View over the north beach, Stewart Island (Kevin Saff)
Article Words : Paul Morrison | 01 April

Kiwis by moonlight on Stewart Island

Paul Morrison goes in search of the elusive kiwi bird on Stewart Island, New Zealand

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to be alarmist. But don’t you find it a bit odd that an airline should call itself after a flightless bird? Anyone who has travelled in New Zealand will already be familiar with the symbol of the kiwi appearing on everything from banknotes to lottery scratchcards. But when I heard that the latest carrier was calling itself Kiwi Airlines I was beginning to wonder if the realities of aerodynamics had been forgotten in a flash of marketing inspiration.

Why New Zealanders should have taken so much to this absurd little bird I have never worked out. What is more, the three and a half million people of these remote islands even choose to call themselves after this short-sighted, dumpy little creature that sleeps all day and spends the night poking its nose into rotting vegetation. Now call me conventional, but I can think of more inspiring role models.

And that’s how my interest began. That and some vague memory of a Ripley’s Strange But True cartoon in a childhood comic about the kiwi’s having this obscenely large egg. It all seemed so unlikely, that such a bird could exist at all, let alone have an airline named after it.  On successive trips to New Zealand I grew increasingly curious about the secretive bird with the ubiquitous image, yet I began to realise that New Zealanders who have seen a wild kiwi are rarer than the bird itself.

Once they were widespread on these islands where birds were the top dogs. In the absence of mammals, strange species of flightless birds evolved, most impressive of all being the moa – an ostrich-like creature that reached 3m tall. Meanwhile its lesser relative, the kiwi, snuffled about in a predator-free paradise.

Then the people arrived, first from the other Pacific islands, and then from Europe...and the moa, along with many other species, disappeared forever. The moa was hunted to extinction by man, but the biggest threat to native birds came from introduced species – the cats, rats and ferrets that the Europeans brought with them. Flightless birds were easy prey – so how one earth did the kiwi hang on?

The more I learnt, the more my curiosity grew, and the more I wanted to see one of these near-mythical creatures in the flesh and in the wild. And then I learned about an unspoilt oasis of pristine wilderness, where kiwis walk unmolested through forest and along beaches. Here would be my chance to see them in action – and so my trip to Stewart Island was born.



Mud

“Stewart Island contains more kiwis than people,” the Visitor Centre proudly proclaims, alongside its odes to rainfall and descriptions of five different types of mud. In the doorway I had passed a group of sodden trampers scraping samples of all five off their lower bodies. Stewart Island attracts the hardy and the foolhardy in equal measures, who head out on its wilderness trails to sample nature in the raw. Days, sometimes weeks later, most of them re-emerge, invariably claiming to have discovered a new species of mud. With 250km of walking trails, and less than 25km of road, it’s an island that favours the pedestrian. But it’s also an island with 250 days of rainfall a year, so I had prepared myself for the worst. But on the day I arrived the Maori god, Maui, must have been smiling, for the sun had come out over Halfmoon Bay and the township of Oban looked like the ocean retreat of my dreams.

The Visitor Centre had been telling the truth, at least about the kiwis. Over 15,000 of the little creatures live their secretive lives in the dense forest that covers the island. It was my intention to find at least one of them. The island’s 400 human residents are huddled together in the north-east corner, around the sheltered waters of Halfmoon Bay. It’s a surprising reversal of the more familiar picture of pockets of wildlife surrounded by farmland and urbanisation. Indeed, on Stewart Island it is humans that are the endangered species, for although tourists swell the numbers for a few months each summer, the resident population is falling.

The traditional living from the sea has been hit by a quota system brought on by overfishing. Fifteen years ago there were 55 fishing boats working out of Halfmoon Bay, today there are fifteen. Salmon and mussel farming have offered an economic lifeline to many a former fisherman, and tourism has also brought some welcome, though seasonal income. But the prognosis is uncertain, as there are still people leaving, particularly youngsters who are educated on the mainland and find their futures over there. Perhaps it’s not surprising – after all, there are limited opportunities for qualified people in a community that supports one policeman, no resident doctor and a school with only thirty pupils. 

Fish and the future

I learnt a little more about Stewart Island society when I rose early one chilly morning and joined Herbie Hanson on the water shuttle taking the salmon and mussel farmers to work. We cut through the clear waters of Paterson Inlet, passing three species of penguin on their way to work, and a school of bottle-nosed dolphin that hitched a ride on the bow wave. The dozen workers sat quietly in the back, playing cards or reading the paper, in the way that people on the work’s bus usually do. When the farms started operation in 1980, many of the local people were grateful for a new source of income, but working for a mainland company is hardly the same as running your own fishing boat, and Herbie realises that it’s a slender lifeline.

“The salmon go back to the mainland for processing, so they’re using our waters but we don’t get all the jobs.”

Herbie’s Stewart Island roots go back to 1865, with a Norwegian and Scots bloodline. Yet his children now work on the mainland, just returning for Christmas. It’s a pattern I found repeated throughout the community, and it is clear that if the township is going to survive, it will need some help. Left to its own devices, it could dwindle into a collection of holiday homes.

Humans have never had much of a tenure in these waters, though I was surprised just how few inroads people had made on New Zealand’s third largest island. Over the centuries Maoris and Europeans alike have set up short-lived settlements in sheltered pockets of coastline. Loggers, farmers and even tin-miners tried in vain to extract an income from the land. The scars of their prescence have been reabsorbed by the forest, which still covers all but a fraction of the island. A combination of remoteness and fortune has preserved a part of New Zealand that Captain Cook would recognise if he was able to return, over 200 years after first sighting its shores.

Today Stewart Island is a place where New Zealanders come on holiday to glimpse a world that they only dare dream of. This is the bared soul of the country, a New Zealand as they would like it to be, perhaps a mythical vision of how it once was. Here the forest never succumbed to axe and fire, the water and beaches are as wild and unspoilt as the day Cook’s Endeavour first sailed into view. People leave their houses unlocked, their car-keys in the ignition, and have time to talk and laugh. There are no sheep, no traffic jams and virtually no crime.

The Maoris came to these distant shores many centuries ago to harvest shellfish and mutton birds, and named the island Rakiura – ‘glowing skies’. But they preferred to settle on the smaller island of Ruahepe. The first Europeans to live on the island were sealers and whalers in the early 19th century. Some of them took Maori wives and built homes in the sheltered bays. Many of the present day residents descend from these early settlers, with roots as deep as any on these islands. When I asked one such fellow, Peter Groomes, how long his family have lived in New Zealand, he replied, “Five generations European, 42 Maori.”

Peter made me appreciate how tightly knit the island community is when he replied, only half in jest, to my question as to population with the comment, “400 – want to know their names?”. There was one that he did give me that I was quickly grateful for. I wanted to begin my search for kiwis with a excursion into the bush, and on hearing this Peter picked up the phone and had a brief word with one of the 400.

Swimming through the forest

Ron Tindal is a heartfelt naturalist with a soft accent that betrays his Scottish island roots. He once headed up the Department of Conservation’s efforts on the island, and now leads tours for the occasional visitor seeking an insight to the local wildlife. One clear blue morning he pushed his boat onto the calm ocean water, and rowed the two of us across to the nearby islet of Ulva, where kaka, (the native parrots) were screeching above the dense canopy, and honeyeaters were sipping nectar from the crimson blossoms of the rata. We pulled the boat ashore, and looked across the narrow beach into the dark cathedral of the forest. A narrow track led up one side, made by little blue penguins who waddled back and forth each dawn and dusk to and from their nests in the undergrowth. 

“Let’s be penguins!” exclaimed Ron, before lunging up the bank, and I scrambled after him, pushing through the creepers and ferns, and found myself inside the ancient world of the temperate rainforest. New Zealand ‘bush’ has a Jurassic Park feel to it – the giant ferns and curtains of epiphytes seem a perfect habitat for lurking dinosaurs. But on Ulva the residents were much less menacing. Overhead a bellbird burst into song as we made our way through to the centre, whilst parakeets flitted in and out of view.

The path, for what it was worth, was quickly lost, and we resorted to battling through the undergrowth.

“Try swimming,” yelled Ron, and I applied the breast-stroke to wade through the vegetation, finally surfacing in a clearing overlooking the ocean. We stood in the shade of a rimu – a mighty native tree, over 800 years old. It’s hard not to encounter such an organism without reflecting on the changes that have taken place in its lifetime. As a sapling it may have had moa browsing around it, and birds long since lost forever may have perched in its branches. It would already have been an impressive specimen when Captain Cook sailed past.

“Some of the trees were here before the Maori came,” declared Ron.

The Maori certainly knew how to find kiwis – they even used its delicate feathers to adorn their ceremonial cloaks. But on that sublime morning on Ulva the object of my excursion was keeping a low profile. And then Ron made a discovery on the path.

“Kiwi droppings!” he cried, with unreserved satisfaction.

“How can you tell?” I asked, as he crouched down on the track.

“Explosive evacuations!” he replied.

“I wish I’d never asked.”

A few metres away we found evidence of a scrap - a scattering of hair-like feathers on the track, where two kiwis had engaged in a territorial tangle. Fighting is not uncommon for these solitary birds, and they employ a mean kick with their hind legs – which is what has probably saved them from the introduced predators.

“When a kiwi meets a cat,” said Ron, “The cat usually comes off worst.”

The combatants on Ulva, whoever they were, had long since taken cover, but these were encouraging signs, and I knew at least that I was on the right track.

Tall tales and short birds

Back at Halfmoon Bay I decided to celebrate this minor advance with a relaxing drink in the island’s only pub – at least that was the plan. From without, the South Sea Islands Hotel seems a picture of colonial grace, complete with signposts to all corners of the compass: “South Pole 2551 miles, Tokyo 5245 miles, Scunthorpe 10,348 miles”.

I opened the door to the bar to be hit by a backdraft of smoke, stale beer and fish. Through the gloom I could make out a roomful of white wellington boots – it was clear that the salmon farmers had returned from their day’s work, and were quaffing Roaring Forties beer by the jug full. I cut through the smokey haze to the bar, where the accents of the fishing fraternity were as thick as their sweaters. These were the same people I had seen heading silently out to work that morning. Now the day’s work over, it was time to relax, and with only one bar on the island, there were not a lot of options. So I ordered a beer, moved over towards the pool table and asked about kiwis.

“I met one once when I was out shooting deer in the bush. I stood still and it walked right up, sniffed my boot and then just carried on.”

“Ever tried catching a kiwi? You can sneak right up to it, but as soon as you pounce it disappears – like trying to catch an All Black!”

As visions of the ritual demolition of the English rugby team flashed back into my mind, I saw that I wasn’t going to add much to my knowledge in the bar, and so as the smoke grewer thicker I decided it was time to head out and plan the next part of my campaign. I was starting to realise that to find a wide awake kiwi I needed to find someone who could take me on a night excursion, and as I had asked around town, one name kept cropping up.

Philip Smith knows the island and its waters as well as any man. His great-grandfather – ‘Yankee Smith’ – came here on a Boston whaling ship in the last century, and settled down with a Spanish-Maori woman from nearby Codfish Island. Philip has a strong sense of identity with the island and cares deeply for its natural and cultural history. And every other day, as the sun is setting, he leads a small group of people on a very special quest.

On one such evening, as the sky turned a salmon pink, I wrapped up warmly and headed down to the jetty. I climbed aboard the boat where Philip was at the helm and with scarcely a word he took us out onto the water and around to the east side of the island. We docked by a wooden jetty, and walked quietly, by torchlight, through the forest, emerging ten minutes later to feel the ocean breeze once more.

A full moon glowing behind a thin blanket of clouds lit the white beach before us. I could make out a thin set of tracks leading into the night, and then as I looked up, a small, dark shape bobbed across the sand. Philip raised his torch and a furry football propelled by thick, chicken-like legs came into focus. A beak like a drumstick was restlessly probing the strands of seaweed. I was gazing upon my first wild kiwi and it looked even more peculiar than I had imagined. Like a child’s doodle, a bird of quite unlikely shape and proportions, that moved like a clockwork toy. And at once I was smitten.

Not only do they look like cartoon characters, but the more you learn about their lives the more bizarre it gets. They have nostrils at the ends of their long beaks, and the Strange But True anecdote was correct – kiwis lay an egg so big it makes your eyes water – a full 25% of their body weight. Not surprisingly the female leaves the male to do most of  the brooding.

We watched the kiwi in silence  until it lifted its head and moved on purposefully down the beach. Philip then led us across to the pile of seaweed at the tide’s edge, and shone his spotlight upon it as he turned it over with a stick.

“This is what he’s looking for.” And as the seaweed was lifted, hundreds of little crusteceans jumped up like fleas.

“These little hoppers eat the rotting seaweed, and the kiwis eat them.”

We wandered along the sand, taking care to walk below the high-tide mark where the kiwis would be feeding, and spotted more of them going about their solitary business of rummaging through the seaweed. At the far end of the beach flotillas of little blue penguins were coming ashore after a hard day’s fishing, and we watched these for a while before turning around to head back to the boat. But we had to stop short as a big female kiwi had appeared out of the bush and was heading our way. We crouched down quietly on the sand as she snuffled around our boots, and watched her dart back up the beach seconds before a big wave came to drench our backsides.

I still don’t know what to make of kiwis. My quest fulfilled, I left the beach thoroughly excited yet somehow none the wiser. Perhaps some enigmas are best kept that way. Perhaps in a logical world there would be no Kiwi Airlines, ... or kiwis at all. And perhaps after we left the beach the penguins and kiwis came out onto the sand for a game of touch rugby. After that magical moonlit night I’m prepared to believe anything.