Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Stewart Island

There are 3 of us on the stray bus who have come to Stewart Island and we are here until the next bus comes on Saturday morning. Sewtard Island is the third biggest of New Zealand, after the North and South island. The population is about 400-450 permanent residents and now that it is off season there is one hotel, one hostel, one cafe, one shop, one bar (in the hotel) and one restaurant (in the hotel) open. After the hour long ferry ride across the Foveaux Strait we walked to our hostel. This is the smallest town I've ever seen. In terms of land everything is very spread out but there really isn't that much here. There is a museum, library (open 1 hour a day, 4 days a week) and the department of conservation building, as well as a school all concentrated in one area, right next to our hostel. The town in call Oban and is located on Halfmoon Bay and is the only place where people live on the island, which is about the size of Fiji. We went for a (very) short walk to explore the village then went to the museum, two rooms with both Moari and European artefacts. The Maori never really settled here, they just came seasonally for Muttonbird hunting. Whalers and sealers never really settled here either, just used it as a convenient pit-stop. It wasn't until the late 1800's that people began to settle. Now 90% of the land on Stewart Island and the surrounding little islands are part of the National Park, 5% belongs to the Maori and 2% is Oban township where people live. The English actually bought Stewart Island for £6,000 which was the most costliest purchase in the whole of NZ. Oban is centred round maybe 5 main roads and the wharf in Halfmoon Bay. Houses are spread all across the hills, there are only 28km of road on the island. There are also many walking tracks, some 10 days long around the island with camp sites along the way.

After a relaxing afternoon in the hostel we went to the pub for a drink. The locals were all wearing wellies (gumboots) jeans, waterproof jackets and had beards and longish hair. They really did fit into the stereotypy of a fisherman! One younger guy without a beard came over and talked to us for a while, trying to get us to come the the Stewart Island Singles Ball in August. His language wasn't exactly polite, he was swearing constantly but he was nice enough. He talked for ages and was very drunk, we were all laughing at him really, not with him. He said the singles ball was so big they get 2 extra policeman from the mainland to come over, it was that big of an event! I asked what he did and he seemed to have a number of odd-jobs around the island. He said when he wasn't working he was possum hunting, and told us 15-20 possums made a kilo of fur and was worth just over $100 (pretty much what the Milford Sound guide had said). If you did it for yourself you could make a bit of money as it was tax-free, the government had lifted the taxes to encourage young men to work rather than live on welfare. If you did it under contract, as in the department of conservation was paying you by the hour, there really wasn't that much money. If you try to take fur and skins or yourself then at the end of the tax year they see you had more income then you should and you end up owing the tax-man money. The pub closed at 9pm and we came back to the hostel.

Today we went on a guided walk on Ulva Island, a small island off the coast of Stewart island. It was one of the first pest free island reserves (like Somes Island from my previous post) and is home to some of the most endangered birds in New Zealand. Our guide was very informative and told us lots about the plants, birds and history of the island. It was inhabited from 1870 onwards by someone called Charles something (can't remember). He was the only one on the island but he opened up a shop and post office as he was the middle point between Stewart island and other little islands. Now there is a holiday home on there for visitors but no one lives there. The forest there is made of lots of different trees, hard and soft wood, flowering and non flowering trees and many ferns. Some of the ferns are older than the dinosaurs dating back to 350million years ago and NZ is home to 150 of the 10,000 species of fern, quite a lot for such a small land mass. New Zealand, Australia, Africa and South America all used to be part of one large super-continent called Gondwana Land. New Zealand was the first to break away about 130million years ago and was fully separate by 85mya. Snakes and Mammels started to evolve long after that but due to the oceans only birds, insects and two species of bats ever got here. 1/3 of the birds became flightless, 1/4 are nocturnal and they also became fearless due to the lack of predators. That is why the Moa (ostrich or emu like birds, some sub-species 3metres high) became extinct soon after the Maori arrived, they were big, flightless and fearless the they were an easy target. We saw Tui, parakeet, bell bird, saddleback, yellow-head, waka, oyster catchers, kaka, brown creepers, wood pigeons, blue penguins (worlds smallest penguin) and robins. The robin was very curious and followed us for a while. They are black with white chests and actually are not related to the European robins, they just got the name because the shape is the same and they act similar. We learnt which plants the Maori used and why, there is no point in me telling you now but I'll put the photos on facebook with descriptions so you can see them. Our guide was very informative and had so much knowledge, it was un believable that she could talk for four hours without notes. We were listening to the birdsongs and she could identify all the birds from the sounds they made, she could even say 'tui mimicking a bellbird.'

There are kiwis on the island but they are nocturnal so we didn't see any. She told us the Maori legend about how the kiwi became flightless. The god of the forest was becoming concerned that insects were eating the trees and killing them so he asked one of the birds to volunteer to come down to the ground and give up a life in the air. They all said no so he asked them all individually. The tui said no, he was afraid of the dark. The pukeko said no, he didn't want to get wet. Then shining cuckoo said no, he wouldn't have a nest to lay his eggs in. But the kiwi said yes, the god asked him if he was willing to give up flight and seeing the light everyday. He said he would. The other birds were punished. The tui was give 2 white feathers on his neck as a sign of cowardice (he was called the parson bird by europeans for being black with a white collar like priests). The pukeko was made to live in the swamp so his feet would always be wet. The shining cuckoo was forced never to raise its own young and lay his eggs in other nests. 

Unfortunately their has been a rat invasion on the island and the Department of Conservation did not act quickly enough, the rats are breeding and birds like the robin will suffer. They are going to do a poison drop in the winter, as they have left it to late but their will be a lot of collateral damage. The saddleback only exists on island reserves and is extinct everywhere else. they released 37 birds 10 years ago and now have about 150. But with the poison drop about 60% will be lost, and it will take 2-3 years of poison dropping to get rid of the rats. Very sad really that it got so out of hand.

Overall it was a very good but tiring day with a lot of walking. My brain is also a little fried from all the info but I got a lot more out of Ulva island with the guide then I would have on my own.

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