Burnout. It’s something that nearly everyone I encounter and manage to have some sort of sub-surface conversation with seems to be battling with. Whether mental, physical, emotional, or a combination of all three, the never-ending pressure to succeed in life and give 100% to every single thing is slowly chipping away at us all and, at some point, something’s gotta give. That’s why I went to Stewart Island.  

The opportunity to go to Rakiura arose for me earlier this year, and how could I say no? I’m one of those people who will say yes and dive headfirst into something without having any knowledge or experience beforehand, often accompanied by afterthoughts like, What the f**k have I just gotten myself into…  

But nothing’s learned by staying safe and comfortable at home, and the best way to gain experience is to completely submerge yourself into whatever it is you want to learn. This year, for me, that thing has been hunting. The problem was, I had but a handful of hunts under my belt and the thought of being among other experienced hunters in a place I’d never been filled me with a sense of unease that I’d be letting the team down by being the weakest link – imposter syndrome. Fortunately, what I did have behind me was decades of spending time in the bush, exploring the Aussie outback and four-wheel-driving deep in the heart of the Southern Alps. This vast experience allowed me to feel at ease and confident in my ability to manage myself in the wild; regardless of just how new I was to hunting, I knew had skills that would come in handy in in remote places.

The trip started off with a night at the Invercargill Backpackers, the crew getting well acquainted by sharing an 8-bed dorm and figuring out who did and didn’t snore. The next day the ferry was scheduled to leave around midday, so after a team brekky and a quick stop at the supi to top-up on essentials (someone had discovered last minute that we only had four rolls of toilet paper for the entire group, for the duration of the trip) we made our way to the dock where everything was loaded from our vehicles and very full trailer. The beauty of being dropped right on the doorstep of the Kaika hut meant that there were close to no limitations on what we could take along, not to say that you need to bring everything including the kitchen sink, but on any other expedition carried out on foot, or even in a 4×4, you typically have to be far more conscious about space and weight.  

The ferry took about three hours in some choppy water. Thankfully we all got off scot-free, with no one having to hang their head over the edge of the boat. Bumpy ride aside, watching the albatrosses soaring and skimming over the swell was mesmerising, they effortlessly rode the air just centimetres from the surface of the water. Arriving into the bay was like stepping back into prehistoric times, the shore lined with thick, wild forest and the only proof of human existence being a tiny hut – with the bonus of a vibrant rainbow greeting us too. We offloaded all the gear and people from the ferry by shuttling the dinghy to and from the shoreline, loading the little boat up to its absolute limits. However, regardless of the choppy sea, we were lucky to be completely sheltered in the bay with smooth waters that made getting everything on land easy and straightforward. That afternoon was spent setting up the hut and surrounds for the week ahead, with some of the crew heading out for short walks to check out the flats nearby.

We woke on Sunday morning to the sights and sounds of the ocean lapping at our doorstep and got stuck into planning who was going where in the block so that we were all safely dispersed. The location we chose was a short trip up the coast, so we loaded up the dinghy with our gear and were dropped onto the beach. Immediately we were met with a steep climb up into the forest and had to drop to our hands and knees and clutch at tree roots to get through – half of which were rotten and would come loose from the soil. The top greeted us with terrain completely foreign to me in the sense of hunting. My limited experience had taken me through the wide-open tussock hills of Otago, where you can see for miles ahead of you, yet here we were faced with only being able to see mere metres ahead. Every step had to be slow and deliberate, trying our best to avoid snapping twigs, swiping ferns and being tangled in the thick vines that trailed from all directions. Completely out of my depth, I followed Kieran’s lead as he is far more experienced than I. He was constantly spotting sign and tracks, the frequency of which naively filled my head with the expectation of surely seeing something in the forest ahead. How wrong I was… The day was filled with slow stalking and a lot of sitting and listening until a thud thud thud came bowling through the ferns. Finally, surely, we’d crossed paths with an elusive whitetail! But as the thudding and clambering came nearer, we realised it was a fat and clumsy Kiwi that stumbled right into us. I’ve lived in New Zealand for 15 years now, but I’ve never seen a Kiwi in the wild before – nor in a zoo, now come to think of it. I was absolutely shocked at how big he was, closely followed by what I can only assume was a smaller female. This was certainly an experience that will stick with me for a long time, completely overshadowing the fact that not a single deer was spotted as the dark crept in and we reached the hut again.

Somewhat disheartened by the perceived ‘failure’ of the day not bringing anything back to camp, we quickly learned we weren’t the only ones. A few others from our party had all but spooked one or two of the notorious grey ghosts, instilling a sense of new appreciation and humbleness about just how challenging the hunting was here, and the fact that we were in their territory and under their watch. Fortunately, however, a few of the boys had been out diving and had brought back an abundance of fish and pāua, making up for the rest of us empty-handed hunters. We spent the night enjoying the big feed of seafood and a couple of drinks around the campfire, along with plenty of laughs and stories told.

Without turning this into a day-by-day rendition of the trip, I’ll skip to the part where we packed up and set off in the dinghy for two nights of camping out at the northern end of the block. We figured that we might be more successful if we were nestled right in their territory, waking up deep in the forest. Another steep climb after stepping out of the dinghy brought us to some of the most open territory we’d been in since landing on the island. We scoped out the best spots for setting up camp and hopefully encountering an animal. The sheer volume of fresh sign was slowly becoming more and more frustrating. We stalked, we were quiet, and we sat for hours upon hours watching and waiting without a single hint of a deer in our vicinity. The rain rolled in and delivered another layer of challenge, though any slight sound we may have made while moving would have been muffled by the sound of the raindrops, but that also came with the high likelihood of deer bedding down and sheltering from the downpour.

The stillness and silence in that wild and dense forest allowed space for thinking and reflecting a lot on the burnout that I mentioned earlier. How so much time is spent being consumed by fear and worrying about the future, about the unknowns, yet in the middle of that forest the only concerns that needed attention were our most basic human needs. Though met with my own unknown of what I was getting myself into when I said yes to going to Stewart Island, the importance was in doing something different and stepping out of my comfort zone – a reminder of the fact that once I was back in ‘civilisation’, no growth ever comes from staying within safe, comfortable havens. 

After spending two wet nights in the little hiking tent that my parents had got me for Christmas about eight years ago, we packed up camp as we were being picked up midday to head back to the Kaika hut. A couple of the boys were dropped off where we’d been camped up to see if they could make it further into the northern section of the block, the weather had cleared up and was looking far more promising than what we’d just spent the past few days in.

Back at the hut, we unloaded and got stuck into drying everything off and caught up on what everyone had been getting up to while we had been out. Again, not much luck except for a handful of sightings, so we got stuck into a few games of Monopoly Deal until we could hear the faint sound of the dinghy returning. One of the boys got up to see if they’d come back with anything while the rest of us stayed in the hut, somewhat expecting the familiar reply of “Nah, nothing today.” However, this time the result was a positive one. The cabin erupted out onto the shore to cheer and congratulate Dan on bringing back a whitetail as he carried it up the beach on his shoulders. It was a magnificent little creature, so much smaller than a red deer yet a decent size for a white tail. Dan filled us in on where and how he’d stalked and shot it, about one kilometre from where we’d camped – confirming just how fresh the sign was that we had encountered in that area.

The deer was skinned and butchered for dinner that evening, taking the back straps to be shared amongst the group in celebration of what turned out to be the only deer shot on the trip. Hot tip: the best way to cook a pumpkin is by cutting a hole in the top around the stalk, scooping out the seeds, returning the little ‘lid’ and then chucking the whole thing into the fire (or your oven at home). Leave it for what’ll probably feel like too long, then scoop all of the roasted insides out into a tub and mix in butter, garlic, salt, and pepper. This, alongside the seared backsteaks I cooked on the fire, was a big hit with the group and definitely lifted everyone’s spirits after days and days spent in the forest chasing our own tails.

If you’re after an other-worldly experience immersed deep in a Jurassic-like forest, I highly recommend making the trip down to Stewart Island. Whether you’re a hunter or an outdoor enthusiast, the wild and remote terrain will take your brain out of the woes of modern-day life and serve as a powerful reflect-and-reset, regardless of how many animals you do or don’t spot. All expectation was stripped away during the trip and instilled in me a powerful new appreciation for this untouched environment, and the fact that we were deep in the territory of the native fauna and flora. The best memories are made in beautiful, wild places with good attitudes and great company!