Quail Island: Lonely Lepers, Blissful Beaches & Tragic Ends

New Zealand islands are often sanctuaries of life. Water makes a great barrier between land mammals that threaten New Zealand’s native birds, making these islands full of birdsong. Quail Island, on the other hand, is a little bit different. Quail Island breaks the mould in the New Zealand islands by, in fact, being an old quarantine island, not only for animals but for humans with leprosy. What’s more, every story coming from quail island seems to have had a tragic end. On that note, we’re a little afraid to head over to Quail Island while we are back in Christchurch but you have to admit, this island sounds a little intriguing, so…

Let’s catch up

Last time you saw us, we were in Akaroa umming and ahhing about what to do with our broken down campervan that has been causing more problems than its worth. Well, when something is holding you back, the best thing to do is to get rid! We sold the camper for parts and have been out looking for a replacement in Christchurch. Of course, this also gives us a great opportunity to do an activity that we can’t believe we missed last time we were in Christchurch – going to Quail Island.

Lyttleton, where have you been hiding all this time?

From the Point Break Backpackers in the seasside suburb of New Brighton, we drive through New Zealand’s second longest road tunnel to Lyttleton Harbour. Lyttleton itself is a pleasant surprise with quirky wee cafes and street art-decorated squares built on the hills we just drove through. Then we’re boarding the Black Cat ferry to Quail Island.

Waiting for the ferry to our next adventure Waiting for the ferry to our next adventure
The cool cat of Canterbury The cool cat of Canterbury
Colour-popping Quail Island is not a bad place for a hike Colour-popping Quail Island is not a bad place for a hike
Robin thinks he has spotted a quarantined animal Robin thinks he has spotted a quarantined animal

Catching the ferry to Quail Island

The enthusiastic skipper embraces the challenge of docking against the wind and swell, telling us to: “Hold on, it’s going to get bumpy!” The 10-15-minute journey brings us to Quail Island towering above the boat topped with pine trees.

With map grasped in hand showing the points of interest, we step onto the island and get exploring.

Quail Island Tragedy #1 and #2

There are a couple of different walking options around the island, one that includes the view of a few shipwrecks seen at low tide (just the start of our “tragedy” theme). However, since it is going to be high tide for the majority of the time we spend here, we decide to focus on some other weird and wonderful attractions. First up, we find the Wards’ settlement. According to our map, the Ward brothers farmed the island for only two months before they drowned out at sea bringing firewood to the island… Their farming remnants have been left behind with old rusty ploughs, sawing machinery, earth rollers, among other things. Beside this scrap heap are some stables signposted with “Animal Quarantine Stables”. Ew!

Return of the quails

Despite the tragic story of the Ward Brothers, there seems to be something making use of the “hiding places” the old machinery has provided: quails! Not the extinct New Zealand quail that the island was named after, but exotic quails with that crazy black feather sticking out of the top of its head. Three males are running around the area gathering up their chicks that are running in all directions. Honestly, it looks like a nightmare to have that many kids.

Farming and quarantine relics of yesteryears

Quail Island Tragedy #3

Following the well-signed tracks around the island, we come across some replica dog kennels and the remains of a stock-movement jetty depicting what Robert Falcon Scott used for quarantining and training dogs and ponies for his Antarctic expedition that went swimmingly in 1901 but ended is tragedy in 1910.

Quail Island Tragedy #4

The stories don’t get any happier when we find some concrete sections with a trap door on the side of a hill, signed with the words: “Human Quarantine Area”. All sorts of thoughts are running through our heads. Did they really trap people down here? But we guess the remaining building foundations on the ground may be more likely what they used to quarantine people. This whole quarantine station was built to isolate immigrants coming to New Zealand who had spent months in a cramped ship picking up all kinds of diseases. This went for the animals too. See, the strict biosecurity at New Zealand airports doesn’t seem as bad now, does it?

Lepers living the island life

Our final site of significance comes with the story of the lepers. Nine patients were isolated on Quail Island at the most. A replica of a lepers cottage can be seen overlooking Skiers’ Beach and its turquoise blue water glistening in the sun. Well, all things considered, Quail Island is not a bad place to be a leper. Forest, hills, private beaches… Who wouldn’t want to live here?!

The old livestock jetty and the badass blue waters The old livestock jetty and the badass blue waters
Referring to the map to find out about the tragic stories of Quail Island Referring to the map to find out about the tragic stories of Quail Island
The water is just too inviting! The water is just too inviting!

Quail Island Tragedy #5

Unfortunately, like many of the stories here on Quail Island, one patient died here. The grave of poor Ivon can be seen today all alone on the top of a hill looking out into the spectacular views of the Lyttleton Harbour. Green hills and brilliant blue waters create super contrasts that remind us that although Quail Island is full of tragic history, it has a certain beauty about it today. What makes it more beautiful is the abundance of birds chiming and dancing around us as we walk around the island. Fantails squeak from nearby branches, not afraid of our presence at all. A whole flock of exotic birds (they kind of look like sparrows) swoop around and around terrorising butterflies. Then there’s the clumsy wood pigeon trying to balance on branches that its just too heavy for. See, there is life on Quail Island after all.

A happy ending in Quail Island

With a bit more time to kill before the ferry picks us up, our story on Quail Island ends much more pleasantly than those who have come before us. We relax in the hot New Zealand sun along the grassy verge of Swimmers’ Beach, going for a paddle now and then in the warm shallow waters. Bliss!

Our loop walk finally brings us back to the Quail Island jetty for our return back to Lyttleton. Having our campervan breakdown and bringing us back to Christchurch has been a blessing in disguise to be able to discover this fascinating island. Time has gone by so quickly here, which can only be a good thing.

It’s back to the Point Break Backpackers in New Brighton for a movie night and getting ourselves ready to pick up a new car tomorrow and make our way back to Akaroa where we have some unfinished business to attend to. By unfinished business, we mean more awesome activities! Join us then!

Laura and Robin

The stunning beaches and historical sites of Quail Island
The stunning beaches and historical sites of Quail Island Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

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See you tomorrow!

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