Off to Stewart Island

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs
A trip to the solitude of Stewart Island

Submitted: October 25, 2018

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Submitted: October 25, 2018



Max was in charge of animal control throughout Southland Conservancy. The government called them noxious animals in those days, introduced mammals, prone to damaging our indigenous flora and fauna. His role was to protect the vegetation that protected the soil against erosion and kept our water clean. He impressed Henry with his tales about Stewart Island, its wild weather and diverse flora and fauna. On the island, Max and his crew were supposed to control one of the few populations of Virginian Deer (Whitetail) in New Zealand, but Henry knew Max too well and reckoned he would be managing them, rather than contributing to their total demise. From what Max said, the Forest Service had a big influence on the island, and his crew were building walking tracks and huts for public use.

After a bit of planning, Henry and Hooks arrived at Invercargill airport to catch the tiny Widgeon seaplane across to Stewart Island. At the ticket booth, Henry asked if there needed to be any special arrangements for his dog, Wally.

‘No, he can go in the cabin with you.’ Said the clerk, ‘Just rub some baby powder into him because his smell could upset other passengers and perhaps make them sick.’

They also discussed about getting dropped off and picked up at Chew Tobacco Bay, but the vagaries of the weather and often violent seas, meant that pickup could well be delayed by a week or more, so they opted to negotiate with a fishing boat owner from Oban to drop them off.

The flight over was smooth for a small aircraft and Wally quickly sidled up to a friendly woman who was seated next to Hooks. She stroked the dog’s ears while he gratefully sat there with his head on her lap, sucking up the attention. But Henry became concerned when his sides began to heave in and out, a sure precursor to vomiting! With some urgency but trying not show any panic, Henry tried to coax Wally away from the woman. She smiled warmly and said she didn’t mind in the least and in fact, she found the dog comforting. Henry had visions of an unsightly mess appearing on the woman’s lap! However, the interaction must have taken Wally’s mind off vomiting and soon he settled down to sleep with the woman continuing to stroke his ears.

Talking to Max, Henry had managed to wheedle a night’s stay at Thule Cottage, a sort of backpacker-type camp set up by the Forest Service for its own people. There was nowhere to buy a quick bite, so they decided to cook up a feed, but before doing so, they headed down to the jetty to negotiate with the fishermen for a lift around to Chew Tobacco Bay. Henry had been given the name of a likely candidate and after a bit of toing and froing they found the guy who agreed on an early start next morning. He showed them where his boat was moored and where to meet up.

Mike rowed them out to his boat in a small dinghy. Luckily they didn’t have a lot of gear, and luckily the sea was flat because there was barely any freeboard on the small craft and the top boards on the clinker-built looked decidedly dodgy! After they were aboard and their gear stowed, Mike secured the dinghy to the back of the boat – ok, boating lingo, the stern.  It was a nice calm morning as they steamed out of Halfmoon Bay and into open water, through Carters Passage and south towards Chew Tobacco Bay. The sea took on a swell, but it was quite comfortable as Henry and Hooks watched the rocky coastline and the indigenous bush, bent by salt spray and strong winds, slipping by. Mike hove to some distance out from the bay to allow them to drop handlines to the bottom. The sinker had three baited hooks attached, which were only on the bottom for a moment before there was tugging on the lines. They had each hooked three nice blue cod in one go! Enough fish for a few meals once they set up camp ashore. They discussed arrangements for the pickup while Mike made two trips to row them ashore because the bouncier sea meant that the freeboard would be compromised. Hooks and Henry admired Mike’s expertise because he landed them and their gear without them getting their feet wet. The pair were stunned by the clarity of the sea because even where Mike left his boat moored in deeper water, the bottom was plainly visible.

They landed to the south of the bay, on a wide, silver-sand beach fringed with tall marram grass before the outline of dark green bush. There was a brackish creek, which was the only ‘fresh’ water in the bay. They found to be drinkable only at low tide, but it was lucky for them, otherwise they would have had to rely on collecting rainwater. Once Mike had left them, the pair with Wally at foot, were completely alone and the only sounds were the lapping of the sea and the birds’ daytime chorus.

After setting up camp and collecting firewood, they decided to walk along the sandy beach to look for deer tracks and to get a feel of the place. Hooks hefted his rifle over his shoulder, but Henry had decided he wanted to absorb the wild beauty rather than to hunt, it seemed to be a desecration of the place to shoot anything. They found deer tracks in the sand, indicating that the Whitetails had probably been out during the night, which might mean they are on the beach every night.

They ventured into the bush and soon found the walking track that was part of a network the Forest Service workers had formed around the island. Before long Wally stood pointing. It was natural for Henry and Hooks to be looking for larger animals, so it took a while for Henry to find the kiwi burrow down among the ferns. He hadn’t thought about the possibility of encountering kiwi, nobody had warned him, so he decided not to allow his dog to run free unless he was in sight along the beach. Henry had complete trust in his dog, but if he’d pointed at a kiwi, the bird must have excited him in some way… Wally would just have to stay at heel all the time.

The blue cod cooked in butter made a tasty and filling evening meal washed down with strong, billy tea. After a long yarn beside the campfire, they climbed into their sleeping bags to identify some of the stars and quickly nodded off. Come the morning and during a breakfast of bacon and eggs, Henry had a question.

 ‘Did you wash these plates last night?’ Because he hadn’t.

‘No.’ Hooks replied, ‘I thought you did!’

They both looked a Wally who looked a tad guilty by dipping his ears.

After breakfast, Hooks took his rifle and managed to shoot a deer, which set them up with meat for the rest of their time in the bay, and with enough tucker for Wally. Henry skinned the animal because he reckoned Hooks was too rough to make a neat job of it. Hooks wanted to have the skin treated and use it as a floor mat in his bedroom. There was no point in shooting any more deer after that because there was enough to fascinate them in and around the bay without hefting a firearm all day. They found a myriad of interesting plants and quite high up in the bush, alerted by their noisy walk, they encountered lots of yellow-eyed penguins. Maybe they were filling in time while moulting because there were no burrows and they were far from the sea. At heel, Wally alerted them, pointing at the presence of Kiwi, Weka, Penguins and the odd deer.  He was well behaved, but just the same, Henry carried a length of cord in case a leash was needed for him, Wally hadn’t ever been on a walking-leash. They found the remains of an old whaler’s camp, cauldron and all! What a life those men must have led!

After seven days of walking, fishing and gathering rock oysters, without seeing another soul, they were packed up and were ready at the appointed time when, around the point came Mike to pick them up. The dingy rose and dipped with the moderate swell on the way out and Mike told them he had several craypots to check, so Henry and Hooks paid their way by becoming fishermen on the way back. They hauled the pots out of the water, threw the females and undersized back, and packed the keepers in tubs. They were followed and watched by frowning Mollymawks, big snow white birds with slate backs. They sat on the water, ready to snaffle any easy pickings, paddling to and fro, but they missed out on a meal because crayfish were too valuable. Back in Halfmoon Bay, Mike offered the pair a few crays, rock lobsters, but they need to be eaten fresh and wouldn’t make the trip home.

As they buckled up aboard the Widgeon for the flight back to Invercargill, Henry and Hooks resolved to make a return trip, perhaps to the north of the island. Henry, was suddenly horrified at his lapse, he forgot he’d used all the baby powder on the trip over! But his worry was unfounded. The other passengers didn’t seem to notice any dog-smell, how could they? Hooks had over-indulged in the venison stew and was silently erupting, fizzing at the bung, due to the flatulence-inducing venison combining with his own unnatural enzymes that lurked in his gut! And unsurprising it was Wally who got the blame!


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