Stewart Island: Island kiwis captivating for tourists

By Anthony Doesburg

The kiwi dollar might have lost its allure on international currency markets but its feathered namesake remains highly sought after by foreign visitors to Stewart Island, or Rakiura.

The country's third biggest island, a 20-minute flight from Invercargill or hour-long ferry passage from Bluff, is a popular destination for tourists hopeful of spotting a southern tokoeka, a variation of the Fiordland brown kiwi, in the wild.

Many do. Kiwi sightings are a common conversation-starter in the tramping huts dotted around the Rakiura coast.

So is mud. The brown sticky stuff is the scourge of trampers on the 125km North West Circuit and the shorter Southern Circuit.

In winter, you expect to have to wade your way through knee-deep mud. But in summer the tracks are supposed to be in better condition.

Not so when I arrived in the second half of January. Days of rain and heavy foot traffic had churned the tracks into magnificent mud baths.

That slowed down, but didn't stop, the eager kiwi-spotters. A young tramper from the north of England, whose duct tape-bound boots signalled the track conditions, told of having been kept going by eight kiwi encounters during a solo 10-day North West Circuit slog.

A pair of American women making their way to the top of 775m Rocky Mountain, alerted by rustling in the fern on the edge of the track, got within a metre of a large specimen.

And an Israeli man in his 20s recounted the same day at Freshwater Landing how one of the birds practically blundered into his feet during the four-hour walk from Mason Bay.

With so many kiwi being seen, I was optimistic my time would also come. Since they are usually nocturnal, I thought I would have the best chance if I took to the bush during the semi-dark of early morning and twilight (about 10pm in the deep south in summer). But no such luck.

I was well able to join in the discussions about mud. But not kiwis. Maybe they prefer foreigners?

I had made an early morning kiwi spotting run on the same track as the American women and saw not a sausage. But they left half an hour later and found one still out and about at 9am.

A tramper from Wellington happened upon one within a dozen metres of Mason Bay hut in the late afternoon. She had stepped on to Mason Bay beach an hour before off a plane from Invercargill and hadn't even got her boots dirty. It doesn't seem fair.

Most of the sightings being talked about also suggest Stewart Island's tokoeka have taken a leaf out of the lifestyle manual of dozy human teens: in other words their body clocks have been reversed.

The Department of Conservation's Stewart Island biodiversity manager, Brent Beaven, says there are a couple of reasons why southern tokoeka are often seen in daylight, both to do with the island's latitude.

For one thing, in such southern climes it's so chilly that eggs need incubating right through the night. That means male and female adults take turns at foraging for food, while the other stays on the egg.

But summer nights are too short for both to have eaten their fill by daylight. Since the male feeds first, females can still be seen poking around as late as 10am.

Beaven says the island's kiwi population is thought to be 20,000-30,000, about the same as the South Island. With signs that it could be in decline, a closer count is being made.

Feral cats, of which there are thought to be thousands on the island, are a major predator. Kiwi chicks form part of their diet, with the occasional adult bird succumbing to a large cat.

DoC uses poison to keep the cats - and rats, which compete with kiwis for food - under control.

Flying into Mason Bay, at the intersection of the North West and Southern circuits, is a lazy way of getting a taste of Rakiura's ruggedness.

That's at the risk of feeling a bit of a fraud, however, as trampers stagger into the hut after the seven-hour mud-fests from Big Hellfire hut in the north or Doughboy Bay in the south.

Still, the trampers have the satisfaction of having risen to the challenge, which they do with varying degrees of preparedness, from the fit party of young locals with their gourmet tucker and bullet-proof equipment, to the trio of Swedes in light footwear with packs full of baked beans.

I take the water taxi down Freshwater River and across Paterson Inlet to Golden Bay, from where it's a 10-minute walk - without mud - to Oban, the island's only town.

At the pub and Kai Kart (famous for its fish and chips) were many of the people I ran into in the bush rewarding themselves for the rigours of days - sometimes as long as a fortnight - of hard yakka.

On the edge of town I met another overseas visitor, Tom Hennessy, who wasn't on the island to observe kiwi. A Canadian, he spends several months a year in New Zealand, and has built a home in Oban, from where he markets the Hennessy Hammock. Unlike usual hammocks, the design, for which he is seeking a number of patents, ensures you lie flat, not bent.

Hennessy offers me a private screening of the documentary 9/11 Mysteries, which casts doubt on the official version of events that day in US history.

I decline through lack of time, no doubt reinforcing his view, expressed earlier, that New Zealand's human inhabitants have a head-in-the-sand attitude to uncomfortable truths.

Could this be how we come to be named after a flightless bird that is sensitive to light, hard of hearing and spends its life with head down, tail up?

For further details about visiting Stewart Island see www.stewartisland.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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