If you’ve never experienced the serenity of New Zealand’s third island, you’re missing a unique treat. Like stepping back in time, you experience a much more magical world. Mother Nature has been left to create her wonders or been diligently supported by a caring community and DOC.
This is the fourth post sharing stories of the wonderful week we enjoyed there at the beginning of March. Initially our first two days on the island, next the high and lows of days one and two of the Rakiura Track one of New Zealand’s Ten Great Walks, and finally, days three and four of the said walk when I got lost! It’s rather comprehensive, sharing knowledge of the island’s uniqueness that we gained. I hope you’ll find it as interesting as we did.
“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. “Stewart Island anchors more than Maui’s canoe.”https://www.stewartisland.co.nz/history-and-naming-of-stewart-island/
Villages & Bays
After a good night’s sleep on Thursday 4th March, we mooched around Halfmoon Bay lazily on Friday morning before our scheduled ‘Village and Bays’ tour with Real Journeys. We’ve had several fantastic experiences with this company recently and thouroughly recommend them.
The trip was in a very comfortable minibus, led by a knowledgeable driver and information giver. I made lots of notes en route, as I found this simple island way of life intriguing.
The only grocery store on the Island is the Four Square, which he described as the ‘community hub’. It’s a pleasant place to shop, very cheery staff and reasonable prices. Open seven days a week from 7 am to 7 pm, the owners don’t add the freight surcharge to their products. Outside there’s a ‘birthday board’ where any residents’ birthdays are written daily. If anyone protests, then their age is also added!
Adjacent to the Four Square is the community notice board, where you find out everything that’s happening (apologies to the lady who was eating an apple in this photo!). Locals have mixed feelings about going to the mainland. They say that the ferry is a hard hour’s journey. Or the plane twenty minutes of terror!! Our guide believed locals get a 25% discount for the ferry or flights.
A rather splendid newly built Museum was opened last year. There’s a photo of it in Barry’s slideshow at the end. He went there after the tour while I went to check out the Jade Factory. The previous museum was close to Stewart Island Backpackers, where we stayed and is now privately owned in the process of being renovated.
The guide said he believes the new owners are opening a cafe here next year.
Churches on Rakiura
I walked up the steep and overgrown path adjacent to the old museum later that day, leaving Barry in the pub! Sadly the Anglican church was closed, though it didn’t explain why. The building is a simple design, with a blue roof – originally the old schoolhouse from ‘the neck‘, a narrow peninsula separating Paterson Inlet/Whaka ā Te Wera from Foveaux Strait. Hence why it doesn’t really look as church-like as you’d imagine.
The other church on the island is Presbyterian, situated across Halfmoon Bay with a red roof. I didn’t make it up there sadly – but you can see it from the front lawn of the Anglican church.
As I said, it’s a very community-based island with a population hovering between 400 to 407. Something immediately noticeable is it’s not a ‘throwaway’ society like much of the world. Things are kept until they fall apart. Machinery is dated. It’s hard to source ‘stuff’. Most of the 600 cars are old but still have to be warranted. Some find their way into the regenerating bush as there’s nowhere for the knackered ones to go! Pete is the main mechanic, and petrol is, as you’d expect, expensive. You wouldn’t need much, though; there are only 27 kilometres of road on the island.
There’s a Medical Centre with two excellent nurses but no doctors, who will see both residents and visitors for no charge. If anyone needs medical attention, they have to be flown off the island. There’s no provision for birthing either; women have to go to the mainland towards the end of pregnancy. I’m guessing the nurses have to do what they can if a woman goes into premature labour, especially if the weather’s bad and flights are cancelled. It would be a fascinating place to work as a nurse.
The school currently has 36 kids and three teachers. They enjoy lots of outdoor activities and even have music lessons through correspondence with a teacher in Kaikoura. Children have to leave after year 8, as the school doesn’t cater for them. However, they can come back and forth to the island free of charge. Most go to boarding school at Invercargill or Dunedin.
Our guide informed us that around 70 island community groups are doing all sorts of helpful or fun things. A large community centre opened debt-free in 1999, whose manager is paid by the muscle farm. They also collect rainwater off their roof and bottle it to be sold as fresh Raikura water.
There’s one local police officer called Stu. Crime though is pretty much zero, and most people leave their houses and cars unlocked. After all, where would you go with stolen goods? Stu mostly works with hunters and search and rescue. He also hosts the Sunday night Quiz at the South Sea Hotel! He works three weeks on, after which a mainland cop comes for a week. He’s the one who checks all the car warrants – so Stu remains the good guy.
Land on Stewart Island can be bought at around $200,000 – but then have to get all you need to build over. House prices around $500-700k. It’s definitely not a cheap place to buy property or build your own.
Three massive diesel generators supply power on the island. The average power bill is 3-4 times the mainland’s price, so moves are afoot to source cheaper power without impacting the environment. This could be using wind generators, which would be a shame. They’ve tried unsuccessfully to harness waves. And they can’t do cable as it would go right through the oyster beds. Many places understandably use solar power.
There’s even a Golf course, but with only six holes. So you play three rounds, and go twice through the clubhouse which makes the final round interesting 😂
Observing The Bays
The best place to overlook Patterson Inlet is Observation Rock. It’s said to be good for seeing the Aurora Australis. Across the Bay (pictured on the right below) stands a large house owned by the Ballantine family. To put it into perspective, the green coloured house below it has three bedrooms and looks tiny in comparison. It’s ‘only’ a holiday house – apparently, their money comes from fishing. What’s more disconcerting is some houses have been bought by overseas tourists who’ve visited only once or twice. How crazy is that?
Tourism is now their biggest income, previously it was fishing. At one time there were 60 commerical fishing vessels; now it’s down to eight or less. Mostly boats are now charted catering for tourists. To be honest, we’re not sure that the lack of overseas tourists has had any affect – the island’s accomodation was full when we were there. New Zealanders finally visiting the treasures of their own country.
At one bay we saw a number of boat sheds – again you’ll find photos of them in Barry’s slideshow. These can’t be built anymore. No-one is allowed to sleep in them, but can sleep in your boat! What nonsense. These sheds can sell for around $2-300,000. Crikey.
Oysters & Muttonbirds
The annual oyster season begins on 1st March. Sadly there’s recently been a parasite called bonamic ostreae found in three oysters from a bed that hadn’t been fished for five years. So a rahui or no catch has been placed in that area. It’s only a small area and it’s reported the parasite wouldn’t be harmful to humans, and there’s still plenty of places to fish for them so supply won’t run out.
The other significant season is the muttonbirding season, occurring between 1st April to end of May. Eighteen of the 36 muttonbird islands were handed down mostly to Rakiura Maori. Muttonbirds have a taste that’s described as a combination of duck and anchovy. The land at The Neck is Maori owned and has never been owned by the crown. It’s the only land in NZ to have this accolade. Read more about this fascinating piece of New Zealand – http://nzbirdsonline.org.nz/species/sooty-shearwater
Averting And Embracing Kiwis
All dogs living on the island or regular visitors must go through kiwi aversion therapy. They place kiwi pooh on a track that is irresistible to the dog – but every time they get close to it they receive a sharp bolt. Dogs subsequently shake with fear if they smell a kiwi in the garden. They get the pleasure of a refresher course every 7-9 months. How fantastic. I think ALL dogs in New Zealand should have to undertake this. In 1987 near Waitangi in Northland, a dog was on the loose for four weeks. During that time it killed 500 kiwis!
Residents are allowed to keep cats as pets, but it’s recommended they’re neutered, collared and chipped to prevent more feral cats straying into the bush.
Another stunning place to visit is called Mamaku Point, near Lee Bay at the start of the Rakiura Track. Here they’ve put in a predator-proof fence and can now boast over 127 native species thriving there. If we go back, I’ll definitely investigate visiting here.
Spotting Kiwi At Last
My last resort was always intended to be a paid kiwi encounter. I hoped not to have to! But needs must. I got the last slot on the Friday night tour with Beaks and Feathers and joined another 17 eager spotters. Barry wasn’t bothered, luckily, as it cost $100. What an excellent experience with incredibly informative guides who clearly cared deeply about these magnificent birds.
They take visitors to the airstrip and are the only people to get access. The kiwis burrow in the bush then come out in the evening to find food. Stewart Island kiwi is a brown kiwi subspecies and the largest and most plentiful kiwi here of all NZ with 15-18,000 kiwis. About a third of the entire kiwi population. There’s no stoats or ferrets here, ‘only’ feral cats, possums and rats.
The female is the largest, weighing around 3.5 kg, males are about 3kg. The female has one egg per clutch, annually weighing about 20% of her body size! Oh my goodness. Imagine giving birth to that? In a good year with heaps of food, they may have another. These kiwis lay fewer eggs than others, but they’re far better parents. The parents share the incubation, taking it in turns. Amazingly, last years chick also takes a turn. Once the chick is born, it eats the last of its egg yolk for few days. It is born fully developed and is then totally independent.
At the time we visited, the kiwi around the airfield had been breeding. They’d seen a tiny kiwi the night before and said it was very cute. The chicks aren’t fed at all by parents; they simply tag along and watch them feed but are pretty much left to their own devices. Which is one of the main reasons they’re so vulnerable in the rest of NZ.
On Stewart Island, kiwis remain in a family group for two years or more, which gives them time to gain strength. DOC says they’ve seen kiwi burrows with three generations. Birds could live for 50-60 years if predators don’t kill them, and they recently found one that was banded over 39 years ago.
Kiwis have an awesome sense of smell from their sensitive bill tip. They can burrow 20cm below the soil surface after smelling worms and grubs, also after feeling vibrations. Their beak is only 2mm long, as their nostrils are at the end of their bill! The female call sounds like someone hoiking ready to spit! White light is offensive to kiwi, though they’re almost blind, so if you go looking for them you must use a red torch or put some red cellophane wrap at the end of your light. They rely on their keen sense of smell and vibration to get around.
Stewart Island is the southernmost ‘Dark Sky Sanctuary‘ globally, and we were extremely fortunate on Friday 5th March to have a perfectly clear sky. We all stood star gazing for a while at the end of the runway after not seeing any kiwi so far. Just that made the excursion worthwhile. I’ve never seen so many stars twinkling and shooting.
On the way back towards the minibuses, we finally saw a kiwi. It was at quite a distance, highlighted by the guide’s red torchlight. I wasn’t sure if we’d get closer to a kiwi, so didn’t try too hard to take a photo – the one below was the best I got sadly. This was apparently a female, as its around 20cm beak was curved a little. The male has a beak about 15cm in length which is straight.
About fifty metres away we also saw a kiwi chick – but it was far too swift and small to get a photo.
Whilst I was getting my kiwi fix, Barry stayed in the South Sea Hotel pub chatting with Di and Bob, who we’d met on the Rakiura Track. He met me back at the accommodation, and presented me with a chocolate kiwi which he’d bought earlier as either congratulations or commiserations! Bless him.
A Last Look At Ulva Island
Ulva Island is an absolute MUST-DO if you visit Stewart Island. We’d enjoyed the Real Journeys Ulva Island tour on our first day, and gained heaps of helpful information from the fabulous guide. But we wanted to see more of the island and take our time. However, this was still limited as our ferry was booked for 3.30 pm. We rose early (for us!), checked out and stored our luggage, then walked up the hill to Golden Bay for the 10 am ferry. We returned on the 2.15 pm which gave us just enough time!
What a quaint ferry this is – the man driving the boat was hilarious. Most entertaining. The $20 return tickets were written on muttonbird scrub leaves, which we had to retain and hand back. I wasn’t allowed to hand over two tickets, Barry had to have his own. He had a few interesting ‘rules’ on board. See Barry’s photos for the unique tickets.
On our first visit, we only got to walk along the red and blue tracks. On our second visit, we experienced orange and yellow too. We adored it, what a treasure trove of sounds, smells and sights. There’s so much more land here that’s not accessible to the public, but DOC owned. One can only imagine how stunning that part is.
The verdant native prehistoric bush is marvellous to be amongst. The golden sanded beaches of Boulder Beach and West End Beach were breathtaking, and the birdlife mindblowing. We managed to nab a perfect picnic spot bench with views of West End Beach.
Due to the lack of introduced animals, DOC has been re-introducing vulnerable animals and plants. Maybe one day it’ll be as noisy and busy as NZ was 200 years ago.
Above us the forest foliage trees of rimu, totara and rata and muttonbird scrub were awe-inspiring. Looking down, the floor was carpeted with fabulous flora and fauna, the chicken and hen and a huge variety of ferns, umbrella and many other mosses. There are plants not found in the mainland here as there are no deer – though the occasional one tries to swim over! I even found a photo of an example of a muttonbird scrub postcard.
As I said, the birdlife is prolific. We saw South Island saddlebacks (tieke), New Zealand parakeets (kakariki), New Zealand Wood Pidgeon (kereru), wekas doing their best kiwi impersonations, fantails ( piwakawaka), Stewart Island robins (toutouwai) galore and rare yellowheads (mohua). We heard kakas calling. There was such a cacophony of sweet melodies at one stage we stood silently listening to the natural symphony orchestra playing. Soaking it all up. I thought I’d share a few of these experiences via video, in case you’re unlikely ever to get here:
Sadly though, the Stewart Island Brown kiwi (tokoeka) remained elusive. Yet another reason to return one day and linger longer!
What an amazing place.
Back To The Mainland
We made it back to Golden Bay just in time for a breathless walk up the hill, down to the backpackers to pick up our luggage, then a swift walk to the ferry at Halfmoon Bay.
Jeanette and Greg, who we’d met at the backpackers, were on the same trip with their bikes. Such a lovely couple who’ve taken six months off to cycle around New Zealand. We were in awe of their stamina! The return ferry was far more subdued, no photos were taken, but thankfully the crossing was fairly smooth again.
We said farewell for now to our new friends at Bluff, with a promise to catch up with them in Auckland one day.
Barry’s Brilliant Slideshow
Click on the first image, sit back, and gaze in wonder …