New Zealand’s southern jewel, Stewart Island is a remarkable hideaway that embraces the serenity of nature, spiced with the promise of adventure.
Stewart Island is New Zealand’s third and southernmost island - an ecological wonderland, where the ardours of everyday life gently melt away.
Beauty cloaks this destination. A 20-minute flight or one-hour ferry trip across Foveaux Strait gives way to a world of towering, emerald-green rainforest, softening to white sandy shores, summer sunsets and winter auroras so spectacular, they gave rise to the island’s Maori moniker Rakiura – Land of the Glowing Skies. Here, only the chorus of birdsong punctuates the peace.
Guardians of the environment
Far, far from the fast lane, Stewart Island’s population live in and around Oban, the island’s only settlement. The islanders – many of whom are descended from the first Maori and European settlers - consider themselves not merely residents, but guardians of the environment.
The significance of the land’s unique flora and fauna was formally recognised in 2002, with the establishment of Rakiura National Park, which spans most of the island’s 157,000 hectares.
Stewart Island’s many and varied inhabitants thrive in their unsullied surrounds. Ancient podocarp forests blanket the isle; rimu, southern kamahi and miro loom high above a plush carpet of fern and liana. Granite outcrops emerge, sculpted over time into artworks of the elements.
A highlight of many visitors’ trips to the island is a rendezvous with a kiwi. Sometimes spotted by the eagle-eyed in the thick forest or, perhaps, foraging for food on the beach, the Stewart Island kiwi is among the largest species of New Zealand’s flightless bird.
Stewart Island is one of the few places humans are likely to experience a kiwi in its natural habitat. And, for those who don’t come across one of the 20,000 natives on their own journey, ‘spotting tours’ offer another chance to experience the nation’s emblem up close.
Stewart Island has the largest and most diverse bird population in New Zealand, from the vivid plumage of the kaka and parakeet to the melodic warbling of the tui and bellbird. Birdwatchers also flock to study the sea birds … albatross, petrels, cormorants and gulls soar the skies, while, on land, there are blue penguins and even the rare yellow-eyed penguin.
Stewart Island’s setting and wildlife make for a tramper’s Utopia. The 240 kilometres of treks range from 10-minute strolls to 12-day-long adventures in the island’s far-flung reaches.
The 36-kilometre Rakiura Track has been named one of New Zealand’s Great Walks and can be covered in three days. It’s a scenic mix of open coast, a 300 metre-high forested ridge and crosses the sheltered shores of Paterson Inlet, taking in historical sites and plenty of the island’s bird life.
For the hardy and experienced, the North West Circuit covers 125 kilometres of both challenge and beauty, and is a must for true explorers keen to tackle some of the island’s most rugged terrain. The Southern Circuit also offers remoteness and wilderness; it’s a six to nine day tramp, part of which can be added to the North West Circuit.
The tracks are peppered with huts, complete with running water, mattresses, toilets and wood stoves.
Sanctuary on Ulva Island
Just a short boat ride from Stewart Island, lies forest-clad Ulva Island, a pest-free ‘open sanctuary’ where visitors can see and learn about species that wouldn’t survive on the mainland.
On Ulva, the Stewart Island robin, the South Island saddleback and the yellowhead are some of the rare birds to be seen. And then, of course, is the weka – a gregarious, flightless bird, that’ll bound right up to greet you personally.
Day trips are easily organised - see the wildlife at close quarters, stand amid the unspoilt forest, visit its historic post office and walk the island’s picturesque tracks.
Stewart Island’s waters are an adventure all of their own – above and below.
Divers and snorkellers pierce clear, green waters to discover abundant marine life and the tall bladder kelp, unique to the island. Chartered boat tours are on-hand to visit the sights or for a day’s deep-sea fishing.
For those keen to go under their own steam, sea kayaks provide, arguably, the best seat to meander around the island’s waterways.
Nature and Stewart Island’s locals harmonise to set a pace in a retreat that is as invigorating as it is restful. It draws visitors by the tens of thousands, yet is deliberately devoid of glitzy tourist trappings; it is the quintessential ‘great escape’.