These are my photos of my journey to New Zealand’s third island. Rakiura or Stewart Island is an ancient land that reminded us of ‘old New Zealand’. This island’s history is in timber, whaling and hunting by early Maori. Today, with 85% reserve, it is a wonderland of native forest, stunning beaches and bays, fishing, wildlife and hiking. It is also a place to experience the magnetic night sky (milky way) and to occasionally witness the erratic Aurora Australis (Southern Lights). The highlight may be, with a lot of hope, to see the elusive and iconic Kiwi bird in the wild.
This are my photos of the 3 -days Rakiura Track (March 2021) in Stewart Island, New Zealand. Please read Hiking Rakiura Track.
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Rakiura Track is on Stewart Island, the third island of New Zealand. This 32 km track is a loop and can be walked in either direction. It is generally referred to as a “muddy track” resulting from the constant rainfall it received. For more track information, refer to DoC – Rakiura Track. Stewart Island (or Rakiura – the Land of Glowing Skies) is an old world charm, laid back where 85% of the land is wilderness; heaps of beaches and isolated coasts; native rain forest; wildlife and spectacular night skies with potential to see Aurora Australis (Southern Lights). This is old New Zealand! See my track photos
Day 1 – Lee’s Bay to Port William Hut (8km)
We organised a taxi to the official starting point at Lee’s Bay. This saved 5 km of walking (2 hrs). Greg, our diver enquired if we had witnessed the Southern Lights last night. We were disappointed that we missed it. There was some apprehension and uncertainty at the time of our walk as both huts had serious infestation of bed bugs. However, DOC assured us that it is manageable and the huts as “relatively safe”.
It was a bright and sunny day with a blue sky when we arrived at Lee’s Bay. The beach is spectacular, strewn with rocks, lush coastal vegetation and washed-up kelp on the white sandy beach. The tip of South Island – Bluff, is visible across the unpredictable Foveaux Straits. On the island, several mountains are visible including the highest – Mt Anglem. Closer, on the track, on the ground, local humour – a metal plaque with the inscription “someday I must go over to New Zealand”.
We started our hike at 9 am after passing through a chain link art installation (Te Puka). In Maori history – Maui fished up South Island (Te Wai Pounamu) and Stewart Island (Rakiura). Then, anchored them to a chain. The dawn sunbathed the beach with a soft glow. The light was amazing. However, the water was cold. A predator fence can be viewed across the eastern hills. After a short walk, we took the high tide route. Crossed a few small wooden bridges. We passed a cluster of multi-trunk kamahi trees. The track ascended along a coastal cliff, mostly under tree canopies of beech, kamahi, tree ferns and broad leaf. There were stunning views at Peter’s Point and along Wooding Bay. Crossed white sandy beaches surrounded by lush vegetation. The track ascended and descended with aid of steps. Bird songs filled the forest. We were always on a look out for the elusive Kiwi bird. Wishful thinking perhaps.
We eventually emerged out of the forest canopy onto the long white sand Maori Beach. Amongst the sporadic shrubs, we spotted a deer. A family was enjoying a picnic lunch. This is an old Maori settlement. Tucked into a collection of tall shrubs, remnants of a rusting historic boiler. Timber industry was big in these parts including Port Williams between 1860 and 1930. We walked along this long beach under a hot sun with yellowish giant kelp washed up on the beach. At the northern end of Maori Beach, a swing bridge spanned over an estuary. We crossed the bridge and the track ascended into the forest. There were less bird songs here. At a junction, a track continued north towards Port William. The left track lead towards the North Arm Hut. After a short walk, we descended towards Magnetic Beach and arrived at the Port Williams Hut around 1230. Be aware, the dreaded sand flies await!
A deer foraged in the compound under a handsome collection of blue gum trees. For now, we were there only ones at the hut. It was quite surreal and quiet. Incidentally, there were lots of bees and tui birds. Nearby is a wooden wharf of Port Williams. Weary of the bed bugs, we kept our packs in the dining hall and planned to sleep here as well. With plenty of daylight, we relaxed under the gum trees and walked along the beach. A single cruise boat anchored at the wharf. Several hikers arrived later in the day. With the bed bug scare, only twelve were here today. The hut warden was absent.
I was excited and hopeful to see wild kiwi birds as Rakiura promised to have a sizeable population of these shy and elusive birds. There are sensitive to bright lights and noise. Armed with a torch wrapped with red cellophane, I was eager to get out on the search. After 9 pm, several red-light beams penetrated through the forest floor. I managed to spot a foraging deer and a possum. A distinctive loud screech of a kiwi echoed in the forest nearby. None was sighted but they are definitely around.
Day 2 – Port William to North Arm Hut (13km)
As expected, the day began as cloudy with dark clouds. Early in the morning, I ventured into the bush looking, rather optimistically, for Kiwi. We finally left the hut at 0830 and retraced our track back along the coast for 1 km. Then divert right and inland. It began to rain lightly. Humidity was high. I was sweating profusely with my rain jacket on. We stopped to check out the historic log hauler site. It was abandoned in 1931 after the timber industry collapsed. The abandoned machines are reminders of an era gone by. Via a long steep wooden step, we descended into the mixed forest -rimu, totara, podocarps, beech and tree ferns. Yellow autumn leaves littered on the track. We crossed little streams and walked past matured trees with twisted trunks. Lichen and moss hung from branches. All added a dramatic image of the forest.
The track undulated with the ebb and flow of the rain forested mountain. There was little birdsong. The track is a combination of earth, gravel, wooden steps, ponga (tree fern) logs and mud. The early part of the track was dominated by tall tree ferns with clusters of broad leaf trees. Patches of mud made walking difficult. This was further exasperated with exposed tree roots resulting from leeching by heavy rainfall. Today’s rain was light and did not contribute to the deteriorated state of the track. Fortunately, several dry days prior, had made walking rather easier than normal (very wet and muddy most of the track).
Mid way point is marked with a ball hanging off a tree branch. More muddy patches to negotiate. The final stretch is a descend towards the coast into North Arm Hut. We were the only hikers here. Several staff and contractors were busy ripping and spraying pesticide to get rid of a persistent infestation of bed bug. The rain eased and surprisingly the sun was out. However, thick clouds hung just below. Strong south-westerlies blew across the coast and hut. Temperatures dropped. We took a shot walk through dense vegetation towards a very small sandy beach. Wind swept trees clanged strongly onto the sloppy shore. A deer wandered into the hut compound.
Dinner time in the hut is full of camaraderie between the hikers. No burners are available in this hut. A few other hikers also arrived from Port William. A wild deer foraged around the hut compound. The wind picked up and rained intermittently. Doug, the warden, gave the usual hut talk. Another young and enthusiastic warden, Ant, offered anyone to spot Kiwi later. “I’ve got a bright red light”.
At 10pm, Ant, turned up and most of were ready for some surprise. The cold wind was relentless. This may have prompted the wild kiwi to stay hidden in the bush. In this cold windy day, I would too. However, the night sky – the milky way, was stunning. LC and I continued our search, Hoping. No sighting though. As a precaution against the nasty bed bugs, we slept in the lounge.
Day 3 – North Arm Hut to Half Moon Bay (Oban) – 12km
Surprising, at breakfast, no one experienced any bites. Perhaps we were just lucky. Left the hut at 0840 and entered a matured forest. Not long after, the track weaved in and out between the forest and the coast. Last night’s rain caused the already muddy track to become worse. New impromptu tracks were created to forge forwards. The walk is quite invigorating especially near water bodies like fast flowing streams. We stood on a bridge listening to the soothing sounds of the crashing waterfall.
Through twisted trunks of native bush, we spotted an abandoned and rusting boiler (used by the timber industry). We later emerged out of the tree canopy and walked along the debris filled Sawdust Bay. It was low tide. The blue sky reflected on the shallow water to create a striking view. The sun was out. The forest began to take on a “refreshing” appearance. Shafts of light penetrated through the goblin like twisted trees. The ground covered with clumps of lime green ferns. The atmosphere was invigorating. Young rimu trees seemed to thrive here.
At 1100, we arrived at yet another historic timber processing site – Gallo’s Sawmill. The only visible reminder is the signage and the stream that was used to power the mill. After crossing a long wooden bridge over an estuary, we reached a short detour to Kapipi Bay. We thought this might be a pleasant place for lunch. However, cold wind blew across the choppy bay. Shellfish clung tightly onto the rocky shore. A few fellow hikers joined us. They were young and boisterous. They too decided it was best not to linger here too long. Yellow Autumn leaves were scattered on the track. We continued walking under tree canopy dominated by tree ferns.
At 1pm, we arrived at a junction. The right track led towards Half Moon Bay via Ryans Creek adding a couple of kilometres (2hrs). We took, the left track via the Fern Gully with a 1 hr return to Half Moon Bay. Incidentally, all the young hikers opted for this choice too. Within a few minutes, we had reached the end of the 32 km Rakiura Track. From here on, we walked on gravel road for another hour to reach Half Moon Bay (Oban). Despite the wet and muddy track and no sight of any kiwi bird (although we heard several screeching calls), Rakiura Track is a delightful track with a mixture of stunning and dense rain forest, enchanting structural native trees, coastal walk and unique ecosystems and habitats.
Just round a bend on the Hakatere Potts Road, across a bridge over Potts River, the expansive views of Mt Sunday – a rocky outcrop carved by glaciers, the glistening backdrop of the Southern Alps and the braided and slow flowing Rangitata River, was stunning.
From the car park, the hike is estimated 1.5 hours return. The land from here to Mt Sunday is farmland with cattle grazing on the sunny day. A thick band of cloud hung steadfastly just below the summits. Leafless short scrub bush are scattered on the grassy fields. Along a fast flowing Deep Creak , tussock grass is dominant. Asburton Lakes area has some unique plants and animals. One such animal is the rare upland long jaw galaxias (fish) whcih can be spotted in this creek. The Rangitata River and the surrounding creeks are also spawning ground for Chinook or King Salmon.
We crossed a suspension bridge with views of The Pyramids (1748m), Mt Potts (2184m -another hike) and Mt Arrowsmith in the east. The mountains are bare and the bases covered in grass. The walk is relatively flat and the hardest part is wondering how to negotiate around cattle that determinedly stare at you. Give them wider berth as there is room to maneuver.
The final part is a climb over a grassy field towards the top of Mt Sunday. The top is a rocky outcrop. However, the 360 degrees of views of the The Southern Alps, Rangitata River and Potts Range is absolutely stunning against a deep blue sky. The Havelock, Lawrence and Clyde Rivers merged from the Southern Alps to form the mighty Rangitata River. Over the mountains in the west lies Mt Cook and Lakes Pukaki and Tekapo.
Mt Sunday was the site of Edoras in the Lord of the Ring movie. Whether you’re a fan or not, for a little effort, the reward is priceless. On the return, nearing the car park, water birds frolicked in the cold fast flowing creek almost hidden amongst the golden tussocks grasses. This is s good day out. Incidentally, Mt Sunday got its name from the riders in nearby high country stations whom would meet here on Sundays.
On our return journey from our hike to Mt Sunday, on the one main road, we stopped at Lake Emma and Roundabout. The sun was still bright and we decided to hike around the lake to a historic Lake Emma Hut. Against a backdrop of the looming Mt Harper and distant snow peaked mountains, Lake Emma is sits in an idyllic location.
From the car park, it is an easy walk along the shore. The vegetation is a mixture of tussock and grasses. Water reeds populated the water’s edge. A 4WD track, visibly used, led all the way to the hut. In the water, black swans flocked together foraging. We decided to walk all the way towards the historic hut on the south side of the lake.
Lake Emma Hut was built in the late 1860s. It is so quite here. Even the swans dare not disturb the silence. Entering the hut felt a little spooky. Above a cast iron wood stove, graffiti is scribbled all over. I did not linger too long. This hut is not in use. A track led behind the hut, skirted the foot of the Harper Range towards Lake Camp. A side trail detoured back to car park. However, it encompassed wading/crossing a swamp. We opted to retrace our track back to the car park. It seemed like a long slog back in the relentless hot afternoon sun shining directly onto our faces. It is an easy two hour return walk. We returned to Methvan.
This morning we drove back to Mt Sommers and onward to Hakatere Conservation Area via the Ashburton Gorge Road. It covered about 60,000 hectares between two great rivers – Rakaia and Rangitata. The landscape is covered with tussock land, stunning lakes and braided rivers, bog and wetlands, impressive wild snow peaked mountains and farmlands. The Ashburton Lakes included Lakes Clearwater, Emma, Camp and Roundabout. All this just two hours drive from Christchurch.
At a historic Hakatere Station, built in late 1800, sealed road turned to gravel but the sights of snow peaked mountains and stunning lakes lifted my spirits. Driving carefully, I began to take in the ‘wilderness’ of this place. There is something exhilarating when I see clear water and snowy peaks. Here, those views are everywhere. There was hardly any car on the gravel road. We reached Lake Camp. Signs of civilisation. A cluster of permanent homes/batches towards the end of the lake. Interestingly, a public telephone! The Harper Range reflected on the still Lake Camp.
Driving across to Lake Clearwater, another cluster of camper vans occupied the lake’s shores. The Southern Alps, although distant reflected on its surface. The clarity here is astounding. I spoke to a local couple and they mentioned that all accommodation here are privately owned and there is no accommodation available. Perhaps, one or two owners may rent out their property by word of mouth. There are in fact a few properties/lodges available within this conservation area but are priced steeply! This included Lake Heron Station and Arrowsmith Lodge. Campsite and huts on some hiking tracks are available too.
We continued out slow drive on gravel road until we approached what looked like the end. Not really. We crossed a bridge near the mouth of Potts River which drained into the braided and wide Rangitata River. The sight towards the river basin and mountains was stunning. Gorgeous views of the head waters of Rangitata River – with sources from Clyde, Lawrence and Havelock Rivers, Mt D’Archiac, Mt Potts and Mt Sunday. All part of the magnificent Southern Alps. Soon, we passed the expensive Mt Potts Lodge. It is a long slow drive to get here but it is worth it. Plus,with options to climb Mt Potts and Mt Sunday. We choose Mt Sunday – the site of Edoras (Lord of the Ring).
We left Twizel on Highway 8 in wet and hazy weather. All views of the Alps and Lake Pukaki vanished behind a curtain of gray wall. From our very comfortable lodge in Twizel, we opted for the YHA located in the center of town.
This my first time to Tekapo, in Mackenzie Country. Its location between the mountains and a stunning turquoise blue glacial lake is the major drawcard. We donned our raincoats and headed off the the iconic Church of Good Shepard. Built in 1935 as a memorial to commemorate early settlers. It is in a stunning location – framed between the lake, river and the partially obscured Southern Alps. Nearby is a bronze sheep dog statue to commemorate its valuable contribution to the early farming settlers.
Trying to dodge the unrelenting rain, we headed to Kohan, a Japanese Restaurant. The views of the church, lake and alps is framed through a long wide glass window. The food is amazing too.
Although with cloudy weather, we headed to Mt John Observatory, at least to get a overview of Tekapo. The entrance is closed tot he public today due to poor weather. On a good day, this is the place to observe the southern night sky under the Dark Sky Project. The alternate, perhaps strenuous, way to arrive here is through a short hike on the Mt John Walkway which starts at Tekapo Springs.
Although disappointed, we can’t beat the weather. We continued on the same road and explored the area. We came across Lake McGregor and Alexandria. This is a great place to seek alternate views of Lake Tekapo but also to enjoy a serene environment. Only the swans seemed happy with the weather. Even a small campervan site by Lake Benmore was quiet. Another highlight in this area is viewing the colorful Lupins flowers in late November. We were too early.
Well the only thing left for us to do was head straight to Tekapo Springs. We jumped into the hot pools. It was soothing under the light rain. Besides the hot pools, with different temperatures setting, there are spas, café and a playground. Even a star gazing opportunity is available here. After all the hikes and walking around, soaking our bodies in the hot pools was the best thing.
We wanted to cycle to Ohau, an alpine lake resort village, from Lake Ohau Weir. However, this Alps 2 Ocean route was closed due to fire that ravaged this little village. Instead, we drove from Twizel to Ohau.
The drive off the main highway is quite striking. The dry land is vegetated with shrubs and golden tussock grasses. The basin is relatively flat flanked by mountains. Power lines stretched from horizon to horizon, east to west. Farm fences bordered the road.
After a short drive on a lonely road, Lake Ohau appeared as a pale blue line obscured by low rain clouds. In the foreground however, evidence of burnt grasses and charred pine trees. It was in August (less than two months ago) when wildfire broke out in this dryland. It went out of control fanned by strong winds and dry weather. Strangely, the spread seem sporadic as amongst the burnt trees and shrubs, fresh green ones were left untouched. This unexpected phenomenon continued all along the road towards the lake.
Trees skeletons line the shores of the lake closer to the village. A temporary entry ban on non-residents was placed to help recovery and assistance when we arrived here around 6pm. This is an isolated place but endowed with a magical lake and snow-covered Ohau Range. This is a winter resort – the play field for skiers. Like many tourist depended places in New Zealand, Covid 19 travel restrictions compounded by the fire, this is a major set back.
On our exit, we stopped at Lake Middleton to witness the destruction. Across the placid lake, rows of completely burnt pine stood like sentinels and the land scared black with scattered ashes. It is depressing to see the devastation. The title – From scenic idyll to scene of destruction – read the Otago Times. The village is mostly destroyed, fortunately no fatalities occurred. Despite the grim landscape today aided by perpetual dark rain clouds – Ohau Village is utterly scenic and spectacular.
After a fantastic adventure in Aoraki Mt Cook, we returned to Twizel but stayed at Pukaki Air Lodge which located next to the Pukaki Airport’s runway. It is a fantastic place with a views of McKenzie Country and the snowy Alps in the background. From our bed, we can see small planes, including the bright Red Cat bi-plane (redcat ), a two person sightseeing flight towards the mountains, on the runway.
Twizel, an alpine town, is a great place to relax surrounded with mountains and several picturesque lakes. We decided to cycle part of the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle trails (alps-2-ocean-cycle-trail). We headed to Cycle Journeys and got ourselves electric bikes ($75/3hrs). The topography around Twizel is relatively flat. We headed off, with a map of the region, towards Glen Lyons Rd. The day was cloudy and rain was imminent. Along the road we saw groups of runners and families participating in a local race. The bikes were great. We peddled with ease and covered distance quickly. At the road junction, we arrived at the Pukaki Canal. This was a surprise. Just past this junction, we passed one of the Lord of the Rings movie site – the Pelennor Fields. A flat farmland basin with snow covered mountains in the background.
The water in the canal was deep blue and stretched endlessly. Clusters of fishermen gathered along the canal fishing for trout and salmon. The water is calm. These are part of a series of canals built connecting Lakes Ohau, Pukaki and Tekapo for the production of hydroelectric power. Towards the end of this long flat road is Lake Ohau. The views were stunning in this cloudy sky – golden grasses on the shores against a deep blue lake and treeless brown mountains topped with snow on the summits. It was time to pause and enjoy the serene scenery.
Our ride continued towards the Ohau Wier, a small dam across the Ohau River. However, our onward journey on the Alps 2 Ocean trail towards Ohau Village was closed. Perhaps, due the recent fire that devastated the village in August. Alternately, we turned east and cycled along winding Ohau River. The sealed road disappeared and earth road prevailed. However, the trail later turned into gravel. There was no one on the trail. We passed the hydro power station, on the opposite side of the river. Finally we some fellow cyclist (without e-bikes) and was assured that this trail will end in Twizel.
Beautiful Lake Ruataniwha appeared as we peddled on. Campervans were parked on the shore and speed boats on the lake. We finally arrived near Highway 8, the main road into Twizel. Cage salmon farming is a feature here and across the highway. We watched a feeding frenzy in the water below. A restaurant offered these south island delicacies. Lake Ruataniwha was stunning with the mountains in the backdrop.
We cycled along the busy highway and to avoid fast moving lorries and trailers, we opted a narrow track along the road all the way into town. With our electric bike, we managed a not too strenuous 32km of mountains and vast farmlands of beautiful and captivating Mackenzie Country.
The road journey to Aoraki Mt Cook National Park is passed through some amazing landscape. Past Twizel, we left Highway 8 and turned left into Highway 80 towards Aoraki Mt Cook. A signage at the entrance indicated the road condition. Immediately, we could see recent fire damage in the vegetation on both sides of the road. Over 3000 ha were damaged in August. The fire seemed to have moved quickly as both stands of chard and green pine stood side by side.
The jewel-like Lake Pukaki appeared beyond the charred pine trees. The dazzling turquoise lake contrasted with the greener and blackish foreground. After a short drive, we reached Peter’s Lookout. The vista is a stunning view of the Lake Pukai and the Southern Alps with Mt Cook prominently positioned.
We passed NZ Alpine Lavender Farm which was out of season. A single road led to Mt Cook and the road seemed to head straight into the highest mountain in NZ. Sheep grazed in the fenced farmlands hemmed between the mountains and the road.
Mt Cook village is a small collection of accommodations, tour operators and petrol station. Aoraki Mt Cook National Park is enviable located at the base of the Southern Alps with Mt Cook it crowning glory. Many day walks are available to explore this stunning alpine region including Hooker Valley , Red Tarn, Tasman Lake and Kea Point Tracks. A passive, well almost, way to get close to the mountain and the magnificent glacier is to take a boat journey to Tasman Glacier. A stunning two-day hike to Muller is the closest to getting ‘eye-level’ view of Mt Cook. Our accommodation was the luxurious Hermitage Hotel .
From our balcony, Mt Cook is framed in the middle flanked by the massive Mt Seffton and Mt Wakefield, and the wide Hooker Valley. Simply superb views. With restaurants and bar, it is not a bad place to unwind after a good day’s hike. If only they had a spa!