Stewart Island Area GuideStewart Island, New Zealand's third main island, is 32 kilometres off the southern coast of the south island, its green bush-covered hills, sandy beaches and sheltered inlets providing a haven for native kiwi and other birds.
The island was known as Rakiura, 'the land of glowing skies', to the Maori people, thought to be a reference to the periodic southern lights (aurora australis), which form a luminescent blue-green curtain over the island, or to the spectacular red sunsets.
Stewart Island is only 75 kilometres long and 45 kilometres across at its widest point, and 85 per cent of it is set aside as the Rakiura National Park. To get here, visitors must brave the one-hour ferry ride across the notoriously rough Foveaux Strait from Bluff, or take a 20-minute flight on a small aircraft from Invercargill Airport. On the island, roads and buildings are confined to a small area around Paterson Inlet on the east coast, where the sole town, Oban, on Halfmoon Bay, is enclosed by bush-covered hills. Most of the island's 390 residents live around Oban, earning a living from tourism, farming mussels and salmon, fishing for cod, or gathering crayfish or paua. The historic South Sea Hotel on the waterfront at Elgin Terrace is the town's main social centre. Nearby is the Rakiura Museum on Ayr Street, with a collection of Maori artifacts and displays on whaling and fishing.
The island's 25 kilometres of sealed roads pale into insignificance beside its 245 kilometres of walking tracks, which include one of New Zealand's Great Walks, the Rakiura Track, a three-day circuit which begins and ends at Oban. The track follows the open coast, climbs over a 300-metre-high forested ridge, and traverses the shores of Paterson Inlet, providing a good introduction to the island's sea and forest birds.
Stewart Island offers one of the best opportunities in the country for seeing kiwi in the wild. Trampers on the challenging nine to 11-day North West Circuit track often see them at Mason Bay on the island's west coast, or you can book in advance to go on a night-time kiwi-spotting cruise around the shores of Paterson Inlet.
From Oban, there are several good short walks. Take the 15-minute walk through the forest to Observation Rock to watch the sun go down, or the three-hour return walk to the Ackers Point Lighthouse for summertime birdwatching - from the lighthouse you can see muttonbirds returning to their burrows at dusk, and little blue penguins after dark.
As well as its many hiking and tramping tracks, the island is known for its clean, clear waters and rich marine life, and is a good place for sea kayaking, scuba diving or snorkelling, or just cruising around in a glass-bottomed boat.
Just off Stewart Island in Paterson Inlet lies the bird sanctuary of Ulva Island, its shores harbouring rare and endangered bird species, including the Stewart Island robin, the saddleback, the yellowhead and the rifleman. Visit early on a spring morning to get the full benefit of the dawn chorus, the air filled with the melodious sound of tui and bellbirds. The best way to get here is by water taxi or on a guided cruise from Stewart Island.