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Avian country

A splendid variety of bird life and the enormous riches of nature make New Zealand a great destination

Written by Shubhra Nayar | New Delhi |
July 7, 2013 5:33:40 am

A splendid variety of bird life and the enormous riches of nature make New Zealand a great destination

Before we visited it,we knew precious little about the islands Down Under — except that it has the kiwis,a cricket team,lots of sheep,and the stunning landscapes you saw in The Lord of the Rings. Where the moon appears upside down,and the water swirls down the sink in the wrong direction. Great rolling forests,towering mountains,rivers,valleys and glaciers — nature is at its best in New Zealand.

And all this with no land mammals,just a mind-boggling repository of bird life found nowhere else on earth. Birds that have evolved over centuries to fill all the ecological niches that mammals would otherwise occupy. Giant,flightless herbivorous birds,twice as tall as humans,who once freely roamed the islands,grazing on the vegetation. The world’s largest eagles,weighing up to 15 kg and capable of flying at speeds of 80 km/h – the island’s carnivores. And the small kiwi birds,with nostrils at the end of their beaks that dug and rummaged about in the leaf litter,much like rodents. Or the critically endangered kakapos,the ground-dwelling,flightless parrot that can weigh up to 4 kg,its life spans decades,making it possibly the world’s longest living bird.

The best — and perhaps only — way to see the country is to rent a vehicle to travel by road. Rather than the more expensive car and motel option,we choose a motorhome. It was about the size of a tempo traveller — fully kitted out with gas stove and microwave,cooking utensils and sink,fridge,TV and DVD player,shower and toilet,heating — the works. A proper home on wheels. We choose to stick to the South Island,and did a 2,000 km loop around most of it,stopping at the most remote places we found along the way. The best campsites were invariably the ones run by the government or the department of conservation. Facilities were minimal and mostly allowed only “self-contained” vehicles,but were located in the most amazingly scenic places.

The first thing that struck us about the country was the Maori names everywhere,and the idea of a bi-cultural nation. New Zealand’s founding document is considered to be the Treaty of Waitangi,signed in 1840 between the British and various Maori chiefs. While the colonisation was,of course,problematic,it was much less violent than most other British colonies.

Leaving from Christchurch,our first stop was Blenheim,a town fast becoming famous for its wine. Though neither of us are wine connoisseurs,thanks to friends who are in the business,we got an insider’s look at a vineyard and winery. Though fascinating,it lacked the charm of wine making in France or Italy. It was mechanised and much more of a “production” than a process or a way of life. From Blenheim,we drove to Picton and the Marlborough sounds — a beautiful network of mountains and sea-filled valleys that form a highly fractured coastline and numerous tiny islands.

Our next stop was the Paparoa National Park,on the west coast. It got dark well before we reached,and it was quite an adventure finding our campsite. We drove along the coast for quite a while,where our GPS navigation showed a large expanse of black to the right of the road. We couldn’t see anything,but could hear the sea all along. It became the highlight of our trip — to reach our destinations in the dark and wake up to the surprise of another spectacular view and a day of exploration.

Driving through Paparoa in the night was our first encounter with animals in New Zealand — there were possums everywhere. It is always exciting to see a new animal,but also a little disconcerting when you know the island is not supposed to have any mammals other than bats. The possums were brought in from Australia,and escaped into the wild. They are just one of the many invasive species causing havoc on the island.

Just 100 km away,the tropical trees of the Paparoa region melt into dense forest and then shoot up into the snow-peaked southern Alps which host a number of glaciers. With climate change and more erratic seasons,the glaciers are on the retreat,sadly. The path to the Fox Glacier runs along a dry,rocky river bed running between mountains,with little pools of iridescent blue and green,while a brilliant blue haze precedes the view of the glacier itself.

New Zealand’s native biodiversity has been subject to several rude shocks. It was an uninhabited country till about 1,000 years ago. The absence of mammals and other large predators meant that most of the island’s birds evolved to live long and reproduce very slowly,to make sure they didn’t overpopulate and eat up their resource base. They had little or no defence mechanisms — they lacked the most basic instinct of fear — to run away from approaching predators. When the Maori first came in from the Polynesian Islands,they thought this was a godsend — hunting had never been so easy. Up to 230 kg of food could be had by just walking up to a giant moa and killing it. This was true for most island birds,and is the source of the phrase,as dumb as a dodo. Also an island bird in Mauritius,its evolutionary lack of fear was mistaken for stupidity and it soon went extinct. After the Maori people first landed,there was a wave of extinction of native birds.

The Maori eventually found some balance with their surroundings. They depended directly on nature around them,and couldn’t afford to completely decimate it. But the island did not have to wait long before the next onslaught — the white settlers in the 1600s. In addition to the direct hunting pressure,they brought with them dogs,cats,rats,possums,stoats,ferrets,wallabies and a host of other mammals that continue to have a devastating effect on native biodiversity — mostly by attacking and destroying nests,eggs and chicks. The last 130-odd living kakapos,for example,recently voted the world’s most interesting species on ARKive,an online species portal,survive only on three smaller islands that are kept predator-free. As people no longer depend directly on natural resources,it is going to be a lot more complicated to find some balance.

Despite all these troubles,it’s an enchanting country. Conservationists are doing a relatively good job,and it has some of the world’s best examples of large-scale ecological restoration. The kakapo recovery programme is quite an inspiring story. People we met across the island were invariably friendly and helpful,starting with the immigrations officers. Quite unlike the Heathrow or the JFK airports,where you’re guilty until proven innocent. In all,its people,landscapes and nature together make a lasting impression.

*Thekaekara is a biodiversity conservation researcher,and Nayar is a designer,working with puppetry,and set and costume for theatre

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