Nelson, August 26, 2001
Ken Barlow in the South Pacific.
It's taken me a long, long time, but I've finally found it - the most English place in the world that, mercifully, isn't really England. They have Coronation Street on telly, for Christ's sake. Now this might not mean anything to those of you living in England (and I know it means nothing to you Americans), but it's one of those sad ex-pat type things that, even if they're totally crap, you miss because they're gone from your life; like Branson Pickle. I might even want to live here, if it wasn't so far away from everywhere else. New Zealanders have the comfortingly large noses, ruddy countenances, and gigantic ears that identify them as the purest British stock you'll find outside of the Appalachians. And did I say Australians were nice? Well, New Zealanders are even nicer, although often so catatonically laconic that you might not realize at first.
Of course, when I talk about hillbilly faces that could be looking at me out of a mirror, I'm referring to those New Zealanders of European origin - 20% of the population is Polynesian, three quarters of which is Maori. Growing up in England in the fading embers of WWII, (it ended around the time the Beatles broke up, more or less precisely on the day Germany beat us 3-2 in Mexico), it was hard not to lump Australia and New Zealand together in one's mind as the last outposts of a vanishing British Empire (or "Commonwealth" as some half-assed PR man decided to call it - as if the wealth we extorted for hundreds of years was held in common by anyone other than the British mercantile elite! This message brought to you courtesy of Bill Spart, Tooting Bec People's Revolutionary Party.)
Come on, admit it, you think of New Zealand as a little island of the coast of Australia, sort of like an Antipodean Isle of Wight, probably around where Tasmania is. Well, in fact it's hundreds of miles away, a mini-continent with an amazingly unique fauna that has evolved in isolation for about nine million years (give or take a few million years). As those of you who watched The Life of Birds already know.
Anyway, we'll get back to the fascinating array of avifauna in a minute. In New Zealand, one of the ways that you can tell you're not in Australia is by observing that this seems far less of an apartheid society. For a start, Euros represent a much smaller proportion of the population than in Oz, but Maoris appear to be much more integrated into New Zealand society than the Aboriginals of Australia. (I say "appear to be", of course - what do I really know about this culture? If all you did was observe the ethnic diversity of newsreaders, you'd think the US was an integrated society too.) But from just looking around at the way the culture seems to be mixed, it seems evident that the pre-European inhabitants of this place seem to have been less soundly screwed than the Aboriginals.
There are many reasons for this apparent difference, some rooted in the differences between Maori and Aboriginal culture. The Maoris had kings, towns, and slaves, just like we did, and this encouraged the first explorers to regard them as a civilization to be negotiated with, rather than savages to be eradicated. Treaties were signed, even if they were, in time-honored fashion, ignored. The original Australians had a much worse hand dealt to them.
Oddly enough, the Maoris were interlopers barely more settled-in than the British, relatively speaking. The indigenous Australians, who had been living on their land for tens of thousands of years (and who have the oldest continuous history in the world, apparently) had evolved a society that worked in harmony with their inhospitable land. Unfortunately, it was a society so radically different as to be conveniently invisible to the European newcomers. The difference in their social structure made it all the easier for the colonists to regard the country as Terra Nullis that belonged to no one and was up for grabs.
Not to say that the Maoris didn't get as much of a raw deal as everyone else who got in the way of British colonial ambitions, but they seem to have fared better than the Aboriginals, whose society is still visibly shattered. And when was the last time you saw anyone playing a didgeridoo before an Australian rugby international?
All very Lost World, not to mention Garden of Eden serpenty.
Anyway, let's get back to the wildlife, shall we? Only two land mammals - a pair of relatively benign bats - and few avian predators meant that an amazing array of birdlife was able to evolve without elaborate defenses. Flightlessness became very popular, and this was a major drawback when human beans arrived. The Maoris, a Polynesian people of no fixed abode, got here somewhere between eight hundred and a thousand years ago, and proceeded to eat everything in sight, wiping out entire species with gay abandon. When they ran out of things to eat, they began to notice that something was wrong - and began to manage the land before every flying, swimming and walking thing vanished for good. This was a step in the right direction. Although the ecology had been severely compromised, the native fauna stabilized and began to recover. (Apart from the Moas, of course - an entire family of giant vegetarian birds that stood up to thirteen feet tall, and lived here happily until the arrival of human beings. All gone, now, into the bellies of hungry Maoris, the people who took their name from the amazing creatures they hunted into oblivion. Well, they weren't to know. Still, it does make a change to be somewhere where it wasn't the British who ruined everything.)
But, of course, I speak too soon. Just as the Maoris were nurturing the ecosystem back to its feet, we came crashing in and knocked over the whole house of cards, almost for good. Quite apart from the usual routine of chopping down all the forests and bringing in hordes of domestic ungulates to tramp the earth down, the real stroke of genius was the release of thousands of rabbits, foxes and deer - in order to give the colonizers something decent to hunt. When the rabbits multiplied like crazy and ate all the crops in sight, the next brainwave was to release weasels, stoats and ferrets to eat the rabbits. Instead, they set about wiping out the native birds, who had no defenses against mammalian predators.
The dogs and rats that the Maori had introduced did their fair share of damage, but it was the European introductions that helped wipe out several species, and drove another fifty eight native species to the brink of extinction. The last Stephen Island Wren was killed by a lighthouse keeper's cat in 1894. Not that you can really blame the cat (or even the lighthouse keeper).
So, all in all a pretty grim example of how to wreck an ecosystem in record time. However, on the other hand there's a glove: New Zealand also has one of the best records in the world of trying to repair this kind of damage (even if they still release foreign game-birds to give idiots something to shoot at). Few countries can boast of designating 10% of their land as national parks, and did I mention that they are still nuclear free? Many species have been relocated to predator free offshore islands, where their populations can begin to recover, and hopefully be released back onto the main islands at some point in the future. The fact that so many species teeter on the brink of extinction without actually falling over is a testament to the incredible dedication of many New Zealanders - the island of Tiritiri Matangi being a case in point, but I'll write more about that later.
Enough already - what about the Kiwis?
OK, OK, so the world is doomed because of the evil Europeans and we're all going to hell in a hand basket. Blah, blah, blah, blah. Whydon't I tell you something you don't already know? What strange adventures have Bill and Doreen had in this enchanted land? How could they possibly miss finding the South Island Wren? And what's Deirdre doing back with Ken Barlow?
Well, I seem to have used up all my time going on about eco-holocaust, but as I've assiduously avoided referring to New Zealanders by their usual designation of "Kiwis", I may as well explain why. The thing is, even though the Kiwi is the national symbol (as well as a world famous brand of shoe-polish), very few New Zealanders have ever seen one outside of a zoo. The fact that the various species are extremely shy, determinedly nocturnal, and severely threatened may have something to do with this. These little buggers are really hard to see.
But you know us, it's a bird, and we have to see it somehow. The Brown Kiwi is one of the more accessible species, mainly due to the fact that there's this bloke on Stewart Island who knows where they are and, for a price, will take you there. He even took David Attenborough and his camera crew to the special place for that Life of Birds show that I keep going on about. Unfortunately, he was on holiday in Thailand (lucky chap) when we tried to call him, and were very fortunate to get hold of him at all. Even worse, he hadn't got started back on the Kiwi thing yet, and his boat was all booked up for some huge fishing competition - the big event on the Oban (pop: 480) social calendar.
Luckily for us, he had one night free, although the lack of other punters meant we had to pay for ourselves and three other imaginary birders to make up his break-even point. But that's OK. So off we set one evening, puttering away in his boat to the fabled beach where the mighty Kiwis roam wild and free. Because this man - Phillip - had been away for the previous month, he wasn't too sure about what we'd find. And when we got there, he noticed that winter storms had washed away all the access points that Kiwis use to get to the beach. (In order to feast on the little beasties that live in the washed-up seaweed, not to sip on margaritas and sunbathe). This wasn't good.
After a few hours of stumbling around in the dark, I began to wonder if perhaps, birdwatching was overrated as a hobby. What was I doing here? Why wasn't I at John's Restaurant? Or, even better, at home with my cat on my lap, a glass of Chilean Merlot at my side, and a tape of MST3K on the TV?
However, Philip has only crapped out fifteen times in 2000 trips, and he eventually came through for us, much to everyone's relief. (Who'd want the pressure of being a wildlife guide?) By the time he pointed out a Kiwi on the path six feet in front of us, Doreen had given up and wondered why I was suddenly dragging her forward. Seeing him there in front if us was enough of a magic moment, but as we stood gawping in wonder, he seemed to decide that he'd better investigate what was going on in his neighborhood. He slowly waddled up to us and delicately sniffed our feet, tap-tap-tapping on our toes to see what these peculiar odors were all about. Unusually for birds, Kiwis have a well developed sense of smell, and the stinky boots of world travelers must hold a particular fascination for them. But they can't have been that interesting, because he slowly walked away, leaving us very happy with the way the evening had gone. Such close encounters with wild animals are pretty rare when you think about it.