If you’re passionate about nature, chances are you have a wish list of animals you want to see in the wild. Perhaps you fantasise about visiting Africa to view the famed Big Five? Or are your sights set on ‘The Big 15’ of the Galápagos Islands? If you’re really wild about wildlife, how about looking a bit closer to home, and visiting the remote and ecologically diverse Stewart Island/Rakiura.
As New Zealand’s southernmost inhabited island, you’ll find this far-flung rock 30km from the town of Bluff at the bottom of the South Island. Surrounded by the Southern Ocean, the coast is rugged and the weather is tempestuous – but you needn’t sacrifice creature comforts to explore the region, because discerning naturalists travel in style aboard the Fiordland Jewel, a 24m, three-deck catamaran operated by Fiordland Discovery.
Prior to embarking on our seven-day expedition, my son and I spent a fair bit of time checking the long-range weather forecast. It didn’t look too flash, so we adopted the local primary school’s motto: ‘a choppy sea can be navigated’ – which turned out to be spot-on with skipper Rob Swale at the helm. A former fisherman and gold prospector, Rob’s roots go back to the region’s early sealers and, being a true Southlander, you’ll rarely see him out of T-shirt and shorts.
Upon arrival, Rob ushered his 11 passengers into the saloon. “Welcome to Stewart Island, New Zealand’s third largest and prettiest island,” he said. Then he instructed us to screw up any notion of an itinerary because the elements would determine our route.
The bird is the word
In keeping with that element of surprise, before we’d cruised any great distance, Rob asked who wanted to fish. Virtually all of our hands shot up. As soon as the local birds got wind of our plan, we were joined by an eager audience of albatrosses, petrels and shags. Such elegant birds, the lot of them – and they were clearly optimistic about our chances as anglers. They were right too, because it wasn’t very long before we’d hooked enough blue cod for dinner, while the birds tussled over the frames of the filleted fish. In less than three hours we’d seen more than nine species of bird and a decent array of fish. As we motored off, the birds continued to follow – barely beating their wings, they soared in the dramatic sky; between us we took about a thousand pictures, hopeful of capturing the perfect portrait.
With the weather a bit rowdy, Rob took us to Little Glory Cove in peaceful Paterson Inlet – and, as the sun sank low, we gazed at a coastline that had barely changed in a thousand years. But rather than simply gape at the quintessential Kiwi bush from the comfort of the saloon, co-skipper Dave Barraclough mustered the troops for a trip to shore. Delivered to a sturdy wharf, we walked stealthily through the darkening bush, along boardwalks lined with moss, the pounding surf booming in the distance.
After about half an hour of walking, we emerged on a perfect crescent of beach where Dave swept the sand with a beam of red light – kiwi are oblivious to red light – and, as if on cue, a Stewart Island Brown Kiwi was spotted. A serious chap, the bird marched methodically, skewering the sand with his beak, scouting for bugs. Like a secret society we followed behind the oblivious kiwi, holding our collective breath so as not to disturb him. We also caught glimpses of a morepork and a penguin. Retiring to our cosy cabin that night, my son Theo and I catalogued all we had seen that day – a plethora of seabirds, several fish species, a kiwi, a penguin and an owl. In under 24 hours we’d seen enough to make David Attenborough jealous.
I wasn’t sure how day two could eclipse the first, but when Rob announced kayaking was on the menu, we didn’t need to be asked twice. Rugged up in thermals, we set off to inspect the coastline’s layered rock formations – but, as we paddled across the bay, a pair of sea lions approached and all thoughts of geology were abandoned. As they torpedoed between our boats, snorting and staring with their lively brown eyes, it’s hard to say who was more fascinated by whom. With tails that resembled bull kelp, the rotund duo performed languorous barrel rolls in the crystal-clear water. Interestingly, not only was their flatulence audible, it was also quite pungent and another animal was added to our wild catalogue of wonders.
Pulling up the anchor, our next port of call was Ulva Island – a 266-hectare pest-free sanctuary. As we disembarked at Post Office Bay, we were struck by what a racket nature can make. Huge trees creaked in the wind as a gale blew in the canopy. And over all that, a cacophony of boisterous birds – among them kaka and kererū, tui and weka, saddlebacks and robins – all vying to be heard. How the nocturnal birds get any sleep, I do not know. When we left Ulva shortly before losing light, we motored out across a dark gray sea, the surface ruffled by winds gusting up to 50 knots. With our hopes of circumnavigating the island dashed, we set a course for Oyster Cove in Port Adventure – the sturdy catamaran making neat work of the waves. At times low cloud and rain reduced visibility but, when you’re snug inside a luxury vessel with all the mod cons, dramatic weather beats blue skies and calm seas hands down.
Out in the cold
Waking on the fourth morning – or possibly the fifth; the days had a habit of blending into one another – we found it had snowed in the night. In spite of the snow, or perhaps because of it, Kate, Rob’s wife, decided we should paddle while the sky was clear. Investigating yet another incredibly beautiful bay, we spotted yellow-eyed penguins, spoonbills, oystercatchers, and shags. We even saw a solitary seal lazily ambling along the seashore, seeking shelter from the snow – or refuge from the paddlers, who can say? And yes, it was cold, but knowing we had warm showers and dry clothes waiting for us back on board– not to mention a hot tub next to the helipad – it was easy to embrace the elements with comfort so close at hand.
Later that same snowy day, Rob’s Southland roots were more evident than ever when he and his son Jack told us they would dive for pāua. Seriously? Snorkelling? While it was snowing? Shocking me even further, my son’s eyes lit up. “I want to go too,” Theo exclaimed. In spite of having reservations about sending my only son into the frozen sea, I was mindful of something Kate had said earlier: “A jersey is something a child puts on when their mother is cold”.
Taking her homily to heart, I watched Theo wrestle his way into a borrowed wetsuit. Gloves on, hood up, into the tender boat he went, my not so tender teen. As the trio plunged into the sea, I tried not to shiver on my boy’s behalf, especially when it started snowing again in earnest.
When Theo returned to the boat he was glowing with happiness. “I’m not cold,” he declared proudly – and, as he pulled off the wetsuit, his warm skin steamed in the frozen air. “I got four pāua, and I saw a parrotfish and Jack showed me a baby crayfish. And the kelp forest was so dense.” He later described the seaweed as being like ‘writhing, rubbery blades’. “You can use that in your story if you want,” he offered generously.
Another paddle saw us venture up North Arm. Paddling hard, I separated myself from the herd and imagined that I was the first human to ever navigate the meandering waterway. Dense green bush reflected on the glassy water, and a yellow-eyed shag perched daintily on a branch as if posing for a painter. Ferns and foliage dripped atmospherically when it began to snow once again – great intoxicating sheets of white. And just when I thought our wildlife catalogue was full, back on the boat, a pair of bottlenose dolphins graced us with their presence. Playing in the bow wave, we braved a biting wind to watch them run through their acrobatic repertoire.
That night, while sitting in the hot tub on the top deck, the snow returned for a final encore. Great flurries of frozen flakes swirled and billowed, settling in our hair, rendering us giddy with the sheer novelty of it. The next morning, the beach was trimmed with ribbons of white – a frozen souvenir from one of the coolest days of our lives.
Like the snow, the days slowly melted away – until eventually it was time to depart our beloved Fiordland Jewel. Our fellow passengers, the human wildlife – at first glance we’d looked like disparate pieces of a mismatched puzzle but, by journey’s end, we’d assembled into a picture of affability. Those who wanted adventure were more than satisfied and those who craved leisurely comfort were also completely content. Walking and paddling, chatting and fishing, lounging in the saloon while being plied with exquisite food – the only difficulty, no-one was wild about having to go home.
Husband and wife Rob Swale and Kate Rollason own and operate Fiordland Discovery, a tourism business offering unrivalled access to Milford Sound and Fiordland with the Fiordland Jewel catamaran. A similar seven-day scenic cruise departs 1 August, 2020. For more information visit fiordlanddiscovery.co.nz