“It’s very rare to see a kiwi in the wild,” our guide Matt was saying as he talked about New Zealand’s flightless national bird. “Most people are lucky if they see even one in their lifetime.”
Matt was leading our group on a walk through the temperate rain forest of Ulva Island, a predator-free sanctuary for native birds and plants established in 1997 to protect endemic endangered species. It’s a remote part of New Zealand – south of the South Island – and except for 400 people who live in nearby Oban on Stewart Island, the area is mostly national parkland.
Skies were overcast and rain was forecast when our zodiac arrived at the Ulva Island dock. We removed our life jackets and headed up a wooden walkway to the beginning of the trail. Before we entered the forest, Matt talked about efforts to keep rats and other predators off the island. Visitors are asked to check shoes and bags to make sure they haven’t unknowingly transported any seeds or rodents.
It’s a rich and pristine forest, filled with endemic umbrella mosses, crown ferns and four-hundred-year-old rimu trees. Well-marked trails weave through the dense foliage, transitioning into wooden steps in some places. Light filters through the canopied treetops, creating interesting shadows. Except for the man-made path and signage, Ulva Island seems like a place from another time, the way New Zealand must have looked hundreds of years ago.
I was immediately taken with the sounds of Ulva Island as much as the sights. Birds blended in with trees, plants and ground, their distinct calls and songs coming from seemingly every direction. This was clearly a place where it was wise to have an experienced guide. I think we would have missed everything except the trees without Matt’s ability to quickly spot interesting wildlife!
Midway into our walk, Matt abruptly stopped. We had hit the New Zealand bird-watching jackpot: A kiwi was foraging nearby, and for the next twenty minutes, we were all fixated on the incredibly special moment. Binoculars and cameras focused in and out of view, as the kiwi moved quickly across the ground. Matt told us there are five species, all endangered or threatened, and that this one was a southern brown male.
The trail led out of the forest to a waterfront area called Boulder Beach. We took a break along the sandy shore, which looked out on other small islands. Boulder Beach is a popular spot for the weka, another flightless native New Zealand bird, similar in size to a kiwi, but not classified as endangered.
We headed back into the forest, with Matt continuing to regale us with stories and information. He showed us burrows where native little blue penguins make their homes. He pointed out the endemic silver fern, New Zealand’s national symbol. And he talked about muttonbird scrub, a plant that was once used as an “overland postcard.” You could actually write on a leaf, stamp it and drop it in the mail…and it would be delivered to the recipient!
We reached the signpost where our walk had started when another guide called to Matt that her group had spotted a morepork – a small brown owl – in a nearby tree. The morepork is New Zealand’s only surviving owl and is also known as a ruru or Tasmanian spotted owl. This little creature was well camouflaged amid the foliage, but we managed to get a glimpse and a photo.
Our group returned to the dock to catch the zodiac back to the ship. As we waited to board, the conversations were all about seeing the kiwi. It’s one of those things I think we all had hoped to experience while traveling in New Zealand, but not something that can easily be ordered up. One kiwi please, and oh, I’d like to get a good photo, too! We knew we had been lucky that day, and I don’t think any of us or our cameras took it for granted.
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That afternoon we took the ship’s tender to Stewart Island and the town of Oban, also known as Halfmoon Bay. With eighty-five percent of the island part of Rakiura National Park (Māori for “glowing skies”) and Oban’s tiny population, I was curious what we would find there.
The tender dropped us off at a small wharf near a paved road that led into town. A hotel, market and several shops lined the main street. We stopped in the Visitor Center, where a friendly woman greeted us and was happy to offer information on local hiking trails and tours even though we explained we had just visited Ulva Island and were only in Oban for a short time. When I asked her what it was like to live in such a remote place year-round, she told me that the people who choose to live there can’t imagine living anywhere else. If they want to get away, they can take a ferry to the town of Bluff on New Zealand’s South Island or fly to Invercargill, but mostly, she said, they are happy just where they are.
By late afternoon, the rain that had been forecast was finally starting to fall. We rode a shuttle to the wharf and boarded the tender back to the ship. As I watched Stewart Island disappear out the narrow tender window, I thought about the remoteness of where we were, how this was the southernmost inhabited spot in New Zealand. And that if we kept sailing south…we’d wind up in Antarctica.