- Ulva Island has four aspects, our guide, Furhana from Ruggedy Range informed us.
- The physical aspect. The island is 2.7 square kilometres in area, two kilometres long, and is moderate in aspect, with gentle slopes, many beaches, and a few hills.
- The history. Formerly known as Coopers Island, the island had periodic visits from Maori before European settlement, when Charles Traill (late of the Orkneys) established a post office serving Stewart Island in 1872. Flagstaff Point above Post Office Bay was where the availability of mail deliveries was signaled to residents along the shores of Paterson Inlet. The remains of the post office may be seen behind the two holiday houses now occupying the six hectares of private land on the island. The rest is a national park.
- The forest. Apart from a few introduced species such as radiata pine, the island is covered in rainforest almost unchanged since the days of Gondwanaland. Many species now extinct or rare on the mainland are found here.
- The wildlife. The island is a bird sanctuary. Much like the original pre-settlement New Zealand, mammals and reptiles are almost entirely absent, birds endangered on the mainland have been reintroduced, and about the only mammals to be found in any number are twitchers.
There are three physical parts to Ulva. Sea – or at least the relatively enclosed water of Paterson Inlet. Beach: long golden beaches, much like the “mainland” of Stewart Island. And rainforest. Basically the entire island apart from the few small buildings near the water taxi landing.
A few metres from their back doors, the rainforest begins and doesn’t stop until hitting the sea again. I guess those who live in these “bachs” during summer have an idyllic and isolated existence.
There are well-maintained footpaths through the forest. Furhana asked us to follow a few rules once we began:
- Walk single file in the centre of the gravel path. This reduces the “crunching” sounds.
- No unnecessary talking.
- Don’t fiddle with bags and zips and other noisy or rustling objects.
- When we stop, move to one side of the path so that we could look along to see birds crossing in the clear space ahead and behind.
- Stay close.
As we set off behind Furhana on the track to Sydney Cove – of all places! – I felt like I was reliving my days as a young infantryman, rifle in my hands, pack on my back, patrolling my arc, rolling my feet quietly onto the ground. Our patrol leader, Furhana, peered into the forest, listening intently for the sounds that would lead us to our targets.
No rifle this time, but my camera backpack held three cameras of various capabilities, and I was still hoping to shoot and capture as much as I could.
On the beach
The first common, the second less so. Though not quite a rare bird, it has been pushed out of its preferred habitat due to mammalian predation and is now found only in isolated swamplands, and a few island sanctuaries.
The third, we didn’t have to look too hard. The weka is a species of flightless rail, fairly common across New Zealand, though vulnerable through contact with humans and their animals. Renowned for their curiosity, they may be easily caught.
In fact, Furhana pointed one out as it rounded a pile of rocks at the far end of the beach. It was trotting towards us – head down, tail up – and was soon dodging around our legs whilst we sought for photographs. Getting a clear shot without it poking its beak into the lens was actually a bit of a chore!
So there we were, only a few minutes on the island, and already we’d had close encounters with three kinds of birds. These were not the last close calls with the locals, but most of our sightings for the rest of the afternoon were at distances greater than a metre.
As an aside, it was kind of an odd experience, setting foot on a desert island. There were we nine in a group, and we only encountered two more human beings on the whole island. We were outnumbered by hundreds if not thousands to one by birds. Rare, vulnerable and endangered birds.