Cloaked in ancient bush, kiwi outnumbering people and only one town, the rugged beauty of Rakiura Stewart Island offers a passage back in time for those who make the journey, writes Emma Gleason
The last stop south before Antarctica, Rakiura Stewart Island sits stoically at the bottom of Aotearoa, surrounded by the cold, crystal-clear waters and temperamental weather of the Foveaux Strait. The landscape is primeval and raw, with untouched native bush engulfing most of the island. The feeling is that of an outpost – isolated and unhurried, closely attuned to the natural world. Those who make the trip do so for its flora and fauna, outdoor activities and famously good seafood.
We flew in from Invercargill on a tiny Stewart Island Flights plane, a trip that took all of 20 minutes. The island emerged from the rain and cloud as we descended, sprawling and cinematic, encircled by 164km of coastline that wraps around countless bays and inlets.
The airstrip is on one of the hills, little more than tarmac and a windsock. Arrivals are met by a minivan that takes you down to the main (and only) township, Oban, located in the shelter of Halfmoon Bay on the north-eastern side of the island. Flights also depart from Queenstown or you can catch the ferry from Bluff, which takes around an hour.
Visiting Rakiura Stewart Island is like stepping back in time. There is one tiny settlement, a smattering of houses in other bays, 30 Department of Conservation huts, and only about 24km of roads. Eighty-five per cent of the island's land area is covered by Rakiura National Park. Created in 2002 and spanning 157,000 ha, it is New Zealand's most recent national park. It's remarkably pristine and untouched – set aside as state forest in 1886, by the early 1900s the majority of the island's land had reserve status and, due to weather, topography and resources, there was little development inland.
Waitaha Māori were the first to inhabit the island, thought to have begun in the 13th century, followed by Ngāti Mamoe and Ngāi Tahu. In the early 1800s Rakiura Māori were joined by European whalers, sealers and sailors; the two groups quickly intermarried, creating what is considered one of the earliest multicultural communities in the history of Aotearoa.
These days around 400 people live on the island permanently and many are direct descendents of some of the earliest inhabitants. Industry centres around fishing, marine farming, tourism and conservation.
Accommodation is strategically limited and we booked in at the iconic South Sea Hotel on Booking.com; we're fans of simple, down-to-earth accommodation with local flavour ,- and the South Sea has swathes of that. A traditional hotel pub, the atmospheric two-storey weatherboard building has served that same purpose (more or less) since it was built – originally a boarding house for workers, it became a hotel in the 60s.
They have traditional rooms upstairs, where we were, as well as studio and cottage options beyond the main building. Saturated with memories and history (photos of which are all over the walls) it has given many a warm port of call on a freezing night and a cold beer on a summer's day. Old hotel pubs like this have a charming intimacy to them; we felt part of the furniture immediately – thanks to the jovial Sylvia at the front desk – and being in such close proximity to the locals helps you feel like one, even if it's just for the weekend.
There is a pub quiz on Sundays (Prince Harry famously took part during his 2015 visit) and the food is another claim to fame of South Sea Hotel. Focusing on locally sourced seafood, they have a restaurant and a pub - visitors can eat in either. The region is renowned for its blue cod, which the pub serves in several forms – we chose burgers, with chips, of course, chased down with a cold handle of lager.
We met up with Ian outside the hotel after dinner; Ulva's Guided Walks had arranged for him to take us out to (hopefully) spot some Rakiura tokoeka (Stewart Island kiwi). It had rained heavily that evening but Ian believed that meant the birds would be out foraging for food. He was right – we weren't 5m from the gate before we stumbled on a large juvenile at the edge of the tussock grass and, over the next hour as we picked our way carefully through the scrubby field, we would see four more.
I'd never seen kiwi before, let alone in the wild. They're big, far bigger than I realised; Rakiura tokoeka are different to those in the rest of the country; they are larger, standing around 40cm high when fully grown and, unlike their mainland cousins, can be found out in about in the daytime. There are 20,000 of them on the island, outnumbering their human neighbours 50 to one.
Ian was as surprised as us to see so many, so we called it a night after an hour – leaving them to finish their dinner without an audience. They're noisy eaters, snuffling and sucking their way through the ground with those long beaks to get the worms and bugs that make up much of their diet. We headed back to the warm glow of the South Sea Hotel, where we had one more beer and watched the locals banter before going upstairs to bed.
Friday and Saturday nights are known to get convivial. Our room was above the pub and yes, the rumours are true – we were given earplugs in case the revelry got too loud. Not that we needed them, sleeping deeply thanks to the combination of good food and a warm room (there are classic wall-mounted radiators) and our evening walk.
We were up early the next day to catch the sunrise – a dramatic streak of red across the horizon – and pack our bags. By 8am the restaurant downstairs was already busy, with locals getting a hot coffee and a bite to eat. We felt it our duty to have the full food experience of the South Sea Hotel, so ordered a big (BIG) breakfast and English muffins with eggs to start the day – the size, flavours and quality left us lost for words.
Matt from Ulva's Guided Walks kindly picked us up and we drove to Golden Bay wharf (a 15-minute walk from Oban) where we got the water taxi to Ulva Island/Te Wharawhara Marine Reserve.
Located in Paterson Inlet/Whaka ā Te Wera, seven minutes from Golden Bay, the small island is a predator-free sanctuary. It was home to the community's post office from 1872 until 1923; run by naturalist Charles Traill, the buildings are still there and used intermittently by his descendants.
We followed tracks through the bush for nearly three hours, with Matt revealing the history of the island, pointing out all the native trees, like rimu, miro, kāmahi, rātā and more. The bush is old, pristine and nearly totally untouched, home to birds aplenty – we saw kākā, saddlebacks, robins, tūī, kererū, kākāriki and weka.
Once back in Oban, we had a hot coffee at the cosy, funky, Just Cafe, before heading out to explore the township. Even though we were on the island for a fleeting time, we squeezed in three short walks – heading up Church Hill and around to Bather's Bay, as well as around the coast to the east.
We also spent time planning our next visit, poring over the map on the wall of the pub and consulting people about the best tracks across the island – several recommended flying to Doughboy Bay on the western side for a beach landing and then spending a few days hiking back on the Southern Circuit Track.
Walkers of all abilities will love exploring Stewart Island; from strolls like the Raroa Reserve Track to more intensive hikes like the Rakiura Track, there's something for everyone – and the island boasts more than 280km of walking trails.
With unfinished business aplenty and our sights firmly on another visit soon, we regretfully made our way to the charming "Koru Club" – the garage and office where the van to the airfield picks you up for the flight home.
While waiting for the vehicle another local made an appearance – a handsome sea lion had wandered across the main road from the beach and was throwing his weight around, chasing cars and intimidating dogs – a surprising yet perfectly fitting finale to our visit. The local police officer turned up to sort it out (there was a wedding reception around the corner at the community centre due to start) and we could still see his lights flashing as our plane flew over the tiny town and back to the mainland.
RAKIURA STEWART ISLAND
Fly from Auckland to Invercargill with Air New Zealand, then across to Rakiura with Stewart Island Flights.
Rooms at South Sea Hotel start from $80 per night. booking.com
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com/dosomethingnew