For some people having an “island” holiday experience usually involves going to a tropical hotspot like Fiji, Samoa or Phuket, contemplating warm tropical beaches, exotic food and gaining a late Autumn tan as we prepare for the depths of another southern winter. However, Paul Pope from Spiralis Ltd recently took a week-long “island” cruise on a fishing boat visiting the mutton bird (Titi) Islands around Stewart Island (Rakiura). The invitation came from Bluff fisherman Dave Williams owner of the Maverick, and it was an opportunity that couldn’t be missed. Dave and his wife Debbie have whanau connections to the Big South Cape Island south of Rakiura and his invitation was enthusiastically accepted. The visit to Big South Cape Island was just one of the highlights of the trip which included time spent at Port Adventure, the very beautiful Port Pegasus and the Solander Islands. The sea conditions were mostly fairly comfortable. Although on arrival at Big South Cape Island we were met with a powerful tidal surge that made for a fairly lumpy introduction to the Tasman Sea as we steamed to pick up a mutton-birder at Pohowaitai Island. You can’t help but admire the fishermen who ply their trade around this beautiful but often treacherous piece of ocean. The long hours, the isolation and the constant weather eye on the conditions that confront them is a tough but exhilarating life.
When we landed at the anchorage to Big South Cape Island and scrambled up the steep cliffs to Dave’s “manu” the outlook across the Island and over to Rakiura was awe-inspiring. Many of the Islands have houses precariously perched on rock outcrops and cliff tops for those who spend several months gathering muttonbirds (Titi). It’s a tough existence for the birders, who work long days preparing the birds while living in such an isolated and rugged area of the country. We stopped off at a number of the other islands delivering fish, the odd loaf of bread, or occasionally some mail and exchanging conversations with a few of those working on the islands from the boat.
Visiting onshore at Big South Cape Island with Dave was a real privilege and walking through the bush above his house revealed a unique landscape divided into quite distinct vegetation zones. The main titi habitat is over-arched by a heavy cover of muttonbird scrub (Senecio reinoldii) with heavy fern cover interspersed with some impressive rata (Metrosideros umbellata). The forest floor is made up of dense peat and is riddled with the burrows of the titi birds. Moving upwards on the island the canopy opens to a pakihi cover of low growing manuka (leptospermum scoparium), inaka (Dracophyllum longifoilum & pearsonii), whipcord hebe (Hebe laingii), prickly mingimingi (Cyathodes juniperina) and flax (Phormium tenax). The ground cover of the pakihi area is a thick mat of white moss and Sphagnum cristatum that binds the peat cover and holds in the moisture on the often wind ravaged slopes. In talking with another ‘birder from Pohowaitai Island which is just a few kilometres from Big South Cape Island he mentioned that the vegetation is quite different again. So there is significant vegetation variation between the islands.
Overall, this was a fascinating glimpse at a beautiful and rugged area, and a rare privilege to visit. There is an overwhelming sense of pride that people like Dave and the other mutton-birders have about the islands, and their enthusiasm and knowledge of these areas is deep and profound.