Otago, Invercargill, and Stewart Island Feature
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Rakiura National Park
Between the rocky beach and a primitive forest at Lee Bay, a plaque at the park's entrance quotes a Stewart Islander: "I must go over to New Zealand some day." More than 200 km (124 mi) of trail unfurl at your feet into pure wilderness: the rest of the world is indeed far removed.
Somewhere in the stands of ancient rimu trees and the thick tangle of supplejack vines and ferns are remnants of steam engines, try-pots, and wagon tracks—vestiges of human attempts over the centuries to live and work in these parts. Ancient Māori muttonbirders, Southern Ocean whalers, millers, and miners have all come and gone. A few commercial fishing boats still operate from Halfmoon Bay, the last of an industry that has dwindled over the years. While the rest of the planet succumbs to pavement and steel, Rakiura has become less developed, and the decision to make 85% of it a national park will preserve it so. As you adjust your pack, you may ponder what the island's industry is now. It's tourism (aka you)!
BEST TIME TO GO
The summer (November through March) is the best time to visit. Weather is unpredictable this far south, and Christmas barbecues have been known to see a sudden hailstorm. But generally this is the best bet for lovely long days (and the local businesses are all open as opposed to the off-season).
The sculpture of an anchor chain (representing Maui's anchor) marks the entrance to Rakiura National Park. If you look closely, you can see a bullet hole made when a drunk local used his rifle to express his opinion about art (or DOC).
Best Ways to Explore
Eight-five percent of the island is national park, and it's thrilling to think that much of that is impenetrable wilderness, never seen or trodden upon by people. Over 200 km (124 mi) of walking trails create some of New Zealand's greatest hikes, including the three-day Rakiura Track and the challenging 11-day Northern Circuit. A popular adventure is taking a water taxi to the trailhead at Freshwater on the east side of the island, and walking across to the west coast's amazing Mason Bay beach, where you can arrange to have a plane pick you up. It takes close to three hours to walk to the end of the beach, which is home to most of the island's 20,000 kiwi birds. Unless you happen upon the island after a rare dry spell, you are sure to encounter copious quantities of mud on these trails so come prepared.
Local companies offer a variety of boat tours: go fishing for Stewart Island blue cod, do a pelagic bird tour, or take a semi-submersible and view the gorgeous kelp gardens beneath the surface. Water taxi companies can drop you at bird sanctuary Ulva Island or at destinations along the Rakiura coast, or show you the aquaculture (muscle, salmon, and oyster farms) of Big Glory Bay. If the weather is right, nothing beats a kayak trip in Paterson Inlet, where you can visit Ulva, circumnavigate half a dozen tiny islands, and observe penguins (little blue and yellow-eyed).
From the air
Seeing the island by helicopter is an unforgettable experience. If you don't have a week or more to properly tackle the trails, then heli-hiking makes a lot of sense—get dropped at Mason Bay and walk back, or spend a day visiting various far-flung bays and beaches and be back in Halfmoon Bay in time for dinner. Tours can show you the magnificent southern coast, and you will be privy to views of Stewart Island that many life-long locals have never seen.
Green comes naturally on Stewart Island. Reduce your carbon footprint by walking instead of driving; order the muttonbird, blue cod, groper, salmon, muscles, or oysters, and you'll be eating locally. Drinking water here is collected rainwater. Power costs four times as much for island residents as for mainlanders, so most accommodations are quite green: eco-friendly bulbs are used, and wet socks get dried by the fire. Port of Call is run by extremely eco-minded longtime locals Ian and Phillipa Wilson. They keep their seaside property free of introduced weeds and full of native plants, which is a rigorous year-round gardening challenge. All of their product choices from cleansers to food are eco-friendly. Ian is a member of the Ulva Island Charitable Trust. They both support Stewart Island Rakiura Community & Environment Trust (SIRCET), a project to reintroduce native birds to Halfmoon Bay that is centered on their property.
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