In the summer, I travelled across the very base of New Zealand’s South Island, from Dunedin to Invercargill by way of The Catlins. Standing on the hill at Bluff, popularly considered to be the end of New Zealand, we could stare further south to a mysterious, misty island on the horizon.
This is Stewart Island or, to use its Maori name, Rakiura. Rakiura is the third biggest island in New Zealand (after the two mainland islands) and is another world entirely. Not many backpackers make it this far – it takes time and costs money, which was enough to stop me in the summer. But now, at the end of winter, I’m finally resolved to make the trip.
Leaving Lake Tekapo, I journey west to Queenstown, which looks beautiful and Christmassy in late August. Sadly it’s still filled with weirdly-entitled backpackers who seem affronted by the mere presence of people who sleep at night, are not teenagers and have not adopted apocalyptical drinking as their entire raison d’etre. However, as the main tourist nexus on the South Island, Queenstown is a necessary stopover. I stay one night and spend the next day relocating a car to Invercargill via the wild beauty of Central Otago. Here the road scurries through expansive vistas of rock, while tiny ex-mining towns snooze between valleys and dams. There are even proper pubs.
There’s an infamous three(-ish) hour ferry from Bluff to Stewart Island that I hear finally answers the philosophical quandary: what would a rollercoaster be like if you could never, ever get off? I’m not particularly averse to finding out, but the plane journey is only a tiny bit more expensive and way more fun. A twenty-minute flight in an aircraft barely bigger than a van, and suddenly the island looms out of the thin rain: sandy yellow bays tucked up against a wild jungle shrouded in mist.
I’ve talked a lot in this blog about the changeability of New Zealand’s weather, but none of it comes close to Stewart Island. Here the atmosphere lurches between all four seasons as if drunk and unable to find its way home. Weather forecasters are held in as much regard as psychics, palm readers and that guy with a board who’s convinced the end is nigh. On one particular walk, I exit onto a beach in bright sunshine, with clear blue skies and scorching heat. Three minutes later, I’m running for shelter, scarf wrapped tightly around my neck, as icy winds roll off the sea and Antarctic rain flings itself from the slate-grey sky. Three minutes after that, it’s a pleasant sort of Spring.
Stewart Island is a paradise of friendly tranquility. Despite its size, and because of its rain, almost all of it is given over to rainforest. The resident population is only about 400. In the summer, tourists swell this figure significantly, but when I arrive in the winter, there’s only half a dozen people in my hostel, which is the only hostel open in town. Indeed, much of the town is shut until September. The town in question is Oban, the only settlement on the island. It has a single supermarket and a single ATM, and everyone knows everyone else. Stay a few days and everyone knows you too.
Fishing boats bob in Oban’s Halfmoon Bay, while fishermen in orange jumpsuits and white beards wave to you from beneath the beanies pulled over their heads. It’s a Hollywood fishing village come to life. Step away from the town on one of the many steep and muddy tracks, and the island feels unnervingly like Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands where I grew up, a few dusty roads amidst a cold misty rainforest.
Because of its deep-south location, Stewart Island is one of the best places in the world to try and catch a glimpse of the Aurora Australis – the Southern Lights. It’s also the best place – possibly the only realistic place – to try and see the famous kiwi in the wild. Travellers flock to the island to hunt for the kiwi at night, hoping to glimpse one even for a second in the dark.
I don’t hold out much hope, but then my roommate and I find the friendliest kiwi in the world. In the middle of the day. We’re so lucky that no-one even believes us.
We’re not even on Stewart Island at the time. We’ve taken a small water taxi out to tiny Ulva Island, a paradise of birds and birdsong, but with a kiwi population of just 30 (compared to about 15000 on Stewart Island itself). We’re walking through the jungle, enjoying the cacophony of peace, and there it is. We’re looking at a kaka in the trees when Soren spots it. We hold our breath, expecting it to dart away at any moment, but it doesn’t. It hangs around, foraging for food. First it’s on one side of the track, then it ambles across the path in front of us and continues to root around in the undergrowth next to our feet. Yes, Stewart Island kiwis differ from mainland kiwis in that they do occasionally venture out during the day. But they’re still renowned for their shyness and difficult to spot. As Soren puts it, this must be a celebrity kiwi.
We spend a good twenty minutes watching the bird, and when we make it back to the hostel, only photographic evidence is enough to convince anyone that we’re telling the truth. But there you have it, an easy way to spot a kiwi in the wild. Simply fly all the way to New Zealand, then journey down the length of the South Island. Take a rickety old plane across the Foveaux Strait to a mysterious, legendary jungle. Hop on a boat to a tiny island where no-one lives at all. And then get very very lucky indeed.
Snapshots of NZ
Okay, I give up. Here’s a video I took instead…