It was with great pleasure that I watched the Stewart Island town of Oban retreating into twinkling twilight from the back of a ferry last night. We were on our way to find wild kiwi in its native habitat on a nearby island reserve. Mollymawks soared in our wake, skimming the waves with their wing-tips as they turned, as the sky turned imperceptibly from pale to indigo blue. This in itself was a pretty special experience, but it was about to get better.
At the reserve, after a short walk through the bush in thickening darkness, we arrived at a long beach and all but the guide turned their torches off and stopped talking. It was silent apart from the crashing surf behind, our way lit by the increasingly familiar southern hemisphere sky: upside-down Orion, the southern cross, the orange glow of mars and the swathe of the milky way. (Aside: chocolate manufacturers are so arrogant they have even tried to take over the skies.)
Huge tresses of sea kelp covered the tide-line, and it was to here that our guide took us. As we neared them we saw they were heaving with sandhoppers – and where there are sandhoppers, there are probably kiwis on this beach. Sure enough, we soon saw the first of our three sightings, nosing through the kelp with its ridiculously long beak (the Stewart Island kiwi species has the longest beak of all the NZ species – up to 7.5 inches in the female). They have their nostrils right at the end of the beak, and use them to sniff out the hoppers. Most of the time they just pick them off the sand, but every so often they plunge their beak into the sand right up to their face to delve deeper, which looks pretty comical.
I have completely blown my NZ budget on swimming with dolphins and seeing wild kiwis, but I figure I will cherish these memories, and certainly wouldn’t recall on my death-bed the mundane groceries or similar that I would otherwise have used the money for. And of course you never know when you’ll be on your death-bed – it could be tomorrow, in which case I’d be so happy I spent my last day on earth doing something so cool… 🙂
If I’m honest, kiwis are actually fairly ugly birds with dull brown plumage and tiny, piggy eyes. They are all feet and beak. When they walk they look like they should topple over forwards due to their extended neck and beak, but their humongous feet keep them grounded. We saw their massive prints -three-pronged and dinosaur-like. As always, it was fantastic to see a species completely wild and at ease in its natural habitat, so perfectly adapted to its environment. They didn’t seem too bothered by our nearby presence – I guess they have become accustomed to their nightly spectators and realise they are no threat. That in itself poses questions about the appropriateness of viewing wild animals, but as they are on a reserve and all viewing is strictly controlled by the guides, there is no interference with their behaviour, so I felt OK about it. I felt very glad to have had this opportunity – I felt the urge to start narrating in an impersonation of the low, honeyed voice and humble phrasings of Sir Attenborough – but I resisted, you’ll be glad to hear.
On the way back up the beach afterwards the guide halted us and indicated some spade-like prints emerging from the sea. He then picked out the form of two pretty huge-looking blubber-giants lying at the edge of the dunes behind the beach, and we diverted to give them a wide berth. Let sleeping sea-lions lie. On the forest track back to the boat, I was chatting to the guide about the flora, and he pointed above our heads. Hanging down from the fern-covered boughs over the path were hundreds of beautiful white orchids (called Easter orchids), shining in the moonlight – I would have completely missed this otherwise, as I was too busy concentrating on my feet. Magical.
Today I went for a morning run along the coast, and it was lovely to see the pristine beaches washed clean by the night-time tide, and as yet unsullied by prints. This afternoon I hooked up with a couple of Brits to walk through forest to a quiet bay nearby – there have been quite a few other Brits at this hostel. I am enjoying meeting people from all over the world, but there is something quite nice about spending time with fellow country-folk – there is a definite sense of relaxing into easy conversation with shared points of reference and familiar humour.
Below are a few photos that sum up the beauty of Stewart Island and the no-nonsense attitude of its inhabitants. I am so glad I made the effort to come here – it has been an absolute highlight of the trip.
The main settlement of Oban at dusk, taken from the departing ferry last night. Unfortunately no photos of kiwis as we weren’t allowed to use flash, and I therefore thought there was no point even trying to capture the moment with my (lack of) photography skills. Better to try and capture the memory fully instead.
I spent ages trying to capture the magnificent mollymawks in flight, but they move so swiftly, this was the best I could do – it shows the awesome wingspan though.
This advert amused and disturbed me in equal measures – and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is actually how Stewart Island babies come out.