Back in time
Life on Stewart Island is like mid-century rural New Zealand – but with online shopping
The hamiltons met on Oban wharf. Kate was a Canterbury veterinary nurse, in Stewart Island on a kakapo-spotting adventure with some colleagues from Orana Wildlife Park. Brett was a fourthgeneration Stewart Island fisherman turned real estate agent, who’d recently moved to the mainland but was on a return visit.
Kate was loading a shipment of second-hand Land Rover parts onto a freight boat bound for Canterbury (long story), when she turned around and bumped into Brett, literally. They got talking, he offered her a feed of crayfish, and 10 years on, here they are living in a renovated three-bedroom crib high above the town with two young children, a miniature pony, three dogs and a cat.
These days Brett is a commercial fisherman once again – his boat’s name is Provider – and Kate is mostly busy looking after Lillie, four, and Margo, nine months. And the funny thing is that Kate doesn’t even eat crayfish (or any fish).
When they moved into the crib, along with Brett’s then15-year-old son Morgan from an earlier relationship, it was rundown and not Kate’s style. She cried.
“I thought, what am I doing? But the views were spectacular.” They still are – 360 degrees of bush, ocean and bay – and the house itself is now more to her liking.
It was built in 1915 or thereabouts. When they pulled up three layers of lino to put carpet down, the floor was lined with early1900s newspapers, which Brett found fascinating. “You could have bought a house on Stewart Island for something like £815.”
The first renovation – closing in a balcony to increase the living area – was timed for Lillie’s arrival, and the rest was done last winter in time for Margo. Well, nearly: “A little bit to go,” says Brett. Working with local builders Matt Hill and Steve Stewart, they redid the back of the house, took down the water-pumping tanks, double-glazed, redid the bathroom and relined the floors. >
Stewart Island is hardly a shopping mecca, so materials and furnishings were mostly bought sight unseen. “We got everything off the internet – kitchen, bathroom, tapwear, lights – because it was logistically too hard to get off the island to go shopping,” says Kate.
Friend and local designer Bridget Squires helped out and then it was a case of what fitted in the space. Some new purchases – “Hawthorne Group, French Country Collections and Citta would be the three places I’d go” – sit alongside family treasures, plus bits and bobs Kate has picked up from all over.
In Oban, “the dump is a goldmine, because people are clearing out all their old 60s stuff. There’s a second-hand shop there and you can score Crown Lynn plates and vases. I got a Chesterfield couch for $2.”
Stewart Island’s population is tiny – just over 400 people. Kate has found the locals welcoming though maybe, she concedes, she’s been accepted because she’s married one of them, she gets involved and she’s chatty. All the same, it can be very isolated: “Demographically it’s older people – there’s just a handful of us in our 40s and 50s.”
Kate describes the island as rural New Zealand 50 years ago. “You can let your children run around because it’s so safe. There are kiwi on your lawn. Drop a line in the sea and you get five fish in five minutes. It’s raw New Zealand.”
She still keeps a house i n Canterbury – “I wanted to have little houses around the country, rather than a large homestead” – and gets away from the island every few weeks. She had a horsey upbringing and is a horse judge. “I go around the country to the A&P shows.” >
“THE DUMP IS A GOLDMINE, BECAUSE PEOPLE 60S ARE CLEARING OUT ALL THEIR OLD STUFF”
Getting off the island involves either a ferry or a plane. On a rough day that means a choice between an hour of hell or 20 minutes of terror. Usually it’s the ferry, though, as there’ll be dogs, cats and children in tow, “and I love the kitchen sink to come with us”.
For Brett the pull of the island is stronger. He grew up a mile to the north. He likes the taste of muttonbird. Twenty years ago, in a cove on the island’s south-west, Brett’s two young sons Dylan and Morgan were jumping on what looked like a huge piece of driftwood when Brett realised it was a whale jawbone.
“It took us a while to dig it out of the sand. I rang DOC to declare it, and they said as long as there’s no flesh attached to it, it belongs to you – otherwise it’s up to iwi to decide.”
It was bleached white and long dead, so if you’re ever in the sitting room of Kate and Brett’s crib on the hill, don’t forget to look up: that long curving thing on the ceiling is the jaw of a whale.
When Kate and Brett Hamilton bought a former crib high on the hills above Oban in Stewart Island, the dwelling was rundown but the views were spectacular; hidden behind the long grass is their miniature pony Fanta.
(clockwise from left) A seafood feast prepared by Brett Hamilton, who’s always glad of a chance to cook his catch, as wife Kate doesn’t eat fish – luckily, Lillie, four, eats crayfish, and Margo, nine months, looks interested; the kitchen units are a Kaboodle kitset, bought online from Bunnings in Dunedin; Kate’s proud of the splashback she tiled herself. The dining table was bought on Trade Me for $200 and whitewashed by Kate, and the pews come from an old A&P shed; the Brazilian cowhide on the floor is from Hawthorne Group in Auckland; Kate found the earthenware jars “at the dump, or a second-hand shop” and the doctor’s kit in front of them “was an old family thing”; the Klimt print is a souvenir from an exhibition in Paris three years ago; a whale’s jawbone hangs on a beam. The view west towards Paterson Inlet, which Brett describes as “playground and food basket”.
Every December, the branch hanging from the ceiling is decorated to become the Christmas tree but for now it’s home to taxidermied bats from Brown & Co in Wellington; the wall-mounted antlers are from the first deer Brett shot, and the antlers on the French Country Collections chest of drawers were his wedding present from Kate; the beaten metal plaque and cane chair are both from Citta.
(clockwise from top left) Basil Howard’s history of Stewart Island – “Rakiura” in Maori – was first printed in 1940. Lexie, left, and Hector, were named after characters from Scottish TV series Monarch of the Glen. The puffer fish on the wall is from Brown & Co; the blown glass jug and bowl were Kate's grandmother’s and the paperweight was Brett’s grandfather’s. Kate says grooved ply, seen in this bedroom and the living room, is her house renovation secret weapon: it’s great for walls or ceilings, it’s cheap, you can paint or whitewash it, and it doesn’t need plastering. OPPOSITE
According to Kate, Stewart Island’s best-kept secret is the sky: the sunrises, the sunsets and the aurora australis are all amazing.
(from top) Lillie with Fanta the 10-year-old miniature pony, who arrived on Lillie’s second birthday in a luggage tub on the ferry from Bluff. Brett’s fishing boat at dock in Halfmoon Bay; it’s bad luck to rename a boat so thankfully he liked the name Provider when he bought it. OPPOSITE