Hunting for a New Zealand icon on Stewart Island

James Belfield enjoys the swoops, squawks and chirps of Stewart Island’s incredible birdlife.

We’re assured there are 20,000 of the bustling, squealing blighters wandering around Stewart Island at any given time – and you can see them in the daylight, fossicking and frolicking under the king ferns.

And since our only prior experiences of our national bird is of a shuffling red-lit silhouette at Auckland Zoo and a rustle of leaves on pitch-black Tiritiri Matangi, it seems a three-day tramp in the far, far south is a good bet to finally see a kiwi in the wild.

There’s even the gently walkable (if a little boggy) three-day “Great Walk” on the Rakiura Track which the Department of Conservation trumpets as the perfect place to “listen out for the rakiura tokoeka (or kiwi) calling, or look for its footprints”.

A view of the beach at Port William hut.

Day one involves a 5km walk on roads from Halfmoon Bay (the centre of everything on Stewart Island) to Lee Bay via the cribs, homes and workshops of Horseshoe Bay, and then a four-hour stroll around beaches and woods, over Maori Bay’s swing bridge and beneath canopies full of kaka, kereru, tui and kakariki to the DOC hut at Port William.

Tell-tale white splashes on the path and three-toed muddy footprints show our quarry is certainly around, and strange late-night strangled screeches may well have been brawling birds outside the hut – but we’re content to enjoy the easy-to-spot Stewart Island robin and flitting saddlebacks, and put off the kiwi hunt until day two.

A friendly kaka visits South Seas Hotel.

An overcast 7.30am start heralds the start of a 12km walk to the hut at North Arm and perfect conditions for a glimpse of kiwi. But as we sift through the silky web-strands, which prove we’re first on the track, we realise that in the damp, mossy, tangled landscape of the island’s ancient forests, absolutely everything looks like a potential kiwi. Each furry fern-base, each moss and lichen-fronded root, each drooping rimu frond, each falling leaf or drip-drip raindrop becomes a wishful sighting.

There’s plenty of birdlife – but all of the flighted kind – so we instead admire the constellations of white-flowered orchids, the kaka-ripped deadwood and the sodden valley bottoms where the lichens grow as broad and proud as celery leaves, seedlings sprout from punga trunks and mosses umbrella from spongy pillows of loam.

The final 13km on day three walks us out of the bush alongside the stunning Paterson Inlet with its beaches strewn with wading birds. We startle a white-tailed deer and stop for food and views at Kaipipi – a beautiful promontory where we watch shags skimming tannin-browned waters. But as we emerge back at Halfmoon Bay and enjoy the scene of squabbling kaka on the balcony of the South Sea Hotel, it’s clear that even the abundant brown kiwi of Stewart Island are of the lesser-spotted variety.

An insider’s guide to… Stewart Island

Not To Be Missed: If you’ve failed to spot a kiwi while tramping, follow in Sir David Attenborough’s footsteps when he was filming The Life of Birds and take an evening cruise on board Phillip Smith’s Wildfire. It includes a guided walk from Glory Bay and the chance to see brown kiwi snuffling along Ocean Beach hunting for sand-hoppers.

Best Place To People-Watch: The tables in front of the South Sea Hotel overlook the bustling hub of the wharf at Halfmoon Bay. And the locals are sure to provide a colourful commentary as well.

Local Etiquette: If it’s good enough for Prince Harry, then it’s good enough for any visitor: Sunday night is quiz night at the South Sea Hotel and pretty much the whole island turns out. The 6pm prompt start means getting there early to bag a table or join a team.

Survival Kit: The sandflies are well-organised on Stewart Island so once one’s found you, a swarm of others isn’t far behind. You’ll need industrial quantities of repellent.

Best Food: Church Hill restaurant’s home-grown and locally-caught menu of seriously five-star quality dishes includes muttonbird, paua, crayfish and, of course, those sweet, meaty Stewart Island oysters.

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