It's as dreamy as reality gets. A visit to New Zealand's last frontier of Stewart Island (Rakiura) feels like you're stepping into a secret garden.
A wondrous sanctuary, an island Eden, lassoed by the power and bounty of the Southern Ocean. Stewart Island had long been on my Kiwi bucket-list, but the Covid age has certainly provided the dream opportunity to walk the talk on our "I must do that one day" wish-listing.
Rakiura will not disappoint, it's a revelation. My 24-hour foray was headlined by savouring Ulva Island. Warmly greeted by my distinguished guide, Matt Jones is Chair of the Ulva Island Trust and my host extraordinaire treated me royally.
After all, he led Prince Harry around the island on his famous visit five years ago. We took a short taxi ferry across to Paterson Inlet from Golden Bay to this pristine jewel of primeval beauty.
It's the stillness, the rarefied silence that first casts you under its spell, on arrival. As one of New Zealand's few open island sanctuaries, most of the island is under national park protection, while the area of land around Post Office Bay is privately owned by the Hunter family. (If they ever want to sell, DOC is the only legal buyer).
Declared a protected reserve in 1899, after decades of whaling, sealing and forestry, the history of New Zealand's first declared nature island as an eco-tourism pioneer runs deep.
I was enthralled by Matt's insights about muttonbird scrub, a thick papery leaf and close cousin of rangiora, better known as Bushman's Friend. Muttonbird scrub, that grows prolifically in these parts, rose to global prominence as a ready-made postcard, a craze which gripped Victorian society over a century ago.
The leathery leaves didn't curl up, become brittle or rot, so it became an inter-generational pastime to mail this unique Stewart Island postcard, the world over. With stamps affixed, tourists would dispatch them from the Paterson Inlet Post Office until they were no longer accepted as legal post in 1973.
But it's the forest finery that I kept swooning over, as Matt led me through the well-maintained gravel trails. I gazed in awe of ancient rimu which you can see at all stages of growth: seedlings, saplings, young juveniles and grand old specimens. Matt enlightened me that if you can hug the girth of a rimu trunk, it's likely to be 200 years old.
Crowning the canopy of this Gondwana forest are more majestic podocarp giants; mighty totara, kamahi, miro and southern rata rising like skyscrapers above the uncurling fern fronds that carpet the forest floor. I was fascinated by the miniature forest of umbrella moss slathering the ground. It's a sign of pristine air quality.
Equally bewitching are the orchids that garnish proceedings. The birdlife was operatic, from chattering kakariki and the cheeky and chatty kaka, who shred the bark off totara with ease, to the melodic and mimicking calls of the bellbird and tui. I spied saddleback, kereru, a morepork, fantails, yellowheads and weka which are actually rarer in Stewart Island than kiwi.
It was actually a flock of startled yellowheads, signalling the alarm about a dozing morepork, that led us to admire both species.
The beautifully mottle-coated morepork is a predator. Another highlight were our encounters with the delightfully fearless, inquisitive and sociable South Island Robin.
These sweetheart birds will hop right up to you, hoping you'll scuff the ground to provide ready access to the grubs.
Then there's the shining success of saddleback, that have been extinct on the South Island for a century. A total of 30 were brought to Ulva Island in 2000.
Today, there's hundreds of them. A major DOC badge of honour.
Another ground-breaking achievement was notched up in 1997 with the eradication of rats from this glorious fenceless zoo.
As I gazed in awe at the gin-clear waters at Boulder Beach and Sydney Cove, edged in podocarp forest, you can't help but feel immensely privileged to savour such a pristine pocket of unpeopled beauty. It's a mesmerising place, a cure-all realm for jaded city souls. My half-day tour with Matt has whetted my appetite to return to Stewart island for more immersive encounters with nature's feathered treasures and the lush rainforest.
For more information visit www.ulva.co.nz