Comedy musician Wilson Dixon (aka Jesse Griffin or vice versa) does a clever skit on the names of New Zealand’s main Islands, and how they came about.
Strumming his guitar at a show in NZ… he says
“you guys are pretty laid back, it’s reflected in the way you named your islands”
‘hey, what shall we call this island we’re on here’
“this one that’s kinda north of things?”
“um, north island?”
‘that’s pretty good, what about that one that’s south of here?’
“going out on a limb here … how about the south island?
‘that’s good too’
“what about the one that’s south of the south island, the little one”
‘dam, can we use south again?’
“nah, don’t think so … hey Stuart, you got any ideas?”
Stewart Island, most would agree, if not New Zealand’s most difficult sea kayak trip, it is certainly the most iconic. I guess much like Mount Cook is for mountaineers.
I’m an ocean paddler, I can’t deny that, I’ve paddled thousands of kilometres on sea all over the world and clocked up significant trips in many of the exposed coasts of New Zealand, both North and South Islands, including 7-Cook Strait crossings.
I’ve tried to paddle around ol’ Stewy twice before, 1992 and 2010. Both times bad weather squashed the attempts, the first time we couldn’t even get out of Oban, so we resorted to a full exploration of Paterson Inlet. The second time we got halfway around, to the South Capes, then the weather hit hard and we were grounded, stuck for 10-days, ran out of food and resorted to accepting a lift from a cray boat returning to Bluff. The deal sealer was when the skipper said he wouldn’t be back for another 10-days because of the weather. My paddling partner on that trip was Tony Bateup from Golden Bay Kayaks. It’d be fair to say we’d been spanked by the Island. We went there with the aim of a circumnavigation and we didn’t get the prize, instead we got to see the weather at it’s most ravage and fierce fury. We certainly came away with an increased respect for the place, an island sitting unprotected from the Roaring Forties, the whipping westerly wind belt.
But we vowed to return. This time Tony and I were joined by Perry Turner, all of us from the top of the south. We don’t have the luxury of waiting for the perfect weather, we all lead busy lives, like everyone else I guess. So we set the dates well in advance and simply hoped somewhere over that time we’d get a window to complete the trip, around the island.
As the departure date arrived, we studied the weather maps, various websites and gathered all sorts of information. It’s quite incredible how different the forecasting can be between rival forecasters, but what we looked for was patterns and trends, and from that made our own conclusions, based on data rather than hope.
What resulted was that we believed there was a 4 to 5-day window suitable for a circumnavigation, March 17th-21st. The plan was to get on the water on a clam after a storm. There was two fairly settled days before another north west system hit, cutting up the west coast of the island. Tony and I had seen that up close before so we knew what to fear. After two days of north west there was a southerly change, which creates a whole other set of challenges, adding exposure to cold another factor.
On paper, which in this case was a map of the island, our plan was to get off the ferry on the 17th and paddle the north coast, which should be aided by a easterly behind us. Then we had to clear the west coast on the 18th, with a small back stop being we likely had a small window on the 19th to get around the southern capes before the arriving storm. If we managed that, we would be able to tuck in under the land along the south east coast and we’d have two days to paddle that before the southerly arrived, which was forecast to be in for a week or so, cold and windy.
It was possible, but it felt like we were running the gauntlet, to borrow a phrase.
The plan relied on no surprises in the forecasting, or if there was changes, we totally relied on them resulting in less severe weather. If the weather turned out to be worse than forecast, then we would be … up Stewart Island without a paddle, something like that.
Tony and I drove down and ferried to the Island. That wasn’t before having a coffee at a local cafe before we committed to the 1000km drive, to be absolutely sure we weren’t embarking on mission impossible. By the time the cups were empty we’d decided we were on our way, game on. Perry flew down and met us in Oban. We quickly packed the boats and launched, on the water by 2:00pm, with the goal of clearing the north coast.
We had food for 10-days in case we got pinned down. Surprisingly, we all commented how easy we fitted all our gear into the storage compartments. Typically on a trip over 7-days it’s difficult to fit everything in, careful and calculated packing is essential, but this time everything went in easy with room to spare. We agreed the difference was taking freeze dried meals instead of regular food. We didn’t have the bulky low calorie food often packed for trips. We figured that paddling big days we could eat 5-freeze dry meals per day each, accompanied with snack food at sea. 5-meals each per day for 10-days, do the math. 50-meals is a huge variety of flavours and choice, we had breakfast options of Banana Porridge, Scrambled Eggs, Creamed Rice. We had hot and cold lunch options, Cous Cous Salad, Bacon Mash, Southern Beans, but we expected to be on land for lunch where we could boil water. Dinners provided a smorgasbord of options, mains and deserts. I took mainly my favourite, Chili Con Carne for main, Mocha Creamed Rice for pudding. Yum.
On the water we made good time, we had a light easterly pushing us and roughly 7-hours of daylight. We wanted to paddle as far as we could, figuring we could get in the vicinity of Codfish Island, about 50km away. We were prepared to go further if conditions on the West Coast were mint, but we were mindful there was no moon, so it was going to be a dark night.
It was a glorious afternoon, it’s a stunning trip along the coast, the bush, the beaches and the Anglem peaks to stare up at. We enjoyed a quick stretch and snack break at Lucky Beach, putting some extra layers on and getting our nights lights set up and accessible. It was hard to keep pushing on as there were so many amazing campsites, but we didn’t have the luxury if we wanted to get all the way around.
We were averaging 7km/ph and the tidal flow was against us but we knew we wouldn’t get far beyond the Rugged Islands for the night. At best, Waituna Bay would be our camp, but as darkness fell, we went through Inner Passage to find a big lazy south west swell rolling in. We sat off West Ruggedy beach trying to determine the size of the waves crashing in, in poor light, we couldn’t tell if the waves dumping onto the beach were 1-metre or 4-metres, it felt very risky to attempt to land when we couldn’t see much, plus we’d have the issue of getting off the beach again in the morning. A quick scan of the map showed numerous awash rocks on the way to Waituna Bay so that didn’t seem smart either. We back tracked to East Ruggedy, which was the best decision. It was calm, there was fresh water, cool campsites in the dunes and kiwis calling at night. We didn’t have the stress of a surf break out after breakfast either. 54km on the GPS, nice one boys. Somewhat coincidentally, East Ruggedy was were Tony and I camped on our previous trip.
Awake at 6:00am we huddled in darkness in the dunes sipping coffees and eating brekkie. The atmosphere in camp excitement and nervousness, today was a significant day, could we clear the West Coast. Our ultimate goal was Broad Bay, 85km away. In theory, the distance wasn’t an issue, we had plenty of day light, but what would the weather do to us.
The first 10km ticked along nicely, then we opted to cross Mason Bay out wide, taking a beeline to South Red Head, which put us about 10km offshore at one stage. The next 30km the brakes came on as we hit a tidal stream on the bow. Our speed reduced to a heart breaking 3-4km/ph. It was a tedious stretch and the day was ticking by faster than we wanted. Adding to the sore butts was thirsty mouths, because of the long stint at sea, we’d run out of drinking water, and we didn’t feel like we had time to divert off course to land to refill, we wanted to stay on our transit south and stop at Kundy Island, which we did on our previous trip also.
Kundy Island was home to a mutton birder, who yelled from the cliff top something we couldn’t understand. It was most likely a warning about the aggressive sea lion that guarded the beach we were about to land on. We landed at the next beach and had an entertaining conversation with the local resident who suggested we didn’t take any chances with the sea lion, who clearly had a reputation. He did tell us to call in and see Alistair at the next island, but it was a detour so we chose dehydration instead. So with parched mouths we started paddling again. We were forced to do some calculations. We wanted to get around South West Cape at least, that would provide some shelter from the north wester if it came in early. If time and conditions allowed then we’d attempt South Cape as well, but we knew there was risks in that idea as it’d mean going into Broad Bay in darkness. The other and more sensible option was to stay the night at Flour Cask Bay, which had the added bonus of an earlier finish and daylight to set up camp.
As we paddled between Big South Cape Island the tidal race was, well, it was racing. Our speed reduced again but we knew we’d make it to Flour Cask, possibly further. As we rounded South West Cape we got into fascinating seas where tidal flow met ocean swells, it was big glassy waves combined with a river flowing through. We opted for Flour Cask, confident we would get around the South Cape proper in the morning.
We didn’t have high hopes of finding a decent campsite in Flour Cask so we were stoked to tuck in behind the peninsula and find a sheltered beach with fresh water, and three sea lions, after all, it wouldn’t be a beach without a sea lion would it.
It was a clear night with no wind so we built a fire and enjoyed some food, recapping on the 12-hour trip down from the north, 75km in the arms.
Fatigue sent us to bed early and the knowledge we had another big day ahead. The north west could be a factor and we had two days to round East Cape before the southerly hit.
After deep sleep and an enjoyable breakfast in a truly awesome location, we launched and got our teeth into rounding South Cape, the sunrise was surreal, magical. We had the tide with us for a change. It was a treat to be able to stay close to land after the previous day where we had spent hours off shore. We stopped at Ernest Island for an early lunch, which involved serious negotiations with a seal lion who didn’t understand the concept of sharing. Rain and wind was building and we could see white capes in Port Pegasus, the storm was brewing. We braced for an action packed afternoon.
We played it safe staying close to shore and by the time we reached Seal Point the wind had abated, it felt like the storm had passed, rapidly. Our plan was to paddle until six then look for a campsite.
As we approached the Breaksea Islands it was clear we’d be in Port Adventure for the night, joking to soon we’d have an early finish. Shelter Point had the last laugh, we encountered big tidal races and a south east swell, so it was all action for a stint to get into the Port. We finally landed at Kaika, clocking up another 70km. Golden sand beach, lush forest, bird song, the place is very special.
Back on land it was dry clothes, fire and food. We had just under 30km to go to complete the trip, and it did really feel that nothing could stop us now. We slept well. The final day we cruised up the coast, around East Cape and into Oban, pulling in just before midday.
As you can appreciate, we were very happy. We’d made it, we were safe, we’d worked hard, we’d been gifted with spectacular wilderness and coast.
Unpacking our boats it didn't feel like we had any less gear than when we started, we could have lived comfortably on the Island for 10-days, but we’d only taken 3-days (2 x half days and 2 x full days). We did have a spare day up our sleeve but we’d opted not to risk it. We didn’t want to get stuck again.
The positive side of doing such a quick trip, is that we agreed we’d be back, with more time and a better forecast, but with the same menu.
Story by Nathan Fa’avae
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