My last day on the bewitching Rakiura, or Stewart Island as it is also known, was back to the familiar grey skies I’d experienced at the beginning of my trip. The ferry to take me back to the South Island wasn’t till the evening, and I was up early to head to Golden Bay to make sure I was near the head of the queue for the boat to Ulva Island. New Zealand has a fascinating ecological history, home to a large percentage of flightless birds. Sadly, many species have been made extinct or brought close to, by the accidental and deliberate introduction of invasive species. With the only endemic mammal being a bat, the evolution of bird life in the country took a very different path than similar species abroad, and after hundreds and thousands of years in balance, the quick and agile rodents and other mammals that came with the early settlers took hold, quickly overcoming the birds who couldn’t evolve fast enough to evade them. In modern-day New Zealand, conservation efforts have resulted in the creation of pest-free islands: off-shore hideaways where attempts to boost native populations ploughs on in earnest. Most of these are not accessible to the public but a few are, such as Ulva Island in Southland, Kapiti Island and Matiu/Somes Island near Wellington, and Tiritiri Matangi in the Hauraki Gulf. As a bit of a bird enthusiast, there was no way I was coming to Rakiura and not including a trip to Ulva Island.
Like Oban, there is an Ulva Island in my native Scotland which I’ve also been to, and whilst it would have been great to visit it in the sunshine of the day before, I was happy to be heading out even with the threat of drizzle. In my attempt to ensure I was guaranteed a spot on the first boat of the day, there was quite a bit of hanging around to do waiting for the boat to arrive and load up. The water in Golden Bay was still, producing reflections as I waited. The ferry crossing across Paterson Inlet was short and easy and the full boat disembarked at the pier where I bought a guide to the flora and fauna from the shelter nearby. Only about a quarter of the island can be explored as a visitor via a collection of trails criss-crossing across the top portion. With so many of us arriving at once, it was difficult to get away from the group initially, and so when I reached the viewpoint at Flagstaff Point, I was quickly joined by multiple people from the boat. From the lookout I could see nearby Native Island and the opening of Paterson Inlet, but importantly I could also get a hint of the bird song that would be the orchestra to my visit, and although I couldn’t yet see anything, it was a hint of what was to come.
My first encounter was with a South Island Robin whilst cutting through the forest to Sydney Cove. I love these immensely inquisitive birds and have been joined by them many times whilst taking a rest from hiking through the forest in various parts of the country. They often hop near you and look at you side-ways, jumping all around for a good view, often following you in the canopy for short distances whilst you walk. Whilst they don’t have the pretty colours of the European Robin that I’m used to from my former life in Scotland, their friendly behaviour means that I actually much prefer them over the Northern Hemisphere counterpart.
There was a light drizzle at Sydney Cove as I and several others trudged across the beach. Just offshore were a mix of gulls and strutting their stuff along the beach were some weka. Fringing the beach was thick bush and flitting amidst the branches were multiple small birds, some of which I couldn’t tell what they were, but I did recognise the Tomtit, another inquisitive little bird similar in size to the robin. Despite the other people here, it felt so peaceful with the calm waters gently lapping the shore.
Cutting inland, the tracks went in a figure-eight across to the far side of the island, so it was just a matter of picking one to cross over on, and the other to come back on. Never mind the birdsong, the bush was thick and gave a sense of what New Zealand used to be like before large sections of it were cut down and burned to make way for human development. At one of the track junctions I was again joined by a robin who watched me whilst I consulted my guide. As my chosen track gained a little altitude, I found myself nearer the canopy and suddenly the calls of kaka filled the air, and after only brief glimpses initially, I finally found the group not far off the track close by. An endemic parrot like my beloved kea, the kaka seem naturally more shy and with their darker colour are much harder to spot. Each evening I’d spent in Oban had involved listening to the screeching cry of the kaka as they flew over the settlement to roost, and I’d been startled by a pair near the hostel a couple of nights prior. Now finally, I was able to see them a little more closely and I stood for some time watching them dexterously handle food and branches in their talons.
On the western side of Ulva Island I found myself at Boulder Beach where the sun almost threatened to break through the clouds. A couple of weka sweeped through the seaweed litter that was strewn across the beach and even the robins were out too, constantly watching my comings and goings as I meandered slowly along the shoreline. Back in the bush I was this time accompanied by the squawking cries of kakariki, a type of parakeet, which tend to fly in loud, screaming flocks. I was constantly scanning the leaf litter as this is one of the few places where kiwi are seen during the day time. Every rustle or movement that caught my eye was scrutinised until I could see what was the source. Generally it was a weka scrubbing around with its feet, or occasionally it was the sound of a little bird hopping among the undergrowth. I was also keen to see the South Island Saddleback, a really rare bird who’s North Island equivalent I’d seen in Zealandia, near Wellington a few years ago. I could hear their distinctive cries every now and again but couldn’t find the bird that was making them.
Eventually I found myself at West End Beach, a beautiful strip of sandy shore with an island immediately offshore. I passed some people heading back along the beach as I followed it to the far end. A group of rocks seemed like a great make-shift picnic spot and I settled down to enjoy my lunch. Amusingly as I sat there, multiple wekas made a beeline for me and proceeded to goad each other whilst climbing up on the rocks beside me before eventually a particularly bold one actually walked onto my lap. They were effectively begging for food and clearly they’d been fed by people in the past. I kept my lunch to myself but enjoyed the encounter, becoming a bit of entertainment for others who were out on the beach too.
But unfortunately I had a boat to catch back to Rakiura. The best way to get the most out of a visit here would be to stop often at the areas designated for sitting and just watch and listen as the wildlife comes to you. The amount of bird song here was incredible and I would have loved to have done just that, no doubt seeing more things than I had done, but the last boat to head back wouldn’t give me enough time to make the ferry to the South Island, so I found myself a little pushed for time to make the return leg back to the pier to get an earlier one. I spoke to some people as I walked who reported their sighting of a kiwi in the undergrowth back up the trail I’d walked earlier in the day. It was tempting to head back but I just didn’t have the time. Enjoying the bush but making light work of the distance I found myself arriving to see the ferry heading over and my friends waiting for me to say goodbye. They’d come to Ulva Island on a later ferry and had a made a point of hanging around in order to see me off.
Because of the out-of-synch ferry times, I had a bit of time to waste in Oban so headed back to the little cafe in the settlement for a warm drink, and went round the couple of shops for the last time before grabbing my gear from the hostel and checking in for the Stewart Island Experience ferry. I took a last stroll along the waterfront and noticed some mollymawks, a species of albatross, bobbing around on the surface. Not quite as big as the Royal Albatross, the mollymawk is still noticeably bigger than your average seagull. Back at the wharf looking towards Oban, life was going on as usual, oblivious to the fact that I was leaving and how sad that made me.
Unlike the sailing from Bluff earlier in the week, the return trip to the South Island was much calmer and I was able to spend the trip out on deck. We sailed past several islands and we were almost constantly followed by some form of sea bird, from the small shearwaters to divers and gulls. Rakiura disappeared further away as the Southland coast grew nearer and before long the hour crossing was over and I was disembarking. It was evening but being February there was still a few hours of light ahead of me, and returning to my car, it was now time for my road trip to begin.