ABOUT TO MAKE A beach landing, we fly lazily above Stewart Island, the large landmass sitting away from the rest of the country, its lush vegetation and colossal sand dunes following the coastline.
Rakiura - the Maori name for the island - attracts less attention than its sister islands, and its 400 inhabitants cherish the area as a natural treasure. From the plane window, we can see the promise of adventure this island offers - the wilderness beckons from below.
Hiking Stewart Island's chocolate swamp
The plane leaves us at Mason Bay, on the west coast of the island. From there, hiking is the only option to reach the town on the other side, as there is no road access. In fact, despite its 700km of coastline, the island only has 20km of paved roads. For three full days, Rakiura National Park, which covers 85 per cent of the island, will be our playground. Hiking and kayaking are high on the list of things to do, but we must first reach our Mason Bay camp for the night.
I'd been advised that a visit to Mason Bay would not be complete without a touch of kiwi spotting yet, although kiwi birds outnumber the island's human population, finding one is a sport in itself. Equipped with torches, we slip outside the hut for a nocturnal walk, with hopes of seeing one through the bush or hidden between sand dunes. In the distance, we hear the distinct chant of the kiwi, but after an hour walking in silence, we are forced to admit defeat.
Morning rolls around and it's a race against the clock to hike 14 km to the shores of the Freshwater River where a water taxi awaits to take us on a ride. Leaving the coast behind, we begin our walk inland. Not far from our hut, remains of a less sustainable past, when the area was used for sheep runs, still stand in the form of an old house and shed.
Nowadays, they are used by the conservation department as a bunker for environmentalists, who work intensively to restore the natural beauty of the bay. Gradually, the high grass gives way to manuka trees as we finally enter the thick forest. The deeper we journey into it, the harder the hike becomes. Thank goodness for gaiters.
The island is well known by hikers for mud, so much so the track was dubbed the 'chocolate swamp'. Our walking pace is considerably slowed as we are forced to deviate along other routes, between branches, to avoid knee-deep mud. After hours of hiking, we descend to the river shores where the boat is waiting for us on schedule.
Kayaking Stewart Island's Paterson Inlet
The ride from Freshwater Landing to Oban - the only town on the island - is short, but nonetheless breathtaking. Winding through the swampy Freshwater River, the scenery ahead of us reveals kilometres of untouched forest opening on to the ocean.
Soon enough, we are in Oban, trading our walking boots for kayaks and paddles to take a twilight tour of Paterson Inlet, a large natural harbour. Our kayak guide, Toby, is an Irishman who moved here after falling in love with the island's adventure lifestyle.
"Once you come here, it is hard to leave," he admits after telling us how much he enjoys paddling to and from work. Toby's comments are not lost on me, as I consider staying a while longer than anticipated to explore all the corners and bays of the island. Clear, calm tides slowly drifts us toward the open water. We might be only a few kilometres from town, but at ocean level the area appears completely deserted, revealing a wilder side of the mainland.
We follow the coast for an hour before taking a break on another abandoned beach. The evening is becoming somewhat chilly and the smell of hot coffee is irresistibly appealing. From our mooring spot on the sand, we are treated to views of the surrounding island sanctuaries, where unique wildlife is protected from predators introduced on the mainland.
Meanwhile, the sun sets behind the hills, creating a soothing atmosphere. Just as we begin to feel warm and dry, it becomes time to head back. The tide is higher and we are now travelling in the dark. Using the moon as our guide and light, we make it safely back to the shore. Just before leaving the bay I glance one last time at the silent inlet, casting my mind back to our morning at Mason Bay, just one day ago but seemingly years away.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to Invercargill (via Christchurch). From Invercargill, catch a short scenic flight with Stewart Island Flights to either Oban or Mason Bay (www.stewartislandflights.com) or take the one-hour ferry ride to the east coast of the island from Bluff.
When to go: Although the ferry runs all year, it is best to go during the summer months to benefit from the warmer weather and longer daylight hours.
What to bring: There are no banks or ATMs on the island, but a few places have EFTPOS facilities. If you are beginning your journey at Mason Bay, you will need to bring food, cookware and a sleeping bag. Clothing suitable for cold and wet conditions is also recommended.
Where to stay: Mason Bay hut offers 20 bunk beds with mattresses and the facilities include heating, toilets and water. The hut is maintained by the Department of Conservation and bookings are essential. For more, visit www.doc.govt.nz.
There are many options available in Oban ranging from budget hostels to self-contained cottages such as the Turner Cottage, www.portofcall.co.nz. For a complete list of accommodation, visit www.stewartisland.co.nz
More info: Venture Southland: www.southlandnz.com; Rakiura kayak tour: www.rakiura.co.nz. Water taxi; www.portofcall.co.nz
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