One of the activities organised for the weekend was a “Village and Bays Tour” conducted by The Stewart Island Experience. They operated out of the “Red Shed” near the ferry wharf and looked to have a pretty comprehensive operation, running everything from the ferry to Kiwi-spotting tours.
Seeing as how I was on the third largest of New Zealand’s islands with no car, I figured the place was too big to walk around, and I’d sign up for the bus tour to see the whole thing.
“There are only five kilometres of road and most of the island is wilderness. You might as well walk and save your money,” Jennifer scoffed.
Well, yes, I suppose I could have, but then I wouldn’t have had the expert guidance of Lee, who also drove the bus.
Jennifer was as good as her word and took off with Lesley, an intrepid tramper and geocacher. They got some exercise, some amazing photographs, and the chance of getting rained on.
The bus tour of the village didn’t take long. We got all the highlights, the local gossip, the facts and figures. Big on fishing and tourism, here are the places you can eat, here are the places you can look at stuff, here are the community facilities.
It’s only a tiny place, but big on togetherness. These people work together to get things done and look after one another. How many of my readers even know the people over the back fence? Here everyone knows and cares for each other. In a previous post, I mentioned the town bulletin board where birthday wishes for everyone appear on the appropriate day. Love it!
This is not to say that the place doesn’t look after tourists very well. It might all look a bit rustic and casual, but nobody goes hungry or unsheltered or bored here.
Lee then drove us up to a lookout, so we could gaze out on Paterson Inlet, where Ulva Island is a carefully protected sanctuary and we’d be spending four hours tramping through the pristine rainforest the next day.
She pointed out what she claimed was the southernmost dwelling in New Zealand – “Thule” – but it’s not quite. There are a few on Ringaringa Road a kilometre southeast, and Ulva Island has a couple of historic houses that are usually unoccupied.
Rainforests and golden beaches
Stewart Island is alarmingly close to the South Pole, but it has more than its fair share of golden beaches fringed by rainforest. You wouldn’t go swimming here without a wetsuit, but it certainly looks the part. I guess the clothing worn by we road trippers tells the story!
The golden beaches are formed from softly eroding sandstone, and there are dozens of these gloriously curved strands. Walk the dog, haul the boat out of the water, fly a kite, but don’t go swimming.
Headlands and forested slopes overlook the beaches, with houses – many for holiday rental – scattered here and there. It is a slice of heaven, serenity without a luxury price tag.
The weather coöperated for us. It was clear and crisp. At one point we passed Lesley and Jennifer, tramping along. They got to see a bit more than we did, to be honest, and they visited one of the most beautiful cemeteries, overlooking a sandy creek and a distant sea horizon.
The bus tour is $45, but well worth it for the local knowledge, history, and general information provided by Lee. It also saves a fair bit of time; walking might be cheaper and healthier, but also much slower, and for those on a quick trip, a must.
It is possible to make a day trip to Stewart Island and have a grand time, but I really must recommend at least one night, for the chance of kiwis, Southern Lights, and the ability to fit in a good visit to the Ulva Island sanctuary, which takes five hours for a decent look.
And take a camera. Or a smartphone. There is coverage along every millimetre of paved road, and every chance of a fabulous shot at every turn in the way.
The far end of our trip was where the road ended and the national park walking path began. This is where the serious hikers start their four days in the wild. This is also the southernmost end of a piece of public art apparently spanning the thirty kilometres of Foveaux Strait, a chain linking Stewart Island with the mainland at Bluff. This is a direct reference to Maori legend, where the Island served as an anchor stone for the much larger South Island.
A Maori anchor would have been tethered with grass rope, rather than steel chain links, but the sculpture links the Maori and European traditions as well. I loved that. Lee posed us against the chain, tropical blue ocean behind us, and took photo after photo until everyone had the shot on their camera.