Stewart Island

What, a blog post about a convention that was only two weeks ago?  What is this madness??

So, yes, the Aus/NZ Bookcrossing convention (or unconvention, technically) was the weekend before last, on Stewart Island.  Stewart Island is not the most obvious place for a convention (for the foreigners, it’s that little island at the very bottom of New Zealand, with a population of a few hundred, one tiny town, and pretty much no roads).  But after the success of the Queenstown convention, which was very much run in an uncon style (i.e. minimal organisation, just gather everyone together in one place for a weekend and play it by ear), and proved that Bookcrossing conventions don’t have to be held in cities, CrafteeCod (who was living on Stewart Island at the time) offered to organise the next convention, and the idea was seized on with great enthusiasm.

In the intervening two years, life happened, and CrafteeCod ended up having to move back to the UK, so the organising reins were taken up from a distance by EdwardStreet, who (after an initial unsuccessful attempt to arrange group bookings for various potential activities) pretty much told us what date to arrive, booked us all in for a meal at the (only) hotel, and left us to organise the rest ourselves.  A very sensible approach, and one that worked out incredibly well in the end.

Lytteltonwitch and I left Christchurch on the Thursday morning (with Albert in the back seat, of course) and had a leisurely drive down to Dunedin.  In theory we could have done the whole distance to Bluff in a single day, but it’s a very long way, so it was much nicer to break the journey with a night in Dunedin.  We arrived early enough to be able to visit the Otago Museum – we’d hoped to go to the butterfly house there, but it’s closed for renovations at the moment, so we just explored the rest of the museum.  I haven’t been to the Otago Museum for many many years, and a lot has changed since I used to visit as a child (it was definitely among my most favourite places), but I was thrilled to discover that a few of the galleries are pretty much unchanged.  The cases full of stuffed exotic animals up in the attic, which were always my favourite, have been thinned out a bit (presumably some of the animals got too moth-eaten), but they’ve preserved the Victorian style of the gallery, so it brought back wonderful memories.  Lytteltonwitch was particularly impressed by the model ships on display in another unchanged-since-the-70s gallery on the floor below – I was just pleased to see that the whale skeleton still dominated the centre of the gallery.

Next stop was the supermarket to stock up on snacks – the forecast for Stewart Island wasn’t looking good, so just in case we were stuck in the hostel playing board games all weekend, we wanted to be well prepared.  We of course made sure to get plenty of truly kiwi treats (chocolate fish, Pinkie bars, Buzz bars, Whittaker’s L&P chocolate, pineapple lumps…) for the Australian contingent :-)

We knew MeganH was staying at the same hotel as us, so we’d left a message for her at reception.  We weren’t expecting her to arrive until late, because her plane wasn’t landing in Christchurch until afternoon, and then she had to drive down to Dunedin, so we headed out for dinner.  When we got back, the receptionist told us she’d arrived and gave us her room number, so we headed up to say hello, and spent the rest of the evening catching up.

The next morning we were all up bright and early, and had breakfast together in the hotel’s dining room… accompanied by Albert, of course, much to the amusement of the staff, and of the tour bus full of elderly people who were also having breakfast (though I think we may have knocked a few years off the lives of some of them, after they walked into the dining room and saw a skeleton sitting at a table!).  Travelling with a skeleton is definitely a good way of getting strangers to strike up a conversation with you!

We travelled in convoy to Bluff, because MeganH hadn’t been that way before, so didn’t know the road.  Apparently she wasn’t impressed by me telling her there aren’t any really big hills between Dunedin and Invercargill – in my defence, to a New Zealander, those aren’t big hills!  But yeah, to an Australian they might have seemed slightly larger…

The weather had been looking steadily worse all morning, and we could see a very obvious southerly front approaching.  As we reached Invercargill, the front hit us in a massive downpour.  Things were not looking promising for the ferry :-(

At the ferry terminal in Bluff, we immediately spotted a contingent of Bookcrossers:  Skyring, Fiona and her husband.  The ferry crew were just as amused by Albert as the hotel staff had been, and gave permission for him to sit in the cabin instead of being consigned to a cargo bin.  I opted to sit out on deck despite the weather (I’ve been across Foveaux Strait on the ferry before, so I know how rough it can get, and I also know how seasick I can get even on a calm day if I sit inside).  It was certainly an exciting crossing , with the boat being tossed all over the place, and spray being thrown right over the deck.  I even had to sit down for part of the trip.

After the horrible weather on the crossing, we reached Stewart Island and the sun came out.  It very quickly developed into a glorious day, with no sign of the southerly.

As we got off the ferry, we spotted EdwardStreet and KiwiInEngland sitting outside the hotel (which used to hold the distinction of being the southernmost pub in the world, until they opened a bar in Antarctica) enjoying a drink in the sun. We stopped to chat for a while, but knowing how fickle the weather can be on the island, I suggested a walk before the rain returned, in case it was our only opportunity to get out in the bush. Most of the others had booked on a bus tour (I was amused by this idea, as other than a couple of short roads to the next bays over from Halfmoon Bay, there really are no roads on Stewart Island!) so declined, but after dropping off our bags (and Albert) at the hostel, Lytteltonwitch and I set out to walk the track to Horseshoe Bay.

The first section of the walk was along the road (with a slight detour into the cemetery, where Lytteltonwitch was in search of a geocache), but then we turned off onto a walking track. It was a really lovely walk (though it involved some serious hills!), round lots of little hidden bays inaccessible other than on foot or by boat, and the weather stayed amazing. Random photos from the walk:


Cemetery with a view (and someone walking on the beach)


Black oyster catcher


Looking back across Halfmoon Bay to Oban


Onionweed flowers – not very exciting (or native), but they looked pretty in the sunshine


As a child, I used to call the native fuschia trees (kōtukutuku) “paper trees”, because of the thin bark that flakes off them.


Yes, the water really is that clear (way too cold to swim in without a wetsuit though – that’s the Southern Ocean out there: next stop Antarctica!)


Lytteltonwitch released a book on this beach – and (despite it being about an hour’s walk from the road) got a catch before we got back to the hostel!


The entrance to Horseshoe Bay


You can just see the South Island through the haze (that’s Bluff Hill)

Most of the walk was through areas with a lot of fuschia, so we saw hundreds of tui (which feed on the nectar). I decided the tui were teasing me, because every time I pointed my camera at one of them, it would immediately fly away, turn its back, or hide behind a branch. I took many many photos before I finally got a few decent ones. A typical sequence of photos:


Hiding in the darkest part of the tree


After much patience, he finally comes out, and immediately flies to a tree at the limit of my zoom (and then only because I blew the photo way up and cropped it – otherwise he’d just be a tiny speck in the distance)


Now why would you do that just when I’ve finally got close enough to get a better photo?


Success at last (though a bit blurry – see comment above about blowing photo up to prevent speck-sized bird)


See, now he’s definitely just laughing at me!


Finally got one to show off his plume of neck feathers (and the reason early European settlers called them parson birds) properly!


I think this was the closest I got with a camera in my hand (when I wasn’t holding a camera, they got much closer, of course – they were swooping right past our heads!)

We walked back from Horseshoe Bay by the shorter route along the road (and were passed by the “tour bus” full of the other Bookcrossers along the way – the driver must have been confused when all his passengers suddenly started waving out the windows to a couple of random people walking down the side of the road!), but even so Lytteltonwitch’s fitbit was still registering a total of 15 km walked by the time we reached Oban – so not bad for a little walk!

That night we all met up for dinner at the hotel. I opted for blue cod, of course, as I did every night we were there – I had to make the most of it while I was far south enough to get the good stuff (it really has to fresh-caught from the cold southern waters to taste right – I make it a rule to never eat blue cod north of Oamaru). But I didn’t say no when Fiona’s husband offered up the remains of his crayfish for the rest of us to pick over – he’d left all the best bits behind in the legs and claws!

It was Friday the 13th, so Lytteltonwitch had planned a spookily-themed book tree. So after dinner we all trekked up to the top of the hill, to the only suitable tree we’d been able to find (the island is covered in trees, but a book tree requires a certain sparseness (and bareness) of branches, which native trees aren’t good at. The wind was picking up, but we managed to tie all the books to the tree. The planned photo-shoot with Albert wasn’t so successful, though – the wind sent him flying onto the muddy grass before anyone got a decent photo of him leaning against the tree.

One of the activities EdwardStreet had attempted to organise was a guided tour of Ulva Island, a predator-free nearby island. There were several different companies offering tours, at wildly varying prices, but after talking to the staff at the backpackers (who were fantastic about ringing around the different tour companies to get details for us) we decided to go with the most expensive option, as it seemed to offer the best value for money in terms of how much time you’d actually get on the island. At dinner that night we confirmed numbers, and (the backpackers staff having made the booking) arranged to meet up in the morning so we could all walk over to the tour guide’s office to pay. At breakfast though one of the staff told us she’d been rung by the guide asking if we could come and pay earlier than arranged, because she had to go out on another tour. So we quickly gathered together everyone we could find, and I put the fees for the late sleepers we hadn’t managed to get hold of on my credit card (that’s the nice thing about bookcrossers – I knew I could trust everyone to pay me back later!).

That bit of organisation out of the way, Lytteltonwitch and I decided to walk over to Golden Bay, where we were going to be meeting the guide that afternoon, to see how far it was (I’d been there before, and thought I remembered it being only 5 or 10 minutes walk from the hostel, but we thought we’d better check before we told everyone when to meet up). It did turn out to be only 10 minutes, even given the giant hill we had to walk over, and the little harbour there was just as beautiful as I remembered.

Just to show you how changeable the weather is on Stewart Island, only a few minutes after I took that photo, this happened:

Luckily there was a little shelter by the wharf where we could wait out the rain, or it would have been a very damp walk back to the hostel!

We had lunch at a cafe that technically wasn’t a cafe, because they only did takeaway coffees… except you could eat them on the premises. It was a wonderfully Stewart Island way of getting around regulations set by the local council in Invercargill. The owner explained to us that in order to run his business as a cafe, the council’s regulations required him to have toilets. But the little shed he was operating out of didn’t have any, and it would cost a fortune to install them (building anything on the island is incredibly expensive, because all the materials need to be shipped across on the ferry). But if he only offered takeaway coffees and food, then he didn’t need toilets. So he served everything in takeaway containers, and told his customers if they wanted to consume their takeaway purchases inside his shop (and sit at the convenient tables and chairs he just happened to have there), then they were welcome to do so.

After lunch the eight of us going to Ulva Island walked over to Golden Bay to meet the guide, and the boat that was taking us across to the island. Our guide seemed very bossy at first – giving us instructions about how to walk so that we’d make the least possible noise, and telling off anyone who dared speak at the wrong time or rustle a food wrapper. But it quickly became evident that she was doing so because she wanted to give us the best possible chance of seeing all of the rare native birds that the island is known for (many of which have been driven almost to extinction by predators in the rest of NZ). We spent an amazing four hours on the island as she showed us birds that we’d never have seen if we’d just been wandering around on our own, and told us all about them, and the trees, and the ecosystem that supports them. She definitely knew her stuff, and I learnt a huge amount.

I had as little success photographing most of the birds as I had with the tui, but that didn’t really matter, because it was so cool just getting to see them in the wild that taking photographs was very much secondary to the experience. I did get a few cool photos from the day though:


Stewart Island weka. They’re much smaller than their South Island cousins, but just as curious – as you can see, this one walked right up to us on the beach to find out what we were up to.


Keen photographer Skyring and keen birdwatcher MeganH in their element


A yellowhead (mōhua) – best known for appearing on the $100 bill


Robins are easy to photograph – they’re even more inquisitive than weka, and all it took was the guide scratching at the ground to get one flying down to check if any tasty insects had been disturbed.


A tiny native orchid – the first time I’ve ever seen one flowering


And an even better example


Saddlebacks (tīeke – one of the endangered species (super endangered, in this case – at one point there were only 36 of them left) that are thriving on Ulva Island) proved particularly hard to photograph. They specialised in positioning themselves exactly behind closer branches and leaves that my camera would decide to autofocus on instead of the bird (I really must practice being faster at switching my camera from autofocus to manual for situations like this!). There’s two saddlebacks in this photo, somewhere in the blur behind that perfectly sharp leaf…


I finally get a saddleback in focus, and he’s silhouetted against the sky, so you can’t see the distinctive colouring that gives it its name


At least kererū (wood pigeons) stay still for long enough to get a photo, though he was very high in the tree, so my zoom was at its limit


Stopping for a chocolate break…


…where we were joined by another very inquisitive robin, who sat on a branch just above my head, and took a great interest in me as I took his photo (many many photos – now that I finally had a bird up close and sitting relatively still, I made sure to take advantage of it!)


Not the best photo technically, but definitely my favourite :-)


Finally, an elusive saddleback without any branches in front of it (just his head stuck inside a punga as he searched for insects). And then I took a couple of steps to the side and…


A decent photo of a saddleback at last!!!

Back at the jetty, we sheltered from the rain (it had rained off and on all day, but we were under the canopy of the trees most of the time, so it didn’t bother us), and watched the weka who came to investigate while we waited for the boat to come back and take us back across the inlet to the main island.  As the wind had got up quite a bit and the sea was too rough for us to stay out on deck for the trip back, we all crowded into the wheelhouse where Discoverylover kept the skipper entertained by putting on an impromptu version of the “Baby Bounce” programme from her library, complete with a reading from a Dr Seuss book, and an action song (no babies though, which was disappointing – we wanted to know how well they bounced 😉 ).

We all agreed the tour was well worth the money.  If you ever find yourself on Stewart Island, I highly recommend doing a tour with Ruggedy Range – for $135 per person we got a private tour for our group that was tailored to exactly what we wanted to see (we discussed beforehand what our interests were), with an incredibly knowledgeable guide (I think she said she had a degree in ecological science?), and an overall fantastic experience.  There are cheaper options, but from what we could tell, they didn’t offer nearly as much value for money (the ferry company offers a trip to Ulva Island for $70, for example, but it only gave you one hour on the island, and we were told that the guides were just ordinary ferry crew members, with little specialist knowledge).

That night we ate at the island’s only other restaurant (there is a “kai kart” which sells fish and chips, but it was closed for the off season while we were there), a much more upmarket place than the hotel (but it’s still Stewart Island, so it’s definitely not black-tie – no noses were turned up at us bunch of scruffy backpackers :-) ).  They don’t like to book large groups, because their kitchen is quite small, so we had to go in two separate seatings.  But it was actually nice to eat with a small group, where everyone could be part of the conversation, instead of the big long table full of people we’d had the night before.  The food was very impressive – I had a starter of paua ravioli which was amazing (and the paua was actually tender – a very tricky thing to achieve!), and then blue cod (of course :-) but cooked in a different style than the “battered with chips” I’d had at the hotel).  Then, all too full for dessert, but still wanting to try them, and none of us able to make up our minds which dessert to choose, we ended up ordering one of each and sharing them around the table.  I think we spent about three hours at the restaurant (we ended up overlapping with the group that came later, so we did kind of get to have another big group dinner :-) ) just enjoying the food and the company – a really great evening.

The weather got worse, and by Sunday morning it was obvious that it wasn’t going to improve in a hurry.  In fact, it was bad enough that all the ferries and planes back to the mainland were cancelled (luckily Goldenwattle was the only one of our group who had booked to go back that day, and she was able to change her travel arrangements reasonably easily).  So we spent most of the day sitting in the lounge at the backpackers putting together a jigsaw of a Paris street scene (to get us in the mood for next year’s world convention), eating the lollies Lytteltonwitch and I had provided, and generally relaxing.  At most conventions I would have been frustrated by the enforced idleness, but it had been such a casual, laid-back weekend that I actually enjoyed it – it was nice to all just enjoy each other’s company with nothing in particular we had to rush off and do.

The main reason we’d all opted to stay until Monday was so we could attend the famous quiz night at the hotel (which came to the world’s attention when Prince Harry took part when he visited the island a couple of years ago).   The pub was crowded with all the people who had been stuck on the island by the weather, but we managed to squeeze ourselves in round a couple of tables, and formed two quiz teams.  It was a great quiz, with the questions actually written by the two young guys who were running it, rather than being one of those horrible commercial quizzes that so many pubs use these days. It was all very light-hearted, with spot prizes awarded to people who could tell good jokes, or do a convincing Russian accent. And a lot of laughter when one of the quiz-masters inadvertently gave away the answer to one of the questions :-) Of course, our two tables were fiercely competitive (against each other, at least – we didn’t particularly care how we came in relation to the rest of the pub!), but I’m sad to say the other table won the day – they came second equal, whereas our table only got fifth place.  It was all a lot of fun, and a great way to end the convention.

The next morning the weather had cleared enough for the ferry to be running (although it was still pretty rough – 30-40 knot winds, and 4 metres of swell), so we all boarded our respective ferries or planes and left the island.  The crossing was another exciting one, though I didn’t think it was as rough as it had been on the way over – I was able to stay standing up the whole time this time, and it wasn’t nearly as wet out on the back deck.  At Bluff we farewelled all our Bookcrossing friends, and Lytteltonwitch, Albert and I headed up through the back roads of Southland to Central Otago (with a slight detour to visit the town of Nightcaps – well, we had to really, I’d had the book Nightcap sitting on my bookshelf for years, waiting for the next time I was in Southland and could release it there!).

We spent the night at Mum’s place in Alexandra, so I finally got to see her new house, and the changes Brother and SIL have made to the shop (it looks amazing).  Mum invited Brother and family round for pizzas for dinner (the kids didn’t know we were visiting, so it was a cool surprise for them when they turned up at Granny’s and I was there – though I think Niece was more excited to see Albert again than she was to see me! :-) ), so we had a lovely family evening (and Brother and I had a long debate about gender identities – we may not agree, but at least I know he’s trying to understand).

We ended up not leaving Alexandra until after lunch on Tuesday, having spent a nice relaxing morning chatting with mum over many cups of tea, so our drive back to Christchurch had to be much more direct than our normal meandering road trips, but at least it meant we got back to Christchurch at a reasonable hour.  It was a struggle to wake up in time for work on Wednesday though!

So that was our Stewart Island adventure.  And that was an entire convention blogged and photographs posted in the same month that the convention happened.  Yeah, don’t hold your breath for me to manage that for the next one…

6 thoughts on “Stewart Island

  1. FC that was a truly delightful account of an Unconvention at which I could have been but wasn’t. Thank you indeed for encapsulating the flora, fauna, and company so deliciously.
    I am truly in awe of your writing skills. After more than two years attending a regular writing group I can easily read behind your choice of and juxtaposition of words to bring the adventure to life. And the illustrations are a great accompaniment.
    Thank you.

    • Thanks Jan – sometimes I feel like I’m just vomiting words onto the page without really giving them the polishing they deserve, so it’s nice to know that despite that I still manage to get it right sometimes.

      We missed you at the convention!

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