Actually, that’s not true either, there are hundreds of the buggers if you count all the little ones dotted off the coast. But Stewart Island joins North and South Islands as one of the “big three” that make up “mainland” New Zealand.
In Maori legend, it’s the anchor of Maui’s waka canoe (now South Island), from which he caught his giant fish (North Island). It’s the southernmost one, right down the bottom, pointing towards Antarctica, at the very ends of the earth, on the brink of civilisation, and populated only by a handful of slightly peculiar fishermen in white wellies. And I was stranded there for the foreseeable future.
Not a bad place for it, as it turns out. It’s a very pretty, mellow spot, despite being the last outpost of humanity for about 12,000 miles, with 400 people living on an island the size of Singapore. It sits just below 45 degrees south on the edge of the vast Southern Ocean, and the unsullied ocean winds that orbit Antarctica only touch land here and in southern Argentina. The waters are clear, freezing and teeming with life.
The air is the purest in the world, and sometimes at night you can see the dancing lights of Aurora Australis, the southern version of the Northern Lights.
The Final Frontier
We caught the high-speed catamaran ferry across the notoriously bumpy Foveaux Strait from Bluff, following a three-hour drive south from Te Anau along the South Coast; the human population melting away with every mile. Once on the ferry, though, adventure beckoned.
Here we were, breaking away from the well-trodden tourist trail, stepping boldly out to the final frontier with nowt but the waves and their attendant albatrosses for company. We were under no illusions: if we’d wanted wine bars, shopping, sunbathing, bus trips, top-notch restaurants or any of the usual holiday pleasantries, we’d caught the wrong boat.
Despite what we had heard about the crossing, ours wasn’t particularly rough, and we arrived to a calm, clear bay sprinkled with a few wooden buildings, that turned out to be the island’s main settlement, Oban. But ours was to be the last ferry in for a while. A series of short-lived storms and permadrizzle followed hard on our heels and the ferry spent the next few days anchored in the bay.
But we were perfectly comfy; we rented a lovely, cosy wooden cabin just up the hill from the jetty, surrounded by flocks of squawking kakas and only a short stroll from the pub. We discovered an island ruled by the rhythms of nature – the seasons, the tides, the night skies, the fish… and the deep green forests, which cover 85 per cent of the island and in 2002 became Rakiura National Park.
This unspoilt emerald blanket tumbles vibrantly across the entire island, is home to an array of native birds including kakas and kiwis, and is criss-crossed with walking tracks that traverse valleys of rushing water, remote sandy coves and rugged hills. The greatest of them is the Rakiura Track, a three-day circuit around the southern end of the island and one of New Zealand’s official Great Walks.
Hurdy-Gurdy Gaelic Kiwi
Rakiura comes from the Maori nickname for the island. Its real name was Te Punga o Te Waka a Maui (“the anchor stone of the waka of Maui”), but it was better known as Rakiura, usually translated as “glowing skies”, because of the weird incandescent light shows that swirl around the sky at certain times of year.
We didn’t manage to catch Aurora Australis, but did enjoy night after night of dazzling stars; saucepans, cartwheeling Orions, Southern Crosses and all the shooters you could ever wish to wish upon. The Stewart Island nametag came about via a chap called (you guessed it) Mr Stewart – William to his mates – who was first officer aboard the Sydney ship Pegasus in 1809 and first charted the island and surrounding coast. Personally, I like the Maori monikers better.
On plodding around the island we found plenty to discover. Halfmoon Bay is home to the village, which contains most of Stewart Island’s human inhabitants, as well as the pub, the general store, an aquarium, a fish wholesaler, a small museum and a cafe or two. All roads lead here – and don’t extend much further.
If you want to see much of the island, you’re best off with a boat, or a good pair of walking boots. On our wet and windy walks we discovered some amazing golden-sand beaches that would be quite inviting were it not for the Antarctic waters; old wooden churches and cottages; fishing sheds; handicraft galleries; and graveyards dating from the early settler days, with most graves bearing the names of generations of the island’s four main families.Many were lost at sea, and many were children.
Life here wasn’t always so benign. We rarely saw anyone else on our wanderings, except for the odd family rockpooling in a cove, or a pickup truck winding along the short stretch of road. What with other people being quite a novelty outside of the village, it’s customary to wave or even chat to passers-by.
The islanders are a mix of Maori, Scots and Norwegian descent, and possibly as a result of this they have one of the weirdest accents I’ve ever encountered in my life – a sort of hurdy-gurdy Gaelic Kiwi. It was quite enchanting to listen to, and a great incentive to chat to the locals, who are, fortunately, a chatty and friendly bunch.
Nice Day for a White Welly
After three days we were on hat-tipping terms with half the people on the island. The vicar, the tourist info lady, the paua-pearl farmer, the chief fishmonger (fish has to be bought from a shed on the end of the pier and you have to ask them to gut it for you), the barmen, the chain-smoking old-timer, the ferryman (who kept pulling over while passing us on his scooter to conduct the next part of our ongoing conversation), and more. It’s not surprising you keep seeing the same faces when there are so few of them.
We spent quite a bit of time sitting in the South Sea Hotel (known to all on the island as “the pub”). It’s a corker. The locals are 90 per cent male, old and hairy, and this season’s hottest look (and, I suspect, quite a few seasons before that) is a pair of white wellies topped with several old, smelly jumpers and rain macs, and as much facial hair as possible.
The pub is old and rambling, with a bland dining room and a big timber staircase. All the action takes place in the main bar, where the community’s story is told via photo-pinboards of all the locals getting hammered, catching giant fish, sinking their boats, celebrating local weddings, crouching sadly by the carcasses of beached whales…
The bar is a cosy, convivial place to hang out, drink beer and play backgammon on a rainy day. We girls had to deflect quite a few propositions from the old fellas, what with women being so scarce around here. One proposition I had, while conducting my business at the bar, came from an old hairy fisherman and went along the lines of: Hairy fisherman (to barman): “Bit of service over here for the lady!” Hairy fisherman: “So you got a boyfriend?”
Me: “Husband. Over there.”
Hairy fisherman: “Oh.” (Turns around and walks off without another word).
Generally though they’re a friendly, mellow lot. There’s no crime, no fashion, no shopping. No mange tout, couscous or baby spinach when it was my turn to cook and I had planned my special salad. One internet terminal, at $15 an hour via satellite connection.
One cafe, owned by an American chick who wound up here, bought an old shack for a couple of grand and spends six months of the year making toasted sandwiches and coffee and the other six backpacking the world on the proceeds. It struck me that this is all you need for a community to survive: pure air, unspoilt forest, the fruits of the ocean, a general store, a pub, the shipping news and some waterproof footwear.
This isolation from the outside world and its trappings – such as mobile-phone reception, chain stores and digital TV – leaves nothing but 100 per cent pure, simple, clean island life. If you want to get away from the 21st century (without sacrificing hot dinners and warm beds) head here; it’s like nowhere else on Earth.
Getting there: Fly from Invercargill, three flights a day, year-round. Cost: From $90 one way/$155 return. Visit stewartislandflights.com. You can also sail from Bluff, aboard the Foveaux Express. Crossing takes one hour and costs $47. Visit stewartislandexperience.co.nz.
Five things to do in Invercargill
As the nearest big town, Invercargill is the gateway to Stewart Island, offering direct flights and transfers to the Bluff ferry. You might find yourself here for a bit, so pass the time with:
* As the name suggests, Invercargill was settled by the Scots, in the 1850s. Eager to recreate Scotland in the South Seas, they put up lots of imposing stone buildings, wide streets and streets named after highland rivers. The overall effect lends this remote southern outpost an unexpectedly genteel air. There are plenty of architectural gems to look at, to give you a taste of home (especially if you’re a wee bit Scottish).
* Wanna meet a three-eyed dinosaur that was rustling around in the undergrowth some millions of years before a T. Rex came along? Go to the Southland Museum and Art Gallery on Victoria Avenue, where there’s a tuatarium – home to around 50 tuatara (extremely ancient little reptiles, found nowhere else in the world). This is the world’s only captive tuatara breeding programme – they’re all descendants of two matriarchs called Lucy and Mildred. You don’t even have to go in the museum to watch them – they’re visible from the street at night, through bullet-proof glass, designed to stop the little fellas being kidnapped; quite apart from being very cute, they’re rather rare.
* The museum also houses an interesting exhibit on NZ’s Antarctic islands. If you think Stewart Island feels like the ends of the Earth, take a peek at these tiny windswept outposts thousands of miles south in the Antarctic ocean. It’s all about the wildlife down there – there are no more pubs – and they’re kinda complicated to get to, so enjoy a virtual visit via the museum, instead.
* Queens Park, behind the museum, was created in 1869 and is a smashing place for a stroll, containing rose gardens, a rhododendron dell, aviaries and all the usual Victorian garden favourites. Oh, and there’s a golf course there, too.
* If the above is a bit tame (or the weather’s not tame enough), head to Splash Palace, behind the museum, which is an indoor leisure pool complete with wave machine (surely the world’s southernmost?) as well as slides, jacuzzis, lap pool and cafe. Entry is just NZ$4.
Pictures: Getty, WikiCommons