Best for far-flung thrills: New Zealand
Saturday 06 February 2010
There's a flock of noisy kakas on my front lawn, quarrelling over some croissants left over from breakfast. A few hours ago, I saw baby carpet sharks bobbing offshore, and a blue penguin gliding through the emerald waters. Tonight, who knows, I might spot a kiwi.
I'm on Stewart Island, a place so remote that few people have even heard of it, let alone visited. It's New Zealand's "third island", directly south of the South Island, a wild and rugged spot with a permanent population of barely 400 and an astonishing abundance of birdlife. I'm on Stewart Island – and I'm kicking myself for only booking one night. I want to stay a week.
The Maoris call it Rakiura and, according to their creation myth, it was the anchor stone that held the canoe belonging to the ancestral god Maui secure while he hauled a great fish – the North Island – out of the ocean. (The South Island, according to the legend, was his canoe.) Modern-day fishermen return to Rakiura in boats laden with blue cod, crayfish and internationally renowned Bluff oysters, harvested in the Foveaux Strait between the island and the mainland.
It takes only an hour to cross the strait in a high-speed catamaran – though the crossing can be rough – but when you step off the jetty, it's like entering another world. A giant, open-air aviary, to be precise.
Native birds so rare they are almost never spotted on the mainland wander nonchalantly around Oban, Stewart Island's minuscule township.
And then there are the walks: 85 per cent of the thickly forested island has been declared a national park. Rakiura has 17 miles of road and 141 miles of hiking tracks, though there is no bank or mobile-phone reception here.
In such a lonely, out-of-the-way spot, where Mother Nature is the star attraction, you wouldn't mind roughing it a bit. But the Stewart Island Lodge, run by the wonderful Jo and Wayne, is one of the best places I've ever stayed. Beautiful rooms, magnificent views, breakfasts to die for – and the never-ending floor show of the kakas (a threatened native parrot, if you must know) on the lawn.
The island even has a fine-dining restaurant, the Church Hill Café. Other culinary gems include the Kai Kart, an old shack serving up excellent fish and chips, as well as the local green-lipped mussels.
But never mind the food, or the pristine bays and beaches, or the walks (ranging from a couple of hours to 11 days). The main act here is the birdlife, and that's what draws most visitors, many of them hoping for a glimpse of the elusive kiwi. Stewart Island is home to one-third of these brown flightless birds, and it is rated the best place in New Zealand to spot one.
I didn't see a kiwi, but I did see many other birds, including rare robins and saddlebacks, oystercatchers and riflemen. On an offshore island named Ulva, a family of three weka (another flightless species) sidled up to me on the beach, full of curiosity.
In this place of spectacular beauty and serenity, life moves to a different beat. In the window of Oban's one small supermarket, a sign urged: "Please take care – duck and 5 chicks." The "5" had been crossed out and replaced with a "4".
At the entrance to the National Park is a sculpture of an anchor stone – recalling the Maui legend –and a plaque containing a quotation from an unnamed Stewart Islander: "I must go over to New Zealand some day."
Like so many visitors before me, I've promised myself that I'll return the compliment – and go back to Stewart Island some day.
In search of solitude
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