Bountiful New Zealand; Stewart Island's a Natural

Article excerpt


STEWART ISLAND, New Zealand - Fifteen flashlights shone downward as we picked our way through the bush. At a signal, we extinguished our lights, and 15 adults gathered noiselessly behind our camouflaged leader. As his sole light hopped and skipped across the dark, remote, seaweed-strewn beach, we saw it - the elusive New Zealand kiwi.

On orders to stay close, we moved in muted tandem behind guide Peter Smith as he inched us to within 20 feet. Trying not to intrude upon the kiwi's late-night supper, we were star-struck by this brown dumpling of a bird, its head bobbing up and down, its long beak darting in and out of the sand as it single-mindedly nibbled on spiders, berries and crustaceans.

Stewart Island is 674 isolated square miles of land south of New Zealand's South Island and is visited by few New Zealanders or anyone else. It is the only place in the country where you can see the kiwi, the native bird that few natives ever see.

According to Wendy Hallett, owner of the Greenvale Bed & Breakfast where we stayed, many people first book a kiwi-spotting tour with Mr. Smith, then book their trip to New Zealand and Stewart Island.

There are many reasons to visit Stewart Island other than the kiwi. Alternately described as isolated, insular, undeveloped, natural and wild, Stewart Island beckons in a way few modern destinations do.

The downside? All the things that make it so appealing as a destination might ultimately be destroyed by those to whom it appeals.

Its inaccessibility and its uber-emphasis on conservation might preserve it against the expected onslaught.

There is a very lived-on, lived-in feel about the island. Everyday life is happening here, albeit probably not ordinary everyday life. As one of the waitresses at the Just Cafe noted: "We have no banks, no doctors, no T-shirt shops and no stress."

Ask anyone how many people are in town, and you might hear something like: "Well, 380 at last count - no, wait - Annie just gave birth to the twins and Rupert died last week, so guess that makes 381."

That number remained constant despite several efforts on my part to find an alternate answer. There are so few people that if you see someone on a sightseeing tour or at lunch, you're destined to be waving acquaintances by the end of the day.

Eighty-five percent of Stewart Island was designated in 2002 as Rakiura National Park, making it the most recent addition to New Zealand's network of national parks. While the island has just 18 miles of road (mainly around the downtown Halfmoon Bay waterfront area), it has 120 miles of trails (called "tracks") for walks ranging from a 15-minute stroll through the bush to a three-hour hike to a 10-day trek.

There are two ways to get around - boat and foot. The water is often cold and the sand flies are plentiful, and long stretches of isolated beach abound. This sense of desolation is offset by the surrounding bush, alive with a plethora of plants and birds.

One of my favorite hikes was on the Maori Beach Track, a 15-minute water-taxi ride from downtown that, by the way, covers about a one-block area. Captain Ian, a sixth-generation islander, carried me effortlessly across a slippery, moss-covered log to get to the water taxi. Scrambling over a sea of rocks to the sandy beach was an adventure in itself.

Alternately walking through almost impenetrable bush or hugging the craggy cliff overlooking the sea, we were bombarded by a new form of surround sound: the thrashing of waves crashing below and the concert cries of birds overhead.

The varying vocals from tuis, bellbirds, kakas and kakarikas are reminiscent of the array of voices one hears in a noisy restaurant: Sometimes individual cries dominate; other times, a general din prevails.

Then the birds again would vie for attention with the breaking waves. …