Photographs: Maureen Pratchett, March 2007
Stewart Island, or Rakiura, is the third largest island of New Zealand. It lies 30 kilometres south of the South Island and is separated from the mainland by Foveaux Strait. Its permanent population is fewer than 400 people, most of whom live in the settlement of Oban.
The island's Maori name, Rakiura, is usually translated as Glowing Skies, possibly a reference to the sunsets for which the island is famous or for the Aurora Australis, the southern lights, that are a feature of southern latitudes.
Stewart Island is probably the best place in New Zealand for both terrestrial and pelagic birding. It is also one of the few places where the dawn chorus of native birds can still be heard as Tui and Korimako may flock into Halfmoon Bay when the New Zealand fuchsia is flowering.
85 percent of the Stewart Island, or 157,000 hectares, was, in 2002, designated New Zealand's 14th National Park, Rakiura National Park.
The island has around 25,000 kiwi and provides one of the few opportunities to see kiwi in the wild. Visitors may see kaka and little blue penguin around the only built-up area on the island, Oban, in Halfmoon Bay, which has less than 400 local inhabitants. It is also the refuge for the kakapo, the Southern New Zealand dotterel, the South Island saddleback, and more than 20 species of breeding seabirds.
The original Maori name, Te Punga o Te Waka a Maui, The Anchor Stone of Maui’s Canoe, refers to the part played by this Island in the legend of Maui and his crew, who from their canoe, the South Island, caught and raised the great fish, the North Island.
From the 13th Century the Island’s rich resources brought Maori to the Island, especially for the Titi, the sooty shearwater or muttonbird.
Captain Cook was the first European to sight the island, but he thought it was attached to the South Island so he named it South Cape in 1770. The island takes its European name from William Stewart, an officer of the sealing vessel the Pegasus, who compiled the first detailed chart of the southern coast.
Port William was the site of the early Maori settlement of Pa Whakataka. Its sheltered harbour was utilised in the early sealing days of 1809-1811 and as a whaling base in the 1850s. In 1867 gold was found on the beach but prospecting proved unsuccessful. It served as a base for fishing after a deep-water oyster bed was found off the coast in 1868.
In 1872 the government subsidised the settlement of the area by Shetland Islanders, who were encouraged to utilise the timber and develop the fisheries. Charles Traill, Stewart Islands First Postmaster set up shop on Ulva in 1872. At that time the Island was called either Te Wharawhara, the astelia plant, or Coupars Island. Traill named his “estate” on the Island, Ulva, and gradually that name became that which the whole Island was known.