The Rakiura Slog

DId you know that Aotearoa New Zealand is made up of three islands?

Okay, there’s a few more than that, but the three big ones are North Island, South Island and Stewart Island. The Māori names for these islands are Te Ika-a-Māui, Te Waka a Māui  and Te Punga o Te Waka a Māui. These names roughly translate into: Māui‘s Fish, Māui‘s Canoe and The Anchor of Māui’s canoe. As the legend goes (at least, the oversimplified version I’ve heard), Māui, a legendary demigod known for his mischief and heroic exploits, was fishing from his canoe (South Island) when he spotted a massive fish lurking in the waters below. He dropped his anchor stone (Stewart Island) and caught the fish with a magic jawbone, finally bringing it to the surface (and thus it became North Island). And if you look at the handy-dandy map I drew below, you can see the similarities between legend and geography.

At the risk of sounding like a high school teacher, I’m not an artist. Map source: Wikimedia Commons.

But there are alternate names for the canoe and its anchor: Te Waipounamu (The Place of Greenstone) and Rakiura (Glowing Skies), respectively. Greenstone refers to pounamu, a type of greenstone found only on the South Island that is central to Māori culture, being used historically for tools, weapons, jewelry, decorations and even declaring peace between warring tribes. As for Glowing Skies, Stewart Island is far enough south that you can see the Aurora Australis on a regular basis. In case you’re wondering, the difference between Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis is purely geographical. It depends whether you see the lights in the northern or southern hemisphere – borealis and australis are the Latin words for north and south, respectively.

It was June 2021. Covid had been well established by now and a certain word beginning with ‘L’ had been playing with my sanity (as it did with the rest of Melburnians. Word of advice: don’t mention that word around them unless you’re looking to stir up trauma and/or a political debate!). Luckily, Aotearoa New Zealand had its borders open to Australia because case numbers practically zero (for the time being). So, being my usual adventurous self, I made my way across the Ditch (which is what Aussies and Kiwis affectionately call the Tasman Sea) and landed in Christchurch. Right on time, too, because the Kiwis shut the border soon after I arrived. But that was okay; I was going to be in the country until at least November.

My ultimate destination was Dunedin, but I had plenty of time to get there, so I decided to kill some time by exploring the South Island. I had already seen the West Coast and large parts of the North Island a couple years prior, yet there were so many places in New Zealand, particularly on the South Island, I had yet to see. I set off in a hire car and visited many of the South Island’s best sights: I traversed precarious mountain roads to get to Akaroa (in the middle of what looks like a pimple on the east coast), I nearly fell off the side of a mountain at Lake Tekapo and I walked through freezing rain just to see Aoraki/Mt Cook…completely covered by clouds. But those are stories for another time.

I had been walking for an hour and still hadn’t reached the park yet.

I continued my way south, stopping off in Queenstown to get absolutely hammered and eat cookies. I swear, that town is like my best friend: I love it to death, but it brings out the worst in me! Then it was ack on the road, driving along icy roads that made my hire car slip and swerve, which is bad enough when the road is straight, let alone when it snakes and wraps around the contours of a very hilly nation. As an Australian, it’s odd to see snow falling from the sky – for God’s sake, we have a location high up in the Victorian mountains called The Snow, where even in the colder months there’s no guarantee of any snow or ice on a given day. Even if I had had experience with snow driving, I don’t know how it couldn’t be terrifying experiencing just how little traction you had on the road, but then you see the locals navigating tight turns and overtaking you at well over 150kph! Either they are incredibly brave, incredibly stupid, or incredibly both…

Soon enough, I had reached the southernmost town in South Island, a nice little town called Bluff, situated at the foot of a hill on a bulbous peninsula that once housed a radar station used in WWII in case the Germans or Japanese came along (why they would, I have no clue, but at least it’s not Fort Nepean in Melbourne, built in the 1880s to defend against possible Russian attacks – I am not joking!). But Bluff is also the place from which one can catch a ferry to the gem hidden in plain sight, Rakiura.

The waters beckoned me in, but I wisely stayed out.

The reason this island is often overlooked is twofold. First, it’s pretty far from major cities, the closest being Invercargill, which numbers only 50,000 people. No international flights land in Invercargill – there’s only five ‘international’ airports in New Zealand, and three of them only do flights between Australia and smaller pacific nations (Queenstown, Wellington and Dunedin). So, for most tourists, their options are flying to Auckland or Christchurch and then either booking a domestic flight to Invercargill or driving there. After that, it’s either another flight to Rakiura or you have to drive twenty minutes to Bluff to catch a ferry. It’s a lot of effort to get down that far south, and there’s only one town on the entire island, Oban, with a population of just over 300 people. 85% percent of the island is national park (one of the newest, I believe – it opened back in the early 2000’s), so it’s a popular hunting spot to clear out all those pesky mammals damaging the ecosystem (Fun fact: Apart from bats and aquatic mammals like dolphins and porpoises, there are no mammals that are native to New Zealand; they are all introduced. Also New Zealand has a lot of unique birds whose populations have been decimated by introduced predators). So, unless you’re there to hunt invasive deer or bring supplies to Oban, there’s not much point in visiting Rakiura.

So why did I go?

Well, there’s actually a third reason you might want to go. There are a few hiking tracks across the island, multiday camping adventures amongst the pristine rainforests where birdcalls serenade you throughout the day and the kiwi birds dare to come out at night. The most popular one is called the Rakiura Track, which is a loop that starts and ends in Oban, and that is the track I wanted to do. They recommend taking three days to do it, but I brushed that aside and decided to do it in two days – I’m already good at walking and I don’t want to book another hut to stay in all day, I thought. Plus, the track isn’t that long – only 30 kilometres or so! And from what I’d seen from the internet the tracks were well maintained, so it couldn’t be that difficult, right? Well, turns out you shouldn’t trust eveything you see on the interent since I picked one of the worst days to do it.

You truly feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, mostly because you’re literally in the middle of nowhere.

After riding across the choppy Foveaux Strait and having to endure the sound of at least half the passengers throwing up, I arrived in Oban at 12PM, having kept my breakfast down, and immediately set off for the Rakiura Info Centre. I checked in, got my map, and was eager to go. But I was warned that the track might be a bit muddy; there had been massive rainfalls (not uncommon in the middle of Winter) and the Sun doesn’t penetrate too deep in some parts, so even though it hadn’t rained that day, the track would still be wet, especially so in Winter. Okay, fair enough. I hurried off down the road, eager to begin my hiking adventure.

Well, I had been walking along that road for an hour and I still hadn’t reached the beginning of the track. I was carrying all my food and water I would need (plus extra) and I was scared i might have underpacked. I did pass an awesome sculpture of a massive chain, which I thought looked familiar. That’s because there’s another one in Bluff, symbolising the Maui legend mentioned earlier as well as the connection that the Māori of Rakiura had with South Island and vice versa. I made my way across some stunning beaches and was tempted to go for a swim, but the chilly air convinced me that being wet was not a good idea. Besides I would be plenty wet soon enough. Eventually, I reached a sign that read “Rakiura National Park” – it had only taken me three hours to get to the park proper. Oh boy.

If the legend isn’t true, why would the chain be here?

I had walked along a path that hugged the coast for about an hour and a half until and I had reached a fork in the road – always a good place to rest. Straight ahead was the thirty-minute walk to the Port William Hut. I really wanted to rest, but I hadn’t booked a spot in the hut and I didn’t really feel like squatting in a national park in a foreign country. The path to my left was the five-hour trek to the North Arm Hut. It was at this moment that I realised the Sun was going down rapidly. I was about to spend the next five hours of my life walking in darkness with a heavy bag on, with nothing but my own thoughts and paranoia for company. I encountered nobody else on the track so far, so I was going to be the only human on the path; if something went wrong, I was on my own. I distinctly remember laughing and shoving my hands into my face. Why am I so stupid? I shouted to nobody in particular.

I braced myself and took the first step into the forest. The path became lined with increasingly denser greenery as I left the spectacular view of the coast behind. The roar of the waves pulverising the cliffs abated and the crunching of dirt under my shoes became muted, unable to echo within the flora corridor. My breathing became laboured as I struggled against the undulating path, up and down and up and down, but I was determined to spend as little time as possible in impenetrable darkness and with all the demons that my mind would conjure up at the snap of a twig or rustle of a bush. I had bought a Hei-Tiki at a shop a few days prior and, although I’m not Māori, you better believe I was clutching that thing in my hand so hard as if I could squeeze the mana from it or something.

Then, I turned a corner and saw this:

“That’s it? Bring it on!” – Me, unaware of how much worse it was going to get.

The information guide’s warning echoed through my head and I chuckled – That’s it? Bring it on! I thought arrogantly. I squelched through it, carefully avoiding the worst parts by using the plants on either side for support and stepping on branches and roots. I looked down at my shoes, now a brilliant shade of brown, and noted that my feet were bone-dry. I thought this was going to be hard…

It was only about 10 minutes later I came across another mud pit, which was considerably worse than the first one. I tried my previous strategy of walking around it, but stepping on tree roots is only useful if they’re…well, rooted to something. Putting pressure on these roots made them sink far into the mud, so much so that I was afraid that the tree would become dislodged, fall and squash me. Even when I took the time to carefully plan my route across the sea of mud, the depth thereof had climbed up to about two inches above my ankles. My socks were now defiled, but still nothing within the shoes themselves. I had been humbled…or so I thought…

Don’t be fooled – these cute critters are incredibly destructive to the environment.

I reached a clearing where abandoned mining and logging equipment were accompanied with helpful signs. There used to be more settlements on Rakiura and even a railway line, which you would never guess from just how untouched the entire place seems. The trees had opened up and I could see the sky, but there was no Sun. Indeed, the first stars had started to appear. The twilight was swiftly enveloping everything, and I was barely able to read the signage explaining the history of European settlement in the area. I had brought a flashlight with me because I’m not a complete moron, but as I shined it down the path to where I needed to go, I saw yet another stretch of that damn mud, somehow even wider than the one I had previously cleared. As I tried to work my way through this muddy field with only one hand (I needed to use the flashlight to see where I was going), I made note of the time on my watch: 5.30PM. This was going to be a long night…

I was plunged into total darkness not long after. The canopy refused to let in whatever light reached this far south in the middle of Winter. At several points along the trek, I needed to take a rest, and whenever I did, I turned the light off, anxious that somehow a couple minutes would destroy the battery life or something. Unless I was next to a creek, there was not a sound and not a sight. Only my exhausted breathing and the monsters I perceived in the infinite darkness. Whenever I brought my torch back to life, I expected to be face-to-face with an evil spirit or zombie or something, but it was always worse than that: more muddy tracks!

Some logging equipment becoming consumed by darkness.

The temperature dropped severely (only a degree or two above freezing), so not only was my sweat starting to rob me of warmth, but the mud on the track was ice cold. Worse still, the pits became wider, longer, deeper and more frequent. There wasn’t always something to put your foot onto and the flora was too dense to consider traversing through, so sometimes you had no choice but to put your foot right into the mud and pray to God that it wasn’t too deep. When I first sank to my knees in mud, I made the decision to remove everything from my pockets (including my phone and my map) and just keep them in my pack. Good thing, too, because I encountered an absolutely abysmal 100 metre stretch of mud that would make the Somme look like a picnic. By some miracle I didn’t slip or fall, but I still sunk up to my waist in mud. I clung onto trees for dear life since I had no way of knowing whether I had touched solid ground or not. I nearly lost my shoes in this bastard of a section, which meant my feet were completely soaked in bone-chilling mud. while there were no other stretches of mud quite as bad as this one, they became so common that to see a clear path or stairs became strange; I had become used to wading through muck and filth in the middle of the night.

At about 8:20PM or so, I saw a ball hanging from a branch. I dropped to my knees and barely refrained from worshipping it. Why? It was the halfway marker. I felt so elated – I had been making progress all along! But then, dread perched upon my shoulders as I recalled everything I had done since that fork in the road – all that pain, all that fear, all that mud – was only half of what I had to do. I was about ready to call it quits, but I quickly realised how futile that was. If I turned back now, I had to go through all that again. Besides, I had a hut waiting for me at the end of this leg of the track, where I could get out of these wet clothes and avoid freezing to death. And that’s not even considering the obvious point that I would be giving up. Picking myself up, I took off as fast as my weary legs would let me, determined to not spend any more time on the track than I had to.

This ball might as well have been Gabriel the Angel.

I’m glad to say that this second half was easier to traverse. Yeah, there were still undulating paths and filth, but I had grown accustomed to such conditions. I heard a rustle at one point and instinctively pointed my light at it. I suddenly saw a kiwi bird dash from the bush, its piddly little legs running in circles like little windmills, and take off up the track. I was in awe – to see a kiwi bird in the wild is a rare occasion! – but I felt bad for shining my light on it. See, they’re nocturnal creatures and the light can really scare them and even damage their vision if you get them right in the eyes. I already had a regrettable track record with birds in my travels (I almost killed a penguin once – seriously!), so I did my best to not disturb the other kiwi birds I encountered along the way (I think four or five in total – A lot of people don’t even see one on their journey through Rakiura!).

And then, at 10.30PM, I saw a sign: 5 minutes to the North Arm Hut. An energy that had not been present before possessed me as I ran all the way to the Hut and practically kicked the door down, startling the one guy who was there – I had woken him up (sorry mate). I wondered where he came from, until his told me he started the track from the opposite direction, much, much earlier in the day. There was no electricity, so I had to change in the darkness and slip into my glorious sleeping bag. It was about 11.00PM. I had been walking for nearly 11 hours. I was out like a light – before I was able to set my alarm…

The track is more appealing during the daytime, but still quite a challenge.

I woke up the next day. My hut buddy was gone. I looked at my phone and it was 9.00AM. My ferry back to the mainland had a check-in time by 2.30PM. I was several kilometres away. My legs were stiff and my feet had failed to dry overnight, despite my attempts to dry them with a towel and putting on fresh, warm socks. In a panic, I changed my clothes (including back into my completely muddy pants because I didn’t think I’d need another pair – stupid me) and took off on the final park of the track.

At least I got to see some spectacular vistas on the dash back to Oban. The mud was not nearly as severe on the southern leg due to its proximity to the coast, but the path was far from smooth; stones and roots made any wrong step a potential rolled ankle (and a possible tumble into a shrub-filled ravine). Considering I was speeding along out of necessity, I’m surprised my feet made it through in one piece. Well, actually, I ended up with a minor case of trench foot. Even after returning to Invercargill and spending the next day drying and warming my feet and checking for infections, they still felt like waterlogged sponges. The skin was flaking and I developed blisters that made walking incredibly uncomfortable for the next day or so (Still didn’t stop me from walking). It really doesn’t take that long for trench foot to occur, so I’ve learnt from then on to make keeping my feet nice and dry a priority for all the other walks I do.

Then, after a grueling five hours, I saw it: The gates to Oban. I still had 15 minutes to get back to Oban proper, but I was over the moon – I had conquered Rakiura! At least, I conquered the shortest trek they offered, but considering I was essentially a WWI Tommy in every way (apart from the absence of artillery barrages, gas attacks, torrential rain, amputations, flamethrowers, lice, blood, rats, famine, typhoid, smallpox, snipers, etc., also I was only out there for two days and not four years – apart from all that), I think I did pretty well. I quickly ducked into the supermarket and bought some chocolate before checking in for my ferry just in time, getting some strange looks from the operators what with the being covered in mud and sweat.

This exit might as well have been the Pearly Gates.

And then, it was back across the Foveaux Strait to continue the rest of my journey. I allowed myself to relax in my seat and a satisfied smile stretched across my lips that not even the retching from my fellow passengers could spoil. I’ve always wanted to go back and do the Track again as it’s simultaneously so humbling yet so rewarding to be challenged by nature and overcome its obstacles regardless. It’s as much a battle of strength as it is of willpower. There were so many times along the way I wanted to just sit down and give up from exhaustion, either from my legs screaming at me to stop or my mind being unable to tolerate the endless mud and dankness that awaited in the darkness ahead, but to know that I didn’t shows me what I’m capable of, even if this trek wasn’t the hardest thing in the world. Baby steps. However, next time I’ll do it when it’s not so wet…or maybe I will…

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