Stewart Island, or Rakiura (glowing skies) as it is known to the Maori, is one of NZ’s least explored eco-tourism destinations. Granite-based with high rocky outcrops it offers a mix of deep clear bays, white sandy beaches and towering emerald-green rainforest.
An ecological wonderland, three-quarters of the island is part of the Rakiura National Park. As the fourth largest park in New Zealand, it boasts some 157,000 hectares which teem with wildlife. The island is a paradise for trampers and nature lovers, offering many visitors the rare privilege of an unexpected rendezvous with a kiwi.
There are around 12,000 Stewart Island kiwi on the island. One of the larger species of this flightless bird, they are often seen foraging in the forest or hunting for sand hoppers on the beach. For those who do not come across one on their travels, kiwi-spotting night tours are available. Places are limited so it’s best to book in advance.
Stewart Island is also popular with birdwatchers because it has the largest and most diverse bird population in New Zealand, from the vividly feathered kaka and parakeet to the tui and bellbird with their melodic calls. Seabirds abound: there are several species of albatross and five types of penguin, including the tiny blue penguin and the rare yellow-eyed penguin – to name just a few! Ulva Island, a short boat ride from Stewart Island, is a pest-free open sanctuary where visitors can view and learn about many species that don’t thrive well on the mainland islands due to pests such as stoats, rats, and feral cats. The Stewart Island robin, South Island saddleback and the mohua (or yellowhead) are some of the rare birds likely to be encountered. The weka – often mistaken for kiwi – is prolific and these friendly birds usually provide a welcome committee. Day trips to Ulva Island can be organised at the Visitors’ Centre in Oban.
Stewart Island’s DOC Visitors’ Centre provides information on the island’s network of hiking trails. There’s a number of short hikes which range from 15 minutes to seven hours as well as several longer tramps which journey across the island through ancient podocarp forests of rimu, miro, southern kamahi and a dense carpet of ferns. The 36-kilometre Rakiura Track is extremely popular. It’s one of NZ’s Great Walks and can be covered in three days. It crosses the sheltered shores of Paterson Inlet and features historical sites and a mix of forest and open coast.
The North West Circuit is a challenging 125-kilometre, ten-day hike for hardier trampers and tackles some of the island’s most rugged terrain, while the Southern Circuit (which can be added to the North West Circuit to create a complete Stewart Island experience) takes six to nine days to complete. Comfortable huts on all the tracks provide toilets, running water, wood stoves and mattresses.
For underwater explorers there’s abundant marine life to be discovered amongst the tall bladder kelp, a 70-foot long kelp unique to the island. It can be explored on a snorkelling or diving trip, while chartered boat tours, deep sea fishing and sea kayak trips allow you to soak up the island’s sights by sea. Fishing is excellent and delicious blue cod can be caught from the rocks.
The island’s original Maori name: Te Punga O Te Waka a Maui (the anchor stone of Maui’s Canoe) refers to the part played in the legend of Maui and his crew, who from their canoe (the South Island) caught a great fish (the North Island). The island’s English name came courtesy of First Officer William Stewart, who charted the southern coast aboard the Pegasus in 1809. Today Stewart Island’s 400 or so inhabitants (many descended directly from Maori and European settlers) mostly live in or around Oban, the island’s only town. The pub provides a social centre and one of several dining options available to the visitor. As there are no banks on Stewart Island it pays to bring some cash, but most businesses accept EFTPOS or credit card.
For day trippers, bus tours cover most of the island’s 20-kilometres of road in an hour or so and give an excellent introduction to its history. Longer bus tours include bush walks with experienced naturalists.
Stewart Island can be reached by a daily scheduled ferry service from Bluff which takes around an hour, or a 20-minute flight from Invercargill airport.