The "Other" New Zealand Island
By Fyllis Hockman
ifteen flashlights shone downward as we gingerly picked our way through
the bush. At the appropriate signal, we extinguished our lights, and
15 expectant adults gathered noiselessly behind our boot-and-camouflage-attired
leader. As his sole light hopped and skipped across the dark, remote
seaweed-strewn beach, suddenly we saw her -- the elusive New Zealand
On orders to stay close, we waddled in muted tandem
behind guide Philip Smith as he inched us to within 20 feet. Trying
not to intrude upon her late-night supper, we were star-struck by this
brown dumpling of a bird, head bobbing up and down, its long beak darting
in and out of the sand single-mindedly nibbling on spiders, berries
Stewart Island, 674 isolated square miles of land to
the south of South Island that very few New Zealanders visit, much less
anyone else, is the only place in New Zealand where you can spot kiwis,
the native bird that few natives ever see.
According to Wendy Hallett, owner of the Greenvale B&B
where we stayed, many people first book a kiwi-spotting tour with Smith,
THEN book their trip to New Zealand and Stewart Island.
But there are many reasons to visit Stewart Island other
than the kiwi. Alternately described as isolated, insular, undeveloped,
natural, wild, Stewart Island beckons in a way few modern destinations
do. The downside? All the things that make it so appealing as a destination
(unless, of course, you're looking for luxury resorts and chic nightclubs)
might themselves be ultimately destroyed by those to whom it so appeals.
Hopefully, it's inaccessibility -- if the flights or ferry can't travel
because of the weather, neither can the tourists - and its uber-emphasis
on conservation might preserve it against the expected onslaught.
There is a very lived-on, lived-in feel about the island;
everyday life is happening here, albeit probably not your everyday life.
As one of the waitresses at the Just Café noted: "We have
no banks, no doctors, no t-shirt shops (not literally true, but more
on that later)
and no stress."
Ask anyone how many people in town and you might hear
something like: "Well, 400 at last count - no, wait - Annie just
gave birth to the twins and Rupert died last week, so guess that makes
401." And that number remained constant despite several efforts
on my part to find an alternate answer.
Eighty-five percent of Stewart Island was designated
in 2002 as Rakiura National Park, making it the most recent addition
to New Zealand's vast string of national parks. While there are only
18 miles of road on the island, there are 174 miles of walking trails
(called tracks), ranging from a 15-minute stroll through the bush to
3-hour hike to a 10-day trek. Basically, there are two ways to get around
-- by boat and on foot. You gotta love a place that has more water taxis
than land ones.
A favorite hike was the Maori Beach Track, a 15-minute
water taxi ride from downtown -- which, by the way, covers about a one-block
area. Captain Ian, a 6th-generation islander, carried me effortlessly
across the slippery, moss-covered log he parked the water-cab against.
Alternately walking through bush so thick as to be impenetrable
or hugging the craggy cliff overlooking the sea, we were bombarded by
a new form of surround sound: the thrashing of waves crashing below
and the concert cries of birds overhead.
The varying vocals from tuis, bellbirds, kakas and kakarikais
were reminiscent of the array of voices one hears in a noisy restaurant:
sometimes individual cries dominated, other times, a general din prevailed.
Then suddenly the birds were vying for attention once again with the
breaking waves. We heard the water before we saw it, as the expanse
of coastline made yet another appearance.
The most natural destination upon our return to town
was the South Seas, of course - the only bar in the only hotel on the
island. This gives "local bar" a whole new meaning. Stocking-cap-clad
men, just off their fishing boats, with long beards and high boots best
each other at billiards and darts. The room overflows with men and women
drinking with gusto, laughing over town gossip or bemoaning the latest
catch. This is not a place that serves a lot of light beer. What it
does serve is good food in ample portions, the fish in the fish 'n chips
just about the flakiest I've had, and the fries, crisp and tasty.
The other must-do activity -- like the calling of the
kiwi -- is to board another water-taxi for a visit to Ulva Island. "This
is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks
begins Walt Whitman's famous poem, Evangeline. He also could
have been describing Ulva Island, an untouched ("unmodified"
is the technical term), predator-free, primitive slice of New Zealand
the way it once was.
And that very nature of the island makes it an unparalleled
sanctuary for birds, trees and plants that might otherwise be extinct.
The hard-wood podocarp forest, literally of pre-historic ancestry, also
houses species of plants 350 million years old. Rare birds such as the
fernbird, saddleback, rifleman and yellowhead roam the woods with impunity.
And the inhabitants are not the only things special
about Ulva Island; there's also Ulva Goodwillie, another 6th-generation
Stewart Islander whose breadth and scope of knowledge covers every twig,
branch and feather found on Ulva Island. The similarity in names may
be coincidental but it's one hell of a marketing tool. She conducts
half- and full-day tours of the island, communicating with the trees
and the birds in very personal, intimate terms, distinguishing between
every caw, chirp, click, creak, twill or whistle emanating from the
One of my tour companions likened the sounds to an "avian
symphony." "If I could get them organized, I could take them
on tour," my musically inclined friend observed.
Back on the mainland, a stop at the Ship to Shore general
store provides another insight into island living. This is the place
to pick up groceries, hardware, beer and wine, household goods, fishing
and hunting equipment and videos. Videos? But for major food shopping,
residents are dependent upon the supermarket in Invercargill, South
Island (the real mainland). They pick up their orders at the Halfmoon
Bay waterfront every Wednesday evening.
Next to Ship to Shore is the previously alluded to T-shirt
shop -- although the designation is really a misnomer. Dil Belworthy,
like so many other Islanders, was a fisherman by trade and, like so
many of his compatriots, several years ago "saw the writing on
the wall." As he tells the story, "I was drinking with some
mates one day and we were discussing how the fishing industry was going
downhill, and how we saw tourism on the horizon." With tourists
as their new prey, the question became: "How do you catch a tourist?"
The answer: "You sell them a T-shirt!"
So Dil and his wife, Cath, started hand-printing their
art-shirts on their kitchen table in 1997, reproducing native Maori
symbols and traditional images. Now, their Glowing Sky Studio sells
these individually designed and produced wearable works of beauty for
$35 per non-T-shirt T-shirt.
For sure, Stewart Island as a whole has learned well
how to catch tourists, but it wouldn't surprise me if the islanders
have mixed emotions about just how successful they want their new venture
to be. For more information, visit www.stewartisland.co.nz.
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