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Ulva Island

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.

Rakiura Track – North Arm Hut to Oban

Nestled among the bush overlooking a small bay within the North Arm of the extensive Paterson Inlet, the North Arm hut was a lovely hut to stay in on the second night of the Rakiura Track, one of New Zealand’s Nine Great Walks. The tide was out when I arrived, so after dumping my stuff and claiming a mattress, I headed down the steps to the rocks where I did a bit of bird watching and soaking up the sun that was breaking through the clouds. After a while, I headed up past the hut and into the forest where a separate track led up to the much more elevated campsite. The word was that this was a great spot for kiwi watching at night and I wanted to familiarise myself with the territory during the daylight hours. The other recommended spot was near the drop-toilets a little away from the hut, and I made a mental note to come and investigate both spots once darkness fell. That was still many hours away and so when I found a track disappearing into the bush, I followed it for a bit, coming out at another small bay. By now the tide was coming in as fast as the clouds were, and I was just able to walk around the rocky shore back to the other bay and return to the hut via the steps.

 

Once dinner had been consumed and darkness fell, in small groups several of us headed out up the path to go kiwi spotting. Rakiura or Stewart Island as it is more commonly known, is a kiwi hot-spot, with the local population of these flightless birds far outnumbering the human inhabitants, and thanks to reduced predator numbers here compared with the North and South Islands, the chances of encountering a kiwi here are the highest in the country. Although generally nocturnal, they have also been spotted out in daylight hours here too, which is highly unusual for the species. But alas, despite hovering in the darkness for some time, my luck was not in and I saw none that night. At breakfast the next morning though, I was gutted to hear some other hut occupants say they had had two kiwis come right up to them not far from where I’d waited, later on in the night.

After packing up it was time to head back to Oban on the third day of the hike. After rejoining the main track near the drop-toilets, the Department of Conservation sign denoted a 5hr walk back to Halfmoon Bay, but I planned on taking a detour near the end to make the hike longer and cover more coastline. This day was a good mix of bush and coast which made up for the slightly uninteresting hike the day before. The track followed the contour of the North Arm back to the main body of Paterson Inlet. Where it dropped to the coast, I would walk the beach if possible and at the larger expanse of Sawdust Bay, there was a lot of bird activity in the shallows. There were several of us walking at a similar pace so we were constantly catching up with or overtaking each other depending on where we paused as we went.

 

From Sawdust Bay though, not only did the path cut inland for a while, but we also started to spread out, bumping into other hikers less and less as time passed on. The track passed the remnants of a sawmill, then a historic dam was blocked off due to problems with the sidetrack that led there. A nearby pier allowed a brief break back across the water, but then it was back into the bush again for quite some distance.

 

Eventually it emerged at a tidal estuary deep within Kaipipi Bay. The tide was relatively far in so the water level was up to and under the bridge that crossed the tannin-coloured river that emptied into it. A little further round, a side-track led down to Kaipipi Bay itself and this offered the perfect spot to have some lunch. I initially had the place to myself aside from the odd flying insect that bothered me from time to time, but as I ate a boat appeared round the inlet entrance and moored off shore, and as I finished my lunch the grassy knoll was suddenly inundated with a large group of hikers that had the same idea as me. After allowing myself a bit of time to digest my lunch, I left them to it and continued on in solitude.

 

Aside from some muddy patches, the walk from here was easy going, through the forest and just a light undulation. Oban crept nearer and nearer and suddenly I found myself at a junction with the end of the Rakiura Track to my left and the Ryans Creek Track to my right. In an effort to prolong my time out hiking, I took the Ryans Creek track which quickly dropped altitude down to the shoreline of Paterson Inlet. It was overcast but dry and my view was of the various little islets that sat just off the shore, as well as to the far side of the large Inlet itself. At Vaila Voe Bay there was a small beach and I could see the boats moored just off the headland which marked my near return to civilisation.

 

Eventually I reached the wharf at the end of the road that took me back to Oban. The road itself skirted Thule Bay and at the head of this, another track, the short Raroa Walk took me back into the bush again, popping me out at Traill park, a short distance from the hostel I was booked into that night. I had by this stage discovered that my phone was acting up and had deleted all the photos that I had taken with it since leaving Christchurch a few days prior. Thankfully I had some photos on my camera, but I was gutted to have lost the majority of the photos I’d taken over the last few days. There was nothing I could do about it, but it was a bittersweet end to my time on the trail.

Heading South

Whilst not coming close to the distances of Australia or the USA, it is easy to forget how far apart some parts of New Zealand are. Having spent the morning at work, it was the early afternoon before I set off from Christchurch on the long road south to Mosgiel, near Dunedin in Otago. It is a drive I don’t do often. I used to live in Timaru in Canterbury when I first started working in New Zealand, so I’m most familiar with the commute between that town and Christchurch, but it had been some time since I’d last been down to Dunedin, and ever aware of the passing hours, I didn’t stop at any of the towns or sights on the way, too eager to get to my rest stop for the night. I’d chosen Mosgiel as a place just a little further along the road than Dunedin so I was just that little bit further south for the drive the next day, whilst not committing to added distance in case I hadn’t been able to get out of work on time. I stayed in an unusual accommodation which was a converted homestead and seminary that used to be owned by the grandnephew of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. It was an enormous building complete with chapel and singing choir, but it provided the comfortable bed that I needed to break up the journey south.

The next morning I had even more driving to do. After the 5hr trip the day before, I allowed myself another 3hrs to reach the ferry terminal at Bluff on the very south coast of the South Island. Here I was to catch the ferry to Rakiura, or Stewart Island as it is also known, New Zealand’s third largest island. I’d dreamed about visiting there for some time, but it had taken 6 years of living in New Zealand to finally get around to it. I had made good time to Bluff though, and had some spare time ahead of the 11am ferry, so I took the short drive to Stirling Point which marks the end of State Highway 1, the road that traverses the country from Cape Reinga in the north of the North Island. Here also marks the end of the Te Araroa trail, the long distance hike that also spans the length of the country. The car park was full and there were a few people milling around the lookout and the way marker that stands proudly there. Nearby there was a giant chain-link sculpture that has a corresponding part in Rakiura.

 

A coastal walk disappeared around the headland to the west, but I didn’t have time to do much exploring, choosing to walk round to the little lighthouse out on some rocks by the entrance to the harbour. The harbour itself is very industrial and the small town of Bluff seemed a little sad and run down. It had the feeling of a frontier town, stuck out as it is near the end of a peninsula on a road to nowhere, no doubt taking the full brunt of the weather that comes from the south. It is famous for its oysters as well as for being a gateway to Rakiura, but when I was there, despite the full car park at the ferry terminal, there didn’t appear to be much life about. After parking up at the ferry terminal and checking in, it was then just a matter of waiting to board and head off on my adventure.

 

The Foveaux Strait that separates Rakiura from the South Island is a notorious stretch of sea and the minute we left the protection of the harbour and the south coast, the swell picked up and we started the bouncy ride across. Normally I would spend a boat trip like this outside on the deck, but with this level of chop, that was simply not an option. When asked about the degree of roughness that day, the Captain’s comment was that it was ‘Foveaux Strait calm’ which made me laugh internally. I am exceptionally thankful to have a good sea stomach, but there were many on the boat that couldn’t keep down the contents of their stomach. The crew took it in their stride and I figured they would be more than used to it. I hadn’t stayed overnight on one of New Zealand’s outer islands since I’d first explored the country on arrival in 2012. I remembered my boat trip to Great Barrier Island, my favourite island in the Hauraki Gulf region, with its mixture of locals and tourists, and I had the same feeling as I had then, that I was going somewhere special, secluded and almost secret. Although a port of call on cruises round the archipelago and visited by Kiwis and tourists alike, it gets only a mere fraction of the visitors that other parts of the country receive, and only such a small percentage of it is actually inhabited. It is an island dominated by wildlife, lived on by the hardy, and with just a mere handful of Sub-Antarctic islands and a large expanse of ocean between it and the great Southern continent of Antarctica, it is at the mercy of the weather systems that batter its coast.

With little opportunity to see much on route, I was glad when we slowed into the safety of Halfmoon Bay, as I could finally get outside to see the islets and coastline as we passed. I’m sure those passengers who had spent the trip with their face inside a seasick bag were also glad. As we docked at the harbour, we could see a congregation of people on the beach at Oban, the main settlement on the island. It turned out that we had arrived on the day of the island’s ‘Iron Man’ festival and there were all sorts of activities taking place for people to prove their strength and speed. It was a grey and overcast day with the hint of rain in the air, but thankfully it didn’t come to much as I walked around the bay, past the gathered crowd and to my hostel up a back street. It was a busy place, full of hikers as Rakiura boasts 3 multi-day hikes: The 3-day Rakiura track which is one of New Zealand’s 9 Great Walks, the Southern Circuit which is a week long trek, or the daddy of all treks, the North-West Circuit, taking up to 12 days. I was there to hike the Rakiura track as part of a week long holiday on the island and I couldn’t wait.

 

But I still had the afternoon to explore Oban’s surrounds, and the bush is dotted with walking tracks. Heading up the hill behind where I was staying, I cut through the back streets of Oban to reach Observation Rock which offered a view over the expansive Paterson Inlet, a large body of water that cut into the coastline of Rakiura. Then I cut down to Golden Bay where the Ulva Island ferry leaves from and joined the Golden Bay track which undulated up and down whilst hugging the Paterson Inlet coastline. I was actually walking under some sunshine by this stage although I could see the rain on the far side of Paterson Inlet, threatening to come closer as time went on. With Iona Island just off shore, I eventually found myself heading into Deep Bay where the wind whipped through.

 

I took the road to cut across the headland which brought me out on the cliffs above the beautiful Ringaringa beach. At the end of the road, a track took me to a monument on a slight outcrop where I had a view across to South Island and back up Paterson Inlet. This little stretch of coastline was stunning and there was barely another soul about. I had planned on cutting to the far side of Ackers Point and heading out to the lighthouse but it was already getting on in the day and I figured I’d have time to do it later in the week once I was back from my hike. So instead of going down to the beach, I took the road back to Deep Bay and took the bush walk across to the back of Oban, bringing me out at the top of Peterson Hill.

 

When I reached Halfmoon Bay, a rainbow was out over the water, and I passed Scollay Rocks where apparently penguins can be spotted. Oban is a very small settlement and there was little options for eating out in. I was already stocked up for my hike over the next few days, but I had wanted to eat out for dinner. In the end, I just got fish and chips from the Kai Kart near the beach and as I sat there in the cold evening, the rain returned. It was heavy enough that there was no point going out at night in search of kiwis as I wanted to start my hike with dry clothes so I returned to the hostel and readied myself for sleep. The next day would see me ticking another New Zealand Great Walk off the list.

 

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