It's New Zealand as it used to be a century ago — doors are left unlocked, screeching kiwi interrupt your sleep, and if you're caught out in the rain passing locals stop to offer you a ride.
As soon as I'd dumped my bags in Oban I was collected by genial Phil of Phil's Sea Kayak Stewart Island for a coastal introduction to the island. As we paddled through the crystal clear water around multiple bays we saw numerous sea tulips, kina sea urchins, sea cucumbers and brittle stars, a skinny type of star fish. Above us spotted shags nested in the forest that clad the coast. We stopped on a sandy beach in the Ringaringa Passage, hoping to spot a sea lion that had been lurking around, but he was sadly absent. Instead I found a treasure trove of giant paua shells.
Of course the main reason to visit Stewart Island is to spot kiwi in the wild. There are believed to be 18,000 Stewart Island tokoeka kiwi on Stewart Island. Kiwi thrive there compared with other parts of New Zealand due to the complete absence of mice, ferrets, stoats and weasels. The Stewart Island tokoeka is not only the largest of the kiwi, but also unique in that it sometimes comes out in the daytime to forage for food, possibly because there aren't sufficient hours of darkness on Stewart Island in summer for them to feed.
When I would normally have been tucked up in bed I joined a kiwi-spotting tour with Beaks & Feathers. They have exclusive night- time access to the airstrip, an ideal location for kiwi-spotting due to the soft, squishy grassy area alongside the runway that makes grub-hunting easier. The kiwi sleep in the native forest bordering the strip during the day, then descend upon the grass at night, tapping the ground with their long beaks and using vibrations to locate grubs.
Within moments of arriving at the airstrip we located an adult male methodically tapping the ground then plunging his beak into the dirt to extract his prize. He didn't seem the least bit disturbed by our presence.
Then great excitement ensued (albeit quiet excitement, so we didn't disturb the sound-sensitive kiwi) — a kiwi chick darted away from the guide's torch beam. The little chick, less than two months old, looked hedgehog- sized in the dark, but with the energy of the Road Runner, sprinting away from the torch in frightened zigzags. We stood in awe watching a spectacle that very few New Zealanders get to see.
On the other side of the runway, the unmistakable screeching call of a kiwi rang out from the forest. Our guides Ollie and Mike explained that male kiwi have a high pitched shriek, whereas the female's call has a hoicking quality to it “which is not very ladylike”.
We walked the length of the runway, looking for the three different kiwi families known to have territory in the area. We found one more adult male who alternated between hiding from us in the bushes then remembering he was hungry and reappearing to find more dinner.
But it wasn't just the kiwi that made the tour so special. Stewart Island is an International Dark Sky Sanctuary, and late at night on the airstrip the Milky Way was just that — a milky soup of constellations, with a brilliance I'd never seen at home. It was like I'd put on glasses after years of myopia and suddenly seen the galaxy for the first time.
The next day I sampled a portion of Stewart Island's Great Walk — the Rakiura Track. Though the 32km track is probably a gentle hike to experienced trampers, the serially-unfit like myself can enjoy a “cheat” hike by catching a water taxi to Port William and walking back to Lee Bay, the official start of the track, then onwards to Oban, in all 12km of walking. It is a spectacularly scenic walk, serenaded by bird song, and for the most part I had the track to myself.
Hands-down my favourite section was Maori Beach, a long sandy stretch of beach dispersed with pretty shells, with a long suspension bridge at one end and the historic remnants of a saw mill at the other. The only thing I didn't like was the bumble bee that stalked my head for 15 minutes along the beach and his 30 or 40 mates who swarmed around me in the long drop!
The picture postcard views of Maori Beach continued for a while through breaks in the trees as I followed the track to Little River. A helpful taxi driver gave me a hint — if you want Aurora Cabs to meet you at Lee Bay when you finish the track, text them from Little River to say you're 20 minutes away. Instead, inspired by the scenery and a sudden burst of energy, I decided to follow the road on foot to Oban.
— to be continued
' To book these activities:
Phil's Sea Kayak Stewart Island seakayakstewartisland.nz
Beaks & Feathers www.beaksandfeathers.co.nz