Stewart Island: The Other New Zealand
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Often overlooked are the many reasons to visit Stewart Island, perched just south of its much larger neighbors. Even its limited number of residents use words like undeveloped, natural, and wild to describe their 674 square mile home.
What they do have is unspoiled terrain. In 2002, 85% of the island was preserved as a national park. There are only 18 miles of roads, most in and around Halfmoon Bay, the closest thing to a town.
That figure is dwarfed by the 120 miles of walking trails (called "tracks" ). Hikes range from 15-minute strolls just outside the single tiny town to 3-hour walks through the bush to a 10-day camping trek around the entire island.
One of my favorites was the Maori Beach Track, named after the Polynesian people who arrived in New Zealand in large double-hulled canoes about 1,000 years ago. This hike alternately traverses bush so thick it is impenetrable just off the pathway and follows narrow trails that hug cliffs overlooking the sea below, as it crashes on the rocky shoreline.
As you walk, a concert of bird cries from overhead vies for your attention. The incredible variety of vocals by birds with colorful names like Tuis, Bellbirds, and Kakarikas led me to conclude that if I could get them singing in unison, I could take them on the road.
Stewart Island also is the best place for spotting another bird. The Kiwi is very much the symbol of New Zealand, and has provided the nickname for its people. Given its secretive nature and semi-nocturnal habits, hunting for sightings of this strange-looking wingless bird is a popular if unusual pastime among both residents and visitors.
I joined 14 other supposedly sane adults, flashlights in hand, as we gingerly picked our way through a tangle of thicket toward the seashore. When we reached the beach, we extinguished our lights and trudged noiselessly along the sand behind our boot-and-camouflage-attired guide. As his sole light hopped and skipped across the dark, seaweed-strewn beach, suddenly we saw it - the elusive New Zealand Kiwi. On orders to stay close, we inched to within 20 feet of this brown dumpling of a bird, its head bobbing up and down, long beak darting in and out of the sand in search of spiders, berries, crustaceans and other Kiwi delicacies.
Following our excursion, I enjoyed more tantalizing fare, at least to me, at the South Sea Pub, the only bar in the only hotel on the island. This establishment gave the term "local bar" a whole new meaning.
Stocking-cap-clad men just off their fishing boats, sporting long beards and high boots, competed for beers at billiards and darts. The smoke-filled room overflowed with people imbibing with gusto, chuckling over town gossip or bemoaning their sparse catch earlier that day.
Because seasons in New Zealand are the reverse of ours, the December to March spring there is a good time to go. Keep in mind that because Stewart Island is a bit further south (and therefore further from the equator) than North and South Islands, it is somewhat cooler and damper.
Because of the variety of terrain and other factors, it's said that people in New Zealand can experience all four seasons in a day. After visiting Stewart Island, I'd say that it can happen there in an hour.
I reached Stewart Island on a 15-minute flight from South Island, in a plane so small I sat with my suitcase jammed beneath my feet and my knees almost touching my chin. An alternative is daily hour-long ferry crossings.
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Victor Block is an award-winning travel journalist who lives in Washington, D.C., and -- in his quest for destinations about which to write -- has traveled throughout the United States and to more than 60 other countries. He is a regular contributor to The Washington Times, Maine Sunday Telegram, and Lowell (MA) Sun; travel columnist for Senior Digest, and frequent writes travel features for several online magazines. His stories are distributed to newspapers nationwide by Copley News Service, and he freelances to a number of other papers. For years he was a regional editor of Fodor's Travel Guides, and he is co-author of the Pelican Guide to Maryland. He is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers, North American Travel Journalists Association, and Travel Journalists Guild.
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author