The care & feeding of kaka
A steady rain drums against the window. It encourages us to roll over and go back to sleep – one of the lesser-known benefits of vacation rain – refreshing our tired and weta-troubled minds. Eventually, Ernie comes downstairs to do some laundry, and we emerge from hiding just in time to greet some new visitors.
On the patio, perched first on a chair and later on the end of a nearby picnic table, are a quartet of inquisitive kaka; big, brown and a little bit shiny, with colorful streaks visible each time they spread their wings.. They’re clearly no strangers to our lodge, and Ernie encourages us to offer them some food. Their fierce-looking, sharply curved beaks give pause, but as I hold out a morsel of bread, I realize there’s little cause to worry; the boldest of the four sidles towards me and gently plucks the food from my fingers with the most painstaking delicacy. He then grabs the bread with one claw, nibbling in approval.
We retreat to the kitchen and return with more options. An apple proves unpopular, and a bit of garlic- and rosemary-infused ciabatta leads to one bird taking an exploratory nibble, dropping the rest on the ground, and noisily squawking about the insufficiency of our cuisine. Eventually, however, the food leads to inter-avian squabbling, and we retreat inside while the now-angry birds chase each other around the surrounding trees.
Bivalves and beer
We waste a bit more time, waiting for the rain to let up (which it eventually does), then stroll back into town for lunch at one of the two Stewart Island establishments that could legitimately be called restaurants. The South Sea Hotel, however, is not just a restaurant and lodging, but also a (or rather, the) pub, an all-encompassing booking agency for many of the island’s activities, and an oft-identified meeting place for those activities. In our three days, we’ll see most of the island’s inhabitants here again and again, enjoying a brew and bantering in a vaguely Scottish-influenced patois that’s virtually indecipherable to outsiders.
Service in the hotel’s casual dining room, separated from the occasionally noisy bar by a series of open and swinging doorways, is rushed and casual, but the food is as good as it is simple; no pretense, no adornment, just (mostly) local ingredients and a few basic techniques. A bowl of seafood chowder is rich with mussels and fragrant lemongrass, while a plate of terrific fries accompany some Stewart Island oysters…a bit out of season, but worth the experience nonetheless: light, creamy, and more texturally akin to oyster-flavored marshmallows than to any other oyster within my experience. The wine list is OK, but the only by-the-glass options are from the lower end of the Montana stable, and so I ask our harried waitress to choose a beer for me. She returns with a pint of Tui, a North Island brew that is unquestionably the darkest IPA I’ve ever seen (they do know what “pale” means, right?), with an apple-y, almost sweet taste. It’s good, despite a slightly thin finish, but there’s an illicit cider pregnancy somewhere in its ancestry.
If the South Sea Hotel is a multi-service establishment, the Stewart Island Post Office is practically a self-contained town. It’s got mail, a check-in desk for the island’s remote airport (a shuttle runs between the two) that recycles a scale they’d otherwise use for packages, a storage area for backpackers, a miniature book store, a few shelves of local food products, and the facility in which we’re interested: greens fee collection and club/ball rental for the local golf course. We stuff a few choices from a rather motley and battered selection of clubs into some rather tattered and moldy bags, and begin our hike.