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    Stewart Island/Rakiura Trip By Probus Group

    An Interview With Roger Murdoch
    Dorothy - 16/11/01

    Sunrise at Port Adventure, Stewart Island
    Photo source Ken Laing
    Some of the members of the Russley Probus Club in Christchurch wanted to go travelling together. Where would they go? They decided on Stewart Island, the small island south of the South Island of New Zealand. The Maori name for the island is Rakiura which means "land of the glowing skies" and visitors to the island see many beautiful sunrises and sunsets.

    The population of the Island is under four hundred and many of the people are involved in serving the tourists. Interesting conversations can be had with a great variety of people attracted to work on the Island.

    Why did the Probus group choose Stewart Island?
    Those who had been there before were enthusiastic about their visit. They loved the scenery, the walks, the birdlife and the way of life on the island, totally different from life on the Mainland. Hearing their enthusiastic comments the others wanted to go there too, making a total of twenty two travellers. They asked Roger to gather information and after consultation to make the necessary bookings.

    Map of New Zealand
    How to get there
    The boat that takes visitors across Foveaux Strait leaves from Bluff, the southernmost port in the South Island. If you are touring the South Island you can travel by public transport or drive your own car and garage it inexpensively under cover in Bluff while you visit Stewart Island. On your return if you ring your number across from Stewart Island they will have your car waiting by the wharf for you to drive north.

    Roger recommends that if you are driving south you consider taking the eco-tourism road along the east coast through the Catlins, an area famous for its beautiful bush and beaches and break your travel to take some of the short walks to see sights like the Purakaunui Falls or Jack's Blowhole.

    Once you have reached the southernmost South Island city of Invercargill you may wish to stay the night there and drive to Bluff in the morning to catch the morning ferry, but you have the alternative of catching the alternative afternoon sailing.

    Map of Stewart Island
    Click here for a larger version
    Foveaux Strait has a reputation for stormy weather and rough crossings, but many travellers have a smooth crossing, and even in rough conditions the one hour trip on the catamaran, Foveaux Express, is not like it was years ago on the Wairau. The Probus Group chose to travel by the Foveaux Express catamaran and had a moderately smooth trip to the Island and perfectly calm conditions on the trip back.

    The other option is to take the twenty minute flight on the ski plane with Southern Air across to Halfmoon Bay Wharf at Stewart Island.

    Roger's next task was to find out about the types of accommodation and the dates when bookings were available. He made his inquiries in August and found that there was only one week left for a group summer booking in the accommodation of their choice, so be aware that you need to book well ahead for accommodation.

    The accommodation on the Island ranges from an expensive luxury lodge, to a hotel and motels, to bed and breakfast establishments and houses to rent, to Backpackers and a camping ground.

    South Sea Hotel
    The studio units at the South Sea Hotel
    Roger's group chose to stay at the South Sea Hotel and booked the fairly new studio units behind the hotel. They were delighted with these as they proved to be generous in size and well equipped with an ensuite, comfortable chairs, and even with some kitchen equipment and a microwave. This meant greater flexibility for the group. People could cook their own breakfast or lunch or go to the hotel or one of the restaurants.

    The group found that food on the Island was one of the delights of the holiday. There is a choice of places to eat.
    There is a good restaurant at the South Sea Hotel serving a mixed menu including sea food.
    The Church Hill Cafe Bar has an upmarket restaurant where the group enjoyed a delicious evening meal.
    The Kai Cart just back from the waterfront serves interesting food and the group recommends the paua patties which can be eaten on the site or bought as a takeaway.
    The Lettuce Inn sells fruit, vegetables, meat and sandwiches. You'll find it set back from the road behind a curtain of plastic strips.
    The Muffin Bar, in summer, serves great muffins and members of the group enjoyed conversing with the owner, an American woman with a Ph.D. from an American University.

    A special delicacy at a festive meal
    The studio units were so spacious that the whole group could meet in one unit for drinks before dinner. On the last day some of the group had caught blue cod - a valued delicacy, and it was cooked in several units and served with extra food purchased at the local store.

    The waterfront at Oban showing the South Sea Hotel and the local store
    Oban a compact little village
    Roger was impressed with the compactness of the village with everything close at hand.

    The local store called "Ship to Shore" sells a great variety of stock - a needle to anchor store - and its prices are the same as the mainland.

    The Empress Pearls selling paua pearls, Southern Air Depot incorporating the Postal Delivery Centre, open seven days a week, The Fernery, selling arts and crafts related to the Island scene, and the Department of Conservation Visitor Centre are all within easy walking distance.

    Building the programme for the days on the Island
    "I had very clear guidelines," Roger said. "We had discussed the programme before leaving and planned to have a mix of activities done as a group and time for people to do 'their own thing'. It sounds basic, but it was important to resist the temptation to overfill the programme.

    Acker's house
    Acker's House

    "As a group we had the evening meal together each day, went on a trip to Ulva Island, and took a bus trip, necessarily short as there are few roads on the Island. On the trip the bus stopped at Harrold Bay for us to see Acker's house, built in stone in the 1830s, the oldest building on the Island. Acker was involved in the whaling industry and at one time owned the peninsula which forms the southern promontory of Halfmoon Bay. The eastern extremity of the peninsula is called Ackers Point.

    At Harrolds Bay
    Some of the group at Harrolds Bay

    "For the rest of the time people followed their own inclinations, with a number of small groups walking to places like Observation Rock behind the village or Horseshoe Bay, visiting the interesting local history museum, or playing golf on the Island's rather quaint golf course, or going on fishing expeditions."

    Ulva Island
    The view from Observation Rock looking across Paterson Inlet towards Ulva Island
    Ulva Island
    Ulva Island is an offshore island which is a Department of Conservation "open sanctuary". This term is used for a place where visitors can see at close quarters native birds some of which are now rare but which used to be common in many places in New Zealand. It has been cleared of rats and other introduced predators. At the points where boats are likely to land there are rat-kill traps set up to counter a re-invasion by these pests.

    Camping on the island is prohibited. Only the owners of a house on the island are allowed to stay there overnight.

    Ngai Tahu Maori used to visit Ulva Island to strip bark from totara trees to use in storing harvested titi/muttonbirds. Some sites where totara trees have been stripped are estimated to be as old as 100 - 200 years.

    The first post office in the Stewart Island area was established in 1872 by Charles Traill. The old post office can still be seen behind the houses near the landing. Charles Traill and his brother Walter came from the Orkney Islands, and lived on Ulva from about 1870 to the 1890s. Charles became well-known as a botanist and conchologist. Walter Traill assisted by his wife taught the Maori children in the area from 1875 to 1888 and became the first Justice of the Peace in 1884.

    The Probus group was impressed with their interesting guide, Furhana Ahmad. She grew up in England, gained a degree from Aberystwyth in Wales and is now a New Zealand citizen. She has set up an Ecotourism Business, a guiding service called Ruggedy Range Wilderness Experience, and offers half day, full day and overnight trips - guided walks, tramps, kiwi spotting trips and nature tours for small groups.
    Her email address is

    "We left on the boat at 8.30 am, arrived at Ulva Island at 9.30, left at 1.00 and arrived back at Oban at 2.00," Roger explained. "This gave us three and a half hours to walk through the bush and look at the birds, the trees and the plants and talk with our guide. We took the track to Boulder Bay. It was easy walking, up gentle slopes. Sensible shoes and rainproof clothing are recommended, but we were lucky enough to have all fine weather."

    Birds that can be seen on Ulva Island include the inquisitive weka (native woodhen), kaka (forest parrot), kakariki (parakeet), kereru (wood pigeon), korimako (bellbird), pipipi (brown creeper) ngirungiru (tomtit), piwakawaka (fantail), moreporks and tui.

    Seeing the birds was the memorable part of the day on Ulva. "I was the first to see a morepork, no more than two arms length away," said Roger with real excitement in his voice. "We were also very impressed by the extraordinary clarity of the water around Ulva Island and Stewart Island."

    The forest on the island is southern New Zealand podocarp mix with rimu, southern rata, kamahi, totara and miro.

    Stewart Island now a National Park
    The island was made a National Park in 2001.
    The Department of Conservation headquarters offers information to visitors and presents instructive evening lectures about different aspects of the Island.

    Kiwi spotting
    This is a popular activity on Stewart Island itself and night trips are organised every second night. It is necessary to book in advance. The Probus group, not being young tourists, decided not to include this in their programme as it involved several hours in the bush at night.

    Return trip
    To quote Roger, "We left the pristine waters, beautiful bush and wonderful bird life of Stewart Island with some reluctance. And, yes, the weather was great!"

    Most of the photos for this article were taken by Roger Murdoch - hence no photo of Roger.

    Read about Ken Laing's experience on a cruise to Stewart Island.

    Published with permission from NZine