THE small size of Oban belies its importance as Stewart Island’s only town and the entranceway to the North West Circuit Track where I was to be spending a few weeks volunteering as a hut warden.
The Māori name for Stewart Island is Rakiura, which means ‘blushing [or glowing] skies’ and is far more poetic in my view. It seems to be a reference to long twilights in these subantarctic latitudes, the aurora australis which can sometimes be seen from here, or both.
After catching a ferry over from Invercargill, I met Phil Brooks, the DOC manager in charge of volunteers. He took me through the safety checks, taught me how to operate the radio and detailed what was expected of me while at the Port William Hut, which I was to take charge of.
Oban is in a bay called Halfmoon Bay, just north of a much larger inlet called Paterson Inlet or Whaka a te Wera. The star of the inlet is Ulva Island or Te Wharawhara, an island that has never been milled and is free of predators, including rats. Ulva/Te Wharawhara is therefore a little piece of New Zealand as it used to be, or as near as is possible today, and is served by regular ferries as it is an open sanctuary, with walking trails. The island is quite sizable, more than three and a half kilometres long, so there is plenty to see.
As names like Oban and Ulva suggest, names drawn from the Scottish Highlands and Islands, the Scots influence among the settlers seems to have been strong here as well.
From Lee Bay, five kilometres out of Oban, it’s a three-to-four hour walk past Māori Beach to Port William Hut at the start of the North West Circuit Track. Bearing a name that rhymes with Fort William, another locality in the Scottish Highlands, Port William has an early European history by New Zealand standards.
An attempt was made at logging, but because of the area’s extreme isolation it was hard to get either food shipped to the harbour or logs shipped out, beginning a downward spiral of a flagging industry and dwindling supplies.
As warden at Port William, I had to clean toilets and sweep the hut. I also had to put out campfires at the camp site, a two-hour walk away, as well as collect hut tickets. It wasn’t demanding work – but somebody had to be there to do it.
Kiwi are still common on the island, and I also saw sooty shearwaters or tītī landing at night and going into their burrows. It was a magical moment. Three hundred thousand tītī chicks are harvested as muttonbirds annually by Ngāi Tahu: a number which is fully sustainable as there are estimated to be over twenty million of the species nesting around New Zealand, mainly in the Rakiura/Stewart Island area. The chicks are cooked and preserved in their own fat in a semi-dried-out state, just like last week’s mutton, albeit with a strong fishy taste. This is a delicacy in the lower South Island, and you can even purchase muttonbird meat in the butchers in Dunedin.
The DOC office on Stewart Island tends to use volunteer rangers, and when it came to the end of my stay, I discovered that the next volunteer had cancelled. I was asked to stay for another two weeks, which I happily agreed to. Most of the time Stewart Island has a cool climate, but during February and March it can be a Pacific Island paradise: hot and sunny and ringing with birdsong of tūī, kākāriki and kererū. When I walked to other huts, I could hear the fishermen’s radios mingling with the calls of the birds. It was absolute bliss, and I was more than happy staying longer.
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