IntroductionThe North West Circuit offers challenging multi-day tramping around Rakiura/Stewart island’s northern coast.
Sweeping beaches, rocky headlands and stunning scenery are the rewards for the fit and well-equipped.
Rakeahua Valley and Doughboy Bay can be added to the North West Circuit. Alternatively the Southern Circuit Track incorporating these areas can be walked separately.
Mud is widespread and often deep and thick on the tracks, regardless of the season. Walking times are an indication only and extra time should be allowed in adverse conditions.
There are unbridged river crossings along this route – it is only suitable for trampers skilled and experienced in safe river crossing.
Track and weather conditions are constantly subject to change and can be extreme. Trampers should visit Rakiura National Park Visitor Centre before they depart for up to date information.
Caution is required at the north end of Mason Bay beach as access along beach may only be possible at low tide. See more information.
Halfmoon Bay to Port William Hut
Time: 4 hr
Distance: 12 km
Follow the road to Horseshoe Bay, then on to Lee Bay, the official entrance to Rakiura National Park. From here the well defined track follows the coast to Little River and Maori Beach, a former sawmill settlement. There is a Great Walk campsite at Maori Beach. A tidal stream is spanned by a bridge at the north end of the beach, after which the track climbs a low hill, passing the Rakiura Track turn-off to North Arm. Port William Hut is on the prominent headland to the north.
Port William Hut to Bungaree Hut
Time: 3–4 hr
Distance: 6 km
The track traverses forested hill country before briefly dropping down to the coast. Cross the headland to reach Big Bungaree Beach, which has a hut at the northern end.
Bungaree Hut to Christmas Village Hut
Time: 6 hr
Distance: 11.5 km
Passing inland from Gull Rock Point, the track descends to Murray Beach and crosses Murray River upstream of the northwest end of the beach. It then follows an old tramline before entering virgin forest. The track continues through forest before reaching Christmas Village Hut. If you have found it difficult so far, turn back.
Side trip: Christmas Village Hut to Mt. Anglem/Hananui
Time: 6 hr return
Distance: 11 km
The track to Mount Anglem/Hananui, Stewart Island’s highest point, is a short distance along the track to Yankee River. The track is marked and leads through forest, mānuka, leatherwood scrub and subalpine meadow to the 980 m summit. Note: This track can be very muddy and foggy.
Christmas Village Hut to Yankee River Hut
Time: 6 hr
Distance: 12 km
From the Mount Anglem Track junction the track passes through low, undulating bush country to Lucky Beach where tall rimu trees are prominent. From the west end of Lucky Beach the track climbs steeply through dense areas of fern. Care is needed to locate the track where it enters heavy forest. The track then follows undulating country to Yankee River where the hut is sited.
Yankee River Hut to Long Harry Hut
Time: 4–5 hr
Distance: 8.5 km
Cross the swing bridge over Yankee River, then the track rises steeply over Black Rock Point before descending to Smoky Beach with its distinctive sand hills. A swing bridge crosses Smoky River, inland from the western end of the beach, but unless the river is in flood or it is extreme high tide you can easily wade where the river meets the beach. The track then follows broken and forested terrain, drops down onto the coast and then up to Long Harry Hut.
Long Harry Hut to East Ruggedy Hut
Time: 6 hr
Distance: 9.5 km
From the hut follow the coastal terrace to Cave Point ridge, then along the ridge before descending to the rocky coastline. The coast is followed for 30 minutes before the track re-enters the scrub at a signpost. It then climbs fairly steeply to reach a lookout over East Ruggedy Beach. The track descends through scrub to a river crossing, where the sand can be very soft. From here to East Ruggedy Hut is a further 15 minutes inland, marked by poles through the sand dunes.
East Ruggedy Hut to Big Hellfire Hut
Time: 7 hr
Distance: 14 km
The track drops down to West Ruggedy and follows the beach. At extreme high tide you may need to take the high tide detour up and over a steep rocky outcrop halfway down the beach. The track re-enters the bush at the southern end of the beach, then crosses around to the eastern side of the Ruggedy Range. It then descends to Waituna Bay. From here it is a steady climb up to Hellfire Pass Hut.
Big Hellfire Hut to Mason Bay Hut
Time: 7 hr
Distance: 15 km
From Big Hellfire the track follows the main ridge before descending to Little Hellfire beach. At the south end of the beach is a signpost for Mason Bay. The track travels inland over a bush saddle and finally descends near the north end of Mason Bay. At extreme high tide this section can be impassable – there is a high tide route marked through the sand dunes. Care Is required as the sand dunes move and markers are sometimes covered over with sand. High tide route will take approximately an extra 1.5 hours.
Caution: Fill drink bottles at Big Hellfire Hut before leaving, as there are no reliable water sources until Little Hellfire Beach.
Caution: Access on to the north end of Mason Bay beach may only be possible at low tide
Recent sand erosion is causing waves to come up to the cliffs at high tide. This means trampers may not be able to get down to the beach safely for the 12 hours of high tide. The beach may also be inaccessible at low tide if there are low pressure systems or storm surges. The north end of Mason Bay beach is 6 hours walk from Big Hellfire Hut, so if trampers can't get down safely to the beach they will have to return to the hut or find shelter until conditions are safe to access the beach.
About 1 km further along the beach there is a large rock. Previously it was possible to get around this at any time except extreme high tide. This is no longer correct – it's only passable at low tide, at other times trampers should take the high tide route which starts just before it. The low tide track cannot be used within approximately 2 hours either side of high tide. Please check with staff regarding tide times at Mason Bay, as they differ from Oban times.
From here, follow the beach approximately 4 km to Duck Creek. Flag markers on a pole mark the track turn-off to Mason Bay Hut.
Mason Bay Hut to Freshwater Hut
Time: 3–4 hr
Distance: 15.5 km
Follow the track to the Island Hill homestead and then over flat tussock and mānuka country to Freshwater River and Freshwater Hut. Note: This track is often flooded during periods of heavy rain.
Side trip: Rocky Mountain Track
Time: 3 hr return
Distance: 5 km
A climb from behind the Freshwater Hut, through forest and subalpine scrubland to rock outcrops, gives panoramic views over the Freshwater Flats and Paterson inlet.
Freshwater Hut to North Arm Hut
Time: 6–7 hr
Distance: 11 km
This section of track is steep and often slippery. It crosses over Thompson Ridge to the North Arm of Paterson Inlet. North Arm Hut has a Great Walk hut and campsite. Note: During periods of heavy rain, some creeks on this track may become impassable.
North Arm Hut to Halfmoon Bay
Time: 5 hr
Distance: 12 km
The track traverses above North Arm to Sawdust Bay. From the former sawmill site the track cuts across a low headland to reach Kidney Fern Arm in Prices Inlet, and continues through forest for another hour before emerging at Kaipipi Bay. From there it follows the former Kaipipi Road to Halfmoon Bay.
What to expect
Track surfaces are varied and involve long sections of mud that can be knee-deep and thick, regardless of the season. Some sections of track are prone to flooding.
Keep to the tracks as valleys are steep and the bush is dense.
Beach access can be difficult when tides are high and seas are rough – if necessary, wait for low tide.
Radios are not provided in any of the huts. Cell phone coverage is very limited and should not be relied on.
Taking a personal locator beacon and/or mountain radio is strongly recommended.
Stewart Island’s weather is extremely changeable and difficult to predict. Strong winds, hail and heavy rain can occur at any time of the year. Snow can occur above the bush line on any part of the Northwest Circuit, including side trips.
Check the Rakiura National Park weather forecast – NIWA website.
Earthquakes and associated tsunamis are a possibility.
Obtain an up-to-date weather forecast before starting the track and be well equipped for extreme weather conditions. Remember, exposure and hypothermia can affect anyone and can kill.
Huts and hut tickets
None of the huts have gas cooking facilities, lighting, power or toilet paper.
All backcountry huts on the Southern and North West Circuit Tracks require Backcountry Hut Tickets or an Backcountry Hut Pass. Read more about Backcountry Hut Tickets and Passes
Trampers planning on staying at any of the Great Walk huts and campsites (Port William Hut/Campsite, North Arm Hut/Campsite and Maori Beach Campsite) while walking the North West Circuit Track must make a booking prior to departure.
What to take
The following gear is essential, no matter how warm it is on the day of departure. Remember to pack everything in your pack inside a plastic pack liner to keep it dry, especially your sleeping bag and clothes.
Stewart Island lies to the south of New Zealand's South Island, a one-hour ferry ride from Bluff or 20 minutes by plane from Invercargill. It is New Zealand’s third largest island and home to Rakiura National Park.
The island’s only settlement, in Halfmoon Bay, has a general store, postal agency, DOC Visitor Centre and a range of accommodation options. There one ATM on the island, which is only accessible during shop hours and does not accept foreign credit cards. Most operators accept Eftpos, Visa and Mastercard.
Forest and dunes
The forest on the Northwest and Southern circuits is a mixture of rimu, kamahi, rata and miro. At its 300m upper limit hardy manuka and low-growing sub-alpine shrubs are more dominant. Near exposed shores the forest merges with a belt of wind-pruned coastal scrub.
On some west coast beaches sand has been blown inland to form some of the most significant dune systems in New Zealand.
In the Freshwater and Rakeahua river valleys the low-lying wind-swept land is too wet to support forest. Here you will find predominantly heath and bog flora and fauna.
Stewart Island's birdlife is relatively rich compared to mainland New Zealand. Around the coast sooty shearwaters or muttonbird/titi, gulls/karoro, mollymawks/toroa, cape pigeons/titore and little blue penguins/karora are common. Yellow-eyed penguins/hoiho and Fiordland crested penguins/tawaki may also be seen.
In the forest, trampers are likely to see bellbirds/korimako, tui, fantails/piwakawaka, parakeets/kakariki, shining cuckoos/pipiwhatauroa, wood pigeons/keruru, grey warblers/riroriro, kaka, tomtits/miromiro and robins/toutouwai. Stewart Island kiwi are relatively common and are unique in that they can at times be seen during the day.
New Zealand sea lion/pakake or whakahao:
The world’s rarest sea lion can often be found resting on the beaches. These large mammals can move surprisingly fast on land when disturbed, so be sure to keep at least 20 metres away.
Mason Bay and Freshwater River wetland
Mason Bay is the site of a nationally important sand dune system, these days carefully managed to minimise introduced plants.
It was the site of the island's last major farm at Island Hill. Farming began here in 1879 and continued until 1987. Now a historic site, the homestead was built in 1884 by William Walker. In 1930 the government built a road from the Freshwater River to Mason Bay.
For those not wanting to undertake the multi-day tramp, it is possible to fly in to Mason Bay beach (tide dependent) and then walk through to the Freshwater River. The walk is mostly flat, through tussock and mānuka, with boardwalks over the extensive wetlands. A water taxi pick-up from Freshwater Landing back to Oban can be arranged before you set off.