A dagger pointing at the heart of Antarctica” is how David Lange characterised New Zealand during the ANZUS freeze-out of the mid-1980s. This evaluation of our strategic importance placed Stewart Island squarely at the business end of the country, and some notion of the island’s proximity to the icy continent seems to have become fixed in the consciousness of North Islanders at least. Several Auckland friends to whom I mentioned my impending visit reacted with a mixture of pity and concern, as though I were headed for Siberia: “It may be nice, but it must be so cold and wet down there.”
In fact, Halfmoon Bay, the only settled area of Stewart Island, has a rainfall very similar to that of Auckland (1400 mm annually), and last summer the temperature reached 30°C. Admittedly, that was abnormal-20°C would be a more typical summer high, with winter 10 degrees cooler. But thermometers are not the only arbiters of environmental equanimity. Several kauri trees flourish in Stewart Island’s lush gardens, as do pohutukawa, Poor Knights lily and other northern plants. In one garden I saw the finest specimen of Meterosideros carminea I’ve seen anywhere. This scarlet-flowered climbing rata grows naturally only as far south as East Cape. A few centimetres of snow fell in the village one day last winter, but that was most unusual. Strong winds and rough seas—significant in a maritime community—are probably the harshest elements of climate.
On Stewart Island—and elsewhere in the deep south—one sometimes hears claims about this or that enterprise being the “southernmost in the world.” Transposing Stewart Island to an equivalent northern-hemisphere latitude gives a quite different perspective on this locational extremism. Even the most southerly bit of Stewart Island would lie south of any part of England, and Paris is closer to the North Pole than Stewart Island is to the South Pole. Stewart Island (straddling latitude 47°S) is only slightly closer to the pole than it is to the equator. That certain things on Stewart Island or in southern South Island may be accurately described as southernmost is a reflection less of their latitude than of the dearth of inhabited land at higher latitudes in the southern hemisphere. Only southern South America extends further south than Stewart Island—to about latitude 55°S.
Although described as New Zealand’s third island, Stewart Island (Rakiura, “glowing skies,” is the Maori name) is tiny compared with the North and South Islands. At 1680 sq.km, it is just one-ninetieth the size of the South Island, and represents only 0.6 per cent of our total land area. For decades it has been a quiet, largely ignored backwater. The 380 residents are clustered about Halfmoon Bay (also known as Oban), and almost the entire island is in native vegetation. The government owns most of the land, and the Department of Conservation controls these areas as nature, scenic and wildlife reserves.
In March 2002, much of the DoC territory will become a national park, and locals have some anxiety about the effects this change in designation will have on the island. Wildlife will continue to be thoroughly protected, and although the higher status may attract more visitors,numbers are unlikely to reach a level where they have much impact on the land. Most of the interior is accessible only to the very determined anyway. Roads—some 20 km of them—are to be found only around the settlement. Tramping tracks—perhaps 300 km in length—provide access to the north and central parts of the island, but the south is a wilderness area, low on tracks and huts. No, the islanders’ concern is less for the realm of nature than for their own way of life.
Over the past 60 years fishing has been the backbone of local existence. Never an easy way to make a living, fishing is especially hazardous in a place like Stewart Island. The gales of the roaring forties regularly churn the sea into rugged grey hills streaked with spume. Some days staying alive on the sea is tough, let alone making a living from it.
Life on an isolated island also demands a certain independent resilience, an ability to cope with whatever may go wrong while relying only on local resources. Quite a core of Stewart Islanders belong to families that have lived on the island for three, four or even five generations. They like the isolation. They like the way Foveaux Strait acts as a deterrent to “loopies” (the local word for tourists). They like the solitude and the challenge of a demanding and little-modified natural environment. And they are comfortable with the close ties of a small community where you know all about everyone and everyone knows all about you. They don’t want to be swamped by snappy-camera tourists and outside tour operators. They don’t entirely trust government and are afraid that DoC is becoming too powerful on their island.
Peggy Wilson, a 72-year-old widow from a long-established island family, is one who believes control of the island must be kept firmly in the hands of the islanders. She was out working in her garden when I called on her. Clad in an old tweed jacket, her gumboots perished at the ankles, cap on head, she was assaulting the gorse that was getting out of hand among the shrubs and granite outcrops. Past the garden lay a scrubby paddock containing a few sheep (sheep on the island are thoroughly outnumbered by people), and beyond that the entrance to Halfmoon Bay and Foveaux Strait. Bluff Hill was a pale blue bump on the horizon, identifiable by the chimney of the Tiwai aluminium smelter at its side. “As long as we’ve got this bit of water between us and the mainland we’ll be all right,” she said. “Nobody can drive over that. It’ll keep the masses away. We don’t want too many newcomers here. They’ll change Stewart Island into something it’s not now, and lose what they came for.”
Losing the long-running ferry Wairua 15 years ago was a low point in the island’s fortunes, she said: “The government said they wouldn’t pay to subsidise it any longer, and they wouldn’t sell it to us.”
I recalled the Wairua. It was built in Auckland along the lines of a pocket-sized Cook Strait ferry, and could carry 200 or 300 passengers plus a car or two. I’d travelled on it when I’d first visited the island 30 years before. “After she went we ended up with only small boats and planes for a time, but now these new ferries are owned and controlled on the island, which is great.”
The new ferries are aluminium vessels—two fast passenger catamarans and a mono-hull freighter. The cats, the larger of which can carry 100 passengers and some freight, make the crossing in only an hour—less than half the time the Wairua took. There is also a regular air service to the island. But better access means more visitors, and visitors create pressure for better facilities.
Until recently, some aspects of island life were backward for a New Zealand township. Roads were unsealed, electricity was produced only by home generator and neither sewerage nor water was reticulated. The first three of these perceived deficiencies have now been rectified. “My late husband was an engineer and he kept all the generators going,” Peggy reminisced. “I missed the generators for a time. You could always tell when someone was at home during the day by the thud, thud, thud of their generator. Of course, they were all on of an evening. When the power scheme was introduced, we all had to join up. You couldn’t have half on and half not—it wouldn’t have been economic. Each family had to pay $2000 for the reticulation, and we still pay close to 50 cents a unit, the most expensive power in the country.”
There is some nervousness among islanders that increasing visitor numbers will make water reticulation necessary. “We’ve been told that if there are 1000 or more visitors on the island at a time, guest houses will need reticulated water to maintain supply and quality, and we would all then be forced into yet another expensive scheme,” one islander said. “Why should we all have to bear the costs of the visitors?”
Although the sewerage and power schemes were generally welcomed, not all their consequences found favour with islanders I spoke to. Even very small sections were now being built on, they said, and precious bush remnants around the settlement demolished to put in new driveways. Indiscriminate council spraying along roadsides also came under fire. “Within a year the gorse is usually back, but not the regenerating natives within it,” one woman told me.
Britt Moore, an American with a degree in political studies who runs a small coffee-and-cake shop close to the foreshore, saw larger problems on the horizon. “There is nothing to stop major development happening here—high-rises, roll-on/roll-off ferries bringing busloads of tourists, that sort of thing. Big American companies will come, buy land, knock down homes and build hotels. Money is nothing to these people.”
I asked her whether the community board could stop such a travesty. “No, they are helpless, and pro-development to boot,” she said. “When we are invited to planning meetings, all that is discussed is house colours and the number of trees out front. They never get down to the important stuff.” She gave me an earnest look and said, “Stewart Island is on the world tourism map in a big way.”
I’d heard that property prices on the island had quadrupled in the last three years in anticipation of increasing demand generated by the national park.
Did Stewart Island offer enough to pull in big hotels and boatloads of tourists as Moore feared? With this question in mind, I set off round Halfmoon Bay to have a closer look.
The coastline here is certainly idyllic. Bush runs down to just above secluded golden beaches, and the sea is clear and exceptionally rich in marine life. But the township itself is no great shakes. Big sheds crowd the wharf, and towards the eastern end of the beach more large buildings extend across the sand, giving the foreshore an industrial look out of character with the rest of the island.
Houses—more than there were 30 years ago, but still not an unseemly sprawl—dot the hills about the bay, tucked into bush remnants and big gardens. Whereas all the 40 or 50 boats riding at anchor in the evening were once commercial fishing vessels, now two-thirds of them are involved with tourism. There is a single general store, behind the wharf, and across the road another pillar of Stewart Island life, the venerable South Sea Hotel.
A few steps inland are Britt Moore’s coffee shop, several places offering sightseeing tours, and a primary school, post office and airline depot. One of the largest buildings is the modern DoC headquarters and visitor information centre, which sees 50,000 visitors a year flow through its doors. The village has the ad hoc, functional feel and look of a place that has grown slowly, responding to the dictates of history and convenience rather than aesthetics and town planners.
Only 20 minutes’ walk from the wharf, along a road steep enough to get most people puffing, lies Golden Bay. Here a variety of water taxis and other small boats are moored, for this beach is within the broad confines of Paterson Inlet, a large and lovely harbour surrounded by bush and containing a number of attractive islands. A narrow peninsula separates Halfmoon Bay from Paterson Inlet, and easy walking tracks crisscross the area. All have been finished to a high standard, with wooden edging, steps on the steeper sections and a gravel surface. The gravel is shipped from Bluff at $150-200 per tonne.
On windswept Ackers Point, at the tip of the peninsula, the main vegetation is muttonbird scrub; muttonbirds (sooty shearwaters) nest in burrows beneath it in spring. The name “muttonbird scrub” has a derogatory ring to it, but the various tree daisies, with their white flowers and tough leathery leaves, furry white beneath, that fall under the muttonbird rubric are all beautiful shrubs.
In less exposed bush walks, broadleaf, Pseudopanax, New Zealand fuchsia, kamahi, Dracophyllum longifblium, rata and rimu are common. Many types of fern carpet the forest floor, and native birds are reasonably common, especially tui, pigeon, kaka and bellbird. Not that you need to venture so far to meet these feathered locals. Most can be found in the village itself. Fat pigeons, frequently in pairs, squat on power lines. They like to feast on the yellow flowers of broom, a weed around the village. Kaka are regular visitors to gardens, attracted by the diversity of flowers on introduced plants and by the food some locals put out for them.
All the native birds are noisy, numerous and confident. Ernie Hopkins, who used to feed kaka more than he does now, was attacked by one after he curtailed their rations. “A whole row of kaka were on the rail outside my front door. As I went past, one jumped down on to my head and danced around and raked its beak across. I don’t have a lot of protection there these days, and the jolly bird did it four times. I had a mighty sore head for a few days.”
One evening, when an English woman and I were struggling against a strong easterly to keep control of our newspaper packets of fish and chips, I asked her what she considered the best thing she’d seen on Stewart Island. “Ulva Island,” she replied without hesitation. On the strength of that recommendation I thought I had better pay the place a visit.
Ulva Island, 250 ha in extent and positioned like a small tongue inside the broad mouth of Paterson Inlet, is something of a conservation showcase. Stewart Island is as well endowed with rats, possums and wild cats as the rest of the country, but is free of stoats, ferrets and weasels. On Ulva, cats and possums are absent, too, and rats have been eradicated. Rare bird and plant species, such as the South Island saddleback and the endangered coastal herb Gunnera hamiltonii, are being reintroduced. Like Tiritiri Matangi in the Hauraki Gulf, Ulva is an open sanctuary, but, unlike Tiritiri, it retains its original forest cover.
“Are you sure you want to go across today?” asked Peter Cox, the skipper of a water taxi, as we stood eyeing a black squall tearing down the inlet towards us. “It’s pretty marginal. We don’t get many days as bad for crossing as this.” To start with the trip was pretty uncomfortable as we pounded into waves and wind, but then we started moving parallel to the crests, which was easier.
Cox came to Stewart Island as a teacher in 1986, then did a stint as a carpenter and handyman before becoming a water-taxi skipper. I asked what he thought of the national park decision.
“People said that once we’d sealed the roads, masses of visitors would come, but it didn’t happen,” he replied. “And then they said once we had reticulated power we’d get hordes of tourists, but it didn’t happen. And then they said once we were all on sewerage the world would come, but it didn’t. So now I’m not so sure. People are afraid that the national park will restrict our freedoms. That we won’t be able to go to a remote beach and light a fire and fry a few fish. Some are scared that DoC will restrict what they can do on their own properties if they are near the park border. I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.”
The jetty was in a sheltered bay, and from there I ambled along another manicured track to nearby Sydney Cove, named after a sealing ship. As I ate my lunch at a picnic table a weka materialised and circled my boots. Since I was slow to get the message, it hopped up on the table and showed every intention of eating my roll from the other side. Weka have bold, insistent red eyes, and the ones here were obviously used to getting their way.
I didn’t oblige the bird, but set out for Boulder Beach, passing through groves of mixed-age rimu. Like people, these trees are spindly when young, beautiful in adolescence, but spreading, droopy and not especially attractive in old age. As I paused on the track to scribble a note, a Stewart Island robin alighted nearby. I sat down and it drew closer, its legs—a light blue band on one, a silver anklet on the other—barely thicker than pine needles.
There are a few mysteries about Stewart Island birds. One concerns kakapo. Although over a hundred kakapo were discovered east of the Tin Range in the late 1970s and early 1980s—all since transferred off the island (see the kakapo story in this issue)—it is curious that no tin miners or prospectors recorded seeing the birds or hearing them boom in that area a century earlier. Some people wonder if a consignment of Fiordland kakapo, released in Port Pegasus in the late 1880s, was the source of all Stewart Island’s kakapo.
The distribution of kiwi is puzzling, too. Early naturalists, such as Leonard Cockayne and Herbert Guthrie-Smith (see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 27), reported that there were no kiwi north of the Tin Range in their time, but there certainly are now. Of New Zealand’s three main islands, Stewart offers visitors the best chance of encountering a kiwi in the wild. Visitors to Ulva had reported seeing a couple out foraging on a recent wet day.
The longest road on Stewart Island is a roller coaster that runs north from Halfmoon Bay, climbing sharply over bushy headlands then dropping to superb sheltered, sandy bays—among the very finest in the country. On the day I walked this way the sea was turquoise and calm, and I saw only one couple on the four beaches I passed. Mica, weathered out of the surrounding rocks, formed a patchy film of glistening gold flakes across the damp sand.
Lee Bay, facing north to the mountains of Southland, is the end of the road but the start of the 125 km North West Circuit track popular with trampers. The first few kilometres were gravelled and graded, and the sea below was as vivid as in any tropical Pacific getaway brochure.
I took an side track up Garden Mound, which afforded fine views back to Paterson Inlet and up the coast to Mt Anglem, at 980 m the island’s highest peak. To the north lay the wooded peninsula of Port William, where, in the early 1870s, 11 Shetland Islanders and their children established a colony. These settlers were to fish and to clear land for farming, but the fishing was unfamiliar and paid little and the bush proved too daunting for people brought up on treeless isles. In little more than a year they had all departed.
As I made my way back to the village, I reviewed what I’d seen so far. The Halfmoon Bay area, though lovely, was, I felt, not spectacular (although of the places I had visited only Ulva Island and Lee Bay are to be included in the national park). I was keen to see what lay further south, and the opportunity came when Peter Tait, ex-Forest Service ranger, ex-fisherman and now cruise operator, offered to take me to Port Pegasus with several of his friends and his wife, Iris, aboard their 57 ft charter yacht Telisker. Port Pegasus is a vast, remote harbour on the east coast, squarely within the national park and DoC’s southern wilderness area.
We motored out from Halfmoon Bay on a windless calm. By the time we were a few kilometres south, there was a bit of a jiggle to our passage and sufficient breeze to warrant unfurling sails. Two hours later, off Tia Island, in a decent swell and a strengthening wind, we hauled in the jib. By Owen Island the sea was large and the wind strong.
“There’s not a lot of protection out here from what’s happening in the Southern Ocean,” Tait said. “In Halfmoon Bay it’s probably still like it was when we left.”
The unfolding southern coastline was quite different from that further north. Gone were the beaches and sheltered coves. In their place were fractured granite cliffs 1550 m high with great swells dashing upon the blocks and boulders at their base. Unbroken forest and scrub covered the tops. It took six hours to reach the shelter of Port Pegasus, and although the waves inside North Arm were puny, the wind was ferocious and ram fell in sheets. In these conditions the forest looked anything but inviting, yet there had once been a settlement of sorts here, following the discovery of tin in streams draining the nearby Tin Range (see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 42).
Port Pegasus is a drowned river valley system, and three islands and a large peninsula protect it from the frequently wild ocean. Some of the bay names reflect the relief sailors must have felt on gaining this refuge from the open sea. At the head of Small Craft Retreat, a narrow arm of water that shrinks to a stream, we found a dozen New Zealand sea lions resting among large rimu. Unlike fur seals, which rarely stray far from rocky shorelines, sea lions often seek gentler terrain, and all the undergrowth here was flattened for a hectare or more. Most of the animals were drowsy with sleep and paid us little heed as we sauntered among them. Only if approached closer than a few metres did they sit up and, with a bark, make a threatening lunge.
Tait took some of us round Ernest Island in one of Tidisker’s Zodiacs to admire the granite cliffs and the precariously balanced slabs that hung from them. On the lee of the island he got us to lie down in the bottom of the boat, then eased us into a crevice with only centimetres’ clearance all round. Within was a sheer-sided 15 rndiameter refuge, the water clear and limpid, a few ferns clinging to the walls. A magical place.
Next morning we motored to Cook Arm, then took the Zodiacs up Seal Creek, which penetrates well inland. Gilbert van Reenen, a photographer, and I were planning to climb Magog, one of several impressive granite outcrops in the area. Access is most easily gained by sea at high tide, but we were a little early, and several kilometres from our destination our way was blocked by sandbars. While we waited for the tide to rise we visited the site of another early and misguided attempt at colonial enterprise.
In the 1820s, William Stewart—not the cartographer after whom Stewart Island is named (a mate aboard the sealer Pegasus in 1809), but an impostor—attempted to have a ship built here. From the Bay of Islands he rounded up nine women and eight men, led by one William Cook, contracting them to build a 100-ton vessel in Port Pegasus and promising to supply them with food and goods. Instead, he abandoned them in this place, described by a contemporary seafarer as “the most rainy and boisterous part of the world I have ever been in” and never returned. Life soon became a grim struggle for survival for the shipbuilders, and the projected vessel shrank to 49 tons. She was eventually completed and sold in 1833, whereupon the shipbuilders returned to the Bay of Islands.
A 15-minute walk across mudflats brought us to the site. A few decayed wooden runners were all that remained on the beach, but 100 m into the bush lay the bed of a fireplace under a spreading broadleaf tree. Dozens of rimu saplings grew round about. There had certainly been an abundance of timber for shipbuilding, but so there was around all New Zealand’s harbours in the 1820s, and this spot felt gloomy and dour, even in midsummer.
With the tide a couple of hours away from full we motored upstream, then abandoned the inflatable to trudge along soft sand flats, in places covered with eel grass. Eventually we left the beach and plunged into a trackless wilderness of manuka, Dracophyllum and wire fern (or Gleichenia). The scrub ranged from boot-high to more than head-high; we could only crash blindly into it.
An hour from the estuary, we paused on an outcrop to check our route and for van Reenen to take a picture. The wind had become so strong it blew the tripod and camera over. We eventually emerged from the scrub on to steep granite slabs below Magog. In the peaty soil around the slabs were numerous holes made by probing kiwi beaks, but few birds of any sort were visible.
Scrabbling up along bands of vegetation—the rock had become almost vertical—we finally made the open summit ridge. Far to the north, the cone of Mt Anglem was visible. The arms of Port Pegasus lay to the east and the Muttonbird Islands to the west. Some of the locations in this area have idiosyncratic names. There are Big and Little Moggy Islands, Easy Harbour and False Easy Harbour. Three Legged Woodhen sounds like a GM experiment gone wrong. Magog and the sharper Gog, to the south-west, are from the Old Testament.
Smooth granite outcrops projected bare from the scrub on all sides. Some were as small as filing cabinets, others as bulky as office blocks. It was a bleak but spectacular landscape, different from anything else in New Zealand. No rain was about on this day, but rainfall is in the 7 m-a-year league, a far cry from Halfmoon Bay, only a few tens of kilometres to the north. Down here the climate is much more so. crc. At only 280 iii above sea level the vegetation is stunted and alpine-looking on account of the wind.
I was watching where I was putting my feet when a small movement caught my eye. A search in the undergrowth revealed a strikingly patterned lizard—Stewart Island’s rare harlequin gecko, one of New Zealand’s most attractive reptiles. The bold trapeziums that covered it, outrageous at first glance, gave superb camouflage beneath the angles of the Gleichenia fronds.
As we motored out through Cook Arm and back up to North Arm in the early evening, the sun showed through the cloud, its rays brightening the bush and coaxing the rata’s flowering embers into flame. All round the coast here bush grows almost to the water’s edge. Although there are a few sandy bays, the shore is mostly rocky and steep. Wherever humus can lodge, the forest starts and then doesn’t stop. I found the relentlessness of it vaguely oppressive. I felt there was nothing inviting about this shoreline, had no desire to climb upon it. This reaction surprised me. Elsewhere in New Zealand, bush coming down to the sea is a relic to be treasured. In the North Island there is almost none of it. How intimidating the forest must have been to immigrants from urban and pastoral Europe a century-and-a-half ago.
On the way back up the coast to Halfmoon Bay we nosed into a couple of bays south of Lords River. Noel Bulman, a keen hunter, had his eye cocked for deer on the beaches, and I asked him about the animals.
“I’ve been coming down to Stewart Island chasing deer since 1948,” he told me. “Whitetail mainly, though there are a few reds at the middle and top end of the island. The thing about whitetail is that they are only this high”—he indicated something the size of a goat—”meaning they can go through much smaller holes than you can. Some people go crashing through the bush after them, but they don’t usually do too well. The other way, which I favour, is to go to a clearing, spread a bit of broadleaf around, and wait. Some people have even put maimais up trees. Quite a few locals also cruise the coastline with spotlights at night and pick them off.”
A good number of hunters come over from the mainland to pursue whitetail deer—”grey ghosts”—the coun‑try’s main population of which resides on Stewart Island. Nine were liberated at Port Pegasus in 1905, but they have since spread over the whole island.
Deer are at the centre of a major dispute on Stewart Island. DoC would like to see them eradicated, along with all other pests, but many islanders regard deer hunting as an integral part of living on Stewart Island. Greg Northe, manager of a salmon farm and a skilled carver, is one.
“I came for a visit in 1988 with a pack and a rifle and I’ve never left. I grew up with hunting and fishing, and Stewart Island is just perfect for that sort of life.”
Northe believes recreational hunting is keeping whitetail deer under control and can continue to do so. There is also an economic argument. “Three thousand hunters a year come to the island, probably spending $1 million in the process on food, transport, accommodation and so on. All of us hunters favour getting rid of possums, cats, rats and the rest, but feel strongly that deer should be left. DoC recently admitted they weren’t doing much damage at present levels. Nonetheless, DoC see deer as an enemy, and even if they don’t drop 1080 this time, they might next time round.”
As we talked, Greg went out to attend to his smoker. “Those split salmon are just right. Christmas presents for North Island relatives. While the smoker’s going well, I’ll drop in a ham. The food here is just fantastic. Oysters—you get magnificent ones diving near the rocks where the boats can’t trawl—mussels, crays, paua, salmon, scallops, cockles, cod, venison, muttonbirds. I love muttonbirds, and swap a couple of boned-out deer for a pail each year.” He thought for a minute, then said, “If DoC poisoned all the deer here, I’d probably shift to the West Coast.”
When I spoke to Jessyca Bernard, DoC’s officer in charge of Stewart Island, about “the 1080 issue,” she asked,”What 1080 issue? We’ve produced a pest management strategy with about 35 approaches to getting rid of pests on the island, of which 1080 is just one. We’ll be holding meetings with the community in the first half of 2002 to see what it wants. Meanwhile, there’s all this talk of 1080 and this much suspicion of it”—she spread her arms wide—”based on this much fact”—thumb and first finger a centi‑metre apart. “I don’t think anything we can say will change their minds.”
As I talked with other locals about the issue, it became clear that fears about 1080 had outstripped fact. DoC is concerned about the health of the island’s forests—that’s its mandate—and has established that, whereas deer numbers have not grown in 20 years, possum numbers have soared. Possums, not deer, are DoC’s main enemy, and the department has identified six blocks, each of about 5000 ha, where possums are in urgent need of control. How is this to be achieved? The method has yet to be decided, but one option is to use aerial drops of 1080, a method that has been effective elsewhere in the country. One advantage of 1080 poisoning over other methods is that the poison remains active in dead prey for a time, thus achieving a secondary kill of cats and rats when they eat the carcasses.
The problem is that deer as well as possums are attracted to the cereal-based 1080 pellets. From Doc’s point of view, this, too, is no bad thing. It has decided at a national level that all deer everywhere in New Zealand should be eliminated, as their growth comes at the expense of native flora, and Doc’s legislated task is to protect native organisms. However, for hunters, the death of deer by any means other than a recreational bullet is anathema.
In spring 2001, a 1080 drop to reduce possum numbers in the Blue Mountains of West Otago was reported to have killed hundreds of deer and made headlines around the country—precisely the outcome Stewart Island hunters fear. Feelings have run so hot over the matter that there have been threats to liberate mustelids on Ulva Island if 1080 is dropped.
Mistrust of Doc and suspicion of 1080 go well beyond the hunting fraternity. Helen Cave, a prominent businesswoman on the island, told me she thought the hunters really loved the island, that the deer didn’t do any real harm and she’d be sad to see them go. “And 1080 gets into insects, so how do we know it won’t hurt kiwi?” she added. John Leask, a quietly spoken 70-year-old ex-fisherman and husband of the Anglican vicar, wondered whether the poison would get into the waterways and harbours as well. Most people I spoke with espoused similar views.
There is no doubt that the 1080 issue gets sheeted home to the national park, increasing local ambivalence about the park and fuelling paranoia about DoC. Locals suspect DoC will consult them but then do what it wants regardless, over 1080 and other park matters. As Cave commented, “DoC is very powerful here, controlling most of the island, an island locals have seen as theirs since long before DoC came on the scene. But DoC has the moral high ground and it’s very hard to fight them. It’s like disagreeing with religious relatives.”
I suspected the communication impasse cut both ways. In my conversations with islanders I had offered tidbits such as the fact that 1080 breaks down quickly in water. that only 2 to 3 kg of bait per hectare is dropped (containing about two spoonfuls of 1080), and that surely DoC wouldn’t do anything that could jeopardise the wildlife they were charged with protecting. None of it cut any ice.
On the other hand, I wondered about the “centimetre” of disquieting fact Jessyca Bernard had mentioned. Malcolm Wylie, a local Doc officer, told me that in Pureora Forest 1080 had killed some tomtits and robins, and that it is indeed toxic to insects. “We think the birds in pureora ate poisoned carrot, because at that time we were using very finely chopped carrot bait. Since then we have switched to green-dyed cereal bait because it is less attractive to non-target species.” He explained that few,
If any, birds die from eating poisoned insects, and nowhere have kiwi been killed. In high rainfall areas, soil organisms break the poison down in a month or two, and the dilution factor means that 1080 is never a problem in waterways.
When i put the deer versus Doc question to Ron Tindal he gave me a blunt reply. “As in a lot of less populated areas, the locals tend to see themselves as above the law. They think the forest should be a% adable for anything they want to do. It’s not an attitude I’m sympathetic to. Personally, I think that hunters and their lobby are a major menace to the country.”
Tindal came to Stewart Island 27 years ago with the Forest Service, and when DoC was formed in 1987 he became the island’s first conservator. Stewart Island was then a separate conservancy; now it is administered as part of Southland.
I asked him what he felt were the unique features of the island. “Although there has been quite a bit of timber milling here, the land has healed back to bush rather than going into farmland,” he told me. “Floods are released slowly from the land, and this means that there is little silt in the water. In 1978 we had a big flood in the Freshwater River system. Water went right through the but and we took trampers out by dinghy in the moonlight. Next day there were a few manuka leaves on the table top, but no silt in the but at all. The water here is always clear, and mudbanks are very stable. They may date back to the last glaciation. Some banks have stable angles of 70 degrees.
“The island is made up of three main blocks: Mt Anglem in the north, Mt Rakeahua in the centre and the Tin Range in the south. Each has a different type of vegetation. Mt Anglem has a flora quite similar to that of Fiordland, but the other two are different from it and each other. For instance, they all have their own arrays of tussocks, some of them undescribed species.
“Soils here are pathetic. The forest grows in a humus layer on top of rock, and there are no taproots. Basically, all the trees grow almost hydroponically and hold each other up. Young rimu are very abundant, especially in the logged areas. They seem to like our high level of cloud cover and frequent gentle showers, and dislike bright sun.
“The forest seems to regenerate directly, without going through a nurse crop, but it probably still takes a century for rimu to reach a canopy height of 20 m. There are no beech on the island, which is pretty odd, and nobody really knows why. Kahikatea occur in one patch the size of a couple of football fields, and matai is rare. On the other hand, miro is common and fruits every year, which is probably the reason kaka flourish here. There have only been four good years for rimu fruiting since I’ve been here, though the rata has done better. Fuchsia are good food for birds and common around the village, though keeling over from possum attack elsewhere.”
How did he feel about the imminent national park, and fears of rampant tourism? “Effectively, we have had a national park for years now, and I don’t think the changes will be very great. Most tourism happens in the three months of summer, and what large tourist outfits are going to be happy pouring big money into something that is heavily occupied only three months of the year? Add to that the high number of rain days, the sea crossing, the cost of getting here and the lack of accessible ‘tourist scenery’ and I don’t think that national park status will make for a huge change.
“Make no mistake, I love Stewart Island and I think it is a wonderful place, but it is subtle wonderful—the roundedness of the granite domes, the variety of greens in shrub and forest, the sky still aglow at 10.45 P.M. The sea is unique here, too. Some of us are seeking to change Southland’s coastal plan for Paterson Inlet to prevent any extension of marine farming. Everyone agrees it is a wonderful stretch of water with unique ecosystems, such as beds of red algae and free-living brachiopods. However, Southland is very pro-development, and the argument is that you are creating jobs. In fact, Bluff benefits from marine farming here more than Stewart Island does, so we’d like to prevent further alteration of the inlet.”
Not surprisingly, Tindal’s view is not shared by Murray Schofield, one of the pioneers of aquaculture on the island. In 1979, Schofield, a Stewart Island cod and cray fisher, proposed a plan for salmon farming in Big Glory Bay, on the eastern side of Paterson Inlet. The idea was trialled and proved successful, and Schofield went on to manage one of the early local initiatives, Regal Salmon, for several years. “I gave up fishing for fish farming,” he said. “Although toxic algal blooms put paid to some operators, Regal and New Zealand Salmon [another local effort] survived.”
Schofield would like to see more aquaculture in Paterson Inlet—perhaps another four or five family-sized farms. “Different people start from different premises on this issue,” he told me. “Some folk start with wanting to preserve the natural environment. I start with the welfare of the village here. We have three income flows: fishing, which is limited by the Quota Management System, tourism and aquaculture. I’d like to see them all in balance. It gives the island a more stable financial base, rather than just depending on, say, tourism.”
I asked whether several new tourist operations mightn’t be better in Paterson Inlet than more aquaculture. “Why not have both?” he countered. “There’s plenty of room.”
Inevitably, conversation turned to the national park. Schofield, a former deer culler and forester with the Department of Internal Affairs and then chief ranger of Fiordland National Park, has made a number of submissions to the Conservation Authority concerning the park. He argues that rather than wasting money on piecemeal pest-control efforts on the main island, it would be better to create more pest-free refuges (such as Ulva and Codfish Islands) on the many small islands off the coast.
He is also concerned that the national park might assume de facto control of surrounding sea areas, although the park boundaries will not extend below the mean high-water mark. In Fiordland National Park, he says, the consent process for tourism concessions treats the adjacent waters as if they are part of the park itself. “There, a protectionist attitude to the sea has little effect on the economic prosperity of Te Anau or Manapouri, which derive income from farming, but the effects of such an approach on Halfmoon Bay could be devastating.”
Schofield also feels land should be set aside for future expansion of the township. A buffer zone of DoC land is being created between the town and the park “to calm nervous locals,” but Schofield says the Conservation Authority has already intimated this could later be incorporated in the park. He argues that some of it should become freehold land for the town, and points out that, despite its supposed high conservation values, it was all milled less than 100 years ago.
Sitting in the Schofields’ comfortable home above Ringaringa Bay, overlooking the waters of Paterson Inlet, I asked Murray and his wife, Nancy, about Stewart Island fishing. They fished together for seven years, ranging as far south as the Snares. For part of that time their children lived on board, their son doing Correspondence School lessons and their daughter working as crew.
“During the crayfishing peak up until 1988, the island became a matriarchal society,” Nancy said. “The men were away fishing and the women had to run everything. You used to hear the comment, ‘Aren’t men a pest in the off season?'” Nancy chuckled. She was one of the few women to go fishing with their husbands. “It was quite different in Te Anau. There if you were apart you had split up. Down here separation was the norm. If you were a man and around town, you were loafing.”
More fishing insights came from John Leask, whose forebears arrived on Stewart Island from the Orkney Islands via the Otago goldfields in 1862. Leask’s father fished, and Leask himself started fishing full time at the age of 13, stopping only two-and-a-half years ago at age 68. He still takes tourists cod fishing every second day.
Cod was the first species he fished, using a pair of hand lines, each with six hooks, but in about 1950 he switched to lobsters. “We caught them with a hoop and net, and got one-and-sixpence a pound, which later rose to four-andsix for tails. For comparison, when I started cod fishing we got 13 shillings and sixpence per hundred pounds, headed and gutted, and I’d average two to three hundred pounds a day. With paua, initially we threw the meat away and just kept the shells, and then we got ninepence a pound for the meat. Last year paua foot meat reached $130 a kilogram, and its currently $85-90.”
Did he have qualms about development on the island? “Not as many as some. People forget that at times there have been 1000 residents here. When I was a boy there were five large boarding houses catering for visitors. Three of them burned down and only the pub survives now.”
I dedicated it was time I went fishing. A couple of mornings later I was on the wharf at 6.30, watching a little blue penguin chasing small fish through the glass-clear water. The penguin seemed to combine the manoeuvrability of a fantail with the speed of a kingfisher. Seaweeds around Stewart Island are diverse and profuse, far richer than around Auckland and Northland. Purple sea tulips, swaying gently from the wharf piles, are another southern speciality.
Andrew Hamilton, who had agreed to take me cod fishing, launched his dinghy from the wharf into the water three metres below simply by giving it a hefty shove. He disappeared down a ladder with his oars and returned five minutes later in Defiant, a no-frills steel mono-hull that looked as if it could defy whatever the sea threw at it.
We headed out of Halfmoon Bay towards East Cape, the area where Hamilton had left his pots the previous evening. Islanders discovered decades ago that the easiest way to catch cod was in baited pots, similar to the way crayfish are caught. Each boat works half a dozen pots, dropping them off with marker buoys and bringing them up using an electric hauler. Pots spend only an hour or two on the bottom, the time it takes to go round the set.
As soon as the first of Hamilton’s pots broke the surface, a few mollymawks and Cape pigeons glided in, hopeful of an easy meal. Fat cod flapped in the pot for a few seconds as it was swung aboard, then subsided. More mollymawks arrived. Within seconds, 40 of them were clustered round our stern. Hamilton tossed an undersized cod into the sea and half a dozen mollies swooped on it. The quickest one gulped the 30 cm fish whole.
I was intrigued to see the big birds were poor at dealing with fish too large to eat this way, ineffectually pecking at them, their hook-tipped bills all but useless. One dived underwater to seize an escaping fish, swallowing it there to avoid harassment on the surface.
The pots were baited with paua guts, a slurry close in colour and texture to liquid cow manure. Hamilton regularly plunged his hands into this rich mix as he filled the long bait cylinders. He placed the pots very carefully at the interfaces between rock and sand 30 m down, using a bottom imager for guidance. He was happy to spend five minutes getting his positioning just so. Ten fish per haul was on the lean side, 20 fair, more desirable. Our first two rounds of the pots yielded only some three bins of fish, but after high tide our luck improved.
Fishing like this all day is demanding work. The big steel pots weigh 75 kg empty and require quite a bit of shoving and lugging on deck. Skill, speed, strength and a watchful eye are constantly required. Grappling the floats and getting the rope aboard and into the hauler while simultaneously steering the boat is demanding for one man working alone, especially when a sea is running. Sometimes Hamilton has help, but then he earns less.
Early in the afternoon we nosed into a bay and Hamilton started to fillet the fish, at a rate of about 20 seconds a fish. Later, in the shore factory, the fillets would be skinned and the strip of bones removed. Peter Tait had told me that blue cod was better not skinned fresh. “Fresh filleting removes a fat layer under the skin that causes a loss of flavour. If you freeze it, the skin comes off without the fat, and you get more flavour.”
The filleting attracted even more mollymawks. Eighty or so were soon squabbling beside the boat. Although mollies can produce a gentle cooing sound, when excited they open their bills and emit a harsh shriek comparable to the sound of a high-revving model aeroplane engine.
After a few more circuits of the pots, we headed back—me steering, Hamilton filleting all the way and the mollies following. One bird landed in the boat. As we turned into Halfmoon Bay, almost all the mollies dropped back, to be replaced by red-billed gulls. By 6 P.m., Hamilton had filleted nine bins of cod (about 150 kg of fillets) and, after paying for quota and the boat, stood to make about $300 for 12 hours’ work—a good result.
Crayfish and paua are the other main quota species in the waters round Stewart Island. One evening I joined Garry Neave and his crewman as they returned from an eight-day crayfishing trip to the southern part of the island. They were transferring a large bin of smaller trays and half a bin of big ones to holding cages off Lonnekers Beach. Some of the largest specimens weighed 4.5 kg and would fetch $100 apiece.
“We trim the claws on the big males to make them less dangerous,” Neave said. The lobsters were carefully extracted from the mass of crawling bodies in the bin one at a time, then tossed into the cage, which had been winched against the boat’s side. “Some of these big guys could be 30 or 40 years old, but there’s a good spread of sizes, which indicates a healthy population.”
I asked how long they could live in a holding cage. “Months,” Neave said. “We’ll feed them fish or mussels every couple of weeks and they’ll be fine.”
“Aren’t they overcrowded in there?” I suggested.
“Not at all. They normally live in holes, and sometimes they’re so tightly packed you can’t get them out.”
Lance LeQuesne, a paua diver, was standing beside his boat—a fast-looking 8 m twin-hull powered by a pair of 225 hp outboards—when I called at his home. “If there is half a day of fine weather somewhere round the island, I want to be able to get there. It can be worth $10,000 to me.” I must have raised my eyebrows. LeQuesne noticed. “It’s dangerous work,” he said. “We often see white pointers, and a couple of times in the last year I’ve been grabbed by a sealion and dragged down.”
As if to keep him vigilant, inside the house was a coffee table with the head of a white pointer erupting from the surface, mouth agape. LeQuesne had carved it himself from a single piece of eucalyptus. Nearby was a beautifully rendered life-sized bulldog, lifting its leg against a piece of furniture, and across the room some smaller John Dories. A large wooden albatross was a time capsule, to be opened by his daughter when she turns 21.
Out in the shed was a 6 m-long rimu log that LeQuesne and Greg Northe had carved, depicting Stewart Island’s story. Maori ancestors were shown, together with kiwi, kakapo, dotterel, fishing boats, mussels—anything with a Stewart Island connection. Maui’s rope spiralled round the whole creation (in legend, Rakiura was the anchor stone of his canoe). Towards the top, contemporary institutions such as the fire service were depicted, and at the very top were futuristic suggestions from today’s children. These included a solar-powered aircraft capable of carrying 5000 passengers, passenger submarines (so visitors to the island could avoid seasickness) and kiwi that had redeveloped their wings to thwart predators. It was a magnificent piece, destined to be erected in the village.
Many smaller New Zealand communities in pleasant locations have attracted a strong artistic element. Nelson, Golden Bay, Coromandel, Waiheke Island and the Otago Peninsula all spring to mind. Stewart Island is an exception. The two carvers I met, both part-timers, were the only artists I encountered on the island. Perhaps the settler work ethic lives on, and art doesn’t qualify as work. Perhaps the reason is the high cost of living in a place where most essentials have to be shipped in.
Almost nobody on Stewart Island looks rich. There are no smart cars and few flashy houses; boats are sturdy, not ostentatious, and clothes practical. Yet make no mistake, the Stewart Island community is unusually affluent. A number of the cannier fishing families are now very comfortably off. They held on to fish quota and purchased more when it was going cheap. Cod quota dropped as low
as $1300 a tonne while today it is $13,000, and paua and cray quota now fetch something like $200,000 a tonne. Various people remarked to me in the course of conversation that they owned “30 tonnes of cod quota,” or “17 tonnes plus some cray.” Many older owners no longer fish their quota but derive income from leasing it out.
Contributing to the island’s affluence in recent years has been aquaculture, concentrated in Big Glory Bay. Jim Barrett ferried me there in his little alloy runabout one Saturday morning. Barrett’s introduction to aquaculture was at a salmon farm, 17 years ago. On his second day on the job, a dinghy was swamped in rough weather. One man died in the water of a heart attack, and Barrett helped rescue others. Despite that harrowing start, he stayed for 13 years and now owns his own mussel farm.
Big Glory Bay was not the eyesore some residents’ comments had led me to expect. There were no buildings on the shore, and bush ran down to the water as undisturbed as elsewhere. Black mussel-farm floats speckled a fair stretch of water, but the salmon farm was compact, with only a small group of buildings on a barge. The water looked clear, which worried Barrett: murky water contains more plankton, the food of mussels. “Maybe there are getting to be too many mussels here for the food available,” he mused. This year Barrett hopes to harvest around 300 tonnes of three-year-old mussels, probably a tenth of the total being produced in the Big Glory Bay area. Prices are exceptionally good at present—$1000 a tonne.
We cruised across to the only remaining salmon farm, now owned by Sanfords. Large-diameter sealed pipes provide a buoyant framework for the walkways and nets. Some 75,000 juveniles are placed in each net enclosure, but that number declines as the fish grow. Fed on high-protein, high-oil pellets imported from Australia, the fish take two years to reach an optimal 2-3 kg. At the time of my visit, eight tonnes of pellets a day were being fed (at a cost of $2000 a tonne), in part because there was a large stock of oversize (5-6kg) fish.
In one pen were several magnificent big salmon, each with gashes along the belly inflicted by seals that had bitten the fish through the mesh. Seal attacks are a big problem, and the wily pinnipeds even climb into the pens. Electric fences discourage such ingenuity
“I enjoy it out here,” said Ron Moyle, the watchman, who spends a week-long shift in the modest living quarters. “I turn the generators off when I can so I can hear the birds—bitterns, shining cuckoo, kiwi. We also see shags and blue and yellow-eyed penguins—several pairs nest around the bay.” About 3000 tonnes of salmon a year come from the farm’s few hectares, making Big Glory’s waters the island’s most productive.
Althought the salmon farm is the biggest employer on Stewart Island, many inhabitants, especially the newer arrivals, are involved with neither fishing nor aquaculture. While on holiday on the Island over Easter 1996, Chris Lachmann said to her German husband, “I could live here. Could you?” “Yes,” he replied, and two days later they bought a house. Holga, a chef, has had no trouble fmding work, though much of it takes the form of small jobs. “Sometimes I have done five jobs in a day,” he told me. “Leading a kayak trip, helping the plumber, gardening, the fire brigade and cooking for a dinner party.”
“The fire brigade?” I enquired.
“Yes,” chimed in Chris. “He became fascinated with pumps, and someone suggested the Monday night volunteer fire bridage practice would be a good place to learn about them.”
Holga: “We raise funds by delivering water when people’s tanks run short in summer. We get quite a few call-outs, too, often for things like carrying people out of the bush, home accidents, pumping out boats.”
Holga’s main job now was head chef for the hotel, but he was still did a variety of other jobs on the side.
Ronnie and Raylene Waddell were Southland schoolteachers who had been taking holidays on the island for 14 years and decided to retire there. “There’s a romantic notion about living here, but the reality is that it’s very expensive,” Ronnie said. “Coal is expensive, petrol is expensive, diesel is expensive, and building costs are 20 per cent higher than on the mainland. Wine prices aren’t too bad, but the selection isn’t anything to write home about.
“The idea of living in a small close community is attractive, but petty cliques and jealousies are the other side of the coin. How did Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple know human nature so well? She grew up in a small village. We maintain friendships on the mainland to keep balanced.”
The Waddells told me of one amusing squabble that had been happening just along the road. “Ken’s part-Maori, and whenever he comes to the island he flies a flag from his flagpole. It’s the flag Busby used when he set up the Northern Confederation in 1835. Down the hill lives John, who comes from a different tribal group, and he believes Te Rauparaha not only beat but ate the other lot, so as soon as the flag goes up he starts playing hakas from the opposition to irritate Ken!
“Race relations here are generally very good, and there’s no social pretentiousness. People are appreciated for their practical skills. The chairman of the school board is also the school cleaner and works at the shop.
“Two practice nurses run the medical service and it’s fantastic. I had a possible angina attack a while ago. The nurses did an ECG and faxed it to Kew Hospital , in Invercargill. They decided we shouldn’t take chances and sent a plane to airlift me to hospital. It proved to be a false alarm, but it was all done at no charge. I’ve had results of a blood test delivered to my door. They do house calls, run an ambulance, organise care for the elderly and it’s all free.”
Like many others, the Waddells have dipped their toes into the tourism pool. They have extended their house with a couple of bedrooms and a lounge for guests. But they see the island’s future as delicately balanced. “If visitor numbers doubled, it would put too much strain on the power and sewerage systems, and the island itself couldn’t afford to upgrade them. On the other hand, without tourism the population will contract and the whole place could become non-viable, left to only a few fishermen.”
Children are the future, on Stewart Island as elsewhere. The primary school caters for no more than 30 pupils, although in the past it has had as many as 100. Secondary school students are sent to board on the mainland—a solution not without its problems. Peter Tait told me it was increasingly difficult to find board or suitable schools, and that putting his two children through secondary schools, one private, the other public, had cost $120,000.
When I asked Gwen Neave, a resident of 35 years and a former Stewart Island representative on the Southland District Council, how the island was changing, she lamented that it was “losing the essence of being a close community. Youngsters are less committed to the island than they used to be. Mainland social diseases have spread here. We are not immune to vandalism, loutish behaviour or alcohol abuse. There has been more drug-growing lately, but we have a good policeman now.”
Gwen, who is married to crayfisher Garry Neave, spoke of “Stewart Islanditis,” of seeing smart, busy people come to live on the island and, after a few years, grow a bit sloppy, spend more time in the pub and cease to care as much. “There is an apathy about the outside world which is not healthy. We used to have house concerts with top pianists, and although many visitors would turn up, there would be very few islanders. When Tariana Turia spoke here, only nine came. May Chen got 20. For A Midsummer Night’s Dream there were 30 islanders and 100 visitors.”
Her comments didn’t surprise me. Islanders had recently completed a huge and magnificent community hall at a cost of well over $1 million, but during my weeks on the island I had seen few signs of it being used.
I thought back to Peggy Wilson’s comments about control of the island being kept in the hands of the islanders. Others had spoken about the futility of solutions to island problems coming from “outside”—meaning Southland. Neave said matters weren’t quite so clear-cut: “Until 1989 there was a Stewart Island County Council that muddled along. It consisted of good, respected people for the most part, but we’d had little experience and it got into terrible financial trouble. The Southland District Council came in and picked up the pieces. Self-government here has been tried and found wanting.”
Despite the fact that most islanders felt their community was changing for the worse, there was still an informality, kindness and willingness to oblige one associates with the best of small-town life. When I was leaving Helen Cave’s house, I mentioned in passing that I was running late for my next interview. Quick as a flash, Helen said: “Take Liz’s car. That OK, Liz?”
“Sure, just leave it somewhere down in the town when you’ve finished. I’ll find it. That’ll be cool.”
It may have been cool with her, but I wasn’t so sure. I’d chatted with Liz for five minutes and her mother for an hour-and-a-half, and here they were offering me a car. Although I accepted the offer, when I abandoned the little grey Honda City two hours later near the post office, keys in the ignition, doors unlocked, I felt uneasy. Even on Stewart Island, where most locals know whose cars belong to whom, it still went against the grain. You just didn’t do this anymore—not on the mainland, you didn’t.
In his excellent book Stewart Island Explored, Invercargill historian John Hall-Jones quotes botanist Leonard Cockayne’s 1909 assessment of the island, words which to my mind capture the uniqueness of the place: “The capabilities of Stewart Island as a pleasure resort can hardly be overestimated. That it will eventually be celebrated not only in New Zealand, but throughout Australasia, is certain. The face of the world is changing so rapidly that soon there will be little of primitive Nature left. The Old World is practically gone for ever. Here then is the Island’s prime advantage and one hard to overestimate. It is an actual piece of the primeval world.” And a rich piece at that. I suspect that our 14th national park contains a greater variety of terrain, forest, coastline and unusual organisms than any one of the other 13.
In a similar way, the human side of Stewart Island is a relic of an older New Zealand, when people actually lived in strong communities rather than just bandying the term about and when folk worked hard to wrest a living from nature.
Older locals are right to feel under threat, but the national park is just another step along a one-way path to modernity down which the island has already come a fair distance. If only the local community could be as readily protected as their island’s natural features.