. The mosses growing in the swamp are radioactive green and, again, a complete contrast in vegetation to what we have seen so far.

With swampland comes mud… Although the track mostly stays dry, we approach ankle to knee deep muddy sections every five minutes. It’s either following an alternative route through the trees or taking the edges of the muddy puddles. Even with all these precautions, we leave the muddy section with a different colour of shoes.

And finally, it happens…

We continue amongst the trees until, there! Right in front of us! A kiwi bird!

It is foraging on the track at around 12pm (so much for being nocturnal, you naughty kiwi bird). The fat brown-feathered kiwi runs off into the bushes and continues its foraging there, poking its long beak into the ground every now and then. We watch from the sidelines, totally unprepared to take photos. (But we do get a pretty fun 2-second video of it though. Wahoo!)

Playing cards: the top activity to do in a backcountry hut

Buzzing from our kiwi spotting, it gives us the final push we need to make it to Freshwater! We arrive two hours early for the water taxi, so we cross a wobbly swingbridge to relax in the Freshwater Hut. A German girl we met in the Mason Hut is already here snacking away. When Robin notices she has playing cards, he gets us all to have a few rounds of Asshole. Meanwhile, Laura is slowly crashing and tragically not picking up any of the rules…

Later on, a French hiker joins us in our game – Ah, you can always rely on a game of cards to bring people in a DoC hut together.

Hiking through the shrublands of Stewart island

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A journey down the Freshwater River

We are only disturbed once by a white-tailed deer walking around the hut, the rain starting to come down, and the arrival of our water taxi!

The orange Rakiura Water Taxi pulls up at the jetty for the final leg of our trip, travelling down the Freshwater River to Golden Bay. It’s a great reward for the hike of the day, watching the forests and hills of the Rakiura National Park pass by as we do some major twists and turns on the winding Freshwater River.

Finally, the river emerges into the ocean, where we are told by our skipper that we are only in about one metre of water thanks to high tide. In low tide, we would just be stranded on sand right now!

Coast to coast

45 minutes later, we catch up with the forested coastline on Stewart Island and dock up at Golden Bay. Usually, it would just be a 15-minute walk over the hill to reach Oban, but our skipper kindly offers to give us a lift! Nice!

Here we are back in Oban and the Stewart Island Backpackers where our adventure began yesterday. We might have only hiked for a day, but we are pretty pooped from carrying our backpacks full of camera gear. It’s time for a relaxing night at the Stewart Island Backpackers, where we catch up with a Canadian couple we met in Auckland many months ago and continue hanging out with the German girl we met in the Mason Hut.

Tomorrow, sadly, is our last day of our holiday on Stewart Island. Before we catch the ferry though, we can’t leave without going to the bird sanctuary on Ulva Island! Will we see more kiwi? Let’s find out tomorrow!

Making our way from coast to coast

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