Diving around Stewart Island reveals an underwater world unlike anywhere else, writes Clarke Gayford
If you are one of those people that friends always promise to catch up with yet frequently don't, then you'll know exactly how Stewart Island feels. Most Kiwis have it down as a "must-visit" destination, the vast majority of us, then do not.
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Not that I think Stewart Island minds much. At 19 times the size of Waiheke Island, but with a population of just two full Waiheke ferries, it's a place that does just fine without polar-fleeced hordes descending en masse.
It isn't just a single Island either. There are the smaller outer Islands covered in muttonbirds, and Edwards Island, surrounded by seasonal great white sharks. Ulva Island is New Zealand's southern bird sanctuary - it has never been milled and established pest-free status in 1997, making the seven-minute water taxi trip from Stewart Island to see its pristine bush and wildlife a must.
Birds, of course, have long known the secret of Stewart Island and were a constant companion on my trip. From the albatross surrounding our boat every time we stopped to the kāka that sat on the railing outside my accommodation, to the kiwi that roam freely at night. So common are kiwi that, with luck, you can spy them everywhere - the local rugby pitch at dusk, or down at the beach eating sand hoppers. Seeing our national bird through squinty eyes in a dark enclosure at the zoo is one thing, but spying two in the wild having a massive scrap on the side of the local airstrip, as we did with a guide from Beaks and Feathers, is something else entirely. Before visiting Stewart Island I never knew how fast our woolly looking drumsticks could move. Let me tell you, in the wild our national bird has pace.
As a person of the ocean, Stewart Island contains an extra pull. I've been lucky enough to dive in most places around our beautiful country and can tell you that underwater here is unlike anywhere else. Diving down through huge kelp forests, with shafts of light tangled in the green above, the variety of marine life is astonishing. Fish you don't often see in other places gather in the shallows in good numbers. Marine life such as trumpeter, blue moki, copper moki, blue cod, red cod, tarakihi, octopus, crayfish, pāua thick on the rocks and kina the size of dinner plates. The cold water here proving no barrier to flourishing life; quite the opposite, it seems to encourage it.
All human life on Stewart Island focuses around the pub, which also has accommodation for a comfortable stay. I'd also highly recommend visiting in winter for a true southern experience. Being so low in the world, it gets dark early and light late, and only in Antarctica have I seen a sunset and sunrise take as long as it does here. It's an eerie elongated dusk, which seems to start at about 4pm, perfectly complementing the broody mood of this almost forgotten place.
Public access to Stewart Island is by plane or ferry from Bluff across the infamous Foveaux Strait. It's a natural barrier to the place and one of our more notorious stretches of water, with its deepest point less than 30m, yet regularly swept with huge swells spun up from the roaring forties below. This combination makes large mountains of water suddenly stand to attention with little warning. The crossing is a rite of passage, which makes a safe arrival into Oban Harbour on Stewart Island all the more satisfying, the perfect way to set you up for an adventure ahead.
Clarke Gayford hosts Fish of the Day, Sundays at 5.30pm on Three