At the southernmost end of the South Island, in the little town of Bluff, a larger-than-life sculpture of an anchor chain descends down a hillside into Foveaux Strait. Some 30 kilometers (16 nautical miles) south, a matching sculpture climbs out of the waters near the even smaller town of Oban on Rakiura, also known as “glowing skies” and Stewart Island. The link represents the legendary anchor chain of Māui, the demigod who connected Te Wai Pounamu (the South Island) with Rakiura when Aotearoa was raised out of the ocean.
Whether from the depths of mythology or the depths of geologic history, today’s visit to Rakiura and adjacent Ulva Island felt very much like stepping into a land out of time. Massive forests filled with birdsong – kākā, kākāriki, korimako, and tūī, among others – mingled with the strong breezes and shifting patterns of clouds, rain, and soft rays of sunlight that changed from one minute to the next. We wandered onto beaches that are home to charismatic New Zealand fur seals and spotted kororā (little blue penguins) swimming in rafts near the shore. An afternoon excursion to nearby Oban offered a return to civilization, but the cheerful little town felt like a sliver of society in the midst of a mythical landscape: a portal into another, more ancient, world.