Finding Stewart Island's Elton John and not finding any of the 13,000 kiwi is all part of the adventure, writes Tim Roxborogh
"Quickly! We must go now!" These were the first words I heard from our host Manfred Herzhoff and any thoughts that day one on Stewart Island was to be just a quiet, relaxing travel day went out the window. We'd caught the nine-seater, 20-minute flight from Invercargill and my head was still in the sky. Or rather, still buzzing from how stunning New Zealand's third largest island - the 1746sq km Stewart Island - looks from above.
Also known as Rakiura, Stewart Island might be two-thirds of the way to Antarctica, but forget notions this is some barren, unforgiving land. Indeed, that short flight gives more than a few clues as to why no less than 85 per cent of the island has been designated a national park. Belying the southerly latitude, is a densely forested setting complete with white-sand beaches and clear waters. Somehow it almost looked subtropical, though at 46-degrees south of the equator, we'd be talking sub, sub, sub, subtropical.
Regardless, as we came in to land on that carved-out-of-the-forest airstrip, I couldn't believe how much it reminded me of remote Southeast Asian jungle airports. Indeed, the Stewart Island airstrip is so remote that it is just that: an airstrip. With no structures in sight, a minivan transports you from the plane, through the trees and down to the only settlement on the island, the seaside town of Oban, population 400.
It was here I phoned our contact for our three nights on Stewart Island. Thinking Manfred was just picking up me and my buddy Glen to take us back to his eco-lodge, Jensen Bay House, we quickly learned he had other ideas. A German in his 60s with a love of good food, good wine, good clothes, good company and good glasses - he has 57 different pairs of reading glasses and jokingly calls himself "the Elton John of Stewart Island" - Manfred Herzhoff is a person not easily categorised.
Sure, the word "eccentric" springs to mind, but it doesn't do justice to a wildly entertaining raconteur, who is also a staunch environmentalist and creator of a remarkable lodge on the other side of the world from the country of his birth. How remarkable? The self-sufficient, wind, water, and solar-driven Jensen Bay House comes complete with New Zealand's only clay-wall heating system, a French pyramid fireplace and a sauna. It was designed with feng shui principles in mind and has artworks as selected by a Hindu monk. And with Manfred, a New Zealand resident for more than 30 years now, Stewart Island is so much in his blood that one of his adult children is even named Rakiura.
Living and working alongside each other, Rakiura (a wonderfully straight-laced yin to his father's yang) and Manfred are determined to offer guests to Jensen Bay House adventure as well as warm, eco-focused hospitality. And for us, that adventure began straight away because Manfred had eyed some iffy weather on the horizon and wanted to take us kiwi-spotting.
Bags were dropped at the lodge, gumboots provided and back into the car we went, en route to the jetty. Barely 30-minutes after the wheels of the plane had hit the runway, there we were on Manfred's boat, snapping photos while gently swooping mollymawk albatrosses surfed in the wake of the vessel.
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The mollymawks were spectacular, but we were in search of a bird of a more flightless variety, in a little corner of the 100sq km Paterson Inlet called The Old Neck. Landing on a beach with gigantic sea lions dotted like driftwood, Manfred marched us up and over dunes, and in and out of caves and over rock pools.
With as many as 13,000 kiwi in the wild on Stewart Island, it's arguably the best place in the country to see our national icon in its natural habitat. This is something aided by the fact Stewart Island has never had the scourge of stoats, ferrets or weasels - also a big reason why the forests here are so lush.
I'll end the suspense: we might have seen their little footprints in the sand everywhere - and I mean everywhere - but on day one, much like day two and day three, all the kiwi undoubtedly around us somehow managed to stay hidden.
It didn't matter. On day two I woke up to sunrise at Jensen Bay House with a kākā sitting on my upstairs balcony. On day three we saw weka walking about on the beautiful eco-sanctuary that is Ulva Island during a guided tour from acclaimed ecologist Furhana Ahmad, of Ruggedy Range Tours.
Furhana also showed us the start of the 32km Rakiura Track (one of New Zealand's nine official Great Walks), and Manfred took us further into Paterson Inlet to an old whaling station at the abandoned Kapipi Shipyard.
The more we saw, the more it felt like Stewart Island was casting a spell on us. From rare wildlife, to pristine rainforests, to sparkling beaches, Stewart Island would be a blast even without a hilarious German and his 57 pairs of glasses. But add Manfred Herzhoff to the mix and you just might find this becoming one of your most talked about holidays.
Tim Roxborogh hosts Newstalk ZB's Weekend Collective and blogs at RoxboroghReport.com