Hello! This one is a little bit later than I’d planned to update, but I’ve been a busy bee. Last time we checked in, I was in Invercargill just about to head out to Stewart Island for a couple of days. Obviously, I’m back now, and this is your irregularly-scheduled update about that trip. 

I’m not sure what, if anything, you may know about Stewart Island, so let’s start at the beginning. Waaaay back when, New Zealand’s South Island was originally known as the Middle Island. That is because, along side the North and South Islands we know well today, there is a third large island (and lots of smaller islands) that make up New Zealand. These days, that third island is known as Stewart Island, with the two biggest islands being named North and South. The Maori name for Stewart Island, and indeed the name of the national park that covers over 80% of the island, is Rakiura, meaning “glowing skies.” ‘Why glowing skies?’ I hear you ask. Well, that’s because it’s a fantastic place to see the Aurora Australis on a clear night. Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t a clear night when I was there and so I didn’t get to see them. Sad face.

To get to Oban, the main settlement on the island (population: 381 as of 2013), you need to either take a 1-hour ferry from Bluff, 27km from Invercargill, or a 15 minute flight from Invercargill airport. Not having the biggest of budgets, I decided to take the ferry. Luckily for me, the crossing was fairly smooth both ways. There was no spewing Sophie in sight. Yay!

When I arrived at Oban township, the rain had just about stopped, although it was still cold and windy. After 3 weeks of mostly sun and warmth, that was a bit of a shock to the system, but I had my windbreaker and was well-prepared. After a quick stop to buy something to take for lunch (come on, I’m not that well-prepared!), I was ready to get on my way. Having already picked up the leaflet on different short hikes to do starting around the township, I’d already decided that I wanted to do the 3-4 hour loop from Halfmoon Bay to Horseshoe Bay via Horseshoe Point. I had toyed with doing the walk to Fern Gully instead (because Fern Gully), but that one was apparently considered to be a lot steeper, and I was carrying a bit too much on my back for that to have been practical with my dodgy knee and hip. Having done the route I did, I am definitely sure that I made the right decision. Even the easy walks are really steep around the township. 

Now, I’m not going to talk you through the walk. A – because that’s boring; and B – because I’ve slept since then and I can’t remember every bit of it. Overall, it took me about 3 and a half hours to do the whole thing and end up back where I started. As that was including a break for lunch, I was really impressed with myself. I’m sure loads of people can do it much quicker, but they aren’t me so who cares?! 😛 The hardest part of the walk was actually getting to and from the main walking track via the roads. Steep hills, plus pavement, plus me is not a great combination. The hills along the track were actually much easier, through a combination of steps and gravel or woodchip paths. And when I say the hills were quite steep, I mean steep. If you’re from Derbyshire, try walking up Slack Hill a few times and you’ll get the picture. Highlights of the track include Dead Man Beach (actually quite pleasant), Horseshoe Point (a lookout point before horseshoe bay, really badly signposted so you don’t actually realise you’re there) and Horseshoe Bay itself. I think I passed 6 other people the whole time, and they were all doing the track in the opposite direction, so actually no one overtook me. 

Some highlights of the Halfmoon Bay – Horseshoe Bay walk. The weather wasn’t really great for taking photos, so these really do not do it justice

There’s something pretty amazing about walking alone, without any music or car noise. Just your thoughts, the sound of the birds and the water. Also, it’s a hell of a lot easier to concentrate on where your feet are going if you’re not wearing headphones. 

When I eventually made it back to the township, it was mid-afternoon and I could check into my hostel (Stewart Island Backpackers, in case you are interested). Through some feat of really bad planning (also known as not being psychic), my visit coincided with two large groups also staying in the same hostel. Group 1 – the Cambridge Tramping Club. That’s Cambridge, Waikato region, New Zealand, not Cambridge, UK. A group of mainly-retired, mostly-friendly and generally rather jolly people who’d just got back from doing the Rakiura track Great Walk. Group 2 – the Stray bus brigade. A group of mainly-18 to 30 year-olds, mainly-Europeans doing a bus tour of New Zealand (mostly over around 30 days). Sliiiiightly different. I didn’t see much of the Stray lot. Even though I was sharing a room with two of them, they went out to do the Kiwi encounter in the evening (and apparently didn’t see any. Oops.), not getting back until 1am, then were still asleep when I got up to get the ferry to Ulva Island in the morning. That said, they were very considerate getting in late, even trying to make their beds in the dark to avoid disturbing me (I did let them know that they could turn the light on, though. I’m not that  mean, but it would have been entertaining). 

After dropping my things off in the hostel, I scoped out the town (and got the most expensive coffee I have ever purchased in my life. Clearly it pays to have the monopoly on coffee-drinking clientele), popped in the few shops and decIded to get an early dinner after a fairly-insubstantial breakfast and lunch. Dinner for me was Blue Cod and chips from the Kai Kart, and it was yummy. Everything was cooked to order, so the fish and the chips were super fresh. Also, the fish was only caught that day by the local fisherman, so it couldn’t get any fresher. Having looked at the prices in the few other places on offer, that was definitely the best value for money, too. 

Oban in a nutshell, complete with dinner

After dinner, I decided to do a couple of the short walks that fit in well together. The Fuchsia Walk (the wrong time of year to actually see any Fuchsias, unfortunately, but a good little walk through the woods) and the walk to Observation Point. Had it been a clear evening, this is where I would have stayed to watch the sunset. As it was not a clear evening, I sat there for about 20 minutes before deciding it was too cloudy and too cold to stay there another hour or so. Also, the hill to get up there was even steeper than the earlier hills, so I wasn’t keen to be going downhill in the dusk. Knowing me, I would have taken ages and it would have been pitch black by the time I got back. Instead, I went to sit on the bench by the bay, where I got talking to a lovely British ex-pat, who had been living in NZ for the past 40 years. We had a great chat in good company, but didn’t succeed in seeing either the sunset or the moon rise because of the clouds in both directions. Oh, well! 

No complaints about the hostel other than to say IT WAS FREEZING! Most of the rooms were in a portacabin-like block, and although there was a radiator in the room, it didn’t seem to be turned on (yes, I did try turning it up. What do you take me for?). Cue me sleeping in my hiking socks as I’d left my hot water bottle in my main bag back in Invercargill. Brrr. At least it meant that I was up bright and early the next day. 

Day 2 dawned much as day 1 had. Cloudy and raining, but thankfully a fair few degrees warmer. The rain petered out into a drizzle, and had stopped by the time the ferry set off for Ulva. Ulva Island is one of the larger islands in Paterson Inlet, and is one of the best places to see native birds and plants. It is kept carefully pest-free, so a perfect haven for rare birds. Most people visiting Ulva Island tend to do one of the guided tours. Me being me, I decided to go the “pay $2 for the guidebook and $20 for the return ferry instead of $100 for the guided tour” route. 

While I may have missed out on some of the additional anecdotes and information provided by a guide, I think it unlikely that I’d have stumbled across a Kiwi if I had been in a group. Yes, I saw a Kiwi. In broad daylight. They are bloody huge! 

That’s the thing about Kiwi. When you see a picture of one, it’s never next to anything, so you can’t judge the size. I was expecting something no bigger than a blackbird. Instead, I saw a bird bigger than a pheasant. Probably around the size of a peacock without the large tail. No one else I spoke to on the boat back had seen one that day, so I felt very fortunate. There are only 30-40 Kiwi on Ulva Island, but it is apparently pretty much the only place where you are likely to see this mostly-nocturnal bird during daylight hours. I will admit to feeling slightly gleeful that I’d seen one for $25, and the people doing the Kiwi encounter tour hadn’t seen one. So sue me! 

Other birdlife that I saw on Ulva Island, and pretty much failed to get any decent pictures of, include the Stewart Island robin, the Stewart Island weka (very bold, that’s the weka looking at the person’s phone in my pictures), the kākā, the South Island saddleback, the New Zealand parakeet and the Oystercatcher. Rather unsurprisingly as they are nocturnal, I didn’t see a Morepork (a species of owl native to New Zealand), but then I only wanted to see those because the name was funny. 

After getting back from Ulva Island, and walking up the hill and down the hill back to the main street, there was only time for a late lunch before getting the ferry back to Bluff. This time, I went to the pub and enjoyed some more local Blue Cod (which may or may not have been the cheapest thing on the menu, but it was delicious). After one final night at the hostel in Invercargill, I made the long (long) bus journey back up to Christchurch, in time to meet up with my HelpX host the following day. 

Up next: What the hell is a HelpX? (And Washpen Falls)

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