Things to do in Stewart Island, New Zealand
Oban Cruise Stop
Stewart Island is literally a world away from New Zealand although it shares the latter’s fondness for nature conservation. Separated by Foveaux Strait about 40 kilometres from the nearest South Island town of Invercargill, Stewart Island’s original name, Rakiura, means “the anchor stone of Maui’s canoe”, with North Island said to be the fish caught from Maui’s canoe, which in turn is South Island.
Rakiura’s crimson sunrises and sunsets are reminiscent of the island’s alternative Maori name which means the “isle of glowing skies”, itself derived from the “deep blush of Te Rakitamau” who legend says was spurned twice by the two daughters of another Maori chief when he asked their hands in marriage.
Because of Stewart Island’s volcanic nature, much of its terrain is more suitable to wildlife than farming. This translates to at least 85% of its 674 square miles dedicated to wildlife, designated in 2002 as the Rakiura National Park. There are several walking tracks in the park you can complete in a few days, but given your limited time ashore, consider joining the introductory Fuschia Walk.
Oban, Stewart Island’s only permanent settlement in Halfmoon Bay with a population of about 400, is regularly visited by cruise ships plying the Sydney-Burnie-Auckland route, which come down this far south to cruise the Fiordland National Park. While there are few things you can do in town – there’s a small museum and some shops selling the usual souvenirs – there are plenty of activities you can engage in on the undulating hills and rugged terrain of the national park. For starters, the Paterson Inlet, which flows far inland into the heart of the park, is not only heavily forested with pristine growth, but also a great launching point for boating, fishing and diving.
Ulva Island, located within the inlet, is sanctuary to avian species and endemic flora that have become endangered in mainland New Zealand. In the same vein, the forest interiors are home to some of the most difficult-to-breed orchids in the mainland.
Stewart Island’s beaches are also a beacon for sun-seeking tourists albeit the island’s reputation for frequent and heavy downpours (responsible for its thick forests). You can have a choice of black iron sand, white sand with a sprinkling of red garnet or quartz, or the most abundant, golden sand beaches that sparkle like their namesake. Due to its remoteness, you can have a huge slice of these beaches with nothing but birds to keep you company.
Spotting wildlife is guaranteed in the island. Its forests teem with saddleback, yellowhead, robins, parakeets, tui, bellbirds and, on its coasts, shorebirds such as albatross, petrels, gulls, cormorants and blue penguins. On the west coast, in Mason Bay, the elusive kiwi makes regular appearances among the tussocks and scrubs and huge sand-hills of the 12-mile crescent beach, otherwise ideal for human visitors who love their beaches sandy and crowd-free.