New Zealand native bush is a joy to behold and walk amongst. However, it’s not nearly so joyous when you’re alone, frightened, and lost.
Through a series of aligning ‘Swiss Cheese‘ holes, Barry and I ‘lost’ each other on the fourth day of walking the Rakiura Track on Stewart Island. In this post we tell our individual stories. We want to share how easy it can be and the lessons we learned from our anxious hour and a half of thinking the other was dead.
The Rakiura Track on Stewart Island is one of New Zealand’s Ten Great Walks. It’s described as ‘moderate’, which essentially means you need a fair level of fitness to get the most out of it. I’d like to think Barry and I are fairly fit – during our three weeks on the West Coast of the South Island, we did several short walks to help improve our stamina. Despite that, we lagged well behind other walkers. Well, I certainly did! Barry went ahead and I followed behind. Often at quite a distance.
Port William to North Arm Hut
On Wednesday 3rd March, Barry and I set off from Port William Hut at around 10.54 am. The rest of the walkers had headed off before or around 9 am. The first 45 minutes take you back to the track junction.
Before we reached the turn-off, Kate, the DOC Warden, approached from the opposite direction. She looked rather serious. Her words shared gloom and doom that bed-bugs had bitten the previous night trampers at North Arm. If we wanted to cancel our booking and head back to Oban instead, DOC would refund us. I have to say, for a second or two, I was tempted. But despite thinking it would be an easy way out of another two long days walking, we had no accommodation booked until Thursday night back at Stewart Island Backpackers. Plus, it had taken me so long to get on this Great Walk I wasn’t going to let a few bed-bugs get in my way. I wanted to not only ‘do’ it but enjoy it.
According to the DOC leaflet, this section is 13km and takes around six hours. “Say farewell to the east coast as you make your way through beautiful regenerating podocarp forest, as well as lush and dense forest.” What they fail to mention is the vast quantity of mud. Many parts of the track were almost impassable unless you were willing to wade through the thick brown stuff hoping it wasn’t going to cover your ankles and seep into your boots. I had gaiters on, but only short ones. A bit of a waste of time and effort! I generally followed Barry’s lead, which most times seemed the best way. Steps were abundant.
To describe this section as ‘undulating’ would minimise the peaks and troughs. The first half is the toughest, rising at one point to 200m.
Remnants Of The Past
Along the route is another reminder of times past, where log-haulers lived from 1900 to 1931. Two young doctors from Auckland arrived while we were there. They’d been camping at the Port William campground, and we’d met them the previous evening.
We left the site before them, and soon after I said to Barry “What if one of us sprains an ankle?” I guess my brain went into overdrive imagining what on earth we’d do. The young couple would soon overtake us, and we were unlikely to meet anyone else. As expected they did come past – they’d been slow as he’d twisted his knee. They still walked faster than us!
Marvelling At Mushrooms
It may sound crazy but I got hooked on fungi spotting during the course of our Rakiura Track walk. I’ve previously posted that there are around 22,000 species of fungi in New Zealand.
“Fungi are everywhere, and affect us in many ways. They are one of the most numerous groups of organisms in New Zealand, and globally. There are an estimated 1.5 million species of fungi worldwide, and an expected 22,000 species in New Zealand. To date, approximately 7,500 species have been recorded in New Zealand, accounting for about a third of our total fungal biota.”https://www.nzpcn.org.nz/flora/fungi/
There’s all manner of shapes, sizes, colours and textures. If you’re marching ahead at a pace you’ll miss them. No chance of that for me – I was far too frequently distracted as my eyes scanned around the track. I stopped to crouch closer and capture an image of as many varieties as I saw. Which certainly wasn’t helpful for our timings! But how could you resist these gorgeous organisms?
Feathers are the other attraction. The abundant bird life is so colourful here, so if I see a feather (or if Barry does), we pick it up and check it out. I’ve amassed quite a collection.
By 3.23 pm, which was four hours and 29minutes after we began, we still had three hours to go! The whole walk was only supposed to take five hours in total.
Thankfully there were no low tide crossings to miss this time – and as we’d had fine weather for a while the creeks weren’t flooded! Imagine if they were, and as late as we were we’d had to also wait for the water level to drop?
North Arm Hut – Better Late Than Never
We were, as expected, the last ones at the hut – again! We weren’t bothered; it’s not a competition. And we really feel these experiences are about relishing the journey, not trying to reach a destination as quickly as possible to brag about how fast you’ve walked it. Knackered and sore, we got there just after 6.30 pm. Seven hours and forty minutes after starting. Almost three hours longer than predicted.
The spooky thing was one of the other walkers HAD sprained her ankle en route! Her husband had had to carry her backpack and help her, along with their friend. A boat had collected them from North Arm hut. Their tramp was over. Phew! I’m so glad it didn’t happen to us it would’ve been dark when we’d have finally arrived – if we’d made it at all.
The dried food menu that evening was mince, mash and dried peas. I actually enjoyed it. It’s amazing what can seem delicious when your body is crying out for sustenance. Barry wasn’t quite so enthralled and even left some! A travesty, as you have to carry it with you in your rubbish bag.
Sure enough, there were bed bugs at this hut. The DOC warden said the hut had been fumigated that day – but it didn’t seem to have made much difference. We got the top bunks again – our ‘booby prize’ for being last. But we actually think it was a gift. Maybe they can’t crawl up there, as the only person who suffered a bite was on the lower bunk. She also noticed one about to crawl into her backpack quashed it with a tissue, but not so much that it wasn’t recognisable. Not that I looked. But Barry did, and others. Apparently, it was identified positively. The bed bugs were famous – appearing in a ‘Stuff’ article reporting from a tramper who’d stayed here on Monday 1st March:
“After spending a night in a Rakiura Track hut with the “toughest bed bugs known to mankind”, a Wellington man wants the Department of Conservation to alert people with bookings about the infestation.
Dave, who did not want his surname used, arrived at the North Arm Hut on Monday, and was woken by trampers stomping and scrambling to shake off the critters.”https://www.stuff.co.nz/travel/travel-troubles/124416440/stewart-island-visitor-disappointed-by-visit-to-bed-bug-infested-doc-hut-on-rakiura-track
If you’ve never seen one of these pesky creatures, check out the article for a cool photo. Gross! We got away lightly. We believe following our night’s stay, ‘experts’ were brought in to try and get rid of them once and for all. In the meantime, many trampers decided to walk from Port William to Oban and miss out North Arm altogether. This was never an option for us! We got chatting again to a lovely couple called Sue and Graham, who had chosen two nights at North Arm. They were taking their chances and chilling.
Apparently, there was a nesting kiwi between North Arm Hut and the campsite, but we were far too weary to venture out seeking elusive kiwis again. I was grateful to be so tired, as it meant I slept soundly and didn’t have to attempt a descent of the wooden bunk stairs and walk up the track to the loo!
North Arm Beaches and Deer
Having arrived late, we missed the opportunity to explore the area. So we did that before heading off on Thursday 4th March. It’s not nearly as scenic as Port William, but still beautiful. White-tail deer grazed nearby, seemingly oblivious to their ‘pest’ status. It amazes me how these gorgeous creatures can be shot, but they destroy the forests. They’re not native, all deer in NZ were introduced to give people something to hunt. Goodness me, the naivety of unthinking idiots!
North Arm To Fern Gully – Maybe
The next section is supposed to be 11km and takes around four and a half hours. Yeah right! After our meander, we were of course the last to start at around 10.20 am. This section isn’t so undulating, and less muddy. By 11.40 am according to my photos, we’d made good time. The direction board stated 3.5 hours to go. We’d walked for just over one and a half hours. However, it was to all go dreadfully awry not long afterwards.
The last photo (of a few fungi of course!) before I took a wrong turn was taken at 12.35pm. Which we think was just before we stopped for lunch.
Lost And Alone
So this is when it all went wrong. We’ve written our different perspectives below, to show how this happened. Barry wrote his, and I wrote mine, without reading the other one. rather interesting I think you’ll find.
“We’d just had lunch sitting on dry-ish logs. Setting off for the rest of the walk, there was more mud and I’d lost sight of Barry. I couldn’t work out which path he’d taken this time to avoid as much of the gloopy stuff as possible. I noticed the track went down the hill, and I’d seen some of these detours before which then met the main track. Foolishly I decided to see if it did. After a few minutes, I realised this wasn’t a great plan and retraced my steps. Or at least I thought I had. I’d turned to the right off the track, so when I got back up to the top I turned right. Logical right? For a while, I wasn’t sure I was on the main track, and couldn’t see Barry anywhere, but assumed he’d just continued regardless. I soon saw the familiar orange triangles and felt a little comforted. There was still no sign of Barry though. I considered turning back but felt that he must be ahead. I started to feel afraid, all alone in this remote forest full of towering podocarps. The silence was deafening. If Barry wasn’t ahead, where on earth was he? I stopped and started calling his name. Nothing. So I got the whistle out and began blowing that as loud as I could. At one stage I thought I heard something in the distance. Suddenly out of nowhere, a man and woman walked towards me. I made the assumption, logically, that they were heading to the North Arm Hut. Frantically I asked if they’d passed a man with a red backpack. No, they said. Oh my goodness. That meant, as far as I was concerned, that Barry must’ve fallen down a hill somewhere and was injured. I saw no other possible explanation. So I said I’d lost my husband. The man asked casually “Is that a good or a bad thing?” “It’s REALLY bad,” I responded, tearfully. I was so glad to see people. It was incredibly freaky how quickly the lush green forest became a nightmarish dark place to be.
Vince and Emma asked relevant questions, about when I last saw Barry (about 20 minutes ago I thought), and how long I’d been walking for. They said they’d go ahead, and if/when they found Barry they’d blow on their whistle. I said I’d stay put, just in case. After only a few minutes I realised the stupidity of staying put. I picked up my backpack and turned back, heading towards Vince and Emma. I was convinced something dreadful had happened, and my brain worked overtime on where Barry was. I reached Emma after about 15 minutes, standing with both backpacks. She said Vince had left his so he could walk quicker. At that stage, I must’ve said something about heading to Oban – and from what Emma said I realised they were too. I’d assumed incorrectly they were going to North Arm Hut. They’d walked all the way from Port William that morning, and not stayed at North arm, due to the bed bugs. Oh my goodness! I’d been heading in completely the wrong direction.
Barry knows I’m hopeless at directions. It’s never been my strong point. I even downloaded the Topo50NZ GPS App as recommended by Judi and Jasper after a group got lost on another track. The problem was, without Barry, I literally had no idea how to use it! Yes, I know, very foolish to rely on someone else. And it was completely idiotic that we lost sight of each other.
Once Emma realised this, she felt slightly reassured, picked up both bags, and we walked as swiftly as my legs would allow me, to catch up with Vince. Eventually, a couple of women walked past us and said they’d just seen Barry (and Vince) who would be relieved to see me. And vice versa. Oh my goodness. I was SOOO relieved! I still, to this day over three weeks later, can’t understand how on earth I managed to backtrack without realising it. I must’ve walked past the place we’d had lunch. The sea would’ve been on my left instead of my right. But my brain didn’t compute all these things. It never occurred to me even. I just thought the worst. I kept walking because I was convinced that Barry must be ahead and not behind me. Although I also knew he wouldn’t leave me. In which case, once I saw Vince and Emma, the only possible explanation was the worse-case-scenario.“
Barry’s (unedited) version:
“We’d been walking for 2-3 hours and stopped for lunch on a log beside the track. After completion I put my pack on and was waiting 10-15 steps along the track for Sandra to get ready to leave. I watched her put the pack on, strap up etc and was just reaching for her poles as I turned and started walking along the track assuming she’d be right behind.
The track soon started downhill and wound around trees etc with various shortcuts down to the next levels so not a very clear section of track though definitely going downhill. I was concentrating on the track and didn’t check Sandra was right behind me. Nothing unusual as often she stops for photos etc. So I got to the bottom of the hill, about 200M from our lunch site to a bridge that crossed a stream were I waited a short time for Sandra to catch up. There was a sign for a historic site 1 minute away from where I stood so walked along to the signboard and read about the mill that had been there. While there I could see the track and kept one eye out. When finished I walked back to the track and called up the hill to Sandra but got no reply.
I then climbed back up the hill to the lunch spot and called again, no reply! I then thought I might have missed seeing her pass me by at the historic site, so ran down the hill and carried on a few hundred metres further shouting out for her, no reply! A strange sense of panic set in … I then took off my pack and ran back and up the hill again looking down the banks and anywhere she may have fallen shouting all the time, then carried on another 400-500 metres back along the track to the top of the hill yelling as loud as I could, nothing! At this point I was sure she hadn’t come to grief so it was a case of trying to figure out where she’d gone. (A) She followed me down the hill and didn’t stop at the historic site for a look and I didn’t see her pass. Possible but unlikely as surely she should have seen the sign! (B) She ended up going the wrong way back along the track.
She’d seen me before I set off so must have known which direction we were going, plus she’d have to walk past the place we’d had lunch and other recognisable things we’d already passed and also the sea would have been to her left instead of to the right. Plus if she had carried on blindly the wrong way must have realised I wasn’t in front because I’d always stop and wait if she got out of sight for too long. So weighing it up option (A) seemed the more plausible, though not by very much! Keeping on backtracking would not achieve anything as she would have by now either be so far away I wouldn’t catch her or she’d realise she was going the wrong way and turn around.
My pack was still sitting beside the track so decided I’d return and carry on, hoping Sandra had kept going towards Oban and I’d catch up with her and if she had discovered she was going the wrong way we’d eventually meet back at Oban. After retrieving my pack I walked another 2-3 km before meeting a woman approaching from Oban who said she never passed anyone on the way. So turning around we together walked back. After about 10 minutes a chap came swiftly towards us asking if I was Barry and was I missing a wife! ‘Why yes as it happens!’ After another 5-6 minutes of walking we finally reunited.
We as usual were the last two to leave the hut for Oban so there was nobody following us and anybody coming from Oban to the hut we’d have already passed earlier so the chances of meeting anyone was slim. But thanks to the bedbugs the two people who rescued Sandra were tramping from Port William Hut to hut 2 but because there’d been bedbugs reported they decided to carry on to Oban. The woman I met was from a yacht moored just offshore about a kilometre away from our meeting spot who had walked into Oban for supplies. Not a pleasant experience at all though once I had ascertained she hadn’t fallen down a cliff the panic eased and it was a case of working out the best of the two available options.”
So many valuable lessons were learned by us both. Each perspective is real and horribly scary.
We reached the end of the track at Fern Gully, then had another 2km to walk to get to the Backpackers. On the road we met up with Sarah again, who’d passed us on the way to Port William. You’re ‘nearly there’ she reassured us. “Didn’t we meet you on the first day?” I said? Yes. She’d just ran the whole track in a day. Oh. My. Goodness. That sounded completely crazy. Plus – what would you actually SEE? That’s more a test of endurance, strength and I guess some form of badge of honour? There’s an annual Raikiura Challenge, to run the track in the fastest time – registrations open 1st May. If you want to try your luck running the 32 km of this track you’ll have to get in quick apparently! https://www.stewartisland.co.nz/rakiura-challenge/ Race day is 21st October 2021.
Our Track Tips:
~ Take a taxi to the start! You can always walk to Lee Bay another time (see the previous post).
~ Check tide times – low tide probably takes some distance and ups and downs off the journey.
~ Keep the other person in sight!
~ Stay on the track.
~ Have two nights at Port William (maximum two nights per hut allowed). Amazing place.
~ Don’t just download Topo50NZ – learn how to use it before you start!
~ Enjoy the journey. Don’t rush.
Back In Oban
It was fabulous to be back at backpackers. I relished a little lie down and we did our washing. Then enjoyed a luxurious Pub night to re-charge our old and worn batteries. We were thankful to find Vince and Emma there and bought them a well deserved drink!
Barry’s Superb Slideshow
As always, click on the first image below to begin. Mother Nature at her finest, despite the traumas and tribulations along the track: