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When I first set foot on Rakiura/Stewart Island years ago, I knew I would love it there. Little did I know how much of a mark it would have on me.
New Zealand’s third island is known as a paradise for wildlife lovers. Unlike the rest of New Zealand, stoats, goats, mice or pigs were never introduced to Stewart Island, allowing the rare bird life to continue while it was decimated elsewhere. That said, it’s still declining, thanks to things like feral cats (the worst).
However, Rakiura/Stewart Island still ranks highly as one of the best places in New Zealand to get up close and personal with wildlife. It is also one of the best places to have the chance to see kiwi in the wild. Home to just a few hundred people, Rakiura feels very much like another era, perhaps even a glimpse of what New Zealand used to look like or might even look like again.
As someone who feels connected to the land, Rakiura spoke to my soul the first time I was here.
And then it left an indelible mark on me as I fell over hundreds of stranded pilot whales on a remote beach trample. Days from help and completely off the grid, this traumatic experience changed my life. At the time I thought I would never return to Stewart Island. But eventually I made peace with it.
Part of Southland, Stewart Island is absolutely magical by no means. It is far too special to ignore.
I spend at least a week here once a year, and last summer was no exception. I flew round trip from Invercargill for the first time instead of sailing over which offered a different experience. Here are some of my favorite photos from my Stewart Island trip – enjoy!
Visit Ulva Island and get your bird geek on
One of the highlights of any visit to Rakiura/Stewart Island is embracing all the bird life. And one of the best places on Stewart Island is a small island a short boat ride away from the main town, Oban, in Paterson Inlet. Most of our predator-free offshore islands that are bird sanctuaries are closed to the public and require a permit to enter. Ulva island is one of the few exceptions.
There are different ways to experience Ulva Island/Te Wharawhara, but I always find great value in guided wildlife tours – and Ulva’s guided walks is no exception. Started by local Ulva in 2000, it’s an incredible experience. She followed Ulva like her shadow, and her energy and passion were contagious; I learned a lot from the experience (and I already know a lot about birds).
Ulva Island has been free of pests since 1997 and offers a glimpse of what New Zealand’s incredible nature and birdlife might look like without predators. Among pristine rainforests and stunning beaches, you’ll find many of our rarest birds, such as kiwi, tīeke/saddleback and mohua/yellowhead.
Fly out to Mason Bay and pedal
In the past, with Stewart Island trips, I have always taken the ferry or a boat across the famous Foveaux Strait from Bluff (and once a helicopter, but that’s a story for another time). Only an hour, it’s an easy way to access the island.
Stewart Island flights runs small spots from Invercargill to Stewart Island a few times a day and it’s an epic way to hop over quickly with some great views. But a little known secret is that they can also land their small planes on the long sandy beaches around Stewart Island. Remote and wild, these beaches generally sit on the famous North West Circuit Track. By flying in, you can have supplies delivered. You can start and end the pedal wherever you want, shortening a long track.
If you’re keen to see a remote part of Stewart Island, here’s my top tip. Take a flight to Mason Bay and stay Mason Bay backcountry DOC cabin for a night or two. Drop your pack and explore the whole area – it’s epic! I always see kiwi here too. Then head out to Freshwater Landing and take the water taxi back to town Rakiura charters. You get the best of everything in a short time.
Get out on the water and look for seabirds
While staying on Stewart Island, getting out on the water and exploring the island is an absolute must. If you have a boat, your best bet is to hop on one of the many guided boat tours. Stewart Island is one of the few places in the world where you can easily see some of the most magnificent seabirds, such as albatrosses.
Ulva’s Guided Hikes and Rakiura Charter runs a land and sea birds full day excursion. This will get you out on the water and also a guided tour around Ulva Island for the day. Both are must-dos!
Eat at Fin and Feather’s
Traveling to Stewart Island requires some advance planning. It is small and you are limited in terms of accommodation and places to eat. I was so excited to see a new place pop up in time for my visit last summer – Fin and feather eatersy – a gourmet food truck right in the middle of the city. Their menu changes all the time and their hours vary a lot, but whatever they have is great.
I ate there three different times. And would have gone back for more.
Look for kiwi after dark
If you find yourself on Stewart Island after dark, looking for kiwi is an absolute must. There’s always a chance you might stumble upon kiwi anywhere on the island. But if you’re not a massive bird geek and aren’t familiar with their calls and are looking for them, then your best bet is to hop on a kiwi spotting tour.
I spent an evening with the locals Beak and Feather as we wandered around private land looking for kiwi. We saw 10, including babies. When birding at night use red light so you don’t disturb or shock the kiwi and it allows you to see better in low light which is why I don’t have pictures. It’s a great way to just sit back and enjoy a great experience.
The Rakiura tokoeka/Stweart Island kiwi is a subspecies of the southern brown kiwi and they are unusual in several ways. Slightly more common than the rest of our kiwi, it is estimated that around 20,000 of them are still on Rakiura. They are also famous for being active during the day and they are large. The biggest of kiwis, with big girls that almost reach your knees. They are also not solitary and live in family groups.
Stay at Argyle Apartments
It has long been a challenge to find a place to stay on Stewart Island – you need to book a place well in advance, because accommodation is limited. This time I got to live in a completely new building – the one Argyle flats, right in the city. Flash, cozy and close, the view out over Half Moon Bay and the surrounding bush was just magical. And they had houseplants. 10/10.
Check out the Rakiura Museum/Te Puka o Te Waka
I love small town museums, and that Rakiura Museum does not disappoint. Rakiura, which houses an extensive collection showing the early history here, from sheep birds to Maori and whaling settlements, was very much a fascinating Wild West. The stories are wild and I often imagine what life would have been like back then.
As an avid reader and writer, I always pick up a few books from museum gift shops that share more in-depth stories about the site. Often the books there are hard to find, small editions or self-published, which makes them even more unique.
Have you been to Rakiura/Stewart Island before? Do you have any Stewart Island travel tips? Share!
Many thanks to Great South for hosting me on Stewart Island; As always, I keep it real – as if you could expect any less from me!