Friday 14 July 2017

Real Journeys Stewart Island cruise Day 3: All's well etc

There’s a lot to be said for a bed that’s more than a metre wide. So we all woke rested, and full of hope for our possible return to the Milford Wanderer.This morning, though, we went ahead with our Village and Bays tour with local Bevan, who was full of praise for the life that Stewart Island’s 381 permanent residents are fortunate to enjoy – from a rich community interaction, to free ferry services for schoolchildren and university students, to virtually free health care.
We were also shown a series of beautiful golden sand beaches set about with rich native bush (97% of the island is National Park), and wound on narrow roads past cute cottages. We heard about the history, daily life, and possibilities for the future, and were not surprised to hear that Bevan has converted at least a couple of visitors to permanent residents. It was quaint to hear him referring to the mainland as “New Zealand” but that’s apparently a thing here, and quite unselfconscious.
Back in Oban, we were delighted to be told that the ship had passed inspection and we stood on the wharf to cheer its return, before being allowed back aboard to continue our cruise, although not quite the one we’d all signed up for.
This one has a Department of Conservation component that attracted everyone: there are three DOC people aboard, not one of them a Kiwi - so, clearly here because they wanted to be, and made the effort. They're certainly friendly, well informed, inspiring and hard-working, and we were very happy to give them a hand with the track and hut maintenance that forms half of their work load. Today it was using secateurs and saws to cut back vegetation along a path and around the remains of a whaling ship repair station from 100 years ago. It only took half an hour, and then we poked around the mossy foundations, looked at the iceberg-wrecked huge iron propellers abandoned on the beach, and had fun getting Swedish crew member Mike to pronounce the remarkably long name of the Norwegian engineering company that ran the show here.
I found kiwi tracks on the beach, which was good, but right behind it were feral cat paw marks, which was not. There are no mice, stoats or ferrets on the island, but plenty of cats, rats, possums and deer, so the birdlife is constantly under threat. Even so, there are around 20,000 kiwi here, so the chances of seeing them are good, especially since they are, unusually, diurnal. And, as ever, it was a thrill to see bottlenose dolphins on our way back to the Wanderer.
The final excursion of the day was a kayaking cruise around the inlet and I must say, this was the best and easiest kayak launching process I have ever had the great pleasure to take part in. I sat in my small kayak on a platform close above the water, was pushed out, and instantly was kayaking. The return was even more impressive: I paddled straight at the platform, Richard grabbed the bow and pulled me over a roller, Chris took the paddle and then I just stood up and stepped out. Magic!
So was the kayaking, on a calm, glossy sea at sunset, as we pootled around the shore, nosing into little bays, between granite outcrops and over mussel beds easy to see in the clear water. It was quiet apart from the calls of oystercatchers and shags, there was lush bush all around, and picturesque little islands with vegetation clinging on determinedly. The sky went pink, the Milford Wanderer’s lights glowed invitingly, and we gradually made our way back home. It was just lovely, and all the better for being totally fuss-free – no waivers, no instruction, just the assumption that we were all capable grown-ups who knew what we were doing. I was also impressed by the doughty attitude of the more elderly passengers, who saw no reason why they too shouldn’t be kayaking.
Dinner was delicious salmon, and afterwards chef Stefan made us Cointreau- and honey-laced manuka tea to have with our strawberry cheesecake. It all set us up well for Richard’s funny and informative history lesson, and Dan’s talk about New Zealand sea lions. And then we all drifted off to our narrow but nonetheless welcome beds, looking forward to whatever tomorrow will bring.

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