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On a recent trip south, Di and I joined up with friends to walk the three day Rakiura Track on Stewart Island at the bottom of New Zealand. This is a roughly triangular route that leaves and returns from Oban, with overnight stops at Port William on the north coast and at North Arm in Paterson Inlet. Despite it being mid-summer, the weather in Bluff where we stayed the night before catching the ferry to Oban was positively polar – only 8 degrees with the wind gusting well over 60 km/hr, and passing bands of heavy showers. Our ferry ride the next day was everything that one might expect in such weather, with the tide running counter to wind and throwing up steep and unpredictable seas. But off we set, trusting our lives to stout southern boatmen, who seemed little perturbed at the prospect of what was to them probably just another day on the Strait.

Arriving at Oban, we changed into wet weather gear, dawdling a little to let our stomachs recover, and then set out to walk to the start of the Rakiura Track, about 4 km distant along the steep winding roads that criss-cross the hills around Oban. For a time, it seem how ever far we walked, the next signpost still said 3 km to the road end – perhaps they had run out of other numbers when they made up their signs! But after a couple more showers, and struggling a little with our unaccustomed loads, we eventually reached the start of the track proper at Lee Bay.

Kingfisher - Little River

Kingfisher – Little River

It was such a relief to get off the sealed road and onto a softer track with a little cover from the occasional rain – and the bush was beautiful with lots of tree- and ground-ferns under the low coastal forest canopy. Our first stop was at Little River, where a low wooden bridge provide passage across its tidal lower reaches. Pausing to ease the loads on our shoulders, I wandered off with camera in hand, and returned to find Di watching a pair of kingfishers diving down to take insects off the beach. Grabbing my little 135 Nikkor, I sat myself down a wee way back from the beach and waited. Although initially put off by my presence, they soon started feeding again and I was able to take several photographs of them while landed on the sand.

Variable Oyster Catcher

Variable oyster catcher – Maori Beach

Moving on we reached Maori Beach with its long expanse of smooth sand. The stiff south-westerly wind was blowing straight into our faces, but we were soon tucked into a sheltered hollow at its western end for our lunch, enjoying the company of a pair of variable oyster catchers sheltered in behind some driftwood, their dark feathers helping them capture the warmth of the sun. The end of lunch marked the beginning of the steepest climb of the day – a short, sharp climb over the headland as the track headed north towards the hut. Perhaps the track had been used as a training school for DOC’s step builders, as neither of us had ever seen a track so liberally endowed with steps. Finally, after a little over three hours after leaving the road end we were there – the Port William hut set back just a little from the coast with tall (introduced) Eucalyptus trees forming a slightly incongruous sheltering screen along its frontage.

After a tidy up of our gear, I could at last see an opportunity for some decent photography time – the receding tide was exposing a smooth expanse of sandy shore along Magnetic Beach, the quaintly named bay that stretches a kilometre or more along the western end of Port William. Grabbing a quick snack and my camera I headed off, the weather now improving with showers only rarely passing over head, and a range of lighting conditions as scattered clouds passed across the sky.

Paradise shelducks - Port Willam

Paradise shelducks

This afternoon proved to be one of the best ‘photography fixes’ of the entire trip – no time pressure, a range of diverse and interesting subjects, and all in surroundings that screamed out “Enjoy!”. I started with a pair of paradise shelducks, unusual birds in that it is the female that is the more brightly coloured – the male’s much more drab colours are sensible given that he alone incubates the eggs laid usually in a hole in a tree. A pair, along with a lone juvenile were feeding along the shoreline, and we played a merry dance to start with, until I realised that continually invading their personal space wasn’t going to work, even with the relatively long 135 mm Nikkor on my OM-D. Walking along the beach beyond them I sat on a rock about four metres up from the waters edge and waited. Ten minutes later I had them unconcernedly feeding and preening so close to me that they filled the frame – I got great shots of them stopping to drink from the small stream that flowed down the beach. Leaving them in peace, I wandered off along the beach to its southern end, where a steep headland prevented further progress. I then worked my way slowly back, stopping to photograph, or simply to enjoy the surroundings – further images can be found here.

Stream on sand at Port William

Where small streams flow out of the forest and cross the sandy shore, they create complex patterns, always being rearranged by the tide.

Nothing on the rest of this trip quite approached this afternoon for satisfaction – the forest we walked through on the second day was attractive, but much of it had been cut over; the log-haulers, abandoned in the 1920s were an interesting testament to past, more extractive attitudes to forest management; at North Arm hut on the second night it blew so hard that the inspection port into the roof space lifted out of its frame every time someone opened the door! The final day’s walk out in rain, mostly along muddy old logging tracks, gave a penetratingly damp insight into what life must have been like for those early loggers. At least our trip back across the strait (in even stronger winds!) was moderated by the boat running with the waves. Later we were to hear that there had been an outbreak of summer in the deep south – I’m really not sure whether to believe it or not…

Buller's Mollymawk - Foveaux Strait

Riding the winds behind the ferry, this mollymawk had by far the best ride across the Strait