Hiking the Rakiura Track, Stewart Island's Great Walk

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By Kim Mackay-Wallace

7 minute read

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The Rakiura Track on Stewart Island is New Zealand's Southernmost Great Walk. The track can be enjoyed either as a day walk or as a multi day tramp, and can be experienced either as a standalone adventure or in addition to the numerous other activities on the island.

Hike the Whole Track

If you’re up for a real adventure, hiking the Rakiura Track in its entirety makes for a great long weekend getaway. At 32km long with  perfectly spaced DOC huts and campsites along the way to break up the journey, it is one of the most achievable of New Zealand’s Great Walks and is accessible to people of most levels of fitness. Starting and finishing in Oban, Stewart Island’s main township, the track takes roughly 3 days to walk. Super keen trail running enthusiasts frequently run the track in a single day, but most hikers take a more leisurely approach and tackle the distance over 3 days, allowing plenty of time to stop and relax on the track’s many pristine beaches, and to get up close and personal with the plentiful wildlife. 

rakiura track stewart island2

Day 1 – Lee Bay to Port William Hut, 8km/5mi:

The track can be walked in either direction, but the most popular option is to tackle it anti-clockwise. Starting in Oban, hikers can either arrange a transfer to the start of the track or opt to walk the 5km to the track’s starting point at Lee Bay. For those who chose to walk, it is an easy 5km along quiet and mostly trafficless roads. 

From Lee Bay it is a pleasant 3-4 hour walk to Port William Hut, traversing through lush forest between numerous golden sandy beaches.  Maori Beach, overlooking Fouveaux Straight and across to the mainland, makes for a perfect halfway lunch stop. Once the site of a permanent settlement consisting of a sawmill, houses for the workers and their families, and a school, relics of the area’s history can still be found a short stroll from the beach. 

A further couple of hours through coastal forests brings you to Port William Hut, a 24-bunk DOC hut that offers beautiful views over the bay and a welcome shelter for the evening. Both huts on the Rakiura Track have bunks and mattresses, running water, toilets, and wood stoves for hikers to use year-round, offering the necessary creature comforts whilst still providing hikers the simplicity of a backcountry wilderness experience.

Day 2 – Port William Hut to North Arm Hut, 13km/8mi:

The second day of the Rakiura Track takes walkers inland across the island. Immersed in the forest for the duration of the 6-hour walk, this stretch of the track offers great opportunities for bird watching, and appreciating the differences in the vegetation between areas that have been milled by previous settlers and are now regenerating, and the virgin podocarp forest that has been left relatively unscathed from human influence.

Keep an eye out for the Rakiura tokoeka (Southern Brown Kiwi) along this stretch of the track. With minimal predators on the island, Stewart Island is one of the very few places where kiwi are frequently sighted during the day, despite being a usually nocturnal bird. Many lucky hikers report catching glimpses of these special kiwi scuttling right along the track itself.

The day ends where the track re-emerges at the coast, in the North Arm of Paterson Inlet. The 24-bunk North Arm Hut is perched just above the bay with spectacular vistas across the inlet. For seafood lovers, this is a great spot to take a walk down to the water at low tide and have a search for some mussels.

kiwi bird rakiura

Day 3 – North Arm Hut to Fern Gully, 11km/6.8mi:

The final day of the track follows close to the coastline, sidling around headlands and primarily staying within the forest for the duration of the 4 hours to the Fern Gully Carpark. The end of the track is just 2km outside the centre of Oban so most hikers chose to just walk down the road the last couple of kilometres. A transfer into the township can be arranged for those who wish to end their walk at the end of the track.

On arrival back into town, a cold beverage and a bite to eat at the local South Sea Hotel goes down a treat, or you might like to chow down on some fresh fish and chips from the Kai Cart.

Take a Day Walk

Want to experience the Rakiura Track but not keen on carrying a tramping pack for 3 days and sleeping in huts/tents? Fortunately, the track is easily accessible from the township of Oban and there are several great options for shorter day hikes.

The North Arm end of the track is closest to Oban township and a walk out to Kaipipi Bay, or to the Historic Dam at Kidney Fern Arm make for good day trips at 8km/5mi and 13.4km/8.3mi return respectively. 

Our favourite day hike on the Rakiura is the section from Lee Bay to Maori Beach, which incorporates a perfect snapshot of the best parts of the track: lush forests, beautiful beaches, and relics of the sawmilling times providing insight into the island’s history. Alternatively, you can arrange a water taxi transfer to Port William Hut with one of the local water taxi companies, and enjoy a pleasant stroll along the coast via Maori Beach back to Oban.

Join us on The New Zealand Great Walk Adventure for a guided walk on this section of the Rakiura Track, as well as day walks on the Milford, Routeburn and Kepler Tracks. 

What makes the Rakiura unique?

The Rakiura Track is New Zealand’s southernmost and most remote Great Walk. Due to the nature of being on a small island, predator control on Stewart Island is more easily achievable than on the mainland, resulting in a largely predator free island where New Zealand’s most vulnerable bird species are now thriving. Kiwi, kaka, kereru, tui, tomtit and parakeets are some of the many bird species you can expect to encounter along the track.

Following the coastline and podocarp forest and staying at low elevation throughout, the Rakiura differs drastically from its other southern Great Walk counterparts such as the Milford, Routeburn and Kepler, which traverse alpine ridgelines and beech forests. Other coastal Great Walks further north including the Abel Tasman and Heaphy Tracks are more easily accessible and closer to major towns, therefore attracting more visitors.

If a true wilderness experience with abundant birdlife and well away from the crowds is what you are looking for, the Rakiura Track is the perfect Great Walk for you. It also makes for an ideal first Great Walk to tackle, with short daily distances and limited elevation changes.

kaka rakiura stewart island

History

Rakiura, meaning “glowing skies”, was given its name by early Maori settlers due to the glowing sunrises and sunsets common to the island, and the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) often seen in the night skies. It is thought that the first Polynesians discovered Rakiura around the late 1200s, although Maori did not set up permanent settlements on the island and its surrounding smaller titi (muttonbird) islands until much later. Europeans first settled on the island and began sealing and whaling in the early 1800s, at which point it was given the name Stewart Island in honour of William Stewart, the first mate of the sealing ship Pegasus which visited in 1809. 

The 1860s to early 1930s saw the establishment of extensive sawmilling operations on the island, relics of which can still be seen at Maori Beach and Kaipipi Bay. Today, Rakiura has a permanent population of just over 400 residents, most of whom work in the conservation and tourism industries.

Rakiura National Park is the newest of New Zealand’s National Parks, established in 2002. It covers approximately 85% of the island’s area, making it a safe haven for the flora and fauna that live there, and providing a wilderness oasis for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy.

When to walk the track?

Unlike many of the other Great Walks which have a set season (usually October – April) in which the huts are open for bookings and it is safe to walk the tracks, the Rakiura Track is open year-round. The Rakiura Track does not venture into the alpine and is therefore not affected by snowfall like those such as the Milford, Routeburn and Kepler Tracks. 

The summer months of November – April are the most popular time to walk the track, with long daylight hours and warmer temperatures (late teens to early twenties Celcius) lending themselves to being the perfect time of year for hiking. Stewart Island has a mild climate year-round so the Rakiura can also be walked in the winter. Outside of peak season can be a wonderful time to experience the track with very few other hikers, although you can expect cooler temperatures (early teens Celcius) and an increased likeliness of rain.  

How to get there?

Stewart Island is accessed either by a 1-hour ferry ride from Bluff, or a 20-minute flight from Invercargill Airport. Flying offers spectacular birds-eye views of the South Coast, Stewart Island and the surrounding islands. Meanwhile, taking the ferry allows great opportunities for wildlife spotting, and travels past the Titi/Muttonbird Islands. Keep an eye out for dolphins, albatross, Titi, and the many other seabirds that call the Fouveaux Straight home.

how to get to stewart island

What else to do on Stewart Island

Stewart Island may be the smallest of New Zealand’s three main islands, but there are plenty of things to do! Relax and have a drink at the South Sea Hotel, take a trip to the predator free sanctuary of Ulva Island (a short 5-minute water taxi ride away), spend the night beneath the Milky Way looking for tokoeka/kiwi, try your hand at pounamu/greenstone carving, explore the local Rakiura Museum, or stretch your legs on one of the island’s many other beautiful short walks. It is well worth staying an extra night or two on Stewart Island to fully appreciate the remoteness and serenity of this unique place. If you’re looking for things to do on Stewart Island, check out our favourite spots and top picks here.

 

Love the look of the Rakiura Track but keen for someone to look after the details and arrangements for you?  Interested in exploring some of the other Great Walks in the area as well? Our New Zealand Great Walks Adventure includes a day walk on the Rakiura Track plus explores more of Stewart Island, and takes in day walks on the Milford Track, Routeburn Track and Kepler Track as well – all in 5 days! For more information, request a free copy of our brochure here!

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