Your Guide to Backpacking Stewart Island
What? New Zealand has a third island? Stewart Island is the most southern of the three main populated New Zealand islands. Despite being as close to Antarctica as you can get, its clear turquoise sea and white sand beaches make Stewart Island look more like a tropical paradise. Throw a few penguins into the mix then it becomes obvious that Stewart Island is a unique environment a must-visit while backpacking New Zealand.
Around 80% of the island is made up of the Rakiura National Park where you can lose yourself on multi-day hikes in this pure wilderness environment. There are also some pretty unique experiences to be had on Stewart Island, like spotting a kiwi bird in the wild and seeing the Southern Lights.
The main (and only) town of Oban has all the essentials like backpacker accommodation and a convenience store (which isn’t horrifically expensive) meaning there is no excuse not to stay on the island for a little while.
Things You Can’t Miss on Stewart Island
- Walk to a wide selection of white-sand bays from Oban such as Bathing Beach, Dead Man Bay and Horseshoe Bay
- Take a quick boat ride over to the wildlife sanctuary of Ulva Island
- Eat some seafood like blue cod and chips or Bluff oysters
- See some penguins on Oban Wharf on an evening
- Experience great white shark cage diving (only available in summer)
- Spot a kiwi bird in Triall Park or along the hiking trails
- Rent a scooter, e-bike or car from RealNZ to see as much of the island as possible during short visits.
And that’s just the beginning. Find more backpacker-friendly activities in the 16 Free & Cheap Things to Do on Stewart Island, as well as the top paid experiences in the 20 Best Things to Do on Stewart Island.
How to Get to Stewart Island and Back
The most common and cheapest way to get to Stewart Island is by ferry from Bluff. The RealNZ (Stewart Island Experience) ferry departs from both Stewart Island and Bluff three times a day. Departure times change depending on the season. The journey takes approximately one hour. Book ferry tickets on Klook, Viator or Tripadvisor.
For a more scenic and quicker journey, Stewart Island Flights depart from Invercargill three times a day. Plus, you can avoid the seasickness!
A super quick option is by helicopter, which is ideal for day trips to Stewart Island. Stewart Island Helicopters fly between Bluff and Stewart Island.
What to Do in Oban on a Backpacker Budget
The town of Oban consists of a supermarket, post shop, a library, a museum, a couple of places to eat, and a few accommodation options, including backpacker hostels.
With a population of around 400, the town is a close and friendly community. This is obvious from the community and tourism notice board located next to the Four Square convenience store. For example, some notices are signed “see Bonnie”, assuming everyone knows who “Bonnie” is and where to find her!
Eating in Oban
Ever tried a Bloody Mary oyster shot? The ocean between Bluff and Stewart Island is a haven for fishing so restaurants on Stewart Island serve the freshest of produce. We recommend some blue cod fish n’ chips, any salmon dish, and an oyster shot! After a hard hike, treat yourself to some at the Kai Kart or “The Pub” (i.e. the South Sea Hotel). For more insights on “The Pub” and the history of Stewart Island, watch A Local’s Tail at the Bunkhouse Theatre screening daily at 11am, 2pm and 4pm from Friday to Monday.
Walking in Oban
Exploring on foot is a sure-fire way to keep the costs to a minimum, especially when starting from Oban, as you won’t have to rely on transport to get to the trailhead.
Oban to Bathing Beach (30 Minutes Return)
A popular option is a walk to the beautiful Bathing Beach. On the east side of Oban, walk past the wharf and uphill on Horseshoe Bay Road. Branch right when you reach Kamahi Road. Follow the signpost through the bush and around the clifftops to Bathing Beach. The walk is approximately 15 minutes one way.
Oban to Lee Bay (5-6 Hours Return)
To extend the journey past Bathing Beach, cross the beach and take Horseshoe Bay Road north for about 1.5km (1 mile), turn into Bragg Bay Road just uphill from Butterfield Beach. Continue along the road on the coast of Bragg Bay where The Horseshoe Point track starts at the end of the road. This incorporates many stunning little beaches until you get to Horseshoe Bay. Follow Horseshoe Bay Road and up Lee Bay Road where you will reach the entrance to the Rakiura National Park and its link chain gateway. This whole journey takes about 5-6 hours-return from Oban but, of course, you can turn around at any point to make it shorter.
Oban to Ackers Bay (3 Hours Return)
A 3-hour-return walk west of Oban along the coastal road then a walking track will take you to the Ackers Point Lighthouse. From Oban, follow the coastal road at the east end of Oban. Follow the coastal road past several bays, then the road finishes at a walking track to the Ackers Point Lighthouse.
We also have full descriptions of these walks in the 16 Free or Cheap Things to Do in Stewart Island.
Backpacking in the Rakiura National Park
New Zealand’s 13th national park, Rakiura National Park, covers around 80% of the island. Rakiura also has a Great Walk, the Rakiura Track, which is the best way to fully explore the island and see Stewart Island’s native wildlife including the Stewart Island brown kiwi. The track takes three days to complete. See more about the Great Walks in our Guide to the 9 Great Walks of New Zealand.
Additionally, there are heaps of multi-day hikes around the Rakiura National Park, as well as some short day hikes – ideal if your idea of “backpacking” Stewart Island is actually hiking! Notably, these hikes are much cheaper than the Rakiura Track (you have to pay for the huts), so consider them if you’re on a tight budget. The other multi-day hikes are the North West Circuit and the Southern Circuit. Day walks include Garden Mound Track and the Rakiura Track to Maori Beach and back.
Travelling Around Stewart Island
Walking tracks dominate the walking-track-to-road ratio on Stewart Island so if you have plenty of time to explore, the best option for backpacking Stewart Island would be to use your legs!
Scooters, E-Bikes, Car Hire and Bus Tours
You can hire a car, scooter or e-bike next to the ferry terminal or take a guided bus tour with RealNZ/Stewart Island Experience. This is a quicker way to get you to many of the bays close to Oban. Find out more about the tour on Viator, Tripadvisor or Klook.
Flights and Water Taxis
To get to the other side of the island or one of the bays to connect with a walking track, you’ll either have to take a water taxi or a plane. Yes, and beach landings by plane are a pretty common thing on Stewart Island. Flight operators include Stewart Island Flights and Stewart Island Helicopters. Water taxis include Rakiura Charters & Water Taxi and Aihe Eco Charters & Water Taxi.
Wildlife Encounters on Stewart Island
Another reason to go backpacking on Stewart Island is for the wildlife.
Kiwi Birds on Stewart Island
You know these kiwis everyone talks about but you never really see them? Well, that’s because most of them are on Stewart Island. That said, seeing a kiwi on Stewart Island is pretty rare too but can be done by visiting Ocean Beach at night where kiwis are often eating. They are also often seen around Mason Bay along the North West Circuit. For more information on seeing kiwis check out Where to See Kiwi Birds in New Zealand.
Is a kiwi bird not badass enough for you? From December through to June, there is the option to go cage diving or see great white sharks from the less nerving distance of the boat’s deck. Check out this experience on your way to or from Stewart Island with Shark Experience in Bluff.
For the ultimate wildlife experience, take a quick and affordable ferry ride over to Ulva Island. It’s impossible to not spot an array of birds on this island sanctuary and pest-free environment. You may also spot the elusive kiwi bird too! Alternatively, take a guided catamaran and walking tour to Ulva Island. Check out the tour on Viator, Tripadvisor or Klook.
If You Have Some Extra Time on Stewart Island…
- Sea fishing catch your own dinner!
- Browse the Rakiura Museum for the island’s history
- Play giant chess it won’t take you long to find the chessboard in Oban
- Go on a kayaking tour with Phil’s Sea Kayak
- Watch A Local’s Tail at the Bunkhouse Theatre for some local insider knowledge from a dog.
More About Stewart Island
That’s it for our guide to backpacking Stewart Island. For more advice on planning your trip, check out the following articles: