Lit­tle Wing

In the land of the long white cloud, Vi­vian Vas­sos chases a pas­sion and dis­cov­ers more

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS -

In search of the elu­sive kiwi bird in New Zealand

tHE FIRST TIME I went to New Zealand, it was a fan­tasy. It was Mid­dle Earth. But it was so much more. It was the cool café cul­ture of Welling­ton. It was the won­der of the film direc­tor Peter Jack­son and the Weta Work­shop that changed the way we watched movies. And it was way down un­der.

I’d been in­vited to the world pre­miere of The Lord of the Rings: The Re­turn of the King, which would take place in Jack­son’s home­town, Welling­ton. Be­ing a bit of a fan­tasy/sci-fi geek, it was a dream come true. The tourism folks dou­bled the in­vite and en­cour­aged jour­nal­ists to spend time trav­el­ling around Mid­dle Earth be­fore the movie’s launch. That was 15 years ago.

Dur­ing that time, I was in­tro­duced to another dreamy con­cept: the su­per lodge. There’s no “mid­dle” any­thing about these spec­tac­u­lar lodges. One of the things so re­mark­able about the Ki­wis is how ap­par­ent their deep con­nec­tion is to the sea and the land. And these lodges ex­em­plify that con­nec­tion. Think the great cab­ins of the Pa­cific North­west and then crank it up, oh, about five notches. But in New Zealand, these places have no blue­print, no uni­for­mity, in the way the cab­ins’ ar­chi­tec­ture does. A lodge’s form here takes on the char­ac­ter of the land – a sus­tain­able, re­spect­ful part-of-the-en­vi­ron­ment swag­ger that has been built into the DNA of Kiwi hos­pi­tal­ity.

Back then, I only had time to visit one and just for an af­ter­noon. But the ex­pe­ri­ence of stay­ing in a place so in­flu­enced by its en­vi­ron­ment left a mark on my mem­ory. From the non-GMO food (yes, it was even a thing back then) and the daily recre­ation, to the view, right down to the wood and stone used in the build­ing to marry it to its dra­matic sur­round­ings, made me prom­ise my­self I’d re­turn.

The sec­ond time I went to New Zealand, I was en­thralled by the Maori peo­ple. I had had just a taste of it the first time but now I was more in­ter­ested in the spiritual than in the fan­tas­tic. Again, I mar­velled at the deep con­nec­tion this cul­ture had with the land and the sea. The Maori are not in­dige­nous to New Zealand and, in fact, only ar­rived in their long boats a few hun­dred years be­fore the English nav­i­ga­tor Capt. James Cook made land from Europe in 1769. Said to be of Poly­ne­sian with a hint of Tai­wanese de­scent, the Maori have made New Zealand their home for the bet­ter part of 1,000 years. Per­haps this re­al­iza­tion of nei­ther cul­ture ac­tu­ally be­ing “from” there is what has given way to a great re­spect for those who came first. I’m not sug­ar­coat­ing it here, though. There have been con­flicts but, in the present, these guys just all seem to get along; they know each other’s his­tory, the leg­ends, even the lan­guage. “Kia ora,” Maori for hello, is pretty much the way most peo­ple greet you in New Zealand.

The Maori named the set of is­lands Aotearoa, or Land of the Long White Cloud. The coun­try is made up of the North Is­land, where Welling­ton is the cap­i­tal and Auck­land the cen­tre of com­merce, and the South Is­land, where dra­matic glaciers and fiords and some of the back­drops for The Lord of the Rings can be found, and a few tiny satel­lite is­lands. To put it into per­spec­tive, the North Is­land is just a tad big­ger than New­found­land with a pop­u­la­tion slightly less than that of Toronto. But my prom­ise to my­self to visit a su­per lodge eluded me again, so spell­bound was I by the na­ture of the Maori, who shared their mu­sic, their tra­di­tions and their lan­guage with me. That was be­guil­ing enough.

And na­ture it was that called me back a third time. For an avid bird watcher or for some­one who

just likes any as­pect of in­dige­nous wildlife, New Zealand is one of earth’s great­est trea­sures. At one time, the moa, the planet’s largest bird, thrived there, but it has gone the way of the dodo. Be­cause there is no na­tive wild game on the is­land, such as deer, birds be­came the main source of food, along with fish. Sheep and cat­tle came later, as more Euro­pean im­mi­grants ar­rived. There are no nat­u­ral preda­tors there, so many birds are per­ma­nent res­i­dents, flight­less, hav­ing lost their need for wings. But those with wings also nest there in num­bers so great their colonies blan­ket the ground dur­ing breed­ing sea­son.

One bird in par­tic­u­lar, the gan­net, makes its home on prime real es­tate on a rocky out­crop over the turquoise blue of Hawke’s Bay and the Pa­cific Ocean be­yond: Cape Kid­nap­pers – named for a fate that, as le­gend has it, be­fell one of Capt. Cook’s cabin boys at the hands of Maori war­riors from the ship an­chored just off­shore. The Farm at Cape Kid­nap­pers sits here, too, on a swath of land hug­ging the sea that also fea­tures an award­win­ning golf course with cliff­side tees over­look­ing the surf from dizzy­ing heights. It’s sur­rounded by a work­ing farm of emer­ald green fields dot­ted with graz­ing sheep and cat­tle – and a su­per lodge at which to lay my head. I fi­nally had my chance.

WHEN I CHECK IN, I start to get it. These lodges are des­ti­na­tions in them­selves, “each dis­tinct and au­then­tic to the re­gion they in­habit,” say the minds be­hind the Robert­son Lodges port­fo­lio, which in­cludes The Farm and also The Lodge at Kauri Cliffs in the north­land and Matakauri Lodge on the South Is­land. Yes, au­then­tic. That’s the word and ex­pe­ri­ence I had been look­ing for. If the land has sheep, you learn how to shep­herd; if there’s an orchard or a vine­yard, you learn how to cook or to taste wine; if there’s a bird sanc­tu­ary, you learn how to pro­tect them. You be­come a part of the life.

The gan­net colony here is the largest in the world ac­ces­si­ble by main­land – which pretty much means you can walk among them af­ter a hearty hike, a moun­tain bike ride or a four­wheel drive from the lodge. Though a part of the booby fam­ily, their feet are not the bright blue one might as­so­ci­ate with the breed (think the blue-footed booby). Gan­nets sport their colour on their heads. And al­though their eyes ap­pear to be ringed with a bluish liner, it’s their golden yel­low crowns against stark white bod­ies and their wing tips dipped in black that make them stand out against the blue of the sky and the sea.

It was early June and late in the sea­son, and many had al­ready flown north for the win­ter. We were in the South­ern Hemi­sphere af­ter all, and it’s win­ter there. I could still see the small group that was left, the bob­bing of their yel­low heads, and hear­ing their calls, while they waited for their lit­tle hatch­lings to take wing so they, too, could fly north­ward. The guide tells me when the colony is in full force, there’s barely space to move about, car­pet­ing the cliff­side in white and gold and black. The birds have no fear of hu­mans and do ap­proach, so the ex­pe­ri­ence is up­close-and-per­sonal. To walk among them unim­peded while tak­ing in the ocean blue of Hawke’s Bay is rea­son enough to make the trek.

What’s also not crowded is Cape Kid­nap­pers. The lodge, even at ca­pac­ity, re­mains true to this unique style of lodg­ing, with room num­bers akin to a bou­tique ho­tel or even fewer. Rustic chic great rooms and tur­ret-shaped in­ti­mate spots in which to re­lax and stretch out – roar­ing fire­places, so­lar­i­ums fac­ing the fields and the sea; it gives a feel­ing of own­ing the place, even though there are 40 of you in res­i­dence.

I was a lit­tle sad that the gan­net con­gre­ga­tion had thinned out. But I wasn’t dis­ap­pointed for long. The Farm also has guided kiwi bird walks, where guests can par­tic­i­pate in another ad­ven­ture. A chance to as­sist a nat­u­ral­ist at The Farm’s Sanc­tu­ary in mon­i­tor­ing en­dan­gered kiwi birds, with the cost of the ex­pe­ri­ence go­ing to the cause. The preser­va­tion of this flight­less bird has been a mis­sion at The Farm, and the own­ers are com­mit­ted to bring­ing back this na­tive from en­dan­gered sta­tus.

The nat­u­ral­ist ex­plains in de­tail what we’re about to do be­fore we step into the tall grass in which the birds are par­tial to mak­ing their bur­rows. Ki­wis are noc­tur­nal, so we may find one asleep, mean­ing grumpy once we wake it. We’re only look­ing for lit­tle ones be­cause kiwi par­ents are, well, for the lack of a bet­ter word, dead­beats. Once the chick is up and run­ning, it’s hasta la vista, baby, you’re on your own. And with preda­tors, most likely stow­aways from the ships of early set­tlers, on the rise, like birds of prey and pos­sums and rab­bits, these lit­tle guys are now fair game.

There’s a na­tive Kiwi – a hu­man one, that is – also on this ex­cur­sion, and he tells me he has never seen a kiwi out­side of a zoo, they’re so rare in the wild. The great grin on his face tells me he’s as ex­cited as I am.

A crackle and hum comes over our guide’s ra­dio tracker, a sign that there is a wee one not far off. She points to­ward what look like holes in the slope ahead of us. There’s a kiwi baby doz­ing down there! Slowly, she reaches in. Her hand grips its feet, and she draws it out even more slowly. It ap­pears to be a feath­ery ball, sans wings, eyes tightly shut and beak held even more tightly to its chest. But then, the bird awakes! The nee­dle-like beak juts, beady black eyes fly open, feet start to pull against the gen­tle grip. “If I let

go, she’ll be gone,” says the guide. Ap­par­ently, once a kiwi bird hits its stride, it can out­run a hu­man. When I get the chance to touch her, I’m ner­vous at first. Her nee­dle-sharp beak is al­most as long as she is, her dark claws per­haps even sharper and, even though she’s a light­weight, there’s some­thing slightly in­tim­i­dat­ing about her. She feels light as a feather and she’s even softer than what I imag­ine a cloud might feel like: long, silky char­coal grey feath­ers that bil­low slightly at my touch. To lessen her distress, she’s gen­tly placed in a soft bag, keep­ing out the light and mim­ick­ing the feel­ing of her bur­row’s co­coon­ing ef­fect. Once the bird set­tles, we clip the scale to the bag and pro­ceed with the weighin. This baby is well on her way to adult­hood and has gained a few grams since her last en­counter with the nat­u­ral­ist – she clocks in at 900 grams. When she reaches a kilo, the track­ing tag will be re­moved and she, as a young adult, re­ally will be on her own and hope­fully fend for her­self.

I glance at the hu­man Kiwi tak­ing his turn touch­ing her, and his grin is even greater than be­fore. A grub is of­fered and gladly taken, and then she’s gen­tly popped back into her bur­row. We also tour the Sanc­tu­ary’s aviary and spot a few other rare birds. And some­thing lizard-like called a tu­atara, a relic of the Cre­ta­ceous pe­riod, with a head shaped like a beak – you can al­most see its rap­tor an­ces­tors in its pro­file. It’s tiny in com­par­i­son though and ex­tremely shy. “Cool, mate!” Once again my hu­man Kiwi friend shows his ex­cite­ment, his grin now a full­blown, ear-to-ear smile, over hav­ing seen one up close.

Back at the lodge dur­ing the daily cock­tail hour, we meet again and talk about the day. What is it about these su­per lodges? What makes them so hard to de­fine? “It’s not based on any tra­di­tion, Maori or Euro­pean,” he says. “It’s more this idea of re­mote­ness, of both New Zealand and where so many of these lodges are sit­u­ated. There’s a hid­den beauty that can only be ex­pe­ri­enced once you’re here, be­yond the masses.” If I didn’t know bet­ter, I’d say this Kiwi was try­ing to keep all this beauty to him­self. But good luck with that. This place is a rev­e­la­tion – one that’s so tiny yet has such a pow­er­ful pull – over na­ture and over me.

I had trav­elled half way around the world for the ex­pe­ri­ence; he had trav­elled deeper into his own back­yard. Yet, for both of us, it was a shared mo­ment of won­der.

Magic, it seems, doesn’t have to be work­shopped or CGI’d in Mid­dle Earth. The spell of dis­cov­ery cast by New Zealand is a last­ing one, con­jur­ing wan­der­lust in me that tells me I’ll be back again.

A gan­net pair greet­ing each other at Cape Kid­nap­pers, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand

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