As we left, I stood outside, watching the ferns at the island’s edge. The morning sun had made them of gold, had made the sea of silver. My heart ached with that light. Everything was brilliance that felt like eternity, and how could the ferry be pulling away already, and how could the land be receding so quickly? How could we lose this to the horizon? I waited on the deck even as the clouds came in and the wind picked up and the waves soaked us and the seabirds disappeared, staring across the Fouveaux Strait at where we had left Rakiura behind. We were coming back slowly to everything else, and I didn’t want to go.
Rakiura, or Stewart Island, is at the beginning of the end of the world. It is south of southernmost New Zealand: if you go any further, you reach the Sub-Antarctic. It is as far away from civilization as far away gets with people still around. Even still, Rakiura is known for having more resident kiwi than resident Kiwi. The town is a small pocket around the bay and forest, raw and old and wild, sprawls over the rest of the island. Beyond that lies ocean.
In Maori, Rakiura means glowing skies—a reference to the aurora australis that can illuminate the night or its spectacular sunsets. I think it’s just because the skies there are different. In our five days on the island everything felt a little brighter, a little sharper, in a separate range from the visual spectrum I’m used to. We spent three days hiking the forests, relying on nothing but what was on our backs. I found again the feeling of smallness amid expanse that green with no end inspires.
But instead of the familiar bushes of forests everywhere else the undergrowth was ferns—no leaves but rather the gradual unfurling of fronds, everywhere I looked the yearning towards light, the delicacy of pinnae. There were no native mammals but instead only birds rustling towards us without shyness. Every one something new, something evolved far away from the rest of the world into winged facsimiles of squirrels or mice or badgers.
There were different rules here, I realized. On our second day we ran from a sea lion to reach our hut for the night. Once it had flopped away again my friend and I ran back after it and watched from a safe distance as it rolled in the sand, lazy and confident in its mastery of the beach and surroundings.
Humans were only intruders here. And we had left scars: a brushtail possum rustled in the bushes our first night, introduced by Europeans for food and pelts but inadvertently bringing the islands a voracious mammalian omnivore no plant had evolved for. But in the mornings, watching a white-faced heron touch beaks with its perfect reflection, oystercatchers erupt into black-and-white flight, it was easy to call the place still wild, still left in another time the rest of New Zealand has forgotten for the most part.
Of course, since the Maori arrived New Zealand has become ravaged land, stripped of its large creature, eagles with wingspans larger than a human killed, birdsong that deafened the mornings muted, its ecosystems shrunk to framework. But on Rakiura I could forget that briefly. Here the old rhythms rang in the moments. We searched for kiwi at night and found them outlined in our infrared flashlights, tugging intently at seaweed on the beach. Its body was large and ungainly but it curved its beak down over and over again gracefully, opening it, closing it, sampling insects with delicacy. Above us the Milky Way burned in its breathless dance; we all stood silent, the only sounds the ancient sigh of the ocean.
As free as the forests were, waters even freer encircled us. I saw them silvered, saw them gold, saw them sharp, saw them softened, and fell in love with the birds that inhabited their unfathomable ridges with such ease. It was my first time seeing albatross, and I never went inside the closed cabins on a boat for fear of missing one even for a second. They did not fly: they wove the waves, spun them frozen, as if each crest held its breath for them to angle their wings just so and arrow off into the distance without a single flap. I wanted to capture that beauty, wanted to know it in every contour, and tried with my camera. We spent one day fishing and after giving up on catching anything, I shivered by the railing and waited for them to come near. The stern lines of their eyes stared into mine. Then they each banked away, illuminating their wings’ dark outlines, without apparently moving at all, leaving me drained, leaving me beaming.
It’s been more than half a year since we disembarked at Bluff and left Rakiura as nothing more than a misty horizon. I know this is a blog on my gap year, not what happened before, but I keep returning there, finding my mind for a brief second in a forest gilded with ferns before realizing that is half a world away from me now. Before the summer our computer crashed and I lost almost all my photographs from that week, so when I returned I spent hours dredging and editing what I could from memory cards and forgotten Drive folders, finding again and again new ways to miss a place. With the recent announcement of the Nature inFocus Photography Awards I have had even more excuse to explore for what Rakiura had left behind. Every time what I felt looking back from the boat wells up once more. I understand it only in flashes, like sapphire bays through trees.
Which is to say I do not understand how leaving can hurt so much at all and perhaps this is only the clarity of memory, a combination of travel’s adrenaline and isolation and nature imbuing perfection when I look back. But how beautiful that vanishing shoreline aches.