Stewart Island: Adventures in the South Seas

With our big South Island trip done, there was only one major island left unexplored: Stewart Island. This island is New Zealand’s third largest and the southernmost, so we had a lot of travelling to do in order to get there! We scheduled a long weekend and, during the morning rush hour, headed for Auckland Airport to start our journey.

The two domestic flights– from Auckland to Christchurch to Invercargill– on small Air New Zealand planes were fairly uneventful. We’re both used to airports so the only point of interest was in Christchurch, where as we landed we saw a plane belonging to the US Antarctic Survey. Sadly, it wasn’t visible from the terminal but it was cool to be reminded of how close to Antarctica we actually are as our trip took us further and further south.

In the early afternoon, we arrived at Invercargill, a small town nearly at the end of the South Island and further south than anywhere we’d been to on our South Island road trip. From here we would catch a bus that would take us to the ferry, which would then head to Stewart Island. The Invercargill airport was not much more than a large barn, with not even a security checkpoint or multiple gates, so we took a taxi into town to check out the local attractions. Firstly, we stopped by the Invercargill Brewery shop to get some needed supplies: a lager, a pale ale and a superb traditional scrumpy.

No wrong choices here, though!


Then, we headed to the I-Site which conveniently was both a tiny museum, a cafe and the pickup for the ferry shuttle! We had a decent snack at the cafe and then learned all about tuatara, the prehistoric not-lizard for which the museum was a proud conservation site. The tuataras were housed in a large greenhouse area, split into several different environments. At first sight, this precaution of separating the tuataras seemed unwarranted: the tuataras we saw were scarily motionless, with no blinking or signs of breathing to distinguish them from detailed statues.

However, the informational boards pointed out the problem: a feisty individual tuatara named Henry. Henry the tuatara tended to attack other tuataras, even the females he was supposed to mate with, so he had be separated into his own enclosure for everyone’s safety.

Henry the bloodthirsty.

Finally, it was time to say goodbye to the mainland and journey to the ferry. The ferry terminal was a fifteen-minute minibus ride in the village of Bluff, a small town at the cold, windswept end of the South Island and famous for its oysters. We loaded our bag into a large metal box with the rest of the luggage, which was then covered with a waterproof tarp and craned onto the small ferry.

We boarded as well, taking seats as near the back as possible. Ominously, every seat had a pocket filled with small paper bags in front of it. We also got earplugs from the bar, as placing them in the ear opposite your dominant hand is meant to ward off seasickness. I had also taken a motion sickness pill before boarding. Sadly, none of these precautions were enough. The late afternoon wind had picked up and the waves were high. The Foveaux Strait, the channel separating the South Island and Stewart Island, is quite shallow which makes it notoriously rough.

Sadly, not all lunches made it to Stewart Island, but we and our luggage did! We arrived at the tiny, 400-person town of Oban (or Halfmoon Bay), the only settlement on the island. Tired from our long day of travelling, we were happy to meet our host, who loaded us and our luggage into her car and drove us to our accommodation, the holiday home called Skip’s Place. She explained the layout of the town, showed us the cabin and told us to come to their house– a quick walk down the path out back– if there were any issues.

The back garden.

The house was small and cozy, with a few quirks. The bathroom was in a separate attachment located immediately outside the back door. The shower was happily inside, but we had to heat the water via the wood-burning stove. The water for all buildings on Stewart Island is collected rainwater, which also meant periodically we had to press a button that would pump water from storage to the roof, where it fed into the house.

Our first attempts at a fire were fairly pathetic, but we slowly got better at keeping the fire going. When we woke up on the first morning, it was chilly in the house, but after the fire had been going for a bit (and we had our morning tea) the house heated up well. This was quite lucky as the weather had turned even more nasty: the wind had reached over 50 knots, forcing all the ferry crossings and flights from and to the island to be cancelled. We were lucky to have arrived the day before!

The misty view from the front of the house.

Despite the weather, we ventured out to explore the town and get some groceries. We walked past the rugby field where kiwis were said to be at night and headed down the hill into Oban. The town only has the essentials: there was the small Four Square supermarket beside the dock, the South Seas Hotel (with attached bar and restaurant) on the waterfront, a primary school across from a small museum (that was never open while we were there) and the Kai Kart, the only takeaway place with amazing food that was also run by the same people as Skip’s Place. The only other place for food was a small cafe that, when we went, was preparing to close for the winter.

Across from the cafe was the Department of Conservation visitor center, which saw a lot of traffic as the main source of information on the Stewart Island walking tracks.

We spent quite a bit of time here.

While Oban is tiny and contained on a peninsula with the sea on three sides, the entirety of Stewart Island is over 600 square miles of wilderness, barely touched by humans. Many people come to the island to do the Rakiura Great Walk, a three-day trek that still does not get very far into the Stewart Island bush. Over 10,000 kiwi are said to live on Stewart Island (sadly, we saw none of them), but more types of birds are concentrated on Ulva Island, a refuge off of the other side of the peninsula. To get out of the wind for a bit, we watched an hour-long documentary about Ulva Island’s birdlife at the DOC center before getting our groceries and heading back to the house.

Later in the afternoon, we braved the wind again to explore the other side of the peninsula. The hill dropped steeply to the water, where many boats were anchored. We walked along the road for a bit and watched the waves batter the shore.

I wouldn’t have wanted to be out on the water in this weather!

Back in the house, we made dinner and broke open the first of our nice Invercargill Brewery beer. Between stoking the fire, we played some board games (M won Scrabble every time), read some books and watched TV. While we have a television at our apartment, we never use it, so watching shows and movies on TV is a purely vacation-type activity for us. We also braved the shower for the first time and found that the water was surprisingly hot! At night, the lack of streetlights or neighbors made it very dark and so we got a very restful night’s sleep.

The next day was much calmer: though it was still cloudy, the wind had died out. We stoked the fire and had breakfast, only to be joined by a visitor! One of the reasons we chose Skip’s Place over a beachfront bach (NZ for holiday home) was that its forest location meant that kaka, the large forest parrot and relative to the kea, often stop by the place. These birds are often shy and difficult to find on the mainland (as we well knew) but on Stewart Island they fly above the town in noisy flocks and are much more fearless.

The bold kaka.

This individual flew right to the log that the owners of Skip’s Place had fixed to the porch railing. Like the other visitors to the house before us, we knew that it was not allowed to feed the kaka. With that firmly in mind, we definitely did not try to give it a healthy offering of an orange which was not inspected with disdain and was not rudely tossed on the ground. Clearly, the kaka only care about that best of bird junk foods, bread. However, we held firm and definitely did not ever give in to its demands and bring it the bread it wanted, at which point the kaka departed satisfied (by the lack of bread (that we didn’t give it)). Over the course of our stay, several others visited and we could hear others run across the roof. Stewart Island is the ideal place not only see, but be among birds.

We spent the day relaxing and in the evening walked out of town along the peninsula. Our goal was the lighthouse at the end, but since we didn’t quite trust our flashlight to not go out on the way back, we crossed over to the other side of the peninsula (a five-minute walk) to the appropriately-named Evening Cove.

The view from Evening Cove.

A pair of oystercatchers joined us, but otherwise we were alone. Though early March is late summer in New Zealand, the weather had already cooled down this far south and so it seemed as if there were few visitors besides ourselves. Of course, many people were probably on the trails, battling the infamous Stewart Island mud, but we were very happy just to relax in the peaceful town, far from the hustle and stress of Auckland.

On the way back we watched the sun set behind the town. The Maori name for Stewart Island, Rakiura, means “glowing sky,” referring either to the beautiful sunsets that the island is famous for or the aurora australis, the southern lights. We didn’t see the southern lights (another reason to go back!) but we did enjoy the sunset.

Sunset behind Oban.

The next day was our last full day on Stewart Island, so we decided to go to Ulva Island. The ferry to the island refuge left out of Golden Bay, which was even closer to Skip’s Place than the town. We packed a lunch and caught the ferry; ten minutes later, we were there!

As Ulva Island is one of the major attractions of Stewart Island, we were joined by many other visitors. We arrived at the dock, located on a clear green bay, and while the other ferry passengers headed straight onto the network of trails, M and I lingered for a bit, waiting so that we’d be the only ones on the trail and so see more birds. This plan was good but unnecessary, as one of the main birds on the island came to us instead.

No zoom required for this photo!

The South Island robin is totally fearless, especially on Ulva Island, and this one carefully inspected us and our belongings before flitting away. As we left the dock and wandered the trails, other robins also hopped out onto the path, looking for the bugs that we stirred up in our footsteps.

Of course, robins weren’t the only birds. Every fifty feet we could stop and see something different: the usual tuis and pigeons, loud kaka and parakeets and even the high-pitched peeping riflemen. We kept an eye out on the ground as well for any daytime kiwi and the South Island saddleback: we eventually saw the latter with a parent hopping around feeding an adolescent. Like Tiritiri Matangi, there were birds everywhere.

The jungle, which made it difficult to get good pictures of birds!

The paths also took us out to Ulva Island’s beaches, where we encountered the boldest of all: the weka. We had seen this flightless birds before but these were even more nosy. In the forest they were annoying because they sounded the same as a kiwi crashing through the bush, but they also ventured out onto the beaches. While eating a snack, a weka casually wandered over and poked around, circling in case any crumbs were dropped. At least the bold robins were cute!

A weka gets close to M’s boots.

At the end of the day, we hustled back to the dock only to find a queue for the ferry. While the ferry took people over at various times during the morning, at around 5 p.m. everyone wanted to leave. Since the ferry only seated about eight people, we had to wait our turn. This situation was fine by us, as it allowed a bit longer on the wonderful Ulva Island.

The ferry, hard at work.

That night we had dinner at the South Seas Hotel, which naturally had fresh seafood in very filling portions. However, we were bittersweet as it was our last night on Stewart Island. When we planned it, three full days with no solid plans sounded like enough, but the slow pace of life on the island was infectious; if and when we go back, we’ll stay for a full week at least!

The next day, we packed up and left our bag on porch of Skip’s Place (the owners kindly dropped it off at the ferry dock for us) and headed out into town. We had to be out of the house at 10 a.m. but the ferry didn’t depart until 3 p.m., so we had plenty of time to kill.

The view of the town from the hill; the school is the large tan building in the middle.

We wandered the overgrown paths around the town, tried to visit the museum (closed again) and had an amazing lunch at the Kai Kart (M and I agreed that my venison burger and his fish and chips were better than most places in Auckland).

After eating lunch on the waterfront, we walked over the hill above the ferry dock to another beautiful beach. On the way back, several shuttles passed us on the road, taking trampers to the actual trailhead which was about 7 kilometers out of town. Our journey was ending, though. We met our luggage at the dock and boarded the ferry. Happily the ride back was much smoother (though I had taken the pills just in case) and we could enjoy standing on the back rail, watching Stewart Island fade into the distance.

Mount Anglem, the highest point on Stewart Island.

Once back on the South Island, the ferry shuttle took us directly to the Invercargill Airport. The flight to Christchurch was uneventful but the flight to Auckland was slightly delayed. We arrived home late on Sunday, tired and wishing we were still in the peace and quiet of Stewart Island. Though the journey was long, the destination was very much worth it!


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