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The Isle of Blushing Skies: Rakiura/Stewart Island and the North-West Circuit Track

Published
February 4, 2021
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THIS POST ACCOMPANIES MY BOOK THE SENSATIONAL SOUTH ISLAND: NEW ZEALAND'S MOUNTAIN LAND, AND WILL BE UPDATED SHORTLY

The northern part of Stewart Island/Rakiura,with Codfish Island / Whenua Hou at top left. (fromDOC Brochure North West and Southern CircuitTracks, Rakiura NationalPark, February 2017)

   

THE small size of Oban belies itsimportance as Stewart Island’s only town and the entranceway to the North WestCircuit Track where I was to be spending a few weeks volunteering as a hutwarden.

The Māori name for Stewart Island is Rakiura, which means ‘blushingskies’ and is far more poetic in my view. It seems to be a reference to longtwilights in these subantarctic latitudes, the aurora australis which cansometimes be seen from here, or both.

After catching a ferry over from Invercargill, I met Phil Brooks, theDOC 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 whileat the Port William Hut, which I was to take charge of.

Oban is in a bay called HalfmoonBay, just north of a much larger inlet called Paterson Inlet or Whaka a teWera, The star of the inlet is Ulva Island or Te Wharawhara, an island that hasnever been milled and is free of predators, including rats. Ulva/Te Wharawharais therefore a little piece of New Zealand as it used to be, or as near as ispossible 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 halfkilometres long, so there is plenty to see.

                             

Ulva Island/Te Wharawhara, in relation to Oban. Map data ©2021 Google.

As names like Oban and Ulva suggest, names drawn from theScottish Highlands and Islands, the Scots influence among the settlers seems tohave been strong here as well.

From Lee Bay, five kilometres out of Oban, it’s athree-to-four hour walk past Māori Beach to Port William Hut at the start ofthe North West Circuit Track. Bearing a name that rhymes with Fort William, anotherlocality in the Scottish Highlands, Port William has a very early Europeanhistory.

An attempt was made at logging in the area, but because ofthe area’s extreme isolation it was hard to get either food shipped in to theharbour or logs shipped out, beginning a downward spiral of a flagging industryand dwindling supplies.

As warden at Port William, I had to clean toilets and sweepthe hut. I also had to put out camp fires at the camp site, a two-hour walkaway, as well as collect hut tickets. It wasn’t demanding work – but somebodyhad to be there to do it.

Kiwi are still common on the island, and I also saw sootyshearwaters or tītī, commonly called mutton birds, landing at night and goinginto their burrows. It was a magical moment. Strictly speaking the term muttonbird refers to the shearwaters’ large, fat chicks, of which three hundredthousand are harvested annually by Ngāi Tahu: a number which is fullysustainable as there are estimated to be over twenty million sooty shearwatersnesting around New Zealand, mainly in the Rakiura/Stewart Island area. Thechicks 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 adelicacy in the lower South Island and you can even purchase mutton bird meatin the butchers in Dunedin.

The DOC office on Stewart Island tends to use volunteerrangers, and when it came to the end of my stay, I discovered that the nextvolunteer had cancelled. I was asked to stay for another two weeks, which Ihappily agreed to. Most of the time Stewart Island has a cool climate, butduring February and March it can be a Pacific Island paradise: hot and sunnyand ringing with birdsong of tūī, kākāriki and kererū. When I walked to otherhuts I could hear the sound of the fishermen’s radios mingling with the callsof the birds. It was absolute bliss and I was more than happy staying longer.

Top to bottom: Māori Beach; Paterson Inlet/TeWhaka a Wera; Tītī or Sooty Shearwaters

Myself as Hut Warden

Oban

Beach scene

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