Stewart Island: Delights of a dodgy jetty

By Chris Samsara

Chris Samsara visits a rugged spot that has been heaven to some and hell to others.

A fishing line tangle requires a careful descent from the shaky jetty. Photo / Chris Samsara
A fishing line tangle requires a careful descent from the shaky jetty. Photo / Chris Samsara

The jetty is drunk. It lurches to one side, then the other. Its legs are leaning. You can't trust it. But there the four of us are, fishing with a hand line that barely reaches the water. It's so clear we watch fish watch us as they swim by. Jill catches one that's shorter than her hand and is immediately remorseful.

We are not of the resourceful and resilient stock that have called Port William home. The only sign that people tried to make a go of it here is half-a-dozen enormous gum trees. In what is now the Rakiura National Park, they tower above the surrounding bush.

This is where American Owen Smith set off in a whaleboat in 1804, searching for seals but stumbling upon a strait that disproved Captain Cook's analysis that, "there was little reason to support it an island".

Smith named the strait after himself, but it soon bore the name of the Governor of New South Wales, Joseph Foveaux.

I sit on the dodgy jetty and watch the sunrise over the strait. Behind me, the DoC trampers' hut sits a few metres above sea level on a grassy plateau. There are no signs that a barracks once stood on this spot in the 1870s.

It was all the dream of James Macandrew, the superintendent of Otago. He convinced the government that Port William would be the ideal site for Shetland Island emigrants. They built a barracks for 150, and said they would give each family 20 acres of land and a fishing boat. Macandrew enthused that a man could, "vary the ordinary business of his life by the more exciting occupation of whaling and sealing".

Twenty-four Shetlanders, including 11 children, arrived in 1873 to find bush to the water's edge, the barracks drafty and cold, and their fishing techniques useless. Within a year, they abandoned Port William, leaving only the gum trees.

I walk beneath them on a ribbon of sand that low tide uncovers. The beach stretches a few hundred metres from one rocky headland to the other. It's a peaceful place and easy to imagine what an idyllic place it would be for the right people.

Emma and Jack Wilkinson must have found it so in the 1880s for they called their property Dreamland. When Jack died 20 years later, Emma left this remote location and travelled the world as a ship's stewardess.

Olga Sansom visited them from Halfmoon Bay in the early 1900s, and wrote about it later in life. She remembers her mother and Emma swapping crochet patterns. Before they left, she filled her supplejack basket with Wilkinson's homegrown strawberries.

What Kiwi trampers Jill, Sarah, and Bruce wouldn't give for a fresh strawberry. They've spent 11 days eating what they can carry while tramping Rakiura National Park's North West Circuit. Bruce's feet are taped up but he reckons: "It only hurts when I walk." At the start of their last day, packs on their backs, all the talk is of a feed of fish and chips at Oban.

They have finished with the tree roots, the mud, the slippery rocks up and down steep slopes, for the Port William to Oban section is also part of the Rakiura Track, and its surface is as smooth as any path in your local park.

Several hours after I wave them off, I catch a water taxi back to Oban. From the water, I look back to see Port William as the Acheron's chronicler described it in 1850: "Enclosed on all sides by lofty timbered precipices."

And I can see now how the jetty isn't drunk, it's drowning.

CHECKLIST

Where to stay: Port William Hut has 24 bunks. Adults $20.40 a night, children up to 17 years old free. Two nights maximum. Must be booked and paid in advance. See doc.govt.nz or contact the visitor centre at Oban.

Seaview Water Taxi: Phone (03) 219-1014.

Further information: See stewartisland.co.nz.

Tourism Southland hosted Chris Samsara.

- NZ Herald

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