Digging deep into Stewart Island’s history, it is hard to avoid the stories and myths that locals whisper in the wind and dusty library books hold secret. I’ve been listening carefully, to those that were born and raised here, those that chat away, those that say they witnessed some of the following incidents. Here is a collection of the local legends I came across but as with most mythical stories, I cannot guarantee for their accuracy.
Whether you believe them or not, you need to differentiate between fact and fiction. As pun-master Jonathan Frakes in Beyond Belief put it:
“Is this story a product of a writer’s imagination? Or have we unlocked the truth?”
Kaka – The Bubbly Bird of the Bush
Oh mighty kaka, chief of the forest birds as the Maori say, you really own your title (at least on Stewart Island/Rakiura).
Early Maori and settlers have seen the forest parrots travel in large flocks across the country. They were believed to fly between Aotearoa (New Zealand) and the sacred Maori home of Hawaiki somewhere in Polynesia. The loudest and strongest bird with the brightest red plumage, was the leader of such flock. He would return to Aotearoa carrying a stone from Hawaiki. Maori believed that the kaka’s stone would give powers to the one who takes it off of the bird. This was a so-called tohunga, an expert in rituals or a trade. Other iwi (tribes) say that the parrot is a cheeky one, stealing feathers from fellow forest inhabitants like the kakariki (parakeet) to enrich its plumage. Maori wore the kaka’s feathers to symbolize chief positions within a tribe.
The kaka, now and then, is adored for its human qualities: the continuous babbling with its various gurgling, clacking and screaming calls,
he kaka waha nui – a big mouthed kaka
its curios and noisy appearance,
he kuku ki te kainga, he kaka ki te haere – he’s a pigeon at home, a kaka when he travels
and even its social, often hilarious behaviour.
Compared to the thriving populations on Stewart Island, the rest of the country has managed to eradicate almost all of them. Actively as the parrots were one of the favourite Maori kai (food), and passively through massive deforestation for farming and settlements. They are recovering due to conservation initiatives, and maybe one day we’ll get to see large flocks of the mighty kaka reclaiming their title.
Cave Woman at Doughboy Bay
Some say she lived there for six months, others say for two or three years. Running away from society and living in isolation? Who hasn’t thought about it?
In the 1970s, a Japanese woman ‘extended’ her New Zealand 30-day tourist visa without a consent. Keiko Agatsuma ran away from the Tokyo trouble as a cleaner, visited Stewart Island, and decided to stay.
Her new home was the cave at Doughboy Bay, a former accommodation for sealers and castaways. She would have lived here for the rest of her life if the government wouldn’t have identified her as an over-stayer.
On regular supply trips to Oban, locals described Agatsuma as a very kind and polite person rather than a trespasser. Some say she once returned to Doughboy Bay under supervision of the government to collect remaining personal items. She had buried them in the bush but wasn’t able to relocate them. Perhaps a hidden treasure?
It was in December 2003 when a German kayaker, Lawrence Günter Rinitz, went missing.
According to locals, Rinitz kayaked in the Paterson Inlet doing something like a survival trip eating seaweed, fish and mussels. Once it was circumnavigated, he decided to leave the inlet northwards to Christmas Village Hut intending to go on land for a day trip to Mount Anglem, Stewart Island’s highest point.
Rinitz was last seen at Bungaree Beach but all that was later found was his backpack being washed ashore.
Stewart Island’s cold case.
Over 25 years ago, Josef Freiman and his mates went on a hunting trip near Big Glory Bay in the southern and even more isolated part of the island. It was in May 1991 when 64-year-old “Joe” separated from his companions to hunt in the bush somewhere along the South West Circuit. Two days later his mates recorded him missing.
Nothing. Not a boot, nor a knife or gun was ever seen from Joe again.
In October 2016, a 70-men strong crew practised a rescue around the spots where Freiman has last been seen – intending to prevent such dilemma in the future. They didn’t find a single clue about Joe’s disappearance.
Did Joe fall, and was buried by mud and bush? And what about his companions, weren’t they the last ones to see him alive? A simple tragedy or the perfect murder?
What happened to you, Joe?
Scientist in Knee-Deep Bird S***
In the 1950s, a researcher lived on Whero Rock (whero = “red” in Maori language), an itty-bitty island near the entrance to the Paterson Inlet.
Calling Whero an island is a huge compliment – it really is just a chunk of rock. It is (over)populated by the famous muttonbird/titi.
The muttonbird Puffinus griseus, or ‘sooty shearwater’, is one of New Zealand’s most common birds, although you are not able to see them on the mainland. They live in large flocks of several thousand birds near the ocean feeding on fish or squid.
Think of Stewart Island as their New Zealand HQ, representing an unlimited for source and the reason why early Maori collected eggs and young seasonally. Muttonbirds are still harvested today and after kiwi tradition, you can even buy muttonbird meat pies in almost every supermarket. It all began on Stewart Island, to be exact, the Titi Islands archipelago. Whero Rock is the smallest of them and according to locals “covered in meter-deep bird s***”.
The rather white than red rock was once home to New Zealand’s most famous bird researcher, Lancelot Eric Richdale (1900-1983). Richdale only got into the study of birds at age 36 but soon fell in love with it. His fondness resulted in over 100 published works throughout his career; he is especially known for his papers on yellow-eyed penguins and his efforts to protect the only mainland-breeding royal albatross colony in the world, at Taiaroa Head on the Otago Peninsula.
Richdale was admired for his dedication and his time-consuming research trips. One of them was on Whero Rock where he paid a local fisherman to supply him with food and other necessities. For several months, Richdale camped in a tent disturbed by the Roaring Forties’ harsh weather conditions and surrounded by knee-deep bird droppings à la muttonbird. Richdale discovered that muttonbirds migrate to Siberia during New Zealand’s winter months.
In the career of a scientist, there is a lot of s*** one has to go through but Richdale probably set up a record. That man was dedicated.
Hole in the National Park Monument
Maui – the demigod of Maori mythology – is said to have brought up a big fish which is known today as New Zealand’s North Island. His canoe flipped and turned into the South Island. In this story, Stewart Island/Rakiura was the canoe’s anchor.
In honour of the legend, a local council installed a giant metallic chain sculpture at the entrance of Rakiura National Park in 2002. Bluff, on the other side of the Foveaux Strait, followed with a similar monument a couple of years later completing the remembrance of the Maori myth.
The metal colossus not only represents Maori culture, mythology and its traditional storytelling, it also literally connects Stewart Island to the civilized mainland. That may invite all sorts of travellers to step on one of the country’s last and most isolated grounds.
So the potential hustle and bustle that the sculpture would bring to the island wasn’t actually in favour of everyone. And at least of the local who took his shotgun to the monument to express his disagreement a few days after the giant anchor chain was unveiled. Other sources say he protested the use of 1080 traps, a method that poisons introduced rats and possums.
Rakiura National Park was opened in 2002 as NZ’s youngest national park – featuring a decent bullet hole on top of the walk-through link of the anchor chain monument.
Stewart Island’s Gold: Ambergris
Peter and Jim are two humorous hunters that I’ve met in East Ruggedy Hut, the”Ritz”, along the North-West Circuit. Both are warm-hearted, funny old jokes but very educated men that seek the outdoors, the glorious taste of free venison, and a bit of time away from their wives. A local pilot nicknamed “Biggles” brought them here, landing on West Ruggedy Beach.
Peter is the storyteller, Jim the listener. That night we shared candlelight and all sorts stories but they had more to tell than I did. One of them was about the Leask Family and the rush for Ambergris.
“I would tell you the story but I don’t want Jim to go nuts on me ’cause he heard it 93 times from me already.” – Peter
Ambergris, grey amber, or commonly known as whale vomit, is a natural substance produced in the gastrointestinal tract of sperm whales. It is a gathering of bile, the liquid that lets mammals like us break down foods, so needed for digestion. Whales have lots of bile that hardens over time forming a solid, greyish mass. The “Floating Gold” (Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris by Christopher Kemp) is buoyant and can sometimes be seen drifting in the ocean. It is very rare, but Ambergris gatherers can find it on beaches near sperm whale territory, especially Atlantic and Asian beaches – or here on Stewart Island.
It is believed that ambergris is only a product of sperm whales, and only a small percentage of these cetaceans can actually produce it. Freshly expelled ambergris smells fishy but develops a sweet scent as it ages. The scent is of high value for perfume makers all over the world which attracted early whalers and gatherers affected by the floating gold rush. While Australia forbids any commercial purpose around the substance, it is legal to make a fortune with whale vomit in the UK, France and New Zealand.
The Leasks have a long history on Stewart Island. It all started with Tom Leask, a Scotsman who settled here in 1863 as a farmer. Farming eventually stopped, and the family had to switch to fishing, tourism, and a “little” extra income through the ambergris business as Peter had heard from Biggles.
And “Biggles doesn’t lie.”
One day a local Leask called Biggles to pick him up from West Ruggedy after, apparently, finding a load of ambergris. The guy turned to him while Biggles heaped his pack into the plane’s storage and said:
“You listen to me, there is 30.000 dollar in that suitcase.”
Kokako, the Ghost
Walking the North West Circuit made me become aware of the legendary kokako. One myth says that the kokako helped Maui, the famous demigod, by filling its wattles with water for him to drink. Gratefully, Maui stretched the birds legs and made them strong so that the kokako could find food in thick forests.
I was at Yankee River Hut, where four DOC rangers spend their week to build a new bridge for the North West Circuit. Here I realized that any Stewart Island hut is equipped with a “Wanted” poster – 10,000 dollar for the one that records the bird and proves the kokako’s existence. It is not a ghost, no, it is thought to be have gone extinct (very recently).
Compared to the likely vanished South Island kokako, the North Island bird is much alive and depicted on the NZ fifty dollar bill. A beautiful grey bird with a black face mask, blue wattles, and a “haunting call” at dusk and dawn. The orange wattles of its southern brother, however, only exist in our memories and stuffed in a museum. Or does it still exist?
People are actively searching for the legendary kokako and Stewart Island is one of the last places the bird is expected to live. Although, one of the rangers, mentioned that he had talked to a lady from Nelson who heard a distinctive, ‘haunting’ call walking her dog near Golden Bay. And when “Wild Boy” walked along New Zealand’s entire coastline, he apparently heard it down here at Stewart Island but never showed his recording to official conservationists.
I couldn’t hear it. Just tui, kiwi and parakeets. I am intending to stop in Nelson on my way to the north and if I find it, I’ll demand to give the money in cash – 50 dollar notes to be exact. However, it would make more sense to donate the reward to recovery projects – such beautiful bird just needs to be supported.
It’s a haunting call, […], usually at dusk or dawn, but it goes through the entire forest, you’ll know it when you hear it. Usually at dusk or dawn.
Wohlers: A German converting anyone around the Foveaux Strait
It was in May 1844, when reverend Johann Friedrich Heinrich Wohlers, son of a north-German farmer, picked Ruapuke Island to set up his Lutheran mission station. Some say he did so on a request of Tuhawaiki (“Bloody Jack”), one of the southern Ngai Tahu chiefs. The following quotes are taken from the his autobiography Memories of the Life of J.F.H.Wohlers, 1895.
You could only call the Maoris here savages, still they were no longer heathens. After long, apparently resultless, labours of the missionaries in the north, their teaching was at last taken to heart by the Maoris there, and they became, instead of dirty, loutish and cruel men, kind and orderly disciples of Christ. (p.103)
A few weeks after his arrival, a house was built for the reverend in European style. That was the kick-off for Wohlers to use the time immersing himself into Maori culture and language, and he would continue so for the next 40 years. The people on Ruapuke liked him, and showed interest in his way of living; they became ‘civilized’ as to say but this was just a small portion of NZ’s total societal revolution.
“When I was at home I was seldom alone. From daybreak till dusk my hut was always full of visitors. […] Many only came to lie lazily in my way. In time I had to courteously forbid this idle lying in my hut. Others who came to read the New Testament with me, or had something to say to me, I received in a friendly manner. […] Then I took a piece of paper and told them to speak slowly that I might understand it, and wrote their narratives down word for word. If there was a word or an expression which I did not understand I had it explained to me. At first they thought I was only scratching with a pen, but when I read it out to them at the end they were very much astonished that I could write as fast as a man could speak, […]. When the evening came I studied the language from these papers.” (p.108)
Time passed and once more fluent in te reo (Maori spoken language), Wohlers began to teach and to preach every Sunday, as well as to baptise people quite regularly. News of all the baptisms on Ruapuke spread quickly around the Foveaux Strait.
“Soon Maoris desirous of salvation came from the scattered villages in their boats to Ruapuke to see the new life and to request baptism for themselves. In every case they were kept here one or two weeks to receive instruction and to prove their earnestness, and then when found to be upright in their intentions they were solemnly baptized. They then went joyfully on their road back to their dwellings, and became a salt of the earth and a light to their neighbours.” (p.157)
Once the mission station was established and enough Maori words were learned, Wohler decided to leave his base to go on missionary journeys. Stewart Island, which he could see from home, was first on his list.
“In most of the villages I found a few of my baptized people. I remained for a week or longer in each of the villages, nourished and strengthened the believers, lifted the fallen up, and prepared others for baptism, who were then baptized with all the solemnity that the poverty-stricken huts allowed. I then proceeded further.” (p.160)
In the following years, many people continued to sail to Ruapuke for spiritual guidance while Wohlers made the villagers familiar with certain agricultural techniques, sheep and cattle. His efforts even led to the opening of a public school in 1868. In 1849, Wohlers married Eliza Palmer in Wellington.
Now, don’t get me wrong when I say that Wohlers’ efforts (or that of any other missionary) were of benefit for the local and poor Maori communities. Besides the many black sheep among white settlement that wilfully stole, robbed, raped, and killed, missionaries had mostly “good” religious intentions. They came to civilize and convert the native people, which was at least to some degree, in favour of the Maoris. Presumably, it was not their primary intention to adapt to the western believes, it was more to apply the knowledge and techniques that the Europeans brought with them, as well as to profit from such with education, hygiene and better life conditions in general.
“On my arrival in New Zealand their diminution from dying out was quite noticeable. Here in the south I found there was one birth to three deaths. This had quite discouraged the people; and, even for savages, they were in a state of helpless poverty. They did not even possess the necessary food and clothing to be able to stand the frequent severe weather. As Christianity, especially when conversion takes place, gives the mind a cheerful and hopeful upward swing, the general elevation which the Maori people experienced is explainable, and is the reason why so many conversions followed on my weak labours. It was the anxious seeking of the creature that finds its desire in Christianity.”
After Wohlers’ death in 1885, the school closed and Ruapuke’s population decreased to 0. Shrub took again over the island. It is not measurable what impact Wohlers really had on the people in the south. Him and his wife both found peace at Ringaringa where a memorial now serves to reminds of the Wohlers family.
Walking along the Tin Range, a rather unofficial track, people have reported something strange happening. Compasses seem to go nuts due to the high amount of metal beneath the mountains. Or has a comet crash something do with it?
Stewart Island Days & Feral Cats
In Oban’s library (a room really), I picked up a book called Stewart Island Days by Gladys Swain, a nurse that had worked in the island in the 1930s and/or 1940s. This is her memoir.
Flicking through the book I noticed her mentioning that every islander had a pet cat. And so did Swain, her’s was black. She named it the N-word. Different times, aye.
Anyhow, some of those pets escaped into the bush starting quite the population of feral cats on Stewart Island and adding another milestone to the list of introduced predators in a country of flightless birds.
I saw one of those feral cats through the window of Freshwater Hut. It was full of hair and had grown to an intimidating size.
From cheeky forest chiefs and haunting calls to hairy beasts that roam through the bush; from people that vanished willingly or unwillingly, to those that follow fortune, knowledge, adventure and revenge. Can you believe these local tales?
It is your turn to seek the truth. Check the sources, research the myths, read other writers’ work like Sheila Natusch, John Hall-Jones, or Olga Sansom.
The best way to do so, however, is to go to Stewart Island yourself, to talk to the locals, to visit the sights, and to find the kokako.
In the words of Jonathan Frakes:
“[…] its now up to you to decide the truth or false of our story. Have we presented you with the facts? Or have we pulled the last-minute-switch?”