Northwest Circuit, Stewart Island

Key information: Northwest Circuit, Stewart Island

  • Beautiful forested island in glittering waters, replete with ridges and bays galore, offshore from New Zealand's South Island. 
  • The Northwest Circuit is a staggering 125km long; this Walkopedia Travel Writing Competition 2011 entry focuses on a haunted section leading to East Ruggedy Bay. 
  • This is a remote walk on which you will likely have to be self-sufficient. Come prepared.

Walkopedia rating

  • Walkopedia rating80
  • Beauty31
  • Natural interest18
  • Human interest2
  • Charisma31
  • Negative points2
  • Total rating80
  • Note: Negs: frequent bad weather

Vital Statistics

  • Length: 125km
  • 10+ days
  • Level of Difficulty: Variable



The following is Helen Watson's piece on walking here, which was on our longlist for our 2011 Travel Writing Competition. Thank you, Helen, for bringing this walk to our attention!

A 19th Birthday Present

"Smoke this when you get to the East Ruggedy Ritz" the hunter said "you're gonna need it!"

I had met nine of them. They were Kiwi guys on an annual hunting trip to the dense deer-rich forests of Stewart Island, New Zealand's third island. They were camped on the edge of Port William Bay, by the hut, just into the trees to shelter from the unrelenting wind. The sea's white teeth were biting the yellow sands, and bones from a fleet of pilot whales spewed up months ago, littered the shore. From here the vast Southern Ocean stretched out, its fierce waters dotted with nothing but a few mythical islands until they broke on Antarctica: Snares, Auckland, Campbell, Macquarie, Young, Buckle, Sturge.....

It was winter low season on the North-West Circuit, a ten day long tramp around the island's coastline, and the hunters were the only people I had seen on this first day. On day eight an American backpacker startled me with the crunch of footsteps on twigs, long before we passed each other on the path. I once heard the buzz of a helicopter high above the canopy of southern beech.

That night, I'd sat with the hunters under a camouflage tarp sharing barbequed fish and paua. One of them had shown me how to prise the fleshy paua out of its fist-sized shell with a hunting knife, revealing iridescent blue-green-purple mother of pearl beneath. Then he beat the shell-fish between two rocks to tenderise it before tossing it into a battered frying pan. I ate the delicious cooked meat with my hands, hot butter running between my fingers.

"East Ruggedy's haunted you know".

"Shush" the others said "no need to scare her".

I took a sip of beer and explained again that I would be fine. I'd walked many tramps on my own since the start of my "gap year" to New Zealand, often meeting other travellers to walk with en route. Secretly though, I knew this might be the toughest and most isolated trip, but I'd wanted to mark the passing of the year with a trip I would remember.

"Well seeing it's your birthday, I think you might as well take it just in case". The hunter winked, peeled off a few rolling papers and added them to the polythene bag.

The next morning I carried on through a creaking forest, a storm raging above, pushing past punga ferns with a backpack of 10 days food weighing heavily on my knees. I had a stick to haul myself out of the pools of mud into which the path would often dissolve. One day, I lost the trail markers and had to very carefully retrace my prints in dented leaf mulch, heart pounding, until I finally reached the path. Bungaree Hut, Christmas Village Hut, Yankee River Hut: names and days I marked off as I made my way gradually around the coast, passing through lush fern forest, crossing empty sands speckled with striped pipi shells and sleeping in the unoccupied huts whose visitor books bore testament to other trampers, hunters and fishermen that had passed through weeks and years ago. As I arrived I collected water from the river, boiled tea and then pasta, then more tea, wrote my diary from the comfort of my sleeping bag and ate my evening's ration of chocolate. I slept, half expecting to be startled bolt upright by the arrival of another tramper in the night and firmly forbade my thoughts from wandering to hauntings or other sinister scenarios.

After Long Harry Hut, the path climbed steeply inland and up and up through the bush, suddenly spitting me out onto a sunlit promontory. Beneath, two tiny green islands gleamed offshore in the sea's turquoise waters and golden sands nestled in the horseshoe of cliffs that made East Ruggedy Bay.

Beauty was enough to smoke out the demons at the East Ruggedy Ritz. Although as ever, I took the axe off the woodblock and stashed it under my bunk, just to be sure. Then on to Hellfire Pass Hut where the setting sun burnt the Southern Ocean to orange and Mason's Bay Hut, where a startled kiwi ran across my path at dusk as I stood, equally shocked. I spent the last night at Freshwater Landing Hut, where I ate my remaining pasta and smoked an amateurishly rolled cigarette on the veranda in celebration. I choked, stubbed out the butt and I leaned over to open the top pocket of my rucksack: the paua shell was there.

Other accounts: share your experiences

Your comments on this walk, your experiences and suggestions, and your photos are very welcome. Where appropriate, you will be credited for your contribution.

Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and potential problems, and many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks, dangers and problems. Problems of any sort can arise on any walk. This website does not purport to identify any (or all) actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to any particular walk.

Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.

Anyone planning an expedition to this place should see further important information about this walk.


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