Situated in Stewart Island’s Paterson Inlet, Ulva Island is approximately 260ha of verdant bush-clad land. A pest-free island and open sanctuary – one of only a few in New Zealand – it’s the perfect place to see the country’s native birds and vegetation, with the possibility of seeing a Stewart Island kiwi… during the day!
In 1899, Ulva Island became the first area of Stewart Island to be protected, for its ‘native game and flora’, making it one of New Zealand’s earliest reserves.
The first Pākehā residents on Ulva Island were Charles and Jessie Traill who built the island’s Post Office in 1872. Now privately owned, it was used until 1923.
In the mid-1870s the island became a popular tourist destination, people coming to see the southernmost Post Office, and exotic trees planted by the Traills. Visitors would write postcards on the soft, papery underside of puheretaiko leaves, which grow on Ulva. With a stamp, they were accepted as legal post.
Exploring the Island
Guided walks are available, arranged before arriving on the island, or you can do as I did and wander leisurely. For a donation of $2, self-guiding booklets are available at the shelter at Post Office Bay, where water-taxis arrive. Numbered pegs dot three trails and their corresponding information is found in the booklet, along with that of birds and plants that can be seen. Walking tracks only cover a tiny part of this unspoiled island.
Disembarking the ferry with six others who were on a tour, I soon left them behind and had the History Story Walk to myself. It took me from Post Office Bay up to Flagstaff Point. When the mail boat from the South Island called at Ulva Island, a flag was hoisted here to let neighbouring communities know to collect their mail, something they had to do by boat.
Views took in the choppy waters of island-dotted Paterson Inlet, and rolling, bush-covered Stewart Island. Passing beech trees, a European holly tree and a quirky ‘monkey puzzle’ tree, planted by the Traills, the thirty-minute walk continued to Sydney Cove, named after a ship which anchored there.
As a white-breasted Stewart Island robin hopped at my feet, I read information about a Maori village which once stood here, of the Paterson Inlet Marine Reserve, and the harvesting of muttonbirds by Rakiura (Stewart Island) Māori, which continues today. Signs at the beachfront warn of the possible presence of seals and sealions; disappointingly I saw none.
The east coast cove is a beautiful long stretch of golden sand swirled with black where I found paua shells, oystercatcher footprints and what might have been penguin prints leading from the top of the beach to the turquoise water’s edge.
Halfway along the beach, the Conservation Walk begins. The 50-minute bush track leads back to Post Office Bay but about halfway along I left it to join the Nature Walk, also 50-minutes long. Gravel, boardwalks, bridges and stairs took me below ancient miro, tōtara, and rimu where supplejack wound its way around branches or hung like tangled fishing line in dappled sunlight.
In dimness, I passed fallen logs covered in fernery and moss, and massive peeling tree trunks. Birdsong came and went, trills like a melodious cricket, another could’ve been a happy worker, and there was a musical, raucous squawk. I stopped frequently, silently peering into towering foliage and across the forest floor for birds, like a game of hide-and-seek. A saddleback, black with a burnt-orange back, pecked in dead foliage; bright green kākāriki (New Zealand parakeet) darted amongst darker green foliage; a kākā slept on a branch. Bellbirds were heard but not seen.
Ending at Boulder Beach, on the island’s western side, I found a wild, windy bay. Rocks jutted from the water, the pale brown sand strewn with bleached tree trunks and a thick, black layer of dead foliage along the high-tide mark.
Along the 35-minute trail from Boulder Beach to West End Beach I met two of the few people I came across on the island who, in excited, hushed tones (a loud voice would be an intrusion in the stillness) said they’d seen a kiwi. I stopped more often, stood longer, watching, waiting in silence, but didn’t get lucky. Two kākā entertained me though, chasing each other back and forth along branches, hanging upside down and seemingly play-fighting.
At serene West End Beach, a chestnut-coloured weka, speckled with black feathers, stalked from behind a rock and slowly made its way across the golden sand toward me. Curious but cautious, it inspected my backpack before skittering away to try pulling a piece of seaweed from the sand before disappearing into tall green grasses.
Joining up to the Conservation Walk again, I came across a kākā ripping apart a tree trunk, a big pile of sawdust laying at the base. The trees I’d presumed were diseased, the pale inner wood looking eaten away or rotted, had been kākā destroyed. The bird ignored me, a bare metre from it. What I thought was a dull brown bird, in fact has a crimson belly, yellow feathers around its eyes and a dusting of white on its head.
As I sat on a bench next to the shelter back at the wharf, a weka appeared, feathers rustling in the wind. It jumped up next to me and pecked at my backpack. They must have a thing for them. It was a magical way to end my visit.
How to Get There
Several water taxi companies operate from Stewart Island to Ulva Island at various times of the day. Bookings can usually be made on the day of travel. The trip takes around 8-minutes from Golden Bay, a walk of about 20-minutes from the centre of Oban, Stewart Island’s only town.
Allow 3.5 – 4 hours for a slow walk along all the trails, or stay the day and swim at one of the beaches. There are no stores or cafés, so take all food and drink. Staying overnight is not possible.