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Stewart Island/Rakiura
Native name: Rakiura
Geographic area around Stewart Island/Rakiura
Stewart Island-Rakiura.png
Location Foveaux Strait
Coordinates 47°00′S 167°50′E / 47.00°S 167.84°E / -47.00; 167.84Coordinates: 47°00′S 167°50′E / 47.00°S 167.84°E / -47.00; 167.84
Archipelago New Zealand archipelago
Area 1,746 km2 (674 sq mi)
Highest point Mt. Anglem (979 m (3,212 ft))
New Zealand
Regional Council Southland
Largest city Oban (pop. 322)
Population 402 (as of 2006)
Density 0.23 /km2 (0.60 /sq mi)

Stewart Island/Rakiura is the third-largest island of New Zealand. It lies 30 kilometres (19 mi) south of the South Island, across Foveaux Strait. Its permanent population is slightly over 400 people, most of whom live in the settlement of Oban.


History and naming

Paterson Inlet at sundown
Mudflats near Oban

The original Māori name, Te Punga o Te Waka a Maui, positions Stewart Island/Rakiura firmly at the heart of Māori mythology. Translated as The Anchor Stone of Maui’s Canoe, it refers to the part played by the island in the legend of Maui and his crew, who from their canoe, the South Island, caught and raised the great fish, the North Island.

Captain Cook was the first European to sight the island in 1770, but he thought it was part of the South Island so named it South Cape. The island received its European name in honour of William W. Stewart, who was first officer on the ship Pegasus, which visited from Port Jackson (Sydney), Australia, in 1809 on a sealing expedition. Stewart charted the large southeastern harbour which now bears the ship's name (Port Pegasus), and determined the northern points of the island, proving that it was an island. He made three further visits to the island from the 1820s to the 1840s.[1]

Rakiura is the more commonly known and used Māori name. It is usually translated as Glowing Skies, possibly a reference to the sunsets for which it is famous or for the Aurora Australis, the southern lights that are a phenomenon of southern latitudes.

For some, Rakiura is the abbreviated version of Te Rakiura a Te Rakitamau, translated as "great blush of Rakitamau", in reference to the latter's embarrassment when refused the hand in marriage of not one, but two daughters, of an island chief.[2] According to Māori legend, a chief on the island named Te Rakitamau was married to a young woman who became terminally ill and implored him to marry her cousin after she died. Te Rakitamau paddled across Te Moana Tapokopoko a Tawhiki (Foveaux Strait) to the South Island where the cousin lived, only to discover she had recently married. He blushed with embarrassment; so the island was called Te Ura o Te Rakitamau.

In 1841, the island was established as one of the three Provinces of New Zealand, and was named New Leinster. However, the province existed on paper only and was abolished after only five years, and with the passing of the New Zealand Constitution Act 1846 the province became part of New Munster, which entirely included the South Island.[3] When New Munster was abolished in 1853, Stewart Island became part of Otago Province until 1861 when Southland Province split from Otago. In 1876 the provinces were abolished altogether.

The name was officially altered to Stewart Island/Rakiura by the Ngai Tahu Claims Settlement Act 1998, one of many such changes under the Ngāi Tahu treaty settlement.[4]


Satellite image of Stewart Island/Rakiura
Aurora Australis latitude 47° south. Taken at Bluff, New Zealand, looking toward Stewart Island/Rakiura. Crux (the Southern Cross) is clearly visible.

The island has an area of 1 746 km². The north is dominated by the swampy valley of the Freshwater River. The river rises close to the northwestern coast and flows southeastwards into the large indentation of Paterson Inlet. The highest peak is Mount Anglem, close to the northern coast, at a height of 979 metres (3,212 ft). It is one of the peaks in a rim of ridges that surround the Freshwater Valley.

The southern half is more uniformly undulating, rising to a ridge that runs south from the valley of the Rakeahua River, which also flows into Paterson Inlet. The southernmost point in this ridge is Mount Allen, at 750 metres (2,460 ft). In the southeast the land is somewhat lower, and is drained by the valleys of the Toitoi River, Lords River, and Heron River. South West Cape on this island is the southernmost point of the main islands of New Zealand.

Mason Bay, on the west side, is notable as a long sandy beach on an island where beaches are typically far more rugged. One suggestion is that the bay was formed in the aftershock of a meteorite impact in the Tasman Sea.

Three large and numerous small islands lie around the coast. Notable among these are Ruapuke Island, in Foveaux Strait 32 kilometres (20 mi) northeast of Oban; Codfish Island, close to the northwest shore; and Big South Cape Island, off the southwestern tip. The Titi/Muttonbird Islands group is between Stewart Island/Rakiura and Ruapuke Island, around Big South Cape Island, and off the southeastern coast. Other islands of interest include Bench Island, Native Island, and Ulva Island, all close to the mouth of Paterson Inlet, and Pearl Island, Anchorage Island, and Noble Island, close to Port Pegasus in the southwest.


Geomagnetic anomaly

Owing to an anomaly in the magnetic latitude contours, this location is well placed for observing Aurora australis.


Overlooking Oban and Halfmoon Bay on Stewart Island/Rakiura.

The only town is Oban, on Half Moon Bay.

A previous settlement, Port Pegasus, once boasted several stores and a post office, and was located on the southern coast of the island. It is now uninhabited, and is accessible only by boat or by an arduous hike through the island. Another site of former settlement is at Port William, a four-hour walk around the north coast from Oban, where immigrants from the Shetland Islands settled in the early 1870s. This was unsuccessful, and the settlers left within one to two years, most for sawmilling villages elsewhere on the island.

Stewart Island/Rakiura generates its own electricity with a diesel generator, and as a consequence electric power is around five times more expensive than on the South Island.

Economy and communications

Fishing has been, historically, the most important element of the economy of Stewart Island/Rakiura, and while still important, tourism has taken over as the main source of income for islanders. There is also some farming and forestry.

A regular passenger ferry service runs between Bluff and Oban. There is an air link by Southern Air from Ryan's Creek Aerodrome to Invercargill Airport. Aircraft also land on the sand at Mason Bay, Doughboy Bay, and West Ruggedy Beach.

Over 80 per cent of the island is set aside as the Rakiura National Park, New Zealand's newest national park.


Oban, Halfmoon Bay, N.Z. 1977

From 1841 to 1853, Stewart Island was governed as New Leinster, then as part of New Munster. From 1853 onwards, it was part of the Otago Province. In local government today , Stewart Island/Rakiura is part of the Southland District. However, it shares with some other islands a certain relaxation in some of the rules governing commercial activities. For example, every transportation service operated solely on Great Barrier Island, the Chatham Islands, or Stewart Island/Rakiura is exempt from the Transport Act of 1962.

On 1 April 2005, the TV3 (New Zealand) Campbell Live TV show reported that the New Zealand government planned to sell a large part of the island to the United States, to host an air base supporting its operations in Antarctica. In the following show, the announcer John Campbell said that staff members from the New Zealand Prime Minister's office had contacted them after receiving several complaints from the public about these plans. Campbell confirmed that the story was an April Fool's Day hoax.


There are many species of birds on Stewart Island/Rakiura that thrive because of the isolation and protection from predators. These include wekas, kākās, albatross, penguins, kiwis, silvereyes, fantails, and kererus. The endangered Yellow-eyed penguin has a significant number of breeding sites on Stewart Island and smaller neighbouring islands.[5] The large colonies of Sooty Shearwaters, (muttonbirds) on the offshore Muttonbird Islands, are subject to a sustainable harvesting program managed by Rakiura Māori.

Stewart Island/Rakiura supports a large population of white-tailed deer in coastal areas, which are hunted for meat and sport. There is also a small population of red deer confined to the inland areas.

Claims of Independence

Residents of Stewart Island/Rakiura have held a number of promotional fundraising mock events regarding a Declaration of Independence for the island and to have it renamed to its original "Rakiura".

In the late 1950s or even the early 1960s they had a local printer overprint “INDEPENDENT RAKIURA” on eight values of some earlier New Zealand postage and health stamps. There were also eight different values from one penny to £1 overprinted on these stamps and they also had their original values blotted out with small black circles. These were sold to collectors with the proceeds helping to refurbish the Rakiura Museum.

There was another fundraising effort to raise NZ$6000 for a new swimming pool for the island's school, by selling 50-cent passports for the newly "independent" island. A mock ceremony featured a Declaration of Independence on 31 July 1970 when the new republic's flag was unveiled.

These efforts were not serious attempts for independence as Stewart Island/Rakiura remains an integral part of New Zealand.[6]


Further reading

External links


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