We delayed our departure from the Shed as long as we could to still make it to Bluff before dark. The morning scene was thick with apprehension of the inevitable moment of parting. David came over to the workshop and we all tinkered a bit more on our “hacky sack guys” stick figure project. We enjoyed a few more minutes of lighthearted chit-chat and made sure to snap a selfie before we deliberately avoided saying “goodbye.” It’s a “see you later,” I said. David pointed out that it was simply a sabbatical from Hunter Hills Organics for us. After our parting hugs, Barley got in position and made sure to give us a proper send off with several bites to Zed’s tires. Even though we are confident that will see David again, Paul and I found this the most difficult departure yet.
If you’re short on time and don’t want to read through another long post I can summarize quickly in a few lines. Once we arrived on Stewart Island (a place with only a few miles of roads where no one locks their car and they leave the keys in so the vehicle can be moved by anyone if necessary), we walked and it rained. That was followed by cloudy days and more drizzle and rain during which we walked in the mud and listened to hundreds of birds sing.
For those of you interested in more details, I’ll post a more elaborate version as well. Read on.
It was about a six hour trip to Bluff over some familiar territory, but also through a stretch we hadn’t been on yet. There were lots and lots of rolling green hills all along the way. The ferry to Stewart Island didn’t leave until the next morning so we had a one night stay in Bluff. We have been to Bluff twice before, so we had already seen the sights from the lookout on Bluff Hill and been to Stirling Point, another tourist attraction. If we hadn’t, our impression of Bluff would have been very different. When we rolled into town this evening the clouds hung thick and heavy overhead limiting the views from both of the aforementioned lookouts to walls of dense gray mist. Thankfully the clouds did not release their water until just after we carried the last of our bags to the room. Oysters, which Bluff is also known for, is one thing we hadn’t tried. The small ferry only accommodates passengers, not vehicles. This coupled with the luggage limits meant we would not be bringing along our “portable kitchen” and thus in our preparation for the ride, we’d attempted to pare down the “portable pantry” too. Basically we did not have much food with us, giving us a perfect excuse to go out to dinner and try some oysters and wine. We opted for a cooked version of the shellfish and they were tasty.
Upon returning to our room, we re-organized and re-packed into a couple of smaller bags the clothing, electronics and items we would be transporting with us to the southernmost island of New Zealand. At dawn, the sun blazed red through a small gap in the clouds on the horizon, then disappeared behind the misty veil. We stowed all that we would be leaving in Zed’s boot (the trunk). We would be checking in at the ferry terminal at 9:30 which gave us a little time. Though overcast, the clouds still remained high enough to allow a bit of a view. We drove the five minutes to Stirling point and walked short path for some photos and fresh air.
Then the rain began falling, so we headed to the terminal where the lady informed us the ferry departure was delayed for maintenance on a crane. The estimated delay was about an hour and a half. The cold dreary weather made it unappealing to wander through town so we opted to park Zed and simply sit and read. After about an hour and a half wait, we boarded with a handful of other off-season tourists. Thus our journey across the often tumultuous waters of the shark infested Foveaux Strait began. Because this is our only experience on this route on the ocean, I don’t have any idea where the conditions rated on the “turbulent” scale, but based on my brief limited sea faring excursions, it ranked high on the list of rough rides. The captain appeared quite calm and relaxed as he maneuvered the craft among the swells, wind and rain.
When we approached the dock we saw our host waiting for us with a sign, a bit funny only because it was only her and one other lady standing there on the dock in the drizzle. Once we loaded everything into the minivan, she gave us a quick driving tour around Oban, talking the entire time. Pointing out walks, showing us the only restaurant still open in the off season but telling us all about the other great places to eat in the summertime. The roads are REALLY narrow and winding, even more so than the ones we’ve encountered traveling around the South Island. Part of our arrangement with the motel we booked included the use of a car during our stay. Since we came in the off-season, we had the motel to ourselves which was wonderful. There’s a sturdy, well-maintained set of steps leading from the motel down to the road at Bragg Bay. It was the first place we went exploring. One hundred and nineteen steps to the road, we did that little walk many times over the two weeks we were here.
The first night we opted for dinner at the restaurant/pub/hotel in town. Then I worked out a tentative menu, I knew I’d need to be flexible as a supermarket in such a small and isolated place likely wouldn’t have a large selection. It worked out well, even though we had a lot of repeat meals, we certainly had plenty of food. My first task was scouring maps and brochures to determine which walks we would be able to do in the afternoons and which would have to wait until a weekend. Plus, I compiled a list of questions for the DOC (Department of Conservation) office which was our first stop once Paul finished work. The lady in the office was very helpful, patient and prepared to answer one of my main questions, which she has likely answered thousands of times. “Where can I see a kiwi?” Stewart Island is probably the most likely place in New Zealand to spot one of these iconic nocturnal creatures in their natural habitat, or so we’d heard. She played a recording of their sounds for us so we’d know what to listen for. Then she filled us in on the best types of places to look and most optimal time (when it’s dark). So, this time of year is really good for spotting kiwis because the sun goes down about 5pm and doesn’t come up until about 8am. You don’t have to stay up really late or get up really early to have a good chance at seeing one. While there we gathered helpful information about the local day walks and since the sun was shining we didn’t waste any more time at the office because according to the forecast we weren’t going to see much sun. First we drove to have a look from Observation Rock. Gorgeous views of a couple of bays and out over the sea to Ulva Island.
Ulva Island is part of the Rakiura National Park and is open to the public. We would definitely be checking it out while we’re here. From there we drove along the coast of Halfmoon Bay to take the walk out to Ackers Point. From this point we could see across the Foveaux Strait to Bluff Hill. Just as with the lookout from Observation Rock, you can see so many little islands dotting the water surrounding Stewart Island. While standing at Acker’s Point a fishing boat went by with several albatross circling around it. That was an unexpected treat.
Enough daylight remained we decided to make the most of it and check out the walk to Little River. The bridge over the river just before it enters the sea offered a fantastic vantage point to view the deep coffee colored water. We’ve come to know this is typical in this type of climate especially during periods of increased rainfall. The water rapidly drains down through the forest floor with all the brown foliage and carries with it the dark tannins into the waterways. It literally looks coffee flowing in the rivers. MMMmmmm.
We had the advantage that many who visit this island don’t in that we had a vehicle so we didn’t have to walk the narrow roads to get from track to track. Otherwise, we would not have been able to see all of these spots on such a beautifully sunny day. Lee Bay is where the track begins for the walk to Little River and it’s also where the landmark “chain” sculpture is. The other end of the “chain” that you can see at Stirling Point in Bluff.
We called it a day once we returned to the car from Little River, grateful to have seen so much in the sun. Then it turned cloudy and rainy for about a week. There were patches and brief periods of blue sky. It was during those times when many of the pictures were taken. We were prepared for rain so it didn’t completely stop us from exploring, but we also had the luxury of a lengthy stay, so we would have the chance to see a lot even without spending every day outside in the rain.
The next track we ventured out on took us around from Bragg Bay to Horseshoe Bay. Along the way the track goes past Dead Man Beach and Horseshoe Point. This happened to be one of the days we were dressed in our rain gear and walking in drizzle most of the way. As we walked up from Dead Man Beach we noticed the track looked rather unusual. The hillside had slipped down a few feet and taken the track with it. The track was still there just not all connected on the same plane. Undoubtedly a result of the recent rain. We were able to carry on, we didn’t have to turn around, we just hopped down, walked the section of slipped track then climbed up to get back on it at the other side of the slip.
At one point the sun burst through the trees highlighting the drizzle and mist hanging among the foliage creating a beautiful glittery veil across the trail. When we stepped out onto Horseshoe point we could see sheets of rain moving across the bay toward us. We took cover under the canopy of trees a little ways further down the track and waited a few minutes for the heaviest rain to pass before continuing on to the road which took us back to the motel.
The beauty of traveling during the off season is that we’ve had most of the tracks, beaches and lookouts to ourselves. Plus, most of the shops and cafes are closed so there’s not really any decision to make when it comes to eating or shopping in town. One day we stopped in the one wool shop that was open for a brief look around since it was right next door to the supermarket. We’d come grocery shopping armed with a menu, list and an open mind. The open mind turned out more useful than the menu or list. Selection was limited but not terribly. Not feeling like spending more time out in the rain, we retired to the room and indoor activities such as skyping and surfing the internet for the remainder of the day. The indoor activities continued into the next day as well, we spent some more time on skype, celebrating our nephew’s Birthday and talking with family. When the rain let up at 12:30 we escaped for a few hours. Fern Gully track the destination of the day. Fortunately, we’d found accurate information about the tracks and we prepared for wet and muddy conditions, so we were not caught off guard by the warning sign at the beginning of the track indicating it was slippery.
Indeed it was. Though, all the water does certainly keep it green here. Fern Gully lived up to its name and we thoroughly enjoyed being outside for a spell despite some drizzle.
After two more days spent inside while it rained, we were even more anxious to get some fresh air. On the third straight day of rain, there was more time for skype and then a movie before we saw a break in the clouds. It lasted only a few minutes, but lured us outside. We drove to Thule Bay, stepped out of the van into the drizzle swirling in the cold wind, took a picture and got back in to come back to the room. The wind wasn’t as gusty around the retreat, but it was churning up the sea and sending bigger waves to shore so we walked from our room to Butterfield Beach to listen to and watch them roll in. Then another rain shower rolled in, and another, and another as we huddled under some bushes still watching and waiting for the clearing we could see moving our way. The sun suddenly illuminated the beach and broadcast a rainbow over the bay then just as suddenly disappeared. We retreated to the apartment, thoroughly chilled for a nice hot cuppa.
Being so far south, the sun does not come up until about 8 am, by that time we were thrilled to open the curtains and welcome some light in. Such was the case on Tuesday, a week into our stay, but there was another surprise. When I opened the curtains, two big birds flew directly for the windows then swooped up and landed with a clatter on the gutter. I guessed they were kaka based on what I had read in the brochures. Naturally, I scramble for my camera and timidly open the door as to not startle them. Well, it was me who was startled. One of them flew right down to the sidewalk about two feet in front of me then began hopping toward me. Obviously they were not shy. It was quickly apparent that they’d visit us inside if we allowed it. Kaka are large mostly gray parrots with a touch of beautiful red on their belly and red and yellow under their eyes. Our host arrived as I was snapping photos and she said sometimes the friendly ones will even land on your arm if you extend it to the side. She encouraged me to do so and sure enough one swooped down from the gutter, but instead of going toward my arm he landed directly on my head. Luckily I was able to stand still, despite my surprise so the sharp claws did not do too much damage to my forehead. He quickly abandoned this perch in favor of my outstretched arm. Pretty darn cool!
That afternoon there was little more than a breeze in contrast to the wind we experienced the previous day. We even saw some patches of blue sky on our walk from Thule Bay to Ryan’s Creek. Birds of all sorts sang all along the route, Tui, bellbirds, tomtits, kaka and parakeets.
The following morning, the sun greeted us with a colorful sky, then disappeared behind the clouds and rain for the remainder of the day and the next morning.
When Paul finished work that day, patches of blue sky appeared again and as we started along the track between Thule Bay and Deep Bay we saw several rainbows. We also climbed several sets of stairs on the track.
From Deep Bay we continued on past the six hole golf course around the crumbling cliffs with dramatic views of Ringaringa Beach and on to Wohler’s monument. From there we could see a thick band of rain showers getting closer. We were about a half hour from the van parked in the center of town so we picked up our pace a bit and managed to get to the van just before the downpour.
The long weekend arrived with more rain. We remained optimistic the our last three days would offer an opportunity for expanded exploration. Saturday, we took a break from our rather boring menu and visited the Pub, unknowingly positioning ourselves in the midst of a wake for an obviously well know local fisherman. Shortly after we ordered our dinner, people began streaming into the place. Surprised to see such a crowd in this tiny town on a little island, we soon realized the occasion when a gentleman came over and urged us to get up and join the party. He clearly was not going to allow any visitors to feel like they were intruding because he kept encouraging us until we were standing at the table with another visiting couple surrounded by locals chatting lively. It was at this point he explained that there’d been a funeral and they were having a party here. Thus, our dinner out, turned into a much livelier and interesting evening that anticipated and gave us a glimpse into the friendly, welcoming people of this unique community.
We discussed a number of activities for the remaining days and opted for a water taxi over to Ulva Island on Sunday. After a pleasant morning we boarded the boat in the rain. We spent the afternoon exploring the few short tracks on the much smaller island, only having to endure walking in rain for the first hour.
Since it is a bird sanctuary, it was no surprise to see and hear so many birds. We saw a handful of people walking the opposite direction as we headed across to Boulder Bay. On the return walk, I’d imagine we were the only two people on the island. It was an utterly relaxing afternoon meandering through the forest stopping frequently to photograph the birds or record their symphony.
With two more days on Stewart Island we considered a couple of options to hire a boat and get dropped off outside town to walk back but we simply opted to finish walking the two remaining day walks from Oban. Garden Mound track and Kaipipi Bay. Both of which were extraordinarily muddy. Garden Mound was a bit more difficult because the mud coated the track up a steep hill.
It was really fun getting to play in the mud and taking on the challenge of trying to find a path that wouldn’t send us sliding down the trail like a wet bar of soap. We were happy to see the trail on the other side wasn’t as steep and slippery. Garden Mound track intersected with the track to Little River so we visited the beach there for a few pictures before taking the longer, more level track back to the van. Adjacent to the carpark there was a large grassy area where our host said we might spot a kiwi so we returned after dark with our phones for flashlights to hunt kiwi. We did not see a kiwi, but we did get lucky enough to have the clouds clear and reveal a black sky speckled with a dazzling array of brilliant stars.
There was one remaining track that we hadn’t visited for our one remaining day on Stewart Island. The sun came out and there was blue sky for almost the entire day. Brilliantly inviting and ironically to our surprise, the coldest day we’ve experienced here so far. The sun and cold just didn’t seem to match. The track to Kaipipi Bay followed an old logging road, so for most of the way it was a wide path of mud and muck. On this one though, it was much easier to find alternate routes around the deeper, sloppier spots. The birds’ songs rang just as clear and beautiful in the fresh clean air though and we enjoyed every step of the journey.
During one last dinner at the Pub, one of the staff gave us some additional places to look for kiwi. After we ate, we walked up the main road as she’d suggested, past the streetlights. What a feeling it was to stroll down the middle of the street in the dark as quiet as possible. Still we did not see a kiwi. They’ll remain visible only in our imaginations.
Paul worked one more day from the motel and then we got cleaned up and ready to catch the ferry. We had enough time to walk down to Bragg Bay for one last stroll on Stewart Island sand.
We boarded the boat bound for Bluff under a drizzly gray sky and then we had a three hour drive to Queenstown.