Drive south, past Christchurch, south past Dunedin, south through the beautiful Catlins, around the south-east corner of the South Island of New Zealand, leave your car in Bluff and board a ferry, head south…. to the Roaring Forties, to Stewart Island, New Zealand’s third island!
I knew there were a number of islands off the coasts of New Zealand’s two main islands, but I wasn’t aware of Stewart Island, to the south of the South Island. 85% of its 1570 square kilometres is a national park: Rakiura. The map of the island shows a small handful of paved roads through the town of Oban, and a number of hiking tracks around the island. There’s an airstrip, you can fly here from Invercargill, or take the ferry from Bluff.
We arrived in a sunny, sparkling evening, hardly a puffy white cloud in the sky. Yup, everyone said the weather had been warm and sunny for the past three days, and now it was forecast to rain and blow…. It’s the Roaring Forties, the weather can be unpredictable. However, we enjoyed the evening, and our raucous welcome from the kakas, the resident parrots,
walked down to the local pub and had a good dinner, ready to see what the morning would bring.
Stewart Island has less than 400 permanent inhabitants, there were a few Maori here since around the 13th century, and they were joined by whalers and fishermen from Norway, Scotland and other places, during the 19th and 20th centuries. Now the locals make a living primarily from the sea, tourism and conservation.
We were awoken by more kakas on our balcony, demanding entrance and food! We just laughed back at them as we had breakfast.
We had planned a guided walk on the small bird sanctuary island of Ulva, and were rather concerned to see what the weather would be like. There are several companies offering guided walks, the Bay Motel where we stayed, recommended Beaks and Feathers. We talked with Ange, who owns and runs Beaks and Feathers, and she told us that the next day was forecast to be more rainy and windy, so we decided to go ahead with our plans. Ange met us at the Bay Motel, and walked us the short distance across the headland to where we were due to take the water taxi over to Ulva Island.
The day was clear and dry, when we landed on Ulva after the 20 minute boat ride, there was a sudden squall of rain, but that stopped very quickly, and we continued on our walk. Ange is a very knowledgeable guide, she has worked in conservation and lived on Stewart Island for many years. She clearly has a passion for this lush green rainforest, full of bird chatter. Ange was anxious that we should see as many birds as possible, and stopped frequently to back track a little, to try to catch a glimpse of an elusive bird. We heard birds calling all the time: Tui, Bellbird, the cheeky noisy Kakas, who we often saw eating or preening themselves. Shy Kakariki called and darted around, giving us occasional glimpses. We heard Saddlebacks, and after I had turned a corner, Chris and Ange saw one briefly. The Stewart Island Robins were bolder, and came close to us. If we scraped the earth with our shoes, and stepped back, the robins would come in to see what possible food we might have disturbed.
As we walked through the rainforest, Ange pointed out the different native trees and plants. This is an old-growth forest, never cut or harvested. The DOC website describes the forest: “The island forest is a typical southern New Zealand podocarp mix dominated by rimu, southern rātā and kāmahi, with associated stands of Hall’s tōtara and miro. Southern rātā is the southern equivalent of pohutukawa. Its bright scarlet flowers present a distinctive splash of colour on the island during the summer of good flowering years. The flaky bark and gnarled trunks are distinctive rata features.
“Rimu is the tallest of the island’s native trees emerging high above the forest canopy. Around the coastal fringe areas of the forest, smaller shrubs form a buffer with the sea. In the more sheltered areas inside the forest there is a diverse understorey of broadleaf species, as well as a number of tree and ground ferns.”
Most importantly for the native endangered birds, Ulva Island is a predator-free sanctuary. A few rats swim over every year from Stewart Island, but there are rat traps and the DOC are very vigilant. If a rat is caught, the rangers go into overdrive, and spend weeks combing the island to make sure there are no others. Once or twice a deer has swum over from Stewart, but they too are culled. This vigilance makes Ulva Island a wonderful safe environment for a number of endangered native species.
As we got close to the beach across the island from where we had landed, a flightless weka appeared, and pecked nosily around us. They are famous for their love of shiny things, and this one eyed up watches and rings within sight! The day before, Ange had seen a couple of young weka on the beach, but they weren’t coming out today, although we did see more adults. There are kiwis here too, and although they are typically nocturnal, Ange does sometimes see them during the day, although we didn’t.
The rainforest of Ulva is full of ferns, mosses and lichens, including beautiful umbrella moss, and incredible filmy fern, which is only one cell thick: it’s see-through! There are also orchids dotted through the forest.
Ulva Island is a beautiful unspoilt place, and I’m delighted that New Zealand’s DOC, and the locals of Stewart Island, take such good care of it.
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