Mark Carwardine, The Daily Telegraph, March 30, 2012
To paraphrase my old friend the late Douglas Adams, the wildlife of New Zealand can be divided into three main categories: endangered, odd, and sheep. The land of the kiwi has more endangered species than most other parts of the world and, indeed, there are 10 times as many sheep as people. It is also true that many of its unique inhabitants are so strange they could easily have been dreamed up by the writer of humorous science fiction himself.
I recently spent two weeks travelling the length and breadth of New Zealand, in search of an outlandish menagerie of animals known as the “Small Five”. They may be less well known than Africa’s Big Five (lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo) but they were more than worth every aching air mile to see.
First, there is the tuatara – a lizard-like animal that isn’t a lizard and looks as if it has just walked off the set of Jurassic Park. Then there’s Hector’s dolphin, the smallest marine dolphin in the world, which has a dorsal fin that resembles one of Mickey Mouse’s ears. Third, there’s the kea, a devilish mountain parrot feared by hire car companies; fourth, the yellow-eyed penguin, which has a penchant for hiking and refuses to nest within sight of other penguins. Finally, there’s the national bird of New Zealand, the kiwi, which is best described as an honorary mammal (it has feathers like hair and fills a similar niche to the one filled by hedgehogs and badgers in less peculiar parts of the world).
My journey took me to North Island, South Island and Stewart Island, as well as several smaller islands in between, across vast and desolate mountain ranges, along the wild shores of lakes and rivers, through lush rainforests, down deserted coastlines – and, best of all, through lots of space. With just four million people in an area roughly the size of the United Kingdom, New Zealand feels almost empty. Weird and wonderful wildlife, and sheep, are the order of the day.
My first stop was a wildlife haven called Tiritiri Matangi (Tiri for short), a tiny island with a big secret just off the coast of Auckland. I had been there once before, many years ago, to listen to the dawn chorus. I realise that flying more than 11,000 miles just for that could be regarded as slightly eccentric, but Tiri is reputed to have the best dawn chorus in the world. And it more than lives up to expectations: it is a place where you can immerse yourself in a cacophony of birdsong so vibrant that it takes on orchestral proportions.
Tiri island is what it is thanks to a phenomenally successful conservation programme. During the Eighties and early Nineties, volunteers planted about 300,000 native trees, while the government’s Department of Conservation removed all the mammalian predators (there were no mammalian predators in New Zealand until a host of hungry ferrets, stoats, weasels, rats, cats, dogs, hedgehogs and possums were introduced by people – and they have been enthusiastically eating the country’s native wildlife ever since). Once the island was predator-free, umpteen native bird species were reintroduced and, hey presto, now there are birds flitting about all over the place.
I saw North Island saddlebacks, bouncing from branch to branch like arboreal kangaroos; North Island robins, which suddenly appeared like apparitions on the path in front of me, invariably curious and always completely fearless (one even perched on the end of my camera lens); and diminutive rifleman (or should that be riflemen?), the smallest birds in New Zealand. Their calls were so high-pitched they were beyond my range of hearing; I had to take the word of some students working on the island that they called at all. I even had a fleeting glimpse of a kokako, a particularly rare bird with a blue wattle, a Lone Ranger mask and a beautifully haunting, mournful song.
I also bumped into a gnarly old takahe called Greg. A takahe is a critically endangered bird that looks rather like a giant flightless moorhen, and Greg is the most famous of the few hundred left. I had met him on my first visit to Tiri, in 1997, and although now 19 years old and a little the worse for wear, he greeted me like an old friend (I felt quite emotional, until I was told that he greeted all visitors like old friends – in the hope of eating their packed lunches).
But I must have been one of the few people to visit Tiri for something other than birds. This is where I went to see the first of the Small Five: the lizard-that-isn’t-a-lizard, the tuatara. It isn’t a lizard for all sorts of reasons – its razor-sharp teeth aren’t really teeth but serrations of the jaw, for a start – but it’s best known for living longer than almost any other animal (certainly long enough to get a telegram from the Queen, and usually a lot longer).
I found a tuatara on my very first morning. About 2ft long, it was standing completely motionless next to a forest path. It had enormous eyes and sharp-looking spines along its back. But it quickly scuttled off into the bushes as I approached. I saw several others, and tried creeping towards them more slowly on my hands and knees, but they too scuttled off into the bushes.
I was told they would be less skittish after dark, so I tried looking for them later that night. I bumbled around in the forest, with a frustratingly feeble torch, and somehow found another tuatara. Sure enough, it allowed me to lie next to it for several minutes, before ambling off into the dark. One down, four to go.
Then it was on to Christchurch, South Island. I drove the short distance from the airport to Akaroa, a delightful seaside village on the Banks Peninsula, to join a Black Cat Cruises boat trip. Akaroa is probably the best place to see one of the most beautiful and rarest dolphins in the world. Hector’s dolphin is found only in New Zealand and numbers have declined by about 75 per cent since 1970, owing to damaging fishing methods. Akaroa Harbour is believed to be home to about one fifth of the surviving population.
We didn’t find the dolphins – they found us. We took the boat out to the harbour entrance, cut the engines and waited. Before you could say “on the verge of extinction”, we were surrounded by the tiniest dolphins I had ever seen. They were small enough to fit inside a bathtub, with room to spare.
One minute they were off the bow, the next they were racing down the port side, then they were off the stern, and suddenly they were back at the bow again. They genuinely seemed pleased to see us, even though there are umpteen boat trips to see them and swim with them every day. Everyone on board was laughing and whooping and cheering as the dolphins, dressed in black, grey and white, with dark face masks, put on the kind of show that only dolphins can.
Last time I was in New Zealand, filming the BBC television series Last Chance to See with Stephen Fry, I had to fight off the amorous attentions of one of the world’s largest parrots – a kakapo. The kakapo in question (at the time, one of only 124 left in the world) was a humanoid individual called Sirocco and the incriminating film clip of him rocking backwards and forwards on my head like a mentally retarded dachshund became something of an internet sensation.
So it was with some trepidation that I went in search of the third animal on my list – another giant parrot. This time it was an equally notorious, mountain-dwelling olive-green parrot, with gorgeous bright flashes of red, yellow and orange, called a kea.
The kea is widely lauded as the most intelligent bird in the world, but it is also charismatic, curious, bold, destructive and downright reckless. And it’s one of the few large birds in New Zealand that hasn’t forgotten how to fly. There are only about 5,000 left (I won’t even mention that the kea is another endangered species, as that is almost a given when you’re in New Zealand) and they are found only in the mountainous areas of the South Island. If you want to see one, go to a busy public place. Keas tend to loiter around ski resorts, alpine picnic sites and car parks, partly because these offer an easy source of junk food and partly because that’s where they can get up to most mischief.
I parked my hire car at a spectacular mountain overlook, just outside Arthur’s Pass in the heart of the Southern Alps, and before I had even closed the door a gang of five kea had landed on the roof and bonnet. I watched as they tugged and pulled at the aerial, attempted to peel off the rubber door seals and then started to chew through the wiper blades. They set about their task with such determination that it was hard not to imagine them hoarding enough bits to build their own hybrid car somewhere in the mountains. Just a couple of hubcaps and a wing mirror and they’ll be done…
Next stop was the beautiful Peninsula, a short scenic drive along a meandering coastal road from Dunedin. In a few days I had wonderful close encounters with endangered yellow-eyed penguins at Penguin Place (which has a unique system of hides, tunnels and covered walkways – reminiscent of the Vietnam War – to allow for close-up views of the birds), as well as on a reserve of the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust and at a private conservation area run by Elm Wildlife Tours.
My final quest, for the kiwi, took me to Stewart Island, in the extreme south of the country. This is my kind of place. There is only one settlement on the island, with a human population of just 400 hardy souls and no banks or cash machines, and it is surrounded by lush primeval forest and sweeping sandy beaches.
I did manage to find a kiwi, in the dark, in the middle of nowhere, hiding behind a bush. All I could see at first was a big ball of shaggy feathers about the size of a chicken. I crept closer, lay down on the grass and suddenly realised that it was no more than a foot in front of my face. Two eyes stared back at me for a few moments and then my first-ever kiwi squeezed itself into the bush and disappeared from sight.
I had done it – in a couple of weeks I had seen every one of the Small Five. But I had also seen so much more along the way. I haven’t even mentioned the captivating gannet colony at Muriwai; the Fiordland crested penguins at Lake Moeraki; the majestic royal albatrosses on Taiaroa Head; the mind-boggling spectacle of feeding shy mollymawks on Stewart Island; everything from red-crowned parakeets to variable oystercatchers on gorgeous Ulva Island; or the Hooker’s sea lions, New Zealand fur seals, blue penguins, wekas…
Suffice it to say, I’ll be going back.