Sea Kayaking through the sheltered waters of Paterson Inlet in the company of bottle nose dolphins is an experience of rare comparison, and proved a wonderful way to end a three day nature excursion on Stewart Island. After an eventful night of kiwi spotting, a surreal walk through miles of windswept sand dunes, a skinny dip in the wild Tasman Sea, two nights of crayfish, trumpeter and blue cod, and four different modes of transportation, our short visit to Stewart Island offered the diversity of a large city without the hassle of traffic jams and noisy neighbors.
Our Stewart Island guided wilderness adventure had been organized by Kiwi Wilderness Walks in Riverton, so we had nothing to worry about except which fish and chip shop to order our take-away meal from, and which bottle of wine would best suit the occasion.
The town of Riverton is a sleepy little fishing village, 40km west of Invercargill. Geographically it's about as far south as you can go, so on any given day you can see Stewart Island which lies a further 40km off this southern-most tip of New Zealand
Staying at The Riverton Rock was a comfortable way to start our adventure. Our room like the rest of the historic hotel had been tastefully restored and furnished. With highly polished rimu floors, dark green 'everglade' walls, gorgeous sunflowers dazzling the hallways and plush leather chairs, it felt more like a home out of "House and Garden" than a 19th century hotel for backpackers and up market travelers alike.
We were tempted to stay another day in R & R mode, but Captain Blake Scott was expecting us on his fishing boat and the tides would not wait.
On the journey over to Mason Bay (the west side of Stewart Island) the captain went diving for crayfish. Minutes later he returned with four large crays, which cooked up nicely in the oven on board. Meanwhile, we threw a few lines over and happened to intercept a hungry school of trumpeter. In a matter of minutes we had a healthy assortment of trumpeter and blue cod flopping around on deck. As amateur anglers this was quite an achievement, especially as we ate our catch while we crossed the strait.
After several hours of seafaring (some faring better than others), our designated landing point came into sight, a starkly beautiful stretch of beach with hilly scrub in the background. Thoughts of Robinson Crusoe came to mind as our captain brought the six of us ashore on the dinghy. But unlike Crusoe we had a guide who knew the way to our next destination, and the foresight to pack lots of food.
Walking along the beach for a few hours with only the sound of waves to break the peace, I was beginning to feel as if we were the only ones on the west side of the island, but on arriving at Mason Bay hut we discovered how relatively close to civilization we were. There in the middle of seemingly nowhere was a hub of activity; with muddy trampers on the deck drying their socks, others in the kitchen preparing their dinner, and more in the bunk house reading books or chatting in a smorgasbord of languages. Seeing the state of some of the trampers who were doing the hellish but rewarding nine day circuit, I felt relatively privileged to have guides cooking our meals and carrying a lot of the gear.
Kiwi spotting being part of the itinerary for the evening, Ruth (our guide) explained how Kiwis forage for their tucker at night and make a huge racket in the forest due to their poor eyesight. A strange flightless bird indeed - it still baffles me why New Zealanders pride themselves on being Kiwis.
During our search in the dark we encountered several Germans, two Austrians, and four Poms, but still no kiwis. When the call finally came we knew it had to be the infamous Kiwi - what else would make such a startling sound in the middle of the night?
A tramper found one in the bushes and showed us the way. There amid the twigs and trees, was a kiwi digging his beak into the dirt, oblivious to our presence. With beady little eyes, an exceptionally long beak, a big backside and large clumsy feet, he appeared out of proportion in every way. He practically posed for us as we stared in fascination, and then he waddled away, apparently tired of our presence.
The following morning was spent climbing 'Big Sand Hill'. After a night on the international highway for kiwi spotting, the lonely sparseness of the sand dunes was an inviting contrast. On one side of the hill was a dense matting of Stewart Island vegetation for as far as we could see. Ruth told us that a group of farmers had tried to settle in the area but had ultimately found the isolation unbearable. The community broke up after 80 years of trying.
On the other side of the hill was the sea stretching towards South America. Somehow it seemed appropriate to body surf naked in the cold expanse of the sea. Knowing how close we were to the bottom of the world it was nothing less than exhilarating.
Leaving the coast to go inland altered all the senses. As we gained more distance from the powerful surf, the variety of bird songs became more apparent. Tuis - another confused New Zealand bird, imitate the song of other birds and do it exceptionally well. The bell-bird is his most popular target and only the discerning ear can hear the difference.
The valley in which we walked showed signs of the community which had tried to build a life in spite of the rain, mud, wind and isolation. Old farm machinery left to rust in the tall grass and the Island Hill Homestead domain of the last landowner - were the only indicators of the communities efforts to settle.
Arriving at Freshwater hut in the rain we were relieved to find that most of the trampers of the previous evening had gone elsewhere, leaving us ample room for a good night's sleep. Our next destination was Paterson Inlet so kayaking was on the agenda.
In the afternoon , the water taxi picked us up on the door step of the hut (talk about service) and took us through the narrow twists and turns of Freshwater river to the mouth of the Pacific Ocean. We were delivered to Jo and her 'Completely Southern Sea Kayaks' in Paterson Inlet. After a few pointers, Jo guided us to Whaler's base to show us the remains of a Norwegian whaling company's repair base site that was active in the 1920's and 1930's .
Stewart Island has about 20 islands surroundings it, so island hopping is ideal on a kayak, especially with a few days to spare. Unfortunately we only had a few hours but were lucky enough to have calm waters and gorgeous blue skies. We snuggled up to the coast line to get a closer look at Stewart Island's dense vegetation: mutton bird scrub cabbage trees and broad trees. Due to the unbroken forest surrounds, the waters of Paterson inlet are remarkably clear, and knowing that penguins and dolphins inhabited the waters we were hopeful of seeing some form of marine life.
As we were paddling towards Halfmoon Bay a couple of bottle-nose dolphins joined us in a non-committal sort of way. They seemed to be snoozing while they drifted and didn't seem affected by our presence. Their company was a warming experience and well worth a picture, as we paddled the last stretch of our journey.
My adventures on Stewart Island have just begun - I know I'll be back.