Main town: Oban (aka Halfmoon Bay)
Inhabitants: 381 (all in Oban)
Area: 1680 km2 (= approx. Canton of Fribourg)
Inhabited islands: 1
Languages: English, Maori
Around the island: 7 days hike (and it’s not even the whole island)
The Passport Party
Stewart Island has no international port of entry: All transport connections go to other parts of New Zealand. As for New Zealand, I arrived at the least thrilling place: Auckland Airport. Surprisingly, there is a border gate incorporated into the airport, pretending to be a land border. The control was most friendly: A lady chatted a bit with me about my travel plans, and it was not very obvious if that was part of the procedure or just pure small talking.
Entry point to Stewart Island: The harbour of Oban
What makes Stewart Island unique
- Stewart Island / Rakiura is New Zealand’s southernmost island. Despite its extreme location, it is quite lush and fertile – much more than the neighbouring regions of the South Island. Still, you get to see penguins and aurora australis (not borealis!).
- Stewart Island is quite big, about the size of the Canton of Fribourg. But it is sparsely populated: Just 381 persons live in Oban, the main town. There have been some settlements in the rest of the island, but by now, they’re all deserted.
- For most of its history, there were no mammals on Stewart Island. Without these enemies, a thriving birdlife developed, with many rather fat, flightless birds such as the Kiwi. The Maori and European settlers brought animals such as rats, possums or cats, which endangered those species. By now, efforts are underway to extinguish these mammals – the whole area around Oban is dotted with rat traps.
Doesn’t seem Sub-Antarctic: Vegetation on Stewart Island
My best experience
…was watching penguins. They were tiny, well camouflaged and did not venture far out of their safe hideaway. But hey, it was my first wild penguins! The local variety is among the smallest penguin species and is only active at dusk and dawn. It is called Little Blue Penguin. At least that’s what the information boards say, it doesn’t sound very professional to me. The best was that I was totally alone at the spot: The tourists, who are numerous as everywhere in NZ, were already in their warm hotel rooms. Eventually, an elder New Zealander couple appeared. They equally despised the tourist masses and told me about their first overseas trip. Back in the days, New Zealanders would travel by sea, since air fares were too expensive. It took them five weeks to reach Southampton, via Panama.
My worst experience
Discovering that there is an even more remote and exotic island belonging to New Zealand: Chatham Island, located several hundred kilometres east of Christchurch, with 600 inhabitants – double Stewart’s! When I finally got aware about its existence, it was already too late to get there. So at least, a new discovery is waiting for me the next time I visit New Zealand.
The penguin sign is a popular symbol of Rakiura
Another one is the Kiwi, which lives more inland. Chances to hit one of those shy birds on the road are however rather small.
Did you know that…
…Stewart Island used to be called South Island? The actual South Island was called “Middle Island” back then.
…the last local cows and sheep were expulsed in 2001? It was part of the measures to get rid of as many mammals as possible, as they are disastrous for the local species.
…there are three NZ islands that are smaller than Stewart, but have a bigger population? Chatham Island has 600 inhabitants, Great Barrier Island 850 inhabitants and the comparatively tiny Waiheke, a suburb of Auckland, even counts about 9.500 inhabitants.
…on 31 July 1970, Stewart Island declared its independence? Unfortunately, it had no real consequence.
…the church of Oban has been constructed in Norway, disassembled and rebuilt on Stewart Island?
The architecture of other houses reminds of Norway as well.
Transport: Two to four catamaran ferries per day (depending on season) link Oban wharf with Bluff, the southernmost town of New Zealand. There is an air link with Invercargill. On the island, there is no public transport. Several operators offer rental cars and moto scooters.
Accommodation: South Sea Hotel is the only hotel on the island, hosting the only pub as well. Apart from the South Sea, there is a couple of guesthouses and hostels. The capacity is limited, though, so book prior to taking the ferry over to Oban!
Food: Stewart Island is strong in sea food, a local favourite is obviously Cod Fish & Chips. A good place to savour local sea food is the centrally located South Sea Hotel, which is split in a restaurant and a pub part. The Kiwi-French Crèperie nearby serves great sweets and coffee. On Church Hill, there’s a homonymous restaurant with presumably the best food on the island. Self-caterers have just one option: The Four Square Supermarket in the village centre.
Beer battered cod of South Sea Hotel
Money: New Zealand Dollars are widely accepted. There are no banks, just one ATM in the Four Square supermarket. Therefore, it’s better to come equipped with cash. Most restaurants and accommodations, however, accept credit cards.
Communication: Phone reception in and around Halfmoon Bay is good. Most accommodations offer free wifi, so does the Public Library (Ayr Street).