Stewart Island (Nov 11-13)

Obligatory photo
We left Queenstown early in order to catch the 11AM Stewart Island ferry which leaves out of the southerly port of Bluff. While the southernmost point of the South Island is actually Slope, Bluff is often considered to be so, and boasts a famous signpost near a lookout point at the southern tip of the town. We were good tourists and did the photo op.

Stewart Island/Rakiura, home to Rakiura National Park, is the third largest island of New Zealand with a permanent population around 400. The island's Maori name, Rakiura, translates to 'glowing skies,'  a reference to the long twilight sunsets or southern lights.

We'd heard stories about the ride across the Foveaux Strait being rough going, but the little white bags tucked in near every seat were not needed today as the sea was calm. We saw a few pelagic birds en route including albatross, and our captain also pointed out a shark diving vessel. There is some talk of allowing tourists to swim with the Great Whites in cages previously used to study the sharks, but there is considerable resistance to the idea.

Click here for larger images with captions.

A petite woman holding a handwritten sign that read "Molloy" greeted us at the dock. Iris and her husband Peter would be our hosts and guides as owners of the B&B we had selected. After loading our bags in the van, she gave us the tour of the only town on Stewart Island, Oban. This took all of 5 minutes. She then drove us up to our accommodation on Kowhai Lane. The home had a birds-eye view of Horseshoe Bay, even from our bedroom dubbed the "Tui Room," and attractive gardens in the back.

Iris showed us around the home, which we had to ourselves for the two night stay. As part of the overview of the home and how things worked, she asked us to put our food scraps into a separate bucket under the sink for the worm farm. This was a first for us. After she left, Susan checked and happily noted that the worms were not actually in the bucket.

From our windows we were excited to see our first Kakas in the wild, large endemic parrots, flying high in the tree canopy. Some even flew onto the bushes surrounding our garden. After getting a few groceries, we took a long walk to Ackers Point where Little Blue Penguins and Sooty Shearwaters, aka Muttonbirds, nest. Light rain turned to pouring on our way back, but a local pulled over and gave us a ride into town. He suggested the South Sea hotel for dinner and dropped us off at the restaurant door. After a nice dinner we headed back for the room to dry out and catch up on our rest.

The next morning, Peter stopped by early to meet us and offered to give us a ride to and from Lee Bay from where we could do the 9km return hike Maori Beach, the first leg of the 30km Rakiura Track. It was a much more difficult walk than we had anticipated with lots of ups and downs at the various beaches and streams along the way. And even though we were as close to the South Pole as we would ever be, it was quite warm, and of course humid. Finally arriving at Maori Beach, our path crossed too close to an Oystercatcher's nest. The squawking future parent was quick to defend her nest and came after Susan from above. You have to have respect for a such a long bill!

Green-hooded orchid
On the way home, Peter showed us a recently discovered larger variety of Green Hooded Orchids. Fascinating that these plants have moving parts triggered by an insect visit. Peter demonstrated by touching the flower with a blade of grass. The plant closed up, which would trap an insect long enough to facilitate pollination. After dinner again at the Seaside, we watched Little Blues coming in for the night near the wharf. We ran into an English couple there, and the woman turned out to be Alice from our Okarito Kiwi hunt.

One of our main goals for traveling to Stewart Island/Rakiura was to visit Ulva Island, an even smaller island just off Stewart. Introduced mammals have been eradicated from Ulva, and thus bird life flourishes. But it is an ongoing challenge to keep the predators off of Ulva because, by stowing onto vessels or surprisingly, by swimming, animals, particularly rats, find their way back to Ulva again. Vigilant residents monitor traps on both islands, trying to keep the problem under control. Peter explained that 30 years ago when he was a ranger on Stewart Island, they applied 1080 poison to the back side of individual leaves in target locations where the predators were most likely to find it, with minimal impact on birdlife. Quite a change of policy from today's GPS-targeted aerial drops of the pesticide.

As part of our accommodation package, Peter took us to Ulva on his boat and guided us around the island. We were joined by a couple from London and, coincidentally, Alice and her husband John were there, too. We started out at the old post office and home of settler Charles Traill. Peter was full of historical and forest facts and pointed out all sorts of things from the tiniest Spider Orchids to the giant Rimu trees, that drop their fruit in random years. We saw ferns that cloned themselves with tiny mini-plants growing on the parent plant leaves, and hairlike strands of sweet liquid secreted by insects along tree bark.

juvenile Stewart Island Robin
While we were entertained by cute little Stewart Island Robins that visited frequently on our walk, Peter knew we were keen to see a rare Saddleback. These rich brown and orange-colored birds are extinct on the mainland and live only on outlying island sanctuaries such as Ulva. We were hearing a variety of bird calls in the forest when Peter suddenly stepped off the boardwalk into the bush. Signaling us to follow rapidly, he'd found our first Saddlebacks. There was an adult and one juvenile, and luckily they continued to move in our direction so everyone had the chance to see them. We also were fortunate to see Brown Creepers, another bird endemic to New Zealand's South Island and Stewart Island.

Hooker's Sea Lion
Near the end of the walk, Peter took us to the Sydney Cove beach where he wanted to show us an oystercatcher nest he had been monitoring. As we strolled along the beach we saw Weka and their chicks, and the birds found us interesting enough to come right up to us on several occasions.

At one point, a young Hooker's Sea Lion began approaching us from the surf, noisily and somewhat aggressively. He was barking loudly and moving toward our group. Each time he got too close to any of our group, Peter talked to him firmly and then calmly reached down and picked up a handful of sand and threw it at his face and he would immediately run away! He would go back out into the water, swimming and either popping up or porpoising out of the water to keep an eye on us. We kept walking on and he seemed to lose interest in us. So, lesson learned -- if you're every getting hassled by a Hooker's Sea Lion, just throw sand at him!

After getting past the sea lion, Peter hoped to be able to get the oystercatcher off her nest so that he could count the eggs. Unlike the oystercatcher who left the nest to dive-bomb Susan, this one would not budge without undue stress, so Peter backed off. The nest happened to be the southernmost point of our journey at 46 degrees, 50 minutes, South.

Devil's Staircase overlook on the way back to Queenstown
Too soon, our Ulva Island tour was done and Peter took us back to Oban to get our luggage and drop us off at the ferry terminal. Our one hour ferry ride back to Invercargill left at 3:30PM. We arrived on the mainland feeling good, so drove on back to Q-town, and this time found an inexpensive room overlooking the lake right were we had spotted the crested grebes a just a few days before.

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