Stewart Island

A place I’ve wanted to visit for quite a while now is Stewart Island, so a little while ago I decided to actually take some of my holiday days (seeing as I’d worked more weekends than taken days off) and actually go down there. Stewart Island is the third largest island that makes up NZ, after South and North Island. It’s off the south coast of South Island, so to get there in the first place I needed to get to Invercargill. The flight down was nice and uneventful, and I had some pretty nice views over ChCh and the Banks Peninsula shortly after takeoff. The further south we got, it unfortunately got more cloudy, and Invercargill was just grey and misty. Once you’re in Invercargill there are 2 ways to get to Stewart Island. You either have to drive / get a bus / shuttle down to Bluff and take the Ferry over, or you can fly over from the airport. Seeing as I wasn’t exactly going to be able to drive down to Bluff (and once you take that into account it doesn’t really make too much difference) I had decided to fly down. Now, there was just one little problem with that for getting down to the island. Invercargill wasn’t the only place that was cloudy, and we’d been told that there was a cloud of fog sitting over the island. For the first time in a while, no flights had actually left Invercargill to get to Stewart Island so far that day.

We now had several options, and really no control over what actually happened. We could sit around and wait in the hopes that the fog would clear up (and because the flight is so short, they can quickly hop over). They also asked us if we wanted to be put on a list of people to go on the 5pm ferry in case the fog didn’t clear – or we could try and get on a flight tomorrow. I was put on the ferry list, and at about 3:45pm the call was made that we would start heading down to Bluff. I arrived in Invercargill at about 11am. The airport is probably the smallest airport I have ever seen – you can see the entire airport from almost everywhere in the airport. The ferry crossing was actually quite nice. We saw loads of albatross and petrels and sooty shearwaters. I have found many times that if you’re wearing binoculars on a boat, or while walking, anyone else who wears binoculars or likes bird watching will always come over and chat to find out what you’ve seen and talk about what they’ve seen. It’s quite nice. I wouldn’t say that we stayed dry during the crossing, but it wasn’t as bumpy as it could have been, so I was fine!

In the hostel, I got talking to some of the other people staying there, and we had some pancakes. On the boat, one of the bird watchers had told me that a good place to try and spot kiwi was Trail Parks (the rugby pitch). He’d actually had a kiwi come right up to him and play with his shoe laces there!! Along with a couple of people in the hostel, Tessa and Sören, we decided to go up to the field and see if we could find any kiwi. We had this red filter to put over my torch so that we didn’t blind any potential kiwi. We wandered around the pitch a couple of times with no luck. Sören spotted a path off to the side (with a sign saying it was 600m), and since it was dark and getting late and trying to rain we decided that we would walk to the end of the path and if we didn’t see any kiwi, we would go back to the hostel. We’d probably only gone about 10-20m along this path when a kiwi ran out right in front of us, and we genuinely almost tripped over it! Tessa was a bit further behind, so we were trying to gesture to her to hurry up and come have a look at this, while the kiwi walked off into the bushes! Once it was undercover, it kind of froze and watched us for a bit. It must have eventually decided that we weren’t really a threat, because it came out of the bushes and started walking around us, foraging a bit on the path and off it. At one point it started walking directly towards me (though sadly it didn’t decide to play with my shoelaces). After between 3-5 minutes (we really weren’t paying too much attention to the time) the kiwi wandered off into the bushes again, and this time didn’t come back.

On the walk back to the hostel, I’d say that all three of us were practically skipping – we were all so happy! Seeing a kiwi in the wild is something that, if I had a bucket list, would have been on it for the last 10 years, so it was an amazing thing to actually see! It’s probably just as well that it was late and there weren’t too many other people around, because when you’re looking for kiwi you’re meant to be quite, and even though we tried to keep our voices down, it was very difficult to do so. Lucca was sorry that she hadn’t joined us on our expedition. It was a late night, and a long day of travelling, but so worth it, because I actually saw a kiwi!! The next morning it was grey and rainy and blegh. I did have to go out and buy food, because I had none, and I also got some maps of the area from the Department of Conservation Office. Although I’m here for a few days, I wasn’t planning on going on any walks too far away from Oban (the only town) because I don’t have the right equipment in NZ, so this was just easier. The DOC had a room to one side where they have a number of documentaries about Stewart Island and the surrounding places that anyone can watch (particularly on a rainy day). After a quick trip back to the hostel, Lucca and I went back to the DOC and enjoyed a documentary about the conservation of kakapo. We particularly enjoyed hearing the different names of the birds (including Richard Henry and Bill), but our personal favourite were a couple that had been given nicknames too. There was Ox ‘the hunk’, and best of all, Sinbad ‘the loser’.

When we left the DOC we were amazed to see a patch of blue sky! We raced back to the hostel to have lunch (before the weather could turn) and went on a walk with Tessa as well. The walk was nice – some of it was along the road, but a reasonable amount was through the trees and ferns. Something I like about Stewart Island is how much of the native vegetation is still here. We walked round from Halfmoon Bay to Horseshoe Bay (how many different words can you come up with for the same shape?). Whilst we walked, we saw a few tui flying about and singing. We also reached a beach called Dead Mans Beach, which sounds like there’s a story behind that somewhere… After the rain in the morning, it was nice to be able to enjoy the sunshine!

The next day it rained. Both Lucca and Tessa were leaving today, so neither of them felt like going on any walks, but eventually I decided to ignore the rain and go out. It wasn’t so bad. I walked around to Golden Bay, and then most of my walk was undercover! I saw bellbirds (different from the Australian bird of the same name). Some of them seemed fairly inquisitive. There were so many ferns around, it was great!! The walk came out at a place called Deep Bay, so I had my lunch there and decided to walk a bit more. There was a monument, Wholer’s Monument, for a couple who had basically been a farmer, doctor and teacher for the entire area. Although I wasn’t planning on doing any of the big walks, I wanted to try and do as many of the 13 shorter walks in the area as possible. I’d done walk 9 yesterday with Lucca and Tessa, and today I did walks 4 and 8. We took route 2 most nights to try and find the kiwi. Not that this will mean much with me saying it, but I could have done walk 5 but it was getting late, and I really wanted to do walk 8. Walk 5 was kind of short and to a view point that I’d been able to see quite a bit of when I was at Wholer’s Monument.

Walk 8 took me to Ackers Point, where there is a solar powered lighthouse. On the way over, I passed the house of Lewis Acker, which he built himself. It was a nice, modest brick house where he lived with his wife and NINE CHILDREN!!! Apparently, they slept on bunks to the ceiling up to 5 deep. I have no idea how 11 of them fit in the house. It’s not even like there was a lot of land around the area! From Ackers Point, at certain times of year it could have been a bit risky standing where I was at that time of day. I would have been a potentially target for the muttonbirds (sooty shearwaters) as they crash landed for their nights sleep. Apparently, they gather in big clouds that you can see at dusk before they come into land, but I was there at the wrong time of year to see that. On the walk back, I watched another tui for a bit. By that, I mean I was so engrossed in watching this tui fly very close above me that I almost walked off the path 3 times, which would not have been ideal. The rain was still mostly holding off, which was good because I had about 4km to walk on the road before getting back to the hostel. Obviously, my luck didn’t hold out, as it started absolutely tipping it down for the last 2km – so despite the fact I had my good raincoat on and some borrowed overtrousers, I got back to the hostel absolutely soaking wet. For the remainder of my trip on Stewart Island, I had to balance out how clean something was with how dry something was, and go with the lesser of two evils, or just what was mostly clean and dry.

In the evening, before we went looking for kiwi – Spoiler alert, we didn’t see one. Just so that I don’t keep coming back to this, I was on Stewart Island for 6 nights and went looking for kiwi on 5 nights – the only kiwi I saw was on the first night. It was quite a lot of fun looking for them, and we did hear them quite a bit. You’ve just got to be in the right place at the right time and looking in the right direction. At least I had the comfort of actually having seen one! Anyway, back to what we did on this evening – we went out looking for penguins (should have done this on more nights – they were more reliable!!). Like in Oamaru, we were looking for the little blue / fairy penguins. We could go to this place near the docks where they would clamber up the rocks. We watched one that was probably about 5m or so away from us, and then another came in to join it. The penguins would allow themselves to just be washed in by the waves, and one of those two actually came quite close to where we were before deciding to join the other one. Around the time that we were thinking of heading back and going to find kiwi, another one washed in at the rock just in front of the wall we were standing on!! It stayed there for maybe 5 minutes just preening itself. It was so cool to see one so close! I know I saw them very close in Oamaru too, but that doesn’t stop it from being an amazing experience this time around too. We left when it looked like it was silently screaming at us. Maybe that’s just what it did, maybe it was uncomfortable with us there, or maybe we were in its way. Who knows – we decided to give it some peace, either way.

The next day was one of my longer walking days. I combined walks 3, 11 and 10 (I did them in that order) and was probably walking for about 20km or so? The first walk took me to a place called Fern Gully, where they were planning on evacuating children to during the war. Since it was still raining, I was grateful for the fact that most of these walks were undercover. As the name sounds, this walk was basically just walking through loads of ferns, which was great. It had the most abrupt ending of any of the walks I went on. You come out of the trees and ferns into the open air and there’s immediately a sign: “END OF TRACK. DAY VISITORS SHOULD NOT PROCEED BEYOND THIS POINT”. I wasn’t a long walk to the start of the next track (both walks 2 and 11 were extra tracks off walk 10), and so I was soon heading off towards Kaipipi Bay. The bay used to be an old whaling base for the Scandinavians (it was there southern base). They would have some people out whaling, and some people were left behind to fix the boats and other pieces of equipment. After their last season down there, the boat based whalers never actually went back to pick up the land-based crew from the bay, so now you have Scandinavian-Maori (blonde-haired, blue-eyed of course) who have claim on some of the nearby Muttonbird Islands!

On the walk over to the bay, I know I could hear one, if not two, kiwi calling in the undergrowth but I couldn’t see them! It’s very frustrating when you know something’s there, but it’s not moving and there’s too much in the way for you to see them. Kiwi on Stewart Island and unique in the fact that they exhibit semi-diurnal behaviour, whereas in the rest of NZ they’re nocturnal. There were a large number of mussels on rocks in the bay itself, so I enjoyed looking at those (sounds boring, I know – forgive me, I study marine biology!!). It made a nice change to be looking at living and undisturbed organisms! As fascinating as Kaikoura is, it’s sometimes a bit sad when so much of what you’re looking at is dead or dying. A lot of the paths I was walking on while on the island were old sawmill paths. I believe there used to be 9 sawmills dotted around this area of the island, so now they’re walking tracks. Due to all the rain, most of the tracks were extremely muddy, which kept things entertaining!!

When I got back to the main path, I continued along track 10 (which was technically the long way back to Halfmoon Bay, but more interesting as I hadn’t done it before). Quite a lot of it was through similar scenery as I’d already done that day – but then we got to the other side where you could start to see the sea again. I found a very nice tui again (I like tui, can you tell?) and I also saw quite a few fantails (another very nice bird). As much as I enjoyed the walk, it was nice to get back to the hostel as I was getting tired and damp from all the walking and the rain. I chatted to a few people who had arrived yesterday (and we’d gone looking for penguins and kiwi with), Abigail, Beth and Zoe. This evening, we weren’t planning on looking for kiwi, but we were going to join in with the local pub quiz. Beth came up with our name – Attenborough’s Chicks. We could go double points on one of the rounds, and with two marine biologists and one bird biologist in our team of 5, we went double points on the ‘science and nature’ round. We were very pleased that we got full marks on that section! There must have been over 20 teams total playing that night (it was very popular), and we came 5th overall!! We were very pleased with ourselves.

On the Monday, Abigail, Beth and I decided to go over to Ulva Island, which is a small predator free island that you can easily get to from Oban. Our tickets for the Ulva Island Ferry were just native leaves with ‘Ulva Island Ferry’ written on them with permanent marker. I mean, why not? The trip over wasn’t very long and it was quite a smooth crossing (which I think the others appreciated more than me). We were on the first boat of the day over, so there weren’t too many people over on the island – for the next few hours our boat had it all to ourselves! There’s actually only a small part of the island that has tracks you can wander around on. The majority of the island you can’t really get to. We started seeing birds almost right away, which was amazing! Before we’d even spent 10 minutes on the island, we’d already seen bellbirds, Stewart Island robins, tomtits and red-capped parakeets!! Although the ‘rate of new species seen’ didn’t keep up with that pace, we did see quite a lot of birds. We had looked at the map before setting off and had worked out a route that would take us on all of the walking paths so we could see as much of the island as possible. Although we mainly saw birds, we did catch the occasional glimpse of seals from the beaches.

Off the main path, there was a more wild path for the ‘nature walk’ (not like we were walking around on a virtually uninhabited island, or anything like that). Here, we could admire the local flora, with labels telling us what all the different plants were. Not that I really remember those names too well – I seem to remember birds, not trees. We did see a weka in the bushes, and I saw a bird sneeze for the first time! Something I find funny about the weka on Ulva Island (and probably around NZ) is that it doesn’t seem to be uncommon for more casual birdwatchers to see a weka and think “brown, flightless bird – it must be a kiwi!!” I guess a lot of people will get disappointed if they think that. We saw quite a few weka on the island. Whenever we were out on the beaches, they would be there, foraging around (looking ridiculous with sand on their beaks), chasing each other around and then running right up to you in the hopes that you will feed them. They came incredible close.

Aother bird that we saw on the island that doesn’t really care about personal space was the Stewart Island robin. When we were walking down to one of the beaches, one of them hopped on Beth’s foot, and started attacking her laces. We were sitting down for a bit at one point, and there was a robin in an argument with a tomtit, and all three of us got the impression that we were being used as a human shield! That robin stayed with us for ages, and kept attacking the back of my bag! It would also periodically jump onto my foot and (once) jumped onto my knee! It didn’t seem as interested in other people feet, for whatever reason. Whilst we were walking through the forests, we saw a lot of smaller bird species including (but maybe not limited to – I might have forgotten a few) silver eyes, riflemen, yellowheads and fantails. We also saw saddlebacks and kaka (one of which flew down right in front of us, and gave us a bit of a shock!!). A more unusual find was a morepork up in one of the trees. A morepork is a species of owl, and I think this one was trying to sleep – but it was woken up by the ruckus that all of the small bird species were making!! It gave up trying to sleep and started to preen itself. When it was asleep (or trying to sleep), it just looked like a nest or ball of feathers (which, I suppose, is what it was). We only spotted it because we were looking around to try and spot what all the birds were making such a fuss about!

On the ferry ride back to the mainland (kind of? Not really a mainland, but hey) shortly after setting off, an albatross glided by the boat right in front of us! It was so close, and looked magnificent, but sadly none of us have pictures of it as it was before we’d got any cameras out. We probably got back to Oban at about 2:30, so we decided to go to the pub / restaurant / café / hotel (everything’s kind of piled into one since the place is so small) and have something to eat. The rest of the day was fairly relaxed, with us all trying to catch up with our respective diaries before we got too far behind! Abigail was also preparing to start the Rakiura track the next day, so she needed to get sorted for that. Apart from another (failed) kiwi hunt in the evening, we spent most of the time inside. Let’s just say I didn’t have the best weather while I was visiting the island.

The sun came out on our last full day!! I mean, we did have a short shower – but it was a short period of rain in a sunny day rather than a short period of sunshine on a rainy day – much better combination when you’re planning on going out walking. We had an early lunch at the same place as yesterday, sitting outside and making the most of the sunshine, before heading off. Beth and I (as we’re both heading back tomorrow) had decided that we would only go with Abigail as far as Maori Beach. Though we did go the longer way (intentionally) via a route called ‘Garden Mound’ (walks 12 and 13). Garden Mound too us to the highest point we personally reached while on the island – a staggering 164m, and what a view you could get from up there!! Most of it involved trees, but there were a few small gaps. The walk was incredibly muddy (and we thought that our previous walks were muddy). We did see a couple of people on the walk, and as soon as they were out of earshot, we all started talking. The woman we’d passed had walking boots that looked as though they were fresh out of the box!! It was a complete mystery how she’d managed to keep them so clean, given the state of the path. Still, we had a lot of fun speculating over it. I think our most realistic reason when we finally gave up was that she must have been carried over the muddiest spots by her husband.

The rest of the walk was slightly less muddy (only a bit though), and we spotted some more birds like tui and silvereyes. Abigail had quite a bit of fun recreating some of the scenes from the Hobbit. We had conveniently found three walking sticks at the beginning of our route, and so when we came out to the sandy Lee Bay, Beth and I decided to put them to good use – and (being adults, of course) that meant writing our names out really large in the sand. When we finally got to Maori Beach (which had a large number of steps going down to it) we all had an apple and battled sand flies. Here we also saw some of the remains of one of the abandoned saw mills just a short walk from the beach. Here is also where we left Abigail, as she had to go a bit further to her first hut of the tramp, while Beth and I still had to get all the way back to Oban! We took the more direct route on the way back, and walked through a bit of an information point. There were stories and facts along the path, though we read them all backwards as they’re put in with the intention of you starting from the car park, not Maori Beach. By the time we got back to Horseshoe Bay, we were both quite tired, as we’d been walking for quite a while, and we still had about an hour left to get to Halfmoon Bay. Luckily for us, someone driving by slowed down and asked if we wanted a lift (to be fair, it was getting late, so they’re probably weren’t too many trampers out and about at that time). We were very happy to accept this offer! We were back in Oban in about 15 minutes, rather than 1 hour and decided to treat ourselves to a pizza (which was very good). We had a final attempt to try and find a kiwi that evening – though we didn’t go out too late, as Beth was on the first ferry out of Oban in the morning. As I mentioned above, we were unsuccessful. I can definitely fully appreciate just how lucky we were on my first night when we found one so easily!

On the last day, I wasn’t leaving until about lunch time. I decided to walk over to Observation Rock (walk 1), since the weather was still nice. I hadn’t gone before because what’s the point of going to a place called ‘Observation Rock’ when there’s so much fog around? From this point, I had a good view over to Iona Island and Ulva Island. A group of day visitors came up with their tour guide after a while, so I decided to hang around and get some information about the place! Ulva Island used to be the central hub of Stewart Island, as most of the different saw mills were spread out around the coast but where they could see Ulva. Next to the post office on Ulva was Flagstaff Point, and whenever the post came in someone would raise the flag and then everyone would boat in (in their finest clothes) to Ulva. This would be the time that they would exchange news, and may be the first time in 8 months or so in which they’re seeing their neighbours.

We also found out that when Captain Cook sailed around NZ, he didn’t know if Stewart Island was an island, so drew a couple of lines connecting it to Bluff. The strait was later discovered by an American, Smith, and so it was (briefly) known as the ‘Smith Strait’. A group of Aussies later went over to map the island (in a trip funded by Foveaux and Paterson) on a ship called ‘Pegasus’. They named their landing point ‘Pegasus Bay’, and decided that they should thank their sponsors, a called another group of bays ‘Paterson Inlet’, and the strait between the island and the mainland ‘Foveaux Strait’ (RIP Smith Strait). The Aussies had hired a man named Stewart as their chief cartographer, but when they sent their map off to the UK, they had left the island unnamed (although a lot of these places had Maori names, Maori is only recently a written language, and so there wasn’t really any way of conveying their names on a map). The Brits, when they saw this, decided to name the island after the man who mapped it, hence ‘Stewart Island’, and the man himself found out about this name about 15 years later. This whole story was summed up by the guide: “First seen by Cook, the Strait was discovered by a Yank, mapped by the Aussies and named by the Poms.” (His words, not mine)

When I got back to the hostel it was nearly time for me to set off again. At least this time around, given how nice the weather is, I should actually be able to fly back!! There were 2 flights heading out, and I was on the second. I had my lunch on the beach before we were all loaded onto a minivan. The building where you check-in is the flight centre / post office, and then they bus you to the airstrip (at the top of a hill). We had to wait for the first mini-van of people to come back down before we could go up, and then we halted again on the crest of the hill. Just as we started to wonder why, our aeroplane flew right over the top of the van before landing on the runway. I think we all felt like if we’d been on the flat group the aeroplane may have clipped our heads! We followed the plane along the runway, and switched over at the end. The aeroplane was very small. I sat in the second row from the front (which contained the pilot and a passenger), and there were another 3 rows behind me each getting more and more narrow as the aeroplane tapered (I was glad I had checked in my rucksack as well – I doubt it would have fitted in the ‘cabin’ with me). After a quick health and safety briefing (as I had not flown over – they did it specially for me), we set off. It was definitely the loudest flight I’ve ever been on, which is not surprising. We had some really nice views of the island as we left it, and then nice views of Invercargill coming in! It was a very quick flight – 15-20 minutes total – and very nice.

Unfortunately, when we landed in Invercargill, I had another 5 hours before my flight left for ChCh. Writing postcards killed about 30 minutes… Spending 9 hours in Invercargill Airport in less than a week is an experience I would not recommend to other people – it’s quite a dull experience. On the plus side, I could probably draw the floor plans of the place out for you. The weather was still nice when the flight finally did leave the airport, and since I was on the same side of the aeroplane as coming down, I got the view out the other side. I had a very nice view of the Southern Alps, which got slowly pinker as the sun began to set. I think on this trip, it must have been the only times I’ve been anywhere near ChCh Airport when it’s not dark or raining heavily! Makes a nice change!

(No clever title for this one, sorry. Also, this one’s quite long… It took me so long to actually get around to uploading it, I wasn’t going to split it in two! Though it’s less than a month since I got back, even if it’s more than a month since I left, so that’s something.)

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