Debriefing: Stewart Island

Granted: The short stay on Stewart Island was designed for a kayak-in/kayak-out version of the Southern Circuit in five days:

  • Oban, Golden Bay – Rakeahua Hut (kayak, pick up by water taxi in the evening)
  • Rakeahua Hut – Doughboy Bay
  • Doughboy Bay – Mason Bay
  • Mason Bay – Freshwater
  • Freshwater – Oban, Golden Bay (kayak, delivery in the morning).

Whether or not that would have been realistic – especially from the kayaking side – is another question. The tides were right, but not spending a day on the water getting to Rakeahua would have meant hanging around a whole day for the water taxi to take me there.

Topo Map with GPS

Still plenty to explore: The land, and the sea
Still plenty to explore: The land, and the sea. Stewart Island: Oban – Mason Bay, Topo+GPS (4326 downloads)
In any case, having no partner for either kayaking arm meant doing a trip out to Mason Bay on foot, even if the last leg of the return journey could be undertaken by water taxi.

The track between North Arm and Freshwater is very tough. One bridge has been removed at the end of North Arm, but that is the least of your problems. The real difficulties were the extremely steep climb up to the ridge after the missing bridge, and the extended swampy section “just” before Freshwater Hut. This consumed nearly all of the time estimated, so I would warn about trying to walk the whole way from Oban to Freshwater without an overnight stay in North Arm. Christelle also later tried the track back from Freshwater to the campsite at North Arm, and it took her all day.

It was also on this section that most of the tripod, and my hat went missing. On the further track to Mason Bay, an exposed rubbish bag was torn apart by the undergrowth. A real effort has to be made to secure all items on the outside of the pack from a similar fate.

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That having been said, the “day off” in Freshwater allowed for some necessary cleaning and drying of some kit – that much would become clear on the Dusky Track a week later – and the day and a half in Mason Bay with possibly the most spectacular weather imaginable was a dream.

The return via water taxi – which left very early due to the tides – also meant a “dead” day in Oban, punctuated with a bit of washing and chatting with the other inhabitants of the hostel. Of course, I would have preferred that day on the water, even if there would have been a bit of a hurry to get out of the estuary on the outgoing tide.

The actual kayaking day was spoiled a bit by Phil insisting on such a high price for renting his boats. There had been one other kayak operator in Oban (and their website is still up, although it has a “For Sale” notice on it, and a warning that they no longer do business), and their admittedly out-of-date prices for freedom kayaking were $50 for a half-day and $65 for a full one, an offer we would have gladly taken them up on. Phil’s $50 an hour was very steep (but then he also charges $145 for a half-day guided tour, which comes to pretty much the same thing), and I’m afraid I can’t recommend him for either a guided or a freedom tour.

Back to the future: Next trip to Stewart Island, 2021. Still have to get up Mt Anglem, so a combined North-West/Southern Circuit seems tempting. An extended tour would, however, only be possible with a food drop/rubbish pickup, and for this there are really only two possibilities: By plane to Mason Bay, or by water taxi to Freshwater. Mason Bay can be reached anticlockwise after seven or eight days, depending on whether a full day for Mt Anglem is necessary. From Mason Bay back to Oban via the Southern Circuit would be another six or seven days, depending on how many mountains want to be climbed. An exchange in Mason Bay could be done en passant; a swap in Freshwater would require one day for a return trip, and a high tide around midday.

Stuff and time to think about it.