In Maori, Rakiura means “Land of Glowing Skies.” Brilliant sunrises and sunsets demarcate the tranquil days on Rakiura—also known as Stewart—Island, while its location at 47˚ south latitude favorably positions it for viewing the Aurora Australis, the Southern Lights.
The third largest island in New Zealand, Stewart/Rakiura Island lies 19 miles off the southern tip of the South Island. While not nearly as renowned as the country’s fjords and mountain ranges, the Automobile Association (AA) of New Zealand includes this remote island among the top 20 destinations of its original 101 Must-Do list. Natural Habitat Adventures has not overlooked its charms either, scheduling two days of our New Zealand Nature Explorer trip on Stewart Island.
Maori inhabited the island as early as the 13th century, with the 1770 arrival of Captain Cook marking the first known visit by Europeans. William Stewart, for whom the island is named, was first officer on a sealing boat from Australia and the first to begin charting the island’s coastline in 1809. The influx of Europeans brought in miners, missionaries, adventurers, whalers and sealers, as well as an unhealthy contingent of exotic (to New Zealand) animal species.
Today, much of the exploitive activity has ceased and the nearly 400 residents of Stewart Island make their living from crayfish and cod fishing, and tourism. More than 85 percent of the island was set aside as Rakiura National Park in 2002, the 14th in New Zealand’s national park system. On an island that is approximately 47 miles long by 28 miles wide there is a wealth of ecosystems: rainforest, dunes, wetlands, grasslands, sandy beaches and granite mountains that rise as high as 3,200 feet.
Rakiura is a birders’ paradise, with notable species including the ruru (native owl), weka, tui, bellbirds, red-crowned parakeet, three species of penguin, and of course, the kiwi bird. Steward Island hosts the strongest population of kiwi in New Zealand, estimated at approximately 20,000. The smallest member of the ratite bird group, which also includes emu, rhea and ostrich, the kiwi sports whiskers and shaggy plumage, and digs burrows. Since it is flightless, it is particularly vulnerable to nonnative, introduced animals such as possums, rats, dogs and cats. The relative strength of its presence on Stewart Island reflects the smaller number of predators in this outlying location.
An even more pristine bird sanctuary is found on Ulva Island, located at the mouth of Stewart Island’s Paterson Inlet. Accessible via a short water taxi ride, Ulva Island is a predator-free zone managed by the New Zealand Department of Conservation and the Ulva Island Charitable Trust. A network of traps assures that rats, which are thought to stow away and even occasionally swim over from the main island, do not establish a breeding population. Our itinerary also includes a visit to Ulva, and the glimpse into undisturbed native New Zealand habitat this refuge provides.