Stewart Island/Rakiura is the third-largest island of New Zealand. It lies 30 kilometres (19 mi) south of South Island, across Foveaux Strait. Its permanent population is slightly fewer than 400 people, most of whom live in the settlement of Oban.
History and naming
Captain Cook was the first European to sight the island in 1770, but he thought it was part of the South Island so he named it South Cape. The island was named for 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 south eastern 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. The original Maori name, Te Punga o Te Waka a Maui, positions Stewart Island/Rakiura firmly at the heart of Maori 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, North Island.
Rakiura is the more commonly known and used Maori 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 Maori 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 South Island where the cousin lived, only to discover she was 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 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.
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 Mt. Anglem, close to the northern coast, at a height of 979 metres (3,210 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 Mt. Allen, at 750 metres (2,500 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 meteoric 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 are 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.
Two groups of tiny above-water rocks south of Stewart Island/Rakiura are geographically part of New Zealands: North Trap, a reef of above and below-water rocks at [show location on an interactive map] 47°22′S 167°55′E / 47.367°S 167.917°E / -47.367; 167.917 (North Trap reef) fronts the southern shore, about 28.2 kilometres (17.5 mi) southwest by south of the mouth of the Lords River. A 1.5 metres (4.9 ft) high rock near the western end and a 0.9 metres (3.0 ft) high rock near the eastern end give it the appearance of an overturned boat. South Trap, a reef of above-water rocks 1.2 metres (3.9 ft) to 1.8 metres (5.9 ft) high and below-water rocks at [show location on an interactive map] 47°32′S 167°50′E / 47.533°S 167.833°E / -47.533; 167.833 (South Trap reef), lies about 16.9 kilometres (10.5 mi) south by west of North Trap.
Owing to an anomaly in the magnetic latitude contours, this location is well placed for observing Aurora australis.