The Northwest Mud Circuit
Stewart Island, New Zealand
By Kelsey Timmerman
New Zealand is a spectacular country to go for a hike, but many of its trails are overly crowded; waiting lists and hordes of hikers have to be dealt with. One trek where the sanctity of solitude is upheld is the Northwest Circuit on Stewart Island, south of the South Island. Few individuals take the time (8-10 days) to walk the Northwest circuit to see and feel the island for what it really is: isolated, rugged, windblown, and…oh yeah, muddy.
While hiking, wet feet seem to lead to a heavy heart and for this reason I was jumping from rock to root to rock avoiding the patches of mud. I am not graceful, and with a thirty-pound pack on my back this was never truer; it was only a matter of time before the inevitable misstep.
On my tiptoes in a sea of mud, my hopes of dry feet sunk, literally, as the branch that I stood upon was slowly swallowed. Facing defeat I found some consolation in recalling the words uttered by a tiny 65-year-old woman, a Northwest circuit veteran at the Department of Conservation office, “It’s not like you are going to fall in the mud and never be seen again. You just have to be mentally and physically prepared for the mud.” I would live. I would live with muddy wet feet for the next week.
MUD – it’s a state of mind.
Hiking through ankle deep mud my spirit dwindled. With each step the mud hissed and sputtered as if alive. M.U.D. = Mushy Underfoot Dirt.
Up to my knee, the mud threatened to retain my shoe for eternity. M.U.D. = Malignant Undeniable Devil.
My leg disappeared. Pulling with my hands and straining at the hip I battled to reclaim my limb. Somehow, managing to wiggle out away from the leg-swallowing mud, I sighed with relief as I stood once again in knee-deep mud. M.U.D. = Malicious Unrelenting Damnation.
Entering the Beach
Much of the time while waging war with the mud I could hear the surf pounding the shore, just out of sight. During the entire circuit the trail meets the beach nine times, making the hike well worth the struggle. With mud grinding in my teeth, in my eye, and covering my body, the trail would climb up the sand dunes and run down to the beach. The violence of the waves threw water up onto the beach face and it was here that I would cleanse the mud from my legs and boots. Beside the emerald sea, beneath the blue sky and cotton ball clouds, winding in out amongst the driftwood I would see my lone set of footprints stretching for miles, and it would be here, shrouded in the salty mist, that I cleansed my spirit.
That is the thing about the Northwest Circuit; it likes to beat you down and then build you back up.
Regularly the trail treats weary hikers to climbs from sea level to 1,000 feet in less than one muddy mile. Step off the trail and risk never finding it again. Amongst the birch and pine trees, plants seem to brandish their spear-like thorns in protest of passers-by. Even plants as unthreatening as ferns take on the persona of monsters as they lock leaves with their neighbors forming a devilish sort of velcro.
“It is very important that we keep downed trees and brush from blocking the trail to keep the lost hikers to a minimum,” said the rangers who were taking a break from clearing the trail when I came upon them. They told me a story: “One morning we were cleaning up a hut and doing some repair work. We said goodbye to a tramper in the morning that we had spent the night with at the hut. At noon we were scarfing down some lunch when who appeared on the porch but the same hiker. ‘Wow you fellas sure do move fast, I never even saw you go around me.’ With a little pleasure we informed him that we had not moved and had been working at the same location all morning. He was halfway into the day’s hike when nature called. Apparently he stepped off of the trail and once having found it again, unknowingly began to backtrack.”
Breaking up the seventy-mile trail are ten huts spaced out from four to ten miles apart, in most cases making for a good day’s hike between huts. Huts have mattresses, outhouses, wood burning stoves, and running water via cisterns that are filled by Stewart Island’s 275 days of rain a year. The majority of the nights there would only be one or two others in the huts and one night I was alone.
The sun neared the horizon and after a nap in my warm, dry sleeping bag, I walked a short distance to the sand dunes overlooking the beach. I had time to kill before the sunset so I kicked off my shoes and played. The sand was cold and my feet became numb as I pumped my legs trying to run up the steep dunes; I would bound down in an avalanche of sand, triggered by each giant step. The sun lit the crest of the waves soft pink and the sky became blood red. The tufts of grass on the sand dunes waved good-bye to the sun in the soft breeze. Sleep came easily with exhaustion and fulfillment.
After hiking on several other treks in New Zealand, the solitude and the ruggedness of the Northwest Circuit was a very rewarding challenge. Come with the proper equipment, enough food, and the right attitude and you will enjoy it. If for no other reason come because, as one local conservation worker put it, “mud builds character.”