Stewart Island is south of the main southern island of New Zealand. It is actually a larger island with several smaller islands surrounding it and within some of its sounds. The island was first occupied by Europeans in the late 1700s when whaling and seal hunting came to Oceania. These waters were filled with seals and whales at the time and Stewart Island had some excellent protected bays and safe locations for habitation. There were no mammals on the island – so no dangerous predators on the island. The waters, however, had plenty of shark. One of the islands today has the third largest populations of great white sharks known in the world. Stewart Island has mountains and is covered with a temperate rain forest with lush vegetation and is home to many species of birds.
To get to Stewart Island, you either fly or take a boat. There is a ferry from the town of Bluff, but the ferry does not take cars. So, you arrive at Half Moon Bay at Stewart Island walking. The main town and roads are not very spread out though. You can easily walk most of the roads in a single day because this part is less than 1/4 of the main island. But, the rest of the island is huge. One of the tracks is a 10-12 day hike around the bigger part of the main island.
Karen and I liked the Bluff-Stewart ferry. It was a modern power cat with comfortable seating with tables and nice large glass windows. The seas were fairly flat when we went as we tried to schedule our trip with good weather. We were fortunate to get mostly sunny skies and only scattered rain (mostly at night). This is unusual for Stewart Island apparently. There was a cold front that came through on the last night which made it brisk on our third day. There is a slideshow at the bottom of this post with photos from our trip to the island.
We elected to stay at the backpacker “hotel”. We wouldn’t recommend doing this if you want to get a good night of rest. It was inexpensive (about $55 a night verses $125 or higher elsewhere). But, the establishment is old and built of very basic construction with super thin walls and wooden decks for walkways and floors. Since many of the people staying are actually backpackers, they walk around with hiking boots. CLOMP CLOMP CLOMP. And, since many of them are young, they tend to stay up at night talking – or coming back from the pub late at night. Karen is a light sleeper and she was woken up a lot both nights! They had a nice lounge and kitchen with lots of refrigerators. So, cooking wasn’t too much of a problem. Just crowded.
On the first day, I went on a nature hike by myself while Karen tried to take a nap. I first walked up the hill overlooking Half Moon Bay. What a beautiful place! Then I went to Observation Rock which overlooks Golden Bay and gives a fantastic view of other parts of the island. There were a few small scenic tour boats and some tour sail boats at anchor or at the small wharf in the bay. I also got my first view of Ulva Island – which is a conservation island where they have removed all the introduced mammals (rats mostly) to allow the island to become a bird sanctuary. Although the main island has less protection, the Golden Bay nature trail has plenty of birds. I managed to find and photograph at least 6 different species (about half listed in the brochure for the walk) during my 1 hour walk. Some of these birds have amazingly musical calls. Probably the most interesting were the Tui, the fantail, and the wood pigeons. The wood pigeons are like gigantic pigeons – they are larger than many chickens, but they fly. You can easily see why they were almost hunted to extinction by the Maori. They look like large flying chicken dinners. On the way back, I also saw a couple of oyster catcher birds (black with distinctive orange beaks).
The second day, I took Karen on the same walk. It took longer to spot some of the birds for some reason. But, Karen finally got to see most of them. We took a different route back, and this time got a great view of Half Moon Bay from Peterson Hill. The weather was beautiful and we were soon shedding our jackets and sweaters.
After fixing some lunch at the hotel, we went to the information center and booked a small ferry ride to Ulva island for mid-afternoon. We had to walk back to Golden Bay to catch the ferry (it’s a steep hill), but were soon taking the 20 minute ride over.
Ulva Island used to be home to a post office. On one corner is a small hill on this mostly flat island. The guy who ran the post office used to raise a flag here, and the people living on the main island would row over to pick up the mail when the flag flew. Now the hill just has a lookout point. We walked first to the nearby Sydney Cove and saw a Weka. Weka are flightless birds that look sort of like a cross between a chicken and a Kiwi. They are very curious and will follow you around sometimes. Karen enjoyed trying to take pictures of them. We found the leaves of a bush which people used to write on as a postcard for many years. The post office accepted them for several decades. They have a white underside and are perfect for writing on. We saw a variety of birds again during our walks across the island. Highlights were the Kaka (a large parrot), wood pigeons, and robins. But, Karen found a rare sighting of an owl. It was perched on a tree right in the sunlight trying to sleep. We took a bunch of pictures of it. People in town saw my telephoto shots and said they rarely see them! Later, Karen also spotted a small flock of New Zealand parakeets. They are actually pretty big birds and have a brilliant green color that makes them hard to find in the trees. Some of them have a bright red mark on their head. But, they flew away before I could get my camera on them. We kept an eye out for Kiwi – but, they are mostly nocturnal and only a few are on Ulva. So, we never saw them.
Our ferry picked us up at 6 PM (still nearly 3 hours from sunset). We walked back to the backpacker’s after a long day of hiking. But, it was night a good night of rest again due to the thin walls and loud young people.
On the last day, we found out the second fery doesn’t leave until 3:30 PM (we got up too late for the 8:30 AM one). So, we rested some in the lounge, had some fish and chips from a nearby eatery, and checked the weather. It looked like we could book a trip to Doubtful Sound two days later for good weather (a hard thing to arrange there). So, we went to the information center and bought tickets for the full-day tour at Doubtful Sound.
You can see the photos from our trip to Stewart Island in the slideshow below (make sure to view the larger version of the slideshow). There are lots of pictures of the island scenery, and the birds we saw.
View full-sized slideshow
Finally, we took the 1 hour ferry ride back to Bluff, and drove back to Invercargill and went to a campground north of town. We had a great trip to Stewart Island, and really enjoyed our visit.