I apologize for the long delay in posting this, and I hope I didn’t worry any of you. The semester is really kicking off and all of our professors are assigning us enough essays, tests, and presentations to keep us busy for weeks on end. But we didn’t let a little thing like schoolwork get in the way of having fun! In fact, this past weekend I went on the longest trip I’ve taken since arriving in the country!
Four of us (me, my flatmates Sarah and Walker, and our friend Regina) rented a car and took a long drive down the coast and across the ferry to Stewart Island. Stewart Island is New Zealand’s third-largest island, 18 miles off the coast of the South Island. A full 85% of the island is pristine national forest, with only one small town called Oban on Halfmoon Bay containing most of the permanent population of around 380 people. The island is known for its incredibly diverse bird populations and it’s one of the best places to see kiwis in the wild!
The four of us left Dunedin at 6pm Friday evening. Sarah was the only one comfortable enough with New Zealand driving to brave the roads in our rental car, so she was our driver for the entire weekend. We drove straight south from Dunedin, along gently curving highways that gave us lovely views of the rolling hills and vast farmlands of the South Island.
It took around three hours for us to reach Invercargill, where we stayed overnight at a lovely B&B. The ferry to Stewart Island left the town of Bluff at 9am the next day, and with a recommended half-hour early arrival time on top of the 30 minute drive, we went straight to bed in anticipation of an early morning.
Despite the cold and early morning, we were in bright spirits by the time we dropped our car in long-term parking and arrived at the ferry terminal. The ferry was tiny (a fraction of the size of the huge transport ferries in Seattle) and quite bouncy. It was a breezy hour-long ride to Stewart Island, taking us past rock spits, tiny islands, and fishing ships.
We landed in Halfmoon Bay under cloudy skies, and happily spent a while walking around the beach after dropping our bags off at the hostel. The town of Oban was tiny, with two places to eat, a church, a small supermarket, and houses scattered across the hills and coastline. Despite the town’s size, the bay was filled with fishing boats and canoes owned by visitors, residents, and local businesses.
After lunch we stopped into the Department of Conservation, where a very nice ranger mapped out a fun three-hour hike for us to go on. The path wandered through a small stretch of forest to the local soccer field, meandered from there along the coast to Golden Bay, and circled around to bring us back into town from the other direction. The forest was incredibly dense and green, with thick trees, hanging vines, and ferns as long as my legs growing everywhere.
Every so often we would hear a bubbling brook or catch a glimpse of water through the trees, and once we got to Golden Bay we were treated with gorgeous views of glittering waters, bobbing boats, and the densely-forested Ulva Island.
And the birds! The birdsong was absolutely out of this world. There was chirping and whistling of every tone and tune, noises like people singing, yelling, and shouting, and even some birdsong reminiscent of bike horns, cats hissing, or motorcycles growling! It was amazing and completely indescribable. You can hear some of it here and here. I was even lucky enough to get a couple photos of the birds around us.
Above is a Tui bird, a common and boisterous bird found all over New Zealand. They look black except for the tuft of white feathers at the neck, but their backs have an iridescent bronze and blue-green sheen. They make a distinctive whirring noise when they fly, and their song is a mix of whistles and tunes interspersed with coughs and wheezes.
This is a male Bellbird, the most common and familiar honeyeater in New Zealand. They mainly eat small fruit and flower nectar and play an important role in pollinating many native flowers and shrubs. Their song is clear and ringing, coming together into bell-like tones when many bellbirds sing together.
Above is a Pied Oystercatcher, the most abundant oystercatcher in New Zealand. They’re wading birds native to Australia, found in coastal areas and estuaries, with a loud, shrill peeping call. Their name is a little bit of a misnomer, as they mainly feed on molluscs, worms, and bivalves like mussels.
Finally, this is the Weka. The top photo was taken by me, and the bottom photo is from Google for reference, since my photo doesn’t show the bird very well. The Weka is an omnivorous flightless bird, often mistaken for a kiwi, that is highly charismatic and often seeks out people to look for food they may be carrying. They’re unfortunately extinct over large swaths of the main islands, but Stewart Island has a pretty stable population.
This was the most exciting bird I spotted, as it took me on quite a hunt before I finally saw it. Sarah and I were hiking along behind Walker and Regina, and we had stopped for some water when we became aware of a loud rustling noise in the undergrowth beside the path. We stood very still and watched closely but could only see the plants rustling and moving where something was touching them. Eventually we crouched down and lifted up some fern leaves, and were finally able to see the Weka! It didn’t care about us at all, poking through the undergrowth just a foot or two away from us. I took a bunch of photos, partially obscured by plant leaves and stems around the bird, and this was the best one I could find. Eventually, though, Sarah and I made too much noise and it ran away. It was an incredibly exciting and humbling experience, to be so close to one of the iconic flightless birds of New Zealand!
Eventually we came to the end of our hike. We had so much fun walking through old-growth forest surrounded by verdant ferns, aquamarine waters, and flashing birdsong. By the time we got back to our hostel we were sweaty and tired but very happy. We made dinner and took a leisurely walk on the beach in the evening, before hanging out in the hostel lounge playing cards, talking, and laughing together.
Thus ended our first day on Stewart Island! More to come in the next couple days.
Until next time,