So like many New Zealanders in a Covid-19 restricted world, we took the opportunity to explore our very own backyard of Aotearoa, and settled on the last inhabited landmass between mainland New Zealand and Antarctica – Stewart Island/Rakiura.
What ensued over the next 4 days was a reminder of how amazing places off the traditional ‘tourist trail’ can really be, and what intertwines is friendly locals, wilderness experiences, unique encounters and amazing adventures for all ranges of appetite.
Often overlooked in favour of Fiordland, the Wild West Coast or the many South Island national Parks, Rakiura – which is essentially one large National Park – is totally unspoilt, remote, and one of the best places in New Zealand to spot a Kiwi in the wild.
To access the island you either take a one hour fast-ferry ride from Bluff which can get excitingly rough and wild, or a quick 20 minute flight across from Invercargill. Accommodation is in Oban – the main settlement on the island – and consists of a mix of AirBnB’s and motels, along with the iconic South Sea Hotel.
I love these two Google reviews about the central landmark that is the South Sea Hotel:
From Mike in April 2021 – “The South Sea Hotel is the place to be, especially on a Sunday evening as it’s “quiz night” (not to be missed for a laugh and to meet the locals). This historic Hotel is well presented and tells a lot of stories of times gone by. The staff are very friendly and super helpful, have a good knowledge of the Island, what to see and how to get there. The dining room has a good selection of three course meals (great seafood options – fresh from local fishermen daily) or a juicy steak to full the puku. Pub meals are also a great option for eating at the bar, al fresco or to takeaway.
I use a wheelchair and the management and staff were very accommodating, giving me more room at our table in the dining room, but I didn’t get to the bar as the place was chocka full (quiz night).”
And this from Michael in March 2021 – “Stunning location. Excellent food (I had the trio of salmon). Great service. Friendly locals. Worthwhile travelling to Rakiura Stewart Island just to sit in the dining room and watch the sunset.”
The real jem for our family visit to Rakiura was Ulva Island – a predator-free bird sanctuary just over the hill from Oban. A 15 minute walk over the sealed road takes you to a jetty where a couple of eccentric locals will ferry people across to the sanctuary for $20 return – takes about 20 minutes each way. It takes about 2 hours to walk around the island, but allow at least 4 as this place is like stepping back in time to pre-human arrival in New Zealand. We spotted 11 bird species on our island explore, including a kiwi right beside the trail (kiwi here are diurnal and can be seen during the day unlike most kiwi), huge screeching kaka in the trees (large endangered parrots), weka, tui’s and a range of fossicking birdlife. As we also found, you can also just wander above Oban to the bush-surrounded local sports ground at night with a red-light torch and see kiwi feeding right on the sports pitch, just 10 minutes from our AirBnB house!
For a unique introduction to the island, get yourselves to the Bunkhouse Theatre right in town and watch “A locals Tail”, a fun introduction to local characters, community colour, and the struggles and triumphs of the island pioneers, both past and present, guided by a local dog. This delightful quirky 40 minute film hopes to answer the myriad of questions that you have about the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of Stewart Island.
To really whet your adventure appetite this is one of the best places in the world to go shark-cage diving with Great White Sharks, big ocean fishing on a custom day-charter, scuba diving pristine coldwater reefs, or exploring the Rakiura Track – one of the 10 Great Walks of New Zealand. This track is for serious and prepared hikers as the 32km trail is true wilderness, and expect rain and lots of deep mud – the views and remoteness however are otherworldly and you will saviour the memories on this trip for a lifetime. For a small island there are over 280km’s of hiking trails, and something for everyone – including families and children. Beautiful Bathing Beach is only a 15 minute walk from central Oban, and between March and September you can just walk outside to capture an incredible skyful of the Aurora Australia –one of the best places to see the famous Southern Lights, with vivid blues, greens and purple streaks across the night sky.
Getting around Rakiura is as simple as walking to most places, and there are e-bikes to hire right on the waterfront, which can take you further afield. When you’re done for the day why not grab some takeaway fish and chips (some of the freshest fish you’ll ever get) and enjoy as a stunning sunset as the bush-clad Halfmoon Bay frames the dramatic southern scenery looking north to mainland New Zealand.
One of the best ways to support both the island environment and the wonderful community here is to give a donation to the Stewart Island/Rakiura Community & Environment Trust (SIRCET). This is a non-profit organisation founded in 2003 to promote projects that benefit the Stewart Island / Rakiura community and its environment. The excellent work the Trust undertakes is only possible through the generous support of those who give to this future focused initiative. https://www.sircet.org.nz/