|Stewart Island . . Where?|
by Sally Hammond
Alongside the signpost in the main street of Oban which details the major local attractions (Deer Park, Post Office, Museum, and Observation Rock) there is another one which lists, among others, San Francisco, Tokyo and the South Pole.
Which, if you are interested, are 6590, 5245 and 2551 miles away, respectively.
Of course the South Pole is mentioned because there is not a lot more between this southern outpost of New Zealand, and the frosty continent. Stewart Island (population around 500) is New Zealand's third largest island, a jigsaw-shaped bit of land, around 65 kilometres by 40 kilometres, that snapped off sometime long ago in the earth's history and slipped 32 kilometres away across what is now the Foveaux Strait.
Oban, the main town, has a good range of bed and breakfast, luxury lodge, hotel, motel and holiday home options, and the entire island has just 32 kilometres of sealed road. But there are – and this starts to tell you what lures people here – 220 kilometres of walking (or as they call it the land of the long flat hiking boot) 'tramping' trails.
There are raucous parrot-like birds called kakas, too, as well as keas and tuis – and kiwis, of course. These last I encountered on a night time expedition via a local fishing boat, which headed off from the island into the inky blackness, aiming for a remote headland. As we squelched ashore, we spotted a kiwi almost at once, bigger than I would have thought, scrounging insects from the sludge not far away. So this was the Stewart Island Brown, one of six kiwi varieties in New Zealand.
Just then, a shrill squealing from the bush nearby alerted our guide, Phillip Smith. "There's more," he hissed, "turn off the torches". We followed as best we could in the pale moonlight and found two males, each shaping up to defend his masculinity, and perhaps his mate. Oblivious to their audience, they hit out at each other with their vicious curved claws meant for just that purpose, growling and hissing, dodging each other around our legs. Trust me, you stay very still in a situation like this! Although the Bravo Adventure Cruises operate on alternate nights from the island during good weather, even Phillip had to admit that such prime viewing was rare.
More predictable is the crossing from Bluff on the tip of the South Island. By purpose-built catamaran, the trip takes an hour and is believed to be the second roughest in the world. I was concentrating too hard on remaining seated to ask where the ROUGHEST crossing is. Seated on one of the benches, my fingers locked around the armrest, I watched as a couple of grown men who had chosen to stand inside, holding a handrail while watching the roller-coaster ride through the front window, became airborne with each trough. Of course we could have flown by nine-seater aircraft from Invercargill, but we figured that could become rather hair-raising too given the sudden changes in weather in this part of the world.
Yet, once on the island, these considerations fall away. Stewart Island has that sort of effect on people. Sam, who we met the next day, was our tour guide and driver of Billy the Bus, an elderly but bright yellow bus used as tourist transport. Sam had come to the island as a school teacher long ago – he was vague about when – and somehow never managed to leave the place. Since then he has watched the constant parade of trampers and backpackers who spill off the catamaran each day, bright nylon gear hoisted on their backs, and expectant grins on their faces; the fishermen who offload heaps of lobster and abalone, blue cod and other cold water fish destined for the island's two fish processing plants at the wharf; and those who come, as we did, simply to see what's there.
To understand what is there, you need time. After the mandatory wilderness tramping and the photography, there is sea kayaking on the Paterson River, diving, fishing charter tours, guided nature trips (there are sea lions, seals, little blue and yellow-eyed penguins, dolphins and a host of sea birds in the area) and tours to the salmon farms, hunting for whitetail (or Virginia) deer, and of course kiwi spotting at night. Add on a game of golf at the steep tussocky six-hole golf course, a meal of smoked mutton bird which has been caught on the nearby Titi Islands by Maoris (who are the only people allowed to do this), and too soon it's time to take the big dipper trip home again.
But no visitor to Stewart Island, named after the 1st Officer on the 'Pegasus' that visited in 1809, should consider going before they spend a little time on the silky crescent of sand at Halfmoon Bay next to the wharf. Or maybe you should stretch that to another hour or so on Horseshoe Bay to the north where once were sawmills, for this island is still heavily wooded, with rainforest and wetlands as well.
And then there is Golden Bay, and Ringaringa Beach, and Butterfield Beach and … The list of excuses to stay another day goes on. Somehow when you spend a while in this intimate community, the rest of the world begins to melt away. It doesn't matter that Antarctica is your neighbour, and that the nearest land is a choppy hour away by fast boat. Forget that even the Tourist Information sheet admits that rains falls on many days, but that a good day is memorable.
Somehow when you spend a while in this intimate community, the rest of the world begins to melt away. It doesn't matter that Antarctica is your neighbour, and that the nearest land is a choppy hour away by fast boat. Forget that even the Tourist Information sheet admits that rains falls on many days, but that a good day is ‘memorable’.
Spend a week here and you begin to understand Sam the bus driver's decision better. Stay for a month, and you might never leave.
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