There is lots to be done on Stewart Island -don’t let the sparse population deter you!
So much so that regrettably I didn’t manage to fit all of it in during my three month stint – all the more reason to go back and visit…
1. Walk the Rakiura Track
A large portion of the summer visitors to Stewart Island come to walk the Rakiura Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. It’s a relatively easy going, two night, three day endeavour with a moderate level of fitness required.
The first day takes in the absolutely stunning coastlines as your path alternates between deserted white sand beaches, sawmill relics of a historic and short lived community and ancient temperate rainforest. Day two is a bit more of a slog through the muddier parts of the bush, and day three will bring you down an old disused sawmill track with the option of an hour side trip along the scenic Ryan’s Creek track. Spaces in the huts or campsites along the way can be booked with the Department of Conservation.
2. Visit Mason Bay
Stewart Island’s hidden gem! Most people don’t hear about this place until they arrive on the island. Mason bay is located on the west coast of Stewart Island and can be reached by tramping (walking), flight, water taxi, or ideally, a combination of all three. The Coast to Coast/Mason Bay fly/boat package can be booked via a couple of the local operators and will generally entail flying from the main township of Oban over to Mason Bay on one of the small, Stewart Island Flights, six-seater planes. The flight alone is worth the trip, taking in awe inspiring views of the island from the air. Your plane will land on the beach, where you will disembark and make your way to Mason Bay hut for an evening of kiwi spotting.
Mason Bay has one of the highest concentration of kiwi in New Zealand, and there calls can be heard en masse some evenings. Kiwi at Mason Bay are also active during the day, so it’s worth spending two nights at the hut if you want to improve your chances of a sighting. The next day you’ll take the 4-5 hour walk back inland through the bush to the beautiful Freshwater River Landing, where your water taxi will be waiting to take you back into town.
Have a look at this really amazing video recorded by my Stewart Island employer:
3. Carve your own greenstone/jade/pounamu
Choose your own piece of genuine South Island jade and spend the day carving, polishing, sanding and perfecting your own creation. Jade (or Pounamu) carries significant cultural value for maori, and can only be sourced from the South Island. Much of the jade that can be bought from gift shops around New Zealand has actually been sourced in either British Columbia, Canada or in China, and so it’s actually very rare to be able to take such an authentic souvenir home with you. Dave at Rakiura Jade is a master of his craft and his workshop, which offers wonderful views across Paterson inlet, is just a really nice, chilled place to spend the day.
4. Do some of the day hikes
Over the course of my days off, I covered all of the Stewart Island Day Walks recommended by DOC. This was when I found a real appreciation for the beauty of Stewart Island – temperature aside, on a clear day you could be forgiven for thinking that you had found yourself on a remote tropical island. There are over 15 DOC maintained routes and tracks in and around Oban, ranging from 45 minutes to a full day. If you only have one full day, and it happens to be a clear one, definitely take the walk out to Ackers Point and back at dusk. The route is incredibly scenic, interesting and great for wildlife. The nesting sooty sheerwater and little blue penguins can often be seen on the cliffs in and around this route and kiwi have also been spotted in the evening on the track.
If you don’t have enough time to do the full Rakiura Track, just get the best bit in by taking a water taxi up to the first hut, Port William, and walking back into town – one of my favourite walks. The full list of DOC day walks can be found here.
5. Tackle the North West Track
If you want level up on your tramping and are after more of a challenge than the Rakiura Track provides, then the 9-11 day, 125km North West Track, encompassing some of the most remote parts of the island’s coast is for you. Many people attempt all or part of this track and return before it’s completed due to either being ill prepared for the tough, non-maintained terrain, lacking fitness or just give up on the often incredible volume of mud on wetter days! If you can hack it and are ready for more, you may wish to add on a few more days and complete the Southern Circuit Track extension. More info here.
6. Go fishing
No permit is required for fishing on Stewart Island so you can easily while away an afternoon fishing for spotties from the wharfs and jetties. If you are looking to bag some of the island’s famous blue cod, there are several fishing charter operators who will take you further afield for a day of sea fishing.
7. Go hunting
Stewart Island is home to a high population of white tailed deer, as well as some red deer in the more remote regions, and so it’s a favourite spot for hunters. Access to the more popular hunting blocks will require water taxi transport, which should be booked in advance. Permits are required for both the hunting blocks and the open zone – see DOC for more info.
8. Hire an electric bike or scooter
Although the township of Oban is pretty small in terms of population, it’s fairly spread out along the coastlines of Halfmoon Bay and Horseshoe Bay – the walk from one end to the other takes over an hour, and incorporates quite a few steep hills. Hiring an electric bike from Stewart Island Electric Bikes, or a scooter from Stewart Island Experience is a fantastic and really fun way of taking in the 28km of road!
9. Go kayaking
The waters around Stewart Island are so incredibly crystal clear that kayaking not only offers a chance to have some fun in the water enjoying the scenery, but also offers a wonderful opportunity to view sea life beneath you. Currently there is only one operator offering guided kayaking trips.
10. Visit the pub
The iconic South Sea Hotel is home to a lovely restaurant and the island’s one and only pub. Head over for some seafood chowder, a pint and a yarn with the welcoming crowd. Make sure that you head down for the world’s most southerly pub quiz if you are around on a Sunday!
11. Visit Ulva Island
Ulva Island is one of few pest free island sanctuaries in New Zealand, and has been subject to minimal human activity. As a result, the island offers an experience in unaltered nature as is possible today.
Many of New Zealand’s rare bird species thrive here, including saddleback and yellowhead – and kiwi can occasionally be seen during the day. You will need to take a water taxi to the island and you can explore on your own, or with a guide.
12. Norwegian Whalers Base
Back in the 1920s, when hunting blue whales was popular in Antarctica, many of the whalers from Norway spent their winter season on Stewart Island. During this time the whalers hunted and killed a significant number of blue whales (certainly not something which is celebrated today)and their presence had a long term impact on the local residents. The whalers established a small settlement in Paterson inlet, away from the main township. For nine season they lived and worked here, and over time eventually integrated with the locals. At the end of the 1920s the site was abandoned and many of the whalers returned home. However some married local women and some of their decedents still live on the island today. The Whalers’ Base site itself has now mostly returned to native forest, however building foundations, boilers, jetties and other artefacts can still be seen.
You will need to book a water taxi to get out to the site which can be accessed via the beautiful neighbouring Millers Beach.
13. Go kiwi spotting
Other than the Rakiura Track, the elusive national bird is certainly a main draw to the island. Kiwi are doing very well on Stewart Island and spotting one whilst you are here is certainly possible. However if this is something that you are very keen to do, I would definitely recommended booking a guided trip. Kiwi are extremely shy, sensitive and generally difficult for an amateur bird watcher to spot – people do get lucky but it’s certainly not guaranteed. I saw three kiwi whilst on Stewart Island – twice with a guide and once on my own (and I was there for three months!). If you do go on a guided trip, you will soon realise where the difficulty lies! Your guide will have you ‘creep’ as quietly as humanely possible, no talking or noisy clothing, often for a several cold hours in the bush before you get a sighting. However the wait is absolutely worth it – these birds are completely unique, extraordinary and a real joy to observe.
14. Try Muttonbird
‘Muttonbirds’ are baby sooty sheerwater (titi) birds which can be found nesting on the smaller islands (titi islands) around Stewart Island. These birds are harvested annually during ‘muttonbirding season’, with the rights to the harvesting granted exclusively to the Rakiura Maori and their descendants. Collecting the muttonbirds for food is an old Maori tradition and has become synonymous with Stewart Island, resulting the muttonbirds becoming somewhat of a local delicacy. Once the birds have been caught and killed, they are plucked, waxed, hung and preserved in salt for up to a year. Traditionally they were preserved and stored in large kelp bags. If you want to try some muttonbird whilst visiting the island, book a table at Churchill’s restaurant, the only place on the island serving this dubious delicacy!
15. Visit the Bunkhouse Theatre and meet Lola
To learn a little more about the island’s history and culture, drop in on the twice daily showing of ‘A Local’s Tail’ at the Bunkhouse Theatre where Stewart Island’s special story is told through the eyes of local celebrity, Lola, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. Lola is generally always hanging around to meet her fans after the show, and is also quite often around to meet the new, often slightly green, Stewart Island arrivals as they disembark the ferry. The theatre itself is a really lovely, charming space and shows an independent, usually Australasian movie several evenings a month.