Rakiura … the land of glowing skies

October 2020

Somehow, I had not been to Stewart Island before, despite it being New Zealand’s 3rd largest island – and then I manage to go twice in one year lol.  There will be more about my second trip in another blog post (something to look forward to lol). I had also intended this to be one post, but after writing it, it seems better suited to two – I don’t want to bore you more than necessary lol.

For the first time since I returned to New Zealand in February as the world shut down, I was back at the airport and on a plane (I must admit I missed it) and it was a beautiful day for flying. Firstly a flight from Christchurch to Invercargill (around 1 hour 20 minutes), New Zealand’s most southerly city, and then the short hop from Invercargill to Oban, the only town on Rakiura (only 10-20 minutes depending on the wind).  The beautiful day lead to some lovely areial photos (I must always have the window seat for this reason!)

Invercargill is truly a small city airport and Stewart Island Flights is most definitely a small town airline.  They fly only between Stewart Island and Invercargill on their two Britten Norman Islanders which take just 10 passengers (including the pilot) – they also have a Piper Cherokee which is even smaller.  The pilots end up doing much of the work, including taking the passengers to the plane (we had to walk through the baggage area to get to the plane 😂), loading the baggage and of course do the inflight safety briefing. 

The flight was a little bumpy and we did not seem to be very high above the ocean …. but why would you go high when you are landing in 15 minutes!  It took us out over the small town of Bluff as we said  goodbye to the mainland (as we South Islanders like to call the South Island) and across Foveaux Strait on to the first amazing views of Stewart Island with its bush covered hills, perfect half- moon bays with clear  turquoise water.

We landed on the airstrip just outside of Oban and the plane was quickly unloaded (and reloaded for its quick turnaround and flight back to Invercargill) and we were bused in to the depot, a short walk from the South Sea Hotel where we were staying.   If you get the opportunity to travel to Stewart Island, I would highly recommend the flight – not only is it quick, you get amazing views and avoid having to travel to Bluff and then ferry (a far longer journey).

Stewart Island or Rakiura (meaning ‘glowing skies’ after the Aurora Australis you can sometimes see from the island) has a long history of Māori habitation (around the 13th century) and was then settled by European sealers and whalers from around 1800 and subsequently loggers who set up a number of large timber mills on the island.  It got its name Stewart Island from William Stewart, the first mate on one of the early sealer ships.  Thankfully in the 1890’s a large part of the island was protected from milling or development which leaves us with the beautiful bush covered island we see today.

Oban itself, is named after Oban in Scotland (which means little bay) and is based around Halfmoon Bay and has around 380 permanent inhabitants and as we wandered around the town (it does not take long) it was filled with bird song.  Although it was a beautiful sunny day, this gave an impression of a much warmer day than it was, and the wind was bitterly cold.  Despite this, the local children from the school (just across the road from the waterfront) were wearing shorts and t-shirts and playing in the water!! 

We stopped by the Department of Conservation (DoC) office to check out the local walking tracks and I was drawn to the beautiful carving they have outside.  It tells the tale of Kewa, a great whale who chewed through the South Island, separating Stewart Island/Rakiura and creating Te Ara a Kewa or the pathway of Kewa, also known as Foveaux Strait.

We had overheard an a conversation in a shop (there aren’t many of them) where a couple of the locals discussed how lovely the day was and that it didn’t happen very often! Upon hearing that, we were determined to make the most of it and headed out on a couple of the short walks around the town.  They were lovely walks and I was amazed with the amount of tuis were saw.  As usually, I spent far too long taking photos in the hope of that perfect shot.  I think I did ok lol

For dinner we headed to the local pub, one of the few places there is to eat outside of peak season (although there are not many more options in high season), and it was very busy.  We were lucky to get a table (as we had not booked) but managed to enjoy a good meal.   Not only was a good meal but it was a big one and we struggled with our full bellies up the hill behind the town to Observation Point to see the sunset over Paterson Inlet.   It was so beautiful and peaceful (except for the occasional tui or kereru) and well worth the struggle.  By this time, the wind has also dropped so it was significantly warmer.

On the way back to town it was clear the South Island Kaka (one of New Zealand’s native parrots) were out living it up for the evening.  1,2,3,4 on the trees … and lots flying around.  It was amazing to see.  And to round off the day – we headed to the wharf to spot a few little blue penguins coming in for the night.  Sadly, it was too dark for decent photos, but it was great to see them.

We were actually staying in the accommodation attached to the hotel (just across the road from the wharf) – we were in a motel style room out the back, but there are also options to stay in the pub building itself which might be a little noisy if you were not planning on joining the drinking in the pub just below you – that said, you would get to enjoy the sea view.

Our first morning on the island and we up to what looked like some amazing light.  Never one to miss out on a photo opportunity, I threw on my shoes and coat over my Pajamas and quickly walked the short walk to the water front and it was well worth it, the sunrise was beautiful – so moody and colourful.  The forecast was for rain and it looked like it might be coming later in the day but not yet, so we definitely wanted to get out early.  

We did two 2 walks – Fern Gully and Ryan’s Creek.  Both walks you can do from Oban and about 10 km in total.  The tracks were good with just a few small some muddy areas, thankfully nowhere near as bad as it was for some friends who had been here just a couple weeks before.  There were not so many birds on these walks, but we did spot a bellbird and some oyster catchers when we made it down to the sea… 

At one point it appeared to be raining bark on the track, we looked up to see a Kaka ripping apart a branch and throwing the discarded bits to the ground. Typical Kaka (and their cousin Kea) behavior and they are well known for their destructive nature!  Again, it was a bit dark for any decent photos but amazing to stand and watch for a while. 

Back in town and we had lunch at the small café – as I mentioned before, at this time of year there are only 3 places to ‘dine out’ and the small supermarket where you can buy sandwiches and groceries etc.  We were sure to spend money at each of them. 

We had been lucky to avoid rain so far (although the photo taken just after lunch certainly looks like the calm before the storm) but our luck ran out when we decided to check out the small souvenir shop – just as we got there, the rain started and it got heavier and heavier so we decided to make a run for it and get back to the room😂.  I won’t lie, the rain was a good excuse to relax for the afternoon.

Thankfully the rain cleared in time for our evening Kiwi spotting tour.  I know a few people who have been lucky to see a kiwi walking around the roads just out of town, but as we did not have a car and wanted to have a higher change of spotting the elusive national bird of New Zealand we booked a tour with Ulva’s Guided Walks.  We did not regret it.

As you may know, Kiwis are nocturnal and so our tour started at 9pm (of course the time varies depending on the time of the sunset throughout the year).   It’s worth noting that despite being nocturnal, it is actually possible to have a kiwi encounter in broad daylight, if you are incredibly lucky.  Some say this is because there are fewer predators here, but it may also be due to the fact that in mid-summer (their breeding season), there are very few hours of darkness this far south so they need to feed during the day as well.

There is a population of around 13,000 Stewart Island kiwi (a sub species of Tokoeka, one of the five species of Kiwi), found only on Stewart Island and are considered a threatened species.  Thankfully the island is currently free from possums, stoats and ferrets which is vital to the health of the population.

We met up with our guide and where driven only a short distance out of town, where we parked up and walked into a grassy area, just off the road.  Not far away we came across our first pair of kiwi (kiwis are generally monogamous and pair for long lengths of time).  We had red light torches to light the way – interesting it is the same technical we had used in Zimbabwe when hunting with lions, as the red light does not startle the game (and in this case the kiwi) like white light does.  And with this light we had a great view of the kiwi who do not seem particularly by our presence as they when on their way feeding, as some point coming quite close to us.

After this first encounter, we headed inside a predator proof fence (oddly set up the US based Dancing Star Foundation – Dancing Star Foundation – Biodiversity Conservation – Translocations) were we came across another pair of kiwi.  Interesting, the kiwi inside the fence where more skittish than the ones outside.  Apparently because they have less predators … and visitors in general and are therefore less habituated. 

It was a beautiful evening, after the afternoon rain.  The sky was full of stars (including shooting stars) and the calls of morepork and kiwi filled the air.  I cannot recommend the experience enough, and the chance to see our elusive national bird is one not to be missed.

Stay tuned for Part 2 …coming soon.

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