The Rakiura Track: Hiking New Zealand’s 3rd island

A forest in New Zealand
Elena Valencia/Courtesy

I never thought I’d find myself backpacking around New Zealand, and I definitely never imagined hiking its forgotten third island. But before I knew it, I found myself driving to the bottom of the South Island, with a backpack and food supplies in the back seat, ready to catch the next ferry to Stewart Island. And as my time in the country drew to an end, I couldn’t think of a better way to end my time than on a three-day, 32-kilometer-long hiking trip on an island off of New Zealand’s southern coast.

Day one

After a restless night in the back of my car, I hopped eagerly onto a ferry early the next morning. Just about an hour over the Foveaux Strait was Stewart Island, home to the small town of Oban and Rakiura National Park.

As the boat moved slowly over the rocking sea, Stewart Island began to look exactly like the type of island you get helplessly abandoned on. But as the ferry neared the harbor, this fear disappeared along with the mainland, both now behind me. When the ferry entered the harbor, I stepped onto the dock, my backpack strapped and boots laced. I stood beneath a dark grey sky that loomed over the even darker water of Lee Bay.

And after walking about 3 km down the curvy roads of Oban, I finally stood before the Rakiura Track trailhead. For day one, I would hike about four hours to Port William Hut. The trail weaved in and out of the lush green forest and white sandy beaches. And when I reached my home for the night, I dropped my heavy bag, pulled off my boots and headed straight for the water.

As I walked along the beach that evening, I listened to the steady waves washing in and out and the cheerful birds coming from the thick forest wall that traced the entire island. The sun began to peek out from behind the thick layer of clouds that had remained all day, and suddenly, the forest turned into every shade of green possible. I couldn’t wait to spend another two days on this peaceful island.

New Zealand

Day two

Day two would require my longest hike — 13 km to the other side of the island. I began my hike early, but despite the morning hours, the humidity was already high. Throughout the day, rain showers came and went, but I, fortunately, remained dry because of the thick forest canopy above me.

On day one, my hike followed the sea, constantly reminding me that I was on an island, but on day two, my hike seemed to continue deeper and deeper into this untouched forest. I temporarily forgot about my proximity to the water. I passed over wooden bridges that rose above small forest streams and climbed up and down forest slopes, all while the birds continued to sing. It was impossible not to appreciate this ecosystem and the fact that it had looked the very same thousands of years ago.

When I reached the North Arm Hut, my new home for the night, the rain beat down. I could do nothing but remain under the hut roof, listening to the sound of the rain dripping from the trees above me. A few hours later, the rain ceased, and I walked down to the beach, now standing on the eastern side of the island. While it rained, the island had grown silent, devoid of any other sound besides the raindrops. But when I walked down onto the beach, the island once again grew loud with the sounds of the singing birds surrounding me.

New Zealand

Day three

On my final day on the island, I woke up before the sun. Knowing that Stewart Island was one of the best places to see New Zealand’s native kiwi and having not seen this famous flightless bird since I had arrived, I was determined to find one in its most natural habitat. Walking up and down the dark trail, as quiet as possible, I listened for any movement, freezing for even the slightest sound. Although I never officially saw a kiwi, it was impossible not to appreciate the beauty of this morning. As the sun began to rise, so did the birds, their song growing louder as the sky grew brighter.

When the sun had fully risen, I knew it was time to pack up, lace my boots and hurry to catch the last ferry leaving Oban. After arriving back on the South Island that night, I flipped through a brochure that a park ranger had handed me before I had begun the hike. I read that “Rakiura” meant “the land of the glowing skies.” And although I never saw the stars in the rainy night skies and the rumored southern lights from the beach, I felt like I had experienced the Stewart Island glow in other ways.

And when I went to sleep that night, now far away from New Zealand’s forgotten third island, I noticed how quiet it was. There is truly no other place where the singing birds could make even the night sky glow.

A forest in New Zealand

Contact Emily Denny at [email protected].