Unseen Fiordland and Stewart Island (Part 2) – Stewart Island revisited

November 2020

After a good night’s sleep moored in the very calm Paterson’s Inlet, I woke up to a beautiful view of Ulva island (I didn’t make it for sunrise which is now around 5am 🥴).  The air was also full of bird song from the island.  Fun fact, Paterson Inlet is the  inlet with the most shoreline in the Southern Hemisphere!

After a big buffet breakfast we got ready for our first on shore expedition to Ulva Island and being the first day everyone was ready early for our 8am departure – raring to go. 

Initial comparisons of small vs big expedition ships (the bigger ship being the one I went to Antarctica on in 2014/15) – the bigger ship had a dedicated muck room for getting dressed in your outside gear rather than 3 people trying to do that in our small room (it’s not that bad but difficult if we are all trying to get ready at the same time (which we inevitably were).  Secondly on the big ship we typically exited the ship at sea level straight into the zodiacs … on this ship there we steep stairs to decent.  Nothing that I could not deal with though.

Now, if you are a regular reader, you will know I had been to Ulva Island just a few short weeks previous but it is definitely the kind of place that I could return to multiple times and, as with nature, every time would be different.  All 50 of us disembarked the zodiacs on to the small wharf at Post Office Cove and we were able to choose which group we wanted to join – fast walkers, moderate walkers and potterers.

All the guides were provided by Ulva’s Guided Walks (who I had used the last time I was there) and I recognised one of the guides as Ulva herself and immediately decided I would join her group regardless of which one it was! Ulva Goodwille is well known on Stewart Island (she is named after Ulva Island) and she has even written a book about Ulva Island (which I was lucky enough to get a signed copy when I visited the last time).  She is a direct descendant of the first Maori people of Stewart Island and is clearly very passionate about the island and it’s inhabitants. 

It turned out, Ulva was leading the potterers group which was fine by me and it was even better because there was only 5 people in the group as opposed to the other groups that had 20 or so.  We did not have to potterer far to come across two Red Crowned Kakariki feeding chicks in a hole in the tree – we could not see the chicks but they were definitely keeping their parents busy.

The whole island was filled with amazing bellbird song, occasionally interrupted by three saddlebacks, who, according to Ulva (who clearly speaks Saddleback lol) were all very angry!!  We saw kereru, bellbirds and tuis doing ‘zoomies’ through the trees.  We tasted some of the sooty mould (odd I know 😂) which tasted very sweet and learnt about the 73 species of endemic coprosma (only found in New Zealand) which can be identified by the dots up the centre of the leaf (see the photo).

In hindsight perhaps it was a little too ‘pottery’ for me but I loved all the stories Ulva was sharing with us.  One of my favourites was the story of the Kaka, who used to have a red head, but the Kakariki stole the red feathers, so now Kaka have white feathers on their head and why the Kakariki are always “laughing” 😂.

Slightly more factual stories included her theory that saddlebacks could be flightless in 1000 years as they hate to fly and will avoid it if they can!  They nest on the ground and ‘run’ up branches rather than fly.   Of course, the existence of predator free islands like Ulva are the only place they can truly live this way and survive.

We learnt about the Robin’s who at this time of the year have ‘brooder patches’, where they pull out some breast feathers so their skin is closer to their eggs.  It was clear that most are sitting on eggs currently.

We passed massive 500 year old Rimu trees and tiny orchids, so tiny they were easy to miss.  There were almost no orchids in bloom when I was on the island before, but this time there were a few more including tiny green hooded orchids and bamboo orchids. 

As we were admiring a morepork, who was comfortable tuck up in the incredible root system of a large South Rata tree (morepork are owls and therefore predominately nocturnal), a tui swooped in and dive bombed it!  The morepork are predators and the tui must have eggs or chicks nearby that it was protecting.  We didn’t see where the morepork went and never saw it again.

Back down near the beach we came across a Rifleman’s nest (New Zealand’s smallest bird).  There was a tiny feather near the entrance but sadly we did not see the bird themselves … instead we got to watch some battling weka!  The weka wars went on for some time before one of them gave up and wandered off lol.

It was a beautiful morning on Ulva Island but too soon it was time to head back to the ship and as we had lunch, the ship moved around to Kaipipi Bay, one of the many small bays that line Paterson’s Inlet.  From here we headed back on to land for a walk back to Oban.  We ended up walking along the last stretch of the Rakiura 3 day track down into town along with those who had actually done the 3 day walk 😂.  They look exhausted but happy and we bumped into them again cooling off their tired feet in the ocean.

It was a warm sunny day and Oban, and the town was very busy (as was the bar) so I just decided to chill a little by the beach, fascinated by the amazing colours and patterns in the sand and it was not long before it was time to get the zodiac back to the ship which was now anchored in the harbour just offshore.

Settling into our onboard routine, we had a recap of the day in the bar before another great dinner.  One of the staff had been asking around about the jellyfish from the previous night.  Apparently, they were speckled jellyfish and at this time of year there are many of them due to additional nutrients in the water.

During the early hours of the morning, we moved again, this time around to the eastern coast of Stewart Island at Port Adventure (the movement made a nice little swell to rock me to sleep lol) and we work to another beautiful morning which I started with coffee on the deck before breakfast.  It also helped that breakfast was not until 7.30 (rather than 6.45 the day before though we are clearly getting into the routine of boat life).

Weirdly, by morning, my phone was saying the time was 4.30am rather than 7.30am 🤔🤔 but when I went in to the world time it had the right time for Wellington – had we changed times zones over night?? No… apparently the ship (from Vladivostok) has some technology that phones are picking up … so it is showing the time in Vladivostok 🥴 or are we on the way to Vladivostok – technology is wonderful but weird … even my offline maps thought we were in Russia and all my photos show they were taken in Vladivostok?!?  Thank goodness I was not relying on the alarm to wake up!!

By 8.45 (New Zealand time) we were out on the water in the zodiacs (there are enough zodiacs for everyone onboard to be out on the water at the same time) and started cruising around some of the bays, passing a few Little Blue penguins in the water and some Foveaux Shags chilling out in the trees.  Apparently, they can be black or black and white! 

As we cruised along the southern arm of the bay, we spotted our first Fiordland Crested penguin, hiding out under a branch on the side of the water and spotted kaka flying overhead.  We admired white fronted terns and variable oyster catchers, all posed on a small group of rocks.  It was so peaceful and calm when we turned the engines off … it was also warm – too warm for all the clothes I was wearing when we were going slow, but I was grateful for them when we picked up some speed!

We had a brief land stop at the Port Adventure Hunters hut (to give the crew time for a quick outboard motor repair) and I spent the time admiring the beach with its beautiful mixture of coloured shells, rocks and seaweed. 

With all the zodiacs back in working order, we headed down beautiful Heron River – it had a real central/ South American vibe to it, with jungle on both sides of the dark river – I almost expect to see alligators in the water, or monkeys in the trees. 

As the river narrowed and shallowed, I ended up helping Heidi our guide row the zodiac (as it was too shallow to use the outboards) – but at least I avoided having to get in to push us over rocks in the really shallow parts 👍🏻 lol.  Apparently, the plan had been to try and get as far down the river to see a waterfall … we did, and it was about 10 cm high 😂😂

Back on the ship and we quickly lifted the anchor and set sail as we sat down for lunch.  After all the paddling efforts of the morning I was ravenously hungry and I was surprised when my phone pinged during lunch, meaning I had reception (which we don’t have for much of the trip).  It seems we had abandoned the route we were supposed to take around the south of Stewart island and instead went back past Oban (hence the phone reception) and along the north coast.   I understand that sometimes things have to change, particularly on trips like this, but it was disappointing they we could not do the plan but also that they really did not tell us about it …

We spent the afternoon at sea in somewhat choppy water so had a couple of lectures – I missed the first one of Maori settlement of Auckland Islands (we are not going there, and I was exhausted after my paddling exploits of the morning), the second was on the Southern Ocean which we were experiencing so I did go to that one – key takeaway for me is that the southern ocean is the biggest ‘continuous’ ocean in the world.  It was certainly continuously moving at this time!

We did a drive by of the Solander Islands, a group of 3 rocky islands that are the tips of an extinct volcano that is believed to have last erupted between 150,000 and 400,000 years ago.  It is believed that it is the size of Mt Taranaki, the rest of which is submerged. It was named after one of Cooks botanists – clearly Solander was not as popular as Banks who got a large peninsular (was thought to be an island at the time), Solander basically got a lump of granite in a remote part of the ocean!

It was beautiful sight with the dramatic skies – albatross and giant petrel soaring around the ship and sealions frolicking in the sea around us.  It was truly beautiful and remote part of our wonderful big backyard that not many people get to see.

We then set sail across to the mainland (the South Island that is😂).  I decided to forego dinner (though I was disappointed to be missing out on rib eye steak) but it was pretty rough by my standards and getting around the ship was tough.  It was definitely the roughest seas I had had in my limited sailing career (although many onboard had seen much worse).  Apparently, the crew and staff enjoyed a rather large dinner as many people did not eat!!

Roaming Rakiura – Part 2

October 2020

After a late night, we were up early for our visit to nearby Ulva Island.  A must do when visiting Rakiura and again, this is something you can easily do without a guide but I always like to know about what I am seeing and of course they know where to look for things lol. We met our guide, Leah, (again we used Ulva Guided Walks) at the small wharf in Golden Bay and the caught the water taxi across Paterson Inlet to the island (passing a few Little blue penguins bobbing around in water) – just a 7 minute journey.   

Today, Ulva Island (named after an island in the Scottish Hebrides islands) is a predator free sanctuary just off the coast of the Stewart Island mainland.  It became predator free in 1997 and is one of the few sanctuaries in New Zealand that has undisturbed podocarp forest – it really is like stepping back in time. 

Visited occasionally by the local Ngāi Tahu Māori, the island was occupied in 1872 by Charles Traill (from the Orkney Islands) who established the first post office in the region – he called the bay he lived in Post Office Bay and this is where we arrived on the island.  When the mail boat arrived, he would raise a flag and the locals would put on their finest clothes and make their way to the island to collect their mail and catch up on the local gossip.

Charles was a keen botanist and conservationist and established extensive gardens in the area around his house and the post office/shop.  Some of these exotic tree species still remain and are the only non-native trees on the island.  In 1922 the island became the first scenic reserve in New Zealand, and he post office operated until 1923.  Today, the island is managed by the Department of Conservation, except for the 7 hectares of privately owned land where the homestead still remains (256 hectares in total).

We were greeted by some very early blooming rata trees (apparently is a sign of a long, hot summer) and a very inquisitive Kaka who got so close I thought it was going to take my phone (which I was videoing it on) right out of my hands!  According to Leah, the Stewart Island Kaka have their own dialect, distinct from those on the mainland – of course, I do not speak Kaka so cannot confirm or deny this but what I can say is they like to make their presence known!!

As the island is now pest free (no stoats, mice, rabbits etc.) it has a great population of many of New Zealand native birds that are struggling elsewhere.  Kākāriki, kererū (wood pigeon), korimako (bellbird), pīpipi (brown creeper), miromiro (tomtit), pīwakawaka (fantail), tūī, Stewart Island tokoeka (brown kiwi), Tīeke (saddleback), mohua (yellowhead), toutouwai (Stewart Island robin) and tītitipounamu (rifleman) can all be found on the island. 

The current population of robins were founded by 20 individuals released in the late 90’s – today they are thriving and on almost every walk on the island you will be visited by at least one robin. They are incredibly confident and appear to have no fear as they dance around, trying to mimic rain on the earth to disturb the insects which they feed on.  They are also a fan of you scuffing up some of the earth with your foot to help them out. 

Another fun fact about the birds of the island, Tieke (or Saddleback) here are unique as they do not develop their ‘saddle’ until adulthood, the North Island species on the other hand are born with it.  Also, relatively unique in the bird world, the juvenile will stay with their parents for a year and will help gather food for the following years chicks before leaving the family.

Ulva is so small it is easy to cover most of the island in a day, depending on how much time you want to spend watching and listening to the birds and studying the plant life.  I like to spend a lot of time doing that and therefore we only waked a couple of the tracks.  And there was a bird symphony – Leah could identify Mohua (sometimes called a bush canary), brown creeper and grey warbler – unfortunately we could not see them all as they were high in the canopy.

We saw Red crowned kakariki ❤️❤️ eating last summer’s berries off grown, Tuis feeding on tree fuchsia (the largest species of fuchsia in the world).  We had a brief glimpse of a Yellow crowned kakariki and a Mohua (Yellow head) who apparently are often seen together (perhaps all the yellow headed birds stick together lol).  And we spotted another juvenile saddleback which had its wattles and saddle just coming through.

The bush is stunning, and as I previously mentioned, a perfect example of an ancient podocarp forest (one of the best in the country as it has never been cleared or milled).  There are towering Rimu and totaras – apparently if a grown man can reach their arms around the Rimu and touch it is around 250 years old.  The ground was full of beautiful umbrella mosses ❤️and Leah pointed out a so called dinosaur plant – a fern ally which is 400 million years old (perhaps not that exact plant, but the species itself)!    We saw Spider Orchids, just starting to flower and bamboo orchids, not quite in flower yet and beautiful crown ferns with their connected root system.  And don’t forget the cute Hen & Chicken fern whose spores grow as miniature ferns on its fronds before they drop off to set out into the world on their own lol.  We were grateful to have Leah tell us lots of wonderful stories about the trees and plants – some fact, some a little more mythical.

One of the most fascinating stories was that of the Ulva Island postcard tree – which despite its name, has had numerous uses.  Not surprisingly, its broad leaves used to be used as postcards.  They could be written on and posted (even internationally) until the 1970s!!  Other uses include toilet paper (as good as 3 ply apparently) and a crash pad for Sooty Shearwaters who are not great at landing to use these trees to soften the blow so to speak. lol

One of tracks took us out on to Boulder Beach, where we watched Weka feeding on crabs (sometimes with a little assistance by lifting rocks to expose the crabs).  As typical with Wekas, they had little fear of us, and just carried on their own business.

Further on we came to Sydney Cove, a stunning tropical looking beach of golden sand and turquoise water.   Here we were greeted by a huge sea lion, who had just hauled himself up the beach.  He was the biggest I had seen and even the biggest Leah (our guide had seen) so we had to be careful to get past him.  The rule is to never cross between a sea lion and the sea, effectively cutting off their escape route, however this guy left us no option, so we moved quickly and quietly around him. 

Our final stop on Ulva was at Flagstaff Point, not surprisingly, the point where Charles Traill use to raise his flag to advertise that the post had arrived.  Today it is a lovely lookout over Paterson Inlet. 

It was a wonderful morning spent on Ulva Island and we were so happy we had Leah to guide us around   – we would have missed out on so much had we gone on our own.

Back in Oban, we decided to hire a couple of e-bikes to explore a little further.  First, we headed one way out of town and at the end of road we found ourselves in Lee Bay, the starting point for the Rakiura Track (one of New Zealand’s Great Walks).  It is also the site of a huge chain that goes into the sea –Te Puka, the anchor stone.  As the Maori legend of creation has it, Maui (now of Moana fame) used Rakiura as an anchor for the great ancestral canoe (Te Waka o Aoraki – the South Island).  (FYI – the North Island is the fish he and his brothers caught.) 

As it turned out, we were actually not far from where we were kiwi spotting the night before and could see the predator proof fence as it went up from the sea.  It was so peaceful to just sit on a beach for a bit, taking in the sun and listening to the bird song. 

Back on the bikes and we head back through town, out the other side and along to the end of the bay to visit Ackers Stone House.  Lewis Ackers was an American whaler who settled on the island in 1836, before Oban was established.  He built the house himself to house his Maori wife and their 9 children.  Apparently, they had bunk beds stacked 5 high to sleep everyone in the small house!  They certainly had an amazing view (on a nice day)!

We zoomed back into town using the throttle and hardly pedaling at all – it was my first time on an e-bike, and I do not think it will be my last lol.

For our final morning, we had thought about doing another walk but decided just to relax.  After dropping off our bags at the plane ‘depot’ (a small office in town), we wandered around the shops (all 3 of them lol).   We walked up the hill by the church and over the small headland to a view over bathing beach -it was a beautiful golden beach though you must have to be careful not to be caught at high tide!!

Back to town and we went back to the DoC office to watch some of the videos about the island history that they play on loop until it was ready to board our flight back to the mainland.

What a wonderful place Rakiura/Stewart Island is.  Oddly, it is somewhere they New Zealanders don’t tend to go, and the vast majority of their visitors are passengers on cruise ships.  Of course, 2020 changed all that and they are one of the few places in New Zealand that have managed to sustain their tourism industry with New Zealanders who are exploring home more rather than going overseas. Even the flight in and out is worth the visit.

I will leave you with a quote from Leonard Cockayne (considered New Zealand’s greatest botanist and a founder of modern science in New Zealand) in 1909 “The face of the earth is changing so rapidly that soon there will be little of primitive nature left.  In the Old World, it is practically gone forever.  Here, there is Stewart Island’s prime advantage, and one hard to overestimate.  It is an actual piece of the primeval world.”  He was not wrong!