Aotearoa New Zealand’s third largest island (and sometimes referred to as the country’s “third island” after the North Island and the South Island), Rakiura / Stewart Island is a magical place.
The Te Ara a Kiwa / Foveaux Strait seaway is just wide enough (28.6 kilometres to be precise), and just rough enough, to make getting there something that takes a bit of effort – and with that effort, comes great reward.
It’s a small place. In the island’s tiny township of Oban there’s one pub, a couple of cafes, one grocery store (the Four Square), one ATM (it’s in the four square), a visitor centre, and not much else. But that’s the point.
Even better, the settlement of Oban is surrounded, and dwarfed, by a wilderness that is as vast as it is remote, a bush interior thick with lush fern growth, tall trees and echoing at night with the calls of the morepork and the remarkable flightless kiwi.
Intrigued? Here are five reasons to visit Rakiura / Stewart Island,
ONE: The native forest in Stewart Island Rakiura National Park
Opened in 2002, Rakiura National Park is the newest national park in Aotearoa New Zealand. It covers covers about 85% of Stewart Island.
There’s an array of walking tracks and tramping routes in the park, including the 32-kilometre Rakiura Track, which is one of New Zealand’s great walks.
The loop track follows coastline of Stewart Island, including the shores of Paterson Inlet, where you’ll be treated to deserted sandy beaches populated by New Zealand fur seals and a rich variety of birdlife, including mutton birds/tïtï (sooty shearwaters), little blue penguins/korora and oyster catchers / torea.
The Rakiura Track also hosts a range of cool-as relics from a once-bustling Stewart Island lumber industry, including old steam boilers and giant saws.
For the more adventurous, the mighty North West Circuit Track is a nine to 11-day 125-kilometre circuit of the island, taking in its northern coast, with remote rocky headlands and deserted coastlines. This is for the fit and experienced only.
Head into the visitor centre to check on local weather and track conditions – remember, you’re on an island in the middle of the Southern Ocean. The weather gets gnarly.
Wherever you go, be prepared for what is the contact companion of trampers on Rakiura / Stewart Island: mud. It will be at least ankle deep in places. It may be above your knees. You will get used to it, but do bring a set of gaiters, and spare socks.
A lot of people ask: “are there a lot of kiwis on Stewart Island?” Assuming they mean the birds, not the people, then answer is, oh yes.
Stewart Island is probably the best place in Aotearoa (and therefore the world) to see New Zealand’s national bird.
In fact, there are far more brown kiwi / tokoeka, on Stewart Island than there are humans. Even better, unusually for kiwi, the Rakiura version of the brown kiwi sometimes comes out during the day (possibly due to the fact that summer nights at the 47th parallel can get very, very short).
TWO: The birds, and the post office, on Ulva Island
Ulva Island’s 267 hectares have enjoyed an existence that has been fairly human-free, or at least logging-free, which has been good news for the birds and the trees that they live in. Ulva Island is an predator free bird sanctuary, and it is home to a feathered fraternity that includes some of the country’s rarest native species of birdlife.
Hope the wee ferry service from Golden Bay Wharf to explore the island and its birds, including big kereru and the endangered South Island saddleback – there were once only 36 left in the world, but now there are hundreds thanks to pest free open sanctuaries like Ulva Island.
You’re also bound to be visited by the friendly Stewart Island robin – a tiny, chatty bird known for mistaking shoelaces for worms. They’ll often land on your feet to have a go at making off with your laces.
(Top tip: head to Ulva Island in the morning to catch the tail end of the wonderful dawn chorus.)
As for the post office, opened in 1872, it was the first one in the region. When the mail boat came, the postmaster used to hoist a flag, alerting residents that it was time to come collect their mail. This was such an important occasion, locals used to get dressed up for it, and had a grand party to mark the occasion.
THREE: The ferry from New Zealand’s South Island
The ferry service from Bluff to Halfmoon Bay on Stewart Island is a cracker. For one, it starts at place that many people would consider the end – the terminus of State Highway 1, which starts at the norther tip of New Zealand, and ends just down the road from the Stewart Island ferry terminal.
From there, it’s a one hour ferry trip across open ocean that is Te Ara a Kiwa / Foveaux Strait. It can be rough, sure, but that’s half the fun. Plus, seabirds abound offshore, and many people count this as one of the more memorable boat trips of their lives.
(Wave averse? You can also hop on a place for the short, 20-minute flight from Invercargill Airport.)
FOUR: The sooty shearwater show at Ackers Point
Mutton birds/tïtï, also known as sooty shearwaters have a certain way of landing. And of the more than 20 million mutton birds that migrate every year from the Bering Sea to Aotearoa New Zealand, more than half end up in the vicinity of Stewart Island.
Back to the landing. Mutton birds are incredibly graceful in an above the water, where they will swirl and dive for food with the grace of winged ballerinas with a taste for seafood. Upon reaching land, however, they go from graceful to clumsy, tumbling out of the air and landing with a thump, then getting up to waddle off to find their nests. It’s as awkward as it sounds.
You can watch the whole thing happen live at Ackers Point, where the birds return at dusk to feed their chicks. There’s a walking track that will take you there but it’s not hard to find – listen for the eerie squawking of the chicks (seriously, they sound like haunted children) and the cacophony of thumps.
FIVE: The glowing skies above Rakiura / Stewart Island
Rakiura means “glowing skies”, which refers to the extraordinary sunrises and sunsets that bless the place, and for the Aurora Australis / Southern Lights, which show up often enough that your’ chances are more than fair that your see them.
It’s official, Rakiura / Stewart Island is lit.