Prince Harry enjoys New Zealand island escape

Prince Harry’s New Zealand visit went off-the-beaten track and away from the crowds today (10 May) when he travelled south to Stewart Island.

This was no ordinary royal day out. New Zealand's third and southernmost island community has a population of around 400 residents and most of them, along with a few extras, had turned out to welcome the Prince to their piece of island paradise.

They did that in characteristically laid-back informal southern style and they all had a good chance to meet or at least see the Prince at close quarters. Prince Harry responded by taking time to stop and chat, posing on request for photos and engaging in some good humoured banter.

He was clearly enjoying the fresh air and the slower pace of island time. This was a walking tour. Walk to lunch, walk back, walk to the jetty, walk back, walk to church and walk back again.

The little settlement of Oban, home to most of the islanders, is a sprinkling of streets on pretty Halfmoon Bay. In fact, the whole island only has a few roads. Most visitors come to Stewart Island for the walking.

With numerous walks maintained by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC), the island is a hiker’s dream destination. There are more than 300km of walking tracks on the island. Tracks vary from short easy day walks to the three-day 37km Rakiura Track - one of New Zealand’s nine ‘Great Walks’ - through Rakiura National Park. There are also eight to ten day walking tracks for the most serious hikers.

At lunch-time the Prince walked the length of the waterfront, past the Sunday lunch-time crowd in front of the South Sea Hotel - the island's one and only pub - to the ferry terminal to catch a water taxi across peaceful Patterson Inlet to nearby Ulva Island.

One of a few pest-free open bird sanctuaries in New Zealand, Ulva Island’s temperate rainforest is a living example of what New Zealand was like in days past before human activity and the arrival of introduced predators. It offers close encounters with rare birds and plants that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.

Prince Harry’s Ulva visit was a guided walk with staff from the Department of Conservation and members of the Ulva Island Charitable Trust who have worked together for 25 years to protect and enhance this precious environment.

It was also the opportunity for some close encounters with a variety of friendly local inhabitants – birdlife in the forest and bottlenose dolphins on the water.

"It's a beautiful place, it really is," Prince Harry told reporters.

Ulva Island is an outstanding example of the contribution that conservation makes to New Zealand’s economy as 75% of tourists who visit Stewart Island also make the boat trip over to Ulva Island during their stay. About 40,000 tourists visit Stewart Island each year.

Anyone can take a water taxi ride across the inlet to visit Ulva Island and there are several tourism operators who specialise in guided walks – the best way to learn about the island’s heritage and unique environment.

Guided walk

Brent Beaven, who was Prince Harry’s guide on Ulva Island, has spent 15 years working for DOC in the southern region, mostly based on Stewart Island where he was biodiversity manager.

As they walked through the temperate rainforest that cloaks the island, Brent was able to show Prince Harry a selection of wildlife from forest-dwelling Stewart Island robins, kaka (forest parrot) and kakariki – a smaller brightly coloured parrot. They also saw a pod of frisky bottlenose dolphins and albatross while on the water.

“He seemed particularly interested in the robins and enjoyed scuffing his shoe on the forest floor so that they would come up closer,” Brent said.

“He was very bright and engaged as we talked about conservation. He knows his stuff, and a bit about New Zealand and what’s happening here.”

“We talked about Ulva Island as an example of one of New Zealand’s early conservation projects, and how what has been achieved here has been the result of a mix of a community effort to protect its own heritage and the work of the conservation department.”

“It was also a chance to talk about how important conservation is to tourism in New Zealand - three-quarters of the 40,000 visitors who come to Stewart Island each year, will visit Ulva Island.”