A night on Ōtamahua/Quail Island

Department of Conservation —  22/03/2021

To celebrate NZ Archaeology Week last year we asked young people to share stories about their favourite historic places. Sarah-Kate Simons was one of our fantastic winners and won a night on Ōtamahua/Quail Island. She shares with us her experience…

Sarah outside Ōtamahua Hut

When I won DOC’s ‘Sharing our Stories’ competition, my prize was an overnight stay with my family in one of their huts. We picked Quail Island just out of Lyttelton harbour, since it’s one of our favourite spots to spend a day outing, so why not a night outing? It definitely had nothing to do with my childhood dream of living on an island after several years of an obsession with the film Nim’s Island.

Yeah right.

Quail Island has a ton of history and I’ve always been especially fascinated by the leper colony, on which I based my winning story. When we were waiting for the boat, I pointed out that it would just be us and the poor dead leper on the island, which didn’t bother us much, since our idea of a must-do on any family holiday is to poke around the local graveyard. We boarded the ferry at 3pm to head over to the island, and we all went out to stand at the bow of the ship to drink in the view and the fresh air. Dad suggested that we should do the Titanic pose, and helped me stand by the railing so we could mimic the scene from the movie. I have no idea what the skipper thought!

Arriving on the island, we had a fifteen minute walk to locate the hut, which led us past the historic stables where they kept the ponies for the Antarctica expedition. By the time we got up to the hut, my back and shoulders were aching from carrying my backpack and our bag full of dinner. We picked a bunk room, and claimed our bunks with our sleeping bags.

Claiming our bunks

After settling in, we took a stroll down to the beach. I spent some time lazing about in a cosy hammock while Mum looked for interesting shells and showed me her favourites. She then suggested that we make some beach art, since there was plenty of flotsam to make a face with, and pointed out the pine needles, commenting that they would make a nice moustache. We drew a circle in the sand and began crafting a face, starting with the moustache, which I remarked made the poor fellow bear an unfortunate resemblance to Hitler. Feeling guilty for defacing the beach with such an image, I chose a nice piece of stick and proceeded to create a friendlier artwork of a girl in a pretty dress.

Leaving the beach in search of dinner, we paused to admire the shags drying their wings on the remains of the old dock, before climbing back up to the hut. On the way, we bumped into a flock of quail, including some chicks.

For dinner, we had cold boerewors (South African sausage), boiled eggs and salad with rolls, and some nice warm tea fresh off our little gas stove. We sat outside on the deck, and admired the view of the sea and Lyttelton across the water. The dark clouds creeping in over the hills were watched with less enthusiasm. It turned out to be dinner and a show, after some bellbirds arrived in the tree nearby and proceeded to serenade us.

Admiring the view

After dinner, Mum and Dad went for a walk up to the lookout nearby, and I remained behind at the picnic table, bringing out my notebook and doing some work on my novel. When they returned, we played the DOC trivia cards I received in my prize, although we were very confused to begin with when Mum accidentally introduced them as the ‘Department of Conversation trivia cards’.

It started raining in the middle of another trivia game, and we were forced to flee inside. There’s no electricity, so we had great fun lighting all the candles and carrying them around like we were in Little House on the Prairie. We finished our game over another round of tea and Whittaker’s chocolate, which disappeared far too quickly. By then, it was nearing 9 o’clock, and we decided to blow out the candles and go to bed, cuddling up in our sleeping bags. Dad’s sleeping bag looked more like an under-sized sarcophagus than a sleeping bag, and Mum and I were at the point of taking bets on whether he’d fit in it at all. To our surprise, he did—though he did bear a close resemblance to an ancient Egyptian mummy. Mum couldn’t get comfortable and made so much noise floundering about in the sleeping bag that I went into hysterics, but eventually we all got to sleep.

Things took another turn when I needed the toilet in the middle of the night. It was pouring with rain at this point, and the bathroom is at the back of the hut, requiring you to walk around the building. Of course, I was only in my pyjamas with no shoes and I got rather wet, not to mention as I was running past, trying not to slip, some island nightlife was having a fine time rustling about in the bushes next to me. I fled back to bed as fast as I could.

We got up at 7am the next morning to find the rain had mostly stopped, and took a brisk walk around part of the island in our pyjamas. The sun was just coming up over the water and everything was damp and smelled like earth and plants. We found the notice board that told the story of the brothers who had lived on the island, until two of them drowned, and proceeded to discuss the swimming habits of the former residents on the way back. Our breakfast consisted of tea and rusks, since we planned to get breakfast over in Lyttelton once we got off the ferry. I spent some more time writing, and all in all, manged to get half a chapter of my novel done, before it was time to pack up and traipse down to the ferry to be picked up. The day had dawned windy, and we had a very choppy ride back across the harbour, before we set off to find a café for a nice big breakfast!

New Zealand Archaeology Week (24 April – 2 May 2021) celebrates New Zealand archaeologists and their work. It highlights the importance of protecting our country’s historic places.

Learn more: https://nzarchaeology.org/national-archaeology-week-2021

8 responses to A night on Ōtamahua/Quail Island

    Tracey Jones 31/03/2021 at 4:19 am

    Oh what a lovely review for Quail Island. Your writing is so discriptive and makes me feel, when I’m reading your words, that your are narrating the story. You make the island sound idealic. I look forward to reading your novel in the future. Well done xx


    Hi Sarah-Kate what a lovely review of this amazing Island. Well written with lovely drawing in the sand. glad you remember the boerewors all the way from SA love Frans and Renette. Wish you well in the future.

    Cathie Thomas 23/03/2021 at 8:05 pm

    Awesome and beautifully written I felt as though I was there.. You will go far Sarah-Kate you have a way with the words as well as bringing some humour as well makes it more interesting .. Had to giggle at the thought of dad in his sleeping bag though very well described. Well done you certainly have a great flair with words.. Can’t wait for more of your writings..

    Peter Hallinan 22/03/2021 at 9:37 pm

    Sarah-Kate, thanks for sharing a day of your life with us. Interesting and amusing style. Good luck with that novel…


    Sounds like an awesome night away Katie. Love you Oumsie


      What an awesome adventure! I enjoyed reading your beautifully written blog.
      Love from oumsie’s old friend in Arizona, USA

    Cindy Peterson 22/03/2021 at 5:05 pm

    Awesome way with words (as usual) Sarah-Kate!


    Sounds like you all had fun, what a well written adventure Sarah-Kate.