Captain’s Log: Week 7

John is reunited with Joanne this week, and the couple enjoys an abundance of southern hospitality, Stewart Island-style, to make up for the atrocious weather.

Jo strikes a pose beside the chopper before their private helicopter tour of Stewart Island

Jo strikes a pose beside the chopper before their private helicopter tour of Stewart Island

Day 1: Bluff Harbour to Stewart Island
On Friday morning, John and Robin stopped at the Art Gallery Cafe and enjoyed coffee and a tour of the gallery, courtesy of the owner. “This housed many paintings by local artists and Oamaru stone carvings by a very talented local sculptor.”


Back on the boat, the brothers exchanged goodbyes before Robin flew back to Auckland to see their sister, who had recently lost a son. John’s attention then shifted to the task of getting the boat and himself safely to Stewart Island. “I wasn’t looking forward to anchoring, with the control-mechanism sensor fault meaning a reset every 3 meters of chain let out, but I will cross that bridge when I come to it.” By now, high tide was approaching, “a great time to depart Bluff Harbor. I contacted Bluff Harbor Radio to advise of my departure and request any shipping movements I should be aware of. The sea conditions were spectacularly good—the best I have seen in these parts, ever! I sent Robin a pic on Messenger as he was in disbelief that I was in flat seas.” 


After a slight deviation to allow a cargo ship to pass, John got back on track. At 15 knots to conserve fuel, “I cruised across the strait towards Stewart Island for the very first time in my life. I arrived at the predicted time of 1:45pm and radioed Maritime to close my trip report.”


Anchoring in Golden Bay, John made his way ashore by tender. “I saw a guy working on his boat against a pier and swung by for a chat. He didn’t say much until I asked him questions about the best way into Oban.” A great white shark tour operator, the man, named Peter, had been apprehensive that John was an official of some sort, as several locals had expressed concerns about the possible ramifications of feeding the sharks. “He was doing a filming assignment for the Discovery Channel, which was to wrap up tomorrow, weather permitting. Apologizing for being standoffish, “he offered me his berth in Port Chalmers, Dunedin, as it was going to be available, with him and his boat being here. I couldn’t believe the generosity of people down here! They truly are welcoming and helpful once their guard has been dropped.”


Setting off for Oban on foot, he crested a hill. “There was the township in front of me; the largest building I could see was the community hall.” The South Sea Hotel was among the other things John saw as he wandered down the street. “I went to the pub, recommended to me for coffee, and enjoyed a flat white while watching life, Stewart Island-style, pass me by. Yes, Charlie, coffee not beersies—gotta look after my figure!”

View from South Sea Hotel, Stewart Island
View from the South Sea Hotel, Stewart Island: “Life can be hectic—but not today!”


By late afternoon, John was already thinking about dinner. “I had a beautiful kumara–ginger soup with toasted ciabatta—I just couldn’t be bothered cooking tonight. I am looking forward to Joanne arriving tomorrow. I would not like to be doing this trip on my own; it is definitely something to be shared.” 


Day 2: Stewart Island and Oban
On Saturday, John set about getting the boat shipshape for Jo’s arrival. Her journey would involve three flights aboard successively smaller planes: one to Christchurch, one to Invercargill then finally one to Stewart Island. While waiting for her in Oban, he went to the pub again for a coffee. “It was interesting how many of the staff had Irish accents and the cheerful disposition that often goes with the Irish. I guess the climate resembles home and they feel comfortable here in the small-village atmosphere.” After a warm reunion with Jo, the pair returned to the pub for lunch.  
Jo with signpost in Oban, Stewart Island

Reunited and it feels so good: The lovely Jo returns and John picks her up in Oban.


“We had a cod burger that was really massive, so we decided that we’d have to walk it off.” Exploring the few businesses in Oban didn’t take long—“the place is microscopic”—then they found themselves back at the hotel. As the one town cab was unavailable till after 4pm, Helen, the pub’s landlady, kindly offered them a ride to their tender. “Where does that ever happen? We immediately felt indebted to her. I am sure there were no expectations though, just a genuinely nice local looking after another couple of tourists.”


Back on board, Jo got settled in before the two went back into town in the evening. Over a couple of Stoneleigh pinots, they watched the boxing on TV, David Nyika versus Yakita Aska in the Commonwealth Games, before the locals switched over to watch the Warriors game. “Jo texted her brother to stay in touch about the fight, and we were delighted to hear that David took the gold, particularly after disappointments in recent years.” They met a visiting couple who had arrived at the bar earlier in the day and never left! “We had a good old chat, but it was clear we wouldn’t be learning anything about Stewart Island from them. Tomorrow we plan to travel to Ulva Island inside Paterson Inlet, a beautiful sanctuary with an interesting history.


“We continue to find visiting boats poorly catered for in many New Zealand locations. Everything is signposted Private jetty: Do not leave boats unattended!” Other times, there’s nothing at all. “The system is all geared for locals, which I understand, but we are a tourism-dependent nation—surely we can do better?” John also discovered that the Port of Otago has no berths for rent. “If I hadn’t met Peter, I would have no plan B at all. Looks like I will be taking up his generous offer and using his berth in Carey’s Bay, Port Chalmers.” 


Day 3: Stewart Island by Chopper

“Following breakfast, we weighed anchor for Ulva Island, Paterson Inlet, to explore walks through the native bush. No sooner than the anchor was up, my phone rang: It was the local helicopter pilot, Zane, asking if we wanted to take our Island tour today.


“Zane picked us up then drove us to the helicopter base just out of town. He was going to cover most of the island, with a couple of stops where we could spend time exploring on foot. We chose to do a beach walk in Mason Bay, on the west coast. We had the chopper to ourselves, and all three of us were in front for the best views.” Airborne, they proceeded up the valley toward Benson Peak. “We could see the walking track beneath us, following the river.
Zane and John at Mason Beach

Helicopter pilot Zane and John walk the beach at Mason Bay. Zane carved a cricket-sized ball from some sea kelp, which bounced when thrown, just like a ball!

“We came in to land near a creek and walked the beach with Zane, who told us about ambergris, sperm whale vomit, which is extremely valuable and has a very distinct odor. Used by perfume manufacturers to help scents last longer, a stone the size of your hand would be worth several thousand dollars! We would walk straight past it or dismiss it as a stone, but those in the know will investigate anything of the right shape and color.” Though a relatively rare find, “Stewart Island seems like a likely spot to discover such an item, as all sorts, sadly including plastic rubbish, finds its way to these shores. Much of this may have come from as far afield as South America!” 


Zane also happened to be a paua diver. (Paua is the Maori name for abalone.) This is permitted by free diving only, no breathing apparatus allowed. “They take nothing under 137 mm [5.4 inches] across—that’s a very large paua! They are exported live to markets overseas. Nothing is wasted. When the shells are removed locally, they are sold and used for jewelry and other items. Paua are prolific in these parts, and Zane pointed out spits that were abundant with this bounty of the sea.”

large paua abalone shell
The paua shell Zane gave us. Note the size against the satellite remote control!


Lifting off over Doughboy Bay, another huge collector of flotsam, they passed over the Muttonbird Islands, where local harvesters were readying for the start of the season. “Muttonbirds are rich in Omega–3 and are a very oily meat due in part to their diet of seafood. I am not ready to try this delicacy yet, which apparently tastes very salty, like anchovies.”


Flying inland over Gog peak, some 400 meters above sea level, they then made their way around South Cape and back up toward Paterson Inlet, “following the shoreline and its many safe havens that Zane was able to point out to us. We landed again beside an almost-closed waterway that looked like a lagoon but had a small opening to the sea. It was a beautiful natural landscape; we had effectively landed on the wetlands bordering the mini harbor. 


“We climbed back on board and flew up the coast to Paterson Inlet and across Golden Bay, where Horizon III was anchored. Zane swooped down into the tree-clad valley which looked like a valley to nowhere, but then in front of us loomed the large hangar facility of Rakiura Helicopters.” 

Horizon III in Thule Bay, view from helicopter
As they were flying back to the hangar, they could see Horizon III in Thule Bay, alongside Golden Bay. 


The hour and a half had passed all too quickly. “Zane dropped us back in town and we expressed our thanks for sharing his knowledge and passion for the island. We stopped at—you guessed it—the pub for lunch, where we both enjoyed the most fabulous seafood chowder and a coffee. After our very late lunch, we would head back to the boat, where we cooked ourselves a lovely dinner.”


Day 4: Ulva Island

PredictWind forecasted a “semi-okay day, so we wanted to use it wisely. We planned to hit Ulva Island today as we missed it due to the chopper flight of the island yesterday. Ulva was the first part of Stewart Island to be protected in 1899, under the Land Act of 1892.” The island’s first occupant, Charles Traill, was a naturalist and botanist who advocated for the preservation of the island, “although he did introduce some tree species not normally found here. These trees remain but are controlled.”


They cruised around Ulva until they came to semi-sheltered Sydney Cove. “The weather turned sour as we rounded the southern end of the island, with the inlet turning to one-meter waves and the wind jumping to 25 knots. We pulled into the cove, sheltered by its contour and the small island at the end of the cove.” With high tide about two hours away, they made shore through small waves without incident. “We did every walk available, with our guidebook in hand. There were beautiful tracks and steps throughout the island, a real credit to the people who built them.”
Ulva Island walking track stairs

The island’s first post office, built in 1892 and used until 1923, was run by Charles and Jessie Traill. “Along with their daughter, they were the only people living there. Apparently, when the mail arrived every week or so, Charles would raise a flag that could be seen from many parts of the island. This became a big event for the people of Stewart Island, who then arrived en masse at Ulva to collect their mail. It was treated as a family day out.”  


Though they didn’t see any kiwi, bird life was prolific. “Some were huge, like the kaka, and others were small and very friendly, like the Stewart Island robin. A male tui even flew up close and sang to us for as long as we were prepared to listen.” On the nature loop, John was particularly interested in the miro tree, “which has an abundance of bright-red berries that birds love.” Kaimiro, John’s family trust, was named after Kaimiro Street, the home of his Hamilton firm Stainless Design. “When researching its meaning, we learned that it referenced our area in Te Rapa, where Ngati Wairere were settled. It was a food bowl for the local iwi (tribe), kai meaning food and miro, tree. The miro trees have long since gone from Kaimiro Street, but here on Ulva, they were prolific and thriving. We easily clocked our 10,000 steps for the day walking all of these tracks.” 


After a late lunch on the boat, they motored back to Thule Bay, where they planned to spend another night. Once back at anchor, they changed and went into town, John hoping for a meal of Stewart Island crayfish. “We made our way to the pub first, as was becoming a habit, and took the top off a Stoneleigh pinot noir for the second time! The bar was heaving with people, so we sat down, chatted about our day then phoned friends, Charlie and Amy in Hamilton, as we were aware that Amy’s mum might be here also.” Advised that Amy’s parents were just about to leave the island, they carried on chatting, thinking they had missed their opportunity. “Next thing, there’s Amy’s mum, Julie, standing in front of us! Julie introduced us to Tami, and we sat down to have a good old chat. We felt right at home.

“Soon, we had a new friend at the table: a big, gregarious fellow who had spent 42 years on the island, originally as a trader. He introduced himself as Arkwright but added, ‘If I told you my real name, you won’t remember, but you will remember Arkwright.’ His name was probably John!” Borrowing the name of the protagonist from the Britcom Open All Hours, “He really was like Arkwright, both in stature and personality, a real character. He even had the bike with the big basket on the front, so he clearly entered into the spirit of his nickname. He referred to the South Sea Hotel as ‘the craypot’: easy to get into but hard to get out of! A very likable fellow and a pleasure to spend time with.”

New friends at bar of South Sea Hotel

Our new friends, from left to right: Julie, Tami and Arkwright

John finally got the crayfish tail he was craving, and Jo the blue cod. “Both dishes were amazing!” As they headed back to Thule Bay, the way was pitch-black. “We almost ran into a woman coming towards us. We were about 500 mm [nearly 20 inches] apart before we saw each other!” Passed a rugby field, they saw the flashlights of tourists searching for kiwi. “I think the Kiwi would have scurried back into the bush real quick with the lights flashing all over the place. We used ours to see where we were going after that and soon needed it when the street lights ended. It was great to get back to the warmth of the boat, and so ended another interesting and eventful day in the south.”


Day 5: Stymied by Rough Weather

“We had a terrible night last night. The wind was up around 35 knots at midnight and didn’t let up all night. The sea was coming in on our port beam side, and the wind was right on the nose. This means lots of noise (hull slaps) and rolling like hell from the short sea.” With no anchor sensor fitted and the risk of relocating in a storm, they just had to ride it out. “We awoke to rain, hail and sleet, and it didn’t look like it would stop all day.


“I decided to find us a better spot to anchor, as the forecast wasn’t a lot different from the previous day’s. We ran to Prices Inlet and anchored up, with squalls rolling through every 15 minutes or so. It was cold as hell, so we have both heaters going all day. Jo settled in on the couch to read a book while I caught up on my blog. The only frustration was I had virtually no signal at all. What should have taken minutes was taking hours! In hindsight, I should have moved back into signal range then relocated afterwards.


“We prepared a beautiful blue cod dinner complete with fresh vegetables and relaxed for the evening to watch Borg vs McEnroe. Now that H3 was sitting still, we had rain and sleet falling all around us.” 


Day 6: Back to Oban

“We had the best night’s sleep last night, with flat seas. The rain had eased, and we were seeing patches of blue sky. After breakfast and a tidy-up on board, we decided to take the boat for a cruise to Halfmoon Bay. Not having done a fast run in a while, we cruised at 18 knots. We found a spot to anchor between the ‘no anchor zone’ and the beach.”


Dragging the dinghy ashore, they headed to their favorite haunt, the South Sea Hotel, for coffee. “We bumped into Arkwright, who was heading to the post office. He was his usual fun and chatty self. We felt like a couple of locals in the community now—we were accepted warmly by all our past acquaintances! Outside the Four Square, we bumped into Zane, our helicopter pilot. We also had a long chat outside. I think the locals enjoy chatting with newcomers to the island as much as we do with them. 


“We went to the museum and spent an hour or so there (it’s very small) but saw lots of photos of interest and artifacts showing the sawmilling industry. Stewart Island was a destination for whalers to visit while working the southern oceans, though there was never an actual whaling industry here. The museum highlighted the early settlers of the island, particularly the personalities who forged new lives here: the schoolteachers, church leaders and businesspeople, both men and women. Their names are often seen around the island, with streets and bays named after them.”

At the artisan workshop Rakiura Jade, they met the talented Dave and Bean, who carve in whalebone, jade, timber and Oamaru stone. “We stayed there for some time and had a great chat about their work. Dave worked for Weta Workshops on the set of movies such as King Kong.” Dave crafted the trees used in the movie, complete with articulated joints that would simulate natural movement when shaken. “Apparently, none were greater than 3 meters high! We purchased a small jade paua shell that had iron-colored inclusions, giving it beautiful transparent colors, especially if put anywhere near the light. 
Rakiura Jade carved paua shell

“We decided to stay the night to have easy access to road in the morning as we were going to take the Brompton bikes for a ride out to the lighthouse, visiting an old stone home on the way. The Bromptons will get some strange looks for sure. They probably won’t have seen any of them around here! All in all, a good day. I have set up the night rope to soften the impact of the wind and keep the chain quiet as the boat swings. The rain seems to have set in for the evening. Sadly, the forecast is no better for the next three days.”


Day 7: Acker's Stone House

“We have done much of what there is to see here but are now trapped by a three-day weather event posting speeds of 40+ knots! After a stormy night at anchor in Halfmoon Bay, we awoke feeling slightly jaded after disturbed sleep in relentless winds that whistled around Horizon III. You would normally expect some interludes but, no, this was a continuum of strong winds all night.”


Dressing warmly on top and loading their bikes on the dinghy, they headed for the beach. “We wanted to see the oldest stone house on the island, built in 1836 by Lewis Acker, who was an American whaler. He married a local Maori woman, Meri, and they had nine children together, whom they raised in the house. The bunk beds inside were right to the ceiling and five tiers high! He was forced to leave when the island was bought by the Crown. Captain James Harrold and his wife, Agnes, moved into the bay and turned the stone house into a smithy and, later, a storeroom, brewery and boatbuilding workshop, continuing Acker’s tradition of boatbuilding in Halfmoon Bay.” 

Jo at Acker's Stone House, Halfmoon Bay
Joanne very politely knocking on the front door of Acker's stone house. The back door was wide open!


Picking up their bikes for the steep climb back, they cycled into a strong headwind but finally made it back to town to reward themselves with a coffee—but not before being reprimanded for their lack of protective headgear. “As we approached the first intersection, the local policeman rolled down the window, called us over and promptly gave us a stern telling-off. He was the first car we had encountered in an hour of cycling! The recommended speed limit is 30 kilometers an hour, hardly a hazardous environment. I guess rules are rules. 


“It was great to get a warm drink in a warm environment. After coffee, we headed back to the boat for lunch. As we arrived, it began hammering down with rain, and strong winds continued long into the night. We were completely over the weather here and would have left tomorrow,” if not for the abysmal forecast for the next two days and beyond. “Sunday still looked like our best bet, with 25- to 30-knot winds and 3-meter seas. Once in Dunedin, it looks like we will be enjoying 15-knot winds as we enter port, so that will be a new experience!”


By Anna Ngo

Oceanmax International

Blog post published 22 May 2018