Stewart Island / Rakiura - land of the glowing skies

Stewart Island / Rakiura offers visitors walking experiences in pristine and unique environments, and opportunities to see native birds and marine life.

Stewart Island/Rakiura lies to the south of New Zealand’s South Island. While the island is relatively small, only 1570 square km, 85 per cent of its land is comprised of national park, containing pristine, wild and unique environments like no other in the world. Rakiura National Park, New Zealand’s newest national park, was established in 2002 and offers visitors numerous opportunities for adventure including hiking, wildlife viewing, hunting, fishing, boating, kayaking and much more.

Stewart Island/Rakiura is home to approximately 15 000 Southern Tokoeka/kiwi, making it one of the easiest places to view these iconic birds in the wild. The island’s windswept coast, forested interior and unspoiled wetlands are also host to many native and often endangered plant and animal species that flourish in the relative seclusion and safety that Stewart Island offers.

Stewart Island’s Maori name, Rakiura, translates as land of the glowing skies. Many believe this to be a reference to the island’s spectacular sunrises and sunsets, but it could also relate to the Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights. This special sight occasionally lights up the night sky with pulsing streaks of colour, all the easier to see in the clear skies relatively free of light pollution that Stewart Island/Rakiura offers.

Native birds and marine life

Ulva Island/Te Wharahara

Ulva Island/Te Wharawhara Open Sanctuary is the jewel in Stewart Island/Rakiura’s conservation crown. The small island, located in Paterson Inlet close to the settlement of Oban, was home to one of Stewart Island’s first settlements, but today its residents are of the feathered variety.

South Island saddleback/tieke, bellbird/ korimako, yellowhead/mohua, Stewart Island Robin/toutouwai, kakariki (New Zealand parakeet), Southern Tokoeka/kiwi and many other native bird species thrive on the protected island. Ulva Island’s beaches sometimes host passing New Zealand Sea Lions; the most endangered sea lion species in the world, which use the island’s protected beaches as resting spots. New Zealand fur seals, little blue penguins and yellow eyed penguin/ hoiho can also be spotted around the coast or in the water. Bordering the island is Ulva Island/Te Wharawhara Marine Reserve. Located in crystal clear Paterson Inlet, the marine reserve is home to many marine animal and plant species and is perfect for snorkelling and diving.

Walking and hiking

Rakiura Track Great Walk

Stewart Island/Rakiura is also home to one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks; the Rakiura Track. This relaxed, undulating walk takes hikers on a 32km circuit of Rakiura National Park, encompassing white sand beaches, regenerating native forest and relics of the island’s Maori and colonial past. The three day track is one of the easier Great Walks, making it perfect for families, or those new to hiking.

North West Circuit and Southern Circuit

For those interested in more of a challenge, Stewart Island/Rakiura offers the North West Circuit, the longest circuit track in New Zealand. The nine to eleven day, 125km hike takes walkers from Oban around the coast of the northern half of the island. The track traverses stunning, untouched wilderness from the jagged Ruggedy Range to expansive Mason Bay and swampy Freshwater Valley. This track can be extended even further with the addition of the Southern Circuit which takes hikers to even more wild and isolated areas of the island.

Historical and cultural experience

Aside from its stunning scenery and diverse animal life, Stewart Island/Rakiura offers visitors a rich historical and cultural experience. Rakiura was visited and used by Maori for hundreds of years, with their presence evidenced by introduced plants and shell remains around the coast. The island was also once home to several European settlements centred on whaling, milling and mining ventures. These were located mainly around Port William, Paterson Inlet and Port Pegasus in the far south and rusting relics still remains in many of these areas. Today island is home to only around 400 residents who live in the settlement of Oban, centred around Halfmoon Bay on Stewart Island’s east coast.

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