One creature I hadn't come across whilst living in the bush was the kiwi. Of all the creatures in New Zealand, none are as integral to New Zealand's national identity as this most eccentric of birds. With no sign of one in the Muangatuks, I took myself to the Nga Manu Nature Reserve in neighbouring Waikanae to meet one at first hand.
Round as a football, and furry, rather than feathery with an outlandishly long beak and thick stumpy feet, the kiwi bird makes for an unlikely national icon, and is unfortunately now grappling for its very survival. Maori refer to them as 'te manu huna a Tane', the hidden bird of Thane, God of the Forest. It's name proved to be most appropriate. In recent years, the kiwi bird had proven so successful at hiding that this elusive creature was fast disappearing from its native habitat without anyone noticing.
Surveys conducted by the Department of Conservation revealed that the once dominant little spotted kiwi was already gone from the mainland. Throughout its evolution, the kiwi had no natural predator and has evolved ill-equipped to defend itself against aggressive gatecrashers. It is estimated that ninety-five per cent of kiwi chicks die within their first few months of life. Victoms of the genetically programmed killing machine - the stoat, and the possums that are voraciously consuming their native habitat. Today, the kiwi is at the heart of a concerted project of conservation. Kapiti Island and enclosed patches of the mainland have been cleared of predators, creating sanctuaries for these vulnerable creatures.
Nga Manu, tucked behind the suburban streets of Waikanae, is a micro-world of native bush, and flourishing bird life, tuis sitting in the branches, making clicking, whirring, and hiccupping noises. The Tui was an occasional neighbour of mine, and waking up to its unusual sounds was always a fine start to the day. A natural entertainer, the Tui has black plumage and a tuft of white feathers around his neck, and looks well dressed as if he's ready to eat in a posh restaurant with a napkin tucked into his shirt. Standing beneath a Tui, clicking and whirring in the branches above me, I could quite happily have stood under the tree and listened to his tunes for hours. Noticing my interest, a park warden approached, commenting "the Tui has two voice boxes y'see, uses them to mimic other birds. It's pretty unique amongst all of New Zealand birds." It isn't difficult to see why New Zealand's music awards were named after the Tui. The warden walked off adding "its natures own sound effects machine, aye."
Unlike the Tui who was literally free as a bird, the Moreporks were sitting in a shared aviary surrounded by a fine mesh. I walked as quietly past them as I could, to see if they'd notice me. The native owls, sat silently and seemed asleep. But as I walked past them, each owl subtly shifted their position to observe me. Being quiet as a mouse was obviously not nearly quiet enough. I'd heard people comment that the gaze of the Mona Lisa follows them around the room without moving. Yet I had the distinct impression these birds were managing exactly the same feat on me. Next to the kiwi house, the Morepork's neighbour was the tuatara, a reptile whose species date back 220 million years. It's not difficult to see why they've been nicknamed the 'Living Dinosaur', a grizzled old lizard with wrinkled desert brown skin and an array of spikes across his head. The tuatara bore an uncanny resemblance to the monsters that attacked Doug McClure in those old 'Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs' movies that Ray Harryhausen used to make before computer graphics. A little camera trickery and the tuatara could have found himself on the big screen, taking a chunk out of a T-Rex and frightening lost American B-movie actors who'd been distracted by the sight of Raquel Welch in a lepoard skin bikini.
Even the bush walk held a few surprises. Walking along the wooden slatted path, suspended above the ground so as not to damage the flora, I walked surrounded by a dense jungle of foliage, strange pods and vast leaves that blotted out the sunlight. Pukatea and swamp Maire trees lifting themselves from the marshy ground with their roots. Supported above the earth, the trees had the appearance of having been caught getting up to stretch their legs, as if they were Triffids, or rather, very young Ents.
The other birds, trees and reptiles, even the feeding of the eels, paled in comparison to the star of the nature reserve - a North Island Brown Kiwi. Housed in a large, darkened room, filled with tree roots and leaves, the curious creature foraged about slowly, snuffling with its long beak, looking for worms. Standing approximately a foot tall when he wasn't leaning on his beak like an old man with a walking stick, his head bobbed up and down, his wings noticeably atrophied by evolution. He was an eccentric character and the kiwi had the peculiar appearance of a Dodo or some other extinct creature from another era. Stomping about with his massive, oversize comical feet the kiwi has managed to survive against the odds. Despite having evolved with no natural predators, a nature documentary had recently shown a mother kiwi defending her young from a stoat. To the nation's amazement the mother kiwi had leapt into the air and kicked the aggressor out of her nest with her large stumpy feet. Everyone knew that it was an unusual bird, but nobody ever suspected that it was a champion kick-boxer. The ungraceful kiwi is also unique for it has nostrils at the end of its beak which it uses to to forage and scent out grubs, filling the gap in the food chain left by the absence of native mammals in New Zealand. My heart warmed to the kiwi immediately, and I couldn't help but be impressed that such an unlikely misfit of a creature could be chosen by New Zealanders as their national icon.
On first inspection, the kiwi was careful and slow, concentrating on his feeding. Disappearing for long periods into his nest box, a small screen showed grainy black and white CCTV footage from inside the nest. With the water sprinklers switched on, the kiwi burst into life, rushing out from his nest, and sprinting manically about. "Is he supposed to run around like that?" a local family on a day-out enquired, incredulous to see their national icon move so quickly. Running in circles and figures of eight around the tree trunks, the kiwi was having the time of his life. The girl who had switched on the sprinklers explained. "He loves the the rain like you wouldn't believe, but his partner, she hates it and she'll hide in her box until we switch off the sprinkler".