Stewart Island

Stewart Island is the third largest island of New Zealand after the South Island and the North Island. It lies 30 km to the south of the South Island, separated from it by Foveaux Strait. With an area of 1,746 km² (674 mi²), it is far smaller than the two main islands, but is nearly twice the size of the next largest island, Chatham Island with 920 km² (355 mi²), and far bigger than all the other small islands of the temperate New Zealand archipelago.

Its original Maori name of Te Punga o Te Waka a Maui positions Stewart Island firmly at the heart of Maori mythology. Translated as "The Anchor Stone of Maui's Canoe", this refers to the part played by this island in the legend of Maui and his crew who, from their canoe (the South Island), caught and raised the great fish, the North Island. However, the more commonly used name is Rakiura. Translated as "The great and deep blushing of Te Rakitamau", an early Maori chief, it is seen today as the glowing sunrises, sunsets and the aurora australis or Southern Lights.


Oban Wharf, Visitor Centre (dark red) and church (light red) in the setting sun

Most of the island is covered in native forest and virtually the entire population of about 400 is concentrated in the township of Oban (also known as Halfmoon Bay) on the east coast. Commercial fishing and tourism are the two main occupations for residents. The main attractions for visitors are hiking (called tramping in New Zealand), birdwatching, fishing and deer hunting.

Although Stewart Island looks small on a map next to the South Island, it is large – 64 km long, 40 km across (at its widest point), with a 700 km coastline. But there are only 20 km of roads. You can't walk round the island in a day – even ten days tramping only skirts the northern third. Few people have seen anywhere near the whole of the island.

There is much to see, even close to the only settlement of Oban. Come for a daytrip or stay longer, as there is a good range of accommodation. Some visitors from twenty years ago are still living here.

The terrain is rugged. Stewart Island is made of granite, some of the oldest rock in New Zealand. A wide range of minerals are present, though not in commercial quantities. Tin was mined at Port Pegasus for a few years in the 1890s. There's black iron sand on some beaches, others are white with quartz or red with garnet. Most beaches are gold, sparkling in the sun. Don't bother bringing a gold pan though: it's all "fool's gold"!

Paterson Inlet cuts the Island almost in half. This large expanse of water is popular for boat trips and recreational fishing and diving.

The climate is mild, and a bit damp, but without rain, there wouldn't be a rainforest. The eastern lowlands are forest right to the water's edge. A canopy of kamahi is pierced by majestic rimu and miro. Lianes and lush fern growth adorn the bush interior.

The forest is a haven for bird-life, as there are fewer predators than on the mainland. Kaka, parakeets, tui, and bellbird give a wonderful dawn chorus in spring. New Zealand's national bird, the kiwi, is found all around the island. Seabirds abound offshore. Albatross, petrels, cormorants, gulls and blue penguins are common. Rarer species like yellow-eye penguins are also seen often.

Mason Bay, on the island's west coast is much different. It's a 20 km crescent of sandy beach, with huge sand-hills and tussock and scrub in place of forest. This is the place to watch the white-horses charge ashore in a screaming westerly gale.

Get in

A ferry approaching Stewart Island

Getting there requires crossing Foveaux Strait from Southland by boat or plane.

Stewart Island Experience runs a scheduled passenger ferry service from Bluff, near Invercargill, to Oban / Half Moon Bay, with multiple departures during the day (dependent on time of year). The crossing is 22 nautical miles or 39 km and takes one hour. Adult $75 one way, $130 return. Long-stay parking is available at the Bluff terminal. Occasionally other boats, usually charter vessels, make the crossing.

Stewart Island Flights makes three 20-minute flights a day from Invercargill Airport.

Get around


Halfmoon Bay from Moturau Moana Native Gardens.

The museum and Department of Conservation (DoC) in Oban both have excellent displays and are open most days.

Stewart Island is one of the best places to view the aurora australis or Southern Lights, unless you fancy an expensive and uncomfortable sojourn in one of the New Zealand Subantarctic Islands. It's not ideally located for this and travellers should not expect a display every night, but the magnetic pole's offset helps, and it's a lot cheaper than taking a boat into Antarctic waters.


Walking is a popular activity and walks range from a few minutes and easy (Fuchsia Walk) to several days and challenging (Northwest Circuit). There are fishing trips available with a number of operators. Kiwi spotting.

Penguins may be seen within the village in the evenings, as are long-tailed bats and occasionally even kiwi. Sooty shearwaters nest on Ackers Point, and can be seen in late evening over the summer.

A Local's Tail, 10 Main Rd (opposite the DOC office),  +64 27 867 9381, e-mail: . Daily 11:00, 14:00, 16:00. "A Local's Tail" is a quirky 40 minute movie about Stewart Island produced by Stewart Island Bunkhouse Theatre. Narrated and shown from the eyes of a dog, it gives you a fascinating insight into the Island's history and heritage as well as more up-to-date footage. Don't forget a $2 coin for the popcorn machine and you can purchase a small range of drinks, snacks and ice-cream. $10.

Walking / hiking

Fern Gully Track

Nature watching

Two oystercatchers on a Stewart Island beach

Ulva Island Open Sanctuary (in relative isolation but with easy access from Stewart Island) is a sanctuary for both birds and plants, holding species that are rare or have died out on the mainland of New Zealand. Partially private land and partially national park, Ulva Island is possibly the closest to pristine of any area of New Zealand open to the public. In 1997, the island was declared rat-free, following an eradication program, and extirpated birds have been reintroduced to the island. The birds include the South Island saddleback (tieke), yellowhead (mohua) and Stewart Island robin (toutouwai). In addition to birds the general forest health has improved significantly. Many orchids can now be seen that are difficult to find on mainland Stewart Island. Water taxis regularly make the short trip from Golden Bay. You can take yourself around Ulva or take a guided tour.

Mason Bay, on the west coast, is possibly the best place in New Zealand (and therefore the world) to see the remarkable flightless kiwi in the wild.

Deer hunting

White-tailed deer may be found in moderate numbers all over Stewart Island/Rakiura. Red deer are found in moderate numbers in the Northwest. Permits are required for all hunting on Stewart Island/Rakiura and must be applied for in advance from the Department of Conservation or the Rakiura Maori Land Trust. Hunting blocks can be booked via the DOC Website or the Rakiura Maori Land Trust.



Stewart Island is no shopper's paradise, but visit The Fernery for art and giftware, Glowing Sky for T-shirts and Merino clothing. Stewart Island Experience, Department of Conservation , Stewart Island Flights and Stewart Island Four Square all have a wide variety of souvenirs and postcards. Stewart Island Tees are available from the Flight Centre.



South Sea Hotel


There are a variety of accommodation options on Stewart Island - ranging from backpackers, motels, and bed and breakfasts to self catering/contained houses and lodges.


Spark and Vodafone provide mobile phone coverage around Oban.

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This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Saturday, January 02, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.