Tara mulvany


Beneath the Glowing Skies - 5 weeks paddling around Stewart Island

Posted by Tara Mulvany on January 14, 2014 at 6:50 PM

Warning: this is a long post. 

Deep in the Roaring Forties lies a lonely island. It's known as Rakiura, the land of the glowing skies. In 1770, on Captain Cooks first visit to southern New Zealand on board the Endeavour, he mistakingly thought the island was connected to the South Island. He named it South Cape - probably the biggest error on the first map charted of New Zealand. For a long time, a circumnavigation of Stewart Island had been at the back of my mind. When Sim and I set off in May 2012 to paddle around the South Island, we had intended to boost around Rakiura as well. But at the time we’d underestimated the enormity of the task ahead of us, and it wasn’t long before we decided to focus solely on the South Island. A good thing really, as who wants to paddle quickly around such an amazing place?

I had been working in Australia and my life was dull and boring. It was time to do something fun. So several days after returning to the Land of the Long White Cloud, I was busy packing my gear for an escape into the wilderness. Two friends, Abi and Eve - both kayak guides in Fiordland, would be joining me for the first week or so, before they’d turn around and paddle back to Oban. From there on, I would be alone. Nearing the day of our departure from Bluff I was faced with the tough decision - to either catch the ferry across to the Island, or to wait for the weather window that I would need in order to paddle across Foveaux Strait. As much as I wanted to paddle the Strait, I also didn’t want to waste valuable days when I could have been paddling with friends. So the ferry won over my desire to paddle across, and on a grey windy morning on the 2nd of November we stood on the beach in Oban, beside our kayaks and a small mountain of gear.

A crowd of about 50 people milled around near the beach, but it turned out they hadn’t come out to see us off. They had instead gathered to watch the Stewart Island Man competition and we had interrupted their manly activities. We were asked to move from the beach. A few fishermen walked past. "Where are you going?" They asked. After explaining our plans they wished us luck with skepticism and carried on their way. I secretly hoped I would bump into them on the ocean further south on a rough day. Maybe then they wouldn't be such doubters.

With our kayaks fully loaded we paddled around the corner and into Pattersons Inlet. The wind was gusting and strong and we fought for every kilometre as we headed west. We slept that night in an open shelter at Millars Beach - an old Norwegian whaling base. The next morning we paddled towards Freshwater River, which wound it's way inland in twists and turns. Half way up the river we heard a boat approaching and quickly made our way to the side. The water taxi guy stopped and took a photo of us. Apparently we were the first kayakers he'd ever seen up the river. We walked barefoot over to Mason Bay for the night. The place was deserted, not a single tramper in sight. For dinner we ate fresh blue cod fillets, the first of the trip. On the way to the beach to watch the sunset we saw a kiwi, sprinting down the track at full speed. The beach was flat and wide and huge wind blown clouds streaked the dark sky. Surf exploded in lines of foamy whiteness and giant pieces of driftwood lay well clear of the high tide mark. It was an extreme sort of place, as remote as it was beautiful.

We spent a couple of days in the inlet. Abi and I climbed up Mt Rakeahura, it's summit covered in a thick, misty cloud. The track through the forest and then scrub was well formed. We jumped over puddles, occasionally sinking in below our knees, the thick mud oozing between our toes. One night in a hut millions of mosquitos tormented me, buzzing in my ears in the dark. It was too much for me to handle, so after some bitter words I began splattering them all over the walls and roof with a jandal, much to the amusement of Abi and Eve. On a warm and cloudless day we paddled by thousands of jellyfish on our way to Ulva Island. We walked over to the other side of the Island, looking for rare native birds but failing miserably. I'm not known for my ability to walk slowly. We lay on the golden beach soaking in the sun for an hour or two before paddling into Big Glory Cove to find somewhere to camp. On the way Abi spotted a sea lion in the shallows. It was having sexy time with a lady a quarter of his size. Eve and I moved closer, but hurriedly back paddled when it barked and lunged towards us. This was the first of what was to be many encounters with these scary creatures.

The next morning we set off early, piercing the mist as we paddled north around the Neck - a thin piece of land blocking most of the entrance to the inlet. A small swell rolled on the calm sea. We followed close to the coast, just clear of the waves that were breaking on the rocky shore. Seaweed swirled with the current, and a lone mollymawk glided in close and gave us a show. Late morning we cruised into Chew Tobacco Bay, the furtherest south we would paddle together. We caught a feed of blue cod, and spent another lazy afternoon in the sun on the beach. Who would have thought it was possible on Stewart Island? After a feed of crumbed blue cod fillets with fresh lemon, veges and rice, washed down with Eve's treasured bottle of coke, we lit a bonfire on the beach. It was a warming end to a week filled with fun times with friends.

The next morning in the faint light the girls paddled away. I stood on the beach and watched them slowly disappear. An hour later I slid my boat onto the water and paddled south. The sky grew darker and the rain began to fall. I paddled into Port Adventure, in and out of small bays, under a dripping world. Infront of me lay some of the most beautiful white sand beaches I had ever seen. They put the Whitsundays to shame. Soaked and hungry I pulled up at a hunters hut. I lit the pot belly stove and cooked a feed. For three days the winds raged, bringing squalls of rain which pounded on the tin roof. When the fronts finally passed, I made a break for the coast. A group of seals followed me. I was nervous. Sharks like seals and I was in great white shark country. Around the corner I caught a big trumpeter and fastened him under the bungy cords on the front of my kayak. I paddled slowly in the rain, winding in and out of small bays and under overhangs and caves in the rock. Penguins squawked, and the rain belted down. I paddled through a narrow gap between and island, aiming for Lords River, just around the next headland. What I couldn't see from where I was, was the tidal stream ripping through the gap. Waves surged over a couple of shallow rocks and timing it I paddled over them. There was no turning back. On the other side of the gap the wind was strong and gusting and the seas was steep and breaking heavily on the rocks. I paddled hard, facing into the swell and wind, taking the point wide as I slowly moved into the open river mouth. It was only about 600m of paddling, but it was a scary ferry to safety. By the time I reached sheltered waters I had been well and truly soaked. But my fish was still chilling out under the bungy cords. Relief.

A series of strong southerly winds battered the coast for a few days. I paddled way inland on the calm river at high tide, winding in and out of the small bays for a couple of hours. I pulled up at yet another hunters hut. These huts are amazing, especially in November when there wasn't a hunter in sight. The next day the forecast was in the making of Tui ad. Sea slight, variable 10 knots. Yeah right. On a 3m South west swell i paddled to Port Pegasus. It was an exposed 35km stretch of coast, and the big sea forced me away from the stunning coast. The east coast of the Island was the most amazing piece of coast I have ever paddled.. At least Id say it was on par with the Fiordland coast. Slowly the sky cleared and by mid afternoon I arrived into Pegasus. In front of me was a wild landscape, where giant granite boulders lay scatted on hilltops, and the intriguing peaks of Gog and Magog rose above the ocean through the afternoon haze. I was alone in this perfect wilderness.

Over the years, Port Pegasus has been a base for ship building, tin mining and fishing. At one stage in history there was a hotel, a shop and a school. Very little remains to show for these industrial days. That night I read in the hut book, “There is a good track to Magog that starts from here.” Sweet, I thought, I wont have to paddle down Cook Arm to get closer. The next morning I set off. The track wound its way through the forest. It was easy to follow and soon it broke through a thick band of mankua scrub and into the open. From a distance, the open land spanned in all directions looked easy to walk through. Some parts were. It was hard to believe on this perfect blue sky morning that for a majority of the year, this landscape is battered by violent winds. Only the thickest of scrub can live in these harsh conditions. The track quickly disappeared, and I walked along in the sunshine, feeling content. I wouldn’t have been anywhere else. But this feeling didn’t last long. The ankle high scrub slowly grew taller, and I found myself pushing through thick chest height manuka scrub. I pushed on, thinking I’d emerge from the other side, but it only grew denser. I resorted to crawling along the ground under the mankua, pushing my way through the spindly trees, my pack catching on anything and everything possible. Finally, frustrated, I spied daylight ahead through the undergrowth. But I soon discovered that I’d come too far right and I’d hit Cook Arm. I should have just paddled. The thought of retracing my steps was enough to make me check that my drybag pack was securely rolled, before I jumped into the shallow water and swam towards the peaks. The water was surprisingly warm, and with the sun shining down, it really wasn’t that bad. I was innocent to the stories of seven gilled sharks that lurk in these warm and shallow waters, tales that I would later hear. Half an hour later I reached the end of Cook arm and thankfully, found the ‘track’. I followed it for a short while up onto a small ridge, but soon enough it disappeared. I was frustrated and beaten but I pushed on into the scrub. I’ve done a lot of bush bashing in my time but the scrub in Pegasus was by far the wildest I’ve ever encountered. The only saving grace was that most of the time I could see the peaks, so it was easy to navigate my way towards them. All my frustrations were wiped away the second I reached the saddle below Magog. The Titi/Muttonbird Islands spanned across the glassy ocean to the west, and in the barren landscape all around me lay thousands of granite boulders. I was finally here, looking down on the islands that I had dreamt about for a long time.

An hour later, I stood on the summit of Magog, the sun on my face and the rock warm under my feet. This was everything I could have hoped for. After a couple of hours on the summit, I retraced my steps back to the saddle. When the sun disappeared and the light began to fade, I curled up in my sleeping bag under a huge rock. And that is when I heard the noise.

It was a sonic low-pitched booming sound that I had never heard before. For those of you who don’t understand the significance of this, I’ll tell you a little about the Kakapo. The Kakapo is one of the rarest parrots in the world. It’s also the heaviest parrot in the world, is flightless, and comes out at night. The last bird to be found in the wild was up on the Tin Range, not far from where I was camped, in 1997. Since returning from Rakiura I have spoken with the Kakapo Recovery team. I learnt from them some very interesting facts. Firstly, male Kakapo don’t usually start booming until December. And they don’t boom every summer – only every 2-4 years depending on how much food is around. But this summer, it’s a breading summer, which means it’s a time for booming. How do I know this? Because the Kakapo on Codfish Island have just started to boom, around the same time that I was up on Magog – in mid November.

From what I already knew about the Kakapo I assumed that they boomed all night long, and this had left me a little confused. The booming I’d heard had only lasted about half an hour and wasn’t continuous. But apparently they slowly work their way into it, and later on in the season they’ll boom from dusk until dawn trying to attract a lady. Interesting. Curled up under a rock late that night in my sleeping bag, I lay awake, my mind spinning with thoughts. Could I really have heard a kakapo in the wild? What if by chance there is one left on mainland Rakiura?

Surprisingly, the Kakapo Recovery team have taken me seriously, and this month – when the kakapo should be booming all night long - they’re going to head up to where I heard the noise and listen. IF there really is a lonely kakapo still out there, and IF they manage to track him down, what does this mean for the future of the kakapo species? Considering that the only other bird that makes a booming noise is a bitten, which lives in a swamp, I'm 99% certain that I heard a kakapo. It's not swampy up on Magog. Call me crazy if you like, but it all seems a bit of a coincidence. After all, it's tiger country down there, in a remote corner of wilderness rarely visited.

I spent more than a week in Pegasus, and on day 14 since I had said goodbye to the girls, I saw another person. It was another kayaker. I was quite shocked to see anyone. And I was quite amused to see him running frantically up the steep track to the hut, closely followed by an angry sea lion. It turned out that Simon had paddled around the whole of NZ in stages, so having a lot in common, we chatted non stop for hours. It was nice to have some company, but the next morning I packed up and paddled towards the Tin Range. I wanted to sleep up there, but in the end I was feeling lazy and the cloud rolling in put me off. As I paddled, a rather large, and angry sea lion chased me for about 3km, constantly slamming into my rudder. He flew out of the water, barking at me and showing me his big white teeth. I wasn't relaxed.

A few days later, with the forecast looking good for a run around South West Cape, I paddled out of Pegasus, bound for Broad Bay, just around the corner. I had underestimated the seriousness of this short stretch along the coast, and soon I was flying forwards at a speed of around 7 kilometres an hour, despite the 15 knot headwind and the two metre south west swell I was paddling into. The swell was short and steep, and the troughs close together. I paddled quickly. I camped on a lonely beach under a full moon, the furthest south I’d ever been before. The only thing that stopped the whole setting from being perfect was a huge sea lion sleeping on a rocky island nearby. I’d snuck past, paddling slowly and quietly and pulled up onto the beach unnoticed. What disturbed me the most though, was the marks in the sand from what looked like a couple of very large sea lions. I was not at ease. But given that I had nowhere else to go, I had set up camp in the grasses above the high tide mark and tried to stay silent.

At 5am the next morning I paddled away in the dim light, heading towards the coast. I was heading towards a place that had lingered in my mind for a long time. My imagination could not do it justice. Waves broke on the coast, throwing sheets of sea spray high into the sky. I kept my distance, slowly working my way south until I was about a kilometre offshore. Here, the waves and the swell were a little more consistant in their movements. The sky was clear, but a thin band of cloud hung in the settled sky. I was still in the shadow of the mountains. The outgoing tide swept me towards South West Cape. The forecast was good; as good as I could have hoped for with only a 2 metre south west swell and variable 10 knots of wind. A rare day at 47 degrees south. But still, it was a powerful place with an immense amount of current whipping past the cape, and lines of huge standing and breaking waves. I paused for a moment, turned my bow south, and paddled as fast as I could towards Antarctica. It wasn’t until I was about three kilometres out to sea that I started to relax. The swell was still huge, and I was still being swept along, but the waves were not so steep and nothing was breaking. Diamonds of sunlight danced on the confused water. Overhead, a couple of sooty shearwaters glided past, their curiosity bringing them closer before they continued on their way into the sunrise. After years of dreaming about this wild and formidable place, I was finally here. I had paddled to the end of Aotearoa and I could paddle no further south. The sea, the land, everything about it was powerful.

Well clear of the cape I turned north and slowly made my way in closer towards the coast. The swell slowly began to drop as I paddled further into the shelter of Big South Cape Island. Waves rolled gently and but my progress was slowed with the turning tide. I'd taken an educated guess at the tide times, calculated by a stick on the beach the evening before. As it turned out I'd probably hit the cape half an hour before low. I'd hate so see that place on a bad day, mid tide. Maybe the conditions were not helped by the full moon? The sky was clear and cloudless, there was no wind and I was still alone. I had only seen one boat in the distance since leaving Port Adventure weeks before. The Titi Islands spanned the ocean to the west, steep sided and covered in thick scrub. I'd wanted to land on them but they are off limits to non Rakiura Maori. The Islands are full of life during the muttonbird harvest in autumn each year, when the fluffy young sooty shearwaters are plucked from their burrows. But on this beautiful day the Islands looked deserted. With strong westerly winds for the next couple of days I decided to keep going and after nearly 12 hours of paddling I landed onto the wide sandy beach at Doughboy Bay. Although the bay is accessible overland, I was still alone. That is apart from the sea lions lazing on the beach in the late afternoon sun. I stripped off, ran and jumped into the warm ocean. I swam along, constantly scanning the water for any sign of sea lions. From what I'd seen of their mating sessions I was 100% sure I didn't want to be a part of it. I wasn't sure what the best self defense technique would be if one did decide to come close.

For three days I stayed in the bay, and for three days I saw no one. It was perfect. Lucky I am a loner. I cranked up the pot belly stove in the hut and baked chocolate cake in my tiny cast iron pot. From Doughboy Bay I paddled for about 55km around the top of the Island. The sea was messy with a southwest and north west swell, and a 15 knot westerly wind. I passed the long sandy beach at Masons bay, keeping well offshore, away from the surf. I camped that night on a huge sandy beach facing towards Foveaux Strait. I spent a few days chilling out, fishing and lying in the sun at Yankee River Hut. I also encountered my first trampers in a very long time. A group of Australian trampers sharing the hut were shocked that I was eating cheese that was a month old. “Its not mouldy! It only smells a bit funky” I told them in defense. How sheltered and conformed are our lives that anything left out of a fridge for more than 12 hours is deemed unhealthy. I resented having shared my blue cod fillets with them the night before, probably the freshest fish they’d ever eaten – 30 minutes from the sea to the pan. You should have seen their looks of disgust when I cooked up some of the left over fillets the next day for lunch. At least a possom trapper named Milton was appreciative of my catch. His eyes had lit up as he watched me empty the fish from my catch bag ready to fillet. I happily traded some fillets for a boiled potato, some cabbage and a boiled venison sausage. It was the first fresh vegetables I’d eaten in a month and it tasted good.

From Christmas Village Hut I climbed up Mt Anglem, and survived a raging hurricane on the summit. Well at least I think it was the summit. All I could think about was how much my toes stung in the cold. I wished I had shoes. When the weather cleared a few days later, I paddled into Oban for the night, completing the loop. I had a feed, stocked up on some veges and fruit, and the next morning set off again, back around the corner. For four days I waited for the winds to drop, and then set off across the strait, aiming for the faint outline of Bluff hill in the distance. It was a glassy crossing, and the swell was tame. Six hours later, after being swept way left, and then back right with the tide, I made my way into Bluff Harbour.

Rakiura had made me feel alive. It brought me closer to nature than I have felt in a long time. I walked on beaches with pure white sand so fine that it squeaked under my feet. I saw the first of the flowers emerge from the flax; a splash of colour marking the arrival of summer. I watched a group of tuis gorging themselves on the nector, and I heard the shreaking calls of the kiwi on countless nights. I paddled by hundreds, if not thousands of squawking little blue and Fiordland crested penguins. I had survived five weeks in sea lion territory and they hadn't eaten me. It was the best trip I had ever done and I was stoked. Rakiura, the land of the glowing skies. What a magical place.

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Reply Max
3:43 PM on January 16, 2014 
Great read Tara. Think you're the fist to kayak around Stewart Island in a clockwise direction - well done!
Reply Jason
3:06 PM on January 15, 2014 
Fantastic read, you really do have an incredible knowledge of what is really important in life and then the ability to effectively put it into words. You seriously need to write a book of your adventures one day.
Reply Matt
5:41 AM on January 15, 2014 
Great post! Enjoyed it