Spectacular Stewart Island

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April 5th 2010
Published: June 13th 2010
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It started out as a crisp clear early morning in Te Anau as I headed
to Invercargill by bus with plans to go directly to Stewart Island
(the third island, if you will, of New Zealand), off the bottom of the
south island. I hadn't made up my mind yet how I was getting there.
It's an hour by ferry on often-rough seas; it's 20 minutes by flight,
often with no hassles at all. Invercargill is 30 minutes or so from
Bluff, a small town teetering on the very edge of the bottom of the
south island. In fact, it's the southern-most town in New Zealand, or
at least out of the two main islands. Cost always plays a big part in
the way I travel, and this Easter Monday was no exception. How to get
to the island? Hmmmm??

I found myself at the bus terminus at the iSite Information Center,
somewhere in the center of Invercargill, a nondescript town, the
largest "city" I had come across in some time, but also one of the
least interesting (and I say that having only been there a short
time). I had to make up my mind. The shuttle was coming within 10
minutes to take people from the bus drop off point to the ferry
terminal at Bluff. The costs were whirring in my head: $63.00 for the
ferry plus $20.00 for the shuttle, one way only. The flights were $105
o/w or $185 return. Hmmm? Not that much difference when taking into
account I had to get back from the Island at some point. I was talking
the week before with an overly-enthusiastic fellow traveler who "loved
every minute" of her flight to Stewart Island, especially the landing
on a single airstrip on the top of a hillside. Her words kept ringing
in my ears, and with the beautiful day in store, I decided to nix the
shuttle and buy a plane ticket to the island. I didn't take the
overnight Doubtful Sound cruise the weekend before so I still had a
bit of "extra" money to spend. Well, sort of.

It was Easter Monday, a day off for kiwis and not too many shops were
open in Invercargill. With ticket in hand for my flight to leave
Invercargill a few hours later, a couple newly-made friends and I
walked to the local Pak 'n Save to buy a few days' worth of groceries
for the island, not wanting to part with our kiwi dollars on the
inflated prices in the one town on the island. I met a girl on the bus
that morning from Te Anau and we got on so well, she decided to scrap
her plans to stay in the lackluster town and bought the last seat for
the plane to Stewart Island. She was winging her trip just as I was.

The flight was amazing: scenic, exhilarating, smooth and quick. I sat
in the very front, just next to the pilot, and even had my own
controls (uh, steering wheel??) in front of me. I didn't even want to
stretch my legs or move a muscle for fear of inadvertently pushing a
button or toggle switch on that intricate control panel directly in
front of me. We were at max capacity; 8 passengers in back and me in
the front. This was by far the smallest plane to date I have been on.
We passed over green farmlands and giant estates outside of the city
of Invercargill, the craggy sea cliffs at Bluff, over the Foveaux
Strait and down to the one little airstrip on the hillside, high above
Oban, otherwise known as Halfmoon Bay, the one main township on the
island, population 400, give or take 50. Beautiful little inlets, long
expanses of white beaches, green rugged mountain tops everywhere,
waters dotted with uninhabited islands, and nothing but trees as far
as the eye could see looking south. I couldn't stop smiling when we
landed. I was so excited to be there and Stewart Island never once
disappointed me.

What started out as a three-day trip turned into a week and had I not
had bus tickets, friends to meet up with and more country to see in my
remaining weeks in New Zealand, I would have stayed longer. As it was,
my friend Raphaela from Switzerland and I stayed at a wonderful,
quaint backpackers a block off the main drag (which, by the way, is
only a block long). The owners were absolutely lovely and showed us
true kiwi hospitality. We both ended up working for accommodation, so
the money we saved each night on lodging was quite a bonus. We
splurged a time or two and bought from the market down the street an
$8.00 bottle of New Zealand wine, which turned out to be quite tasty.

The week was spent cleaning the backpackers in the morning, and taking
extensive, exploratory day hikes in the afternoons. We were fortunate
to have mostly beautiful, agreeable weather, except as luck would have
it (or not have it), one magnificent morning turned cold and cloudy in
the afternoon, an afternoon we had set aside to take some kayaks out.
We saw no sea life, only a few birds, one Bambi (a beautiful fawn
sleeping in the half sunshine on a hidden beach) and lots of rough
water with which to tangle. Five of us went kayaking together that
day; I was in a single kayak while the others were doubled up.
Perpetually single I am.....A film crew was there to film kayakers in
the water that day, but even though we met them on shore (shook their
hands, even), and they were planning on using us for their footage,
for some reason we were "too fast" for them and they never caught up
to us. Bummer. It would have been fun to be in someone's documentary
about island life...

The second day on the island, Raphaella and I took a water taxi to
Ulva Island, the bird sanctuary, a quick 10-minute jaunt off the coast
of Stewart Island. Since there are no natural predators on the island,
the birds are unafraid of people and literally came right up to us;
some little robins actually even landed on our feet, pecking at our
shoes and laces. The robins and the fantails (I really liked these
nervous, flittery birds, but they never stood still long enough for me
to affectively photograph them) would hover behind us as we walked
along, pecking at the ground where we had stirred up insects and bugs.
Smart birdies. Let someone else do the work and you get to benefit. I
like it.

All in all, it was a lovely stay on the Stewart Island and I
definitely will be heading back there another time for some serious
overnight tramps into the bush.

A quick flight back to the south island after one week away, a
complimentary ride back into Invercargill by a lovely kiwi woman (a
new mother with babe in arms) who sat in front of me on the plane. She
said "I used to do what you are doing way back in the day....back when
I was your age I backpacked throughout Europe for a year...." blah
blah blah. When she told me this she didn't realize I was older than
her! Ha...

Coming up next....Cadbury delights!


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