Find out about the history and natural features of the North West Circuit on Stewart Island/Rakiura.

Stewart Island

Stewart Island lies to the south of New Zealand's South Island, a one-hour ferry ride from Bluff or 20 minutes by plane from Invercargill. It is New Zealand’s third largest island and home to Rakiura National Park.

The island’s only settlement, in Halfmoon Bay, has a general store, postal agency, DOC Visitor Centre and a range of accommodation options. There one ATM on the island, which is only accessible during shop hours and does not accept foreign credit cards. Most operators accept Eftpos, Visa and Mastercard.

Forest and dunes

The forest on the Northwest and Southern circuits is a mixture of rimu, kamahi, rata and miro. At its 300m upper limit hardy manuka and low-growing sub-alpine shrubs are more dominant. Near exposed shores the forest merges with a belt of wind-pruned coastal scrub.

On some west coast beaches sand has been blown inland to form some of the most significant dune systems in New Zealand.

In the Freshwater and Rakeahua river valleys the low-lying wind-swept land is too wet to support forest. Here you will find predominantly heath and bog flora and fauna.


Stewart Island's birdlife is relatively rich compared to mainland New Zealand. Around the coast sooty shearwaters or muttonbird/titi, gulls/karoro, mollymawks/toroa, cape pigeons/titore and little blue penguins/karora are common. Yellow-eyed penguins/hoiho and Fiordland crested penguins/tawaki may also be seen.

In the forest, trampers are likely to see bellbirds/korimako, tui, fantails/piwakawaka, parakeets/kakariki, shining cuckoos/pipiwhatauroa, wood pigeons/keruru, grey warblers/riroriro, kaka, tomtits/miromiro and robins/toutouwai. Stewart Island kiwi are relatively common and are unique in that they can at times be seen during the day.

Mason Bay and Freshwater River wetland

Mason Bay is the site of a nationally important sand dune system, these days carefully managed to minimise introduced plants.

It was the site of the island's last major farm at Island Hill. Farming began here in 1879 and continued until 1987. Now a historic site, the homestead was built in 1884 by William Walker. In 1930 the government built a road from the Freshwater River to Mason Bay.

For those not wanting to undertake the multi-day tramp, it is possible to fly in to Mason Bay beach (tide dependent) and then walk through to the Freshwater River. The walk is mostly flat, through tussock and mānuka, with boardwalks over the extensive wetlands. A water taxi pick-up from Freshwater Landing back to Oban can be arranged before you set off.

Mason Bay homestead video

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