Stewart Island has been on my would love to do someday list for many years. In October 2020, we travelled to the northwesternmost point of New Zealand at Cape Reinga together, and now we were at (almost) the southernmost point. Oban IS actually the southernmost settlement of New Zealand, though Slope Point in the Catlins is the southernmost point of the South Island. It gets rather complex with a myriad of offshore Islands. If you’re interested, check all the points out here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_extreme_points_of_New_Zealand
The Stewart Island website describes the island as: “... a glimpse into a simpler, slower lifestyle, in rhythm with the sea and the tides, attuned to the natural world of bush and beach.” That is undoubtedly true. It holds ‘dark sky sanctuary’ status, due to its distance from any major city. Its remote location means there’s hardly any light pollution. Stars appear in abundance, and you can sometimes spot the Aurora Australis (the Southern Lights) from here, one of five locations in the South Island.
We adored this magical part of the world, and hope the next four blog post will showcase for you some of the reasons why it’s so special. The sense of community spirit, togetherness and belonging was a joy to witness. Check out their March 2020 Newsletter – https://www.stewartislandnews.com/uploads/5/3/5/0/53500577/mar2020.pdf
A Snippet Of History And Current News
Stewart Island is named after William Stewart, from Australia, who charted the southern coasts in 1809. However, it had already been named centuries before:
“Te Punga o Te Waka a Maui, the original Maori name, positions Stewart Island firmly at the heart of Maori mythology. Translated as “The Anchor Stone of Maui’s Canoe”, it refers to the part played by this Island in the legend of Maui and his crew, who from their canoe (the South Island) caught and raised the great fish, (the North Island).
The more commonly known and used name however is Rakiura. Translated as “The great and deep blushing of Te Rakitamau” an early Maori Chief, seen today as the glowing sunrises, sunsets and the Aurora Australis or Southern Lights.”https://www.stewartisland.co.nz/history-and-naming-of-stewart-island/
There’ll be more about the anchor-stone analogy in the Rakiura Track posts to come.
On the evening of 27th February, we received another alarm via our phones that New Zealand was changing COVID alert levels. We’d be moving back to Level 2 from Sunday 28th February for a week. It was a little unnerving knowing we’d be out of signal on the walk from Monday afternoon.
Stewart Island Accomodation
With a resident population of just over 400, there’s not a huge amount of accommodation available on Stewart Island; you need to book in advance to be sure of getting somewhere. However, there’s a variety of options, including budget, hosted, hotel and motel, lodges and self-catering listed.
Our choice was the budget option of Stewart Island Backpackers – and it was fantastic. We had two nights before our Great Walk on the Rakiura Track, and two nights following it. We booked a double room and each one was comfortable, heated, and clean. Shared toilets and showers weren’t an issue – we were just thankful for hot showers and a flushing loo! There were washing machines and dryers, and change to pay for them if you needed it from reception. We even hired a clean towel each when we got back from the walk, as our travel towels were rather ghastly by then. A free pool table in the lounge/dining/kitchen was wonderful, along with a guitar for anyone to play should they desire. And best of all, free WIFI. The signal wasn’t terribly strong, but it was good enough.
Just outside the accommodation were the biggest lilies I’ve ever seen. I suspect we got them right at the end of their current glory, but they were still magnificent.
A Local’s Tail
Our first excursion was a walk around Oban, and watching a 40-minute film called ‘A Local’s Tail‘. Shown between October and April, Friday to Monday only, the amusing tale follows Lola, a local’s dog, who graces the audience with her presence following the show. On his NZ tour of 2015, Prince William watched the show and had his photo taken with Lola – so I did too!
You get to see a glimpse of life as a Stewart Islander during the film, local characters, early pioneer history and fishing boats, all through the eyes of Lola. It’s very well done and I’d recommend it as a good introduction to the Island.
Our First Attempts At Kiwi Spotting
One of my ambitions (is that the right word?) of a visit to Stewart Island, was to finally see kiwis in the wild. Not the people who are affectionately known as kiwis of course, but the unique and gorgeous national bird. There are a number of different types of kiwi; on Stewart Island, they’re called Tokoeka. Here they’re not necessarily nocturnal as in other places. On the main island it’s said there’s a population of around 10-15,000 and on Ulva Island about 400. Far more kiwi birds than people. There’s so many due to the amazing fact that there are no stoats or weasels on the island. There are sadly feral cats and possums.
I was excited to see a ‘kiwi spotting’ journal at the backpackers, and we decided we’d try the rugby field area a short walk away that night.
We turned right and trotted up the hill to the rugby field just before dusk. As there was nothing to be seen, we found a track at the far end, so we decided to follow that. We were aware quiet was necessary, patience, and a red, not white light. And did all of those things. The sound of kiwis calling was heard not too far from us, we think, and Barry thought he heard something rustling. Sadly though, after an hour and a half of focus, we abandoned our first attempt.
There are 13 short walks on Stewart Island listed – https://www.doc.govt.nz/Documents/parks-and-recreation/tracks-and-walks/southland/stewart-island-rakiura-short-walks-brochure.pdf – we’d just done half of one of these, the Raroa Reserve Track.
A Fascinating Journey To Ulva Island
I booked a couple of excursions with Stewart Island Experiences when I booked our ferry crossing. The first was a boat trip to Ulva Island on Sunday 28th February. Anyone we’d previously met, who’d been to Stewart Island, had regaled heartily about the majesty of this ‘prehistoric’ island.
The boat meandered along Patterson Inlet initially, with a fascinating commentary informing tourists of some local history. On a remote beach sits a small stone house, now known as Ackers Cottage. Lewis Ackers was born to a wealthy American family and decided to break free. He asked to go to sea, and his family expected it to instil some discipline in him. Instead, he eventually got to Stewart Island, loved it, married a local Maori (Mary Pi), and settled with their nine children in a one-roomed stone cottage he built. Apparently, there were bunks five high. How wonderful. The cottage is on the Heritage New Zealand list of historic places (Category I) and has been restored by Heritage New Zealand and the Department of Conservation as an example of an early ‘vernacular’ building.
During the journey the Captain spotted some Toroa/Southern Albatrosses (I think!), so hung around for about ten minutes while they floated past, or swooped and dived. What quirky birds they are! There’s a cartoon character, we think he’s an eagle, but he looks just like these:
On 9th March 2021, a Guardian article was published about a Livestream faceplanting Albatross in NZ that went viral: https ://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/09/albatross-faceplants-to-fame-on-new-zealand-live-stream. It’s rather amusing bless it. They’re not the daintiest of creatures and spend long periods flying.
We saw heaps of Sooty Shearwaters too, but they were too far away and too quick to get any photos. There’s an incredible number of bird species in the area – https://www.stewartisland.co.nz/birds/. The Sooty Shearwater chicks are ‘harvested’ at certain times of the year and eaten as a delicacy called ‘muttonbirds’. Barry has told stories about these, how they smell appalling. But apparently, they taste divine.
“The collecting of muttonbird chicks is one of the few remaining large-scale harvests of any petrel species in the world, and is commonly known as muttonbirding.”
“Rakiura (Stewart Island) Māori, the Māori people of New Zealand’s southernmost region and their descendants, have rights to gather muttonbirds on 36 islands, known as the Tītī Islands, around Stewart Island. They can harvest chicks each year from 1 April to 31 May. Under the Tītī (Muttonbird) Islands Regulations 1978, people can arrive from 15 March to prepare for the season.”
“Muttonbirds are plentiful, and in recorded history Rakiura Māori have never imposed a catch quota. Harvest-management systems on each of the islands are determined by traditional guidelines (kaitiakitanga) or by the muttonbirders who arrive there before 1 April.”https://teara.govt.nz/en/titi-muttonbirding/page-1
Exploring Ulva Iland
The first building you see when arriving at Ulva Island is the old Post office, built in 1872 and used until 1923. The majority of the island is part of the Rakiura National Park, managed by the Department of Conservation as an open sanctuary. The rest, at Post Office Bay, is privately owned. The family who owns the land have built houses that now surround the old post office, and they visit for holidays. They are the only people allowed to stay overnight on the island. Everyone else MUST be off by 8pm each day. Though I have no idea how they police that – apart from counting everyone on the public boats in and back out.
In the late 19th century, an irregular mail boat would arrive at Ulva Island Post Office. It could be every six weeks or more between visits. At that time there were settlements all over Stewart Island and its surrounding islands. Ulva was the most central. Charles and Jesse Traill, who owned the Post Office, would raise a flag from Flagstaff Hill and people would have to row or sail to the island to see if they had mail. It would’ve been quite a social occasion!
Since 1997, Ulva has been predator-free. However, they could still come. Rats and deer can swim. Rats could ‘hitch a ride’ in a backpack and come by boat. Consequently, there are bait stations scattered all over – just in case. Once or twice a year, a specially trained dog is let loose to sniff any out. I was aghast! Surely dogs kill kiwi? Aha, but these ones have had ‘Kiwi aversion training’. Brilliant. “All dogs anywhere in New Zealand should have this“, I exclaimed. I later read that all dogs on Stewart Island are to have the training.
Our knowledgable guide around the island was Ann. I’m guessing she’s lived on Stewart Island all her life, as she told us about fallen trees she’d been watching for over 60 years! Some of the flora and fauna on the island is ONLY found at Ulva, due to the lack of predators such as possum and deer.
The puheretaiko plant, is also found on the nearby Muttonbird Island, and nicknamed ‘muttonbird scrub’. The leaves outer glossy surface protects them from the brutal sea-spray, and their soft underside allows them to absorb the moisture. Until the 1970s, when ‘franking’ became mandatory, locals could legally send these as postcards, with a stamp on, they’re so hardy.
We were surrounded by primeval, almost prehistoric forest. Underfoot was an abundance of ‘umbrella moss’, which we noticed a lot of on the West Coast. There were endless varieties of ferns – though not the famous silver backed ferns. On one of the ferns there are twisted peices of frond, which are actually little pockets, built by the native ‘roller caterpillar‘ to live in while it eats the fronds. It eats the same fern for months, but doesn’t harm the tree. Another one is called the ‘hen and chicken’ fern. This one makes a duplicate of itself, called the ‘chicken’. If it falls with its roots facing downwards it grows on the spot. Most New Zealand ferns reproduce by spores, usually on the underside of fern fronds.
We were entertained by a number of Stewart Island robins, who, when the surface of the ground was scraped with a foot, would hop down close by us and peck away for grubs. We saw wekas and oyster catchers. Saddlebacks in the distance. We think we saw mohua, yellow heads. And although most of the orchids that often proliferate the island have now gone, we spotted a rare, splendid ‘easter orchid’.
What an extraordinary place. Though we enjoyed a brilliant tour, it felt far too rushed. We both felt a need to return at a slower pace. We could’ve just got a faster water taxi to Ulva Island for $20 each return, and had more time to mooch the Island. However, I love to get the history of a place first-hand.
Checking In At DOC
After our trip out, we thought it best to visit the DOC office and enquire how the new Alert Level change to two could affect our plans. The only change was advising physical distancing in the huts. We were told though, that if things changed and went to 3 or higher, we’d all be evacuated off the island. Crikey. That would be interesting! Something we hadn’t bargained for, was the notification that there had been bed bugs reported and seen at the DOC huts. Oh crikey! Ah well, we thought we’d continue to take our chances, having planned this for so long – a small price to pay to be able to experience this magic. We’ll reveal our experiences over the next coupe of blog posts!
Infamous South Sea Hotel Sunday Quiz Night
We’d heard heaps about the South Sea Hotel Sunday night quiz. As the only pub on the island, it has quite a monopoly. We had out tea early, for us, at the Kai Kart, and got to the pub before 5.30pm. I added a salad to our calamari and chips, knowing we’d be lacking in fresh vegetables for the future few days.
The notices had said (and it states on the website) to arrive at 6 pm at the latest to register, for a 6.30 pm start. If you’re reading this and planning to go to one – arrive by 4 pm to get a seat! We struggled, along with many others. However, we managed to get a couple of stools next to the piano, and we were allowed to stay there. Due to the COVID level, all service was by the table, not at the bar. So they named us the ‘piano table’, which became our quiz team name.
It really was fabulous fun. And we didn’t come last as expected. In fact, I think we were around third last, but the other two places and ours had a few others in them. The picture round was nautical flags and their meanings! By a stroke of luck, rather than judgement, we got two correct. In the five answers that link section, we struggled to conclude that the answers revolved around Utes. Flipping heck, we’d have no clue about cars. Neither of us has owned one for eight years now.
The winning team, unsurprisingly, was made up of locals. A maximum of six are allowed in a team – there were just the two of us. The quiz masters had said ordinarily they’d ask if we wanted to join up with another team, but this wasn’t advisable with the COVID level at 2. The Quizmaster, we believe, was the resident Policeman, Stu, and Dave. Very well done both. Thank you for the laughs and brain strain.
The quiz is by donation only, which the boys collect with the answer sheets. How very canny as my Sunderland born grandma would say. We gave $5. Ordinarily I suspect it would be about $1 each in a quiz team? On the night they made $500 for local good causes. Brilliant.
After completing the last of our packing for the impending Rakiura Track Walk, we had a fairly early night. Goodness, how time flies. In New Zealand, that was the arrival of autumn – March 1st.
We checked out after last showers and breakfast, looking bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Well, as good as we get anyway! We knew we’d look rather different when we checked back in again three and a half days later …
The next post will cover days one and two of the Rakiura Track. There’s heaps to tell you! Mostly good …
Through Barry’s Lens
Next is Barry’s slideshow for your delectation. Click on the first image and let the show begin: