Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 8 (December 1, 1929)

Stewart Island — A Place of Beauty, Adventure and Romance

page 43

Stewart Island
A Place of Beauty, Adventure and Romance

On the map of New Zealand, Stewart Island seems a long way out of the world, remote from city and town. Yet it is quite easily reached by a short sea-run from the Bluff, the southern terminus of the Dominion railways. It is a place of unusual attraction in climate, vegetation, sea-cruising, and types of people; and many visitors from the south mainland make it their holiday resort in the summer. In this article Mr. Cowan, who has written so much about New Zealand landscape and its human interest, sketches the topographical and historical aspects of the island, its Maori lore and nativebird charm.

There was a time when the South Island of New Zealand was officially styled the “Middle Island,” a curious description which was retained on some of our maps until a few years ago. It was hard, apparently, to convince the Authorities that to regard the South Island as situated between the North Island and Stewart Island was just about as absurd as it would have been to describe Australia as lying between Papua and Tasmania.

Even less happy was the official nomenclature of an earlier date, “New Ulster,” “New Munster,” and “New Leinster.” Fortunately, that kind of thing soon excited someone's sense of the ridiculous, and the misfits in place-names soon went into the discard, followed by such names as “Newcastle,” “Carlyle,” and “Petre” (for Ngaruawahia, Patea and Wanganui). The ancient Maori sailors and explorers had a better sense of geographical proportion and fitness in island names. There is a certain bold and poetic imagery in the name of the North Island, Te Ika a Maui. Less well-known is the equally poetic name for the South Island, Te Waka-a-Maui. The final touch of fancy, combined with topographical aptness is given in the honorific name for Stewart Island, Te Punga o te Waka a Maui (“The Anchor of Maui's Canoe”).

These Southern names you will not hear from the North Island Maoris. I first heard them from old people of the Ngai-Tahu and Ngati-Mamoe tribes, at Moeraki and other South Island settlements. The tradition among these old legend-keepers was that the South Island was Maahunui, the canoe of the demi-god Maui, and that it was from it that he fished up the North Island, as he stood with a foot mightily braced against a taumanu or thwart—the Kaikoura peninsula. The bow of the “Canoe” is pointed towards the South; it was near the stern he hauled the Ika up from the rolling deep. Down yonder at its bow hangs the Anchor, the Punga (or Puka, in the South Island dialect), which is our Stewart Island.

It is really a wonderful example of Maori-Polynesian genius in exploration and sense of orientation. Centuries ago the brown sea-rovers circumnavigated these islands of ours, and with remarkable accuracy noted the configuration of the new land and the relative positions and sizes of the land masses.

Rakiura (Rangi-ura), meaning “Glowing Sky,” is the popular Maori name for Stewart Island. It is usually assumed that it is a locally descriptive term, but while it is a name of beauty and poetry I do not think we can claim for Rakiura that its skies are more glorious than those of other parts, or that sunrise and evening glow are finer there than elsewhere. Rangiura is a Polynesian name rather widely distributed. The Maoris brought it with them from their ancient tropic homes, just as they brought Hikurangi and Maketu and Whangara and many other beloved ancestral names that reminded them of the coral atolls and high volcanic Islands of Hawaiki.

page 44

That much by way of native place-name explanation; hereafter a note on the pakeha name of the island.

Charm of Islands.

Our country is a land of islands, great and small; islands guarding the gulfs and bays, islands strewn like tree-groves on the calm waters of sea-lochs, islands bold and cliffy presenting a granite front to the long send of Southern seas; islands woody and resounding with the bell-song of birds, charmed isles of Aves. All manner of shapes and sizes in islands, some islets of a fairy-like beauty, some craggily hard and savage of aspect.

“Golden the prospect, earth, sea and azure heaven.“—Robert Buchanan. (Government Publicity photo.) A glimpse of Half Moon Bay, Stewart Island.

“Golden the prospect, earth, sea and azure heaven.“—Robert Buchanan.
(Government Publicity photo.)
A glimpse of Half Moon Bay, Stewart Island.

But here, right away down at the butt-end of the mainland, the largest off-shore island of all seems to combine in itself something of the features that distinguish, in their several ways, the other isles of the New Zealand coast waters. There is something of everything here—a coast here wildly rugged, precipitous, facing the howling gales that come from west and south; there softly verdant, clothed from mountain range to sea-shore in an almost unbroken green blanket of foliage; mountains of rounded form, a mountain that was once a roaring volcano, its crater now a peaceful lake; bays and coves innumerable, and archipelagos high and hummocky or low, and everywhere clothed in forest and fern and bright in season with the gay flowers of the Maori isles. Beaches curving in dainty crescents of shining sands, bastions of rock, tree-hung, dividing bay from bay. And over all the land a kindly breath of air, a climate mild and pleasant for work or play; a place of sunshine and warm airs on its sunward looking northern and eastern parts.

A place of birds, where the tui and the bellbird, the pigeon and the kaka parrot liven the allenveloping bush. These are some of the things that make Stewart Island so attractive, strangely attractive indeed, when we consider its distance from the centres of population and its isolation.

But half the interest of a land of landscape beauty often lies in its human interest, in its atmosphere of history and man's adventure and endeavour. Stewart Island has a background in quite curious contrast to the sedate plains of Southland, a little more than a score of miles away to the north. No doubt its greatly broken coast outline, and its in-and-out contour, with bays within bays and sheltered cove after cove, its deep harbours and small-craft retreats, is the feature that had most part in shaping its story. It seems formed by kind Nature as a place of haven—many havens—for far-wandering sailormen, and a breeding-place for generation after generation of the men that follow the sea.

page 45

Told on the Map.

A map of an island is always a document of interest, sometimes of a peculiar charm, due to its shape, its names of inlet and headland, and the human associations that such names suggest. For the aroma of adventure in a map, I know of no island chart that equals that of Stewart Island. What stories those names hold for the enquiring mind—such names as Port Adventure, Smallcraft Retreat, Murderers Bay, Glory Cove, Pearl Island, Sealers’ Cove, Ulva Isle, Bravo Island. Half Moon Bay could not be bettered as a descriptive name, unless it be Horseshoe Beach. Some of the names are those of ships of old time, such as Sydney Cove. There are olden heave-downs, that is, convenient beaches where a vessel could be put on the ground for cleaning and repairs. The best places were close to the forest-edge, where hawsers could be made fast to the great trees on shore and the ship hove over till she was on her beam ends.

“Clusters of woodland, knolls and bosky bowers.” (Government Publicity photo.) A scene in Paterson's Inlet, Stewart Island.

“Clusters of woodland, knolls and bosky bowers.”
(Government Publicity photo.)
A scene in Paterson's Inlet, Stewart Island.

The Muttonbirders.

On the 22-miles run across to Half Moon Bay from the Bluff Harbour the visitor to Stewart Island is likely enough to see something of the island men before he is across Foveaux Strait. Oyster-dredging craft work the sea-bed for the famous Island oysters; fishing vessels—usually ketch-rigged, with auxiliary motor power—haul up the blue cod that are the very best sea-fish ever caught.

As we near the Island we see not far away on our port hand the cluster of rocky islands masking the entrance to Paterson Inlet, the rendezvous of the Norwegian steam whaling fleet that works the far southern seas. Here the harpoon-gun-armed killing steamers lie up between seasons, while the mother ships, with huge cargoes of oil in the holds, go all the way round the world to Norway and return in time to lead the hazardous voyage. Yon islands, humped, terraced or rounded, are some of the celebrated Titi or Muttonbird Islands. From the end of March, for six weeks or so every year, the whole native population, centred usually at The Neck, is away on the various petrel islands hunting, killing and cooking the titi. The birds arrive “from parts unknown” in the spring, and these off-shore isles are their breeding places. It is the young birds that are taken for food, when they are preparing to fly away with the old birds before winter comes. Most of the titi are captured in the burrows in which they live in the soft soil. All hands are busily engaged in the work of killing, plucking and cleaning and dry-salting the muttonbirds, which are packed in bags made of sea-kelp, covered again with strips of totara and stowed in Maori flax kits. The containers are made perfectly air-tight and so sealed the titi keep for many months. A taste for titi is not easily acquired; but to the Maori palate it is more agreeable than, say, roast chicken. Certainly it is a healthy page 46 food; muttonbird oil is recommended by the doctors as equal to, if not better than, cod-liver oil. Probably the least agreeable thing about the fishy bird—there is nothing of our mutton in its taste—is the smell while it is being cooked. I suggest that the best plan is to make a haangi, the Maori earth-oven in your backyard, and cook it there. But you can't do that in a flat!

The Ghost-Bird.

Yarning to the old sealer and whaler and titi-catching habitants at The Neck, I heard many curious little stories of the Titi Islands, as these dusky petrel-teeming isles are called, and bird-lore and sea-lore.

“Where native birds with their harmonious notes, “Sing to a spring that smileth as she floats.” (Government Publicity photo.) In Thule Bay, Stewart Island.

“Where native birds with their harmonious notes,
“Sing to a spring that smileth as she floats.”

(Government Publicity photo.)
In Thule Bay, Stewart Island.

There is a mysterious bird, they say there, that is never seen but often heard at night. The fowlers are perhaps sitting round the fires that blaze in the open in that solitary place, when there is a sudden swoosh! of great wings, and some unseen creature sweeps past them crying as it goes, “Hákuwai, háAkuwai, u—u!”

That “ooh!” is prolonged until it dies away in the distance in a most eerie note. What bird is that? No one knows. They call it the “hakuwai” from its mournful startling cry. Probably it is one of the large night-roving petrels, but it is a kind of ghost-bird to the Maoris, with its banshee-like eldritch call.

Havens and Retreats.

Half Moon Bay, with its comfortable looking little township of Oban—Rakiura's only town—, Port William, just to the north-west of it; Paterson Inlet, with its cloud of islets; Port Adventure, Lord's River—where the rare white heron or kotuku, still survives—Port Pegasus, that splendid haven away in the south, are the principal indents in this forest-blanketed island. But there are innumerable minor coves and bays and estuaries, that would take “a month of Sundays” to explore.

Paterson Inlet, where the modern whalers go, is a glorious place for a boating holiday. Once, sailing around it and around its islands, I heard from old Mohi the Maori some scraps of folk-talk about birds and trees and islets. We boiled the mid-day billy in Kaipipi Bay, and while gathering dry sticks for the fire, the old man said, “Now, don't take any of those Kotukutuku branches; they are the most unlucky firewood. If we use them for cooking, we'll be makutu'd—they'll bring on paralysis of the legs. We don't want that, do we?” We certainly did not, so I left those Kotukutuku—the native berry-bearing fuchsia—severely alone.

page 47

“Lord of Ulva's Isle.”

There is a wonderfully pleasant isle of trees and birds to which Mr. Arthur Traill, old settler of these parts, took me in his whaleboat to see. His brother is the lone-handed habitant. It was a little Eden of a place, with its dense woods and its sweet birds. We landed on a beach of whitest sand between two-tree-crowned points. There was a store there, the whare-hoko where all the native folk of The Neck and thereabouts did their shopping, and there was a little post-office where you could mail a remarkable letter, the leaf of the puharitaiko tree, a senecio. A letter could be written on this thick, leathery, glossy-green leaf and sent off through His Majesty's mails. But this privilege no longer exists, I believe; summer visitors would soon have posted away all the puharitaiko leaves in the island. Ulva is its pakeha name; there is a Scottish flavour about a number of these Stewart islets. Settlers from the far-north Shetland Islands, too, have given names to skerry and voe.

It was a pretty sight that Saturday afternoon, all the native folk sailing in to Traill's island to do their week-end shopping. Sails of all degrees of white and tan flecked the waters of the inlet. They lay over to the piping breeze, some cannily reefed down before they started, in readiness for little squalls that now and again sweep down even on this sheltered sheet of water.

“There is a beautiful stillness breathing here, Its mellow richness on the clustered trees …“—Longfellow. (Govt. Publicity photo.) Ulva Cove, Paterson's Inlet, Stewart Island.

“There is a beautiful stillness breathing here,
Its mellow richness on the clustered trees …“—Longfellow.

(Govt. Publicity photo.)
Ulva Cove, Paterson's Inlet, Stewart Island.

In and out of those coves and bays, cruises of delight, we saw creeks that came stealing in from the recesses of the island, from the long forested slopes of Mount Rakiahua. Away in yonder there are deer for the rifleman, and there was a time when it was a grand place for the man with the shot-gun, but pigeons and kaka and all their kind are now strictly protected; all that up-and-down land, with its perpetual twilight of shade, is a sanctuary for the native birds. The sea is the best hunting ground here. You can catch amazing quantities of blue cod and a dozen other kinds of delicious fish, if you are one of those whose delight is baiting and hauling in lines and getting hooks stuck in your fingers.

Bravo Island, near Glory Cove in Paterson Inlet, is a place with a queer story. It is said that it was so christened by an early settler there, a Cape de Verde Islander, of Portuguese blood, who was one of the crew of a whaleship. He died on the island, and his spirit was supposed to haunt the house he built.

And there are the three rocky mound-islets, all foliaged to water-edge, called Faith, Hope and Charity, and as is proper, the greatest of these is Charity.

(To be continued next month.)

page 48

Travelling by Train

It must be admitted by all who do any longdistance travelling by train that the railway authorities are doing a great deal to make railway journeys more attractive and pleasant than they used to be (says the Eltham Argus). At frequent intervals throughout the journey between New Plymouth and Wellington, a train assistant passes through the railway carriages and with a suitable duster carefully wipes the backs of the seats and the window ledges, thus removing every particle of dust and keeping the carriage clean and tidy. He is also supplied with a brush and dustpan and carefully clears up any litter from the floor. Some travellers are untidy, and think nothing of throwing cigarette butts, spent matches, and fruit peelings on the floor of the carriage, but these are quickly removed by the attendant, and the floor kept tidy. In addition to this, the same attendant, at intervals, comes through the carriage with a pleasant-smelling disinfectant which freshens up the whole of the compartment. These attentions are much appreciated by the travelling public, and certainly should popularise railway travelling. Ladies, there is no doubt, appreciate the attentions of the train attendants. On the way up from Wellington the train stops for a few minutes at Paekakariki for refreshments. Ladies find it difficult to be served with refreshments in the short time at their disposal, the counter sometimes being lined with men before the ladies can reach it. But before reaching the railway station an attendant passes through the carriage and undertakes to bring into the carriage any refreshments the ladies require. This is a great boon to them, especially when they are accompanied by children. The refreshments are brought in, there is no occasion for hurry, and they may be consumed at leisure. The cups, saucers, and plates are placed in the rack, and removed in due course by an attendant. There is no doubt railway travelling has been made much more attractive than was formerly the case and credit must be given to the authorities for the improvements that have been effected.

A Train from the King and Queen

Master Gerald Lascelles, the younger son of Princess Mary, and his paternal grandfather, Lord Harewood, recently celebrated their birthdays—Master Gerald is five years of age, and the Earl of Harewood is eighty-three. The King and Queen sent their little grandson a clockwork train with lines. The Prince of Wales's gift was a collection of painting books, and Princess Elizabeth gave her cousin a toy imitation of her own dog.