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postcards from rakiura (stewart island)

postcards from rakiura (stewart island)

rakiura (stewart island) is new zealand’s third-largest island (home to around 400 people). located a 1-hour boat ride across foveaux strait (or a short flight from invercargill). it’s bounded by a 164-kilometre coastline, one with ever changing moods, fringed by rocky coves and fine sandy beaches, surrounded by clusters of small islands. it’s māori name, rakiura, means ‘glowing skies’, a reference to the southern lights.

nic and i had planned to visit a few years ago to walk the rakiura track, but those plans were interrupted by me tearing three of the ligaments in my right ankle when out trail running. we’d always planned to have another attempt, and this, our first visit, was prompted by a conversation with nic’s mum who has never been and always wanted to go. given we were taking her with us, we also extended the invitation to my mother — and the stewart island adventurer’s club was established.

travelling with two 80+ year olds in tow meant for a different kind of adventure than one we’d have on our own. each of us on a pilgrimage to landscapes none of us had ever seen before. (i think) we managed to pack in something for everyone.

// where we stayed

some internet sleuthing led me to rakiura retreat’s website. the clean, cosy, and affordable motel-style units had super-comfy beds and the kitchen and living area had everything we needed to make our stay really pleasant. placed sturdily on the land in a way that catches the golden morning light of sunrise, and for afternoon basking in the sunshine. we also had the use of a little yellow car (fondly named the custard square) for use during our stay, which made it really easy to get around. plus, with super helpful staff, a beach perfect for swimming just a short walk down the hill, and a couple of cheeky kaka visiting every day, it’s the sort of place i would gladly stay again and again.

// what we did

a boat tour of patterson inlet and had a guided walk on ulva island (te wharawhara)

this island is one of a few predator-free islands in new zealand that the public are able to visit. here you might see the tokoeka (southern brown kiwi) as well as other rare birds,  like the tīeke (saddleback), kakariki (green parrot) and mohua (yellowhead). we packed our lunch, and opted for a boat tour of te whaka a te wera (paterson inlet), along with a short, guided walk on te wharawhara. we didn’t see any kiwi, but we saw plenty of other local birdlife.

went cold water swimming

the places i ground myself outdoors offer me far more than i can ever adequately describe. watching wind-winged clouds dance across the sky and slipping into the welcoming arms of the ocean are two of the things that bring me immense joy. the water in the bays around stewart island are so beautifully clear that it was impossible to resist a daily dip.

and kiwi spotting

bundled up after dark, we took a slow and quiet walk near where we were staying as we’d heard that there was a couple of kiwi that lived in the gardens nearby. not seeing anything, we also hopped in the car and drove out to lee bay hoping for better luck…. nothing. we spoke to another couple that were out that way too and they said they’d seen one in the bushes. heading to where they’d been we still didn’t find anything.

played “where does this road go?”

with very few roads on the island, we had fun in the custard square exploring to the ends of each one. including one where three of us had to get out of the car as we’d bottomed out on a single-lane track and needed a bit of extra clearance to get turned around and out again.

// what we ate

we lunched at the south sea hotel, situated on shores of half moon bay, just a short walk from the ferry. this was our first gustatory experience after we landed and we all had some variation of the local blue cod. it was delicious fresh fish, but the batter used as the delivery mechanism was average.

hand-on-heart, i could eat blue cod for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the rest of my days. and the cod in the fish and chips from the kai kart was exceptional – really fresh with a lovely crisp batter. and the super generous portion of chips we ordered meant we were eating them for days. they were perfect for making chip butties after being crisped up again in the oven.

sunday at fin and feather is donut day. so, whilst nic and his mum were doing a second trip to ulva island, and my mother was at church, i queued for donuts. we tried the dark chocolate with maple bacon & sea salt and the spiced honey cream. both were delicious. highly recommend.

the rest of the time we shared meals at our accommodation. we’d done a supermarket run before we got to the island, then got any other supplies we needed from the very well-stocked four square in the village. i was delighted to find a toastie machine in the cupboard and toasted sandwiches were a firm favourite for lunches.

// the best, most incredible, thing

the aurora

when we lived in the uk, we visited iceland twice — both times in the winter. not only because it was easily accessible from there, but also because we wanted to see the northern lights. we were disappointed both times.

so, visiting rakiura seemed like the kind of place we might get lucky. nic has a couple of solar watch apps / websites he uses to check for solar activity. keeping a close eye on these, the conditions looked to be favourable on our last evening. so, after dinner, we all piled into the custard square and went looking for suitable viewing spots. we found a couple — at watercress beach and the golden bay wharf. we weren’t sure what to expect, and i thought the first glimpses of it weren’t real. until the green lights appeared faintly on the horizon in the early darkness and progressed into a glowing sky the likes of which i’d never imagined we see. the greens and golds and crimsons were indescribably amazing to watch. such a memorable experience for our last night on the island.


pretty sure this won’t be our last visit to that beautiful part of our country. we’re already planning our next trip and doing the coast to coast: catching a flight from invercargill to mason bay, staying at the DOC hut for a night or two, then walking out to freshwater landing and staying there a night or two before catching a water taxi back to town.