We boarded a small boat and bounced across the strait to Kapiti Island. Its days as a military power base long gone, it was with some surprise that our bags and pockets were thoroughly searched before boarding the vessel. “Overdoing it a bit aren’t you?“ I asked the DoC staff as he rummaged through my day-pack. “Your security arrangements are tighter than LA airport.” Continuing his search, he replied, “Sorry mate, but it took us years to rid the island of predators, and if anyone was to smuggle a pair of stoats back to the island, it would be catastrophic for the wildlife.”
I found it hard to imagine that anyone would deliberately attempt such a thing, yet only recently the alarm had been raised when a letter was received at the office of the local newspaper, claiming that possums had been re-introduced to Kapiti Island. Having searched the island, DoC came to the conclusion that the message had been a vicious hoax and since then, upped security. The main difference now, between New Zealand’s DoC staff and international customs is that whilst most people are searched for explosives and drugs, the Department of Conservation are looking for a pair of possums, it’s a funny old world isn‘t it?
Landing on the pebbled beach of the island, a representative from DoC outlined the history of Kapiti Island, its Maori past, and the dwindling mainland bird population. He was a rum old sea dog with a white wispy beard and evidently despised possums with a passion. “Imagine how much vegetation it takes to feed 80 million possums every day. The kiwi is all but gone from the mainland and even a few years ago there were enough wekas on the mainland that they were considered a pest, rummaging through peoples garbage cans, and now they‘re endangered as well.” A pair of wekas scampered about our attentive group, the round flightless birds nosing for food with their long beaks. They’re scavengers by trade, and we were told, not naturally aggressive, as one weka used his beak to defend itself from my trouser leg. “Yer better watch yer bags, those wekas are devious buggers, they’ll unzip a backpack and have anything edible or shiny before you know it!” With impeccable timing, a few moments later a kaka, a bush parrot with blue tipped wings and green feather, swooped overhead and terrified a small girl in pigtails by landing upon her shoulder. The bird leaned over, and pecked an avocado sandwich straight from the girls hands before swooping into the air with his ill-gotten gains.
Much of Kapiti Island remains out-of-bounds to the public, to protect the fossilized remains, Maori burial grounds and derelict settlements from curious sightseers. With a choice of only two paths available to the public on the island, the coastal route, and the track leading to the peak, we opted for the latter. Following the path through the bush, we paused to watch the friendly fantails as they flit through the undergrowth. The primeval forest was filled with a humming chorus of bird songs, sounds that not so long ago would have filled the branches of New Zealand. Stopping for a sip of water, I noticed a large bone lying on the ground, just off the path. A fellow walker followed my gaze, “Don’t worry, its not someone’s leg, that’s a bone from a Moa, flightless birds about ten feet tall, the largest in the world”. That’s a relief I thought, it looked to me like exhibit ‘A‘ from a particulary gruesome murder trial. “Looks like you could feed an entire family withone of those.” He nodded, “well, that’s why they were hunted to extinction three hundred years ago”. Before being wiped off the face of the earth, the moa had played an integral role in early Maori settlement of the country, providing a major source of nutrition as well as being easy prey because of the lack of indigenous predators. Accompanied with a few fried kumara chips one of these larger birds would have provided enough Kentucky Fried Moa for several family feasts.
“Are we near the top?” we asked several passers-by, as we approached the final ascent to the peak of the island. I’m not sure why I ask this of my fellow walkers, because the answer is always “Just around the corner, another five minutes mate”, regardless of whether its thirty seconds or half-an-hour. I was getting peckish and climbing through a final stretch of forest we reached the summit in about five minutes. The view from the peak was spectacular. Marlborough Sounds lay hazily to the south across the Cook Strait, small islands scattered along the waters with Kapiti Coast to the east. Looking straight down the west facing side of the island and a there was a sheer vertical cliff, plummeting dramatically five hundred metres into the turbulent sea below. Hungry from our walk, and the sun warm on our faces, we sat and enjoyed a picnic of ham and cheese rolls, whilst defending our lunch from the wildlife. A devious weka strutted around our small circle, stalking us like some small descendent of Jurassic Park’s Velociraptor, head bobbing up and down, eyeing us hungrily.
Walking the return journey, a kaka followed us, swooping from branch to branch, climbing down the tree trunks using his beak as a third claw. Stopping a few feet ahead of us, the kaka paraded about for the camera, eyeing us expectantly. I was sure that he was putting on this little performance for some edible reward. Apparently the intelligence of the kaka is second only to the crow in the bird world, and they have been known to unscrew jam jars using their talons and beak. Perhaps the kaka and the weka ought to form some criminal alliance, the kaka could distract visitors attention whilst performing for scraps, whilst the weka ransacks their backpacks for valuables and snacks. I certainly wouldn’t put it past them.
Close to the end of the walk, we came across a group of fellow walkers staring into the forest. “What are you all looking at?”, I enquired. A lady with a floppy sun hat poised with her SLR pointed into the bush, “look, there’s a takahe”, as she indicated a rather portly bird with green and blue plumage and a bright red beak sitting in the tussock grass.
The takahe is a quite remarkable creature, and standing in quiet awe we observed the bird snuffle around, looking for insects. It is extraordinary, if for no other reason, that a hundred years ago the takahe was declared officially extinct, joining the ranks of the piopo, kokako and saddleback. Since the arrival of New Zealand’s first human inhabitants, thirty-two bird species would become extinct and a further nine as a result of European colonisation. The takahe became another species lost to the annals of time. Or at least that’s what the botanists thought. Soon after being discovered and classified in 1849, the bird had more or less just vanished. By the early twentieth century, the takahe was referred to as yet another tragic addition to the list of endangered creatures who had disappeared forever, the only specimens left in existence being stuffed and mounted in museum cases. A determined man called Dr Geoffrey Orbell, an amateur naturalist, had been quietly fascinated by these birds since childhood and in 1949 rediscovered the takahe, whilst exploring the mountains of Fiordland.
I stood there, quietly watching this phoenix from the ashes as the takahe clambered closer and closer, my camera discreetly clicking away, until he was only a few feet away. A figure approached from the distance, walking down the path, shouting at the top of her voice “Mike! What you up to Mike?” I was appauled. What was she doing? Was she some inconsiderate visitor who had foolishly mislaid her hen-pecked husband? Didn’t she realise she would scare away this extraordinary creature? Then, to my utter amazement, instead of running away scared, the takahe skipped and hopped towards the woman, as fast as his little feet could carry him. As the woman approached, it soon became clear that she worked on the island for DoC, and was calling out to the takahe. Scampering around her feet, ‘Mike the Takahe’ darted between her footsteps like a love-struck puppy. Turning a corner, the unlikely pair disappeared. Flapping noisily behind us, an unwieldy wood pigeon landed heavily on a branch that was several sizes too small for him. Realizing his mistake he frantically thumped his wings, returning his vast weight to the air before the branch split under his weight. Boarding our little boat, we departed from this New Zealand that time forgot, utterly enchanted by the motley collection of characters and crooks that make up this country’s native wildlife.