“The face of the earth is changing so rapidly that soon there will be little of primitive nature left. In the old world, it is practically gone forever. Here, then, is Stewart Island’s prime advantage, and one hard to overestimate. It is an actual piece of the primeval world.” – Leonard Cockayne, 1909
Growing up, I was in search of the perfect small town. I filled a folder with design after design of 1950s-esque Pleasantvilles, black-and-white layouts of Main Streets and Boulevards, of soda fountains, one-stop shops and towns with one high school. I loved coming up with street names and prominent geographical features, imagining anecdotes of how the owner of the diner was in love with the fire chief. Little did I know that what I sketched out already existed. It wasn’t ‘til I sailed to Stewart Island, New Zealand’s third largest island, that I discovered the little haven of utopia that exists south of the South Island…
…But that wasn’t until I’d reached the island. The ferry ride over is a whole other story. My experience with ferries has always been with sort of substantial pieces of construction, whether crossing the English Channel to France, the Baltic Sea from Estonia to Finland, or even just to Ocracoke Island in North Carolina. I’d been used to the kind of ships with the capacity to hold hundreds of vehicles and that could almost double as cruise ships for all the amenities they offer. But over all that, what they offered me was a kind of stability of being able to handle any wave that came our way. So imagine my surprise when I arrived in the town of Bluff, from where I was to board the ferry to Stewart Island, only to find that I was to leave my rental car in storage for the night as the ferry itself was a mere 23-metre catamaran (about 75 feet). I would be crossing the Foveaux Strait in a catamaran?
It was every bit of treacherous as it sounds…or so it seemed to my stomach. For any of you who have surfed, or even boogie-boarded, before, think of the way your board goes sometimes when you go over a wave while paddling out: vertical. Now imagine the ferry approaching the waves of Foveaux Strait in a similar manner. This did not bode well for my stomach. I’m normally fine in situations like this, or on things like roller coasters – but I suppose the difference there being a two-minute ride followed by a two-hour wait before the next onslaught of twists and turns. The first vertical lift and dip on the ferry, my stomach dropped. I knew I was in trouble. The second drop, I took a deep breath and rolled my eyes in a “you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me” kind of way, but one of the ferry attendants happened to catch my look. She walked over and advised taking off a few layers to stay cool. And as reluctant as I was to shed the bubble of warmth that is my black Kathmandu puffer jacket, I appreciated the tip as it wasn’t long before I was clutching the back of the seat in front of me, breaking into a sweat despite the frigid air, and reaching for the conveniently-placed white motion-sickness bags. Fifteen minutes into the crossing and I lost it.
I had spent the previous night in Invercargill, where I met another girl in my hostel also bound for Stewart Island the next day. An exchange student from Germany, Jenny obviously came from stronger stock, for she sat next to me on the ferry relatively placid in comparison to my constant resorts to the white bags. The attendant even brought over a cool compress for the back of my neck…was I really that much of a weakling? But I had passed the point of caring. When we reached blessed land, I made straight for the lone supermarket on the island and loaded up on ginger beer and saltine crackers. Jenny and I checked into our hostel for the night and promptly settled down on the couches of the lounge for a little Ferry Recovery Time. It was cold, raining, and all I could really be bothered doing was reading and nursing my poor fragile stomach back to health.
At which point you have to ask yourself, is this really what I came all this way for? And I could’ve easily spent all day on that couch, but thankfully had pre-booked a Village and Bays Tour, whose $40 ticket price was enough to get me out and about, if only for a little while. As it turned out, the tour ended up being completely worth the money – nice when that happens, eh? The woman leading the tour, Kylie, grew up on the island, except for a few years spent away in school and university, and was able to lend a local’s perspective on the town as she drove four Asian tourists and myself around. If there is one word to describe Stewart Island’s position in relation to the rest of New Zealand, it would undoubtedly be isolation. Permanent residents of the village, Oban (or Halfmoon Bay, as it’s also known, a perfect name which I am totally stealing for my next town), barely number 400, and about twice that number move in during the summer for seasonal work.
And you know how I mentioned the miniature utopia to be found here? This is a place with no dentist, no hospital, no high school, and no doctor, only two district nurses who run a medical clinic. This is place with one police offer who spends the bulk of his time processing search and rescue forms from hikers. This is a place with thirteen children enrolled in the primary school, and where the town flies a hairdresser over from Invercargill every six weeks or so, who then sets up shop in the fire station for a couple of days. This is a place with a six-hole golf course and an Olympic-sized basketball court, although as Kylie shared, “I’m not sure how many Olympic games we think we’re gonna hold.” This is a place living in another time.
One supermarket (“the shop”), one pub, two churches…it’s a town on a scale unlike anything I’d ever seen…even in Iowa! And while fishing has always been the main source of income, Kylie remarked that they are evolving slowly to adapt to the increase in tourism over the years. But the island is doing so in a way that allows them to remain in control of how tourism influences their lifestyle. The last thing they want to become is another Queenstown (no offence, Queenstown!). And Stewart Islanders are remarkably self-sufficient. They’ve got their own diesel-fueled power station and rely on rainwater for their household supply of water – I suppose you have to do something with all that water given that it rains 275 days a year.
And after all that, the residents of Oban take up only 2% of the island – a fact they’re understandably proud of. With another 13% in Maori hands, the remaining 85% comprise Rakiura National Park, the country’s 14th national park that opened in 2002 with a ceremony even attended by New Zealand’s own Edmund Hillary. The island doesn’t come off as terribly large, but apparently one of the tramps takes twelve days, so that gives you some idea as to the hidden treasure Stewart Island seems to be. All on its own, there was even a bronze plaque with the phrase, “I must go over to New Zealand some day – Stewart Islander.” I was surprised by the number of Kiwis I spoke with in Christchurch who have never even visited the island. But I suppose it’s often our backyard that gets neglected when we’re so eager to walk out the front door and explore.
Our last stop on the tour was Lee Bay, where my photo-journalistic-need-for-photo-ops was delighted to find a massive rust-red chain link just chilling on the beach. But it did more than break up shot after shot of misty coastline; it was there in connection to the original Maori name for the island – Te Punga o Te Waka a Mauri, or “The Anchor Stone of Maui’s Canoe.” The name originates from the Maori creation legend of how Maui, a Polynesian voyager, and his crew pulled Stewart Island up from the sea to use as an anchor for their canoe – the South Island – as they “raised the great fish” – the North Island. And as Neville Peat wrote in 1992:
“Stewart Island anchors more than Maui’s canoe. It anchors in its rocks, rivers and rugged shores, and in its garnishment of plants and animals, the hope of generations unborn that places like this will always exist.”
The tour complete, I braved the elements (you know, the usual rain-wind-cold combo to be expected in mid-winter) and hiked to Observation Rock (only because the sign said two-minute walk, so don’t be impressed), bought supplies for dinner from The Shop, and unsuccessfully tried to get a mocha from two different establishments (one of which was closed until September…blast you, winter!). A part of me felt I should take more advantage of my time on the island, but a [huge] other part was cold and just wanted to curl up on a couch and hibernate. When I returned to my hostel, I found one guy in the same place in the lounge – asleep in front of the TV – where he had been when I left for my tour earlier. So I didn’t feel too bad after all as I cooked up some ravioli, cracked open my book, and settled down to spend my first Fourth of July sans fireworks on Stewart Island.