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Birdies

Dreams – and five irons – take flight

by Thor Iverson

[kaka eating]

The utility of the opposable talon
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.

[rainy golf]

Pebble Beach it’s not
Mail-only golf

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.

The Ringa Ringa Heights Golf Course, you see, isn’t exactly in town. No, it’s a good half-hour hike, either down (and up) muddy, rutted dirt roads, or through the bush. What’s more, the six-hole track doesn’t really have a clubhouse as such; next to the first tee there’s a locked trailer with a few stray cans of beer on an interior table and what appear to be some league results tacked to the wall. It’s a shaggy (and in today’s rain, rather squishy) course, with greens long enough to have tiny white flowers intermixed among the blades of grass, but the views are impressive, and we’ve got the whole place to ourselves. Plus, it’s just pure, silly fun to be able to play golf in such a remote location.

Eventually we tire of the steady rain and the uphill slogs, and after seven holes we head back towards town, turn in our clubs, and return to the Rakiura Lodge to dry off and warm up. In the midst of all this drying and warming, we realize we’re hungry, and so we elect to have an early dinner as a prelude to an early retirement. I reduce some beef broth with onions and tamarind chutney, creating a rather intense but delicious sauce for a quartet of venison “medallions.” It’s a tasty improvisation, though I can’t say the same for the wine.

Sanctuary 2002 Pinotage/Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – This does not the herald the future of Marlborough viticulture. The pinot portion of the fruit is a fluffed up, bringing some lighter red berries into the mix, but the wine is dominated by bitter tannin and a strong paint thinner/nail polish character, giving the wine a varnish-like texture. Worse, it’s more combative than complimentary with the food. I just don’t think this blend is a good idea, especially if the pinotage isn’t exactly of the highest quality.

Flightless and fancy-free

The next morning brings something new: sunshine. But it’s the flighty sort of solarity that’s so common in these parts, that seems to last for no more than five minutes at a time before being overcome by heavy clouds, steady showers, quick brightening, and then more sun, before the pattern repeats itself. We wait at the village “green” (a somewhat unkempt lawn next to the South Sea Hotel) for Peter, a pony-tailed, lanky, long-faced gent clad entirely in black and sporting a sparkly bit of bling in one ear – a Stewart Island metrosexual, if there can be such a person – to pick us up in his well-used truck. He spirits us past the golf course to a quiet dock on Golden Bay, where we join another couple aboard his tiny, somewhat precarious water taxi to begin a journey that we’ll never forget.

Fog mingles with low-hanging clouds and drapes itself across the islands of the Paterson Inlet, covering everything in a grayish-blue mist that’s flawlessly mirrored in still ocean waters; a visual representation of silence, and one that’s made manifest when Peter cuts the motor for a moment. He’s stopped for a curious onlooker: paddling around a few feet from our boat, unconcerned and uninhibited, is a yellow-eyed penguin. After a few minutes of mutual regard, we’re once more underway.

[fish cooperative]

Fish, cooperating
[swimming penguin]

Opus does the breaststroke
[Golden Bay sailboat]

Not for sail
[misty Paterson Inlet]

Misty mountain stop

Ulva Island is only a quick fifteen-minute trip from the Golden Bay docks, but it might as well be on another planet. A protected habitat that necessitates all visitors checking their bags and boats for stowaway rats, lest the fragile ecosystem be unbalanced, it’s a living sanctuary for flora and fauna that are rarely, if ever, found elsewhere in the world. Four well-maintained trails cross its northern arm, leaving the island’s southern expanse completely unmolested except by the occasional Department of Conservation researcher.

And it is almost as quiet as the clouds.

Peter leaves us, and we begin our hike. Past Jurassic ferns so delicate a single hungry deer could render them extinct in minutes (which was indeed their fate elsewhere in New Zealand), through dripping forests of near-forgotten tree species towering in mossy majesty, and over trickling creeks that tease a cool, dense, organic aroma from soft undergrowth, the paths wind and twist, rise and fall, bend and curve from forest height to wave-beaten beach, with the entropic power of nature everywhere in evidence. And in the air, something virtually unique in all of New Zealand: a riotous chorus of birdsong.

Birds flap, flit, and scurry through the trees, occasionally stopping for an inquisitive and close-up study of two interlopers; the lack of predators leads to a certain sort of boldness rare among birds in more civilized locales. A pair of sharply-delineated saddlebacks are the first to flutter by, followed by a series of tiny Stewart Island robins (I feel like we’ve seen half the population), brightly-colored yellowheads, clumsy kereru, friendly but zippy riflemen, bickering kaka, riotous kakariki in red and yellow, and even flashes of green that just might be the highly-elusive and incredibly endangered kakapo. Occasionally, the dressy flash of a tui streaks by. But in the midst of all these critically-rare avians, there is one flightless bird that will be our principal companion on, and memory of, Ulva Island.

Our first encounter is on a rusty beach. Rain continues to fall, in mists and in bursts, and the iron-heavy island bleeds a dark red water that erodes wet sand beaches and stains scattered, moss-covered rocks on its way to the ocean. I’m setting up a photo of Theresa, covering the camera to protect the lens from water, when I notice some movement in the corner of the camera screen. I look up, squint, then point.

“Hey, we have a visitor.”

A strutting weka, lighter-colored and even more reminiscent of a dinosaur’s descendant than the one we’d seen on Waiheke Island, approaches our position, completely unafraid. It pauses, inclines its head to judge our height, then continues until it is directly between us. A moment of indecision follows, and then it starts circling my wife. Not finding whatever it’s looking for – mostly likely proffered snacks, though none will be forthcoming – it scampers over to me, alternately posing and skipping directly over my feet while I attempt to catch a picture in its brief moments of stillness. Finally, dissatisfied with the entertainment we provide, it huffs down the beach.

[Stewart Island robin]

Where’s Batman?
[twisted tree]

Let’s twist again, like we did last summer
[Theresa & weka]

Hey lady, can you spare a dime?
[weka]

Vogue-ing weka

But it’s not the last we’ll see. In the bush, short trains of weka will cross our path, showing similarly casual disregard for stepping on our boots, and every remote beach seems to be guarded by one or more of these curious creatures. Even back at Ulva’s lone dock, waiting for Peter to pick us up for the return voyage to Stewart Island, we’re entertained by a scampering, adrenalized weka that dashes up and down our path, kicks up an impressive amount of sand in a futile attempt to unearth food, and leaves only when the buzz of Peter’s boat draws close to the shore.

On the island for only a few hours of slow walking, we nevertheless feel one of those life-changing recontextualizations overcoming our preconceptions. Just as on the Otago Peninsula, our view of what’s precious about travel is undergoing an inexorable shift towards the natural. Many months from now, with innumerable adventures both grand and personal tucked away in the living vault of memory, this is a morning we’ll recall as being something truly unforgettable.

And, as well, there’s something undeniably affirming about the existence of Ulva Island. Our culture, which has done so much to conquer and obliterate nature, is also uniquely empowered to save it. Ulva is a testament to that power…a symbiosis of the creative and the natural, of the timeless cycles of the wild and the relentless acceleration of understanding. It’s something that we can, without argument or debate, feel uninhibitedly good about. And that’s a rare thing in this world.

[beach]

Crowded beach
[iron-colored water]

The island bleeds
[forest path]

Single-minded path design
[dock]

What’s up, dock?
Fish, beer and sky

Here’s something else about which we can feel good: the unparalleled excellence of blue cod. Back at the Kai Kart, ravenous after our long hike, we devour another delicious pile of fish and chips, smiling more than talking, lost in thought and emotion and in the hedonism of deep-fried goodness. I sample enormous fried squid rings and fried green-lipped mussels (the latter of which would be large-scaled heaven for devotées of fried belly clams), but neither quite lives up to the majesty of the cod. This is the Cod, our Cod. We shall have no other cods before it…

[sunrise on Halfmoon Bay]

Blue sails at sunrise
After a little island shopping, we return to the South Sea Hotel’s atmospheric and “Old West”-styled bar for drinks – a flat white for Theresa, a Monteith’s “Celtic” Red for me (tart and peaty, but a little flat) – and enjoy them on a bench fronting Halfmoon Bay and Oban’s main street. What passes for the “bustle” of day-tripper traffic strolls by on a late afternoon that’s turned sunny and blue, and we’re gradually joined by gumboot-clad locals here for a pint (or five) as the day winds down, our taxi-driver Peter included. Metrosexual he may be, but he can throw back the suds with the rest of them.

We briefly return to our lodge, but this late afternoon is just too beautiful to stay inside and ignore, so we go for a pre-dinner stroll instead. At long last, after days of rain and clouds, the rough outline of the mainland defines the view across the Foveaux Strait, but it is to the sky that our eyes return…rich blues and purples turning deeper and more intense with each degree of sunset declination. Birds rise into the heavens in a circular ballet set to the music of the spheres, spiraling higher and higher until, at an unseen but instinctual signal, they straighten and soar towards some personal horizon. The sun on the waters grows ever more aflame, lighting up the sky itself with a rainbow of color; the Maori name for this island, Rakiura, means “glowing sky,” and it is majestically obvious why. Crowned by this symphony of lights, we finally reach our dinner destination.

An oily agony

Atop a promontory overlooking Halfmoon Bay and the town of Oban, Church Hill is a casual eatery that is nevertheless the most “upmarket” of the island’s open dining destinations (there’s an upscale but private lodge that doesn’t figure into this equation). Several small, cozy rooms in dark reddish-brown wood adorned with antiques and old photos form the core of the restaurant, but there’s also an open patio, which is well-subscribed on this beautiful evening.

[sunrise hitting Oban]

Sunrise ashore
I commence with Stewart Island deep-water shrimp, much-adored on our previous trip to New Zealand, but here a bit over-grilled – pale, bug-eyed, and whole on the plate, and not saved by a drizzle of some anonymously zingy sauce – and continue with some delicious, incredibly fresh salmon from local waters. Both plates, however, come dressed with an identical riot of salad greens dressed with something citrusy; fine once, tedious in tandem. Theresa, for her part, is adventurous enough to order titi (a/k/a muttonbird, or sooty shearwater), which arrives – accompanied by the same salad – roasted to a dark, oily, brownish-black. We’ve been verbally well-prepared for the taste of this barely-fleshed aquatic fowl, which is – as promised – similar to pheasant-textured fish, from crisp skin to chewy interior; a bird that tastes like a fish, but with darker flesh than any fish of which I’m aware. It’s a hard merging of paradigms, and while it’s a wonderful experience neither of us foresee it as a regular diet, especially given the difficulty of getting to and extracting the rather small amount of oily meat.

Dessert is an improvement, with Theresa’s passionfruit and peach cheesecake (lighter than the “New York” style) slightly better than my marzipan tart. Service is scattered but competent. As for the wine list, it’s decent but short, with a few too many cross-outs, and I end up regretting experimenting with an as-yet untasted bottle.

Black Ridge 2004 Gewürztraminer (Central Otago) – 14%, and showing about twice that, alongside a rather shocking amount of residual sugar. It tastes like fresh gewürztraminer must with neutral spirits added, and it’s a horrible match with the food. This is alcoholic fruit juice, not wine.

Unfortunately, our presence seems to invite conversation from nearby diners. This is not something we usually mind, but tonight is a very different story. A solo woman from Nantucket crosses the patio to chat for a while, which is fine, but it is our nearest neighbors that come to dominate, and eventually nearly destroy, our enjoyment of the meal. They’re an Irish (her) and Canadian (him) pair on extended holiday, and the husband is not only an inerrant expert on nearly every subject imaginable – wine, birds, dental hygiene, venture capital, the science of taste, children, tea, travel – but embarks on the most insufferable, hectoring lectures on each of those subjects at the slightest hint of a contrary opinion. He is, unquestionably, one of the most irritatingly condescending people I have ever had the displeasure to encounter. And he will not shut up. Inevitably, of course, he is frequently wrong about subjects on which I have some knowledge, but as there is little opportunity to interrupt his soul-destroying monologue, I settle for biting my tongue and letting my enjoyment of the day be slowly sucked away by the vortex of this blowhard’s egocentric gravity.

Eventually, he leaves for an evening of kiwi spotting. Thank God. Even our waiter – himself Irish – seems relieved at the silence. After all this, I need a drink, and order some Scotch. Our waiter brings it to me on the rocks. Maybe, I muse, he’s trying to make a point, as there is Irish whiskey on the menu.

[sunrise over water]

A farewell to the rising sun
Difficult dining companions aside, the restaurant is not without its problems. For less money, I think I’d opt for the more casual environs of the South Sea Hotel (or, for that matter, the Kai Kart), where the cooking is less adventurous, but has a higher success rate at a lower tariff. And given the inherent quality of the local seafood, excessive adornment seems rather unnecessary, after all.

Three’s company

Back at our lodge, we meet our new neighbors – a Korean couple who generously offers to share their food and wine (despite their highly limited English, I think we’d have had a better conversation with them than with our dining “companions”) – pack, and think.

Stewart Island has been both restful and exhilarating, a self-contained “small-town” in which we’ve seen the same people every day, and an uncontained wilderness wide with vistas as accessible as they are untamed. We’re filled with the music of the birds, the fiery burn of the sunset, the misty blue of the inlets and harbors, the endless stories told by Ernie, but most of all by the holistic satisfaction of time well-spent. Tomorrow, our journey will return us to more familiar pursuits…scenic drives, wine, food, the incomparable beauty of Queenstown and the bustle of that adventure-obsessed city. But though we will not again be as “alone” as we’ve been this last week, communing with penguin, sea lion, albatross, weta and weka more than with our fellow humans, in a very real way we’ll be less alone than ever. For the irresistible power of Southland – the Otago Peninsula, the Catlins, and Stewart Island – has become our newest traveling companion.

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Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.