Stewart and Ulva Island: Remoteness Redefined

Published: August 6th 2007
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Stewart and Ulva Island: Remoteness Redefined

After Te Anau we really hadn’t planned the rest of our New Zealand leg of the trip. With a little more than ten days left at our disposal I was a little concerned that we would find ourselves in Christchurch with nothing to do for a few days while we waited for a flight out.

A chance conversation with some fellow American tourists pointed my curiosity towards Stewart Island, a small island off the tip of southern NZ. The Lonely Planet didn’t have much to say about Stewart except that it was small, mostly uninhabited and about 85%!n(MISSING)ational park. We knew we would be heading south no matter what we did, so the day after Milford Sound we packed up and drove to Invercargill. Invercargill is certainly not a destination for tourists as is pointed out by the Lonely Planet. The LP comment was “boys with souped up cars and girls with souped up hairdos point to the fact that there is nothing to do in Invercargill.”

Wow was the LP correct on this one. As we drove in we noticed teenage girls walking around with improbably dyed hairdos and teenage boys driving around in brightly colored souped up rice-burner Japanese cars. That’s about as interesting as Invercargill got. Our only real accomplishments in Invercargill were finding a really nice Motor Inn (388 on Tay for anyone interested) and making plans for a brief trip to Stewart Island at the well appointed Tourist Information building in downtown.

Stewart Island: Cold, Remote, but Very Hospitable

We dropped our car off in the pay lot in Bluff where we were going to catch the ferry which is poetically named the Stewart Island Experience and then checked in with our pared down luggage. Since we were only traveling for one night we were able to lower our luggage load to one tote bag and one plastic grocery bag of stuff. Epiphany: man, we can travel light at this point. Taking weekend trips when we are back in the states is going to be a breeze from now on.

We had made our hotel booking at the Tourist Information place due to the facts that there aren’t many places to stay on Stewart, it’s off season so some places are closed, and it’s highly recommended to book before you arrive. Bev, our hotel owner, met us at the ferry in Oban (the only town on Stewart) to take us and our bags the half mile to our hotel. The Bay Motel was nothing flashy but it got the job done and thankfully had a good heating system. As you can image it is getting quite cold here. Our first and only night in Oban it got down very close to freezing.

Many New Zealanders have heard bad things about Stewart Island. The rumors are that it is a boring little place with horrible weather and that you best watch out on the ferry because crossings can be seasick inducing. Due to these, mostly erroneous, rumors many New Zealanders never even make it to this beautiful island. We were quite lucky, the ferry crossing was uneventful, the weather while we were on the island was beautiful (if a bit cold) and we had more than enough stuff to keep us busy for 24 hours.
Ulva Island: Birds, Beaches and Beauty

After checking in with Bev we set off for some hiking on Ulva Island. The water taxi met us at the dock in Golden Bay and ferried us across the bay to Ulva in about ten minutes. As we pulled up to the dock our taxi driver pointed out what looked like a huge boulder on the beach. It turned out to be an enormous sea lion which was about 10 feet long and probably weighed two tons. While he almost looked dead as he sunned himself on the beach, we knew better than to approach him. These big guys can move quite fast when they want to and have big sharp teeth. After eyeing him from a distance we set off for our four hours of hiking.

Ulva Island is one giant park which has one beach where people can camp if they wish to. Its main attractions are a few gorgeous beaches and a ton of bird life. New Zealand’s parks have had a rough go of it due to pests which have been introduced into the wild. The most destructive of these are rats which eat anything they can get their hands on including bird’s eggs, trees and other flora and fauna. Ulva Island had many of its native species decimated by these pesky creatures but due to some serious work by the DOC (Department of Conservation) all of the rats were killed and many native species were reintroduced to the island. Thanks to these efforts, Ulva is considered a bird watchers paradise.

Kel and I were both skeptical about bird watching. Kel’s comments summed it up perfectly:

Mike: “I thought you like animals in general.”

Kel: “Birds aren’t animals!”

Needless to say we figured we’d do some hiking, see some nature and not really worry about the birds. We were completely converted into bird lovers by our time on Ulva. Birds can be cool, it turns out that it’s just birds in zoos and most US parks that are dull.

While we hiked around we got a chance to see some pretty interesting birds. The first one we had a run in with was the Kukupa, which is essentially a giant pigeon that is mostly green in color. As you walk the island you mostly hear this bird instead of seeing it. They are so big that their wing flaps sound like a small helicopter taking off. At first it’s most disconcerting but finally we got a chance to see one and it was really pretty and gigantic for
Stewart IslandStewart IslandStewart Island

Sand Patterns
a bird of its type.

Later, when we were walking on one of the beaches we had our first encounters with Wekas. These flightless birds are the top predator on Ulva. They look like round brown chickens but are much more graceful. With the ability to walk for kilometers at a time and swim for close to a kilometer, the Wika really gets around despite its flightless nature. The brochure stated that around humans the Weka can be quite bold. They really weren’t kidding.

When we stepped out onto Boulder Beach, there were four Weka birds pecking their way around in the sand. Whenever one of them would get close to the others there was a huge ruckus and usually the bigger of the two would chase his inferior companion away. Later, when on West End Beach, one Weka came swimming across the cove and walked right up to her mate. While we stood their they squawked at each other for a few seconds and then proceeded to groom each other with us no more than 5 feet away. Mesmerized by these strange birds we stood rooted in spot watching them for close to fifteen minutes before getting back on the trail. In the minute or two it took us to get back on the trail and up the hill by the beach, these two had run ahead of us through the bush and cornered us on the walking path. With one of them in front of us in the bush and the other herding us up the path from behind, we decided it was time to leave before we really upset them. While small in size, we both didn’t want to make them mad - who knows what they’d do.

Figuring we had seen all we would see of the bird life, we headed back to our starting point only to be stopped in mid step by the most amazing bird call we’ve ever heard. On a branch to our left was a blue bird that appeared to have a white tuft of feathers on its neck like a cravat. The bird sounded a lot like R2-D2 from Star Wars, complete with squawks, pings and something that sounded like a spring recoiling. These birds, the Tui, are incredibly aggressive with other birds who come on their territory. I figure this guy thought we were rivals for his food so he called at us for the whole time we stood rooted in place. I wish I had a tape recorder because the this bird’s call was unlike anything I’ve ever heard.

Our water taxi picked us up promptly at 4pm and we left Ulva as complete converts when it comes to birds. By the time we got back to our hotel we were pretty tired from all the hiking. While we didn’t climb any mountains, Ulva is far from flat. The rolling hills through the island make it a pretty strenuous hike for people who aren’t really hikers. After dinner in one of the three restaurants on the island we went to bed and slept really well. Nothing like exercise to make you sleep well.

The History of Stewart

The next day we grabbed breakfast and set out to figure out what we were going to do with ourselves until the 3pm ferry back to the mainland. We ended up booking a bus tour of the inhabited parts of the island. Since we weren’t planning on doing any serious hiking before heading back to Bluff the bus tour was pretty much the only thing to do.

At 11am we got on the bus with four elderly types to take the tour. Our tour guide was incredibly informative and we found the information given to be really pretty interesting. The tour takes you over much of the inhabited area and drops you off for some pictures in a few of the coves and beaches as well as the lookout point overlooking Golden Bay, where we had caught the water taxi the day before.

Stewart Island has been inhabited since the mid 1800’s and remained pretty much the same for the next 150 years. Up until the late 90’s the town had no centralized power supply and had the old party-line operator phone system until 1989. In 1989 a modern phone system was introduced which did away with multiple households sharing a phone line and in the late 90’s central diesel generator power was installed on the island. Until the late 90’s each family had their own generators in their front yards and only turned them on after dark until a “reasonable hour.” Since the front yard generators were so noisy people had to make sure they didn’t disturb their neighbors.

85% of Stewart Island is a national park and only 2% of the island is privately owned. As a comparison, Singapore is one quarter the size of Stewart and has 4 million people living there, while Stewart only has 380 people on the whole island. Much of the 2% of land is owned by people from other parts of NZ who only vacation there. Due to rising cost of land many of the younger people who lived on Stewart are being forced to leave because they can’t afford to buy houses or keep them up.

Currently there are 28 children attending school on Stewart Island. The island’s school only supports up to grade school. Once students get to high school age they have to leave the island and go to boarding schools. How wild must it be for a child to have to leave for high school. Our tour guide told us her kids had a hard time adjusting to the food off the island because they had grown up eating mostly seafood and fresh vegetables while people on the South Island eat more processed foods.

After our tour we grabbed some lunch and then headed to one of the only shops on the island. Kel wanted to look at some of the t-shirts being sold to see if anything was interesting. Everything they sold was merino wool and hand printed on the island. Kel ended up really liking a few of the shirts, so she replaced some of her more worn out stuff with new shirts.

While she was racking up a bill in the shop, I was outside playing with Dash, the owner’s 16 week old Labradoodle. This dog was the coolest puppy Kel and I have seen in a while. Black like a lab but partly curly like a poodle and incredibly smart to go with his good looks. Dash was a ton of fun for me while Kel shopped. The owner was nice enough to offer us a chance to walk Dash, but we said no because we needed to catch the ferry. We are such dog lovers!!

The ferry back was even smoother than the ferry out. We had a little excitement right after we left the ferry terminal as a pack of dolphins started following us. It was really cool to see them jump out of the water in unison. I wished I had my camera ready, it was a pretty neat sight.

Once back on the mainland we grabbed some groceries and headed back to 388 on Tay for a night’s rest. Tomorrow we head off to the Catlins National Park in the South East of the South Island. Hope you are all well back home!

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