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Fyllis: Stewart Island
Stewart Island:
The "Other" New Zealand Island

By Fyllis Hockman

ifteen flashlights shone downward as we gingerly picked our way through the bush. At the appropriate signal, we extinguished our lights, and 15 expectant adults gathered noiselessly behind our boot-and-camouflage-attired leader. As his sole light hopped and skipped across the dark, remote seaweed-strewn beach, suddenly we saw her -- the elusive New Zealand kiwi.

On orders to stay close, we waddled in muted tandem behind guide Philip Smith as he inched us to within 20 feet. Trying not to intrude upon her late-night supper, we were star-struck by this brown dumpling of a bird, head bobbing up and down, its long beak darting in and out of the sand single-mindedly nibbling on spiders, berries and crustaceans.

a kiwi feeding at night, Stewart Island, New Zealand

Stewart Island, 674 isolated square miles of land to the south of South Island that very few New Zealanders visit, much less anyone else, is the only place in New Zealand where you can spot kiwis, the native bird that few natives ever see.

According to Wendy Hallett, owner of the Greenvale B&B where we stayed, many people first book a kiwi-spotting tour with Smith, THEN book their trip to New Zealand and Stewart Island.

But there are many reasons to visit Stewart Island other than the kiwi. Alternately described as isolated, insular, undeveloped, natural, wild, Stewart Island beckons in a way few modern destinations do. The downside? All the things that make it so appealing as a destination (unless, of course, you're looking for luxury resorts and chic nightclubs) might themselves be ultimately destroyed by those to whom it so appeals. Hopefully, it's inaccessibility -- if the flights or ferry can't travel because of the weather, neither can the tourists - and its uber-emphasis on conservation might preserve it against the expected onslaught.

a view of Halfmoon Bay, Stewart Island

There is a very lived-on, lived-in feel about the island; everyday life is happening here, albeit probably not your everyday life. As one of the waitresses at the Just Café noted: "We have no banks, no doctors, no t-shirt shops (not literally true, but more on that later) … and no stress."

Ask anyone how many people in town and you might hear something like: "Well, 400 at last count - no, wait - Annie just gave birth to the twins and Rupert died last week, so guess that makes 401." And that number remained constant despite several efforts on my part to find an alternate answer.

Eighty-five percent of Stewart Island was designated in 2002 as Rakiura National Park, making it the most recent addition to New Zealand's vast string of national parks. While there are only 18 miles of road on the island, there are 174 miles of walking trails (called tracks), ranging from a 15-minute stroll through the bush to 3-hour hike to a 10-day trek. Basically, there are two ways to get around -- by boat and on foot. You gotta love a place that has more water taxis than land ones.

water taxis at a pier, Stewart Island

A favorite hike was the Maori Beach Track, a 15-minute water taxi ride from downtown -- which, by the way, covers about a one-block area. Captain Ian, a 6th-generation islander, carried me effortlessly across the slippery, moss-covered log he parked the water-cab against.

Alternately walking through bush so thick as to be impenetrable or hugging the craggy cliff overlooking the sea, we were bombarded by a new form of surround sound: the thrashing of waves crashing below and the concert cries of birds overhead.

hikers treking through the dense bush

The varying vocals from tuis, bellbirds, kakas and kakarikais were reminiscent of the array of voices one hears in a noisy restaurant: sometimes individual cries dominated, other times, a general din prevailed. Then suddenly the birds were vying for attention once again with the breaking waves. We heard the water before we saw it, as the expanse of coastline made yet another appearance.

The most natural destination upon our return to town was the South Seas, of course - the only bar in the only hotel on the island. This gives "local bar" a whole new meaning. Stocking-cap-clad men, just off their fishing boats, with long beards and high boots best each other at billiards and darts. The room overflows with men and women drinking with gusto, laughing over town gossip or bemoaning the latest catch. This is not a place that serves a lot of light beer. What it does serve is good food in ample portions, the fish in the fish 'n chips just about the flakiest I've had, and the fries, crisp and tasty.

The other must-do activity -- like the calling of the kiwi -- is to board another water-taxi for a visit to Ulva Island. "This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks…" begins Walt Whitman's famous poem, Evangeline. He also could have been describing Ulva Island, an untouched ("unmodified" is the technical term), predator-free, primitive slice of New Zealand the way it once was.

a creek rushes through a forest at Stewart Island

And that very nature of the island makes it an unparalleled sanctuary for birds, trees and plants that might otherwise be extinct. The hard-wood podocarp forest, literally of pre-historic ancestry, also houses species of plants 350 million years old. Rare birds such as the fernbird, saddleback, rifleman and yellowhead roam the woods with impunity.

And the inhabitants are not the only things special about Ulva Island; there's also Ulva Goodwillie, another 6th-generation Stewart Islander whose breadth and scope of knowledge covers every twig, branch and feather found on Ulva Island. The similarity in names may be coincidental but it's one hell of a marketing tool. She conducts half- and full-day tours of the island, communicating with the trees and the birds in very personal, intimate terms, distinguishing between every caw, chirp, click, creak, twill or whistle emanating from the treetops.

One of my tour companions likened the sounds to an "avian symphony." "If I could get them organized, I could take them on tour," my musically inclined friend observed.

Back on the mainland, a stop at the Ship to Shore general store provides another insight into island living. This is the place to pick up groceries, hardware, beer and wine, household goods, fishing and hunting equipment and videos. Videos? But for major food shopping, residents are dependent upon the supermarket in Invercargill, South Island (the real mainland). They pick up their orders at the Halfmoon Bay waterfront every Wednesday evening.

Ship to Shore shop at Stewart Island

Next to Ship to Shore is the previously alluded to T-shirt shop -- although the designation is really a misnomer. Dil Belworthy, like so many other Islanders, was a fisherman by trade and, like so many of his compatriots, several years ago "saw the writing on the wall." As he tells the story, "I was drinking with some mates one day and we were discussing how the fishing industry was going downhill, and how we saw tourism on the horizon." With tourists as their new prey, the question became: "How do you catch a tourist?" The answer: "You sell them a T-shirt!"

So Dil and his wife, Cath, started hand-printing their art-shirts on their kitchen table in 1997, reproducing native Maori symbols and traditional images. Now, their Glowing Sky Studio sells these individually designed and produced wearable works of beauty for $35 per non-T-shirt T-shirt.

For sure, Stewart Island as a whole has learned well how to catch tourists, but it wouldn't surprise me if the islanders have mixed emotions about just how successful they want their new venture to be. For more information, visit www.stewartisland.co.nz.

Related Articles:
New Zealand - No Worries, New South Wales, Australia; Canada's Queen Charlotte Islands, Costa Rica wildlife, Small ship cruise, Alaska

(Posted 4-7-2011)



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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!

Fyllis

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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in travelingboy.com about the Garifuna.

Fyllis

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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.

Fyllis

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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy



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