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TA Stewart Island

I can’t think of any better representation of beauty than someone who is unafraid to be herself.

—Emma Stone

The main goal of this five-month leave from work and life has been ticked off the list and there are a few days left before Richard arrives, so I fill the time by leaping over to New Zealand’s third island.

I’m tired – supremely grateful not to be injured or otherwise damaged – but tired to the bone physically and emotionally. While hiding out in Otautau to get behind a couple of trail jerks – I should mention we call those helpful to walkers ‘trail angels’ and this is my polite name for the opposite – I do something positive and forward thinking and schedule huts on Stewart Island’s great walk beginning the day I plan to finish the TA. It’s a short and easy hike and my feeling at the time is this is just about the extent of what I can handle. But I am supremely on the fence about it all. I’m the most fit of my life and now have full-on New Zealand tramper cred. A great walk means crowds – less fit crowds.

But I don’t have enough time for the nine days of the Northwest Circuit and besides, people warn me of ‘heaps of sandflies’ and epic mud. Frankly, my stomach turns at the thought of another week of noodles and tuna to power more bush bashing. But still I’m unsettled heading across Foveaux Strait, a gnawing feeling accompanying growing sea sickness that at the end of my hike, I’m wimping out.

Ian tells me the ferry is a catamaran and rather than toss and turn in this notoriously choppy sea, it shudders. That’s not exactly the case as we buck and rock on – at least to this inexperienced landlubber – monster swells. I at first ride shotgun watching the mountain of water as we head into it. Then later, I traverse monkey bar-style hand-over-hand on the tops of the seats, working my way to the back of the boat to ride in the wind and spray with another brave soul who appears to thoroughly enjoy the exhilaration. I have a picture snapped before my queasy stomach forces me back up the seats to my perch in front, slightly more in control seeing what I’m up against.

Oban is a sweet little town on a bay that caters to tourists and is showing signs of cynicism and a whiff of greed. Companies muscle in for a chance to bring you to the predator-free island of Ulva, one company fronted by a surly woman who names the prices through thin lips and rolled eyes. Another offers a kiwi spotting evening for $135 and acts furtive when I ask for details. But the party’s on at the Four Square as Donna Summer’s desire for hot stuff assuages any guilt paying the wee markup.

Before I left this morning, cool tug boat dad Peter found me at the Allsorts after dropping Elijah at school and handed me his card ‘in case I need anything.’ He believes things happen for a reason and when we give, we receive. I think of this as I spy a young woman chattering on skype in the waiting area, then hang up and head to the ferry, only to leave behind her headphones. I notice and get them back to her and she smiles, grateful not to have lost them for good.

We meet again in the DOC office and smile at each other in that way strangers do feeling a bond over recovered headphones. The woman at the desk needs to bring out reinforcements for my questions on how to organize my five days on the island. Diana of very short hair and clear blue eyes dissuades me from going for the entire circuit, pulling out pictures of a root filled mud slog that conjures bad recent memories of the TA.

“Are you ready for more or slowing down?” she asks as another DOC worker keeps asking me to move as she tries to pass. “Um, I don’t know. I’m tired, I think.” But then I wonder about TA hiker Julia taking on the challenge and meeting Leo at the ferry dock saying it’s easy after what we’ve done.

Why didn’t I plan for more time, I wonder. Why didn’t I get more organized. The fact is, I’m confused and overwhelmed and beat myself up over that fact, annoyed that the others seem to have it all figured out.

Diana tells me Mason Bay is quite special. I could walk out there and return to a river where a boat can take me out. My curiosity is piqued by the mention of the restoration of sand dunes and how it’s the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. I’m not entirely sure how it compares, but I settle on a plan, even if one section of the hike is actually through some of the worst root-filled mud.

My plan now requires scheduling a water taxi, so it’s back to surly gal who informs me the price doubles when I’m alone. Fair enough, and exactly when I can possibly return to this remote spot seems justification enough for the cost. As I organize my overpriced taxi, in walks the gal from the ferry and I just have to say, three meetings is Kismet, for sure. So of course I ask her if she’d like to join me. She considers for a few moments, then decides yes. Funny we’re both at the same Backpackers for a night too at which point I finally introduce myself and learn she’s Yara from Holland.

It’s a quick lunch before a hike over the hill to another bay for the five minute journey over choppy waves onto Ulva Island, a bird paradise and one of New Zealand’s first spots set aside solely for tourism. Yara is young enough to be my daughter and could be related as she’s just as taken in by it all from the moment we hop aboard. A tui greets our arrival, loud and brazen, to bush rich in beauty, its trails leading us to secret coves. Wood pigeons flap through the air with a whoosh of feathers. We see a tree flush with green plumage and red heads of a flock of cackling kakariki. Robot-like bell birds fill the air as silver eyes flutter from branch to branch. Robins with over large Disney eyes above fat bodies on spindly legs come close to inspect us. We record sounds on our phones then separate to take it in our own ways. Kaka scrack high above in the canopy. Oystercatchers peep on the beach.

Back on Stewart, Yara suggests fish and chips and I get us some beer to consume outside in the wind. Yara tells me about her life as a social worker and now on vacation trying to clear her head from a rough few years as she begins her career and experiences a big dose of sexism. At the backpackers, everyone turns in early, though two sneak out and manage to see a couple of kiwi at midnight. A German gal and I try the same, and just end up taking a long night walk lit by a red headlamp.

Morning comes far too soon – everyone crashing around packing up – and it’s time to tramp again. How funny that I feel that all-too-familiar anxiety return to the pit of my stomach – do I have enough food and do I have what it takes to walk for five days. Intellectually, I reason it out that I managed to march all of New Zealand and I’m pretty sure the answer to at least the second question is yes, but I can’t seem to shake this odd panic that all those weeks of walking and successfully moving forward were down to luck.

That might be what makes me go fast with a feeling of having to ‘get there.’ The sooner I do, the sooner this mini-crisis of self doubt disappears. It’s a feeling that seeps into my real life too, so that sometimes I move too fast and frantically through my tasks and through my day to somehow ensure I’ll get everything done I need to get done.

So I decide to nip this in the bud and deliberately slow myself down on this walk, first by taking a detour that I’m fairly certain no one takes. Rather than simply walk or hitch the road to Lee Bay and get myself to the start of the track, I walk there by way of Horseshoe Point. It’s a turn up road at first that takes me to Moturau Moana, a gift to the city from a far sighted local who collected native plants on her hill estate, dividing the gardens into sections of coastal, alpine and ‘the fernery.’ I find the example of towering Lancewood quite something as well as the think bark totara hanging on in this tiny space. Not surprisingly, nothing appears alive in the alpine zone just a few meters above sea level.

The road turns into track along the coast leading me to Dead Man’s beach. Someone has set out a bucket of metal balls for Pètanque and I play against myself for an hour on this lovely beach in the hot sun. I later reach the overlook marked by a trig before turning my back on the south ocean for Horseshoe bay.

Thick green seaweed is pushed by surge like huge pieces of olive green plastic. Gold silica dust catches on my sneakers as I walk on the sand, two big dogs checking me out. It’s a bit of road walking to the next bay where the trail begins near another giant chain sculpture seemingly reaching across the straight to Bluff. At the information signs, a young woman is reading intently wearing a jaunty black hat. It’s Yara! We hug and have our picture taken before deciding to walk to Maori beach together through bush and across the sand.

We pick up where we left off the night before, and at least try to pick limpets off the rocks, the slightest touch causing them to tighten down on the rock. Yara puts a voice to many of my own gripes – selfish people in backpackers, her insecurity at work – we laugh and talk, then share lunch at the campsite shelter decorated with dozens of beautiful shells. We finally cut up Ian’s gift of a magnificently giant tomato, then take off our shoes to walk in the surf. The tide is coming in, so Yara decides she needs to turn back leaving me alone with shells, bright aqua water and finally regenerating bush, only a few surviving 500-year-old Rimu towering above my head.

It’s a short walk to the hut. Aussies Steve and Leoni arrive surprised by how difficult backpacking is, but happy to have given it a try. Kiwi Tracy holds court – a bit know-it-all and controlling, but I’m forgiving as she does have three daughters to keep track of already swimming – and a husband with rod and reel off somewhere who I hope catches enough to share.

I see he’s headed to the wharf and the girls join him to jump off into the unbelievably clear water. It’s me and the Aussies, unabashed to swim topless in the iciness. Granite covers the island, allowing for far more settled sediment and sand, and a feeling this is not salt water. Once out and dressed, I check out the wharf where only a starfish and fish too small to keep get caught. Dinner is loud and boisterous, kiwi hunting is quiet and serious but again, unlucky. I sleep cozy in my bunk, though it’s a family up before it’s light, rustling and talking, forcing me up too, way before I’m ready.

It leaves me cranky, my lack of sleep turning up the volume on annoyance that people can be so inconsiderate. I pack quickly and head off on the trail all in bush, my last views of our stunning swimming beach in pink light, rain in the forecast. Steep hills are ahead, and mud. I’m surprised by my mood debating when to say something and when not to. What is worth letting go, what is worth fighting about – and what does it do to your psyche when you make either choice.

As I come upon abandoned logging equipment, rusting steam-powered hulks in the dim light of the forest, a Swiss man with the unlikely name of Patrick approaches. We immediately fall into walking together, sloshing through mud and admiring the few giant trees that avoided the saw. I mention being bothered by the noisy departure so early this morning, and he tells me that the Chinese family is on their first overnight tramp with their son who’s on a working holiday.

Suddenly it all makes sense and I feel a heel. They have no idea how hard two big uphills and 13 kilometers is going to be. Rain is coming and the track is muddy. Of course they got an early start. At the top of the biggest rise we run into them. I introduce myself and offer high fives all around. It feels good. We’re a community now.

The hike is actually a bit boring, the forest starting to look ‘samey’ as my friend Neil would say. I wonder if hiking a thru-hike is taking away the joy of walking. I just want to get there and this is dragging on. The most interesting part, surprisingly, is the trail itself where DOC has invested enormously in keeping it from eroding or becoming just a string of mud pools. There’s even a small clearing to house a pile of crushed stone that repairs the track. I’m impressed and move fast.

Of course, eventually I arrive at the hut and immediately wonder why I was so impatient. I chat with the warden and pick a bunk with a view. Patrick and the Chinese are right after me, followed by a spunky German – who I invite to sleep next to me – and her dad, I dub ‘Herr Vater’. Immediately it begins to rain. A fire is made and people begin to trickle in and I’m surprised by the feeling of camaraderie generated with this group of people having shared the trail this far.

Patrick swims, but I’m happy to just be indoors at this point with the view. When the family of five finally arrives, I ask if I can play with the girls, Emma, age 13; Holly, age 10 and Amber, age 7. The game is Go Fish – simple, silly, for the most part lacking in much strategy, and yet we are a quartet of giggles and retorts, and I’m absolutely loving it. I guess I could have been out on the track in rain gear at this moment, but I prefer the simplicity of playing with no agenda, no questions, no artifice or competitiveness. There is such ease in just hanging out.

Later, trampers arrive who are finishing hiking the circuit and they bring a different tone to the hut – haughtiness, separateness, coldness. I speak with one woman who does offer good advice but I find I want to tell her about the TA to try to make sense of the final days of bullying then triumph then exhaustion. She just asks questions for her own information and it leaves me feeling hollowed out.

The rain stops, so I head outside and immediately start crying, confused and lonely not knowing where I fit. I am strong enough to walk as much as that woman did, why do I feel snubbed? And why do I prefer the company of children? Because the girls aren’t complicated and they’re way more fun.

The tide is out and I walk on seagrass. The sky is turning pink as I wander towards whimsically shaped rocks pressed right up against the bush. At first I’m so wrapped up in my thoughts I miss seeing what lives on the rocks, but suddenly my focus adjusts and I see hundreds of mussels. I pick off handfuls and thrust them in my pockets telling myself to not be ridiculous. I walked the entire length of a country and I don’t need a stranger to tell me I’m strong to believe it myself.

I head back into the hut and fire up my stove, boiling the mussels in salt water til they burst open and reveal their juicy flesh. My German friend sidles over with her headlamp inviting me on a kiwi hunt as I scarf down my second meal, declining to share as she’s vegetarian. It’s another night hearing kiwis calling to one another but striking out seeing one, but I sleep well as the air dries and a golden sunrise lights the bay.

By now, everyone knows I’m heading onwards while they’re returning so they pile me up with their leftover food and wish me well. The girls are sleepily hunched over granola. The German tells me after cards last night, the littlest one asked where I was because she wanted to play. I feel so good. Some hikers scoff at great walk trampers, but I had a little community for a brief time and it gave me the fuel I need for today – the hardest one of the five.

I leave before the sun appears over the horizon, one lone star still bright in the sky, then step directly into deep mud. I consider if trying to find creative ways to push through hard parts and just get it done is taking all the fun out of hiking, but I don’t see any other way to manage what’s ahead. I use my on-the-hour technique of having a small treat after an hour of walking has passed. The theory is we can do anything for an hour, especially knowing a treat awaits. It also includes facets of delaying gratification. It’s not the healthiest, but I have a bag of lollies and dole out a set amount per hour. It moves me along and I feel strong, actually surprised I not only have the energy for difficult hiking, but also that by hiking the TA, I’ve developed the technique for it.

And it is tough going, up and down, sloshing through mud and streams, steep up over thick roots, then down directly in a stream bed.

A hiker passes me at the beginning. I hear him and step aside and he pushes past with a ‘thank you.’ I’m amused by this type of hiking, a person so focused on his goal. I ask him his name. “Miguel and six more are coming.” I’m startled by how many and he assuages my concern saying they’ll go to the further hut.

This makes me happy, but his aggressive ‘attack’ of the trail is so jarring. I meet one hiker coming my way, her music cranked for everyone to hear. This I have no patience for. I don’t understand listening to anything while hiking as I enjoy the birds, the sound of water, and I am happy with my own thoughts. But some people are bored or afraid or lonely so need something. So then wear headphones, don’t make us all hear it!

Later I hear talking behind me and assume it’s one of Miguel’s six friends. It is, but he’s alone with a podcast cranking. “You won’t see kiwis that way,” I blurt out, unfiltered. He responds with a kind of grunted unintelligible word but still manages to introduce himself as Tom protesting his headphones are busted. Off he goes leaving me wondering if Mr. Personality will be sharing the hut, desperately hoping the answer to that is no.

At this point, the trail is flattening out with mud pools and a sign pointing towards Rocky Mountain and its promised lookout over all that I’ve walked thus far. The hut appears and Miguel and company are there having lunch. The atmosphere is unfriendly and closed off. They walk with a girl wearing red dreadlocks who introduces herself as Cheers. I laugh. “Your name is Cheers?” Ah, yes, a trail name. Cute, for sure, but isn’t it cuter when someone else calls you that rather than yourself? I am definitely showing my age and impatience with the whole trail posturing. They tell me they hiked the TA and are nonplussed that I did too without an entourage or trail name. I simply can’t help myself at this point asking for a show of hands all those who walked the entire hike. How interesting that it’s just Cheers and this nutty older lady who are the ‘purists.’

I head outside and say hello to a few other hikers, Jess and Thorson, who turn out to be just finishing the hike Cheers and the boys are starting and are about to head up Rocky Mountain. I ask if I might join them and we instantly click.

What makes these two so much more likable than the others? Friendlier, more down to earth, smarter? I’d say. Jess is a political junkie and we fuel our steep climb on Trump outrage. They both laugh out loud when I tell them I announce classical music for a living, not out of malice but more disbelief that I’m tramping across the country with a vocation like mine.

It’s a big pull up, topping out on a false summit before we break out of the bush with views to the sand dunes at Mason Bay, the snaking curl of Freshwater River surrounded by miles of wetland and towering green mountains. We take in the scenery and a few selfies before Thorson and I leave Jess to check on the news and his girlfriend. I drop my body for just a millisecond in the chilly river water then join our small gang of Swiss and Kiwi in the hut, everyone asking about walking the TA and letting me tell stories, processing some more about all that’s happened. We head out on the track at night to look for kiwi, but find nothing though I love the night walk anyway – and love this group of people.

I leave early the next morning for the short, flat walk to Mason Bay. In the first part of the last century, there was a road here in a constant state of being repaired. All that remains is a raised track reinforced with boardwalk across the wettest bits. A sign warns not to go further if the water rises above a certain height. I walk under manuka tunnels and into open areas with views of mist shrouded mountains. The old buildings of a working farm remain, revving up my imagination of life in this remote place – beautiful but austere.

When I arrive at the hut, two people are there already. I barely introduce myself before Lucinda, a tall blonde Kiwi, tells me the TA hikers there last night left a mess. I’m irritated, but not surprised. It’s not too bad, just mud and sand next to the beds and some tissue paper, but I clean it up wanting to alter the impression we’re leaving for the locals. They take off for the beach, and I soon follow.

It’s a fair walk on dunes to a dramatic landscape. Mountains dropping right to the water, dark clouds building and waves coming closer as the tide rises. The sand is concrete hard towards islands only reached at low tide.

I see Lucinda and her friend Anthony on the dunes and head up to say hello – and nab some good shots before it begins raining. All the rain gear goes on and I wave goodbye before heading back down the long beach. The wind whips droplets on my cheek. I feel cold.

Nearing the end, as the rain lets up, I see a sign for Doughboy hut. I really want to go there instead but I suddenly realize I screwed up. I could have planned better and used my time to slog to this hut off the beaten track on the harder Southern Circuit. I’m strong and have the time, but here I am all the way down the beach without food, tent, light or sleeping bag – and I enter my intentions in the hut book saying I’ll stay at Mason tonight. I want so much to be badass and go right now to this remote hut. I want it so much I can taste it. But it would be a supremely stupid move with absolutely no exit strategy.

I resign myself to returning to Mason Bay hut, reminding myself that even if I managed to get there, I’d need to walk it twice to make it back for the water taxi. But I feel sick, dejected, stupid as I continue past the cut off towards what’s called the ‘gutter’ and this is where I see the pilot whales. It’s an entire pod, 145 creatures, that swam into the bay and stranded themselves on the sand. Trapped and unable to return, they all died here.

The magnitude of this inexplicable loss overwhelms me, the bodies rotting, bones exposed through leathery skin. Flies buzz excitedly as I pass, teeth smile in a ghastly grin, tails are stilled mid swim. Signs ask us to respect the dead and I say a small prayer as I turn back, the tide pushing me into the softer sand, my desire to change today’s intentions seen differently through the sobering light of mortality.

The mountains that disappeared during the rain come back into focus and I climb up onto the dunes for a better view of the entire beach. The Kiwis arrive from the night before and tell me I am the only foreigner in a hut of eight. But it’s a great group, the conversation circling back to the TA. I share my feelings about bad hut manners and I’m assured Kiwis can behave just as badly, which is oddly reassuring.

I learn that Lucinda is suffering from an autoimmune disease which affects her ability to move. I’m humbled sharing this place with her knowing walking is painful for her and yet she is here doing what she can because she loves it.

We all put on our headlamps dialed to red and head out to find kiwi. Lucinda loves the bush – the manuka tunnel, the ferns, the dracophyllum and lancewood. We hear the kiwi screaming but can’t seem to find them, although again I simply love the walk anyway for the community. Lucinda lights up a joint which helps her manage pain. I adore being around someone so at peace with her life.

I head back down the beautiful walk from the farm house to the hut, ferns reaching out and washed up buoys whimsically tied to various limbs along the way.

I sleep deeply and pop up before it’s light and head back out on a kiwi quest, hearing them calling so close to me but never seeing them. I head to the top of the aptly named ‘Big Sand Hill’ for the sunrise through fog and cloud, dunes falling away for miles. The summit is covered in flax and a bush bash for a perch. The ocean churns as I run/jump down, narrowly missing a sinkhole where water ran off in last night’s rain. Large kiwi tracks walk across a hardened section. Small white flowers adorn green vines like lace. The walk back is short so I can stretch out the morning, talking some more to my friends who know a thing or two about classical music and share my excitement in a possible musical commission to tell my TA story.

Anthony can’t help but head out one more time to find those elusive kiwi. This time it’s an undulating bush bash on a trappers path. It’s obvious Anthony is a guide and loves this place. He tests my knowledge and I seem to have passed. We find holes where kiwis dug out food last night, but none appear and I have to say goodbye now.

A big hug and lots of good energy is sent my way as I head back to the river. I feel so full from this trip. I didn’t walk the circuit or head to the furthest south hut, but I met some amazing people and I begin to wrap my arms around walking the Te Araroa. I feel tired walking back even on easy track. The hut is empty when I arrive and still no kiwi see me off. I should mention Stewart Island’s kiwi are out in the day as well as night, so I really struck out.

The boat comes to the dock with two men on board – older, but willing to walk the hardest part of the tramp. We take the sharp curves tight, leaning far to the left, then right. The river is calmly reflecting the clouds and surrounding bush before we break out into the inlet and a headwind. The waves are huge, the little boat climbing up and slamming down with a shudder. It’s exhilarating as I feel my insides shake loose. Albatross soar over the sea, their wings bent at the edges. We arrive at Golden Bay where Yara and I set off to see birds so many days ago. The men are impressed by my walking the Te Araroa and want the full story over fish and chips and beer. The next day I ferry back to Bluff and hitch with a man writing an opera whose first question is, “Michael Jackson, guilty or innocent?” Thankfully he leaves me at the end of town where Maeva picks me up and we drive all the way to Christchurch to welcome Richard to New Zealand and new adventures.

My excursion to Stewart Island took me to a place I’d never heard of until I came here, and one that rounded out an adventure that was difficult for me to process. I met people who made me laugh, people to play with, people who helped me see beauty and help me appreciate all I had accomplished. I even got a couple of people chucked in there that were difficult and unpleasant and made all the rest that much sweeter. I still wish I could have hiked all the island, but as Richard tells me, sometimes it’s better to leave a bit behind. Wanting more means I have to return.

And who knows. Next time I might see a kiwi.

28 Responses

  1. As others have said, you are such an inspiration and it has been amazing being on this journey with you (in a way). I also was glad to get one more post that put some closure on this adventure of yours as I have missed reading about them. Hope you are having a wonderful time with Richard. Re-entry into the US will be another journey – with its own adjustment back into this culture and the people. I hope to hear about that, too.

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