It was an ungodly hour in Little Glory Cove, on Rakiura and 18 nylon-clad humans were beginning to emerge. We were quiet, warm and waterproof; well-prepared for the possibility of meeting New Zealand's national animal.
The red glow of our flashlights eased our exploration and sparingly exposed the gorgeous prehistoric forest. The green held its own against the red light, a novel spectrum. I looked up and the whole Milky Way appeared to be laid out before us.
The only sound was the "swit-swit-swit" of our many thighs. A funny scene — and hardly stealthy. Fortunately, our quarry is hard-of-seeing and rather deaf.
At first, on Ocean Beach, Fiordland Jewel co-skipper Dave Barraclough found only small rats with his thermal telescope. Then all at once the mood changed. Dave had spotted a large, tell-tale ball of heat, a Stewart Island kiwi. Cue the quietest freak-out you can imagine.
Captured in a single red flashlight beam, the reality of a kiwi is surprising. Female Stewart Island kiwi have thumpingly huge legs, quite unlike how we imagine our mascot. They use their beaks like a third limb, sensing and plucking sandhopper larvae from the sand. Kiwi cannot see red light, so she lumbered along the beach, apparently oblivious to our presence. We followed her for some time, then reluctantly watched her disappear into the forest.
Kiwi outnumber humans on Stewart Island and it is estimated there are 20,000 of them. Your odds are fairly good of seeing one of them.
On the way back to the Fiordland Jewel, Dave pointed out pockmarks on the steep slopes where the track meets the forest. "The kiwi pull themselves up there with their beaks to reach their breeding grounds." I was blown away; this bird is strong — and canny.
The kiwi was a highlight, but Rakiura is somewhat of a magnet for these things.
On Stewart Island, the conifer-broadleaf forests are rimu growing above a canopy of kāmahi and southern rātā. Miro and mountain tōtara are also common conifers. Whekī (rough tree ferns), crown ferns, vines and an ornate showcase of mosses flourish in the wet climate.
The walks in the forest made me want to chastise Steven Spielberg for not shooting Jurassic Park on Rakiura. As botanist Leonard Cockayne noted in 1909, "it is an actual piece of the primeval world".
In the 700 years since human arrival, more than 75 per cent of New Zealand's forest cover has been burnt or chopped down. Large areas of native bush remain mainly where we've had logistical challenges in getting at it, in the high country and on our mysterious and beautiful orbital islands.
Native birds are a common sight and a constant sound, especially the maniacally laughing kākā, and tuī, kereru, korimako (bellbird), Stewart Island robin, pīwakawaka (fantail), weka and tīeke (saddleback) abound.
Rakiura means the "Land of Glowing Skies", referring to the Aurora Australis that occasionally light up the southern sky. Never mind the aurora, the sunsets and sunrises inspired dashes to our cameras every day.
New Zealanders often think Europeans are lucky to have dramatic changes in scenery within a couple of hours of their home turf. Well, so do we. On this trip I saw New Zealand at its most untouched and beautiful, and gained a profound appreciation of the world at our doorstep.
And, of course, every Kiwi should see a kiwi.
How to see a kiwi on Stewart Island
hosts kiwi encounters for $199, departing from Oban.
Incredible: Luxury three deck catamaran Fiordland Discovery are taking bookings now for its 6 night, 7 day 2020 Stewart Island expedition.