Separated from the South Island by Foveaux Strait, Stewart Island is New Zealand as it once was: a thickly forested island where the sound of birds dominates over the sounds of human activity, where roads are less significant than forest tracks and where the light of stars on a clear summer night shine brighter than the modest lights of Oban, the island’s only real concession to civilization. On some clear nights, visitors might even witness the aurora australis, the ‘southern lights’, a natural spectacle that perhaps explains the Maori name for Stewart Island which is Rakiura (heavenly glow). If one does not have the luck to see the fantastic shimmering of the southern lights, then a brilliant blood-red Stewart Island sunset should be compensation enough.
Roughly the size of Singapore, Stewart Island can only be appreciated in the course of a visit of several days and because there is not much more than 12 miles (20km) of road, the best way to explore the island is on foot, along one of the island’s many forest tracks. Day tours from Bluff or Invercargill are possible, but can only be recommended for people who really are in a hurry.
Stewart Island Walks
The two main walks on Stewart Island are the Rakiura Track (2-3 days) and the North-West Circuit (8-10 days).
The Rakiura is by far the easier of the two and provides a gentle introduction to the island’s virgin forests and isolated beaches. Though there are nice beaches along the circuit track as well, it can often mean crossing some very rugged and muddy terrain to get to them.
Because the first stretch of the track is fairly easy and runs quite close to the coast, many people only go as far as Christmas Village Hut (2-3 days one way) and then return the same way to Oban. Unfortunately, the first few huts along the trail can get very crowded in summer so it might pay to bring a (mosquito-proof) tent.
Trampers who want to save themselves some walking on the North-West Circuit can get dropped off at certain points along the coast by water taxi. However, those who have endured the hardships of the
entire 74 miles (120km) long track will no doubt feel justified in toasting their effort at Oban’s only pub with a cold, locally brewed beer.
Those who are not so keen on walking could content themselves with some of the shorter tracks around Halfmoon Bay, for instance the 15 minute stroll to Observation Rock, or perhaps take a tour by bus or launch. The scenic minibus tour (03) 219 1269) lasts about an hour and there are daily launch trips to Ulva Island Bird Sanctuary (a paradise for bird-watchers) and the salmon farms in Big Glory Bay. It is also possible to explore Stewart Island’s fascinating coastline by sea kayak.
One activity that nobody should miss is kiwi spotting. Stewart Island is probably the best place in New Zealand to see kiwis in the wild. The local variety is known as the Stewart Island brown kiwi (Apteryx australis lawryi), which is unusual in that it is active during the day as well as at night. Because it is not purely nocturnal and likes to forage on the beaches instead of just in dense bush, it is much easier to see than its North and South Island cousins. Phillip Smith of Bravo Adventure Cruises offers a guided kiwi-spotting tour
that includes a twilight boat trip and a short walk through native forest to where kiwi can be seen. Numbers are limited and the trip only takes place on alternate nights, so it is probably necessary to book ahead. Trampers doing either the Rakiura or North-West Circuit tracks also have a good chance of seeing kiwi, as well as penguins and fur seals on the more remote beaches.
Relax and Enjoy
But one does not have to go bird-watching, tramping, fishing or swimming to enjoy Stewart Island. It is a place where one can sit down and do nothing at all – and not feel guilty about it! A quiet evening on the beach enjoying the sunset, a beer and a yarn in the pub with the locals, that might be enough for frayed urban souls desperately seeking to ‘get away from it all’.