New Zealand’s third island can be clearly seen from Bluff across the restless waters of Foveaux Strait.
The island is 64km long, largely uninhabited with only a tiny settlement at Oban in Halfmoon Bay. Oban has a range of accommodation, a few eateries and general store but no banks. However, some businesses will exchange foreign currency. Unlike the two main islands there is no beech forest, just hardwoods, tree ferns and unusual varieties of orchid. Undergrowth is surprisingly dense and the bush is impenetrable in many places.
Stewart Island was known to the Maori as Rakiura (glowing skies) either on account of the striking sunsets or the periodic southern lights (Aurora Australis). The island is a dream location for ornithologists and bird watchers and offers the best kiwi watching in New Zealand. Tours run to Ocean Bay and Mason’s Bay where the timid, nocturnal kiwis often scuff about on beaches hunting for sand hoppers in seaweed. Other bush birds include weka, kaka, parakeets, robins, fernbirds, tui and bellbirds. Numerous sea birds can be seen, along with Fiordland crested, yellow-eyed and little blue penguins. Red and whitetail deer glide through the forest margins.
Stewart Island is increasingly popular as an isolated, unspoilt, ‘get away from it all’ destination. The Rakiura Track is a great tramping experience providing a good insight into the island’s history, flora and fauna. The Department of Conservation office issues Great Walks passes for this track and can provide detailed maps and route guides. The North-West Circuit is a far more ambitious route linking ten backcountry huts. Mud holes and very changeable weather, switching from bright sunshine to teaming rain within 30 minutes, makes this a challenge for the most experienced tramping group.
Access to Stewart Island is by air from Invercargill airport with a strict luggage allowance of 10 kg per person, or by ferry from Bluff on a one hour crossing. On the island, water taxis operate in Paterson Inlet taking visitors to the bird sanctuary on Ulva Island and to Freshwater Hut on the tramping track to Mason’s Bay.