Fifteen flashlights shone downward as we gingerly picked our way through the bush. At the appropriate signal, we extinguished our lights, and 15 expectant adults gathered noiselessly behind our camouflage-attired leader.
As his sole light hopped and skipped across the dark, remote seaweed-strewn beach, suddenly we saw her — the elusive New Zealand kiwi.
On orders to stay close, we waddled in muted tandem behind guide Philip Smith as he inched us to within 20 feet. Trying not to intrude upon its late-night supper, we were star-struck by this brown dumpling of a bird, head bobbing up and down, its long beak darting in and out of the sand single-mindedly nibbling on spiders, berries and crustaceans.
Stewart Island is made up of 674 isolated square miles of land to the south of South Island that very few New Zealanders — much less anyone else — visit. It is the only place in New Zealand where you can spot kiwis, the native bird that few natives ever see.
But there are many other reasons to visit this remote island, too. Alternately described as 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 themselves be ultimately destroyed by those to whom it so appeals. Hopefully, its inaccessibility — if the flights or ferry can't travel because of the weather, neither can visitors - 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 but without the stresses most visitors experience at home.
As one of the waitresses at the Just Cafe noted: "We have no banks, no doctors, no T-shirt shops (not literally true, but more on that later) and no stress."
Ask anyone how many people live in town and you might hear something like, "Well, 400 at last count — no, wait — Annie just gave birth to the twins and Rupert died last week, so I guess that makes 401."
Eighty-five percent of Stewart Island was designated in 2002 as Rakiura National Park, making it the most recent addition to New Zealand's vast string of national parks. While there are only 18 miles of road on the island, there are 174 miles of walking trails (called tracks), ranging from a 15-minute stroll through the bush to a three-hour hike to a 10-day trek.
Basically there are two ways to get around — by boat and on foot. There are more water taxis here than land ones.
A favorite hike was the Maori Beach Track, a 15-minute water-taxi ride from downtown — which, by the way, covers about a one-block area. Captain Ian, a sixth-generation islander, carried me effortlessly across the slippery, moss-covered log against which he had parked the water cab.
Alternately walking through bush so thick as to be impenetrable 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 kakarikis were reminiscent of the array of voices one hears in a noisy restaurant. Sometimes individual cries dominated; other times a general din prevailed.
Then suddenly the birds were vying for attention once again with the breaking waves. We heard the water before we saw it as the expanse of coastline made yet another appearance.
The most natural destination upon our return to town was the South Seas — the only bar in the only hotel on the island. Here stocking-cap-clad men with long beards and high boots, just off their fishing boats, best each other at billiards and darts.
The room overflows with men and women drinking with gusto, laughing over town gossip or bemoaning the latest catch. This is not a place that serves a lot of light beer.
The other must-do activity — like the calling of the kiwi — is to board another water taxi for a visit to Ulva Island.
"This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks, " begins Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous poem "Evangeline." He also could have been describing Ulva Island, an untouched, predator-free, primitive slice of New Zealand the way it once was.
The very nature of the island makes it an unparalleled sanctuary for birds, trees and plants that might otherwise be extinct. The hardwood podocarp forest, literally of pre-historic ancestry, houses species of plants 350 million years old. Rare birds such as the fernbird, saddleback, rifleman and yellowhead roam the woods with impunity.
And the inhabitants are not the only things special about Ulva Island. There's also Ulva Goodwillie, another sixth-generation Stewart Islander whose breadth and scope of knowledge covers every twig, branch and feather found in these parts.
The similarity in names may be coincidental, but it's a great marketing tool. She conducts half- and full-day tours of the island, communicating with the trees and the birds in very personal, intimate terms, distinguishing between every caw, chirp, click, creak, twill or whistle emanating from the treetops.
One of my tour companions likened the sounds to an avian symphony.
"If I could get them organized, I could take them on tour," my musically inclined husband observed.
Back on the mainland, a stop at the Ship to Shore general store provides another insight into island living. This is the place to pick up groceries, hardware, beer and wine, household goods, fishing and hunting equipment, and videos.
For major food shopping, residents are dependent upon the supermarket in Invercargill, South Island (the real mainland). They pick up their orders at the Halfmoon Bay waterfront every Wednesday evening.
Next to Ship to Shore is the aforementioned T-shirt shop, although the designation is really a misnomer. Dil Belworthy, like so many other Islanders, was a fisherman by trade and, like so many of his compatriots, several years ago says he saw the writing on the wall.
As he tells the story, "I was drinking with some mates one day and we were discussing how the fishing industry was going downhill and how we saw tourism on the horizon." With tourists as their new prey, the question became how to catch a tourist. The answer: "You sell them a T-shirt!"
So Dil and his wife Cath started hand-printing their art shirts on their kitchen table in 1997, reproducing native Maori symbols and traditional images. Now their Glowing Sky Studio sells these individually designed and produced wearable works of beauty for $35 per non-T-shirt T-shirt.
For sure, Stewart Island as a whole has learned well how to catch tourists, but it wouldn't surprise me if the islanders have mixed emotions about just how successful they want their new venture to be.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information, visit www.stewartisland.co.nz.
Fyllis Hockman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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