Background and location details

Little Bungaree Beach

Little Bungaree Beach on the eastern side of the island has a lagoon that runs behind a wooded peninsula on which the beach sits. I’ve always been drawn to very simple images of small things, and have quite a collection of photographs of sand. The structured-but-unstructured-ness and apparently accidental alignment is somehow comforting: it seems a relief to know that even the sand on a deserted beach which is – usually – unseen, nonetheless goes about its business and takes its place in the world. I like the idea that within the most basic and elemental parts of a land there is beauty, and that the response that we humans have to beauty can be found at any level, not restricted to the vista-wide view. At every magnitude – from the vastness of a starry sky to miniscule leaves or grains of sand – there is something that, if we let it, will excite our wonder.

The tree canopy shot shows kamahi (Weinmannia racemosa) that overhang the land-facing side of the lagoon, while the tui (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae) investigates some muttonbird scrub (Brachyglottis rotundifolia) on the seaward side of the spit. Apparently, the leaves of these trees used to be known as the “Stewart Island postcard”, as the white undersides could be written on and posted to friends.

The final image shows one of the local posse of kaka (Nestor meridionalis) who live on and around the roof of the house in which I stayed when in Oban. They were enthusiastic contributors to the liveliness of the neighbourhood!

Paterson Inlet / Whaka a Te Wera

As shown in the map on the final page, Paterson Inlet is a large tidal harbour and estuary system stretching nearly half-way through the island. Stewart Island’s only town – Oban – sits on the northern side of the inlet mouth, where it is common to see albatross and mollymawk skimming the water’s surface as they follow fishing vessels. The particular birds in these pictures are likely to be Northern royal albatross, (Diomedea sanfordi), possibly from the mainland breeding colony at Taiaroa Head on the Otago Peninsula.

The small islands of the Bravo Island group within the inlet are home to nesting hoiho or yellow-eyed penguins (Megadyptes antipodes), the world’s rarest penguin. My first expedition was with DOC workers Phred and Josie to attach radio transmitters to any fledged and ocean-ready juveniles. On the way out to the islands we spotted a young sealion (Phocarctos hookeri) in the process of catching an octopus.  Having no arms with which to dismember its kill, the sealion instead flung it around, beating it against the surface of the water and throwing guts and tentacles in all directions. A very dramatic start to my first day! Later, on land, we found nine hoiho chicks on previously tracked nest locations. The little guy in the picture didn’t have enough feathers to be ready for the ocean just yet.

Ulva Island / Te Wharawhara is a predator-free open sanctuary for birds and plants. On the side of the small rocky island off Sydney Cove I found a collection of blue shags (Stictocarbo punctatus steadi), distinguishable from the Stewart Island shag by their yellow feet and blue eyes. Beneath the shags there floated what I think is a brown jellyfish or sea nettle (Chrysaora hyoscella), its spotted pale and translucent outer layer covering the reds, browns and yellows of the tentacles and gonads underneath.

Ryan’s Creek track

Ryan’s Creek is a small stream draining into Paterson Inlet within an hour’s walk of Oban. Like many of the waterways here it was used to float logs out of the forests, and at low tide evidence of this activity is visible. The bottom of the creek is a massive jumble of sodden logs and bark from the felled rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum), with the occasional remnants of machinery seen too. In ironic exchange for the passage of riches out to sea, amongst the rubble is a piece of Neptune’s necklace (Hormosira banksii) swept in from Paterson Inlet. The picnic table by the creek shows its own evidence of human presence.

In contrast to the well-ordered patterns of sand in the Bungaree Lagoon, supplejack (Ripogonum scandens) mingles with pohuehue (Muehlenbeckia australis) in a growth of furious and complicated vigour. They form a canopy of their own beneath the true forest roof above; too tough and tight for anything except the smallest birds and sunlight to pass through, and underfoot the older basal stems of the supplejack likewise make human passage impossible.

Cow and Calf Point is on the northern edge of Paterson Inlet near to Ryan’s Creek. The forest here has patches of young rimu with kamahi, young stinkwood (Coprosma foetidissima), and the larger-leaved karamu (Coprosma lucida). The undergrowth is mostly crown fern (Blechnum discolor). The day was very windy, and while I have several photographs in which the ferns move like waves amongst the trees, the texture on the trunks of the younger trees is only visible when frozen, as in these pictures.

Rakiura Track

The Rakiura Track is one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks, and one of the main purposes of my trip to Stewart Island was to photograph people along it for DOC’s promotional purposes.  I spent five days on the track, staying two nights at each hut, but walking in the opposite direction from usual (clockwise) so as to be able to encounter and photograph the greatest number of people along the way. The weather was wild and wet for most of this trip, but in the brief moments of calm when sun came out the world was dripping with magic. These shots show fingers of light catching hound’s tongue fern (Microsorum pustulatum) and rimu.

The last day of my time on the track was one of my favourites. I got up very early to photograph the first colours of sunrise from the east-facing cliffs by the Port William Hut, before racing the couple of kilometres along Magnetic Beach and over the headland to the estuary at Maori Beach and waiting for the first walkers to come. I was trying to photograph the clean stretch of sand with the great cloud reflections when this guy showed up in the distance. People tend to take one look at my big black camera and get out of the way as fast as they can, so I wanted to make sure he kept walking towards me along the shoreline. I sprinted – pack, kit and all – down the rough sand (out of shot) to ask him to just keep coming along the water’s edge so as to leave only one set of footprints. He was Italian, and my Italian isn’t really suitable for such explanations, so it was a rather complicated conversation! Finally, he waited for me to sprint back the length of the beach to the bridge, before walking towards me slowly and allowing me to photograph him as he did so. Despite how it was made, I still think this image has a wonderful air of tranquility and solitude about it.

Later that day I spent a couple of hours photographing juvenile birds at Peter’s Point, about an hour from the track end. Both tomtits/ngirungiru (Petroica macrocephala sp) and bellbirds/korimako (Anthornis melanura) are a common sight in all areas of the island.

Island Hill Homestead

Originally built as a sheep farm in 1874, the Island Hill Homestead has survived mostly intact until the present day and is now used as a base for DOC workers. I stayed here with members of the weed control team of volunteers and permanent staff, as well as researchers from Canterbury and Otago Universities. A lot of the images in the homestead were taken to show the juxtaposition of old and new: the bathroom with its washboard, old-fashioned mangle, infomercial Wonder-Washer and turquoise-and-yellow colour scheme; the living room with pelican case for laptops, radios, ancient furniture and ubiquitous National Geographic collection.

The two images of the kitchen I find very peaceful. Perhaps it’s because the kitchen was usually a somewhat frantic place catering to fourteen hungry workers, but here we see it at the other extreme. Perhaps there lingers an echo of the anchoring domesticity that the old house provided, the stock of sauces and spices suggesting the vagaries of the huge variety of people calling this place, temporarily, home.

The glass of flora was part of a daily ritual. Members of the DOC team would bring back unusual or interesting plants to see if the botanist in the University group could identify them. All around the homestead were remnants of these fascinating conversations held sitting on the front porch eating crackers and cheese before dinner after a long day’s work. Also visible in the shot are a row of carcasses of bumblebees (Bombus terrestris sp), of which there is something of a plague around the Mason Bay area. Bumblebees are attracted to bright primary colours – blue in particular – so my usual work clothes choice of bright blue bandana was perhaps not the best in these circumstances! Screens at the windows and doors are very necessary, the bumblebees being much more of a problem than mosquitoes or sand-flies.

Island Hill Run

The homestead is a short walk inland from the DOC Mason Bay Hut at Duck Creek, and sits next to the much more recent implement shed. Continuing inland towards the Freshwater Creek Hut the track passes by the old woolshed and sheep run. No longer used for sheep, they were nonetheless very useful during the kiwi survey (not just as shelter from the rain!) when the dog flushed a female kiwi with her chick. The chick ran into the stock pens and successfully caught itself, thus saving the rugby-tackling net-wielding shenanigans that marked the capture of the other birds.  What first appeared misguided turned out to be perhaps the smartest option. A wiser young bird than we knew.

Mason Bay Dunes

The researchers and students from Otago and Canterbury Universities came to study the effect of the spraying operation on the ecologic developments that follow it, as well as monitoring the movement of the dune system itself. I spent a morning with botanist Peter walking over Big Sandhill (pictured in 47) and into the pre-dune area south of Duck Creek. He pointed out many different endangered grasses and plants, all threatened by the vigorous marram grass (Ammophila arenaria). The shot of an underground spring that emerges from the sand in the fore-dunes looking south-west towards the Gutter, shows a little of what the dune landscape should look like: the native pikao / golden sand sedge grass (Desmoschoenus spiralis) crests the tops of the dunes, with open sand allowed to move beneath its roots. The movements of the dunes are evident in the patches of black exposed pikao roots where the sand has migrated away. I am indebted to Peter for most of the botanical identifications in this book.

In contrast to the open areas with golden pikao, there still remain acres of lush, green marram covering acres of the dunes to the north and south, initially planted by settlers to stabilise the enormous sand dune system. Stabilising the dunes meant that early pioneering farmers could use the land at Island Hill for grazing, but the trouble – as whenever we try and play with an ecosystem – is that the movement of the dunes is a necessary part of the life-cycle of the land. Scientists have found that the inland rimu forests are dying from malnutrition. Why? How? Fish and seaweed die and decompose on the beach, the nitrogen and nutrients from their bodies eventually dispersing into the sand. The sand is then blown inland to become part of the ever-moving dune system, before eventually making its way into the forest and taking with it the nutrients from the sea. By planting marram to stop the movement of the dunes man has not only threatened the habitat of many tiny endangered plants in the dune system itself, but the great and towering rimu forests inland as well. Muir puts it best when he says, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe” (John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra).

For the last decade there has been an operation to spray marram grass. The spraying operation uses a chemical so toxic that workers must be fully covered by overalls, gauntlets, boots, eye goggles and mask. These many layers – combined with the interminable February heat reflected from every direction deep in the dune system – make spraying very hot work! One of the workers described her job to me as “extreme gardening”, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see why.

North West Circuit

All of the aerial shots in this book were taken on a single day during a trip for the Hunters’ Hut Trust to survey locations for new toilets and huts. The chopper carrying Dale from DOC, two members of the trust, and pilot Zane picked me up from the homestead at Mason Bay, and we hopped anticlockwise around the North West Circuit Track of the island. The images above are in chronological order, showing West Ruggedy Beach, Smoky Beach, Yankee River Hut and Christmas Village Hut.

I chose Smoky Beach for the cover because I particularly like that at first glance it seems ominous and threatening, with the dark clouds overshadowing the bush and beach, but then the construction of shapes in the picture gradually draws you nearer and inward. By following the river you discover a tiny bridge, and somehow this small evidence of convenience (dry feet for the first five minutes of tramping?) makes the whole image feel a little friendlier. Perhaps at the same time we are a little disappointed to discover that someone else has already explored this place before we have. In the other images there are, for the close observer, more evidences of human activity; a buoy hanging on driftwood, a tiny hut here, a bridge there, and even a hunter observing us in return.

Thanks to …

… each of the very many people who contributed to the making of this book, including those whose work on Stewart Island Rakiura is restoring it for people like me to visit and soak in, as well as directly by asking me to photograph conservation trips, generously donating funds through the kickstarter campaign, putting up with my pestering about photography, consoling me when the computer crashed just hours before submitting for publication, or picking up the slack I’ve left while this was being put together. To everyone who has helped in any way, my sincere thanks and appreciation.

On Rakiura: Di Morris, Phred Dobbins, Josie, Dale Chittenden, Natalie Dromgool, Aaron Templer, Pearson Tukua, Stephen Meads, Paul Jacques, Daniel Lee, Rebecca Smith, Lydia Metcalfe, James Ware, Kathryn McLachlan, Katherine Lyttle, Teresa Konlechner, Peter Johnson, Cherie Hemsley, Michael Hilton, Zane Smith and many more whose names I did not record. In particular, to the members of the kiwi survey team I’m sorry not to have your names recorded. Special thanks to Peter Johnson for the botanical information as well as supplying the photo of me on this page.

Photography critique: Kennedy Warne, Arno Gasteiger, Steve and Jenny Harper, and Alyx Duncan.

Proofreading and text critique: Linden and Richard Moyle, Sam Lapere and Jillian Rae.

Kickstarter supporters: Tilly Harvey, Jillian Rae, Caroline Thompson, Bev Brockelbank, Jenny and Steve Harper, Abinesh Krishan, Dasen Matulich, Linda Matulich, Lyndsay Fortune, Rosalind Archer, Richard Clarke, Sam Lapere, Mike O’Sullivan, Jon Pearce, Ferdie Ramos, Helen Charters, Serica Cooke, Rob Holland, Naomi Dekker, David Palmer, Elisabeth Goodwin, Ollie Dale, Joanna and Roger Booth, Philippa and Paul McIver, Leith Duncan, Gordon Mallinson, Keith Bowden, Nigel Burton, Stuart and Sarah Moyle, Bronwyn Lusby, Sarah Macready and Rod Clough, Neil Broom, Carolyn, Antonia Gregory, Margaret Harvey, Anna Harrison, Andrea Raith, Antony Phillips, Kathryn Gilkison, Freya Hill, Ben Zilber, Natalie Anna, Alison MacCallum, Yokesan David See, Jenny Klosser, Jan and Tony Goodwin, Ruth Payne, Shona Sangster, Megan Cowley, Joanna Pawluczuk, Rhyl Beggs, John Moore, Eunice Hau, Lisa Yeo, Bruce Baguley, Sue Barnaby, Karen Haines, Nicola Kovasevich, David Cohen, Denise de Groot, Luc and Lutgarde Lapere, Ainslie Duncan, Jac Walters, Adrian Walters, Judith Gust, a friend of Le Roys Bush, Helen Wright, Eylem Kaya, Fay Riley, Ross Riley, Arya Olu, Alison Talmage, Gretchen and Chris Anderson, Michael Palmer, Alyx Duncan, Richard DJ, Linden and Richard Moyle, Amelia Wong, Michael Hunter, Ruth Jensen, Carolyn B, Michelle T, Shirley and Michael Youens, Josiah Carr, Vanessa Creamer, Melody Chen, Stephen Martin, Patrick Duncan, Carolyn Welch, Caroline Holas-Clark, Alexandra Laubli, and Anna Brooker.


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This work includes LINZ’s data which are licensed by Land Information New Zealand
(LINZ) for re-use under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 New Zealand licence.