South As..

Trip Start Sep 09, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of New Zealand  ,
Wednesday, May 11, 2005

'The face of the earth is changing so rapidly that soon there will be little of the primitive nature left. In the Old World, it is practically gone forever. Here, then, is Stewart Island's prime advantage, and one hard to overestimate.

It is an actual piece of the primeval world.'

- Leonard Cockayne

Following a couple of cock-ups and a mad panic down to Bluff (the port), I made it to the ferry just in time to clamber aboard before crossing 'the strait' over to 'Stewart Island'. The Foveaux Strait is famed for its notoriously rough waters which have seen many a ferry turn back or get cancelled at random times of high wind. This crossing was no exception and though it was quite 'calm' and the ferry was permitted to cross, I still got a vague idea of its potential having spent a good forty minutes of the crossing out on the back deck holding on tightly and taking deep breaths.

It was Chris who got me down to Bluff in the nick of time following a cockup with the shuttle service that picked me up from the wrong holiday park. After standing around for a good half hour clock-watching with me outside his reception, Chris went inside and phoned the ferry company to see where the bus was. All I heard was the tail end of the conversation as Chris came back outside, which basically ended with 'and he expects a free ride back!' As he put the phone down the electric garage door started lifting and he told me to jump in. Minutes later, we're tearing down Route One in Chris' 4x4 towards Bluff. I really couldn't thank him enough as I'd have been completely stuck without him. It had taken me ages to prepare and pack everything for the trip, as well as negotiating my van around the back of the farm for locking up in Chris' tractor shed. But I guess he's that sort of chap. What was I saying yesterday about people and generosity? It had already become clear to me what a good, genuine bloke he was when he booked my place on the ferry. 'Young lad like you on your own - it's only right' was what he said to me when I looked questioningly at my card receipt. He'd only charged me $40.50 for my ferry ticket. Holiday parks and hostel owners quite often get a 10% discount for booking trips, activities or generally bridging gaps between travellers pockets and NZ cash registers. On this occasion, Chris' just felt like he wanted to pass on his commission back to the customer which was why I ending up signing a receipt for $40.50 not $45. It's always the little things that make your day I guess.

It took me most of the morning to wash stuff and pack actually as I just couldn't for the life of me work out what to take across. This would be the first time in a long time away from the storage-friendly convenience of my van so I had to get it right what I was likely to need, especially if I wanted to do any treks or dives, fishing or snorkelling. As I've pretty much opened up my life doors to the hands of fate I didn't have any idea how long I would be gone for either, which made the packing decision a little more difficult. In the end I just stuffed a couple of changes of clothes and some waterproofs in my pack along with my stove and sleeping bag and headed up to Chris' reception to wait for the ghost shuttle that never was.

So following the kind aid and generous hand of Chris, I made it aboard the Stewart Island catamaran just in time to cross the strait. It was actually just three Americans and me who shared the large, shiny, expensive boat over to Stewart Island. God knows how they make a profit on days like this.

As we left the port of Bluff the sun was starting to dim and sat low in the sky, beaming straight in to the cabin of the boat as we chugged carefully out of the mariner. As it bathed my face a wave of butterflies thrashed through me out of nowhere and the whole idea of my next unfolded adventure started me ticking. I sat there beaming a huge grin right back out of the boat as we left the port.

Stewart Island is known by the Maori people as 'Rakiura', which translates as 'Land of the Glowing Skies'. It's believed to have been named this way in reference to the Aurora Australis (big word I know) or 'Southern Lights' which apparently are a phenomenon of these Southern latitudes and can be seen here at certain times of the year. It's also renowned for its magnificent blood-red sunrises and sunsets. Well the sunset that accompanied the crossing was magnificent. I haven't seen the horizons of the west for about six months so I was bubbling with excitement. I couldn't get far enough out on deck to get a good shot of it though so I had to leave it. Chances are the camera wouldn't have picked it out anyway.

Sadly, so many people whizz through New Zealand on the all too popular two-week 'super-tour' and miss this treasure chest of a 'third island' out completely which is such a great shame. Those that do their homework and know exactly what's in store have been known to travel from all over, specifically to visit. See, getting your nose in and around Stewart Island is a good idea. It's as good as going back in time, just enough to get a glimpse of what things were like before we mauled, messed and meddled with this incredible planet. The beauty of Stewart Island is that only around 4% of it is actually inhabited (by humans anyway), and this insignificant number occupies a small bay on the east coast called Halfmoon Bay (or 'Oban' as the small township is known.) Beyond that, a short walk up the road is all that's really necessary to discover that there's pretty much nothing else out there other than extremely dense native bush which amazingly and thankfully is untouched and completely unspoiled. As a result, this magical place harbours an abundance of plant and animal life, a lot of which has miraculously withstood the threat of its own extinction. With predators now largely controlled by the DOC the native bird population has boomed.

On the whole though it's an incredibly harsh environment that takes a good hammering from the elements, mainly the southerlies which roar up from the Antarctic, the very thing that can so easily be forgotten. Apart from the small, sub-antarctic islands that are randomly sprinkled around New Zealand's waters, beyond Stewart Island there really is little else other than Antarctica itself. It's one hell of a place to be. But enough for now - back to the how's, what's, why's and where's before I start sounding like a guidebook.

On arrival, I picked my pack from the baggage claim and walked along the dark jetty over to the waterfront and up a side street to the backpackers (Chris had kindly booked me a dorm bed earlier this afternoon). Much to my surprise the woman behind the desk told me to go straight to the hotel as quickly as I walked in. Apparently I had my own room waiting there. The concept of 'small town folk' quickly caught up with me as I tried to explain who I was and who had booked me in which was pointless really as she knew exactly who I was before I even walked in there and had been expecting me. So had everyone else it turns out. Apparently, the hostel was full for a couple of nights as forty two screaming kids were over from the mainland on an 'educational', so the owners had booked me in to the hotel as a matter of safeguarding my own sanity. A hotel room and facilities for the same rate as a backpackers - another bonus!

Ten minutes later I was checked in to little room seven above the bar sitting there for a moment on the springy mattress with a contented grin. By this time it was nearly 7pm and I headed downstairs to seek out a bit of a bite and a pint. After polishing off a chunky, densely populated local seafood chowder which I have to say is far superior to the 'world famous' one in Russell (Bay of Islands), I went in the bar for a meander.

It was such a small town atmosphere I was blown away. It became apparent very quickly that everyone knew everybody. The stereotypical 'Stewart Islander' was ever prominent - check shirts and gumboots were everywhere. It was actually quite difficult to distinguish between folk. At first I thought it was a joke but when I stood at the bar to order a handle, I noticed that the Stewart Island telephone directory was conveniently sellotaped to the wall right beside the bar. What made me smile was the fact that the whole thing was printed on one single sheet of A4 paper, with everyone's name listed alphabetically (included businesses). I almost didn't believe it.

I ended up getting roped in to a game of doubles at the pool table alongside Pete; who's over here working for a while and who made a point of proudly announcing that he's got nine grandchildren. We played against another chap who's name I can't remember and Frank; Pete's Dad!

It was quite a good night actually, bit of an eye-opener and certainly an interesting one. The perfect start to the rugged Rakiura adventures!
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