Stewart Island: Rich in Birdsong and Manflesh

Hanging off the south end of the South Island, Stewart Island is known for its laidback lifestyle, its birdlife and its Great White Sharks. Some of the largest GWs ever tagged for scientific research have come from the south of the island which is, for better or worse, pretty much inaccessible unless you feel like hiring your own boat or plane.

About 85% of the island is a national park, and several offshore islands are nature reserves, including Ulva Island, which is open to the public. Stewart Island kiwi birds outnumber the human Kiwis several times over, and doing one of the island’s trails is supposed to be the best way to see a kiwi in the wild in the entire country.

I headed to Stewart Island still a little sore from the Hump Ridge Death March, but looking forward to doing the Rakiura Track, one of the Great Walks.

Well, I didn’t.

I talked to the ranger in Oban, the island’s only town, and mentioned that I was underwhelmed by the Hump Ridge experience. He told me I would find the Rakiura, which is entirely in bush, “monotonous and tedious.” Ah, honesty. I love it. The other two trails on the island, the Northwest and Southwest circuits, are notorious for their mud and sandflies. I watched a video of them in the DOC office and noticed the footage was entirely of people slogging through mud rather than any great scenery they were seeing. So I didn’t do any tramping on the island. I’ve had enough of dragging myself through mud while looking at jungly trees and providing the nutritional needs for a colony of sandflies.

Instead, I booked a water taxi to Ulva Island and did several short walks, listening to the riot of birds and coming face to face with weka, saddlebacks, tui and bellbirds, which sound like R2D2 and sometimes make a “meow” sound that I find both creepy and ironic. On another day, I  did a coastal walk past historic cemeteries and the enticingly named Dead Man Beach, always keeping an eye out for dorsal fins in the water (none sighted, sadly).

But my most memorable experience on Stewart Island during the three days I was there involved hot, sweaty, half-naked men slamming into each other.

I witnessed my first rugby match.

It was Waitangi Day, which is sort of like a cross between Bastille Day and Yom Kippur. Any Kiwis reading this, no offense intended, but I’m an outsider looking in and not quite sure about this particular holiday. It’s not the kind of thing where you wish someone “Happy Waitangi Day,” really. It commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi back in 1840 when the Maori and European settlers, known here as Pakeha, reached some sort of agreement on how to share the country and made it part of the British Empire. That’s it, more or less, as neutrally as I can put it. Because some Kiwis don’t care either way it seems, some see it as the day a great injustice was perpetrated on the Maori by Pakeha, some see it as the start of Maori trying to get back at Pakeha for imagined great injustices and many take it as a day to have off from work.

As the saying goes, I don’t have a horse in this race. I am less interested in getting into the socio-political subtext of Waitangi Day than the sweaty, half-nekkid men angle.

Stewart Island had its annual Waitangi Day Maori v. Pakeha Rugby Match, for free, up on a hill above the town. Some of the Maori team players were actually Maori, and they did a half-assed haka before the game, but their team was filled out by the drunk German boys staying at the hostel where I was camping. As for Team Pakeha, they were indeed Pakeha, and at least one of them had some interesting tattoos that incorporated swastikas but hey, I don’t judge.

After all, it was not a time to plunge into the country’s racial tensions, even if a bystander shouted “White Power!” every time Team Pakeha scored. No, as far as I was concerned, it was a time to watch a bunch of half-drunk guys, some barefoot, some sock-footed, slamming into each other, grabbing each other every which way and tumbling into great sweaty piles of manflesh.

One of the locals who knew I was going to the game asked me later what I thought of it.

“I have no idea what happened, but I enjoyed watching it” was my reply.

I learned nothing about the game of rugby, other than it is apparently legal to grab a guy’s foot while he’s running and pull it straight out behind him. Ouch.

Truth be told, I didn’t last the whole game since it was hot and I was sober which, judging from the crowd onfield and off, is not the way to experience a rugby game. I wandered off and took a nap. Later that evening, I ran into one of the drunk German guys* in the communal kitchen and asked who won.

“It was not Maori,” he told me. So I guess sport imitates life.

(*nice guys, but always, always, always drunk. In the morning. In the afternoon. In the evening. Boys, you’re in your early 20s. Pace yourself. Wait at least a couple decades before self-pickling.)

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