Foveaux Strait separates the South Island from New Zealand’s third main island, STEWART ISLAND, a genuinely special place of rare birds, bountiful seas and straight-talking people.
Most of Stewart Island is uninhabited and characterized by bush-fringed bays, sandy coves, windswept beaches and a rugged interior of tall rimu forest and granite outcrops. It is known in Maori as Rakiura (“The Land of Glowing Skies”), although the jury is still out on whether this refers to the aurora australis – a.k.a. southern lights – occasionally seen in the night sky throughout the year, or the fabulous sunsets. With the creation of Rakiura National Park in 2002 a full 85 percent of the island is now protected.
Almost the entire population of 400 lives in the sole town, Oban, where boats dock, planes land and the parrot-shriek of kaka provides the soundtrack. There’s not much to do in town, but the slow island ways can quickly get into your blood and you may well want to stay longer than you had planned, especially if you’re drawn to serious wilderness tramping, abundant wildlife in unspoilt surroundings and sea kayaking around the flooded valley of Paterson Inlet.
Maori had been here for centuries before Captain Cook came by in 1770 and erroneously marked Rakiura as a peninsula on his charts. The island was later named after William Stewart, the first officer on a sealing vessel that visited in 1809. With the arrival of Europeans, felling rimu became the island’s economic mainstay, supporting three thousand people in the 1930s. Now almost all of Stewart Island’s residents live from conservation work, fishing (crayfish, blue cod and paua), fish farming (salmon and mussels) and tourism.Read More
The birdlife in Oban is pretty special, but it pales next to that on the 2km-long, low Ulva Island – an open wildlife sanctuary that’s been cleared of introduced predators through sustained local effort. On a series of easy walks to secluded beaches you’ll see more native birdlife than almost anywhere else in New Zealand. The place is full of birdsong, its dense temperate rainforest alive with endangered saddleback, bellbirds, kaka, yellow- and red-crowned parakeets, tui, fantails, pigeons and robins, who approach visitors with fearless curiosity.
Everyone lands at Post Office Bay, whose former post office, over 100 years old, is a remnant from the days when Ulva Island was the hub of the Paterson Inlet logging community. Armed with DOC’s Ulva Island: Te Wharawhara booklet ($2), you can find your own way along trails, though naturalist guidance on one of the tours means you’ll spot a lot more. There’s a pleasant picnic shelter beside the sand beach at Sydney Cove.
Stewart Island has become synonymous with kiwi spotting in the wild, something that is difficult to do on mainland New Zealand. Tours from Oban include kiwi spotting, but most people are keen to get to Mason Bay, on the west coast, where they stay overnight in the DOC hut and head out after dark in the hope of finding these elusive creatures. You’ll almost certainly hear them, and have a fair chance of seeing them provided you don’t go crashing about in the bush: just pick a spot and wait. Take a torch, but keep the beam pointed to the ground to avoid disturbing the birds.
For hardy visitors, the cheapest way to visit is to walk (38km one-way; 13–15hr) along the southern leg of the North West Circuit, probably staying overnight at Freshwater Hut. You can save a lot of time by catching a water taxi from Oban to Freshwater Landing Hut (40min) then walking to Mason Bay (15km; 3–4hr; flat but often flooded – check conditions before you head out).
Stewart Island Flights offer a “Coast to Coast” loop, flying from Oban to the beach at Mason Bay (not at high tide), staying a night or two there, walking to Freshwater Landing, then getting a water taxi back to Oban (or vice versa).