There are a surprising amount of things to do and see on a day trip to Stewart Island. Our priority was a side trip to Ulva Island, famous as a wildlife sanctuary and home to many rare native birds.
Our ferry left Bluff at 8am and almost immediately began swooping, surfing, and crashing into the waves. Spray flew higher than the windows. The skipper told us the Foveaux Strait is notoriously rough as it’s the meeting point of the Pacific and Southern Oceans and the Tasman Sea. The crossing took around an hour and Stewart Island with its scatter of smaller islets gradually came into view.
Arriving at Halfmoon Bay, we got our first sight of Oban, Stewart Island’s township. We had three hours before our water taxi was due to leave for Ulva Island and so decided to explore Oban. Before we headed into the settlement though, we took a short walk in the opposite direction to the protected, sandy Bathing Beach where ours were the only footprints on the pristine sand.
I’m sure it’s lovely to swim there on a sunny afternoon but we weren’t tempted at just after 9am in the morning. The track looped back into Oban. I had read there were very few places to get food and drink on Stewart Island, so we were happy to see a small cafe—the Kiwi French Cafe—where we got coffee and cake before wandering around the few streets of the township.
The Golden Bay track
The Ulva Island boats leave from Golden Bay Wharf—a 15-minute walk by road—but we opted to walk the Deep Bay to Golden Bay track, which leaves the town by way of the steep Petersons Hill Road and passes through Deep Bay Reserve before reaching Deep Bay in the Paterson Inlet. The track then undulates, with steps taking walkers up and down through coastal forest with peeps out into the inlet.
The walk brought us to Golden Bay where we received our boarding passes: leaves from the puheretaiko plant, known as muttonbird scrub. The papery underside of these leaves was used for postcards on Stewart Island and was legal post up until the 1970s.
Flora and fauna found on Stewart Island
Our water taxi was waiting when we arrived at the wharf. Although we had booked for the regular noon run, there were five others waiting, so our boatman took us straight across, half an hour early. We were pleased about this because we had realised that the complete circuit of walking track at the Ulva Island Reserve would take more time than the person at the Invercargill i-Site had suggested when we booked.
The Ulva Island forest is denser than most mainland forests, as, with no pests or introduced animals to eat the saplings, young trees thrive. Rimu, totara, miro, and rata towered high while ferns, smaller shrubs, and supplejack tangle below. We sat down at Sydney Cove to eat our picnic lunch and were soon visited by friendly weka and a Stewart Island robin, who hopped around our feet.
After walking for about an hour-and-a half, we stopped to rest on a seat beside the path. Glancing around, I suddenly saw a kiwi, just metres away on the other side of the track. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I had always thought kiwi were nocturnal.
For about 15 minutes, this bird put on a show for us, plunging her beak deep into holes and jerking out the worms or grubs she found. We would probably have missed the boat back, as we were so enthralled, but some other walkers approached, so we signalled to them to creep up and we continued on our way.
Back on Stewart Island, we again took a longer way back to Oban, this time going through the bush of the Raroa and Fuchsia Walks. There were pretty bushwalks but had little birdlife in comparison to Ulva Island. Reaching Oban, we hobbled into the South Sea Hotel for a coffee and a rest. We realised we had been walking for six-and-a-half hours. After a quick visit to the Stewart Island store to buy postcards, we made our way back to the ferry terminal where we were to book in for the return journey to Bluff.
Unfortunately, a previous ferry had suffered engine problems, which resulted in a slight delay, but the upside was that we had a comfortable sofa by the window to rest in, with views of the sandy beaches out to Horseshoe Point.
A couple of little blue penguins swam ashore and picked their way across the rocks and out of sight. The cruise back to Bluff was pleasant and the perfect ending to what was a fantastic day full of memorable experiences.
Tips for travelling to Stewart Island
- There are regular ferry crossings to Stewart Island from Bluff and flights from Invercargill
- Accommodation options include backpackers, B&Bs, apartments, cottages, and the iconic South Sea Hotel for those who want to spend longer on the island
- As well as several short walks on the island, trampers may tackle the three-day Rakiura Track
- Visitors can take one of many cruises, kayaking, or fishing trips that charter companies provide
- There are guided walks, night-time kiwi spotting trips, and road tours of the island