Day 46 Rakiura Track
We're up and showered and out of the South Sea Hotel by 8am, with a banana and some trail mix doing for breakfast. We trot through a deserted Oban to the DoC office to get our camping permit. There is no storm warning this time, but the friendly woman behind the desk does advise us that it will be decidedly muddy.
We get a lift 7km to Lee Bay where the trail starts, because darned if we're walking more than we have to. There is a vast iron chain snaking into the sea here, symbolic of the Maori demigod Maui who lifted the North Island out of the sea from his canoe (the South Island) using Stewart Island as his anchor.
Would you believe it, but the sun is out. Under the weight of the rucksacks, we're actually warm. Our 20km walk today takes us 8km north, around the coast of Stewart Island before heading west inland to North Arm Hut. There is another Hut before this one but our schedule (laughably vague as it is) can't afford the extra night here, so we're bashing out 20km today. Fortunately, there are far fewer climbs than there were on Kepler, so it should be easier on the knees and the bellyaching.
Winding around the rocky coast under tropically green trees is quite the treat. A few hours in, we take a small diversion off Maori Beach to walk to an abandoned log-hauler. It's unexceptional in itself, being no more than a collection of rusting saw blades and gutted engine shells, but an interesting relic of an age gone by. Trees were heavily harvested and milled here in the 19th Century, and this pile of rotting iron is an odd reminder of the age of exploration where wood was king, here at the edge of the world.
Because of the novelty of having the sun out, we've been drinking a lot more water than we're recently used to, so I need to make a stop at the compost toilet. I enter the door to stare into the horrified eyes of its current under-dressed occupant. We had noticed the tent in the campsite, (and the string of drying clothes on a tethered line), but I think I had put undue expectation on the door lock being applied if it was engaged. Clearly, neither of us were expecting company but we handle the situation classily: he shrieks "Whoa! Occupied!", and I say "Shit! Sorry!" and slam the door in his face. But even this spot of social misadventure can't soil the setting. The yellow sands of Maori beach stretches off around a horseshoe bay and the sea is the turquoise of the Caribbean. And the only people around to appreciate it at this moment are Ruth and me and an embarrassed guy loudly locking a toilet door.
We walk the length of the beach in blissful solitude, before crossing the incongruous suspension bridge which marks the end of the coastal walk for us, and turn inland into the forest.
From here, things aren't so picturesque. The forest itself is an interesting one. Vast Rimu trees which probably pre-date Columbus, tropical palms, and corkscrew vines which snake around the forest floor and deliberately trip over clumsy tourists. And there's mud. Lots and lots of mud. The canopy is so tall and dense that it is quite gloomy even down at ground level, and we're at midday, in midsummer. As such, this place probably never dries out. Efforts have clearly been made to keep it at bay; wood chippings down, tarpaulin sections of path, but slowly and surely, the mud begins to take over. At points Ruth and I are knee-deep, and we fall on our arses constantly. "She wasn't lying about it being tricky" Ruth says at one point, after mistakenly putting her foot in what, by most definitions, would be a swamp and falling over. With the heavy rucksack pinning her down she writhes around like an up-ended turtle trying to right itself before her could-have-been-quicker husband helps her up. It's not as much fun as walking on a deserted beach. We pass more saw mills on the way which have been reclaimed by nature, and see (and hear) a host of animals but no kiwi.
We do have the good fortune to see a huge rat, running over the path in front of us. It's practically the size of a bulldog, and has a banana skin in its mouth. Ruth and I share a silent look as we both contemplate our night on the forest floor later tonight.
We stop for lunch on a bridge over a river as it begins to spot with rain. Lunch is, of course, nut-based but we treat ourselves to a nectarine for variety. We've probably walked 12km by now, and while we've only had to climb a couple of hundred metres, constantly hauling our legs from two feet of syrupy quagmire is taking its toll on our energy levels. We're looking forward to seeing the coast on the other side. We've seen two people since we started this morning: Señor Doesn’t-Lock-The-Door at Maori Beach, and a serious looking pro-hiker who jogs past us with barely any rucksack and a lit cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Otherwise noone. We get the impression this isn't one of the more popular walks.
The next three hours are a grind. The mud is relentless. There are sections of trail where the middle is an impassable swamp and it is necessary to walk 10 metres or so into the Bush to pick through the undergrowth and emerge further up. Although we are getting higher, there are no vantage points where we can see above the tops of the trees, so it's difficult to gauge where we actually are.
Eventually in mid afternoon, we catch a glimpse of the sea, and before long the DoC sign to North Arm Hut. The Hut follows shortly, but disappointingly does not have the Maldivesesque Seaview we were after. The sand is brown and dank looking, and there are trees obscuring most of any view. It also heralds the return of our favourite member of the insect kingdom, the sandfly. After pretending we're enjoying having our flesh chewed at a picnic bench, we concede defeat and scamper indoors. We have a light supper of fruit and nuts, with a scandalous chocolate bar dessert and contemplate our options. We had considered trying to spend the evening here and mixing with the other Great Walkers, but there’s no-one here, and our campsite is a 10 minute uphill walk away, which we're unlikely to want to slog back from once we've pitched up.
People walk in all at once. A German chap has walked the other way round from Oban and a hollow-eyed Canadian couple have just completed the North West Circuit. This is the ludicrous-looking, 125km, 9 day thru-hike which loops around the entire peninsula. We ask the fellow (his be-mudded wife walked straight into the dormitory without acknowledging anyone else was here) what it was like. He pauses for a long time before saying, "It was brief periods of spectacular scenery, book-ended by hours of thankless walking through trees and mud." He indicates his clothes. Our mud-line cuts off at the knee, his is virtually up to his neck. Is he glad he did it? Another long pause, "We're glad it's nearly over". Yeesh, that makes our afternoon of mud trudgery seem a bit paltry. On our way out, we also ask if he saw any kiwis. "Two." Two in nine days... I think our odds are slim.
We walk up the hill to the campsite chattering about what damage nine nights of camping would do to our marriage.
North Arm Campsite is gratefully devoid of the sandflies which were rife at sea level. Sadly it's also devoid of a sea view which we had longed for. We pitch the tent while talking up a favourite topic of the last few days; Bite Banter. This is to lengthily report on how our various insect bites from Brod Bay are coming along. The conclusions take some time to arrive at but Ruth claims the majority and hers are the more unbearable. We go to sleep under the clouds, and the forest comes alive.
I wake up at around 3am to find a colossal rat on my toes at the other end of the sleeping bag, chomping his way into our rucksacks.
I've had some pretty eye-opening wake-up calls before but this is probably the most alarming. “Furgh” I say with commendable clarity, scrabbling for the torch, and kicking my feet which launches the rat into the wall of the tent. There is virtually zero light so I have no idea where he goes. Ruth sits up with a start, “What’s going on?” she says sleepily.
“I think I heard a mouse scrabbling around” I reply, which sounds less horrific as I feel something scuttle over my feet again.
“Oh. Well it is the forest,” she reassures, and goes back to sleep.
The torch reveals no rat, but it does reveal his point of entry and exit: a ragged hole chewed through the mesh interior of the tent. Fantastic, so we’re attracting rodents with our food, AND the sandflies can get in now. I spend the next two hours with the torch on, waiting for the little bastard to show up again before falling asleep, sitting upright.
Day 47 Rakiura Track
I’m sure, given that we are actually on holiday in a beautiful country, that I have had a more wretched night’s sleep than the last one, but it’s hard to think of any this morning. Also, it’s raining again. I fess up to Ruth about the rat, and her face pales when she sees our new glory-hole in the side of the tent. “How horrible. Did it get to the food?” It did not thankfully, so we can at least console ourselves with another luxury nut-breakfast while the rain pounds on the tent. This is evidently not going to be as pleasant as yesterday. There are only 12km before we’re back in Oban, but it looks like all 12 of them are going to be in a deluge.
After updating Bite Banter (Ruth added a few more to her tally last night. Probably on account of the new ventilation system we had installed) Furnished with waterproof trousers et al, we set off back into the mud, heading south east. We have some tantalising glimpses of pretty bays and deserted coves through the trees but it’s not long before we’re back deep in impenetrable forest. The mist begins to creep back in and it’s such gloomy walking that we don’t even take photographs for the duration.
There's a moment where we startle three deers eating at the side of the track, and they clear off in a tangle of hooves and antlers. Its like that bit in Stand By Me where Will Wheaton shares a moment with a deer, only here its wetter and not magical.
There are a few more people out on the track today, and heading towards North Arm Hut. We meet a family trio who ask about the stretch around to Maori beach that we did yesterday: “Is it all this muddy?”
“Yes,” we reply with the steely-eyed stares of two who smashed it only to get assaulted by vermin. Its a fairly glum three hours back to Oban. We avoid the several kilometre detour at the end to see an apparently picturesque stretch of coast, because nothing can be picturesque in this rain.
We take an obligatory photo by the sign announcing the end, and walk on with barely a pause. The last kilometre is along a luxurious road which we leave a snail-trail of mud along, before getting to our B&B. It’s barely midday, but the owner takes pity on us/doesn’t want us dripping in her reception, and lets us in to our room. She also collects our wet kit, and hangs it in her boiler room to dry, to our immense gratitude. We’re in a different B&B tonight slightly up the hill and with a cracking sea view (at last!).
We take a shower of unbelievable relief in the room and consider how to spend our last afternoon here. There are several walks around the coast of Oban but bollocks-to-that is the consensus. Instead we decide to explore town (which takes 20 minutes) and then go and get smashed in the pub. Before that, we pop to the DoC office to report back to our friendly DoC steward. "So did you see a kiwi?" She asks brightly. We reply in the negatory but add that we did see rats and deer. "Ah, all the pests then." She says with a frown. Ruth makes up for the lack of wildlife by buying a toy kiwi.
Afterwards, we walk up to a vantage point (on 'View Street') and survey Stewart Island, of which we can see a decent amount from here, including much of where we spent the last day and a half walking. The area it covers looks disappointingly small. Back towards the South Island, the clouds are gathering. We both groan about the roughness of the ferry crossing tomorrow morning. Anyway, we feel like we've done enough procrastinating, and head to the pub for some more convivial atmosphere, fine seafood and pizza, and plenty of beer.
Day 48 Oban
We are turned away from the ferry port at 8am this morning with a few dozen other passengers, with the words "Ferry's cancelled today, water's too rough in the strait. We'll keep you posted on whether they'll be running tomorrow". On the one hand, this is terrible news; we're pretty sure we saw all that Oban had to offer yesterday, and are going to be scraping the barrel with another day here. On the other, we cannot begin to imagine what "too rough" looks like on that sea, given the apparently acceptable level it was at two days ago, so we're happy not to brave a storm out there.
So we head back to our B&B to see if we can have another night here. Fortunately for us, (not for the B&B) the cancelled crossings mean that her guests for this evening won't be showing up either, so we can have our pick of the rooms. We take our sea view room once more.
After a breakfast (in the pub. The crepe place across the road, which we were going to go in just to have some variety, wouldn't take cards and since it costs us a fortune to take out cash, we had to return to the pub for the third time in 3 days) we contemplate our options. The weather is being frustratingly inconsistent because of the high winds. Clouds are being whipped across the sky revealing, periodically, bright midsummer sun before reverting to form with showers of torrential rain. Since we have wet weather gear, we decide to take our chances, and do the two hour round trip to the end of the peninsula.
There's a chance we might see some penguins out there, though given the scarcity of wildlife so far, neither of us are crossing our fingers. The walk takes us past Golden Bay, Deep Bay and Whale Corner, which are all breakthtaking bits of coast, the likes of which we had hope to see on the Walk. The Foveaux Strait is effectively the meeting point between the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman sea. The strait holds relatively shallow waters for these two vast currents, hence the liveliness on the surface, The land takes quite a pummelling from it. We stand at the top of the cliffs and watch the sea hurling itself at the shore below. We carry on round to the viewing point at the end, but don't see any penguins. It's also blowing a gale, so we retreat back towards Oban Harbour. We walk past rusting mechanical cranks and huge cauldrons where they used to haul whales ashore and boil up their fat centuries ago (Also along here, Leask Bay Road, on Google streetview, there's a chap having a pee in a verge).
We enquire at the ferry port to see what our odds are looking like getting across tomorrow. "Hopefully okay, but it's going to be choppy whatever." We nod, resigned to this. We ask if they often have to cancel the ferries. "it does happen from time to time, but not usually at this time of year."
It's early afternoon. We are running out of things to see under our own steam. We walk back to Golden Bay on the opposite of town, to see if we can get a boat across to Ulva, a nearby island where we can fail to see more wildlife. There is nobody there though and we get drenched in another four-minute monsoon. It's that time again. We trudge back to the B&B to change, book dinner in the nicest-looking restaurant we've seen - under the hilltop church on the north side of town, and go back to the pub. Our old friend. Afterwards, we have an excellent dinner up on the hill where we watch storm-clouds looming over the mainland. We head back to the B&B and watch Gerard Butler films hoping tomorrow brings calmer seas.