Access to Stewart Island/Rakiura is by regular air flights from Invercargill or a ferry service from Bluff.
Halfmoon Bay, the island's only settlement, is serviced with a general store, Department of Conservation visitor centre, and a variety of accommodation including hotel, motel, lodge, and backpacker accommodation.
Although the Rakiura Track is a 29 km tramping track, suitable for anyone with moderate fitness, it is a total of 36 km for the entire circuit, including road walking. It takes three days and provides a good introduction to the scenery of Stewart Island. It is suitable for tramping all year round.
The track takes its name from one of the Maori names for Stewart Island. Rakiura means land of the glowing skies, perhaps because of the spectacular sunsets seen there. In Maori legend the island is referred to as Te Punga O Te Waka A Maui: the anchor stone of Maui's canoe, used while he fished up a great flat fish, now called the North Island. It was also known to Waitaha Maori as Moutere Nui (big island).
Hunting camps or kaika were established at many coastal sites, including Port William/Potirepo and Freshwater River, and were reached by outrigger canoe.
The island takes its current name from William Stewart, an officer of the sealing vessel the Pegasus, who compiled the first detailed chart of the southern coast.
Despite brief attempts at settlement at Port Pegasus/Pikihatiti, much of the island's history has focused around the Rakiura Track area.
Port William was the site of the early Maori settlement of Pa Whakataka. Its sheltered harbour was utilised in the early sealing days of 1809-1811 and as a whaling base in the 1850s. In 1867 gold was found on the beach but prospecting proved unsuccessful. It served as a base for fishing after a deep-water oyster bed was found off the coast in 1868. In 1872 the government subsidized the settlement of the area by Shetland Islanders, who were encouraged to utilise the timber and develop the fisheries. The settlement was a failure, however, and the bay's gum trees are the only remnant.
The sheltered waters of Paterson Inlet/Whaka a Te Wera were utilized early in the 19th century by whaling boats, but large scale industry only began in 1861 with the opening of the first sawmills at Kaipipi.
Around the turn of the century Ulva Island became the hub of the community through its post office.
In the 1920s and 1930s chaser boats were serviced at the Norwegian Whaling Company's repair base in Prices Inlet in preparation for the Antarctic summer.
Today all of the island's 390 permanent residents live in the few bays around Halfmoon Bay. Fishing, marine farming and tourism are the main industries of Stewart Island.
Stewart Island is remarkable for its complete cover of natural vegetation - from the sea to cloudy, windswept summits. The highest mountain of the island, Mt. Anglem/Hananui, reaches 980m and is visible from the section of track along the open coast.
The Rakiura Track, however, does not involve travel above the bushline. It traverses mainly rimu and kamahi forest with a rich diversity of treeferns, ground ferns and perching orchids. Rata becomes more common at higher altitudes.
Paterson Inlet is the island's largest harbour, extending 16 kilometres from the open sea and containing 20 islands. Because of the unbroken vegetation the inlet's waters are remarkably sediment-free.
Stewart Island's birdlife is unusually prolific. Around the coast watch for muttonbirds (sooty shearwaters), shags, Buller's mollymawks, cape pigeons and little blue penguins.
In the forest bellbirds, tui, fantails, parakeets, shining cuckoos and wood pigeons can be observed. Trampers could also see and hear grey warblers, kaka and tomtits.
The tidal flats of Paterson Inlet host a variety of wading birds including the New Zealand dotterel, oyster catchers, herons and godwits.
The forest has been modified through the browsing of whitetail deer, red deer and possums. Cats and three varieties of rats have taken their toll on some native bird species.
From Port William and North Arm, tracks continue on to form the North West Circuit, requiring 10-12 days to complete. Conditions on these tracks can be rougher than those encountered on the Rakiura Track. Hut tickets should be purchased before leaving Halfmoon Bay. For further information refer to North West Circuit Track brochure.
Sea kayaks and water taxis are available for hire on Stewart Island and can be used for access to Rakiura Track huts.
Stewart Island waters are changeable and should be treated with the utmost respect.
Rainfall on Stewart Island, although not high (1500 - 1800 mm per year), is frequent, falling on about 275 days of the year. So good waterproof clothing is a necessity. Island weather is changeable, often mixing sunshine and rain in the space of an hour. Carry layers of woollen or fibrepile clothing for warmth.
Track surfaces are varied and involve long sections of board walk. Solid footwear is necessary.
Take food to last the full journey and a portable stove.
Plan properly for your trip and make sure your party has someone with knowledge of bushcraft and survival skills. Do not forget your sandfly repellent.
Sign the intentions form at the DOC office, fill in the hut books on the tramp and don't forget to sign out at the DOC office on your return.
Stick to the tracks. Off the tracks the valleys are steep-sided and densely bush-clad. If you become lost - stop, find shelter, stay calm, and try to assist searchers.
The Rakiura Track can be comfortably tramped in three days.
The circuit follows the open coast, climbs over a 300 metre high forested ridge, and traverses the sheltered shores of Paterson Inlet. It passes sites of historical interest and introduces many of the common sea and forest birds of the island. Parts of it cross Maori land and access is courtesy of the owners.
The track is suitable for walking in either direction.
Halfmoon Bay to Port William Hut, 12 km, 4 hr - 5 hr
From the DOC Visitor Centre turn right towards the waterfront and follow the road over a series of hills to Horseshoe Bay, then on to Lee Bay.
From the entrance sign at Lee Bay the track follows above the coast to Little River and Maori Beach. This was a well worn route when Maori Beach supported two sawmills and a school around 1920. A rusting steam boiler lies just off the track at the southern end of the bay, a relic of these times. A campsite, toilet and shelter are sited at the beach.
At the northern end of Maori Beach a tidal stream is spanned by a swingbridge. The track then climbs a small hill and meets the track to North Arm. Continue straight on to reach the Port William hut and campsite. At low tide trampers can follow the beach.
Port William Hut to North Arm Hut, 12 km, 6 hr
This section of track starts on the hill between Maori Beach and Port William. Trampers usually stay the night at Port William hut and then backtrack the 45 minutes to the turn-off.
The climb to the summit ridge passes through an interesting sequence of vegetation: previously-milled and virgin podocarp forest to rata and inaka dominated subalpine scrub. A lookout tower on the summit ridge provides great views of Paterson Inlet and beyond to the Tin Range. The track descends to the North Arm hut sited on the shore of the inlet.
North Arm Hut to Halfmoon Bay, 12 km, 4 hr - 5 hr
This section of track provides trampers access to the shores of Paterson Inlet.
A campsite, shelter and toilet is sited at Sawdust Bay, a sawmill site between 1914 and 1918. The track continues through rimu and kamahi dominated forest emerging at the sheltered bays of Kidney Fern Arm and Kaipipi Bay. At Kaipipi Bay two sawmills employed more than 100 people in the 1860s.
The track between Kaipipi and Halfmoon Bay follows the former Kaipipi Road, in its heyday the most used and best maintained on the island.
Port William and North Arm huts have sleeping spaces for 30 trampers. These are claimed on a first come, first served basis. There is a limit of two consecutive nights in any hut.
Huts are supplied with mattresses, wood burning stoves for heating, running water and toilet facilities. Trampers should carry a portable stove.
Users are expected to leave the huts clean and tidy.
Camping is permitted only at the designated campsites at Maori Beach, Port William and Sawdust Bay. They are serviced with shelters, water supply and toilets.
The Rakiura Track is one of New Zealand's Great Walks. Trampers are required to purchase a date-stamped Great Walks hut or campsite pass before their journey. Conservation staff may be on the track and will impose a surcharge on trampers using accommodation facilities without a Great Walks pass. The pass must be displayed on packs at all times.
Passes are available at the Department of Conservation Visitor Centre in Halfmoon Bay and the Invercargill DOC office, State Insurance Building, Don Street.
Annual hut passes or hut tickets are not valid for the Rakiura Track huts and campsites.