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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 11 (February 1, 1937)

Isle of the Glowing Sky — Stewart Island And A Glass Box

page 27

Isle of the Glowing Sky
Stewart Island And A Glass Box

Paterson Inlet, Stewart Island, New Zealand.

Paterson Inlet, Stewart Island, New Zealand.

This is supposed to be a piece of descriptive writing, a little mild encouragement of the “Go South, young man, go South” variety, and if anyone likes, he or she can still take it as such; but I mean it differently now.

If you haven't been there, you may like to know what this tail end of New Zealand is like; before you reach it. Sliding out from Invercargill southwards, your train passes between long level sheets, of tidal water, and where the banks grow flat and brown, millions of marsh-reeds thrust up, all blowing the same way; as if, hundreds of: years ago, tribes of fighting redheaded chieftains all took cover in the swamps, and have since remained camouflaged, except their irrepressible topknots. This flat, glittering, reedy look, broken only by bright thickets of flowering yellow broom, continues all the way into Bluff; where, unless you happened to be a seagull, and hence interested in the outgoings of the big Melbourne-bound steamers, you might find life a little on the quiet side, though one hostelry was called “The Golden Age,” and from a bar or two came the sounds of revelry by day. I looked about for something that would say: “End of New Zealand” whenever I wanted to call up the memory, and, cxcept for the gulls, could see only a massive black bull in a hillside pasture, the wind flowing round the grave clean lines of his flanks. With head thrust forward, he stood, the breed of bull who, born into the old Greek legend instead of a New Zealand pasture, might have carried off the maiden Europa, and founded another continent and a subsequent peck of trouble.

Father, said little George Washington, I cannot tell a lie. The old Tamatea, queen of the Bluff-Stewart Island run, does roll a little. Anyhow, it is fine to sit, head in the wind, and watch the waves dance; anyhow again, under Captain Hamilton, the Tamatea could just as well be christened the Unsinkable; and anyhow, further than that, he who can't stand a couple of hours' mild rolling for the sake of Stewart Island and its companion isledots is, in my opinion, a long way past praying for. He should be gently but firmly dropped, if not on the head in infancy at least later by his family and girl friends, and left to eke out a miserable existence riding up and down in tramcars and listening in to defective radios. You may think I speak warmly. But you can't see spread out in front of me on this table my beautiful green and blue paua shell, my pieces of ambergris, my shell-fans, my Maori weather-glass, my wild yellow orchids from Ryan's Creek, my white stars of ake-ake, which, hanging in masses of bloom over little rocky islands, smells like some queer tropical fruit, a cross between pineapple and mango. Oh, if I could but get at the idiot who first put about the legend that in New Zealand the flowers have no scent! Why, from the tiny yellow sprays steals the most delicate, enchanting perfume: they are sweetest when the mist or dew is upon them, but sweeter still, the Stewart Islanders say, are the white Easter orchids, which garland the bush in late autumn. And those aren't all. Pressed in the pages of a book, I have the little purple and green spider orchids, with long feelers to their petals: I picked them yesterday afternoon on Ulva Island, under ferns and great rimu trees, while in the bush a tui went into fits of shameless laughter, evidently because I had only succeeded in spearing one flounder while the white dinghy rocked a few feet from shore. Remember the Highland gentleman in the ballad?

“Oh, I'm the laird of Ulva's Isle—“

If he had owned this Ulva, when its rata was just going into flower, and then had gone trapesing about the country for the sake of any hackneyed elopement, he didn't deserve his good luck. Stewart Island's Ulva is a lonely little place, so beautiful with bird and berry, hanging fern and wild orchid, that you might think it waiting for its lord and lady out of the old song. Once it was the home of a botanist, the late Mr. Charles Traill. His house still stands in one of the bushy, golden-sanded curves which are mere repetitions of Stewart Island's commonplace, and is inhabited in the summer time.

I am beginning altogether at the wrong end of the island, my lovely island of dropping wild fuchsias and bellbirds, called by the Maoris, Rakiura, “The Glowing Sky,” because, from far out at sea, they could see it surrounded by a faint crimson glow. Perhaps its blossoming masses of rata—not fully out at the time of my visit—caused the reflection. But it is an island of beautiful names, as well as beautiful sights. One well-known resident, who had the world to choose from, and decided to live at Stewart Island, has a house whose name, being interpreted, means “Leafy Groves Arising from the Sea.”

At the wharf you are met by a patient-looking old horse and a lorry. There are only three cars on the island, and it is quaint to see roads being levelled, and loads drawn by the horses so out-of-date in the rest of the world; quaint, but eminently satisfactory, and the road-menders, judging by their bush cottages, don't get on so badly away from what we call civilisation. Nearly every hut, deep among the ferns and fuchsias, was partly walled with punga trunks; there were neat little gardens, and at most doors hung flax Maori kits, used in season for storing away one's dinner of mutton-birds.

page 28
page 29
Ryan's Creek, Paterson Inlet, Stewart Island, New Zealand.

Ryan's Creek, Paterson Inlet, Stewart Island, New Zealand.

If you want to learn something of Stewart Island lore, the authority you should apply to is Mr. Fred Traill, a nephew of the botanist of Ulva Island mentioned a little above, and himself born and brought up an Islander. For a long time, Mr. Traill lived a business life in the much more densely populated parts of New Zealand; then, some few years ago, he decided that Stewart Island was the only place, came back with his wife and family, and has since been guide, philosopher and friend to hundreds of visitors who, like myself, hear from him so much of the Island and its secrets that they hardly know where to begin—whether with the green pearls found in the paua shells, with the kiwis living in colonies near the deer-camp at Mason's Beach, or with the weather-glass. The weather-glass is a quaint bit of Maori land lore. Washed up on the beach, the huge leathery strands of bull kelp are common-place enough, but only the initiated look for the places where the stem is swollen by an enclosed bubble of air. This is cut out, making a rather decorative little brown globe, whose merits, however, are not its looks. If your kelp weather-glass is full of air and resilient, fine weather is unfailingly ahead. If the ordinary barometer is dropping, and rain is near, the kelp feels spongy, and there is very little air in the bubble. I have tried my weather-glass in all weathers, and unlike normal humanity, it lies not. This simple way of telling the treats wind and weather have in store has been in vogue among the Maoris of Stewart Island long before the white man settled there.

Bragg's Bay, Stewart Island, New Zealand. (Rly. Publicity photo.)

Bragg's Bay, Stewart Island, New Zealand.
(Rly. Publicity photo.)

Paua shells, pearls, and the wonderful harp…. A few years ago, Prosper Ralston, famed abroad as “The Man With the Harp” (his life story was published in the Wide World Magazine), entered into correspondence with Mr. Traill over the New Zealand paua shell. Travelling the world with a collection of opals whose value ran into five figures, a harp, and a stenographer to take down the book he was writing, Prosper Ralston decided that the rainbow blue and rose of the paua shell would serve equally as well as opals, to inlay his “dream harp,” in which tone was to take on an exquisite reflection from colour. Shells were collected, and crossed the seas to the Canadian harpist; at last Prosper and the harp turned up at Stewart Island, and he camped down at Mason's Beach, where magnificent surf comes rolling in on a huge expanse of shining sand broken by cliffs and caves. The “red-fire” pauas—those with a deep rose lustre—and the deepest blue-green ones were exactly what he wanted, and when last he wrote from Australia, “The Man with the Harp” said: “Those beautiful shells of yours may mean a great deal to me.” Perhaps the paua shell—long used by the Maoris for decorating images, ornaments and canoes, and occasionally made into knick-knacks for tourists—may yet provide a far more substantial industry, for it can take a high polish, and one of my own island souvenirs is a tiny war-canoe cut from a paua shell rim. A necklace of green pearls was another interesting commission from an English lady. The pauas bearing the little green pearls—larger than seed-pearls, and of a very soft colour—are only to be found at one place on the Island. But what is there that can't be found somewhere or other on the Isle of the Glowing Sky? Seals pushing their foolish whiskered faces enquiringly round their basking rocks—stern-looking mollymawks, and the beautiful, sad-faced wandering albatrosses, almost their next-door neighbours—little seahorses, much prized by curio seekers—kiwis, supposed to be extinct, but cheerfully turning up in thousands on the western side—these are just a few of the quainter individualities.

How does it look, this ignored but beautiful tailpiece of New Zealand, if you come seeking not for curiosities, but for rest and new scenery? Even in the most inhabited part of the Island, Half-Moon Bay, the houses stand out against a soft background of bush, and a rock scarcely a stone's throw from the perfect harbour is a colony of nesting seagulls, screaming so loudly that you can hear their very unseemly invective on the mainland. Wild fuchsia trees line the roads, and out of them tumble fat tuis. The fuchsias were in blossom, and the tuis—not to mince matters—were as drunk as lords. Came from the bush the page 30 page 31 long, sweet piping call of the shining cuckoo, whom the Islanders call “the summer bird.” And I saw him flying, a little body with a stripe of blue; and that, they say, is good luck.

Toy, an amber brunette Pomeranian, accompanied me to most of the best nearby resorts: Old Mill Creek, where timber washes, and the lovely “Leafy Groves Rising Out of the Sea,” where Miss Dorothy Baker, author of “A Surveyor in New Zealand,” has built a home that makes you rub your eyes. Picture a white and black English house—peak-gabled, its rimu doors copies of those in an old English house belonging to a relative—looking down on unspoiled New Zealand bush. Rimu is the Island's tall timber, but, besides the fuchsias, all manner of soft-edged, strangely-flowering things grow uncontrollably here. The garden, starting off with a little rockery of New Zealand mountain plants, slopes into green terraces, where the steps are not stone, but the much more appropriate punga fern, until one comes to a green ampi-theatre, whose borders, in a few seasons, will be rife with English primroses and wild daffodils. On this green circlet, in a few days, Stewart Islanders will be watching folk-dancing: the Island is one of the few places which still supports a maypole, and knows how to use it. Inside, “Leafy Grove” is a most charming place of soft colourings, old china, old prints. Half-Moon Bay spreads out beneath it, a crinkled shawl of blue silk. Probably this house is the peak of the Island's homes; but Stewart Island possesses mansions in every style, from the cave inhabited by its authentic caveman (who uses a tent-flap and a few punga ferns to shield him from the icy blast, but whose campfire has for several years crackled merrily up in the cleft he occupies for a dwelling), to the Norwegian whaler's house, its gables crowned with bright-painted wooden dragons. It is some years now since the Norwegians called at Stewart Island, reviving memories of the grand old times when the iron try-pots stood on the beaches, and places like Hell-fire Beach and the Devil's Cave got their names. But they loved the Island, and promised, when the bad days of the depression were over, to come back again. Their base is still intact at Paterson Inlet.

How many people know that ambergris of the value of many thousands of pounds has been found, and is still being found, on Stewart Island, which is the world's steadiest source of supply? A piece valued at over £10,000 was found by one man still living on the Island—and, depression or no depression, he has remained an ambergris-hunter. Ambergris, valued as a perfume-fixer, and used also in giving champagne its bouquet, is quite ordinary to look at—the best quality like a soft, greyish piece of stone, the worst black. It is only when you touch it that you discover it is plastic, and notice its odd pungence. Incidentally, ambergris is sold to the merchants of the East, as well as the perfumers of Paris, and Arab potentates put it in their coffee, under the impression that it is a very potent love-charm. Incidentally again, some hold the same belief about mussels, which, of small size and delicious flavour, flourish in great abundance on the Island. It is certainly true that at the moment the Island is suffering from an epidemic of babies, and the only kinds of wheel traffic you meet are perambulators and horse-lorries, perambulators leading by a big majority. This, like anything else, may be coincidence. It reminds me, however, that Stewart Island's biggest day was about seven years back, when Oscar Garden's aeroplane arrived—and stuck its nose in the sad sea waves a few yards from shore—and almost at the same minute, triplets were born. All the men of the Island were away when this first aeroplane landed—not assisting at the triplets' arrival, just fishing—so the Stewart Island women formed a line, waded out into the sea, and brought Mr. Garden's plane to shore. They were too much excited over this, their first aeroplane, to take off their frocks before starting with the good work, and the consequence was that when the rope broke, their comments very nearly equalled the surprised exclamations of the father of the triplets, bonny little lasses of whom the Island was tremendously proud until they went to live on the mainland.

Fishing boats at the wharf, Paterson Inlet, Stewart Island, New Zealand. (Rly. Publicity photo.)

Fishing boats at the wharf, Paterson Inlet, Stewart Island, New Zealand. (Rly. Publicity photo.)

The glass boxes are something familiar, I believe, in the South Seas, but Mr. Fred Traill's novelty in New Zealand. First row out in a dinghy, just a few yards from Golden Bay. Float the glass box behind you, and look down through the wavering green. Huge red starfish, sea-urchins, living in colonies, the waving thickets of rose-coloured and golden seaweeds, the blue of a rock-cod lying on ocean floor…. Sometimes your starfish has gone in for slimming, and has whiplash tentacles; sometimes the fat sausage-shaped beche de mer lies there, unhonoured and unsung, plaintively waiting for a Chinese mandarin to arrive and go into ecstasies about it. All this, a world of green light and queer people, gleams up at you through the plate-glass, and, like the light in women's eyes, you lie and lie, oblivious of the fact that you are getting a crick in your elbow and the sandmes, in squads, are sauntering up and down your stockings, selecting what they consider, upon reflection, a really tasty bit.

The birds of Stewart Island, titi and kiwi and purure and pigeon-gull, deserve an article to themselves; those and the little golden bay. Bear with me if I seem garrulous. In all probability, your women and children will detect in you signs of the same complaint,

(Continued on p. 34.)