5 things you didn’t know about Stewart Island

Photo: Sebastien Goldberg

New Zealand’s anchor

According to Māori oral tradition, New Zealand/Aotearoa owes its existence to the legendary feats of demigod Māui. While fishing with his brothers, Māui used a magic hook to haul a mighty fish from the depths of the ocean. The fish became the North Island (Te Ika o Māui), his waka or canoe the South Island (Te Waka o Māui) and the anchor stone (punga) became Stewart Island/Rakiura. It is from this story where the island’s traditional name is derived Te Punga o Te Waka o Māui, or the‘anchor stone of Māui’s canoe’. Don’t be fooled by it’s diminutive size, no matter how wild the waves of the South Pacific get, the plucky promontory will hold fast.

Photo: Kieran Somerville

It has a dark side

Due to its isolation and tiny population (around 400 inhabitants) Stewart Island/Rakiura has very low levels of light pollution. In fact the International Dark Sky Association recognised the un-besmirched skies in 2019, honouring the island with the title of Dark Sky Sanctuary (just one of 15 such places on earth). When the weather allows, stargazers are rewarded with crystal clear views deep into the Milky Way. Not only that, now and then the fortunate island dwellers are treated to the hauntingly beautiful Aurora Australis or southern lights. In fact, Rakiura, the commonly used Maori name for Stewart Island, translates to ‘glowing skies’ and is believed to be named in honour of this otherworldly spectacle.

It’s a hotspot for Great White sharks.

With 160 kms of coastline bejewelled with sheltered coves, golden beaches and plunging cliffs, the waters off “Stewy” offer amazing scope for aquatic adventure. Those who plunge into the depths should know though, they won’t be the biggest fish in this pond. Among the abundant sea life and forests of kelp, cruises a fearsome apex predator – the Great White shark. It is believed that these marine majesties gather in the cold, clear waters in the late summer and early winter (March to June) to feast on fur seals, before returning to the tropics for the winter. Despite what Hollywood would have you believe, humans pose a much larger risk to these animals than they do to us, which is why they enjoy protected status in New Zealand.

Big adventures come in small packages

Although dwarfed by its northern neighbours, those seeking adventure would be unwise to turn up their noses at this unkempt outcrop in the south. With 85% of the island making up the Rakiura National Park, its relatively small stature belies a vast, and rugged wilderness. Boasting just 28 kilometres of road and around 280 kilometres of walking tracks, you can leave your roller skates at home on this trip. Instead, bring a sturdy pair of boots, a good rain jacket and an industrial sized bottle of insect spray (forget the sharks, it’s the sandflies you should fear). Multi-day hikes, known as ‘tramps’, which utilise the world class system of huts and trails are the best way to get into the wild here. These trips, such as the epic 10 day North West Circuit, are often arduous, but the blood, mud, sweat and tears will be rewarded with a once in a lifetime taste of a land undisturbed by human hands.

Photo: Sebastien Goldberg

Your best chance to spot a Kiwi

If you’ve made it this far, then you’re serious about visiting one of the last truly wild places on our planet. For those needing even more motivation, here’s the clincher, the cherry on the cake, the kiwifruit on the pavlova so to speak. Despite their ubiquitous presence on everything from bank logos to meat pie wrappers, the chance to see an actual Kiwi in the wild is rare. Even most New Zealanders have not seen their namesake in its natural habitat. That’s because not only are they extremely rare, these curious birds usually restrict their ungainly wanderings to the cover of darkness. Not on Stewart Island though. Nobody knows exactly why, but the local Rakiura Tokoeka, is the only species which graces the daylight hours with its presence. With an estimated population of 13,000 (outnumbering the human population by 30:1), their relative abundance means they can even be seen nosing about the township of Oban. Encountering these creatures during the day is truly a once in a lifetime experience to be found on only one place on earth – Stewart Island/Rakiura.

photo: Denise Jans

podcast-episode: (in german)

8 comments on “5 things you didn’t know about Stewart Island
  1. Kay Cooke says:

    Makes me want to go visit again. You have described one of my favourite places so well.

    1. Holy Sheep says:

      Thanks, and yea I can’t wait to get back either.

  2. Michael says:

    Makes me want to go, you’ve described it beautifully. One of the few truly remote areas of the planet, with untouched spaces and wilderness experiences unbound.

    1. Holy Sheep says:

      Thanks Michael, yes – absolutely a very special place!

  3. Joy says:

    This place is certainly on my bucket List ! You have described the place so well.

    1. Holy Sheep says:

      Thanks Joy, glad you enjoyed it. I think it should be on everybody’s bucket list!

  4. Steve says:

    The Rakiura track is on our to-do list, and so is seeing te kiwi i te taiao!

    1. Holy Sheep says:

      Yes! Definitely an unforgettable experience which is well worth the trip.

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