Ever Heard of Stewart Island? It’s A Wild Slice of Old New Zealand

January 25, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Posted in ecotourism, New Zealand, Oceania | Leave a comment
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by Fyllis Hockman

Flashlights bobbing in the night as we gingerly picked our way through the bush, all 15 of us switched off at the command of our guide Peter, leaving his the sole illumination, hopping and skipping over the remote, seaweed-strewn beach.

Suddenly there it was, head bobbing up and down, long beak darting in and out of the sand, single-mindedly nibbling on spiders, berries, and crustaceans: the elusive New Zealand kiwi. We waddled in muted tandem behind Peter as he inched us to within 20 feet. Trying not to intrude upon her late-night supper, we were star-struck by this little brown dumpling of a bird. It’s an experience even few Kiwis of the human variety have ever had, outside of a zoo.

You see, Stewart Island, 674 isolated square miles (1,745 sq. km) an hour’s ferry ride south of the South Island, is someplace that very few New Zealanders ever get to — much less outsiders — and is one of the few spots where it’s still possible to spot this iconic native bird.

And there are plenty of other reasons to visit Stewart, too (also sometimes known by its Maori name, Rakiura). Isolated, insular, practically undeveloped, natural, wild — it’s a destination that beckons in a way few these days still do. And yet, there’s a very lived-on, lived-in feel here, of everyday life — though probably not your kind of everyday life. Most locals get by on fishing, a spot of farming — and these days, a modest dollop of tourism. No banks, no doctors (there’s a nurse-staffed clinic, though), and, as a waitress at the Just Café told me, “no stress.” Ask how many live here, and you might hear something like: “Well, 400 at last count – no, wait – Annie just gave birth to the twins and Rupert died last week, so guess that makes 401.”

Tourism infrastructure, meanwhile, has been coming along. Start by checking in at one of a handful digs in tiny Oban town and beyond, from backpacker baracks to upscale B&B’s and rental homes. Take a peek in the Rakiura Museum. Take a glass-bottom boat ride in Half Moon Bay. Have a paddle in a sea kayak.

But Stewart’s main draw is still its primordial nature — 85 percent is covered by NZ’s newest national park, and it’s a magical place to have a tramp and go wildlife (particularly bird) spotting. There are only some 18 miles of road, but 174 miles of walking trails, ranging from 15-minute strolls to three-hour hikes to ten-day treks.

I especially loved the “Maori beach track,” a 15-minute water-taxi ride from Oban. Slogging through practically impenetrable bush or hugging the craggy seaside cliff, we were bombarded in surround sound by  the crashing of waves below and the cries of birds overhead.  Another favorite was wee Ulva Island, also reachable by water taxi — like the “forest primeval” à la Walt Whitman’s famous poem Evangeline. Virtually untouched, predator-free, and primitive, by comparison it makes Stewart feel practically like Manhattan. Sixth-generation Stewart Islander Ulva Amos conducts marvelous tours here, able to distinguish between every caw, chirp, click, creak, twill or whistle from the treetops.

On Stewart Island you’ll find birds, trees and plants otherwise practically extinct, and its hardwood podacorp forest, literally of pre-historic vintage, harbors plant species 350 million years old. Besides the kiwi, other rare birds such as the fernbird, saddleback, rifleman and yellowhead roam the woods like in the old days.

At night, we’d hang out at the South Seas’ bar with stocking-cap-wearing men just off their fishing boats, with long beards and high boots, trying to best each other at billiards and darts. Folks drank with gusto, chortling over town gossip or bemoaning the latest catch. This is not a place that serves a lot of lite beer.

Nearby, have a peek in Glowing Sky, the T-shirt shop owned by Dil Belworthy, a former fisherman who several years ago “saw the writing on the wall, how the fishing industry was going downhill, and how we saw tourism on the horizon.” And so for the last few years, Dil’s’s been turning out gorgeous tees handprinted with native Maori symbols and traditional images.

For sure, I detected a whiff of mixed emotions about this new industry of inviting the outside to their little island sanctuary. But I also got the feeling that it’s unlikely that this relic of a simpler time will lose its charm any time soon. Thank goodness.

More information: StewartIsland.co.nz, Stewart-Island-News.com, StewartIslandExperience.com.


Coober Pedy, Australia Puts the “Down Under” in “Down Under”

November 12, 2009 at 7:32 pm | Posted in Australia, Oceania | Leave a comment
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by Tripatini staff

There are of course plenty of cool and even crazy reasons to visit this great continent of a country. But for unusual, it may be hard to beat this Outback town some 480 miles northwest of Adelaide and 585 miles south of Alice Springs (and accessible by road, train, and even air). Coober Pedy’s not just the “Opal Capital of Australia,” but really takes the expression “down under” literally. Local blokes and sheilas have turned former mining tunnels into homes, galleries, museums, a church (above left)– and er, digs, such as Radeka Underground Backpackers, run by bearded, central-casting-minerish-looking Martin Smith (rooms here start at A$60/US$50) and fancier establishments like the Desert Cave Hotel (from A$218/US$185). The town itself is a fun hang, its population of 3,500 livened up by a multinational bunch here to plumb the various depths, tour the opal fields, party in joints like Crocodile Harry’s Underground Nest, and explore surrounding locales like Oodnadatta and Coward Springs. You might just say that C-P really, well, rocks. More info: www.Radeka Downunder.com.au, www.OpalCapitalOfTheWorld.com.au, DesertCave.com.au.

Reads to Soothe (Or Is It Stoke?) the Savage Wanderlust

August 12, 2009 at 1:04 pm | Posted in Asia, books, Europe, Oceania | Leave a comment

by Jacy Meyer

Oh, I’ve got it bad. Symptoms include itchy feet, a restless mind, inability to concentrate and lots of whining about boredom. I’ve tried mini-medicating — you know, the occasional day trip. No luck. And sure, I’ve also got three-day weekends planned — but mere short-lived placebos, they. Much to my husband’s chagrin, I’ve even suggested moving – anything to liven things up.

Travel reads to appease and tease...

Travel reads to appease and tease...

And in some sort of subconscious masochism, I’ve been randomly picking up books set in fabulous locales that I simply must experience RIGHT NOW. For those in a similar pickle, in a gracious spirit of infection — er, inclusion — I offer several reading suggestions to help cure what’s ailing you this summer and fall (just please don’t blame me if they end up making it worse).

McCarthy’s Bar, by Pete McCarthy This is the one that made me symptomatic — I didn’t realize I was ill until I read this travel memoir. The author is half Irish/half English and the book tells the tale of his perambulations around Ireland, trying to connect with his roots. It’s got fabulous descriptions of the green, green countryside; interesting tarryings; and great anecdotes regarding the characters he meets along the way. It’s vaguely reminiscent of something by Bill Bryson (one of my personal heroes), if not quite as funny.

Nights of Rain and Stars, by Maeve Binchy The next book I picked up was a spot of fluffy reading to pry my mind away from Ireland. Problem is, now I have to get to Greece. The book is set in the tiny town of Aghia Anna on the island of Nexos, and made me fall in love with the village, its inhabitants and the pace of life (not to mention the sun, sand and cozy cafés). Enjoying a plate of olives and a glass of wine, seaside, watching the sunset? That could cure me.

Japanland, by Karin Muller Last time, I blamed Maeve for my relapse; this choice I blame partly on myself. See, I don’t read book descriptions. They occasionally raise my expectations or give me preconceived notions as to what the book’s going to be about. I prefer to start chapter 1 blindfolded, so to speak. I knew this was a memoir about someone who spent time in Japan. That’s okay; I don’t really want to go to Japan. Until NOW! I’m completely obsessed with the people, their culture and history, and their way of life. Muller made the trip specifically to see if she could unravel these mysteries for herself; and I found the book to be a poignant account of her experiences.

After all that, understandably, I’ve hesitated picking a new book. Pre-illness, I devoured Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, which though not a travel story per se left me mesmerized by Kabul, Afghanistan. I trace the ultimate source of my malady to my June read of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines. His description of the creation myths of Australia’s Aborigines combined with his thoughts on a sedentary vs. nomad lifestyle, and specifically his fascination with nomad-ness may have infected me. Sigh. But next — well, perhaps a nice Agatha Christie…but on second thought, maybe I’ll pass on the twee English villages for now. Maybe I should just go whole hog and overdose with a solid month of Paul Theroux, Frances Mayes and even Homer’s Odyssey. Possibly with a dollop of Rick Steves thrown in as a last-ditch measure.

Wish me luck, people — because swine flu has nothing on wanderlust.

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