Furhana Ahmad suddenly stops and hurriedly flaps her arms, urging her rainjacket-wrapped cohorts to freeze where they are. Something is moving amongst Stewart Island’s densely-packed crown fern and, through the gap, emerges a large, feathery backside.
When you first see a kiwi in motion, you don’t tend to forget it. New Zealand’s beloved flightless bird moves with all the grace of a cheap nodding bulldog on a Ford Fiesta dashboard.
Twig-like legs scuttle under a body that has evolved to be far too large to lift off the ground, and its absurdly long-beaked head bobs up and down with seesaw gusto.
Furhana, who leads Ruggedy Range’s guided nature walks in the Rakiura National Park, says: “If you go looking for them, you almost never find them. But just enjoy the walk, and they’ll often walk out onto the track.”
Stewart Island, however, is the only place you’re likely to see wild kiwis during daylight hours. In the few other pockets of New Zealand where they still live, they’re nocturnal.
But the Stewart Island subspecies has never felt the need to restrict itself to after-dark manoeuvres.
That it hasn’t gives a little clue to what makes Stewart Island special. New Zealand’s often forgotten third island is cast adrift of the South Island’s bottom end, at the mercy of the roaring forties and its howling winds.
Attempts at human settlement have broadly failed.
Maori have only ever lived on Stewart Island sporadically, while European whalers, sealers, farmers and saw-millers have seen their industries die out pretty quickly. The current population is officially 381, and it has never really crept much higher than that.
This has left the vast bulk of the island in almost pristine condition. The National Park covers 85 per cent of the landmass, and aside from a few tremendously squelchy tracks lacing through it, there aren’t many signs of human interference.
The hiker’s hut at Port William replaced a barracks that Shetland Islanders attempted to turn into a home before giving up after 18 months; a couple of old log-hauling machines are abandoned in the forest; the rusted steam engine and boiler at Maori Beach are the remnants of an old sawmill.
Crucially, human-introduced pests have had a relatively minimal impact. The scourge of native bird eggs and chicks on the New Zealand ‘mainland’ – the humble stoat – has never managed to make its way across the Foveaux Strait.
Even in Oban, the island’s solitary village, this makes for a gloriously deafening dawn chorus. Rowdy kaka, the native parrots, will squawk territorially at anyone trying to share their place on the bench outside the pub. The two-throated tui in the trees by the waterfront will alternate between sweet song and a noise that sounds like a rusty gate swinging shut.
For bird-lovers, however, the real paradise is Ulva Island, a 267 hectare islet accessible via a short water taxi ride across the Paterson Inlet. It was set aside as a nature reserve in 1899, and a pest eradication programme saw it declared free of rats in 1997.
Ulva Goodwillie, who was named after the island and now runs flora and fauna-focused walking tours around it, finds the forest as impressive as the birds. She marvels at 100ft rimu trees, and coos at the temporarily flowering bamboo orchids. “We’re now in ancient Gondwana forest,” she says. “It would have looked like this when New Zealand broke off from the supercontinent 60 million years ago, and it has never been logged.”
She also has warning. “I should probably tell you that I get easily distrac… Ooh! A saddleback!”
If ever there’s a shining endorsement of the Department of Conservation’s efforts on Ulva Island, this little chap with red-brown patch below his neck is it.
“They have been extinct on the South Island for 100 years,” says Ulva. There were just 36 left in the South of Stewart Island, and 30 were brought to Ulva Island in 2000. Now there are hundreds here – we don’t know the exact numbers.”
The ludicrously friendly Stewart Island robin has also been a major beneficiary. They eat and nest on the ground, making them easy meat for the rats. But now they’re left in peace, they don’t seem too perturbed by interlopers – and totter right up to the dangling laces of muddy boots.
These inquisitive little heart-melters fit the character of Stewart Island. It’s small, remarkably pretty and is blessed with that delightful unconventionality that comes from being left alone at the end of the world.
Standing guard at the bottom of it, however, is a rather grumpy sea lion. The birds are giving him a judiciously wide berth and he doesn’t seem all that keen to let a tour group past either. No wonder the kiwis stick to the ferny interior.
Stewart Island Flights (00 64 3 218 9129; stewartislandflights.com) runs 20 minute prop plane flights from Invercargill to Stewart Island’s airstrip three times a day, although additional departures are added according to demand. These flights have a 15kg baggage limit. Returns cost NZ$203
The rite of passage alternative is the one hour ferry journey across the notoriously rough Foveaux Strait from Bluff to Oban, run by Stewart Island Experience (00 64 3 212 7660; stewartislandexperience.co.nz). There are between one and four departures per day, depending on season. Returns cost from NZ$150 or NZ$178 including transfers from Invercargill or the airport.
Stewart Island Experience also runs a 90 minute introductory ‘Village and Bays’ tour for NZ$45
Ruggedy Range (00 64 3 219 1066; ruggedyrange.com) offers a full day Coastal Highlights guided hike through the Rakiura National Park, costing from NZ$230
Reasonably good fitness levels are required. The same company also leads three day guided treks on the Rakiura Track for from NZ$945
To do the trek solo, book the bunkshare huts in advance through the Department of Conservation (doc.govt.nz). They cost from NZ$22 a night.
The half-day birding and botany trip on Ulva Island costs NZ$125 (£63) with Ulva’s Guided Walks (00 64 3 219 1216; ulva.co.nz).
The intimate, homely Observation Rock Lodge (00 64 3 219 1444; observationrocklodge.co.nz) has prime views out over the Paterson Inlet from its hilltop perch, and plenty of birds can be found in the lavish garden. Rooms cost from NZ$195
The motel units belonging to the South Sea Hotel (00 64 3 219 1059; stewart-island.co.nz) are rather more functional, but have the distinct advantage of not requiring a thigh-sapping trudge up the hill after a night in the pub. They cost from NZ$160
Article originally appeared on The Telegraph