A southern jaunt over the swells to Rakiura
The ferry trip from Bluff to Stewart Island-Rakiura takes just one hour.
Foveaux Strait can be a wild place because it’s a shallow sea by mariners’ standards – just 10-15 fathoms deep, mostly.
But the modern catamarans of the Stewart Island Experience skim across the water at 29 knots for a return fare of $142.
Penguins and shearwaters duck and dive as the boat passes the Titi or Muttonbird islands on the approach – there are 170 islands in the Stewart Island group.
Ancient Maoris quickly learned about the protein waiting in the burrows of these islands, and the annual raiding parties have become a cultural tradition. Even these days people take mad risks in their efforts to land entire families on the rocks that must be negotiated.
Once the ferry reaches the calm shelter of Halfmoon Bay it feels like a separate place from the rest of New Zealand. Only about 6% of the land is owned by private, mainly Maori interests. The rest is managed by DOC.
The climate seems on a par with Fiordland; it’s what makes a rain forest. Aucklanders would want their winter woollies – the real merino stuff – and weatherproof jackets. When the showers pass, on an almost hourly schedule, the summer sun powers on the heat and it’s back to shorts and sandals.
The island's capital
Our host met us at the ferry landing at Oban, the capital of the island. For the week, our party hired a house overlooking the beach at Horseshoe Bay, the next bay 3km from Halfmoon Bay. It cost about $1000, and had plenty of room for two families. A ute comes with the package.
But bicycles make a lot of sense for the 26km of roads. You can take your own on the ferry for $7.50 or hire them. And there are also nifty scooters and small cars.
Many trampers arrive off the ferry with just their packs and there is a steady stream of them walking along the bays to the beginning of the main tracks. Others arrive on the small planes that ply a trade to the mainland.
There are plenty of courtesy shuttles bringing them from the nearby airfield or delivering visitors to water taxis to go to other islands.
We planned a slightly more leisurely holiday – plenty of walking and biking, of course – interspersed with showers, blue cod meals and lashings of chardonnay.
The expertly-driven water taxis provide access to various islands, old settlements and tracks. We took the 10-minute ride to rat-free Ulva Island and spent the afternoon wandering the tracks staring into the forest canopy for kaka, tuis, kereru and suchlike.
And the Stewart Island robin is so absurdly tame it’s no wonder it was on the brink of extinction – unless, perhaps, they became tame during the DOC breeding programme.
Bird life everywhere
The bird life is everywhere. When I took a wee walk along 3km of a back road behind Oban – called the Back Rd – I saw kaka and other birds fluttering about the tree tops.
Oban is a delightful little settlement where most of the 400-odd residents live and most commercial boats are moored. Sitting outside the pub overlooking the bay one day we watched a family of dolphins swim in and around the moorings.
The relaxing pub was a pretty civil place – no complaints about the service or standard of catering. Sometimes it was cluttered with weary trampers waiting for the ferry trip back.
It is the focus of much social life for the islanders. The local fishermen in tidy knit jerseys were accompanied by wives and friends. Most appeared to be senior family men; there aren’t too many prospects for youngsters on the employment front.
Most ventures were marginal
A small museum gives a snapshot of the island’s history as we have known it over the past 150 years or so, from the first European sealers to logging, tin mining, boat building and attempts at farming. The distance from markets meant that most commercial ventures were marginal, preserving the islands for its natural heritage.
People fearful of mozzies and other biters can rest assured – they’re no worse than anywhere else and easily managed.
It’s a wonderful, wild place. The guy who drove the boat back to Bluff, an islander, told us that only about 20 out of several hundred sailings are cancelled annually because of heavy weather.
The rough rule of thumb was 8m waves. But he also judged it by the passengers. If he had a bunch of older folks and the swell was approaching 7m he might delay the crossing for a while.
En route back to Christchurch we travelled the Catlins scenic route – but that’s another whole story in itself.
When I returned home I spent enjoyable evenings reading a book about Rakiura that was published by DOC and written by Neville Peat. Aside from the map, which is maddenlingly short of place names, it showed me how little of the main island we had explored.
Next time I’ll be armed with an itinerary of spots to check out.