Stewart Island, New Zealand
Most travellers to New Zealand stick to the highlights of the North Island and the South Island – Wellington city, Christchurch, Tongariro Crossing and Franz Josef Glacier. But get off the beaten track and head to New Zealand’s ‘third island’, Stewart Island, to discover a natural wonderland that equals any on the main two islands.
Stewart Island/Rakiura is the third-largest island in the archipelago of New Zealand. It is located around 30 kilometres to the south of the South Island, across the Foveaux Strait, and is around 1, 746 square kilometres in size.
Stewart Island’s location – at 47 degrees south – puts it in the path of the icy, howling winds of the ‘roaring forties’. Because of this harsh climate, it has largely avoided human development. The island played an important role in Maori mythology, as indicated by its original Maori name: Te Punga o Te Waka a Maui, or ‘The Anchor Stone of Maui’s Canoe’: referring to the part the island plays in the legend of Maui and his crew, who from their canoe (the South Island) caught and raised the great fish (the North Island).
However, Maori New Zealanders more commonly use the name Rakiura, translating as the ‘blushing of Te Rakitamau’, an early Maori chief whose proposal of marriage was rejected by two young women from Stewart Island. Rakitamau’s blush is reflected in the glowing sunsets and sunrises of the island. The island had a small Maori population until European settlement.
The first Europeans to reach the island was Captain James Cook and the Endeavor in 1770. Indications are that Cook knew that the landmass was an island, but chose to hide in this in his maps, charting Stewart Island as a peninsula from the South Island – for fears that, in the context of intense Anglo-French rivalry between the Seven Years War and the Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars – the French may use the island as a launching point for invasions of a (then hypothetical) British settlement on New Zealand.
The strait was first charted by Owen Fulgar Smith, an American who had been living in Sydney, in 1806. The island received its name from William Stewart, first officer on the Pegasus, which visited the island in 1809.
In the early 19th century explorers, miners, missionaries and settlers came to Stewart Island from the United Kingdom, many of which intermarried with Maori women, creating a culture that was strongly entwined with the original Maori culture of the island. The cultural tapestry of Stewart Island was enhanced with a population of Norwegian whalers and settlers in the 1920s, many of whom permanently remained on the island.
However, the population has consistently remained small. Today, the island has a population of only 390 people, located in the town of Oban on Halfmoon Bay. The result is that the island has barely been touched by human settlement. Over 85% of the island is preserved as a National Park. Stewart Island has only 28 kilometres of road, but over 280 km of walking tracks, suited for a range of abilities.
In particular, Stewart Island is home to a population of brown kiwi or tokoeka, which outnumber humans on the island. Though kiwis can be seen on the other two major islands, only on Stewart Island can they be seen by daylight – as in other parts of New Zealand, kiwis have adapted to be nocturnal to avoid predators.
Stewart Island is also home to a significant population of blue penguins and rare yellow-eyed penguins, which waddle around the rocks.
Off shore Ulva Island – accessible by ferry – is a paradise for bird lovers. On this predator-free island, rare and endangered birds, including the South Island saddleback, mohua, rifleman, and the Stewart Island robin, fly free. The saddleback – extinct on the South Island for over 100 years – had been reduced to a population of around 36 living on southern Stewart Island. The New Zealand Department of Conservation brought thirty to Ulva Island in 2000, and the island now supports a population of hundreds.
Ulva Island has been protected as a nature reserve since 1899. The forest here – 100 feet rimu trees, bamboo orchids – has never been logged, remaining as it was when New Zealand split from the supercontinent Gondwana, 60 million years ago.
The three-day Rakiura Track is a ‘great walk’ of New Zealand, along with eight other walks, including the famous Routeburn Track and Lake Waikaremoana Circuit. The 32-kilometre track follows the coastline, passing by secluded beaches and over forested ridges, covering the majority of the island.