The Northwest Circuit – Stewart Island

The Northwest Circuit

Stewart Island

november 2019, rakiura/ Stewart island, New Zealand


Hiking the Northwest circuit on Stewart island/Rakiura is a roughly seven to ten day adventure. The track follows the northwest coast of the island. We encountered Kiwi, a family of native ducks, Parakeet, Penguins, a Native Owl and more Kiwi.

Rakiura is one of the more geographically isolated places in the world. It is a small island stuffed full of native New Zealand flora and fauna. The size is 45km wide, 75km long, and I learned from the DOC website that is “smaller than Hawaii's main island but larger than Hong Kong”. It is bisected by latitude 47 south in the South Pacific ocean. There is 20km of road and 280km of walking track for its 400 inhabitants and several thousand visitors per year. In 2002, 85% of Rakiura was committed to national park. There are several Rakiura Maori places on and around the island, like the traditional muttonbird or Titi gathering grounds on the Titi/Muttonbirding Islands. The Rakiura Maori Land Trust holds a swathe of land in the south east, while private ownership is concentrated on the east coast around Halfmoon Bay and Horseshoe bay.

"Beyond the southern tip of Stewart Island lies the Southern Ocean – this is New Zealand’s ‘land’s end’.” Follow this link for more juicy facts than I have room for here!

The island has a fascinating history of fishing, castaways and community. It is where my brother and I grew up, and where Jordan and I met. On our last trip home to Stewart Island/Rakiura, Jordan and I took a walk around the Northwest circuit. It was seven days walking, made easier by the excellent DOC huts which were mostly empty! Here are some pictures and trip notes which will hopefully inspire a few missions to New Zealand's ‘lands end’ and specifically, the Northwest circuit on Stewart Island.

Day one, oban to bungaree hut


Our wonderful friend Amy accompanies us to Bungaree Hut swinging her socks and causing us giggles. We stay in a full hut, with trampers and a family staying for a holiday. We eat edibles and do shoulder massage, stare out the window and play the paper game which causes much hilarity.

Day two, bungaree hut to christmas village hut


Walk to Christmas Village hut. Sandflies. Nice cozy bunk beds of golden wood set under a triangular roof with a wide thick ladder to climb up. Windows with natural light. I start reading The Silk Road which is comfortably thick. Japanese hiker decides to go up Hananui and doesn't come back till after dark.

Day three, christmas village hut to yankee river


I hurt my knee on the way to Yankee river. The way feels like a river of tree roots, mud, and gullies. Jordan gives me the hiking poles and I make slow progress on my left leg. That afternoon from yankee river hut I spy on a family of paradise ducks scooting around on the surf. Mother duck, six babies, and pa bringing up the rear.

Day four, yankee river hut to long harry hut


A sad goodbye to the duck family. We leave and startle a Kiwi who was hunting on the track. Kiwi hops off about 4 paces to the crown fern and continues grubbing. Hiding skills = 1/10. Jordan has nearly everything out of my backpack, carrying the weight to rest my knee. It makes a comfortable climb out of Yankee river to smoky beach, wehee! Leaving smokey beach there’s a river to navigate. My feet aren't yet wet, and the river looks fairly full. We take to high tide route and eat our lunch perched above smokey river on a finger of the approaching hill. It is a fun mossy hike up and over the hill to long harry beach. Long harry hut is perched above the beach with incredible views of the water and wind-whipped coastal forest. We meet island friends hiking in the other direction. None of us have packed enough food but they still have smoke. Best day thus far.

Day five, long harry hut to east ruggedy hut


The most incredible views today. I have my normal weight back, but am still using the poles to look after my knee. The first excitement of the day is the Fiordland crested penguin we spot as we descend into boulder beach. Its mate hops up beside it, I yell in excitement making them both startle and scoot away. It is nice blustery weather and the clouds are racing overhead by the time we make it to the lookout overlooking the ruggedy islands. It is stunning. I can’t believe how alone we are out here having seen only five other people since Bungaree hut. I find the huts every night make the days so comfortable, no matter how muddy or tired I get, I know we can dry out by a fire and sip hot tea before dark. It is pretty luxurious tramping in New Zealand.


Day six, east ruggedy to big hellfire hut


From the Ritz (east ruggedy hut) through to big hellfire hut is a hearty day. The wind howls through the sandbank pass beside the hut. 200m above sea level the wind has forced sand into a huge sandbank. On the other side you can see the ruggedy mountains descend into the wetland which runs all the way to freshwater river. Big hellfire hut is tucked into the bush beside the pass. A fourteen kilometer day today, same again tomorrow. I always read the hut books for entertainment (don’t we all?) and we have been spotting our friend Amy Caron's entries from the year earlier. In this book she has written ‘I love mud, mud is in my blood’, words to a chant we made up together around a campfire.

Day seven, big hellfire hut to mason bay hut


Onwards to Mason Bay! Today is hard. Both of us are at an energy deficit. Rationing our food is psychologically motivating, because we know we will have enough to survive, but physically taxing as we have been burning more calories than we have been consuming for days now. Little hellfire beach is screaming with wind. I find a woven basket washed up on the beach, it is a kete, made from flax or cabbage tree leaves, perhaps come from up north, perhaps from further in the pacific. At Mason Bay beach we find apples strewn along the high tide mark, I check if they are edible immediately. They are! the South Pacific clearly being a great freezer box. After a long 8 hours we reach Mason Bay hut. It is only 4pm and I know my mum will be at work, 45 kilometers away in the DOC office. Borrowing a radio I call her "Hi Mum, we ran out of food for the last day, can you please call up a water taxi?"

Day eight, mason bay hut to oban


We head off early in the morning, energy restored by the promise of a lift. Only 15 kilometers over the flat sand packed Manuka forest. This is a track I have walked many times, first as a small kid, being awed by the DOC worker who said he can walk the track in 2 hours flat. On this day we take three hours. An inquisitive few robins catch our eye. Being out early is always good for wildlife. At 9.45 we arrive at the freshwater landing pick up. We have a snack and kick our feet above the inky black water that flows down freshwater river. Matt arrives in a whine and roar, breaking the reflections.

To read about another hike in Southland New Zealand, check out my blog post Walking in the Longwoods. And to read about the clearest water in the world (located in lil ol New Zealand!) see my trip account from Blue Lake in Nelson Lakes national park.

I hurt my knee on the way to Yankee river. The way feels like a river of tree roots, mud, and gullies. Jordan gives me the hiking poles and I make slow progress on my left leg. That afternoon from yankee river hut I spy on a family of paradise ducks scooting around on the surf. Mother duck, six babies, and pa bringing up the rear.

  • Track Information

    125 km loop

    Mud is widespread and often deep and thick on the tracks, regardless of the season. Walking times are an indication only and extra time should be allowed in adverse conditions.

    Track and weather conditions are constantly subject to change and can be extreme. Trampers should visit Rakiura National Park Visitor Centre before they depart for up to date information.

    Caution is required at the north end of Mason Bay beach as access along beach may only be possible at low tide. See more information.

    Halfmoon Bay to Port William Hut

    Time: 4 hr
    Distance: 12 km

    Follow the road to Horseshoe Bay, then on to Lee Bay, the official entrance to Rakiura National Park. From here the well defined track follows the coast to Little River and Maori Beach, a former sawmill settlement. There is a Great Walk campsite at Maori Beach. A tidal stream is spanned by a bridge at the north end of the beach, after which the track climbs a low hill, passing the Rakiura Track turn-off to North Arm. Port William Hut is on the prominent headland to the north.

    Port William Hut to Bungaree Hut

    Time: 3–4 hr
    Distance: 6 km

    The track traverses forested hill country before briefly dropping down to the coast. Cross the headland to reach Big Bungaree Beach, which has a hut at the northern end.

    Bungaree Hut

    Bungaree Hut to Christmas Village Hut

    Time: 6 hr
    Distance: 11.5 km

    Passing inland from Gull Rock Point, the track descends to Murray Beach and crosses Murray River upstream of the northwest end of the beach. It then follows an old tramline before entering virgin forest. The track continues through forest before reaching Christmas Village Hut. If you have found it difficult so far, turn back.

    Christmas Village Hut

    Side trip: Christmas Village Hut to Mt. Anglem/Hananui

    Time: 6 hr return
    Distance: 11 km

    The track to Mount Anglem/Hananui, Stewart Island’s highest point, is a short distance along the track to Yankee River. The track is marked and leads through forest, mānuka, leatherwood scrub and subalpine meadow to the 980 m summit. Note: This track can be very muddy and foggy.

    Christmas Village Hut to Yankee River Hut

    Time: 6 hr
    Distance: 12 km

    From the Mount Anglem Track junction the track passes through low, undulating bush country to Lucky Beach where tall rimu trees are prominent. From the west end of Lucky Beach the track climbs steeply through dense areas of fern. Care is needed to locate the track where it enters heavy forest. The track then follows undulating country to Yankee River where the hut is sited.

    Yankee River Hut

    Yankee River Hut to Long Harry Hut

    Time: 4–5 hr
    Distance: 8.5 km

    Cross the swing bridge over Yankee River, then the track rises steeply over Black Rock Point before descending to Smoky Beach with its distinctive sand hills. A swing bridge crosses Smoky River, inland from the western end of the beach, but unless the river is in flood or it is extreme high tide you can easily wade where the river meets the beach. The track then follows broken and forested terrain, drops down onto the coast and then up to Long Harry Hut.

    Long Harry Hut

    Long Harry Hut to East Ruggedy Hut

    Time: 6 hr
    Distance: 9.5 km

    From the hut follow the coastal terrace to Cave Point ridge, then along the ridge before descending to the rocky coastline. The coast is followed for 30 minutes before the track re-enters the scrub at a signpost. It then climbs fairly steeply to reach a lookout over East Ruggedy Beach. The track descends through scrub to a river crossing, where the sand can be very soft. From here to East Ruggedy Hut is a further 15 minutes inland, marked by poles through the sand dunes. Note: Deep river crossing, may require swimming.

    East Ruggedy Hut

    East Ruggedy Hut to Big Hellfire Hut

    Time: 7 hr
    Distance: 14 km

    The track drops down to West Ruggedy and follows the beach. At extreme high tide you may need to take the high tide detour up and over a steep rocky outcrop halfway down the beach. The track re-enters the bush at the southern end of the beach, then crosses around to the eastern side of the Ruggedy Range. It then descends to Waituna Bay. From here it is a steady climb up to Hellfire Pass Hut.

    Big Hellfire Hut

    Big Hellfire Hut to Mason Bay Hut

    Time: 7 hr
    Distance: 15 km

    From Big Hellfire the track follows the main ridge before descending to Little Hellfire beach. At the south end of the beach is a signpost for Mason Bay. The track travels inland over a bush saddle and finally descends near the north end of Mason Bay. At extreme high tide this section can be impassable – there is a high tide route marked through the sand dunes. Care Is required as the sand dunes move and markers are sometimes covered over with sand. High tide route will take approximately an extra 1.5 hours.

    Caution: Fill drink bottles at Big Hellfire Hut before leaving, as there are no reliable water sources until Little Hellfire Beach.
    Caution: Access on to the north end of Mason Bay beach may only be possible at low tide

    Recent sand erosion is causing waves to come up to the cliffs at high tide. This means trampers may not be able to get down to the beach safely for the 12 hours of high tide. The beach may also be inaccessible at low tide if there are low pressure systems or storm surges. The north end of Mason Bay beach is 6 hours walk from Big Hellfire Hut, so if trampers can't get down safely to the beach they will have to return to the hut or find shelter until conditions are safe to access the beach.

    About 1 km further along the beach there is a large rock. Previously it was possible to get around this at any time except extreme high tide. This is no longer correct – it's only passable at low tide, at other times trampers should take the high tide route which starts just before it. The low tide track cannot be used within approximately 2 hours either side of high tide. Please check with staff regarding tide times at Mason Bay, as they differ from Oban times.

    From here, follow the beach approximately 4 km to Duck Creek. Flag markers on a pole mark the track turn-off to Mason Bay Hut.

    Mason Bay Hut

    Mason Bay Hut to Freshwater Hut

    Time: 3–4 hr
    Distance: 15.5 km

    Follow the track to the Island Hill homestead and then over flat tussock and mānuka country to Freshwater River and Freshwater Hut. Note: This track is often flooded during periods of heavy rain.

    Freshwater Hut

    Side trip: Rocky Mountain Track

    Time: 3 hr return
    Distance: 5 km

    A climb from behind the Freshwater Hut, through forest and subalpine scrubland to rock outcrops, gives panoramic views over the Freshwater Flats and Paterson inlet.

    Freshwater Hut to North Arm Hut

    Time: 6–7 hr
    Distance: 11 km

    This section of track is steep and often slippery. It crosses over Thompson Ridge to the North Arm of Paterson Inlet. North Arm Hut has a Great Walk hut and campsite. Note: During periods of heavy rain, some creeks on this track may become impassable.

    North Arm Hut to Halfmoon Bay

    Time: 5 hr
    Distance: 12 km

    The track traverses above North Arm to Sawdust Bay. From the former sawmill site the track cuts across a low headland to reach Kidney Fern Arm in Prices Inlet, and continues through forest for another hour before emerging at Kaipipi Bay. From there it follows the former Kaipipi Road to Halfmoon Bay.

For more up-to-date information please visit The Department of Conservation's website. 

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