Stewart Island is the third largest island in New Zealand, after the North Island and the South Island. It lies around 30 kilometres south of the South Island, across the Foveaux Strait. Oban is the largest settlement on the island, but it only has between 300-400 permanent residents.
The island sits right at the heart of Maori mythology. They Maori name for the island is Te Punga o Te Waka a Maui, which translates to, “The Anchor Stone of Maui’s canoe.
The island plays an important role in the legend of Maui and his crew. As the story goes, the South Island was the canoe of Maui and his men. While on that canoe, they caught and raised the “great fish,” which was the North Island. Stewart Island, or Rakiura as the Maori commonly refer to it, was the anchor to that canoe that allowed them the stability to catch that “great fish.”
Captain James Cook and his crew were the first Europeans to see the island in 1770. However, Captain Cook thought that the island was part of the South Island and as such, named it South Cape. It wasn’t until 1809 that William W. Stewart, from whom the island gets its name, determined that it was in fact an island. In 1841, the island was officially established as one of the three provinces of New Zealand (at the time, the country only had three provinces).
Over the course of the subsequent years, the island jumped around between a number of different provinces as the country continued to add provinces before New Zealand eventually abolished provinces all together.
Now, the island is almost completely made up of National Park land. The land has hardly been touched and the island now sits as a beautiful island getaway for outdoor enthusiasts.
What to Do – Stewart Island
Like many places in New Zealand, Stewart Island is a fantastic place to visit if you are a walking, or tramping enthusiast.
In fact, the island is home to one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, the Rakiura Track. This track is a three day, 36-kilometre journey that takes walkers through some truly stunning scenery. If you aren’t up for such a rigorous adventure, don’t worry, Stewart Island is home to a number of shorter, easier walks that are just as beautiful and perfect for walkers of all ages or ability levels.
The Fern Gully Track is a particularly popular one and it only takes two hours. Likewise, the Horseshoe Point Track is also a favorite amongst visitors. this track is slightly longer, but can still be done within a day in around four hours.
The Rakiura Track is a 36 kilometre circuit track that will take the average walker around three days to complete. The circuit passes through some beautiful scenery, including wonderful coastline views, densely forested interior areas, and the sheltered shores of Paterson Inlet. The track also passes by sites of historical interest and allows visitors to experience the common sea and forest birds on the island. Here is a brief guide for walking the Rakiura Track:
1) Day 1: Lee Bay to Port William Hut: 3-4 hours, 8 kilometres. The track starts by following the coastline to Little River. After crossing a bridge at Little River, walkers will continue around Peter’s Point and on to the Maori Beach. At the end of Maori Beach, there is a creek that can easily be waded at low tide.
However, during high tide, walkers will have to continue along the track until they reach a small footbridge that will take them over the creek. Not far from there, there is a short side trail that will take visitors to an old, rusting steam boiler left over from when the area was a mining spot. Maori Beach is also home to a campsite.
After crossing the bridge over the larger tidal stream, visitors will begin to climb a small hill before turning right at the intersection of the track with North Arm. Walkers will then gradually walk down before reaching the campsite at Port William. The Port William Hut is jut a few minutes past the campsite.
2) Day 2: Port William Hut to North Arm Hut: 6 hours, 13 kilometres. This section of the track is much longer than the first section. Walkers will have to spend the first 40 minutes of the day backtracking to the North Arm turnoff.
Once they get on the track to North Arm, the trail will pass through a wide variety of vegetation, including previously milled and virgin podocarp forest. Walkers will see a lot of remnants from the mining days along this section of trail. Upon reaching North Arm, walkers will find a campsite with both shelter and toilets.
3) Day 3: North Arm Hut to Fern Gully Car Park, 4-4.5 hours, 11 kilometres. The final leg of the journey allows walkers access to Paterson Inlet. The track starts by swinging around the headland from North Arm to Sawdust Bay. It passes by an old sawmill site that was in operation between 1914 and 1918.
The track then passes through Rimu and Kamahi forest before emerging at Kidney Fern Arm and Kaipipi Bay. Kaipipi Bay is home to two more sawmills, both of which are even older then the others along this section of the trail. These two mills employed over 1,000 people in the 1860s. The track then continues to Halfmoon Bay via the former Kaipipi Road before ultimately terminating at the Fern Gully carpark.
If walking isn’t for you, or you want more variety out of your holiday, there are plenty of other attractions on Stewart Island. The outstanding natural resources on the island make it the perfect place to enjoy the great outdoors in a variety of ways.
The island is a birdwatchers haven, as it is home to the majority of New Zealand’s native and endangered bird species, including the famous kiwi. In fact, on Stewart Island, kiwi birds outnumber humans by 50 to 1. Over the years, the island has been largely untouched by humans, thus making it the perfect habitat for birds.
The Stewart Island Brown Kiwi, or Tokoeka, is active both day and night, with more than 20,000 estimated to be living on the island.
The southern part of the island has a very particularly special kiwi-watching experience. There, visitors can find the birds everywhere. During the evenings, visitors to the island will be treated to the beautiful songs of the kaka and the weka strut around Oban township.
The island is also home to an array of interesting marine life and some beautiful coastal scenery. Both of these things can be experienced on one of the popular and highly recommended boat cruises on offer around the island.
The boat cruises allow visitors to take in the island from a whole new perspective while also giving them the ability to explore its many secluded bays and gorgeous inlets. Lucky cruisers might even have the opportunity to see penguins, dolphins, or albatross.
For a small island with a very small population, Stewart Island manages to offer a relatively complete array of accommodation options. Visitors can chose from a backpacker’s hostel, a variety of campgrounds and huts, a lodge, bed and breakfasts, and a number of self-contained holiday rental options. No matter what you are looking for, there is likely something for you at Stewart Island.
Travelling from Abroad?
Reaching Stewart Island can be a bit tricky. There is daily ferry service between Bluff and Stewart Island. There is also a year round scheduled bus service from Invercargill as well as a seasonal bus and ferry service from Queenstown.
With that being said, if you are travelling from abroad, your best bet is to fly into Invercargill, which is serviced eight times daily from Christchurch and two times daily from Wellington. If you have a larger budget, you can also take a flight from Invercargill to Stewart Island on Stewart Island Flights.