B AngBy B Ang
New Zealand is home to some pretty unusual creatures, including its famous icon, the kiwi. Who knew that a creature with a torso about the size of a cantaloupe would be so hard to find? Canadian Traveller goes in search of the elusive kiwi in the southernmost point of New Zealand.
Nature At Its Best
Stewart Island has the largest population of kiwis in the country. Here, there are about 25,000 kiwis living in the wild. The Stewart Island brown kiwi is one of six kiwi species found only in New Zealand.
Lying about 2,550 kilometres from Antartica, more than 80 per cent of Stewart Island is made up of a national park protected by the NZ Department of Conservation. The Rakiura National Park, Rakiura, being the Maori word for “land of the glowing skies”, is so named for the vivid colours seen at dawn and twilight – the Aurora Australis (aka the Southern Lights).
Ulva Island is an eight-minute water taxi ride away. Here, the pristine primeval rainforest offers a unique insight into New Zealand’s natural history and evolution. Once the site of Stewart Island’s first post office in 1872, it is now managed by the Department of Conservation and is part of the Rakiura National Park. Knowledgeable natural history guides conduct small group tours that provide indepth information on the place. Easy trails provide the opportunity to view rare and endangered birds, native flora and be entertained by the multitude of birds singing.
A Unique Experience
Stewart Island, with its white sand beaches, is an eco-adventure haven. Activities include snorkelling and diving in the clear waters of Te Wharawhara Marine Reserve (featuring about 50 fish species and 170 types of seaweed), kayaking, birdwatching and going on nature walks. There are over 200 kilometres of walking trails that range from short to multi-day hikes that cater to all fitness levels and abilities within Rakiura National Park.
Maori have lived on Stewart Island since the early 13th century. It was also visited by Captain James Cook in 1770. Today, Stewart Island’s population of 400 is largely confined to the town of Oban. Amenities within this tightly knit community include a grocery store that is restocked daily, primary school, one gas pump and one policeman. There are neither ATMs nor medical clinics here but two nurses on the island take care of things (they sometimes tend to animals, too). A hairdresser from Invercargill flies in once every six weeks for a three-day hair event held at the fire station. For visitors, accommodations come in the form of lodges, B&Bs and backpacker hostels.
Tourism New ZealandWhen on the island, it is a sin not to indulge in seafood. On the menu: seafood chowder, crayfish, blue cod and Bluff oysters. When visiting, remember to bring wellies and waterproof jackets as it rains about 275 days a year.
Back to the kiwi. Amid the blackness of the night (kiwis are noctural), my kiwi spotting tour group headed to a remote part of Stewart Island via boat. Individually armed with flashlights we followed the tour guide cum skipper single file through native bush and onto a sandy beach in the hope of seeing the birds. After walking for awhile in the dark and in silence – we were told the birds are shy and easily spooked – our expert guide spotted a big, pregnant mother foraging in the bushes. On the beach, we saw several young kiwis. Everyone was so excited but had to remain quiet. It was an amazing experience.
The jump-off point to Stewart Island is Invercargill, located along the Southern Scenic Route. It is New Zealand’s southernmost city and the commercial hub of Southland. Invercargill has two great claims to fame. One is its resident breeding program for the tuatara, a dinosaur descendent with roots dating back 220 million years ago.
B AngHoused at the pyramid-shaped Southland Museum & Art Gallery, they range in length from 90-70 mm. These native reptiles are considered living fossils as they have been around since dinosaurs roamed the earth. This is the world’s largest display of live tuatara (numbering 90) and its oldest member is 112-year old Henry.
Remember the movie, The World’s Fastest Indian starring Anthony Hopkins in the leading role? It is based on Burt Munro, a local motorcycle racing enthusiast who unconventionally went against all odds to achieve fame at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, U.S. The Southland Museum has a permanent exhibit devoted to Munro. Some of Munro’s racing motorcycles are on display at E Hayes & Sons including the heavily altered 1920 Indian Scout. Dubbed as the Munro Special, it reached 183.59 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1967.
Kiwi – the fruit and the person from New Zealand – are relatively easy to come across, unlike the rarely seen bird. Is it worth it trooping all the way south to Stewart Island and Invercargill to catch a glimpse of kiwis and tuataras? Definitely.
Getting there: Air New Zealand offers non-stop flights from Vancouver to Auckland twice weekly on Fridays and Sundays; and five times weekly in December to February. From Auckland, passengers can fly to either Christchurch or Wellington and connect onto the daily flights to Invercargill.
Getting to Stewart Island: From Invercargill, a nine- or five-seater plane (BN2 Islanders and Piper Cherokee 6 aircraft) takes passengers on a 20-minute scenic flight to Stewart Island. The airline strictly adheres to a maximum 15 kilograms of luggage per person.
From Stewart Island to Bluff: Passengers can go via helicopter or catamaran. The boat journey takes one hour – add one more hour by coach to Invercargill. In the summer, coach services operate from Te Anau and Queenstown. Be prepared for some choppy waters in Foveaux Strait.