- The Washington Times - Friday, October 7, 2005

STEWART ISLAND, New Zealand — Fifteen flashlights shone downward as we picked our way through the bush. At a signal, we extinguished our lights, and 15 adults gathered noiselessly behind our camouflaged leader. As his sole light hopped and skipped across the dark, remote, seaweed-strewn beach, we saw it — the elusive New Zealand kiwi.

On orders to stay close, we moved in muted tandem behind guide Peter Smith as he inched us to within 20 feet. Trying not to intrude upon the kiwi’s late-night supper, we were star-struck by this brown dumpling of a bird, its head bobbing up and down, its long beak darting in and out of the sand as it single-mindedly nibbled on spiders, berries and crustaceans.

Stewart Island is 674 isolated square miles of land south of New Zealand’s South Island and is visited by few New Zealanders or anyone else. It is the only place in the country where you can see the kiwi, the native bird that few natives ever see.

According to Wendy Hallett, owner of the Greenvale Bed & Breakfast where we stayed, many people first book a kiwi-spotting tour with Mr. Smith, then book their trip to New Zealand and Stewart Island.

There are many reasons to visit Stewart Island other than the kiwi. Alternately described as isolated, insular, undeveloped, natural and wild, Stewart Island beckons in a way few modern destinations do.

The downside? All the things that make it so appealing as a destination might ultimately be destroyed by those to whom it appeals.

Its inaccessibility and its uber-emphasis on conservation might preserve it against the expected onslaught.

There is a very lived-on, lived-in feel about the island. Everyday life is happening here, albeit probably not ordinary everyday life. As one of the waitresses at the Just Cafe noted: “We have no banks, no doctors, no T-shirt shops and no stress.”

Ask anyone how many people are in town, and you might hear something like: “Well, 380 at last count — no, wait — Annie just gave birth to the twins and Rupert died last week, so guess that makes 381.”

That number remained constant despite several efforts on my part to find an alternate answer. There are so few people that if you see someone on a sightseeing tour or at lunch, you’re destined to be waving acquaintances by the end of the day.

Eighty-five percent of Stewart Island was designated in 2002 as Rakiura National Park, making it the most recent addition to New Zealand’s network of national parks. While the island has just 18 miles of road (mainly around the downtown Halfmoon Bay waterfront area), it has 120 miles of trails (called “tracks”) for walks ranging from a 15-minute stroll through the bush to a three-hour hike to a 10-day trek.

There are two ways to get around — boat and foot. The water is often cold and the sand flies are plentiful, and long stretches of isolated beach abound. This sense of desolation is offset by the surrounding bush, alive with a plethora of plants and birds.

One of my favorite hikes was on the Maori Beach Track, a 15-minute water-taxi ride from downtown that, by the way, covers about a one-block area. Captain Ian, a sixth-generation islander, carried me effortlessly across a slippery, moss-covered log to get to the water taxi. Scrambling over a sea of rocks to the sandy beach was an adventure in itself.

Alternately walking through almost impenetrable bush or hugging the craggy cliff overlooking the sea, we were bombarded by a new form of surround sound: the thrashing of waves crashing below and the concert cries of birds overhead.

The varying vocals from tuis, bellbirds, kakas and kakarikas are reminiscent of the array of voices one hears in a noisy restaurant: Sometimes individual cries dominate; other times, a general din prevails.

Then the birds again would vie for attention with the breaking waves. We heard the water before we saw it, as the expanse of coastline made yet another appearance.

The most natural destination upon our return to town was the Seven Seas, of course — the only bar in the only hotel on the island. This gives “local bar” a whole new meaning. Just off their fishing boats, men with long beards and high boots and still wearing their stocking caps best each other at billiards and darts; Sonny and Cher serenade in the background.

The smoky room is filled with men and women drinking with gusto, laughing over town gossip or bemoaning the latest catch — or lack of it. This is not a place that serves a lot of light beer. What it does serve is good food in ample portions — the fish was about the flakiest I’ve had — and chips crisp and tasty.

Reflecting the small-town nature of the island, one of the regulars, immediately recognizing our outsider status, queried: “So how long you folks in town for?”

The other must activity — like the calling of the kiwi — is boarding a water taxi to Ulva Island. “This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,” begins Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem “Evangeline.” He also could have been describing Ulva Island, an untouched, predator-free, primitive slice of New Zealand the way it once was.

Described as “the least modified environment on Earth,” the island has pathways as its only man-made adaptations — except for the ubiquitous bench that somehow has showed up in the middle of wilderness trails all over New Zealand.

The very nature of Ulva Island makes it an unparalleled sanctuary for birds, trees and plants that otherwise might be extinct. The hardwood podacorp forest, literally of prehistoric ancestry, also houses species of plants 350 million years old. Rare birds such as the fernbird, saddleback, rifleman and yellowhead roam the woods with impunity.

These inhabitants are not the only things special about Ulva Island; there’s also Ulva Amos, another sixth-generation Stewart Islander, whose knowledge covers most of the twigs, branches and feathers found on Ulva Island.

Although sometimes reported otherwise, Miss Amos acknowledged that the similarity in names was coincidental, but it remains quite a marketing tool. She conducts half-day and full-day tours of the island, communicating with the trees and the birds in very personal, intimate terms, distinguishing between every caw, chirp, click, creak, twill or whistle emanating from the treetops.

One of my tour companions likened the sounds to an “avian symphony. … If I could get them organized, I could take them on tour.”

Back on the mainland, a stop at the Ship ‘n Shore general store provides another insight into island living. This is the place to pick up groceries, hardware, beer and wine, household goods, fishing and hunting equipment and videos.

For major food shopping, residents contact the supermarket in Invercargill on South Island (the real mainland) and then collect their orders at the Halfmoon Bay waterfront every Wednesday evening. You can’t exactly run down to the supermarket on whim.

Next to Ship ‘n Shore is a T-shirt shop — although the designation is really a misnomer. Dil Belworthy, like many other islanders, was a fisherman and, like many of his compatriots “saw the writing on the wall” several years ago.

“I was drinking with some mates one day, and we were discussing how the fishing industry was going downhill, and how we saw tourism on the horizon,” he says. With tourists as their new prey, the question became: “How do you catch a tourist?” The answer: “You sell them a T-shirt.”

So Mr. Belworthy and his wife, Cath, started hand-printing shirts on their kitchen table in 1997, reproducing Maori symbols and traditional images. Now their Glowing Sky Studio sells these individually designed and produced wearable works of beauty for $35.

Stewart Island has learned how to catch tourists, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the islanders have mixed emotions about how successful they want their new venture to be.

• • •

Stewart Island is farther south and away from the equator than the rest of New Zealand, so it is cooler and damper. It is said that in New Zealand, you can experience all four seasons in a day; on Stewart Island, it can happen in an hour. As usual, think layers.For more information, visit www.stewartisland.co.nz.

Several 15-minute flights from Invercargill, South Island, to Halfmoon Bay, Stewart Island, in a small plane are scheduled daily, weather permitting. Two one-hour ferry crossings are also available daily.

Hotel accommodations range from the Stewart Island Lodge to more basic rooms at the South Sea Hotel, but most island lodgings are small cottages and bed-and-breakfast establishments.

The Greenvale Bed & Breakfast, where we stayed, has a large, comfortable living room overlooking Halfmoon Bay and is full of little surprises: biscuits, candies and beverages in the room; cards and books on the shelf; and little knitted booties by the front door to wear after a hike. A delicious farm-style breakfast beckons every morning.

The food options aren’t plentiful. Just Cafe is a good place to catch a light breakfast or lunch; Stewart Island’s idea of fine dining is limited to the Church Hill Restaurant and Stewart Island Lodge, but the best fish and chips outside England — and the most atmosphere — belong to the South Sea Pub.

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