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Stewart Island History and Travel Information

Stewart Island - New Zealand for the traveller, saves its most lyrical surprise till last. Captain Cook saw the region as part of the South Island and mapped it as a peninsula, an appendage of New Zealand proper.

Visitors should not be tempted to make the same mistake. Listen to the locals. New Zealanders, so they tell it, live on the other side of Foveaux Strait.

Stewart Islanders are another kettle of crayfish. There has never been need for a secessionist movement on the Island. Those who live there are already separate and intend to remain so.

About five hundred permanent inhabitants, some of them the mixed-blood descendants of New Zealand's first European settlers, have custody of one of Polynesia's most handsome islands. Even Tahiti's celebrated silhouette is not more striking from the sea.

Among the world's more romantic islands, Stewart Island has one increasingly rare distinction. Its 174600 hectares of woodland, headlands and heights are not overrun.

Its 1600 kilometres of harbours, bays and beaches are mostly empty. No jet planes freight thousands of tourists in and out daily.

Admittedly, it rains - after all, the island is 47 degrees south, well down in the infamous 'Roaring Forties' - but Stewart Island enthusiasts argue that one fine day here is worth six anywhere else in the world.

Considering its location - with Patagonia as its only companion in this southern latitude - it is remarkably mild all year. There is warmth here when Southland is shivering.

Mostly hilly and heavily wooded, Stewart Island is a tattered triangle in shape. The igneous rocks of its north make it a cousin to Fiordland. Yet it is starkly individual in the lower granite shapes of its south, which have been modelled more by submarine convulsion and beating waves than by ice-age glaciers.

Creation lifted Stewart Island no more than necessary. Its highest point is Mount Anglem (980 metres), a mere hill by South Island measure.

Virtually all the island is mantled by native vegetation. Forests of rimu, rata and totara lie to the north and east. Subalpine and coastal scrubland of leatherwood and muttonbird scrub are found to the south and west.

Most of New Zealand's more common native birds prosper here, and some of the rarer species, too. It is a proof of Stewart Island's isolation that the kakapo - by weight, the largest of all parrots - was discovered here in 1977.

This flightless and nocturnal native bird is extinct in the North Island, and almost so in the South, but may yet survive on Stewart Island.

When Ngai Tahu tribesmen parted with Stewart Island for six thousand pounds in 1864, twice the sum they accepted for most of Southland, they reserved their rights to the muttonbird.

In autumn, before migration to the North Pacific begins, the titi are still harvested by the descendants of those original tribesmen, many of them dwelling across the water in Bluff and some much farther afield.

By late May, between sunset and sunrise, the muttonbird has gone. Its departure is heralded by the spectral call of a mysterious bird called the haki-wai, named after the sound it makes in the night and never seen by human eyes.

This may be a figment of folklore, but veteran muttonbirders swear by it and begin packing their bags. In 1804, an American mariner named Owen F.Smith discovered a turbulent sea where Cook's chart indicated land.

For a time the waters were called Smiths Strait, but were later renamed Foveaux after the then lieutenant-governor of Norfolk Island. On a sealing run, Smith was riding the boom that made Stewart Island part of Australia's frontier, along with the Otago, Southland and Fiordland coasts.

Among the early arrivals was William Stewart, first officer of the PegastlS, a ship that deposited a sealing gang here. Stewart's name was also left on the island, and that of his vessel on its southernmost harbour.

Although Stewart drew a chart or two, the naming of the entire island in his honour seems extravagant. The mystery is that the island has never reclaimed its'evocative Maori name. No one can quibble with the colourful names others bestowed on Stewart Island's features.

Reading a map of the island suggests surreal verse of sorts: Chew Tobacco Bay, Yankee River, Big and Little Hellfire Beaches, Big Glory Bay, Port Adventure, Abrahams Bosom, Ruggedy Mountains, Murderers River, Dead Man Beach, Doughboy Bay, and Faith, Hope and Charity Islands.

Most of these names derive from the days when seal slaughter reddened the rocks, and blubber spilling from whalers' trypots soiled the golden sands. Whalers, rather than sealers, were responsible for permanent European settlement on the island.

When the harvest of fur seals diminished, Sydney¬based trading skippers began augmenting their cargo with flax, timber and especially whale oil. To meet market demand, whalers - unlike kill ¬and-run sealers - established more or less permanent residences and primitive communities.

The whaling season was from May to October. When it was over, the whale-hunters would come ashore to their Maori wives, plant potatoes and perhaps run a few cattle and sheep. Such a man was American-born Lewis Acker, who first arrived in New Zealand waters in the eighteen-thirties.

About 1834 he settled on the southern head of Half moon Bay, towards Ackers Point where his primitive house of stone, clay and crushed shells still stands. One of New Zealand's oldest European dwellings, it has been marked for preservation by the NZ Historic Places Trust.

With his Maori wife, Mary Pui, Acker raised nine children. Later he gave up whaling to become a coastal trader and pioneer boat-builder. When the New Zealand government bought Stewart Island in 1864, Acker was dispossessed as a squatter and began wandering again.

Acker's was not the only disappointment here. Stewart Island, for most of its recorded history, has been more familiar with bust than boom. The seals went, and the whales.

Then came the timber men, but accessible trees were not to last many decades.

Since the last was toppled early this century, most of the island has been made a reserve for flora and fauna. Pastoral enterprise mostly failed.

Foveaux Strait oysters (now better known as Bluff oysters) promised wealth, but finally were better harvested by mainland-based trawlers.

Mineral prospectors found tin and gold. Legend says that goldminers found mostly tin, and tin miners mostly gold.

Fishing - especially crayfishing - has been the islanders' only lasting enterprise. Most Stewart Islanders owe their living to the sea. The wharf at Halfmoon Bay (Oban), is the island's main social centre.

Salmon farms have been established to augment catches of blue cod, tarakihi and groper shipped off to the mainland and to Australia.

Crayfish, sold as rock lobster, is exported to the USA. Although tourism makes only a small impression on the islanders' traditional lifestyle, it contributes significantly to their income.

As more travel writers discover Stewart Island, it may soon cease to be the South Pacific's best-kept secret. Visitors to Stewart Island leave their cars at Bluff or Invercargill airport.

There are only twenty kilometres of road on the island, and walking is the best way to explore. Halfmoon Bay (Oban) is now the only village, with a couple of shops, a hotel, a motel or two, a museum, and a NZ Forest Service information centre.

The first sightseers arrived on Stewart Island in the eighteen-seventies and the locals have been doing their gentle best to show off their island to advantage ever since.

There is a minibus tour designed to suit the day-tripper. For those who linger, there are water excursion to Port Adventure and up Paterson Inlet. This main feature of the inlet is the now uninhabited Ulva Island, a protected paradise for plants and birds.

This description fits much of Stewart Island. In places the birdsong can be deafening. Kakas clatter in the tall trees. Webs snuffle in the scub.

Even the kiwis are noisy, and not just at night. Parakeets flash out by the score. Kererus, New Zealand's large native wood pigeons, rise in squeaky flocks. Shags work the shore, penguins potter, albatrosses lift on the wind, and mollyhawks wing over the waves.

The walker wins a sense of what mainland New Zealand must have been when European voyagers first dropped' anchor in its harbours.

For those who wish to explore on foot, Stewart Island has some of New Zealand's finest marine and woodland walks, with haunting relics of past human occupation along the way.

No more than three per cent of the island remains in private hands. The rest is protected wilderness. Tracks range from well-established rough, from easy to risky, and advice should be taken.

The NZ Forest Service has an extensive high-summer program of guided tramps and cruises. Longer expeditions may also be undertaken using Forest Service huts.

Any route may lead visitors to rejoice, with early New Zealand naturalist H. Guthrie-Smith, in 'blown sands, clean seas, Heavens's vault above, and space illimitable ... ' They may also be grateful for that twenty-five kilometres of water Captain Cook failed to detect between the South Island and Stewart.

The guardian waves of Foveaux Strait have done their work well. More so than most of the world's island paradises, Stewart Island remains a reverberant poem of a place.

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