Falling in love with Stewart Island

Mason Bay dunes
Chrissy reports on a recent trip to New Zealand's mysterious third island

I’ve just got back from my first trip to Stewart Island, and I have to confess: I’m a little bit in love with the place. If nothing else particularly exciting crops up in the next few years I will think very seriously about running away from Wellington, seducing a local fisherman and raising children in a rambly cottage in Halfmoon Bay.

For those not familiar with the place, Stewart Island, or Rakiura is New Zealand’s third largest Island. About the size of Singapore, it boasts all of 400 permanent residents, nearly all of whom live in the only current settlement at Halfmoon Bay. Much of the island has never seen human occupation, with over 85% of the island kept as national park area. It’s renowned especially for its incredible birdlife and forests, but Rakiura also has a surprising fascinating history of human settlement and a vibrant and hospitable local culture.

I’m going to be guiding trips here for Kiwi Wilderness Walks later in the season, and I can’t wait! They run an incredible five day walking trip, including a scenic flight and beachlanding at Mason Bay, Kiwi spotting, an epic trek across the island and time to explore Ulva Island and Halfmoon Bay. For now though, here are some of my favourite parts.

Lonnekers Beach, Halfmoon Bay

Lonnekers Beach, Halfmoon Bay

The Pub

South Seas Hotel, Halfmoon Bay’s one and only local, is the sort of of pub that disappeared from mainland New Zealand sometime in the 1970s. It’’s full of smelly fisherman, course language, tall stories, terrible jokes, and what is possibly New Zealand’s only free pool table. On any given Friday night you will likely find half the town here, and without much exaggeration, the best blue cod and chips in Aotearoa.

The Locals

Generally the word ‘local’ here refers to those with families going back six generations but there’s not exactly an ‘in club’. People here are overwhelmingly friendly, and even more laidback than the rest of New Zealand, which is saying something. Everyone leaves their keys in their cars, and I’m not sure we even received a house key when we were there. It’s a pretty awesome, tight knit community. The local conservation organisation, SIRCET, does amazing trapping and planting work around the island, all volunteer run. If you have a spare afternoon, pop into a screening of “A Local’s Tail” at the Bunkhouse Cinema. It’s an absolutely hilarious locally made film and a great introduction to the quirky history and stories of Stewart Island people.

A Kaka - just another of the locals at Halfmoon Bay!

A Kaka – just another of the locals at Halfmoon Bay!

The Birds

I’ve done a lot of tramping and spent a heap of time in NZ bush, but half the birds we saw in our few days there, I’d never seen before in the wild. Kaka, Kakariki, Tomtits, Tui, Bellbirds, Keruru, Kiwi, Robin are all relatively abundant. To be honest, in places they’re almost annoying. Stewart Island is also really one of the only places in NZ where the Kiwi, New Zealand’s national bird is still in abundance in the wild. A trip to Mason Bay on the West coast, or a special guided tour is your best chance of seeing them.

Ulva Island, the famous predator free sanctuary is a short ferry ride from Half moon bay, and a haven for all sorts of birds including a number of endangered species such as Mohua, and Tieke, as well as lots of sea birds and mammals.

The Bush

Is absolutely stunning. Because Stewart Island has remained free from some of the predators that plague the mainland, the ecosystems here have remained much more intact. Despite various attempts at logging, industry never really made much headway, and the island contains huge areas of NZ’s ancient podocarp rainforest.

While there are only 20km of roads on the island, there are well over 200 km of tramping tracks, including New Zealand’s southernmost Great Walk, the Rakiura, the infamously gruelling North West Circuit, and numerous gorgeous short walks and day trips around the township.

The Dunes at Mason Bay

On the remote and wild west coast of the island lies Mason Bay, a desolately beautiful 12 mile crescent of sandy beach. The dunes here stretch inland as far as 3km and are an amazing example of New Zealand’s original dune ecosystem – one of international significance. The area also happens to be home to the highest population base of kiwi in the world – we saw a couple of these weird but wonderful flightless birds within 15 minutes of our evening stroll. The area is accessible only by 2 day hike or by chartered aircraft, but it’s most definitely worth the trip! We flew in on a tiny 5 seater plane in perfect weather, however you are just as likely to arrive to a howling westerly and the deafening roar of the vast Southern Ocean.

Sand Dunes at Mason Bay, Stewart Island.

Sand Dunes at Mason Bay, Stewart Island.

Information on the five day guided trip is available here