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.
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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.
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!
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|
|Hooker's Sea Lion|
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|