The northern half of Stewart Island/Rakiura is covered by podocarp and hardwood forest, featuring New Zealand's southernmost tall trees - rimu, kahikatea and tōtara.
Freshwater River wetland comprises a mosaic of acid bog, pools, wire rush peat-lands, mānuka shrub, red tussock areas and patches of podocarp forest that extend for some 23 km along the Freshwater Valley to the intertidal mudflats at the river mouth.
The remaining areas of the island feature shrub land or low forest, grassland, wetland, areas of alpine herbs, cushion plants, and coastal or dune communities.
Stewart Island's birdlife is relatively rich complared with the mainland of New Zealand. Native birds that may be seen include parakeet/kākāriki, native wood pigeon/kererū, tūī, bellbird/korimako, tomtit/miromiro, weka, robin/kakaruai, and fernbird/mātā, as well as a significant population of South Island kākā.
Stewart Island is home to several other bird species of international significance. These include the New Zealand Dotterel; the kakapo, now transferred to Codfish Island and other predator-free sanctuary islands; Cook's petrel which also breeds on Codfish Island; the Stewart Island kiwi/tokoeka: and the South Island saddleback, confined to several small offshore islands, including Ulva Island.
The island's kiwi population is also special. Known now as southern tokoeka, the Stewart Island/Rakiura kiwi behave rather differently to kiwi in other parts of New Zealand. They maintain family groups, for example, and some birds feed during daylight hours. Stewart Island/Rakiura offers perhaps the best opportunity anywhere in New Zealand for viewing kiwi in the wild.
The island was the final stronghold for the flightless, nocturnal parrot/kākāpō, which had all but disappeared from the mainland under pressure from stoats and other predators leaving fewer than a hundred birds in Fiordland and Stewart Island/Rakiura. The last 60 or so birds were relocated to nearby Whenua Hou or Codfish Island which is now a nature reserve supporting kakapo and other endangered species.
The Freshwater area is a significant wetland which supports a range of birdlife, including Stewart Island robins/toutouwai and Stewart Island fernbirds/mātā, and there is a good possibility of even seeing kiwi in daylight. Of particular note is the absence of any introduced fish in the Freshwater River.
White-tailed and red deer, cats, and rats were introduced in the early 1900s. Possums were also introduced, but, unlike the mainland, no stoats or other mustelids were ever brought here. In some coastal areas the forest has been modified drastically by the browsing of introduced animals.
An island with many names
Rakiura is the Māori name for Stewart Island. It is translated as 'The Land of Glowing Skies' and probably refers as much to the night-time displays of Aurora Australis, the Southern Lights, as to the sunsets. The name may also refer to the sotry of ''Te Rakiura a Te Rakitamau' – the "deep blushing of Te Rakitamau", recalling his embarrassment on hearing that the woman he sought to marry was already engaged and his deepening blush when he asked after the woman's sister and heard she too was engaged.
The island is also known as Te Puka a te Waka a Maui, 'The Anchor of Māui Canoe' and a chain link sculpture at Lee Bay reflects this story. The island takes its more recent European name from William Stewart, an officer of the sealing vessel the Pegasus, who compiled the first detailed chart of the southern coast.
To the north of Stewart Island/Rakiura lies the often stormy Foveaux Strait which separates it from the South Island. To the east, west and south lies the vast Southern Ocean.
Comprised of granite rocks, the island has three main peaks, the highest being Mt Anglem/Hananui at 980 metres, in the north. On the western side, Mason Bay's sprawling, soaring dunes form an impressive landform and towards the centre are the expansive Freshwater wetlands. The jagged skyline of the Ruggedy Mountains of the north-west corner contrast with the smooth outline of Mt. Anglem.
Stewart Island is remarkable for its almost complete cover of natural vegetation, from the sea to cloudy, windswept summits. Sea-pounded cliffs and sandy beaches make up the western coast of the island while on the eastern side there are three sheltered inlets; Paterson Inlet, Port Adventure and Port Pegasus.
Archaeological excavations have shown evidence of Maori habitation around Stewart Island/Rakiura from the 13th Century. Hunting camps or kaika were established at many coastal sites including Port William/Potirepo and Freshwater River, and were reached by outrigger canoe.
The first Europeans
The crew of Captain James Cook's ship Endeavour were the first Europeans to sight the island in 1770, but they mapped it as a cape connected to the South Island. Their reports of seals and whales drew the next wave of Europeans, and sealers established the first mixed race settlement, on Codfish Island in 1818.
Settlement at Port Pegasus/Pikihatiti
An attempted shipbuilding settlement at Port Pegasus/Pikihatiti in 1826 was the first of several ventures here including gold propsecting, tin mining and commercial fishing.
Land purchase and guardianship
Crown agents purchased the island from Rakiura Maori in 1864, but rights to harvest titi (sooty shearwater/muttonbird) were protected. Subsequent representations and agreements resulted in Rakiura Maori becoming kaitiaki (guardians) of over 10,000 hectares of Stewart Island land and the tïtï islands.
Activity at Port William/Potirepo
Port William was the site of the early Maori settlement of Pa Whakataka. Subsequently its sheltered harbour was used as a sealing and whaling base, was the site of unsuccessful gold prospecting, an oyster fishery and a brief attempted settlement of Shetland Islanders.
Paterson Inlet/Whaka a Te Wera
Development of large-scale industry began in 1861 with the opening of the first sawmills at Kaipipi in Paterson Inlet. A ready supply of timber helped establish shipbuilding, while fish-curing and the discovery of oyster beds prompted the growth of the island's fishing industry.
Ulva Island/Te Wharawhara in Paterson Inlet became the hub of the community through its post office built in 1872 and used until 1923. Over time, European settlement steadily concentrated around Oban, although there were pastoral farming ventures. Mason Bay was the site of the island's last major farm.
Island Hill Run and Homestead
Find out about Island Hill Run and Homestead - Stewart Island's longest running sheep farm.
The livelihoods of the island's 400 permanent residents are today based around cod fishing, paua and crayfish gathering, salmon and mussel farming and tourism. Today all residents live in Halfmoon Bay and other areas around Oban. Fishing, marine farming and tourism are the main industries of Stewart Island.