By Kiwis I of course mean the shy, flightless nocturnal bird which is the national symbol of New Zealand and not actual New Zealanders and I use “hunting” in the sense of searching for, not in the sense of sneaking around in the bush and shooting animals. The Rakiura Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, is located on Stewart Island, the most southerly of New Zealand’s major islands and provides one of the best opportunities to see one of these increasingly rare birds in the wild. It is one of the few places that Kiwis (the birds) occasionally venture out in the daylight and for this reason many trampers make the journey to this out of the way walk, although, for a close to guaranteed sighting those with time and fitness may opt for the 10 day north west circuit on the same island.
Closest Town: Oban on Stewart Island. Oban can be reached by ferry run by Stewart Island Experience departing from Bluff on South Island. Stewart Island Experience also offers a bus ride to and from Invercargill linking with the ferry. Invercargill, the southern most major town in New Zealand can be reached by airplane or bus. Oban has a general store (with limited selections), three restaurants, a hotel (with a fun Quiz night on Sundays with the most profane Quiz mistress you are likely to meet) and some accommodation. For those who don’t want to stay in Oban the ferry timetable does permit sufficient time to travel from Invercargill, get to the start of the walk and complete the first day of the track and to complete the last day of the track to make the ferry returning to Invercargill.
In Invercargill those with a love of classic cars and motorbikes should check out the local hardware store E.Hayes and sons. Those with a love of beer should check out the Invercargill Brewery.
Getting to and from the track: The trailhead at Lee Bay is 5km by road from Oban and the trailhead at Fern Gully is 2km by road from Oban. Both the first and last day on the track are relatively short so walking the extra distance to and from the start and end of the tracks is feasible. For those who don’t want to walk on the road, transfers to and from the trailheads can be arranged to the Oban Visitor Centre (which you walk past after getting off the ferry).
Kiwis and Wekas: Most New Zealanders have never seen a Kiwi in the wild. The ranger at the Iris Burn Hut on the Kepler Track told us that he has seen one Kiwi in the five years he had been at the hut and that is one place where there are supposed to be Kiwis. In contrast many tourists will claim they have seen a Kiwi. In nearly all cases, except where the sighting was said to have occurred on Stewart Island, such sightings are a simple case of misidentification. Wekas sort of look like Kiwis, but are smaller, have sharper beaks, are openly seen in the day and are a lot more aggressive – frequenting picnicking areas and always looking for the opportunity to steal tramper’s food. To avoid being an annoying tourist make sure it is a Kiwi before you claim to have seen one.
Duration/Length: 31km over 3 days.
Accommodation: Camping or in huts. The two huts each have two bunkrooms, a kitchen/dining area and contained short drop toilets ($22 per person each hut). The bunks have mattresses and the huts have water, but there are no gas cookers and hikers should take their own toilet paper. Bookings are required and can be done through the New Zealand Department of Conservation website.
Day 1 Oban to Port William Hut: (5km on the road, 8.1km on the track, 4-5 hours). I was outvoted by Kevan, Mary and Rob, who all thought that 8km was too short a walk, so instead of arranging transport we walked along the road to the start of the track at Lee Bay, the road climbing several hills and dipping down into bays. After a bit over an hour we were at the start of the track – a chain sculpture which matches a similar sculpture at Bluff on the South Island, supposedly linking Stewart Island to the South Island. The actor stone also refers to Māori mythology referring to Stewart Island as “The Anchor Stone of Maui’s Canoe”, Maui’s canoe being the south Island
The track followed the coast, slowly climbing a small hill before it descended to Lee River, crossed by a small bridge. At this point there were two choices – a high tide track or along the beach. We were fortunate that the tide was just low enough to take the short walk along the beach. At the end of the beach we crossed over some stones to re-join the track by way of a series of stairs up the hill. The track continued up the hill before it flattened out and then descended down to Maori Beach and a small DOC campsite where we stopped for lunch. From the campsite it was a walk along the beach to the swing-bridge over a stream at the end of the Bay. Once over the swing-bridge we were greeted by more stairs as the track climbed up through the forest. Near the top of the climb was the junction for the turn off the next day for the track to North Arm. We continued on to Port William, the track undulating but eventually descending to Magnetic Beach and Port William Hut.
The hut, with a capacity of 24, was full and about 80% left the hut in the evening to search for Kiwis. Different strategies were employed – some people left before dark descended and searched in the twilight (Kevan and Mary chose this option) and others, including Rob and I, waited for dark at 10pm and searched under torchlight. Of the twilight crew, a father and daughter team were successful in seeing one Kiwi. Kevan saw something but it disappeared too quickly into the bush for him to work out what it was. I refused to believe it was a Kiwi. The rest of us, despite several hours of stumbling around in the dark were unsuccessful.
Day 2 Port William Hut to North Arm Hut: (13km, 4-6 hours). The day began with a climb back up to the junction that we had passed the day before. After a bit over half an hour we had covered the 1.9km and had returned to the junction and turned inland for the day’s hike from one side of the island to the other. From the junction the track continued to climb upwards before it flattened and then started to descend. After only short way into the descent we passed a couple of old log haulers, left over from the days when there was a logging industry on the island. After the log haulers the path descended even more steeply before it flattened out and followed the valley below. We then started the track’s biggest climb, eventually reaching 305m above sea level. From the top of the climb the track gradually descended over a couple of kilometres, often through muddy patches and passing the half way tree (clearly marked with a sign and buoy). After the descent the path undulated over a couple of small hills before it descended sharply to North Arm Hut, which sits just above the shores of Paterson Inlet.
The hut was once again full, but this time the wind blasted in from the bay and periodic showers drenched the forest and hut. So even though North Arm is supposed to be good spot to see Kiwis, when dark descended it was only the Czech and French couples who went out to search. They eventually returned unsuccessful.
Day 3. North Arm to Oban: (11km on the track, 2km on road; 4-4.5 hours). The walk on the last day was relatively easy along an undulating track providing vistas of Paterson Inlet and occasionally dropping down and out of bays. We reached the first bay, Sawdust Bay after only about 20 minutes. From there the track ascended up and over a headland before descending to Prices Inlet. After Prices Inlet the track again ascended and then followed an easy track through the forest, before it descended down into Kaipipi Bay crossing a bridge over the inlet. From there the track ascended up into the forest again eventually reaching a T junction. We turned left onto an old logging track following it for 20 minutes of gradual ascent followed by 15 minutes of gradual descent until another junction was reached. We again turned left and after about 10 minutes arrived at the Fern Gully carpark. Fortunately for us some other hikers were being dropped off by their friend and he immediately offered us a lift back into Oban. Within a short space of time we had gobbled down fish and chips from the Kai Cart and were then safely ensconced in lounge seats at the South Sea Hotel waiting for our ferry departure.
We had kept a lookout for Kiwis on our final day, but still had no success. It was with dismay, therefore, that I heard Matt and Sharon’s tale of success on the last day. Matt and Sharon from Christchurch had chosen to the Rakiura Track as a gentle introduction to tramping. They had little interest in Kiwis and had chosen to go to sleep when nearly all other trampers were out searching. On the last day they left the hut about 15 minutes ahead of us. Bumping into them at the South Sea Hotel, they explained that about 45 minutes after they started out they had been surprised by some high pitched whistles before a Kiwi ran up the track past them and then out into the bush. I was unable to discount it as a Weka misidentification because Sharon had videoed the whole thing on the phone. They have now both been turned into Kiwi enthusiasts and want to go searching for more.
We were unsuccessful in our Kiwi hunt, but they are out there. It’s just a case of being in the right place at the right time, and in our case, getting going 15 minutes earlier in the morning.
For more information: see our A Beginner’s Guide to Hiking in New Zealand post.