The beginning of an adventure, like the opening of a new book, has a ceremonial nature. A story is about to be released, pulled from time and its environment. Add to that existential reflection a remote, exotic location with a building storm and it’s a great recipe for excitement. We felt just such an thrill on our epic kayaking trip to Stewart Island, New Zealand.
Stewart Island is an unforgettable trip
Thick, low clouds sailed swiftly across a restless sky. A gust of wind snatched an empty dry bag and sent it tumbling down the sloping, sandy beach at Halfmoon Bay. As I snagged it, I caught Cynthia’s gaze. She flashed a quick smile but her eyes looked more reserved. With 45-knot winds and heavy storms forecasted, we were feeling pressured to get on the water and move quickly to find a safe place to camp for the night.
As we traveled to the bottom of the South Island with kayaks on top of our van, people approached to ask where we were headed. When we replied, “Stewart Island,” their eyes grew large and their heads nodded in approval. One man exclaimed, “Stewart Island? Most Kiwis [local New Zealanders] don’t even make it there!” Those who had visited spoke of the moody weather, untouched beauty and lack of invasive species. Rakiura National Park, which constitutes over 80 percent of the island, is home to a number of endangered birds including the yellow-eyed penguin, the kakapo (a parrot that is slowly rebounding from the brink of extinction) and the elusive, flightless kiwi.
Welcome to Stewart Island, New Zealand
The total population of the 674-square-mile island is a mere 381, all concentrated in the single town of Oban, where the ferry arrives after crossing the notoriously treacherous waters of Foveaux Strait. While it takes some intention to get there and storms are common in the Roaring 40s—Stewart lies between latitudes 46 and 47 degrees south—the undisturbed nature of the bush, abundant seafood (a bag of rice would suffice for trip supplies) and lack of tourists make it an outstanding paddling destination.
It is often under such suspenseful moments that life tends to throw a curve ball. A missing bulkhead for one of the folding kayaks we had brought with us sent Freya bounding off to the local pub while I stood behind questioning what the pub could possibly offer, other than a calming ginger beer.
Moments later I was ushered into a van with Liz, daughter of the pub owner and an avid kayaker. It turned out she and her husband were selling the kayak rental shop they ran to focus on raising their young children. Since the kayaks were sitting unused, she explained, we might as well borrow one.
Watching the building whitecaps, we discussed how to harvest and prepare paua (New Zealand abalone) and chatted about life on the island. “The beauty is spectacular,” Liz told me, “but the weather is a bit shifty.”
Shifty weather, but spectacular beauty
Fifty-knot winds sent us hurrying back to Liz’s boathouse soon after launching, but the following day we were able to make our way to Miller’s Beach, a beautiful yellow sand bay.
From there we crossed Paterson Inlet and paddled into the southwest arm, picking our way through a maze of sandbars to the mouth of the Rakeahua River. Tea trees and spiky flax swords lined the banks of the dark, tannin-infused Rakeahua. A chorus of bellbirds sang to us as we made our way up the increasingly narrow river to a cozy Department of Conservation hut outfitted with bunks, rainwater catchment and a small wood stove.
We gorged ourselves on the lush intertidal zones of the inlet, eating the rich black meat of paua harvested by scooping with kayak paddles, briny mussels plucked from exposed rocks and fresh blue cod Jaime caught on his hand line.
Land of the Glowing Skies
At night we grabbed headlamps and scanned the bush for the nocturnal kiwi. Stewart Island’s Maori name—Rakiura, or land of the glowing skies—is usually attributed to the Aurora Australis that sometimes paint the skies at night, but the dark rain clouds contrasting with bright, teasing patches of cyan made the epithet seem just as appropriate during the day.
Our fifth and final day of paddling ended back at the pub, where we caught wind of Phil Dove who, with his wife Annett, operates a paradisiacal ocean view lodge and the only remaining kayak outfitter on Stewart Island. Like most of the folks we met on the island, he was generous and full of entertaining stories. Phil is also a well-rounded whitewater paddler and sea kayaker, an unusual combination back home in the States, where the two sports are both culturally and geographically divided. His tales ranged from recounting his solo circumnavigation of Stewart to losing all his gear—and clothes!—in a swim through the North Island’s infamous Nevis Bluff rapid.
In New Zealand, where mountain rivers spill directly into the sea, many paddlers are lured by both freshwater and salty surf, blurring the lines between whitewater and sea kayaking.
Tips for visiting Stewart Island, New Zealand
Stewart Island is a remote and logistically challenging place to paddle even for New Zealand. Bring your own kayak over on the ferry from Bluff or contact Phil’s Sea Kayak to arrange a half-day, day or longer trip out of Paterson Inlet. The quiet blackwater rivers at the west end of the inlet are a highlight. Be sure to check a tide table and weather update before heading out.