GREAT WALK: RAKIURA TRACK
The Rakiura Track forms a circuit, winding around the bays and through the interior of Stewart Island in the far south, past sandy beaches and tidal inlets and through rich native forest.
The three-day track begins and ends at Stewart Island's only settlement, the tiny town of Oban. The track follows the open coast, climbs over a forested ridge and up to a lookout tower for views out over the rolling treetops, before threading its way back down to the sheltered shores of Paterson Inlet. The track itself is only 29 kilometres long, but the full length of the walk is 36 kilometres if you include the stretches of road at either end which connect it with Oban.
Despite the presence of several sawmilling ventures during the 19th and early 20th centuries, Stewart Island remains clothed in its original vegetation, the trees reaching to the water's edge, making the island one of the best places for observing native birds. The forest provides a home for melodius bellbirds and tui, playful fantails, colourful parakeets and fat wood pigeons, while the tidal area of Paterson Inlet hosts oyster catchers, herons and migratory godwits and the coast provides a habitat for muttonbirds (sooty shearwaters), shags and little blue penguins.
Much of the track is boardwalked so you don't have to walk through too much of Stewart Island's notoriously deep mud. There are two Department of Conservation huts and three campsites on the track, and you will need to purchase a Great Walks hut or camp pass before setting off, either from the Department of Conservation Visitor Centre in Oban, or its office in the nearest South Island city, Invercargill. The Rakiura Track brochure can be downloaded from the Department of Conservation's website, and the Stewart Island map can be purchased online from Clearwater Tarn or Craig Potton Publishing, or from the visitor centres in person.
The track can be walked at any time of the year, including the winter, when the weather tends to be settled and the temperatures relatively mild. It rains often throughout the year.
The track can be walked in either direction, but this route description follows the Department of Conservation in going anti-clockwise, starting at the DOC Visitor Centre in Halfmoon Bay. The first two days of walking are over old sections of a much longer, more strenuous tramp, the North West Circuit.
Halfmoon Bay to Port William Hut (12 kilometres, 4-5 hours): To get to the track follow the road five kilometres from the Department of Conservation Visitor Centre, over a series of hills to the sandy curve of Horseshoe Bay, and then on to Lee Bay, where the official entrance to the Rakiura National Park is marked by a chain link sculpture. The track follows the coast to a wooden bridge over Little River, trips around the headland of Peter's Point, and then drops down to the sandy, seashell-dotted Maori Beach. From the northern end of the beach, the track climbs over the headland between Maori and Magnetic Beaches, levels off briefly and then forks, the left branch heading inland to North Arm, and the right leading to Port William and the hut. The track to Port William drops gradually down to curving Magnetic Beach, the jetty visible at the far end. The hut is in a clearing beneath tall eucalyptus trees, the site of a short-lived government-sponsored settlement of Scottish Shetland Islanders in 1872.
Port William Hut to North Arm Hut (12 kilometres, 6 hours): From the hut, the track backtracks the two kilometres to the junction, heads over a gentle boardwalk through forest, and then follows the river inland along a flat logging tramway. It then climbs steadily up to a 300 metre high ridge where there is a lookout tower affording views of Paterson Inlet to the south, and the distant South Island in the north. The track then descends to the North Arm Hut on the shores of the inlet, where you can explore the rocky coves and shellfish reefs at low tide.
North Arm Hut to Halfmoon Bay (12 kilometres, 4-5 hours): The final day's walk is relatively flat and easy, and provides access to the mud flats of Paterson Inlet where you can observe wading birds feeding. There is a campsite and shelter at Sawdust Bay, a former sawmilling site, and a short track here provides access down steps to the beach. The track then heads over a saddle and leads above Prices Inlet before continuing through forest to the sheltered bays of Kidney Fern Arm and Kaipipi Bay. From here, the track follows an old sawmilling road three kilometres to the road end, from where it is an easy two kilometre walk back to Halfmoon Bay.