28 Hours on Stewart Island, New Zealand’s Other South Island

Stewart Island

Did you know that New Zealand is comprised of three islands? I am ashamed to say that I didn’t until fairly recently. With the countdown clock ticking ever closer to the arrival of Jason’s parents, we still had a week to burn. We decided to head straight on to the deep South and hit up the lesser visited of New Zealand’s Islands. One that, apparently most Kiwis don’t even get to… Stewart Island.

Pit Stop in Invercargill.

As mentioned previously, this town sucks. This is the place that Keith Richards famously dubbed “the arsehole of the world.” Seriously, the nicest building in town was a purveyor of adult goods… a dildo shop. Luckily we didn’t have to spend much time there.

We were up and out early in the morning to get ourselves to Bluff, a tiny town that is known for its oysters and as the setting off point for our next ferry journey.

Boat Silhouette outside BluffOnward to Stewart Island.

The ferry took about an hour. On our way there, the sea was incredibly rough. You would look out one side and only see ocean, then abruptly followed by sky. On and on it went as we violently rocked back and forth… the entire way. Strangely enough, it was calming for us. We both ended up falling asleep for the last 15 or so minutes. One passenger was not so fortunate, however, and spent the majority of the ride in the head. As she was rejoining her group at the dock she declared that she would not be doing that again. I guess she got a flight off the island?

The ferry to Stewart Island is strictly a passenger ferry, so, no Phil allowed. We were met upon our arrival by the proprietor of the hotel where we were staying. I hadn’t even gotten in touch to let him know that we’d be arriving on the morning ferry, so it was a bit of a surprise. We hopped in the shuttle and he took us on a little tour of the town… very little, before heading to our accommodations for the night.

Penguin CrossingThe Bay Motel.

We got a decent room with an absolutely gorgeous view of the bay. After settling in, we headed out for a bit of lunch at the only restaurant currently serving food on the island. We would come to know the pub at the South Sea Hotel very well. We ended up having three of our four meals on Stewart Island there.

There are a handful of other restaurants in the township of Oban, the only commercial center on the island, but they had all already closed for winter. The majority of Stewart Island is comprised of a national park, which is why its such a great place to view wildlife.

That first afternoon we went on a hike around the Eastern edge of the island, leading out from Oban. We made it to a secluded beach, but didn’t last long before the sandflies got after us. From that point, J turned back to save his knee a bit for the following day. I continued on and eventually came to Acker’s Cottage, an historical building originally belonging to an American whaler who married a Māori woman and raised their family in this little bay. I struck up a conversation with another solo female hiker who mentioned that the Aurora Australis might be visible tonight. With that news, and nightfall coming shortly, I turned back in hopes to meet back up with J in order to get a viewing of the ethereal lights.

Oban township

South Sea Hotel

Stewart Island

Stewart Island

Ackers Cottage Stewart Island

Ackers Cottage Stewart Island

Stewart Island

Dinner and a show?

We met back at the hotel, where we rested a bit and freshened up for dinner. Unfortunately, as fate would have it, a cloud cover came over the sky, impenetrable by light. No show tonight. We hobbled down the hill, our legs a bit jelly from the days hike, back to the South Sea Hotel for dinner. It was definitely the place to be that night. We felt like all 381 Stewart Island inhabitants were grabbing a beer. We didn’t stay too long, though, as we had an early day ahead of us.

Ulva Island.

Our big excursion the next day was to visit Ulva Island. We hopped on a tiny ferry to the little reserve that is completely predator free. That means that all the native New Zealand birds are able to thrive in a safe environment, similar to how it would have been before species like stoats and possums began to be introduced. We had 2 and half hours to wander along all the walking paths, and, to be completely honest, that wasn’t enough. We could have spent all day strolling through the forest, listening to the birds sing. It was magical. Here are all the lovelies that we got to see:

New Zealand Red-Crowned Parakeet
This is the New Zealand Red-Crowned Parakeet. This playful little guy first introduced himself by flying right past me, coming from behind. He flew past so close that I could feel the tip of his wing brush my upper arm. The next time we crossed paths, he flew directly at me from the front, instead. Interesting way to say hi.
Stewart Island Robin
This is the Stewart Island Robin. These little birds like to follow visitors around, munching on any insects that might be disturbed by human footprints.
This is the Bellbird, so named for its melodic song.
We’ve seen this chicken-like flightless bird before at our campsite in Hokitika. This is the Weka.
Photo by J. Howell Photography. This is the Fantail. They perform an aerial dance all around the paths and forest, catching their prey of flying insects.
South Island Saddleback
Photo by J. Howell Photography. This is the South Island Saddleback, so named for its distinct reddish-brown band across its back, like a saddle.
Finally, saving the best for last. This is the Kaka, another parrot (like the Kea) native to New Zealand. A few times while wandering around the island we heard them soaring up above the tops of the trees. In the last 20 minutes I wandered off by myself and happened upon this beauty. I had such a fun time photographing her, hence I put in two shots. My favorite is when she cheekily looked down at the camera.


I also briefly saw a New Zealand pigeon while hanging out with that gorgeous Kaka. It was high up in the treetops. It continued to make a raucous, but I wasn’t able to get a good view of it. Brown creepers were flitting around a little tree along the path as well, but they were much to fast and small for me to get a picture.

Visiting Ulva Island has been my absolute favorite experience so far in New Zealand. If visiting Stewart Island, Ulva Island is a must. I would recommend coming on your own, and bringing a $2 coin for a pamphlet that can be purchased (through an honesty box) in a DOC shelter by the dock. It has all the info you need about identifying the birds you’ll see, and going self-guided will give you such great independence. The best way to see bird activity is to simply find a spot along the trail to stand still. In a matter of minutes, the trees will burst to life. I cannot see how coming with a guide and group of people would be beneficial.

Lunch, then back to Bluff.

We headed back to the South Sea Hotel for one more meal before hopping on the much calmer ferry back to the South Island. With an AirBnB reservation in Christchurch, we had a bit of a drive ahead of us. But it would all be worth it – spending a week staying put and preparing for the arrival of J’s parents.

Oban township Stewart Island

Bonus Pic

While waiting to board the ferry, this beautiful albatross came swooping in to manage the  workers repairing the dock. Bonus bird! We really like our birds… can you tell?

Albatross Stewart Island



Who’s your favorite little birdie? Let me know in the comments!

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