The first surprise — and there are many — about Rakiura Stewart Island is how big it is. Tucked away down the bottom of the map, it looks small compared with the South Island, but it's actually the same size as Singapore. It is, of course, nowhere near as populous: rather than almost six million inhabitants, there are fewer than four hundred, most of them living along the scant 27 kilometres of roads that cluster around Oban, the only town.
This has two big advantages. When you're in town, it feels comfortably lived-in; but it takes only a few minutes to get away on your own, feeling that you have the place entirely to yourself. Not true, actually: you are never really alone on Stewart Island, thanks to the first of its five Big Bs.
Birds are everywhere. We're not talking sparrows — wander around the streets of Oban and you will certainly see and hear kākā rampaging overhead, and quite probably boldly coming up close, in hopes of a feed. Even more remarkably, you might spot a kiwi. Hugely outnumbering people, about 20,000 Stewart Island Brown Kiwi live here and, forced by short nights in summer to forgo being strictly nocturnal, they are regularly spotted around the streets in daylight.
If you want to make this a virtual certainty, nearby Ulva Island is the place to go. A 10-minute water taxi ride from Golden Bay, it's a predator-free sanctuary where you can take a picnic and spend a day wandering the tracks, spotting a wide variety of species. Weka are particularly fearless here, and will appreciate some help shifting stones on the beach to reveal tasty treats beneath.
There will be kiwi poking around in the bush to find here, but if you go on a special night-time kiwi-spotting expedition from Oban to Little Glory Cove, you'll feel the same thrill that David Attenborough did, watching these extraordinary birds thrusting their beaks deep into the sand after insects, and vigorously sneezing their nostrils clear afterwards.
Beaches are a real delight on Rakiura. Cappuccino-coloured sand between rocky headlands is lapped by tropically turquoise clear water, through which you will see colourful pāua shells glinting. Of course, you'll need either bravery or a wetsuit to enjoy getting into that 13C water — you're at 47 degrees latitude here after all, next stop Antarctica — but on a sunny day it looks absolutely gorgeous. Take a walk from Oban's Half Moon Bay around the peninsula to Horseshoe Bay and you'll get lovely views of the town and the coastline, look down into little coves, come across a peaceful cemetery, and enjoy a halfway break at Dead Man's Beach, much lovelier than the name suggests. Keep going past the houses strung along the sweeping curve of Horseshoe Bay, and you'll find yourself at Lee Bay.
Here is a striking sculpture of a huge, rust-red chain, the links rising from the land, crossing the track and disappearing into the sand on the beach. This is Te Puka the Anchor Stone, and references the Māori legend of Rakiura being Māui's anchor when he fished up the North Island from his waka, Te Wāi Pounamu, the South. Its other end, painted silver, emerges from the sea at Stirling Point, in Bluff.
Bush takes over at this point. Here is where the Rakiura Track begins, taking you away on a 3-4 day circular tramp. You'll walk along empty beaches, over rocky headlands and through dense virgin forest where tall trees tower overhead. You'll find the hulking and rusted remains of logging operations here, and be glad so many rimu and other mature podocarps escaped being felled. You'll climb high and drop back to sea level, stay in DoC huts and discover the night-time glory of being in a Dark Sky Sanctuary, where the stars shine down in dazzling numbers. If you're really lucky, you might even experience the reason for the name Rakiura — blazing skies — when the aurora australis performs. Following the track, you'll pass secluded inlets where shorebirds are busy and you might spot little blue penguins; you'll already have had plenty of tuneful and/or noisy bird company as you've walked through the bush. Though they're officially intruders, it's still a thrill to spot the white-tailed deer that live here too.
Finally, you'll find yourself back at Oban, ready for some civilised comforts and congratulating yourself on your big tramp. Except… look at the map, and you've just done a circuit of one small arm of the island. If you want to do it properly, and people do, you'll have to buckle down to the Southern Circuit, which can take up to nine days, or, most challenging of all, the 12-day Northwest Circuit — both of them with the optional extra of a bit of mountain. There are also, on the other hand, many shorter and more accessible walks to enjoy in and on the outskirts of Oban.
Bikes are an easier way to get exploring, though there's no rugged mountain biking on offer here. No, this is the easy e-bike alternative, which is so much fun that 27 kilometres of road are only just enough. Hiring one comes with helpful instruction and advice, and you're soon skimming off around Oban's streets and then intrepidly heading off in whichever direction takes your fancy. You'll discover houses and baches both simple and impressive, rows of boatsheds reflected in the water in sheltered coves, even bits of history. There's a cute stone cottage in a lonely bay, an artful arrangement of buoys on a tree, a climb up to well-named Observation Rock, quiet back roads serenaded by bellbirds, empty beaches, challenging hills.
Bus touring is an easier, but still rewarding, option for exploring. Climb on board for the Village and Bays tour and get the inside story on island life from a local, who is so enthusiastic, and convincing, about Stewart Island's charms that more than one visitor from New Zealand has been persuaded to emigrate. There's history — loggers, Norwegian whalers, hunters for fur seals — and more modern stories, such as about the telephone that hangs from a rimu tree by the road, the crayfish shed, the Dancing Star Foundation that's fenced off an entire peninsula to eliminate predators. You'll hear rumour of moa still living in the remote regions; practical information about electricity, rubbish disposal, education; and advice not to miss, if possible, the famous Quiz Night on Sundays at the South Sea Hotel. You'll go from one side of Oban to the other and be shown everything you should visit: the museum, the Happy Birthday blackboard outside the Four Square, the $3/litre pump at the petrol station, the island's KFC (Kiwi/French Creperie), the little Bunkhouse Theatre showing A Local's Tail. You'll be told about the annual Waitangi Day rugby match when Māori beat Pakeha, every time, but all is forgiven at the hāngī afterwards; about the shotgun hole in the chain sculpture; the Trade Me package to boost primary school enrolments; the absence of teenagers.
Finally, it's time to leave, but you won't want to. Someone has told you that if you order a main of six Bluff oysters at the hotel, you're actually served with nine…
RAKIURA STEWART ISLAND
Take a return scenic flight from Queenstown to Stewart Island with Air Milford. Choose between day trip, or overnight options, with activities available. airmilford.co.nz
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com