Ulva and Stewart Islands

Two mile long Ulva Island sits in Stewart Island’s Patterson Inlet. Stewart Island is at the southwestern tip of New Zealand’s south island. Like Russian dolls it is an island inside an island inside an island. There is a nature walk on Ulva, a gravel path lined with strips of wood that curve and bend as they follow the contours of the land.

Every plant along the walk has three names, one in English, one in Latin and one in Maori. We pass miro, or prumnopitys ferruginea, a large tree of the pine family whose red berries feed the kukupa, the wood pigeon. Next comes mamaku, sphaeropteris medullaris, the black tree fern, a tree fern that can grow up to 60 feet in height, its fronds 15 feet long. Our guide points out dicksonia squarrosa, Blechnum discolor, asplenium bulbiferum, asplenium scleroprium. The names sound like a Latin Mass.

This naming thing is worth thinking about. Take mamaku, the black tree fern. That is a Maori name. It is not surprising that the Maori might give it a name because they have been known to eat the pith of the fern. But what about the rimu, the red pine, Dacrydium cupressinum? It has no use. Still the Maori have named it. If you don't use it, why name it? Maybe the Maori think that if you exist, you deserve a name.

We zodiac to Stewart Island. Everyone has touted Observation Rock. We hike to the top to see its spectacular 180º view of Patterson Inlet.

Two local women are standing at the summit. I ask them what life is like here.

“Boring,” they answer.

“Why do you live here?” I ask.

“Husbands,” they answer.

One is the district nurse; the other a ferryboat captain. The wife of the district nurse returns to the mainland today. Her husband's tour of duty is over. They have come to enjoy one last look together before saying goodbye.

There are 400 cars on Stewart Island and only 12 miles of road. It is the highest concentration of cars to roadway in all of New Zealand. There is one policeman and no traffic signals. Mark, a man who drives a backhoe for the town, tells me the policeman spends his time in search and rescue missions, finding loopies who have gotten lost on one of the tracks around the town. Loopy is the local word for tourist.

Beside the policeman there is a traffic inspector who comes over from the main island every so often to inspect the 400 cars. Everyone on the island knows when he is coming, so they hide their questionable cars behind locked doors, like the car whose owner welded a fuel tank to the roof and ran a rubber hose down the outside to the engine.

I spoke to a couple of fishermen at a bar in the center of town. They wanted to know what I thought of New Zealand. I told them I thought it was a great country. I went through the checklist: affordable healthcare, no automobile accident lawsuits, no guns, chicken wire on the nature walks.

They asked me what it was like to live in America. I told them the week I left the big news was that police were looking for six Chinese who were allegedly involved in a plot to explode a dirty bomb in downtown Boston. They asked me what a dirty bomb was. I told them it was an ordinary bomb with radioactive material mixed in. They said the biggest threat they had to face was the local bar closing down.

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