by Edward Wilkinson Latham

Photography by EWL

Outpost Magazine #39, National Post Weekend Travel Section

New Zealand’s North and South Islands have long attracted trekkers and naturalists in search of solitude and natural wonders. Less known is the third sibling — Stewart Island — home to some of Australasia’s rarest creatures, both animal and human.

The plane I board for Stewart Island resembles a baggage trolley with wings and sounds like two abused washing machines in spin cycle. We sit bungeed in – eight monkeys in a space experiment somewhat confused by the incessant rattling. The passengers, with the exception of myself, are all Stewart Island residents. Some have been to Invercargill, at the southern tip of New Zealand’s South Island, to see family, others for business or medical problems.

In front of me, an aged pug with severe nasal congestion and dire flatulence sits on the lap of its doting owner, alongside a woman clutching a basket of two dozen fresh eggs. It seems that veterinarians and chickens are only two of many things that Stewart Island lacks, as the majority of all its supplies and services arrive by either plane or ferry. But that has not always been the case. Stewart Island residents have a history of self-reliance and a certain mistrust of outsiders, which have made them unique, independent and a touch eccentric.

As we approach the island from the air, I see the granite towers of the Ruggedy Mountains and sense immediately I am entering some wild place where nature enjoys the upper hand. This is New Zealand’s third, and much smaller, island sibling, a short hop by plane across the Foveaux Strait from Invercargill. Covered mostly by an unbroken swathe of forest and scrubland, Stewart Island was designated as a national park in March 2002.

The plane comes in sideways against the strong northwesterly winds and driving sheets of rain. I can see the runway perched on the crest of a hill, muddied and potholed with gathering rainwater and surrounded by dense bush country. Suddenly, the pilot pushes our trolley towards its final descent, straightening up for the final 20 feet. Prepared for the worst, I jerk my knees up to my chin, alarming the pug.

A lonely van and trailer are the only signs this is an airport, convincing me that we have not in fact made an emergency landing.

“Bit of a rough one today there mate,” hollers the van driver over the sound of the rotors and driving rain.

“Yeah, a couple of them got a bit excited,” the pilot says with a grin, “I think a strong westerly is coming in.” He flings out the luggage as if they were sheep.

“Got a load for you to go back,” says the driver to the pilot, pointing to the van. A vanload of passengers sits peering through the misty windows, appearing worried and solemn. Seeing our plane land and the elation on our faces couldn’t have been any comfort.

Although Stewart Island is described as New Zealand’s third Island, it officially remained “terra incognita” until 1880. Known as Rakiura, “Land of the Glowing Skies” in the Maori tongue, the name refers to the Aurora Australis, the Southern Lights, as well as the everyday spectacular sunsets and sunrises. At 1,680 square kilometres it is a fraction of the size of the South Island and has become something of a forgotten backwater where residents are known as being rather set in their ways. The island has a population of just over 350 people, 21 of them are school children. Stewart Island nestles in its quiet solitude, content to be camera shy and not entirely trusting of outsiders and government.

Despite being only 20 minutes by plane from Invercargill, or an hour’s ferry, it is the winds and rough seas that make many “loopies,” as tourists are called, neglect this part of the world. Most of the island is only accessible to the hiker since roads, all 20 kilometres of them, can only be found around Oban, a three-minute drive from the landing strip.

“If it were my way, I’d build a wall behind Oban, with a single doorway into the bush,” says Doug Wright, owner of the Stewart Island lodge that overlooks Halfmoon Bay.

“There are a lot of different ideas on this island as to the direction in which it should go. Some fear that because we are now a National Park too many loopies will come and the residents will feel like exhibits. Others feel we need to expand the roadways and exploit the resources. Politics are a strong point on this island. It’s an island of individuals.”

After selling a profitable sheep farming business 10 years ago, Doug and his wife, Margaret, were attracted to the island’s undeniable beauty and tranquility. It changed him from a farmer who used pesticides and chemicals into an ardent environmentalist, intent on helping to preserve Stewart’s uniqueness. On the balcony of the lodge is one such sign of its singularity: kakapoes, a relative of the parrot, sit in numbers on the balcony like a row of subordinate soldiers, screeching at high volume in contest with each other.

The island takes its name from William Stewart, an officer of the whaling vessel Pegasus, who compiled the first detailed chart of the southern coast, including the tempestuous Foveaux Straight that separates the island from the mainland.

Port William, an early Maori settlement of the Pa Whakataka tribe, was a sheltered harbour that was utilized in the early sealing days of 1809-1811; by the 1850s it had become a more substantial whaling base. Stewart Island was officially purchased by the British in 1864 from the Maori for 6,000 pounds sterling, but the Maori stipulated that they could still hunt in the nearby Mutton Bird Islands. Their catch is still the sooty shearwater (puffin griseus) whose parents migrate from the Pacific every year. The chicks are taken from their burrow-like nests and partially cooked in their own fat. Then they are stored in kelp seaweed bags and preserved for up to 18 months. Tasting somewhere between duck and sardine, it is a distinctive flavour to say the least.

Fishing has long been central to Stewart Island’s culture, in a part of the world where it is made even more hazardous by the gales and roaring winds that churn the sea. In 1872 government subsidies attracted many, including some hardened Shetland Islanders from Scotland, encouraged by the new world and the untapped resources. However many projects were doomed to failure, everything from saw mills and tin mining to minute finds of gold. It was nature that triumphed again and again.

It doesn’t take long to discover that much island life centres around the pub, The South Sea Hotel. All roads lead to it and most of the wealth of the island has at one time or another been spent there. It is in the pub while enjoying a quenching lunchtime half, that I meet Sam Samson: guide, historian and Stewart Island’s leading eccentric. Sam looks like a grand druid or wizard. His long grey mane descends into a large unruly beard, his voice rough from years of smoke and whiskey. In an intimidating roar, he waggles a long knotted finger at the barman, telling the new hire to put his pint of bitter in the microwave for 20 seconds. “The only way to drink bitter,” he commands, “is like back in the mother country… WARM!”

I tell him that the pub in Oban, whose decor features nothing notably post 1975, reminds me of an English pub I remember on the south coast of England.

“Excuse me! We were drier than the King country up until 1951. There’s a lot of catching up to do me young lad.”

Sam has lived on Stewart Island for over 30 years, his descendants coincidentally from Oban in Scotland, and includes Lewis Acker, first foreign settler in Halfmoon Bay. I soon discover that he probably possesses more knowledge of its land and history than any other resident, and knows just about everyone. I would have to find out what brought Sam to Stewart Island from someone else, since Sam hates to talk about himself. “I lived in the bush for a while when I first arrived. My hermit days. Now I’m around the corner from the pub like everybody else.”

Whilst drinking our pints he points out the many photographs that hang on the bar room wall of sealers and early settlers. During the 19th and early 20th century Stewart Island was a very cosmopolitan place, a way-station for the Portuguese, half-Australian Aboriginals, Russians, Scandinavians, Scottish Islanders, English, Danish and French. Many of the early settlers managed to befriend the natives and became known by their Maori names or by their English translations. One of the first was a Napoleonic hero by the name of Spencer, who became known as Timi Katoa or Jimmy the Strong. Later there was Ned the Nail, Long Harry, Cranky Smith, Jack the Bowman, Portuguese Joe, Black Swan and Blind Joe.

“If things went slightly wrong they would swear at each other in their native tongues,” Sam says lighting his pipe. “If things went seriously wrong they would swear at each other in English, just to make sure you were understood.”

One of the most interesting stories from the island’s early history is that of cabin boy James Caddell, a pakeha (foreigner of European descent) who wound up fighting alongside the Maori against the white settlers. Many of this small subculture were criminals and escapees from the prison colonies of Australia, but others like Caddell had their fate sealed by chance. In 1810 the sealing ship Sydney Cove arrived on Big South Cape, the largest of the Mutton-Bird islands. A chief by the name of Honekai was already in residence on the island and had a score to settle with the white men.

When the crew went ashore they were all promptly slaughtered by the Maori – all save Caddell, who was saved by the chief’s daughter. She claimed him as a pet of sorts and later married him. Caddell received full tribal moko, facial and body tattoos, and when he was met by sailors years later was said to have “lost his own language and custom and became transformed from an English Sailor boy into a dauntless and terrifying chief.”

Later, he would act as intermediary between pakeha and Maori traders around Stewart Island and the Foveaux Straight, particularly in the sale of flax, a grass that, when dried, was used for rope and stuffing. For a time Caddell travelled widely throughout New Zealand as a trader, but by the age of 32 he disappeared back to the Maori lands in the south. No one knows if he died a bloody death during the Tribal Wars or of old age, but his story remains one of the most colourful and symbolic in Kiwi history.

I agree to meet Sam again in an hour and wander down the bay to a caravan parked on a piece of grass opposite the library and small island museum. A number of kakapoes hang out nearby, squawking like delinquent teenagers looking for trouble.

The caravan is the local fish and chip restaurant run by Hilly, a German woman who has called Stewart Island home for 12 years. Working most days she only gets to go to the mainland once every six months.

“I miss the city,” she says. “Sometimes a woman likes to feel herself, not up to her elbows in fish and batter.”

Her business is one of the most successful on the island. Locals are frequent and visiting backpackers like nothing better than a good helping of fresh arctic cod and chips, before and after embarking on some of the hiking trails around the island.

“It’s the cold waters that make the fish taste so good,” she says rather modestly. When I tell her the other portion is for Sam, she grins. ”Someone should write a book about that sarcastic old bugger. Everyone loves him. He used to be a professor in biology in his other life. Came here to start again, so they say.”

A car horn honks outside. Through the net curtain I see Sam in his yellow van as pipe smoke billows out the open window. Sam waves to Hilly and I run out with the rest of my lunch and an order for Sam. He opens the package on the dash, grabs a chip and we set off.

“Great chips,” he utters before launching into a short chapter of the island’s history.

“Before Hilly was here, old Harry and Vie ran the fish and chips shop, when I was first on the island 30 years ago. If things were busy they would both be working away. If half busy one would go to the pub, if things got quiet both would go to the pub. The sign hung on the door read: ‘If you need us we are at the boozer.’ If a visitor wanted some grub they would go into the pub and ask for Harry and Vie. ‘Not a problem,’ says Harry, ‘Vie will cook them for you.’ ‘No! Harry will cook them for you,’ replied Vie. They would start a wonderful domestic in the pub, screaming at each other. Poor punters would leave the pub and everyone would burst out in laughter. One of them would go and cook the fish and chips in the end, but it was a nice show for the visitors. Locals would just wander down, cook their own fish and chips and put the money in the till. Now that’s the way to run a business.”

As we tuck into Hilly’s nosh Sam shows me the Oban community. The longest road on Stewart Island climbs up and down the hills like a Slinky. From outside the pub in Halfmoon Bay it rises sharply over bushy headlands, before dropping to small golden sand beaches.

“If there are six people on a beach, it’s crowded,” Sam says as he shifts gears on his mini-bus, which he has christened the “Billy Bus.”

Sam drives his bus most days, offering a guided tour that is as much theatrical as it is historical, painting a rich and entertaining background to the island.

“All my lies are true, my boy,” he says as he steers with his knees while lighting his pipe. As we crest the top of a hill and descend to Lee Bay, Sam points out a passenger aircraft battling the escalating crosswinds.

“Looks like it’s a bit rough up there.”

“Any accidents?,” I ask.

“No fatalities."

The Stewart Island airfield opened in 1979. By that time, there were still 65 boats fishing off the island. Now there are only 10. And the population has shrunk from 600 to just over 350.

“The first plane landed on beach in 1931. Skidded in the seaweed and ended up in the tide. Gave Mrs. Dyer such a shock, she had triplets that day. Would have called one of the kids after the pilot but no one wanted to name a girl Oscar.”

A savvy mechanic himself, Sam professes that all Stewart Islanders know their way round one engine or another. Stopping at the side of the road he shows me the highest tree in the area, which was shortened by two feet, back in the early ’80s when the “flying dentist” grazed the top on his descent. “Once a month he would fly down. Two days dentistry, two days holiday. Jolly good tax write-off. During a storm, me old mate ‘Fat Fingers’ was coaching him down. Come on Charlie, lower… lower. Oh not that low! There was no phone for a week.”

“What do you mean no phone?”

“The tree phone,” he says and drives forward six feet so I can see the old island telephone attached to the side of a tree.

As we arrive at Lee Bay the sea wind has turned for the worst. Another islander in a red, beaten-up Landrover tells Sam that the last aircraft got in all right but for now all ferry crossing and flights have been cancelled. While he and Sam chat about the finer points of meteorology, I meet a group of three hikers at the look-out point.

They are embarking on the Rakiura Track, a three-to-10 day tramp that follows the open coast, before traversing the island through some of the densest remaining rainforest in Australasia. Considered one of New Zealand’s great walks, trampers are required to purchase a ticket first in Oban. Sheryl, James and Kylie from Auckland are here for the first time.

“A lot of people don’t come here because they think it’s desolate, with no electricity or toilets or something,” says James, a medical student in Auckland.

Sheryl agrees, but adds, “Once you are here you are so blown away by the wildlife, even just the birds hanging round in Oban. You quickly forget home.”

“I want to move here,” says Kylie, also resident of Auckland and of both Maori and white parents.

“Some people don’t last long,” interrupts Sam, lighting his pipe. “Sure it may seem an idyllic lifestyle but work out here is hard.”

Teenagers and twentysomethings are a rare sight on the island, since most are sent away to boarding school on the mainland or come in to work only in high season. On the other end of the scale, many elderly people have lived to a ripe old age. Sam tells me of two female artists who moved to the island in the 1950s who both lived until just shy of 100.

“The secret of long life,” Sam says, “is basically that you have to be a female artist, live by yourself in the New Zealand bush with an English rose garden and a Norwegian house. Some travel helps too. At 87 Babs thought it would be time she went on a trip down the Amazon. She did.”

However, not all residents have had such luck in their retirement. Ken McArthur retired here 16 to 17 years ago, built himself a house, and not long after discovered he had cancer. Sam says that Ken kept his sense of humour to the end.

“Ken helped build his own coffin with a carpenter from the mainland. Parked it in the lounge so he could get used to it. Think he even slept in it a couple of times, checking it out for comfort. He always liked a drop with the boys, so he set aside 600 bucks for a wake. Living up to his Scottish name, Ken wanted to make sure the money was going to be spent well, so he made a porthole in his coffin, got inside and had the wake while he was still alive.”

Sam tells me numerous stories of other “individuals” who have called Stewart Island home over the years. However, even the odd eccentric enjoys to watch sports like everyone else. Once a year there is a rugby match on the island between the Maori and pakeha, but because there is so much mixed blood, it takes a while to determine who is on which side. Oban’s golf course is another popular spot for the locals. Ringaringa Heights is a six-hole course that overlooks the beautiful Paterson Inlet and surrounding bays. With roughly 35 members, the clubhouse is a 14-foot caravan with the beginnings of mold growing up one side.

“When you’ve got hills like that you don’t need 18 holes to get some good exercise,” says Sam. “Hit the ball, go back to the clubhouse for a drink and wait for the ball to roll back. A course designed by alcoholics, for alcoholics.”

Listen to Sam (recorded 2004) (May take time to load)

After a few drinks with Sam at his house in Oban, listening to the radio and going through his extensive library, I stumble back to my lodge in the middle of a storm. Sheets of metal fly off rooftops and crash along the road until they blindly find a target. In a gale strong enough to make dogs fly I battle onward. There is a message waiting for me in my room from Margaret. It reads: “Ulva will take you to Ulva Island tomorrow at 9 a.m. from Golden Bay. Bring wellies.” The word wellies is underlined.

Golden Bay is only a climb over the hill from Oban. Arriving in her speedy homemade kit car, Ulva is pleased that I am wearing a good pair of Wellington boots.

“An Englishman always thinks ahead,” she tells me.

“I forgot the umbrella,” I joke.

“It is a bit wet. No worries, the tree canopy will keep us dry.”

Ulva, a local Maori eco-nature guide, gives informative tours of the nearby island sanctuary with which she shares her name.

The bay is empty apart from a water taxi that Ulva had organized for our excursion. Ulva Island lies inside the broad mouth of Paterson Inlet and is something of a conservation marvel. New Zealand was once a land of wonderful birds that were to be found nowhere else on earth. Some of them, such as the kiwi and the weka, evolved to be flightless due to the lack of predators; others became nocturnal. Unfortunately, many of these distinct species are becoming extinct elsewhere in New Zealand at an alarming rate, due to domestic pets, hunting, habitat destruction and the introduction of predators. Ulva Island is the solution to the problem. With the total eradication of vermin such as rats and possums, the 250-hectare island forest is now a reserve for native plant and bird life that might otherwise be extinct.

After only 10 minutes on the water, I spot a red roof sprouting from the densely forested island. A hundred years ago, Ulva was a hub for the surrounding islands, having the only post office in the area. Today, the two red roof buildings still stand. Built by the first pakeha residents, Charles Traill and his family, the post office served the sawmilling, boat building and fishing settlements dotted throughout the surrounding inlets. Whenever the irregular mail boat arrived, the Traills would raise the flag and settlers would come from Stewart and elsewhere by sail ship. Often dressed in their best clothes, a trip to collect the mail often resulted in a social occasion. Charles Traill, originally from the Orkney Islands off the northeast coast of Scotland, was also a keen amateur botanist and shell collector, gathering many native specimens that would become invaluable to visiting scientists. He was also described in 1872 as “the only honest shopkeeper in the colonies.” As we arrive the rays of sunshine illuminate the island’s golden sands, making it feel quite tropical.

Listen to Sam talking about Charles Traill (recorded 2004)(May take time to load)

As the boat pulls ashore we meet a girl dressed in a t-shirt and striped long johns, who is waiting for the boxes and bags that sit in the back of our boat. Sarah is part of a small group of graduate students from Otago University in Dunedin. They are staying on the island for two months, logging and tagging birds, as well as recording their beautiful calls on DAT recorders. Sarah and Ulva launch into chatter like excited school girls.

“My CD of the bird calls is coming out next week,” says Sarah excitedly.

“Oh, Fantastic. You must save me a copy.”

I ask if I can see where the students live while on the island; a luxury cabin Sam had told me, built by the Department of Conservation (DOC) for the purpose of housing workers recording the bird life and ensuring the preventative rat traps are kept clean and primed. “If I take you there, you won’t be able to leave the island. Ever. It is kept very secret by the DOC,” says Ulva. We watch Sarah disappear into the thick vegetation loaded with supplies, like some rarely glimpsed tribesman.

Ulva and I follow the path laid out by the DOC. The gravel was flown in by helicopter, washed five times to avoid importing fungus or unwanted organisms. It has been of great expense to the taxpayer and although the project has been welcomed by many, there are still those who consider it a waste.

“We have a very special chance of preserving all of endangered New Zealand bird life here. What would it be like if you never heard a bird sing again, or to see it fly? No expense, in my opinion is too much.”

As well as hosting a variety of rare flightless New Zealand birds, Ulva Island is home to some of the rarest plants in Australasia. Ulva guides me around the island under the thick tree canopy, while numerous varieties of birds natter to each other with beautiful calls.

“Look. A Stewart Island Robin,” whispers Ulva. I struggle to see anything against the thick green vegetation. Ulva moves some leaves on the forest floor with her walking stick and sure enough a small blue-black and white-breasted bird lands in front of us and proceeds to pick around for grubs. Ulva looks at the bird’s ringlet on its leg, identifying that he was introduced to the island.

“He’s one of the 16 robins released onto the island in 2000. He probably has a family of his own.” The bird flies away as if on Ulva’s command, 15 feet into the air and flutters outside a hole in a tree. His mate pokes her head out and mouths for the juicy morsels.

“One day this area may have the same bird activity as a New Zealand forest 200 years ago.”

As we walk, Ulva pauses repeatedly, raising her index finger and listening to new calls. A red and yellow crowned kakariki, another cousin of the parrot, swoops under the high canopy together with a kokako – whose distinctive orange wattle and peculiar call has earned it the nickname “organ bird.”

At the side of the track a miniature forest grows at my feet. Countless seedlings sprout from the dark humus of earth and rotted leaves. Free from the nibbling of rats, the forest is better able to replace itself. Ulva points out the Tmesipteris, a dark green plant about 10 centimetres high. Related to the first plants on earth to grow leaves, it has looked the same for roughly 400 million years. It survives only in New Zealand, as do many unusual plants and animal species, isolated when the country broke off from the ancient Gondwana land mass.

I notice the horizontal scars on some of the tree trunks. These are the mark of the Kaka bird who cuts through the bark with its strong beak to lick the sap and eat grubs. A tui bird swoops over us, singing its loud and distinctive call, reminiscent of a doorbell. Decorated with shimmering bottle-green and black plumage and a distinctive white collar, the tui is especially important in the area, pollinating plants as it covers its feeding grounds.

The tallest trees here on the island are podocarps – ancient, primitive trees that carry their seeds in a cone. The kukupa, a large wood pigeon with white and green plumage and a red beak, disperses the seeds of the Miro tree throughout the island. The Totara tree also bears scars on its trunk, but for a different reason. The Maori strip the fine papery bark from the tree to provide a waterproof outer layer for the poha, a container made of kelp for hunters to store the mutton bird as food. In Maori culture it is said that when a chief dies, a mighty Totara has fallen.

Perhaps the most surprising natural oddity on the island is a caterpillar called the Parina moth. It was used by early Maori as a natural source of ink for tattooing, but even more intriguing is that the Parina attracts a parasitical fungus that attaches itself to some of the caterpillars. Growing in the nasal passages of the grub underground, it slowly occupies the caterpillar until it becomes a stick-like growth, some inches in length, sprouting like a handle from the earth; hence, caterpillar on a stick – the preferred delicacy of the night-prowling Kiwi bird.

Back on Stewart Island that evening, I call on Sam again, after picking up some take-out bottles of Speight's Old Dark, his favourite, from the pub. I rattle on his door and hear a lion’s growl in reply – his way of saying “come in.”

Sam is in his favorite chair surrounded by books, druid paraphernalia and a collection of various single malt whiskeys. You should know his nickname is the “Fluid Druid” of Stewart Island. We spend my last evening in Oban relaxing as the sun goes down, listening to the radio, drinking and talking about the island’s residents past and present. I try to steer the conversation to his own hidden life, but like an injured old lion, he only offers small openings of intimacy, telling me about his days as a protesting draftee during the Vietnam War, and later his time as a professor of biology.

Changing the subject, he says he would love to do a tour of Scotland. “But I’d never survive,” he continues, suddenly full of gusto, as if delivering a punch line. “I'd get sidetracked somewhere, or be so excited at one of the distilleries that I'd fall into a vat and drown trying to drink my way out.” By the end of the evening, we’re both a little sauced. I feel very sorry to leave and when I get up to go, Sam gives me a big hug. We stand in the dark, both thinking we would have liked more time to waste with each other.

“You take care now,” I tell Sam, letting my emotions get the better of me.

“Excuse me. I’ll have none of that,” he says with a soft roar, holding back his shoulders.

“I live up to my name – Samson.” After a few more jokes to delay the inevitable, I make my way to the door but lose sight of Sam in the darkness. I step into a blustery night and ask him before I leave whatever happened to his Delilah.

“She died a long time ago… in another lifetime,” he says sadly. With that I close the door. But as I pass the window I can see his burly silhouette through the glass, and then a orange glow as he lights his pipe.