he 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.
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. 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.
Captain James Cook and his crew were the first Europeans to sight the island, in 1770, but Cook thought it was part of the South Island so named it South Cape. The island received its English 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 that 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.
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. 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.
For most of the twentieth century, „Stewart Island“ was the official name, and that is still in common use by most New Zealanders. 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.
Satellite image of Stewart Island/Rakiura
Northern part of Stewart Island, with a view over some of the bays
Aurora Australis latitude 47° south. Taken at Bluff, New Zealand, looking toward Stewart Island/Rakiura. Crux (the Southern Cross) is clearly visible.
Stewart Island has an area of 1,680 square kilometres (650 sq mi) (larger than Oahu). It is hilly and has a wet climate. 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 (979 metres (3,212 ft)), close to the northern coast. It is one of a rim of ridges that surround 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 many 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. Further offshore The Snares are oceanic islands, a volcano and some smaller islets, that were never connected to the larger Stewart Island.
The climate of Stewart Island is mild for temperatures. However, one travel guide mentions „frequent downpours that make ‚boots and waterproof clothing mandatory'“, and another guide says that rainfall in Oban, the capital, is 1,600 to 1,800 mm (63 to 71 in) a year.
The only town is Oban, on Halfmoon 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.
Since 1988 the electricity supply on Stewart Island/Rakiura has come from diesel generators; previously residents used their own private generators. As a consequence electric power is around three times more expensive than on the South Island, at NZ$0.59/kWh in 2016. The Southland District Council has partnered with Meridian Energy to develop renewable energy sources for the island, and experiments with photovoltaic and wind generation are in progress.