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October 23, 2004

Stewart Island

I tried to arrange a flight directly to a beach landing at Mason's Bay on Stewart Island but it didn't work out. Mason's bay is on the west side of the island, while the town, Oban is on the east. If I could land there I would only have to cross the island once and not have to backtrack. I figured there would be a chance of arranging a departure from there once I got to the island.

I ended up flying standby to Oban. The airline, called Stewart Island Flights operates a small twin piston-engine aircraft that seats ten (including pilot). The manufacturer's name for the aircraft, "Islander", suggests it is well suited for the task at hand.

As we walked onto the tarmac I was directed to the front of the aircraft. They were putting me in the cockpit with the pilot. I am getting used to everything being backwards in New Zealand so I naturally started strapping myself into the left seat of the cockpit. After all, it is the passenger side for all vehicles out here. After a brisk walk-around the pilot shooed me out of his captain's chair. I was embarrassed, but got to sit up front despite my blooper. In just a few seconds the pilot had both engines running and we were off. It felt great sitting in a cockpit again. I took in the views and enjoyed the moment. The air was calm, in fact my driver let go all control devices for a while to take a few notes in his logbook. I laughed internally... how many times had my instructor told me never to do that?

As we puttered onwards at 1500 feet I watched the island gradually reveal its coastlines as the clouds and the sun played opposing roles in painting the sea with light. Soon we were descending, and the pilot warned us of turbulence ahead. A pilot's warning of bumpy air can be taken lightly, but the same warning accompanied by the pilot tightening his own belt is cause for concern. I tightened my belt too. The airstrip is nothing more than a ragged-edged rectangle of asphalt, unmarked and without buildings. While the pilot handled the flaps and the engines I handled my camera. The ride was getting rougher and I lost hope of properly framing a shot. Then a big bump hit and my camera crashed onto the roof. A little startled I stopped thinking photo and looked around me. We had just descended below the altitude of the little hills around the airport so the strong wind was keeping the pilot busy. As the passengers bounced up up and down in our seats he was battling against blow after blow of unruly air that seemed to do everything except keep the aircraft pointed towards the runway. I had never been witness to such a hairy landing. The pilot was jabbing the controls from stop to stop in an attempt to keep level, and I could feel every kick of the rudders through my seat. Very near the runway my rusty pilot's sensors detected some serious sink and sure enough the engines went to full throttle. We kept going down with the engines screaming for a few seconds until we popped out of the downdraft. The engines quieted down but we hit a bad gust that sent us slipping sideways right over the runway. The engines roared again: my driver had had enough, he was going to go around the airport for another try.

The young pilot had all the appearances of a slick fly-boy but the violent shaking had caused his cool shades to lean crooked on his face, and his headset had half-way fallen off. We looked at each-other and laughed (having flown gliders in the mountains around Southern California I have developed an immunity to bad turbulence). He readjusted his look and shook his head. That was fun, he said, still laughing. He turned around in his seat and, while grinning from ear to ear, gave the rest of the passengers a big thumbs-up. I joined him in the gesture but the reaction from the cabin did not match our enthusiasm. I saw a number of couples clinging to each other, and a pair of particularly pale victims stared back in disbelief at the giggling duo up front.

The second attempt at landing was a lot less fun, but it got us to where we needed to be: Stewart Island.

The coastlines reveal themselves.

Stewart Island might be a miniature version of New Zealand before the country was run over by tour busses. Strolling through the only settlement on the Island I got the distinct feeling that the 400-odd inhabitants were busy with their lives and that I, the tourist, stood out the most. This was an enjoyable feeling since my time at Milford Sound was dulled with the impression that the place was designed for tourists. Having said that, there are a number of visitors to the island, but the costs of the trip keep these numbers down. To continue with the New Zealand analogy, Stewart Island is far away, it's expensive to get to, and it is not a transfer point to anywhere else. NZ itself is like that on a world scale. The result is that no one is just passing through. Either you live there or something pushed you to take the journey.

Apart from the town of Oban the entire island's hills are covered with forests and swamps. The numerous bays make for great coastal landscape. Rain forest descends steeply all the way down to mustard-colored beaches, and crystal clear water laps at the sand.

There are no roads that lead around the island. The only way to get beyond the town is by foot, boat, or air. Two tramping tracks run alkong the island: the Northwest Circuit is a 10 day ordeal and the Southern Circuit is a shorter route that doesn't even get close to the South of the Island. I decided to do the latter, and I cut out the boring bits by hiring a boat to take me up a river to the middle of the island at a hut called Freshwater Landing. I was joined by a German I met a the hostel, and we met an English hiker who had the same route planned on the boat. We would get picked up just South of our departure point after looping around to the far West end of the island. This would be a 4-day hike that is not recommended by the Department of Conservation. They claim it is very remote, difficult, and that a high degree of self-reliance was required by hikers. We couldn't figure out why the Northwest Circuit is more recommended since it is much longer and the terrain is just as difficult.

We reached Mason's Bay in the evening of the first day. I had been warned about mud on Stewart I, but I didn't expect to sink to above my ankles 10 meters into the hike! I would not see the clean dry leather of my boots again. The hike through the swamps was dull, but the reward was to spend the night right next to a very long deserted beach. I love coastal scenery, but it seems hard to find vast regions of unspoiled beaches in the world. I had found one here. Unfortunately DOC had an army present, hard at work conserving with the help of 8-wheeled ATVs that were an eye-sore and an ear-ache.

My hiker pals taking in the sunset at Mason's.

The next day we walked on the sand looking for our next trail. We inspected a beached baby whale along the way. Later we hiked over a hill to another beach. Once again warnings of trail conditions were understated. While the hike up was a good hard hike (steep, overgrown, slippery) the hike down (should I say the swim?) was a ridiculous experience. Imagine a staircase for 12-foot giants, each step a deep pool of mud. For an hour we sank down into pools, sometimes to our knees, extracted out, dropped down 2-feet to the next pool, sank, and started again. We did our best to avoid slipping on the many trees strewn across the path: an injury here and we would be up a mud creek without a paddle. Despite the exhausting nature of the hike, the crime was worth the punishment: we would leave tracks on a truly deserted beach at Doughboy Bay. According to the hut book the last visitors left their mark a month earlier.

Inspecting the whale.

Lone hiker at Mason's.

Overlooking Masons Bay.

On the third day we clambered uphill again, though thankfully the trail was much better. We headed East, battling our way through bogs, swamps, and other assorted hiker traps. Frankly, away from the coasts Stewart Island is a dull place, and a very challenging one to hike through. Hundred's of meters of deep mud will be followed immediately with a very steep climb, then down again just as steep (I discovered the sport of buttogganing) and into another olympic-size mud pit. Despite all that we reached the hut in good time (7.5 hours) and collapsed under the effects of our high energy day.

Dealing with one of many challenges.

Doughboy Bay as seen during our hike out.

Yet another bog.

Finally on the last day we started hiking at 7 in the morning to catch the water taxi that would be waiting for us at Fred's Camp at noon. Getting up at 6:15 has never been my favorite thing, but having to slip into mud-laden, soaked pants and cold wet socks at that hour was brutal. I dreamt of a shower, and many dozen mud baths later it felt like it might be reality soon: we had reached Fred's Camp, and a white dot on the watery horizon signalled the arrival of our taxi.

Fred's camp hut.

Legs worn, I decided to leave Stewart Island and take care of all my de-mudding needs in Invercargill. I went straight from the wharf to the airline shack and put myself on standby for the 1pm flight out. My English hiking pal and I sat in the back of the aircraft tossed around by the turbulence once again and marvelled at how much ground we were covering compared to what our tired legs could do.

I spent an evening filling Invercargill's sewage system with Stewart Island mud, then set off the next day hoping to continue my hitch-hiking tour of the Southern Scenic Route. Lady Luck still seems to be working for me: I got a ride from a farmer who made me coffee at his home with fresh cow's milk then took me to a hostel at Slope Point, the southern-most point in mainland New Zealand. The next day a combination of rides got me to Dunedin.

Posted by piegu on October 23, 2004 02:29 AM
Category: New Zealand
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