Nov 24, 2015
We’d had a great time in Fiordland, but now it was time to move on to Stewart Island. We had bought tickets from Te Anau to Stewart Island, and the tour company had taken care of all the details. Which were quite complicated.
So we were up early to catch the 7:05 am bus; it was a TrackNet shuttle which took us to the small town of Mossburn. There we switched to another shuttle which would take us to Invercargill, but we had to wait about half an hour because our driver was also a local school bus driver. At Invercargill the shuttle dropped us outside the museum, and five minutes later yet another shuttle arrived to take us to the ferry terminal at Bluff. All of this took place seamlessly and at every step our names were on the drivers’ manifests. We were very impressed.
Today the winds were very strong, so all flights to Stewart Island were cancelled. But the ferry was still running. It was a catamaran and this trip was only about half full. The crossing took about an hour, and the boat was leaping and bounding through the swells, which were breaking over its bow. After a while we went out to the stern where there was fresh air and decided to stay there. Nobody got sick on the journey, but conditions were perfect if you were prone to sea-sickness!
From time to time we saw little black birds fly past. They were storm petrels and shearwaters, but it was impossible to look at them with binoculars because of the boat’s lurching. Near the end of the trip there was an albatross, and that was a bit easier to observe.
After the boat docked, which was a tricky exercise in the wind, we found our hostel, Stewart Island Backpackers, and checked in. The room was small and smelled a bit musty but the common areas were clean and neat. We had our lunch and tea and then went out to explore.
The town of Oban is very small, so you can walk everywhere. Our first stop was at the DOC office, where we discussed local trails with the ranger and purchased a pamphlet describing short walks. From there we went down the road to the gift shop, which is also the booking office for Ulva Island tours. We talked to Ulva (yes, she’s named after the island) and before we knew it we were booked on tomorrow’s guided birding walk on Ulva Island. And finally we found a clothing shop with merino wool items which were designed here in Oban; Rosemary bought a short-sleeved shirt off the clearance rack.
After doing some food shopping we headed out for a walk. Using our pamphlet we found the Fuchsia Track, which led us through some native bush to Golden Bay, where the Deep Bay Track started. There were a lot of Tuis singing on the track, and several Kakas flying. Down on the beaches there were a lot of oystercatchers but no kiwis—on Stewart Island the kiwis are not totally nocturnal so there is the possibility of seeing them during the day.
It was dinnertime when we got back to the hostel so we cooked up a simple meal. After dinner we chatted with some of the other hostel guests.
Nov 25, 2015
We had signed up for an Ulva Island birding tour this morning so we didn’t have much of a lie-in. The boat was to leave from the Golden Bay dock at 8:30 am so we had a short walk over the hill and down the other side to the dock. As we approached the dock we caught up to two other couples with binoculars who were part of our tour, and the seventh person was a French journalist named Sebastien who was writing an article for Geo magazine.
Our guide today was Mike Jones, a local photographers and guide. Once the water taxi dropped us on the island he gave us a brief history of the area before setting out on the trails. Everybody wanted to find the South Island Saddleback, so he took us to a nearby nesting place, which was behind the toilet. Apparently David Attenborough had been there too but his crew took care to leave the toilet out of the shot!
The saddlebacks weren’t to be found there, but no matter, we found other saddlebacks later. Likewise we found all of the island’s other rare birds as we walked the trails. It’s safe to say that we wouldn’t have found them without Mike’s guiding. Besides the birds he told us about the trees and plants on the island, and we found a spider orchid and a green hooded orchid as well as numerous different ferns and mosses. It was a really worthwhile tour, and it helped that the weather was sunny with very little wind.
We returned at about 12:30 pm and since we had been thinking about taking the evening tour to find kiwis, we called up Phillip Smith to ask about getting on tonight’s tour. No, he said, it’s all sold out but would we like to go tomorrow night. So we agreed to that and headed back to the hostel to have lunch.
For the rest of the afternoon we wandered around trails near the town site, finally returning to the hostel at dinner time. Vicki, the owner, found us and told us that Phillip had misread his booking calendar and the large group he thought was booked for tonight was actually booked for a year from now! So did we want to go tonight? Sure we did.
We went down to the main dock at 8 pm and watched the penguins swimming in the calm bay and trying to clamber onto the rocks. That is not an easy task when you don’t have arms. By the time the boat was ready to depart there were at least 18 people waiting. The boat headed out of the harbour and down the coast for about half an hour, before tying up at a remote dock near Ocean Beach. The kiwis like to come out onto this beach to turn over the kelp and eat sandflies.
The trail from the dock to the beach was quite easy to walk along and we followed our guides, hoping to see a kiwi in the forest. No luck there, but we did hear one calling. When we arrived at the beautiful beach we were disappointed to see very little kelp lying around. We gathered together and were given instructions about how the evening would proceed. The moon was almost full so we had very good visibility, and we went back and forth several times along the beach. Unfortunately no kiwis appeared. At one point we all hurried up the beach, only to find that the birds we were chasing were Paradise Shelducks and not kiwis!
We waited and waited, but still no kiwis appeared. When it was nearly midnight it was decided to call it a day. Our last chance was to stumble upon a kiwi on our walk back to the boat and amazingly we did! The view was very short but at least we had seen one. We finally got back to the hostel well after 1 am.
Nov 26, 2015
Hoping to sleep in this morning didn’t go as planned, because several others in the hostel were leaving on the 8 am ferry and they all clomped past our room. After that we slept for a while but still got up at 9 am.
The weather was supposed to be atrocious today, with high winds and rain, but it really wasn’t. So after breakfast we went on a walk to Horseshoe Bay. We followed roads to start with, but there isn’t much traffic on the island so it wasn’t a problem. The island’s terrain is very hilly, so we climbed up and down some steep hills before reaching the turnoff for the Horseshoe Point track. It was in good condition and followed the coastline.
It was a nice walk and we passed a variety of interesting features. At the start of the loop was an old homestead, of which nothing is left but the house’s brick chimney. There were several bays along the trail and a number of small houses which looked like vacation cabins. Some were well-kept but others looked rather derelict. At the end of the trail we stopped at the Moturau Moana Gardens to look at the native plants, but we didn’t spend too long there because we were both hungry.
On the way back we saw four men at a bridge where the tide was coming in very quickly over an area which had been dry sand before. They were fishing for whitebait, which are little fish about 5 centimeters in length. Apparently they are an expensive delicacy. One man was holding a funnel net to catch the little fish and the other three were probably doing something useful. Back in town we stopped at the Kai Kart, which was finally open, and bought fish and chips for lunch. We had been told that blue cod was the best choice by the whitebait fishers, so we ordered that. It was really good.
For the rest of the afternoon we relaxed—Rosemary’s knee was a bit painful after the Kepler Track and hadn’t really recovered yet. After dinner we went out for a walk to the Ackers House, the oldest building on Stewart Island. The predicted rain still hadn’t arrived, but the wind was really roaring in. Our walk was mostly on the road along the coast, with great views across Halfmoon Bay. It took us into a part of town which had large new houses and then to Harrold Bay, where the house was. It was built in 1836 by an early settler, and although it was just a single-room stone cottage he and his wife raised nine children there!
Nov 27, 2015
Again we didn’t have to get up early—we had decided that we didn’t want to take the 8 am ferry back to the mainland, and the next one wasn’t until 3:30 pm. So we still had most of the day to spend here. However our room was next to a place where a lot of big trucks were parked, so this morning we were woken up by a lot of rumbling engines.
Anyway, after breakfast we waited for a rain shower to pass and then took our packs down to the ferry terminal, where we put them into the bin to be loaded onto our ferry. Now we were free to do what we liked. There was a small movie theatre in town, and its main purpose was to show a documentary about Stewart Island three times a day. The name of the film was “A Local’s Tail” and it was narrated by Lola, a Staffordshire terrier. This morning we were the only two customers, so we chose the best seats in the theatre. The film was interesting as well as funny, so it was a great way to while away an hour.
After the film it was lunch time, so we headed to Kai Kart to get fish and chips again. We took the meal over to the hostel and ate it there while talking to Greg, a young American who had been staying there. He was leaving on today’s 3:30 pm ferry as well. After lunch we found Vicki and said goodbye, then went for a short (and very steep) walk up to Observation Rock. From here early residents could look towards Ulva Island to see if any ships had arrived in port, hoping for news from home.
The ferry ride back to Bluff was bumpy, but not nearly as wild as when we had arrived. However we both sat outside for the duration of the trip. We saw several albatrosses as we crossed, and this time it was possible to look at them with binoculars. After we got our packs out of the bin, the bus picked us up and took us to Invercargill, dropping us outside the Tuatara Backpackers.
To be continued…