Tramping – the Kiwi word for hiking – is a national sport in New Zealand, a bit like drinking beer is for Belgians. To experience one of the most remote wilderness areas of New Zealand and to spot a kiwi bird in the wild, I decided to tramp the North-West Circuit, a 120km loop track onStewart Island, just below the South Island.
Under grey clouds I took the early morning ferry from Bluff to cross the Foveaux Strait to Oban,Stewart Island’s only town. After registering for my walk at the visitors’ centre, I set off on the “highway” – a dull, easy woodboard path – to the first hut. Just before reaching it, I passed a 50-year-old American woman and her 23-year-old son. They told me they loved hiking and were experienced… but I guess they didn’t realise that this country’s hiking standards were much higher than in the USA.
We were rock-hopping on the beach and the woman was very slow and didn’t seem comfortable with the terrain. It was their first walk in the country and it usually takes 10 days to do the loop, but they clearly weren’t expecting so much mud: knee-deep mud, waist-deep mud, mud holes, mud ponds, sand and mud, mud and roots, mud and slopes, rain-mud, wind-and-mud, swamps and quick sand, followed by more rock- and boulder-hopping. Have I mentioned mud already?
On that first day I was walking to the second hut, planning to walk on the second day to the third hut and climb to the island’s summit and stay overnight at the second hut, where I expected to be joined by my fellow American trampers… but they never came.
Later I was told they had turned back after struggling in the knee-deep mud. It’s strange that some women pay a fortune to have mud slopped on their body, while here it’s free and there’s so much of it that your feet become heavier than your backpack.
On the third day, I was walking up a slope when I heard a noise and saw the high grass moving at steady speed towards me. Not understanding what it was, I started screaming my soul out of my body until I saw a brown ball with two feet running towards me. It stopped ametre from me.
I stopped screaming when I realised I had encountered my first kiwi bird. It looked at me for acouple of seconds to find out where the strange sound came from and then ran away in the opposite direction.
I walked on and eventually reached the hut, where I had a good noodle soup with some human Kiwis. They told me the hut had been moved recently because of a landslide.
I woke up very early on the fourth day to walk across “Hellfire Pass”. During that day I had to poo in the wild, when I was disturbed by another kiwi. I tried to get a photo of it but I couldn’t run very fast with my pants down around my ankles and the elusive bird quickly disappeared in the scrub.
At the end of the day, after sunset, I struggled for two hours in the pitch black forest and mud to see the moon shining on the dunes. I didn’t find the hut until 11pm. I was exhausted, hungry and had tripped over many roots hidden in the mud. I was so covered in dirt and mud that I looked like a Yeti. I thought I had better whistle as I approached the hut in case there wasanyone inside. This turned out to be a good idea because otherwise I would’ve frightened asleeping German couple to death.
The fifth day was easier and the three of us reached Mason Bay early and went spotting kiwiswith a ranger. When we saw a bird, no one moved and it passed half a metre away without noticing us.
The two last days weren’t so muddy, and I reached Oban in time to catch my ferry back to Bluff. It had been a wonderful adventure.