The roughly triangular Stewart Island, known in Māori as Rakiura, is New Zealand’s third largest island at 1,680 square kilometres. It lies south of the South Island.
Halfmoon Bay, the centre of settlement, lies on the north-east coast. It is 39 kilometres from Bluff – a ferry trip of one hour across Foveaux Strait, the stretch of water which separates the island from the Southland coast.
The island is bisected by latitude 47º south. Its hills and mountains make it readily visible from the mainland, which locals refer to as ‘the other side’. Beyond the southern tip of Stewart Island lies the Southern Ocean – this is New Zealand’s ‘land’s end’.
Apart from the small areas of settlement around Halfmoon Bay, the island retains its natural forest cover. There are two main mountainous areas, one to the island’s north and one to the south. Down the middle of the island, from Mason Bay in the west to Paterson Inlet/Whaka ā Te Wera in the east, a low-lying area of land nearly cleaves the island in two. There are two major inlets or harbours. Paterson Inlet is the larger. Port Pegasus/Pikihatiti on the south-east coast is the last sheltered water for boats heading further south.
Māori knew Foveaux Strait as Te Ara a Kiwa (the pathway of Kiwa). Kiwa was an ancestor who tired of crossing the isthmus which, according to the story, then connected Rakiura to Southland. He asked the whale, Kewa, to eat through the land to create a channel so Kiwa could cross by waka. Crumbs that fell from the whale’s mouth became islands in Foveaux Strait. Solander Island (Hautere), which guards the western approaches of the strait, was also known as Te Niho a Kewa, a tooth lost from the whale’s mouth.
The island’s English name acknowledges William Stewart, first mate on the sealer Pegasus, who charted Port Pegasus in 1809. Its Māori name, Rakiura, which means ‘glowing skies’, comes from the southern lights, the aurora australis. Rakiura is not the only Māori name for the island – at one time it was also known as Motunui (big island). In oral tradition the demigod Māui fished up the North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui – the fish of Māui) and circumnavigated the South Island (Te Wai Pounamu – greenstone waters). To keep his waka (canoe) from drifting away he pulled up a stone (Stewart Island) from the seabed as an anchor and named it Te Punga o Te Waka o Māui (the anchor of the waka of Māui).
The island has a cool temperate climate without extremes in temperature. Because of the surrounding ocean, temperatures are often milder than those in the southern South Island. The weather is very changeable – in a typical year it rains on 210 days at Halfmoon Bay, but much of this comes as showers. There are also microclimates – the north and east coasts are more sheltered than the south and west coasts. Alpine areas in the far south of the island can receive 5,000 millimetres of rain in a year, while Halfmoon Bay gets 1,600 millimetres.
A feature of the island’s streams is their brown tannin-stained waters and low sediment load. The Freshwater River, with its surrounding wetlands, is one of the country’s few large remaining lowland rivers free of introduced species.
Rakiura National Park, created in 2002, is New Zealand’s most recent national park. It covers 157,000 hectares – about 85% of the island’s land area. The island has a long history of reserves. Following failed attempts to encourage settlement and development, all forested crown land was set aside as a state forest in 1886 and by the early 1900s the majority of the island’s land had reserve status. Areas in eastern parts of the island, around Halfmoon Bay and Codfish Island (Whenuahou), are also conservation land but are not part of the National Park. On the eastern coast, around East Cape and Port Adventure, there is a large tract of land owned by the Rakiura Māori Land Trust.
Stewart Island still looks much as the mainland would have prior to human settlement, with forest growing down to the sea. As botanist Leonard Cockayne noted in 1909, ‘it is an actual piece of the primeval world’.1 The natural sequence of one type of vegetation giving way to another as the land rises from coast to mountain top has not been interfered with. More than half the land is covered by podocarp and hardwood forests, with rimu, miro, kāmahi and southern rātā dominating.
Many native plant species common in Southland are, surprisingly, naturally absent on the island (although some have been planted around Halfmoon Bay). These include beech species, kaikawaka, kōwhai, tarata (lemonwood), māhoe, kānuka and raupō. Botanists think that the absence of beech is related to past glaciations, but puzzle over the absence of many of the other species.
Botanist Leonard Cockayne spent years studying the island’s botany and came under its spell: ‘It is hard to speak of the scenery of Stewart Island without using a superabundance of superlatives.’2
Coastal shrub lands ring the shoreline. The tree daisy species puheretaiko and tētēaweka form the ‘muttonbird scrub’ that is common along the rocky coastline. Leatherwood, a hardy shrub with big shiny leaves, is found in alpine areas above which are the open tussock lands and herb fields.
There are 21 endemic alpine plant species, including mountain buttercups, speargrass, tussock and mountain daisies. The highlands are free of weeds, with no introduced plants.
The dune lands of the exposed wild west coast beaches are exceptional. At Mason Bay they extend back kilometres into the bush and scrublands. The distinctive orange native grass pīngao helps to bind the dunes.
Some 70% of the seaweed species found around Stewart Island occur in Paterson Inlet/ Whaka ā Te Wera.
Birds prosper on the island, in large part due to the absence of introduced predators. So, unfortunately, do sandflies, as many visitors discover. There are no mustelids (stoats, ferrets and weasels) on the island, nor are there goats, rabbits, pigs or mice.
The southern tokoeka, or Stewart Island kiwi, is thriving with an estimated population of 15,000 in the 2010s. The birds are primarily nocturnal, but feed in daylight more often than other kiwi species. They range from beaches to open alpine tops. Stewart Island weka exist now only on offshore islands within Rakiura National Park, such as Ulva Island.
Kākāpō would probably be extinct if it was not for the survival of a remnant population in the Tin Range, which was discovered in the 1970s. The population was relocated and most kākāpō are now found on Codfish Island (Whenuahou) off Stewart Island’s west coast. Kākā, and red-crowned and yellow-crowned parakeets (kākāriki) are commonly seen around Halfmoon Bay.
The harlequin gecko is largely confined to southern Rakiura.
Along the coast three penguin species – little, Fiordland crested and hoiho (yellow-eyed penguins) – breed. Having all three breeding on one coastline is rare. Several shag species nest on the shoreline and New Zealand fur seals breed – mostly on offshore islands, but also at some sites on the coast. The threatened New Zealand sea lion visits much of the coastline and has a small breeding colony at Port Pegasus/Pikihatiti.
Giant kōkopu, banded kōkopu, longfin eels, redfin bully, giant bully and lamprey are all found in the Freshwater and Rakeāhua rivers. Three species of non-migratory fish are also found on the island – the upland bully, southern flathead galaxias and gollum galaxias – the last of which was first described on Rakiura.
Kina (sea urchins), sea cucumbers and starfish thrive on rocks, sand and mud in Paterson Inlet. It also nourishes many marine fish species. Brachiopods, the most ancient of filter-feeding shellfish, live both on rock and sediment, thriving at depths of less than 20 metres.
In spite of scattered traces of occupation, little is known about early Māori on the island. Coastal settlements were not large and the island was sometimes used as a refuge from the mainland during warfare. At various times there were settlements at Port Pegasus/Pikihatiti, on the eastern coast from The Neck southwards to Tikotatahi Bay, and Port Adventure. Waka (canoes) from Murihiku (Southland) crossed Foveaux Strait to and from Rakiura, Ruapuke, Rarotoka (Bench Island) and the Tītī/Muttonbird Islands.
The island’s highest mountain, Mt Anglem/Hananui (980 m), is spiritually important to Māori. In oral lore Ngāi Tahu ancestor Rakitamau lost his wife so he took a waka to Rakiura seeking a new bride. When he asked for her by name the women of the village laughed as she was tāpui (betrothed). Rakitamau blushed. When he asked after her sister the women laughed again as she too was tāpui. He blushed deeper and left, never to return. Amused, the women named the highest mountain Hananui in reference to his glowing cheeks.
Māori caught fish and gathered shellfish. Harvesting tītī (muttonbird or sooty shearwater) from the small surrounding islands has long been a tradition. Tītī were a major source of food for local hapū and a major commodity for trade with other iwi. Tītī were preserved in bags made of bull kelp.
According to oral traditions, the first Māori on Rakiura were Waitaha, and some of their names for some of the Tītī/Muttonbird Islands remain. Ngāti Mamoe arrived next in larger numbers and intermarried with Waitaha. Ngāi Tahu then pushed south and achieved domination over the resident Ngāti Mamoe, mainly through intermarriage.
In March 1770 English explorer James Cook and his crew sailed down the east coast of the South Island trying to determine whether the land they saw was the fabled southern continent or just islands. While they did not make landfall on the island, the way the terrain fell away toward southern Stewart Island made it obvious that it was not a continent.
Sealers worked the shores of the island from around 1800 to the 1820s, and whalers from the 1820s to the 1840s. Port Pegasus/Pikihatiti was used for shelter and gathering supplies for ships bound for the subantarctic islands. Through these decades the shores of Stewart Island were parts of the maritime world which centred on Foveaux Strait.
In the early sealing days there were utu (revenge) attacks on sealers for mistreating Māori. The most notable occurred at Murderers Cove on Taukihepa/Big South Cape Island in 1810. Five sealers were killed but the chief’s niece, Tokitoki, threw her cloak over 16-year-old James Caddell, and so he was spared. Tokitoki became his wife, and he grew up to be a tattooed chief.
In early 1844 Thomas Wing took a New Zealand Company survey party around southern New Zealand in search of a new settlement site on his vessel, Deborah. Wing charted Stewart Island and Foveaux Strait, and landed the Lutheran missionary Johann Wohlers on Ruapuke Island, where he established a mission.
Ngāi Tahu chief Te Whakataupuka and his nephew Tūhawaiki made Ruapuke Island a headquarters. The Treaty of Waitangi was brought there for signing in 1840. Lutheran missionary Johann Wohlers established a station there in 1844 in response to a request from Tūhawaiki. Wohlers made his home there for the next 41 years until his death. Ruapuke became a registry office in 1849, enabling civil marriages to take place on the island.
Many sealers, whalers and sailors married local Māori women and raised families. In 1845 Wohlers reckoned there were around 150 children of mixed descent around the shores of Foveaux Strait. The men had become boat builders, traders and millers. In origin they were mostly seafaring people such as Shetland and Orkney islanders, and also other Britons, Scandinavians, Germans and Americans. There were settlements on Codfish, Centre and Ruapuke islands, at The Neck and Port Adventure on Stewart Island, as well as at locations on the mainland.
‘The original settlers,’ reported Theophilus Heale, an official in the Southland provincial government in 1864, ‘are now aged men, but they are generally surrounded by half-caste families, who constitute a little community which has grown up entirely without aid or care from the government and which is remarkable for the general good conduct of its members.’1
Stewart Island/Rakiura became part of the province of Southland in 1863 and in 1864 the Crown purchased most of the island from the local Ngāi Tahu. Mixed-descent families living on the island were to be provided with land at The Neck.
In December 1927 Andrew Josey, a fisherman in his 80s, was beaten to death by Southland Harbour Board accountant Arthur Valentine. Josey, originally from Java, Indonesia, had long lived at Horseshoe Bay. Valentine was the trustee for Josey’s estate, and the murder was seemingly to get his hands on a large sum of money. Valentine died in police custody later that month, reportedly of heart failure. At the inquest the doctor who gave evidence indicated that he had intended to recommend Valentine’s transfer to Seacliff mental hospital.
The change of ownership opened the way to exploitation of the resources of the island. Early in 1864 Theophilus Heale of the Southland provincial government explored the island with a view to a survey and subsequent sale of land blocks. However, by 1875 the survey had not been completed, and there were complaints that this was impeding the progress of the island.
Sheep were farmed on the island from the 1880s, and the last two pastoral leases at Mason Bay and Kilbride were only retired in the 1980s. Leases were also taken up along the north bank of the Rakeahua River, the Ruggedy Run, the Freshwater Run and Port William, but the country was too forested, wet and muddy for successful sheep farming.
Timber milling was important from the 1860s until the 1930s. In 1864 three sawmills operated on the north side of Paterson Inlet. The main areas milled were the taller stands in sheltered bays of Paterson Inlet/Whaka ā Te Wera and bays along the north-east coast.
Newspapers featured frequent reports of mineral finds on Stewart Island in the later 19th century. Tin Range at Port Pegasus is named for the tin that saw a short-lived tin rush in the late 1880s. Sporadic prospecting continued in the range up until the 1930s, but it was never a rich deposit.
Many of the island’s sons have been lost to the unforgiving seas. Islander Olga Sansom recalls the recovery of fisherman Jack Mercer’s body after he was caught in a storm off Port William around 1912: ‘When you are twelve it is the loneliness of the dead man you have known alive, lying helpless in his own boat, that is the thing you remember.’1
Fishing for blue cod, crayfish and pāua (abalone) has been a major industry for many decades. Māori have long been very involved in the fishing industry. In the 1890s Māori were running several cutters between the island and Bluff.
A freezer and commercial fishing base established in North Arm, Port Pegasus, in 1897 operated until the late 1930s. A fish factory set up by Otakou Fisheries operated in the 1960s. In 2013 one-third of the Stewart Island workforce was employed in the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector, with over 90% of those engaged in aquaculture.
In the 2000s hunting was popular with both mainland visitors and locals. Designated campsites and huts for hunters were associated with different blocks of land that were balloted for hunting introduced whitetail and red deer.
In 1892 Walter Robertson was appointed to make up the electoral roll for Stewart Island, to be returning officer for the first election of councillors and to be clerk of the council. A Stewart Island County Council Empowering Bill was introduced into the 1894 parliamentary session but not passed, nor was it ever resubmitted, but the council was in operation by the 1895/96 financial year. In 1900 Robertson was elected chair of the Stewart Island County Council.
Stewart Island county was gazetted in 1876, at the time of the abolition of provincial government in New Zealand, but a county council was not set up until 1895. In 1989 the county became part of Southland district.
In the 2000s it was part of the Southern District Health Board, which united the Otago and Southland health boards in 2010. A district nurse was based in Oban.
Halfmoon Bay School in Oban had a roll of 27 in 2015 and offered education to Year 8, after which students attend mainland schools. In 2013 Stewart Island’s under-15 population (15%) was lower than that of Southland as a whole (20.6%).
In June or July 1932 Esther James capped a mammoth walk from North Cape to Bluff by walking across Stewart Island. James, a fashion model, was doing the sponsored walk to promote New Zealand manufacturing, and she wore and ate only goods donated by local manufacturers. She walked around 1,600 miles in 197 days.
Tourism was popular from the late 19th century. In 1894 the Otago Witness referred to ‘visitors to the island being very numerous in the summer time, sometimes as many as a hundred being on the island at one time’.2
In the 21st century tourism has been one of the island’s main industries, with around 30,000 visitors each year. At the 2013 census one-third of the workforce was employed in the accommodation and transport sectors. This compared with 11.4% for those sectors in Southland as a whole.
Halfmoon Bay (also known as Oban) is the township at the heart of the settled part of the island, where all its population of 378 (in 2013) lives. The island’s 25 kilometres of roads, reaching from Horseshoe Bay to Thule, Golden Bay and Ringaringa on Paterson Inlet/Whaka ā Te Wera, stretch from the township.
Halfmoon Bay is served by 20-minute plane flights from Invercargill and 60-minute ferry sailings from Bluff.
Stewart Island museum is informative on 19th century Stewart Island life. The Department of Conservation’s visitor centre provides information for visitors to Rakiura National Park, especially trampers, and has historical displays. The library and community centre are on Ayr Street. The local newsletter, Stewart Island News, was published monthly in the 2010s.
The South Sea Hotel is the centre of social life and usually has tītī (muttonbird) on the menu. Other accommodation includes a motel, backpackers, a lodge and a number of private holiday houses that can be rented.
Prior to 1989 Oban was noisy, as households each had their own generators. A centralised diesel power station was built in 1989 and a sewage scheme followed in 1998.
Stewart Island tracks are renowned for degenerating into mud wallows. A notorious section of track between Mason Bay and the Freshwater River was dubbed the Chocolate Swamp before the worst parts were boardwalked in the 1990s.
Rakiura Track is a 30 kilometre, three-day tramping circuit out of Halfmoon Bay. It traverses part of the northern shore of Paterson Inlet, including Sawdust Bay and North Arm, and runs cross country between North Arm and Port William/Potirepo.
The 125 kilometre North-West Circuit (one of the country’s longest tramping tracks) follows the coast, mainly through forest. A side track reaches to the island’s highest point, Mt Anglem/Hananui (980 m), which has cirques and tarns (hollows and lakes formed by glaciers) – remnants from the last glaciation.
The Ruggedy Mountains line the north-west coast. Orange-brown bluffs and crags protrude from the coastal forest. Wind-formed dune lands, high sand passes and stone fields form an almost lunar landscape in places.
This was an important staging point for birders converging on the Tītī/Muttonbird Islands in their waka (canoes), and was a sealer settlement in the 1820s. Kākāpō have been relocated there from southern Stewart Island.
National Park management plans are not usually quote-worthy but Rakiura’s may be an exception: ‘For those who visit Mason Bay an experience of remoteness, space, natural quiet and solitude is gained standing amongst the extensive dunes against the vastness of the Southern Ocean.’1
A 15 kilometre arc of sand on the west coast. The Ernest Islands and The Gutter – a little inlet – are at its south end. Dunes up to 200 metres high extend inland for close to 3 kilometres.
The native sand-binding pīngao is making a comeback, helped by the fact that the introduced marram grass, with which it competes, has been sprayed with herbicide.
The former Island Hill homestead was used in the 2010s by the Department of Conservation. Another homestead, Kilbride, still stands near The Gutter. In the past runholders (sheep farmers) would comb for ambergris – a rare sperm whale excretion used in costly perfumes.
Small planes land on Mason Bay and other west coast beaches at low tide.
The 71.5-kilometre Southern Circuit tramping track traverses remote and challenging terrain. From Freshwater Landing wetlands are crossed to Mason Bay. The southernmost point is at Doughboy Bay. The track crosses to and descends the Rakeahua valley to the Southwest arm of Paterson Inlet. A side trip reaches Mt Rakeahua (681 m).
A 8,900-hectare inlet with 188 kilometres of coastline, formed by post-glaciation flooding 12,000 to 16,000 years ago. The Rakeahua River flows into its South West Arm and the Freshwater River near North Arm.
Like Foveaux Strait, Paterson Inlet is named after a lieutenant governor of New South Wales – Joseph Foveaux and William Paterson, respectively. Neither ever saw the waters that took their names.
Ulva Island/Te Wharawhara Marine Reserve was established in 2004 and no fishing is allowed within it. The rest of Paterson Inlet is a reserve with non-commercial fishing only.
A commercial salmon farm is located at Big Glory Bay. Prices Inlet has the rusting remnants of a 1920s Norwegian whaling station. Sawdust Bay is named for the timber mills once found there.
The largest island in Paterson Inlet/Whaka ā Te Wera. It is named for a small Scottish island, and most of the island has been a scenic reserve since 1892. It is free from introduced predators (deer, rats, wild cats and possums). It has around 20,000 visitors each year, who come mostly via water taxi.
From 1870 early naturalist Charles Traill ran a small post office and general store. Visitors could attach stamps to the large leathery leaves of the coastal shrub Senecio rotundifolius and send a ‘Stewart Island postcard’.
Island surrounded by islets, approximately 32 kilometres north-east of Stewart Island and about 20 kilometres south-east of Bluff. Just over 1,400 hectares in size, the island has no point more than 70 metres above sea level. It is composed of volcanic rocks similar to those found in north-east Stewart Island.
It thrived during the early 19th century whaling era as a centre for Ngāi Tahu leader Tūhawaiki, and a Lutheran mission station was run by Johann Wohlers from 1844 to 1885. In the 2010s it had no permanent population but was frequently visited by fishing boats from both Stewart Island and the mainland.
Rakiura (Stewart Island) Māori gather tītī (muttonbirds) on the 36 Tītī/Muttonbird Islands. Chicks are harvested for two months in autumn. One island group lies west of South West Cape/Puhiwaero; the other lies east of Halfmoon Bay. Tītī are also harvested at other islands around the coast, especially off Port Adventure.
Long peninsula at the mouth of Paterson Inlet. A low sandy isthmus – the ‘neck’ – nearly cuts off the upper part.
Excavation of the middens (ancient refuse heaps) of an early Māori settlement has revealed fish, seal, moa, tītī and other bird bones.
A mixed Māori and European population lived on The Neck through the 19th century.
A bay 10 kilometres south along the coast from The Neck, popular for fishing, diving and hunting. It was the site of a settlement of 36 Māori who arrived from The Neck in 1843.
A large ngaio tree still growing in the 2010s was thought to have been planted in 1856 by Moriori from Rēkohu (Chatham Islands) who had come to rescue kin who had arrived there two years earlier after an unsuccessful attempt to settle the Auckland Islands.
Surveyors working in the bush near Port Adventure in the 1870s found two human skeletons. A contemporary newspaper report said, ‘Poor fellows, they were not half-a-mile from the Maori settlement. The remains are believed to be those of two men who ran away from an American whaler (name unknown) at Pegasus about nine years ago … Unlikely castaways, the poor fellows had but themselves to blame for their untimely end; they were truly waifs and strays.’1
The ocean coast is largely rocky with occasional beaches. South of Lords River/Tūtaekāwetoweto it is exposed and mostly cliffs. Subsidence has created drowned river valleys such as Tikotatahi Bay, Tūtaepāwhati Bay and Big Kurī Bay. 500 metres inland salt-tolerant muttonbird scrub yields to podocarp forest.
There is a mix of land status, with Department of Conservation nature reserves, scenic reserve and stewardship land. Rakiura Māori Land Trust land is divided into four blocks – The Neck, Lords River, Toi Toi and Port Adventure.
Stewart Island’s largest east-coast estuary, reaching 8 kilometres inland, is a popular anchorage and hunting destination. With no maintained tracks, it is reached by sea.
Six hunting blocks have four huts managed by the Department of Conservation. The Chew Tobacco hunting block and hut is administered by the Rakiura Māori Land Trust. The Toi Toi wetland inland from the river is spiritually important to Māori; waterfowl were hunted there.
In October 1999 the 4,000 Māori owners of 3,515-hectare Tūtae-Kā-Wetoweto Forest received $10.9 million from the government and signed a covenant to remain the owners and kaitiaki (guardians) of the forest.
A large sheltered harbour on the south-east coast. Its inlets, coves and bays cover some 40 square kilometres, with many safe and sheltered anchorages. Four major passages provide access to the sea. The passages in turn open out into two main arms – North Arm and South Arm.
It was first charted by William Stewart in 1809. A colonisation enterprise in the 1820s was not successful.
Access to the area is mostly by sea. Hunters target red deer and whitetail deer known as ‘grey ghosts’. Campsites are also used by sea kayakers.
Joseph Banks was aboard James Cook’s Endeavour in March 1770 as they sailed down Stewart Island’s east coast. He wrote that the granite domes around Port Pegasus ‘were amazingly full of large Veins and patches of some mineral that shone as if it had been polishd or rather looked as if they were really paved with glass.’2
The high country flanking Port Pegasus/Pikihatiti to the north comprises (north to south) Table Hill, Blaikies Hill, Mt Allen (750 m) and the Tin Range. Although not officially a wilderness area, this area is essentially managed as one.
The subalpine tops support a tundra-like herb cushion community. Shrubs grow in ‘lanes’ in the lee of rocks which protect against ‘roaring forties’ gales.
Flanking Port Pegasus/Pikihatiti to the west are granite domes such as the Fraser Peaks and the Deceit Peaks. As the granite weathers, layers peel away like onion skins to create the domes. They give the area an otherworldly feel.
South West Cape/Puhiwaero and South Cape/Whiore – the southernmost parts of New Zealand – are headlands covered in muttonbird scrub, bearing the brunt of Southern Ocean squalls.
Brinkmann, Erwin & Neville Peat. Stewart Island: the last refuge. Auckland: Random House, 1992.
Hall-Jones, John. Stewart Island explored. Invercargill: Craig Printing, 1994.
Howard, Basil. Rakiura: a history of Stewart Island. Dunedin: Reed, 1974.
Natusch, Sheila. An island called home. Invercargill: Craig Printing, 1992.
Sansom, Olga. The Stewart Islanders. Wellington: Reed, 1970.
Sansom, Olga. In the grip of an island: early Stewart Island history. Invercargill: Craig Printing, 1982.
The website of the land trust features information about the trust and Stewart Island/Rakiura.
Provides information for visitors about attractions, activities and services on the island.
The island’s monthly newsletter.
The Department of Conservation’s information on the island.