This summer Dougall and I went to New Zealand to explore the southern part of the South Island, including a trip to Stewart Island/Rakiura (meaning ‘Glowing Sky’, which is thought to refer to the long summer twilight and the aurora australis). Stewart Island has been on my travel wish-list for a long time – if you’re a nature lover it’s your best chance to see kiwi (and lots of other amazing birds) in the wild and it has some amazing intact forest, plus it has a very interesting history.


Getting to Stewart Island involves a one hour ferry ride across the Foveaux Strait – a particularly rough and treacherous stretch of water. On the day we made the crossing we had winds gusting up to 100km/hr and a large swell so the trip was pretty horrible. If you’re prone to seasickness I recommend taking the plane! The main settlement on the island is Oban (named after the city in Scotland), and the permanent population is less than 400.

Halfmoon Bay – looks beautiful but I was holding onto that sign to stop myself blowing over!

We stayed in Oban one night, and the next morning set off on our three-day hike on the Rakiura Track – one of New Zealand’s ‘Great Walks’ (see map). The walk officially starts at Lee Bay (although it’s a 5km walk to get there from Oban), at the Chain Link sculpture that symbolises the Maori myth in which the demigod Māui used Rakiura (Stewart Island) to anchor his canoe (the South Island, which has a matching sculpture at Bluff).

The first day we walked from Oban to Port William Hut (about 13km), initially walking along the coast through mānuka scrub, rātā forest and along stunning beaches, then descending into amazing temperate rainforest with huge tree ferns and giant rimu (podocarp) trees. Interestingly, despite being widespread on the mainland there is no beech (nothofagus) forest on Stewart Island, supposedly because they are wind pollinated while all the other plant species were brought to the island by seabirds after the last ice age.

Finally we arrived at Port William Hut, which has a common room/kitchen area and two rooms of bunks, sleeping a total of 24 people. This is why I love the New Zealand great walks – it makes such a difference at the end of a long day of tramping to arrive at a hut and not have to carry a tent!

From Port William Hut you have a choice either to continue along the North West Coast track, which takes you on a ten-day loop around the north west corner of the island, or to retrace your steps about 2km and then continue south across North Arm. This day was about 13km again, but with a few steep hills to slow you down. Along the way there is evidence of the old timber industry – these steam engines were used to transport timber along a tramway system.

After about 6 hours we arrived at North Arm Hut, which has beautiful views over Paterson Inlet. When the tide went out later that evening we could walk quite a long way out across the mudflats.

Dougall and I near North Arm Hut at low tide

That evening we waited until dark to try and catch a glimpse of a kiwi. Since it stays light until about 11pm that meant staying up quite late! We could hear several kiwi moving around in the bushes and calling to each other, but unfortunately none of them came out. The Stewart Island kiwi/tokueka is a separate subspecies to those on the mainland, and the population is estimated to be around 15000! We did see a white-tailed deer, of which there is a large (feral) population.

Day three was along the northern coast of Paterson Inlet, and then along the Kaipipi road which was once the main road on the island. We thought there was something different about the forest along this road, until we realised there were none of the huge trees we had seen in other areas – all removed during the timber industry days. But since then the island has been in recovery, with the Rakiura National Park established in 2002 protecting 85% of the island. Many bird species that are threatened or extinct on the mainland due to predation by feral animals can still be seen here (although there are populations of cats, rats and possums, Stewart Island is free from stoats and ferrets). We were disappointed not to see any kiwi, but we did get to see a lot of other amazing birds:

And finally we made it back to Oban and indulged ourselves with a well earned foot massage.

As a final thought, I just wanted to explain the title of this post. In a previous blog I talked about the Finnish concept of Jokamiehenoikeus – ‘everyman’s rights’ – the idea of shared environmental custodianship. I was interested to find that the Maori have a similar word – ‘Kaitiakitanga’ – which comes from the words ‘kaitiaki’ meaning guardian and ‘tikanga’ meaning traditions or customs. The word embodies the concepts of sustainability, holistic management, harmony with the environment, and the inter-relatedness of all living things. Like in Finland, this concept has been recognised and defined in legislation, ensuring that the Maori are acknowledged as custodians and involved in decision making and management. There doesn’t seem to be an equivalent English word, but is this a reflection of a different attitude towards the environment? I wonder if other languages have similar words, and how this influences their attitudes and environmental laws?