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.” >


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.

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...

(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...

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.

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...

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