Stewart Island, known also as Rakiura, holds a special place in the country’s natural heritage. Of the three main islands of New Zealand, it is the smallest, southernmost and by far the most natural – a precious pendant of the South Island and separated from it by a shallow, moody stretch of water, Foveaux Strait.
No roads cross the island. Settlement is largely confined to the northeast corner and centred on Halfmoon Bay and the township of Oban, population about 400. In many ways Stewart Island is what New Zealand looked like before cities came along. There are only about
Mostly wilderness, the island is a ragged triangle 75 km long by up to 45 km wide – similar in area to the Coromandel Peninsula. There are about 170 satellite islands and islets, the largest being 5 km-wide Whenua Hou or Codfish Island off the northwest coast, a last refuge for the critically endangered New Zealand parrot, kakapo. Twenty small islands lie within Paterson Inlet, which forms a significant indent, about 100 sq km in extent, on the eastern coastline. Total coastline length is 755 km.
Stewart Island is surrounded by vast tracts of the Southern Ocean on three sides. It spans latitudes 46 and 47 degrees south – the ‘Roaring Forties’ latitudes, so named for their notoriously strong and persistent westerly winds.
The weather is generally milder than many southern South Island regions, with snow rarely lying at sea level in the winter months. Halfmoon Bay records about 1,600 mm of rain a year, with May and June the wettest months. Temperates are moderate. At Halfmoon Bay in summer, the mean daily maximum is 16.6 degrees Celsius. In winter it is 9.9 degrees. Gales from the southwest and northwest quarters are not uncommon.
A weather forecaster’s advice to visitors, therefore: Pack a raincoat and warm clothing but do not be surprised if you encounter warm fine weather, especially along the northeast coast.
Visitors reach the island by air or sea. First impressions are of an island couched in naturalness, with forest descending to the shoreline and overhanging secluded beaches of creamy golden sand. Unlike the mainland areas north of Foveaux Strait, there are no expanses of pasture here, no widespread farming or recent forest clearance.
The island’s economy is based on the fishing, aquaculture and a steady stream of visitors. Tourism accounts for at least a third of the full-time jobs on the island. The island receives an estimated 30,000 visitors a year, many of whom are from overseas. Most are day visitors but increasing numbers now arrive to experience the Rakiura Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, or the longer trekking circuits. Groups of deer hunters, anglers and divers also help swell visitor numbers.
Trips to view kiwi in the wild, after dark, are popular, involving a cross of Paterson Inlet.
Many visitors are attracted by the prospect of visiting New Zealand’s 14th and newest national park, Rakiura National Park.
The park, created in 2003, covers just on 90 percent of the island – all except the land around the township area and a large block of Maori land on the east coast from Paterson Inlet to south of Lords River. The islands of Paterson Inlet form part of the national park, with Ulva Island a magnificent visitor experience for anyone interested in New Zealand’s native birds.
Feature species include the endangered South Island saddleback (one of New Zealand’s ancient wattle birds), a flightless woodhen called weka, and charming grey and white native robins.
There is a mystique about Stewart Island that is not found elsewhere in New Zealand. It has to do with its wilderness atmosphere, haven qualities, limited development, small population and location off the beaten track.
It is a natural treasure – a green gem in a blue setting.
Extract from Neville Peat’s guidebook,
Stewart Island – A Rakiura Ramble
published by Otago University Press