The Stewart Island story

New Zealanders we’ve met on our travels have been impressed that Stewart Island is on our itinerary. Although tourism is a major part of its economy that’s not saying much for an island with fewer than 400 permanent residents. Few New Zealanders appear to have made the trip, although many speak wistfully of popping over “one day”. It’s a classic bucket list destination.

Ulva Island viewed from Observation Point

So what’s the attraction of Stewart, the third, smallest and most southerly of New Zealand’s main islands? Visitors who cross the 30 kilometres of the Foveaux Strait mostly make the journey to go tramping (hiking). There’s a lot for them to have a go at.

At 1,680 square kilometres (650 square miles) Stewart Island is about the size of Greater London. Most of it is a rugged land of undulating hills and low peaks cloaked in pristine, primeval forest and bush growing down to the sea’s edge. Offshore is a scattering of small, picturesque islands and rocky outcrops.

Today 85% of the island is protected as a National Park, and much of the rest is uninhabited and owned by the Rakiura Māori Land Trust. The Stewart Island wilderness remains almost as it was before the first Polynesians – predecessors of the Maori – arrived in the late 13th century.

Leask Bay

A small part of me wishes we could visit Rakiura National Park, that we could do what all the fit young things with their enormous rucksacks come here to do, which is to tramp off into the bush and have an adventure in the land that time forgot.

But that’s not going to happen, partly for health reasons but mainly because life’s too short. And anyway, there’s plenty to see and to admire in the small bit of the island that’s accessible to non-trampers like us.

Halfmoon Bay, Oban. The red-roofed building on the right is the hotel.

Most of Stewart Island’s residents live in the township of Oban, on Halfmoon Bay. I guess the best word for it is quaint, just a scattering of buildings along a few roads, a tiny supermarket and a hotel that acts as the social centre for islanders and visitors alike. There’s even a giant outdoor chessboard, in case anyone gets bored.

Stewart also boasts a library, a sports and community hall, and a museum. The latter will soon be replaced by a brand new, purpose-built multi-million dollar building, the result of years of fund-raising. Given its tiny population the island has a surprising wealth of facilities that would not look out of place in a town many times its size.

On the hill overlooking Halfmoon Bay stands Oban Presbyterian Church. Being Presbyterian the church, like the name ‘Oban’, is a clue to the Scottish heritage of many of the early settlers here. Wooden and built in 1904, it’s one of the few buildings of any note in the island.

Oban Presbyterian Church

Unsurprisingly the church doesn’t have a resident minister, but worshippers benefit from various visiting preachers including Baptist, Salvation Army and Methodist as well as Presbyterian. This flexible approach to religious observance is, I suppose, another example of the compromises that have to be made in such a remote corner of New Zealand.

There’s evidently a strong sense of community: they’re all in this together, Stewart Islanders, living the dream in New Zealand’s very own “lands end.” Inevitably in a place so small everyone knows everyone else, and nobody locks their doors except the tourists. It’s a friendly, peaceful island, an improbable yet welcome escape from the hurly-burly of the modern world.

In the early decades of European colonisation whaling and sealing were mainstays of the local economy, but thankfully those activities are now but a distant memory. Fishing once employed much of the population, but modern techniques require fewer workers, so it’s left to tourism to pick up the slack.

But most of the tourists are away in the bush, doing whatever it is that trampers do, so there’s little to spoil the tranquillity of Oban other than the occasional stag party attended by mainlanders out on the razzle.

Giant chessboard on the seafront, and behind the dock from which the ferry to the mainland departs

For us Stewart Island’s most attractive feature is its birdlife. Many native New Zealand birds thrive here due to the absence of stoats and other mammalian predators. Outlandish though it may seem, to help ensure the island remains a safe haven for birds dogs must attend ‘kiwi aversion’ classes, where they are trained not to pursue these flightless New Zealand icons.

But the battle against predators hasn’t been won. Rats remain a significant problem, and while they don’t appear to threaten the adult kiwi, they prevent other native birds spreading from Stewart’s offshore sanctuary islands and gaining a foothold here.

In response, several years ago the US-based Dancing Star Foundation purchased an area of land at Mamaku Point. They enclosed it with state-of-the art predator-proof fencing, eliminated the rats and reintroduced some long-absent bird species.

Ugly but effective: part of the predator-proof fence at Mamaku Point

The Mamaku Point Conservation Trust has recently taken over from Dancing Star, and has exciting plans for its “mainland island” reserve.

The trust’s primary objective is to continue Dancing Star Foundation’s successful efforts to conserve and enhance the health and diversity of the native flora and fauna within the reserve, and the secondary objective is to facilitate education, research and public awareness of the importance of these activities.

We’re also focused on making sure the trust and reserve are as financially and environmentally sustainable as possible. In this respect, we’re working with local eco-tourism operators to develop exciting eco-tourism opportunities that will make the property accessible to the public.

SOURCE: Statement by Auckland businessman Roy Thompson, owner of the site, quoted in an article in the online news magazine Stuff, 2 August 2017, retrieved 6 December 2019.

It sounds like a brilliant initiative, which will presumably result in the creation of a reserve with similarities to the one we visited at Bushy Park a few weeks ago. Although it’s a pity we’re not able to visit the reserve, it’s encouraging to learn that there are wealthy New Zealanders prepared to support important conservation initiatives with hard cash.

Midnight kiwi capers

The kiwi, New Zealand’s iconic bird, is nocturnal, secretive and rare. The chances of us ever tracking one down without help are remote, so we’ve hired a local expert to help us out. Stewart Island (Rakiura) boasts several experienced birders selling their guiding services, but Ulva’s reputation surpasses all the rest. If anybody’s going to find us a kiwi it’s Ulva, and we’re lucky she’s available.

Darkness has fallen as we make our way to Ulva’s offices at around 10pm, where she issues us with torches that shine red light. Being nocturnal, kiwis operate primarily by smell. Their eyesight is poor, but a normal white torchlight may scare them off. However they can’t see red light at all. This is a great help for spotting kiwis, but not so good for taking photos of them. Using flash is totally forbidden; at best it will alarm them, and at worst blind them.

We clamber into Ulva’s 4×4, and she proceeds to drive us around Stewart Island’s road network in search of the elusive bird. “Road network” is maybe overstating it a bit; only 3% of the island is open for settlement, the rest being either a nature reserve or in the ownership of the Rakiura Maori Lands Trust. In total the public highway extends to no more than 25 kilometres.

Ulva knows every metre of Stewart Island roads intimately, and also knows where kiwi are most likely to be seen. As the rain falls steadily we check out all her favourite haunts, but there’s no sign of a kiwi at any of them. We do however spot several other search parties shining torches beneath bushes and into dark rocky corners, all on a similar quest to ours. It’s evident from their body language that they’re having no more luck than us.

Ulva decides to try a different approach, checking out a stretch of beach where kiwis are know to feed, and a fence-line where they sometimes forage, but again to no avail. The rain is getting heavier, and our morale is sinking fast. It’s now approaching midnight, and Ulva decides to retrace our journey of earlier in the evening to see if the situation has changed.

We’re driving along a narrow, dark road that’s lit only by the car headlights when we spot movement on the roadside to our left. Ulva slams on the brakes, and for maybe five seconds we have a great view of a Little Blue Penguin. Even in the difficult light we can clearly pick out his brilliant white waistcoat and the hint of blue in the feathers on his back, before he scuttles off into the bush. Unfortunately there’s no time to get a photo, but the image below (taken in Tasmania) shows the bird’s key features.

File:Eudyptula minor Bruny 1.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

The Little Blue is the world’s smallest penguin. It nest in small numbers all around the coast of New Zealand, and in parts of Australia too where it’s called the Fairy Penguin. They nest in burrows some distance inland, staying out at sea during daylight and returning to their chicks with food in the dark of night.

A penguin wasn’t what he had in mind for tonight’s expedition, but at least we’ve seen something. We carry on driving the roads. I’m sitting upfront, next to Ulva, scanning the road hopefully. I spot some movement and shout “stop.” Ulva pulls up sharply, and as she does so a smallish, brown/grey bird flies up from the ground where it’s been feeding on roadkill. It’s a tiny owl called a Morepork, named after its distinctive call.

PHOTO CREDIT: Mosborne01 [CC0]

We leap out of the car and scan the tree into which it flew. It takes off again and circles the trees for maybe a minute, before disappearing for good. Again it’s impossible to take a photo, but finally catching sight of a bird we’ve heard a few times previously is an unexpected bonus. The image above from Creative Commons shows what a Morepork looks like in daylight, although the bird’s tiny size is difficult to appreciate.

It’s now approaching 1.00am, and despite the penguin and the owl we’re feeling miserable. Our best chance of seeing a kiwi seems to have passed us by. Ulva decides to take one final drive along a road where she’s had success recently. She drives slowly, and we’re all scanning ahead and to the side of the car.

Suddenly Mrs P shouts “There! There! There!”. We look ahead and to the left, and spot the unmistakable shape of a kiwi. Ulva stops and kills the headlights, and we all leap from the car brandishing our red-light torches. The kiwi is a few metres from us, apparently unaware of us, or at least untroubled by our presence.

We watch, transfixed, for a couple of minutes until, amazingly, a second kiwi appears. It’s much bigger than the first bird, with a longer beak, and must therefore be a female. She chases him into the bush and seconds later a deafening screech comes from his direction. It’s not clear what she’s done to provoke such a response, but it is an unearthly noise and if we didn’t know the cause a supernatural explanation would have appeared plausible.

As if to mark the success of our kiwi search the rain has stopped, and the sky is now crystal clear. Stewart Island is an acclaimed ‘dark sky area’, and in the darkness we can see countless stars shining their light upon us. From a gloomy start the night has turned magical, and without doubt will remain one of the highlights of our visit to New Zealand.

We assume that the show’s over, but amazingly a third kiwi has appeared from the bush and is working his way calmly along the roadside verge, plunging his beak deep into the grass in search of food. Being flightless he can’t take to the wing to get away, but in any case he seems happy where he is, completely ignoring his entranced admirers.

We watch for maybe 15 minutes, getting unforgettable views of a magnificent, iconic bird. The red light makes photography very difficult, but it doesn’t really matter: this memory will stay with us forever.

To the end of New Zealand: Stewart Island

We’re on our way to Stewart Island, New Zealand’s third largest island. It lies 30 kilometres south of the South Island, across the Foveaux Strait. There’s no car ferry to Stewart, so we have the choice of flying in an eight-seater aircraft or taking a passenger ferry that has room for a few dozen victims.

I use the word “victims” advisedly as this crossing is notoriously rough. But the plane journey is also infamous, and the locals – who know about these things – say that if you want to visit Stewart Island you have a choice between 20 minutes of terror and 60 minutes of horror. We’ve opted for the latter, but first we’ve got a drive of several hours to get to Bluff harbour at the southern tip of South Island.

On the way we drop in at the Clifden Suspension Bridge. It’s trumpeted as a historic landmark, but one thing we’ve learned since coming here is New Zealand is so lacking in old stuff that anything that’s been around for more than a century attracts a lot of interest.

If I were being churlish I would say that it’s not a patch on the similarly named Clifton Suspension Bridge in the UK, but at 112 metres it represents a decent piece of civil engineering for a remote part of New Zealand in 1898/99. A single lane bridge, it was originally used by horse and cart traffic and later by motor vehicles, and remained in operation until 1978.

We make one more stop before parking up for our trip to Stewart Island, when we call in at the Invercargill Water Tower. It’s one of several water towers we’ve visited on this trip, and although it doesn’t sound at all interesting in our view it’s a bit of an architectural gem. The New Zealand History website says that it combines utility and beauty, which sums it up nicely.

It’s time to park the car at the harbour and board the ferry to Stewart Island. Our luggage is place into bins and loaded on to the back the boat by crane, and a few minutes later we’re ready to set off.

Luckily the sea is relatively calm, but the crossing is ruined by some of our fellow passengers, a large group of rowdy young men evidently on their way to a stag party on the island. The beer flows freely, and the young men behave boorishly and shout a lot as the alcohol kicks in. Oh, such nostalgia, we could be back in the UK! …

… Until we arrive at Stewart Island, that is. The island policeman has been tipped off about the yobs’ arrival, and is there at the quayside to welcome them. He takes them aside and gives them a stern lecture on what is and is not acceptable on this island whose resident population is 380 civilians plus one policeman.

Stewart is a law-abiding island. We’re told that there’s only ever been one murder here, in the 1840’s. Nobody was arrested, but we’re reassured that investigations are ongoing and an announcement is expected soon. I think I’m going to like this place.

But for now there’s no time to explore. We need to get to our accommodation and sort ourselves out as soon as possible, because at 10pm tonight we’re booked on to a kiwi-spotting expedition. This will be our best opportunity to meet up with New Zealand’s most iconic bird, and we’re on high alert.

Will we or won’t we see a wild kiwi for first and probably the only time in our lives? Check out my next post to find the answer.

Kiwis, glaciers and a mountain parrot

We’re heading south where tomorrow we’re booked in for what promises to be one on the highlights of our visit to New Zealand, a trip to see the endangered Fiordland penguin. But on the way we’re stopping off at the Franz Josef Glacier, before finding out more about conservation of another threatened local bird, the iconic kiwi.

Like glaciers throughout the world Franz Josef is retreating, but it’s unusual in that its snout is just 300 metres above sea level. It’s 12 kilometres long, and makes its way westward towards the sea from the Southern Alps. Flowing from the snout of the Franz Josef Glacier is the Waiho River.

The young and intrepid can walk from the car park up to the glacier snout relatively easily. However Mrs P and I are neither young nor intrepid, so we content ourselves with what we can see from the car park.

And the view is pretty good as views of glaciers go, although I’d say it’s more majestic than beautiful. But it’s probably something we should savour as, thanks to climate change, the Frans Josef Glacier won’t be around for much longer.

Something else to be savoured is the Mountain Parrot, or kea, that drops in to say hi as I’m locking up the car. Luckily I have my camera slung around my neck and start videoing him as soon as he lands on the car roof, while Mrs P photographs both of us.

Kea are typical parrots in that they are long-lived, inquisitive and intelligent. But their hobby is untypical of just about any birds anywhere: they love trashing cars. Many a tourist has left his car to nip into a café for a swift mocha, or maybe a cappuccino and a slab of chocolate cake, only to find on his return that he’s missing a windscreen wiper, his aerial or a hub cap.

Kea are notorious thieves, and will steal just about any part of your car if they think they can get away with it. On this occasion however my new friend seems more interested in a career as a photo model than as a petty thief, which is fortunate as I suspect my rental car insurance policy does not cover vandalism by a parrot.

Having seen the glacier and avoided a malicious parrot attack, we head into the little town of Franz Josef. The place is dominated by the mountains that surround it, and although the tops are wreathed in clouds, the lower slopes are clearly visible and looking spectacular after the recent snowfall.

But we’re not here for the scenery. Instead we’ve come to visit the West Coast Wildlife Centre. There’s an enormous fibre glass kiwi and chick outside, which is a clue to what goes on here.

We’ve already been to one kiwi conservation centre, in Hokitika, where we were able to see a couple of the birds running around in a specially designed captive viewing area, and to learn a bit about the pressures facing them in their natural environment. The Franz Josef facility offers a similar opportunity for visitors, but more importantly it helps raise kiwi chicks in secure surroundings before the youngsters are released back into the wild.

For an additional fee, which we’re happy to pay, we get a “backstage pass” and get to meet one of the people who helps raise the kiwi chicks. She explains that in the wild kiwi eggs and young chicks are threatened by predatory stoats.

In an attempt to prevent this iconic New Zealand bird from becoming extinct, scientists collect eggs from wild kiwi and place them in incubators at the Centre until they hatch. After the hatchlings have grown a bit they are moved to another secure location where they start to mature. When the kiwi has put on a bit of weight it’s able to defend itself from stoat attacks, and at this point it can be returned to the wild.

It’s an ambitious project that is having some success. We are thrilled to see three young kiwi. Each is bathed in a pool of soothing red light in its own incubator, snoozing peacefully, though if I’m honest they look like nothing more than inert balls of fluff. But it’s the thought that counts, and we’re glad we’ve seen them and learned about the effort being made to protect them.

Our views of the adult kiwi were limited due to the low light conditions in which they are housed, and for the same reason we were not able to take photos of these older birds. The stuffed adult and juvenile kiwi on show at this Centre give us a sense of what the living, breathing bird must be like, but it’s a poor substitute for the real thing.

We’d love to see a kiwi in the wild but they’re incredibly difficult to find, being shy, nocturnal and very rare. But in a few days we’ve booked an after dark session with an expert naturalist who will hopefully be able to make our dreams come true. Watch this space!

A gorgeous gorge and a screaming kiwi

Sometimes you look at a photograph and think to yourself no, that can’t be right, someone’s photoshopped it.  You’d be forgiven for thinking that about Hokitika Gorge.  Published photos of this place seem so impossibly blue, framed by cold grey rocks and surrounded by the lush green native bush.  But when we get there Mrs P and I can see there’s nothing fake about it. This place is the real deal.

Access to the waters of the Hokitika River is via a series of paths and boardwalks through the forest, which open out onto a swing bridge across the river.  The swing bridge offers excellent views of the blue-green waters of the Hokitika River as it cuts a path through the gorge.

We continue on beyond the bridge for a few hundred metres, and the path leads to a jumble of riverside rocks over which dozens of eager tourists are scrambling, all anxious to get the perfect photo.  I confess that we did the same, but this really is one place on our travels that we need to record for posterity.

Why is the water such an amazing shade of turquoise? Apparently it’s caused by something called ‘rock flour’ which is rock that has been ground down by glaciers high in the mountains and is so fine that instead of settling to the bottom of the river it remains suspended in the water.  This phenomenon isn’t unique to Hokitika, or even to New Zealand, but it’s absolutely stunning and well worth a visit. On this occasion the photographs don’t lie.

*

From the gorge we make our way to the National Kiwi Centre in Hokitika town.  The kiwi is New Zealand’s national bird. We’d love to see one in the wild but they’re nocturnal, shy and very rare, so as an insurance policy we’re visiting the Centre where they have some captive birds in a custom-built replica of their natural environment. 

There are no windows, and they turn the lights on at night and off during the day to enable daytime visitors like us to see the kiwi as they dash around their enclosure in near total darkness.  Of course, it’s rather difficult to see them because it’s so bloody dark in there, and we’re quite rightly not allowed to take photos because the flash would traumatise the birds.

Nevertheless, we can make out through the gloom that these are large, stocky birds with improbably long beaks.  Although we struggle to see them there’s no missing the noise they make, as one of them is given to screaming at the top of his voice, and at such a high pitch that it would probably shatter the glass if this place had any windows. 

The Centre is a learning resource that seeks to ensure locals and visitors alike get to know more about kiwis.  Amongst other things, we learn how it came about that all New Zealanders are referred to as Kiwis.

New Zealanders have been ‘Kiwis” since the days of the First World-War.  It is a nickname bestowed by fellow Australian soldiers using their boot polish that had the image of a Kiwi on the tin – placed there in honour of the makers wife’s homeland and it stuck.  Kiwi are a natural fit with New Zealander’s national psyche – we relate to their quirkiness.

SOURCE: The National Kiwi Centre website, retrieved 13 November 2019

As well as the kiwis the Centre displays a few other New Zealand speciality species.  The one that interests me the most is the tuatara. Key facts about the tuatara are these:

The Tuatara are only found in New Zealand and are sometimes referred to as the world’s oldest living fossil. They are the only survivors of their reptile species which lived before the dinosaur age, over 200 million years ago. They are the largest reptile in New Zealand but are not a lizard. They are cold blooded but unlike most reptiles, prefer cooler weather.

In Maori, the name Tuatara means ‘Peaks on the Back’ and this is especially evident on the male Tuatara who has a crest of spines running down their neck and along their back. They stiffen these spines to look impressive to the females or to intimidate other males.

Juveniles have a third eye on the top of their head which is believed to help soak up UV rays to help them grow. This eye is not usually visible because they grow scales over it between 4-6 months of age.

Tuatara are slow growing until 35 years old and can live over 100 years. Males can grow up to half a metre in length and weigh 1.5kg

SOURCE: The National Kiwi Centre website, retrieved 13 November 2019

Although, as a keen birdwatcher, I’m pleased to see the kiwi, to be able to see a living, breathing tuatara is a special treat.  As a kid I was fascinated by all reptiles and knew about the tuatara, but never believed I’d see one in the flesh. Of course, I’d much rather see them, and kiwis, in the wild, but it’s reassuring to know that serious efforts are being made here and elsewhere to protect their future.