As I mentioned in my last post, I went to Stewart Island for New Years! Stewart Island, or Rakiura, is New Zealand's "third island", off of the bottom of the South Island. Some 80% of the island is Rakiura National Park and there are only about 400 human residents, so the place is teeming with wildlife. While Stewart Island is not predator-free, the birds do pretty well for themselves! There's some fantastic hiking, and of course, LOTS of wildlife to see.
My friends Kat and Becca came along for the journey - neither of them had been there before (I'd been there twice already, but I've found that my desire to return grows stronger with every visit). We left Dunedin between 9 and 10 on Saturday (the 30th) morning, and made our way southwest. We could've driven "directly" to Bluff, the town where you catch the ferry to the Island, but instead we chose to take the longer route along the Catlins Coast. We had heard that the Hector's dolphins, a NZ native, were calving, plus we wanted to stop at the petrified forest at Curio Bay. We got to see both the petrified trees AND the dolphins! Kat was particularly excited, since her background is in geology and she's been studying cetaceans (whales and dolphins) all year.
We reached Bluff by about 4, and after a quick visit to Stirling Point (the end of NZ State Highway 1, which spans the entire country), we checked in for the ferry and set off across the Foveaux Strait that separates the mainland from the island. The crossing has a reputation for being rough and nauseating, but it was smooth as silk for us. After an hour, we arrived at the dock in Oban, Stewart Island's only town. We collected our bags and hauled them to the Stewart Island Backpackers' campground. December/January is peak tourist season in NZ, so I had had a really hard time finding us a place to stay. Fortunately, we were able to get hold of camping gear so we could stay at the Backpackers!
That evening, after dinner, we went back down to the ferry dock to watch the little blue penguins come ashore. We were just about to give up when they appeared! Little blue penguins are the smallest penguin species, standing maybe 15 cm high at the tallest. We saw three of them in total, clambering out of the water and hopping up (and sometimes slipping down) the rock faces. Then we tried to go in search of kiwi. The island is home to a subspecies of kiwi birds that are active in the early morning and late evening, rather than strictly at night. Our tent neighbor at the campground told us that kiwi could often be seen around the town rugby field, so we went to check it out - very quietly, and with red flashlights that wouldn't disturb the kiwis' sensitive eyes. Unfortunately, there were a lot of other people out looking for kiwi, and most of them were not quiet or using red flashlights, so we gave up and went to bed.
The second day, Sunday the 31st/New Year's Eve, we took our time in the morning and did a short hike in the afternoon. We followed the road out of the Oban township towards Horseshoe Bay, and then followed a coastal forest track along the waterfront. Becca pointed out and identified all the native (and non-native) plants for us. We had our picnic lunch at a viewpoint overlooking the bay, the strait, and way off in the distance, the mainland. Later in the afternoon, we came across Dead Man Beach, which sounds bad, but is actually a lovely spot with a fantastic little bach (vacation house) up the hill.
We came across the road again, and followed it back towards town. When we got back, we found that the locals were piling up dead wood, pallets, newspapers, etc. on the beach in town, for the New Year's bonfire that night. After cleaning up and having fish & chips for dinner (or fush and chups, as kiwi folks say), we made our way down to the waterfront with a towel to sit on, a bottle of cheap champagne, and three glasses. We rang in the New Year shortly before the tide came in to put out the fire! I would've liked to go searching for kiwi again, but with all the fireworks and flares and loud music, I imagine that they probably retreated off into the bush.
Next morning, we were up early so we could get over to the other wharf to get an early water taxi to Ulva Island. Now, Ulva Island is one of the greatest places in the world for birds and birdwatchers, and it absolutely deserves its own post (which will happen in the not-too-distant future). For now, I'll just say that Ulva is this little island next to Stewart, and it's completely predator free. They don't even have rats. It's a perfect sanctuary. We went as early as possible so we could maybe see a kiwi, but we didn't. It turns out that cloudy days are best for kiwi spotting, and that day, New Year's Day 2018, was beautiful and sunny (though not super warm). We did get to see a lot of other cool stuff though! We also managed to trap ourselves on a tiny rock island as the tide came in. Oops. But on the upside, that tiny rock island was (I think) the farthest south any of us had ever been!
After several hours of wandering the island, watching the birds, etc., we returned to Stewart Island, where we collected our gear and caught the 3:30 ferry back to Bluff. We debated about extending our trip and driving up to Milford Sound, but we were pretty exhausted and decided against it. We returned to Dunedin that night, in a new year and with new vigor.