If you took the whole of Norway, scrunched it up a bit, shook out all the moose and reindeer, hurled it ten thousand miles round the world and filled it with birds then you’d be wasting your time, because it looks very much as if someone has already done it.
Fiordland, a vast tract of mountainous terrain that occupies the south-west corner of South Island, New Zealand, is one of the most astounding pieces of land anywhere on God’s earth, and one’s first impulse, standing on a cliff top surveying it all, is simply to burst into spontaneous applause.
It is magnificent. It is awe-inspiring. The land is folded and twisted and broken on such a scale that it makes your brain quiver and sing in your skull just trying to comprehend what it is looking at. Mountains and clouds jumbled on top of each other, immense rivers of ice cracking their way millimetre by millimetre through the ravines, cataracts thundering down into the narrow green valleys below, it all shines so luminously in the magically clear light of New Zealand that to eyes which are accustomed to the grimier air of most of the western world it seems too vivid to be real.
When Captain Cook saw it from the sea in 1773 he recorded that `inland as far as the eye can see the peaks are crowded together as to scarcely admit any valleys between them’. The great forked valleys have been carved out by glaciers over millions of years, and many are flooded by the sea for many miles inland.
Some of the cliff faces drop hundreds of feet sheer into the water, and continue sheer for hundreds of feet below it. It still has the appearance of a work in progress. Despite relentless lashing by the wind and rain it is sharp and jagged in its immensity.
Much of it has still not been explored at ground level. The only roads that approach the Fiordland National Park peter out quickly in the foothills, and most visiting tourists only ever explore the fringe scenery. A few backpackers plunge further in, and very, very few experienced campers try to get anywhere near the heart of it. Looking out across its serrated masses and its impossibly deep ravines, the very idea of trying to cross it on foot seems ludicrous, and most serious exploration is of small local pockets, reached by helicopter, which is how we came to it.
Bill Black is said to be one of the most experienced helicopter pilots in the world, and he needs to be. He sits like a cuddly old curmudgeon hunched over his joystick and chews gum slowly and continuously as he flies his helicopter directly at sheer cliff faces to see if you’ll scream. Just as the helicopter seems about to smash itself against the rock wall an updraught catches it and wafts it impossibly up and over the top of the ridge which then falls away again precipitously on the other side, leaving us swinging out over a void. The valley lurches sickeningly away beneath us and we drop down a few feet, twisting to face up the next ravine as we do so, as if we are being swung by a giant on the end of an immense rubber rope.
The helicopter puts its nose down and goes thrumming its way along the ravine wall. We startle a couple of birds that scatter up into the air way ahead of us, flying with fast sharp wing beats. Mark quickly scrabbles under his seat for his binoculars.
‘Keas!’ he says. I nod but only very slightly. My head already has quite enough contrary motions to contend with.
`They’re mountain parrots,’ says Mark. ‘Very intelligent birds with long curved beaks. They can rip the windscreen wipers off cars and often do.’
I’m always startled by the speed with which Mark is able to recognise birds he’s never seen before, even when they’re just a speck in the distance.
‘The wing beat is very distinctive,’ he explains. ‘But it would be even easier to identify them if we weren’t in a helicopter with all this noise. It’s one of those birds which very helpfully calls out its own name when it’s flying. Kea! Kea! Kea! Birdwatchers love them for that. It would be great if the Pallas’s grasshopper warbler would learn the same trick. Make warbler identification a lot easier.’ He follows them for a few seconds more, until they round a large outcrop and disappear from view. He puts down his binoculars. They are not what we have come to look for.
`Interesting birds, though, with some odd habits. Very fussy about getting the design of their nests right. There was one kea nest that was found which the birds had started to build in 1958. In 1965 they were still sorting it out and adding bits to it but hadn’t actually moved in yet. Bit like you in that respect.’
As we reach the narrow end of the ravine we pause briefly a few yards from a cataract crashing down its sides to fill the river hundreds of feet beneath us. We peer out at it from our floating glass bubble and I feel suddenly like a visitor from another planet, descending from the sky to study the minutiae of an alien world. I also feel sick but decide to keep this information to myself.
With a slight shrug Bill heaves the helicopter way up out of the ravine and into the clear air again. The sheer immensity of the volumes of rock and space that turn easily around us continually overwhelms the spatial processors of the brain. And then, just when you think that you have experienced all the wonders that this world has to offer, you round a peak and suddenly think you’re doing the whole thing over again, but this time on drugs.
We are skimming over the tops of glaciers. The sudden splurge of light blinds us for a moment, but when the light coalesces into solid shapes they are like shapes from dreams. Great top-heavy towers resembling the deformed torsos of giants; huge sculpted caves and arches; and here and there the cracked and splayed remains of what looks like a number of Gothic cathedrals dropped from a considerable height: but all is snow and ice. It’s as if the ghosts of Salvador Dali and Henry Moore come here at night with the elements and play.
I have the instinctive reaction of Western man when confronted with the sublimely incomprehensible: I grab my camera and start to photograph it. I feel I’ll be able to cope with it all more easily when it’s just two square inches of colour on a light box and my chair isn’t trying to throw me round the room.
Gaynor, our radio producer, thrusts a microphone at me and asks me to describe what we’re looking at.
°What? I say, and gibber slightly.
`More,’ she says, `more!’
I gibber some more. The blades of the helicopter rotor are spinning mere inches from a tower of ice.
She sighs. ‘Well, it will probably edit up into something,’ she says and turns the tape off’ again.
We take one more mind-wrenching turn around the giant ice sculptures and then head off down the ravines once more, which now seem almost domestic by comparison.
There is one other passenger in the aircraft: Don Merton, a benign man with the air of a vicar apologising for something. He sits quietly, occasionally pushing his spectacles back up the bridge of his nose and murmuring, `Yes, ah yes,’ to himself, as if this all confirmed something he’d always rather suspected. In fact he knows the area very well. He works for the New Zealand Department of Conservation and has probably done more than any man living to preserve the threatened birds of New Zealand.
We are once again very close to the rock wall of the ravine with hundreds of feet of sheer drop beneath us, and I notice that we are following a long narrow path that runs along an impossibly narrow ledge inclining gradually upwards towards a spur overlooking a broader sweep of valley. I suffer from terrible vertigo.
Being six foot five means I sometimes get giddy just standing up, and the very sight of the path gives me black swimmy nightmares.
`We used to come up that quite a lot,’ murmurs Don, leaning forward to point at it.
I look at him in astonishment and then back at the terrifying path. We are hovering now just feet from it and the dull thudding of the rotor blades is reverberating back at us. The pathway is just a foot or two wide, grassy and slippery.
Yes, I suppose it is a bit steep,’ says Don with a gentle laugh, as if that was the only reason they didn’t do it by bicycle. `There’s a track and bowl system up on top of that ridge ahead of us. Want to take a look?
We nod nervously and Bill flies on.
I had heard the term `track and bowl system’ bandied about by New Zealand zoologists before, and they had bandied it about so casually that I hadn’t immediately liked to say that I hadn’t the faintest idea what they were talking about. I decided to start from the premise that it was something to do with satellite dishes and work it out gradually from there. This led to me being in a state of complete incomprehension for about two days before I finally plucked up the courage to admit my ignorance.
A track and bowl system is nothing whatever to do with satellite dishes. It does, however, share with them this feature – that it is likely to be found in high, open places. It’s a rather odd name for an extremely odd phenomenon. A track and bowl system doesn’t look particularly dramatic, and indeed if you were not a New Zealand zoologist you might pass one by without even noticing it, but it is the site of one of the most peculiar pieces of behaviour performed by any animal on earth.
The helicopter sweeps out beyond the ridge into the open valley, turns and approaches the ridge again from the other side, lifts on the updraught, turns slightly again – and settles. We have landed
We sit in stunned silence for a moment, scarcely believing what we have just landed on. The ridge is only a few yards wide.
It plunges for hundreds of feet on either side, and falls away rapidly in front of us as well.
Bill turns and grins at us. ‘No worries,’ he says, which I thought they only said in Australia. This is the kind of thought you need to distract you at moments like this.
Nervously we climb out and, tucking our heads under the turning blades, scramble out on to the ridge. Spread out around our promontory is a deep jagged valley plunging away from us on three sides, softening in its contours at its lower levels. Just beyond us it makes a sharp left turn and proceeds by a series of sharp twists and folds to the Tasman Sea, which is a hazy glimmer in the far distance. The few clouds, which are not that far above us, trace the undulations of the valley with their crisp shadows as they make their way slowly along it, and this alone gives us a clear sense of scale and perspective.
When the thudding blades of the helicopter are finally still the spacious murmur of the valley gradually rises to fill the silence: the low thunder of cataracts, the distant hiss of the sea, the rustling of the breeze in the scrubby grass, the keas explaining who they are to each other. There is one sound, however, that we know we are not going to hear – not just because we have arrived at the wrong time of day, but because we have arrived in the wrong year. There will not be any more right years.
Until 1987 Fiordland was the home of one of the strangest, most unearthly sounds in the world For thousands of years, in the right season, the sound could be heard after nightfall throughout these wild peaks and valleys.
It was like a heartbeat: a deep powerful throb that echoed through the dark ravines. It was so deep that some people will tell you that they felt it stirring in their gut before they could discern the actual sound, a sort of wump, a heavy wobble of air. Most people have never heard it at all, or ever will again. It was the sound of the kakapo, the old night parrot of New Zealand, sitting high on a rocky promontory and calling for a mate.
Of all the creatures we were searching for this year it was probably the strangest and most intriguing, and also one of the rarest and most hard to find. Once, before New Zealand was inhabited by humans, there were hundreds of thousands of kakapos. Then there were thousands, then hundreds. Then there were just forty… and counting. Here in Fiordland, which for many thousands of years was the bird’s main stronghold, there are now thought to be none left at all.
Don Merton knows more about these birds than anyone else in the world, and he has come along with us partly as our guide, but also because this flight into Fiordland gives him the opportunity to check one more time: has the last kakapo definitely gone?
Our helicopter is perched at such a dizzying angle on the high ridge of rock it looks as if the merest puff of wind will toss it lightly away into the valley far below us. Mark and I walk slowly away from it with a stiff, uneasy gait as if we are aching all over. Any move we make we make first with our heads before daring to move the rest of our bodies. Bill Black grins at, us wickedly for being earthbound city boys.
`No worries,’ he says cheerfully. `Wherever we can land we put down. This is where Don wanted to come so this is where I put him. Wouldn’t want to be here if there was a high wind blowing, but there isn’t.’ He sits on a small rock and lights a cigarette. `Not right now, anyhow,’ he adds and peers off into the distance, happily contemplating the enormous fun we would all have if a gale suddenly whipped up along the valley.
Gaynor feels for the moment disinclined to move too far away. from the chopper, and decides that this might be a good moment to interview Bill. She pulls the tangled coloured cables of the cassette recorder out of her shoulder bag and jams the tiny headphones over her hair, without ever looking down to the left or the right. She thrusts the microphone at him and uses her other hand to steady herself nervously against the ground.
`I’ve been flying in Fiordland for fifteen years,’ says Bill, when she’s ready, ‘mostly telecommunications work, and some construction work. Don’t do tourists usually. Can’t be bothered with that. Otherwise I do a lot of work for the kakapo transfer programme, flying the wardens around to the most inaccessible parts of New Zealand. A helicopter’s very useful for that, because it can put down in the most unlikely places. You see that rocky peak over there?
`No!’ says Gaynor, still staring fixedly at the ground. `I don’t want to look yet. Just… tell me a story. Tell me . .. tell me something funny that’s happened to you. Please????
‘Something funny, eh? says Bill, and takes a long thoughtful drag on his cigarette as he surveys the valley. `Well, I once set my hands on fire in the helicopter, because I lit a match without realising my gloves were soaked in petrol. That the sort of thing you had in mind?nd?
Don Merton in the meantime has calmly walked off a few yards, and is peering anxiously at a patch of the scrubby ground. He squats down, and very carefully brushes aside pieces of loose earth and grass from a shallow depression in the earth. He finds something and picks it up. It is small, roughly oval in shape and pale in colour. He examines it carefully for a while and his shoulders sag dejectedly. He beckons us over to join him. We follow nervously and look at the thing he is holding up between his fingers and regarding with extraordinary sadness. It is a single, slightly elderly, sweet potato. I hardly know what to say.
With a sigh he replaces the sweet potato on the ground.
‘We call this place Kakapo Castle,’ he says, looking up and squinting at us in the cold, bright sunlight. ‘It is the last known kakapo booming site in the whole of mainland New Zealand. This shallow pit in the earth here is part of a track and bowl system.’
I’ll explain what a track and bowl system actually is in a moment. All there is to see here is the roughly dug shallow pit in the ground. It’s untidy and a little overgrown. Looking round again at the breathtaking landscape spread out around us I feel bewildered. We have flown so far into this shattering immensity of land, and all to find these small sad scrapings in the earth and no egg, just a potato.
I make some lame remark along these lines. Mark frowns at me and a cloudy look comes into Don’s face.
‘Oh no,’ says Don, ‘I wasn’t expecting an egg. Not an egg. Not here. Oh no, not at all.’
`Oh,’ I say, `I ‘thought when you picked up the potato…’
Mark says out of the corner of his mouth, `Don explained all this in the helicopter.’
‘I couldn’t hear anything in the helicopter.’
`You won’t find eggs in a track and bowl system, you see,’ says Don, patiently. ‘It’s just the courtship and mating area. I put the sweet potato there myself when I last came up here, last year. If there was a kakapo in the area it would have eaten the potato.’ He picks it up again and hands it to me.
`There you see, not a mark on it. Not a nibble. And it would have trimmed and tidied its booming bowl. They are very meticulous birds. We don’t know what has happened to the last one here. It may have been killed, possibly by a cat. We think they sometimes can come up this high. Fiordland is full of cats, which is bad news for the kakapo. Though probably not all cats would have a go at a kakapo. Some will have tried – and failed – to savage a kiwi and might therefore steer clear of kakapos. Others might have tried it, found they could get away with it and done it again. Kakapos are generally unused to defending themselves. They’ll just freeze if they see a cat approach. Though they have powerful legs and claws they don’t use them for defence. A kiwi, on the other hand, will kick hell out of a cat. Because kiwi fight each other. Put two in a cage together and there’ll be a dead one in the morning.
`Or the kakapo may simply have died of old age. We don’t know how long they live, though it seems that it might be a long time. Maybe as long as humans. Either way, the kakapo’s not here any more, I think we can be quite sure of that. There are now no kakapos left in all of Fiordland.’
He takes the potato back from me, nevertheless, and with a last gesture of hopeless optimism puts it carefully back on the edge of the bowl.
Until relatively recently – in the evolutionary scale of things – the wildlife of New Zealand consisted of almost nothing but birds. Only birds could reach the place. The ancestors of many of the birds that are now natives of New Zealand originally flew there. There was also a couple of species of bats, which are mammals, but – and this is the point – there were no predators. No dogs, no cats, no ferrets or weasels, nothing that the birds needed to escape from particularly.
And flight, of course, is a means of escape. It’s a survival mechanism, and one that the birds of New Zealand found they didn’t especially need. Flying is hard work and consumes a lot of energy.
Not only that. There is also a trade off between flying and eating. The more you eat the harder it is to fly. So increasingly what happened was that instead of having just a light snack and then flying off, the birds would settle in for a rather larger meal and go for a waddle afterwards instead.
So when eventually European settlers arrived and brought cats and dogs and stoats and possums with them, a lot of New Zealand’s flightless birds were suddenly waddling for their lives. The kiwis, the takahes – and the old night parrots, the kakapos.
Of these the kakapo is the strangest. Well, I suppose the penguin is a pretty peculiar kind of creature when you think about it, but it’s quite a robust kind of peculiarness, and the bird is perfectly well adapted to the world in which it finds itself, in a way that the kakapo is not. The kakapo is a bird out of time. If you look one in its large, round, greeny-brown face, it has a look of serenely innocent incomprehension that makes you want to hug it and tell it that everything will be all right, though you know that it probably will not be.
It is an extremely fat bird. A good-sized adult will weigh about six or seven pounds, and its wings are just about good for waggling a bit if it thinks it’s about to trip over something – but flying is completely out of the question. Sadly, however, it seems that not only has the kakapo forgotten how to fly, but it has also forgotten that it has forgotten how to fly. Apparently a seriously worried kakapo will sometimes run up a tree and jump out of it, whereupon it flies like a brick and lands in a graceless heap on the ground.
By and large, though, the kakapo has never learnt to worry. It’s never had anything much to worry about.
Most birds, faced with a predator, will at least realise that something’s up and make a bolt for safety, even if it means abandoning any eggs or chicks in its nest – but not the kakapo. Its reaction when confronted with a predator is that it simply doesn’t know what the form is. It has no conception of the idea that anything could possibly want to hurt it, so it tends just to sit on its nest in a state of complete confusion and leaves the other animal to make the next move – which is usually a fairly swift and final one.
it’s frustrating to think of the difference that language would make. The millennia crawl by pretty bloody slowly while natural selection sifts its way obliviously through generation after generation, favouring the odd aberrant kakapo that’s a little twitchier than its contemporaries till the species as a whole finally gets the idea. It would all be cut short in a moment if one of them could say, ‘When you see one of those things with whiskers and little bitey teeth, run like hell.’ On the other hand, human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.o.
The trouble is that this predator business has all happened rather suddenly in New Zealand, and by the time nature starts to select in favour of slightly more nervous and fleet-footed kakapos, there won’t be any left at all, unless deliberate human intervention can protect them from what they can’t deal with themselves. It would help if there were plenty of them being born, but this brings us on to more problems. The kakapo is a solitary creature: it doesn’t like other animals. It doesn’t even like the company of other kakapos. One conservation worker we met said he sometimes wondered if the mating call of the male didn’t actively repel the female, which is the sort of biological absurdity you otherwise only find in discotheques. The ways in which it goes about mating are wonderfully bizarre, extraordinarily long drawn out and almost totally ineffective.
Here’s what they do:
The male kakapo builds himself a track and bowl system, which is simply a roughly dug shallow depression in the earth, with one or two pathways leading through the undergrowth towards it. The only thing that distinguishes the tracks from those that would be made by any other animal blundering its way about is that the vegetation on either side of them is rather precisely clipped.
The kakapo is looking for good acoustics when he does this, so the track and bowl system will often be sited against a rock facing out across a valley, and when the mating season arrives he sits in his bowl and booms.
This is an extraordinary performance. He puffs out two enormous air sacs on either side of his chest, sinks his head down into them and starts to make what he feels are sexy grunting noises. These noises gradually descend in pitch, resonate in his two air sacs and reverberate through the night air, filling the valleys for miles around with the eerie sound of an immense heart beating in the night.
The booming noise is deep, very deep, just on. the threshold of what you can actually hear and what you can feel. This means that it carries for a very great distances, but that you can’t tell where it’s coming from. If you’re familiar with certain types of stereo set-up, you’ll know that you can get an additional speaker called a sub-woofer which carries only the bass frequencies and which you can, in theory, stick anywhere in the room, even behind the sofa. The principle is the same – you can’t tell where the bass sound is coming from.
The female kakapo can’t tell where the booming is coming from either, which is something of a shortcoming in a mating call. `Come and get me!’ `Where are you?? ‘Come and get me!’ ‘Where the hell are you?’ `Come and get me!’ `Look, do you want me to come or not?’ `Come and get me!’ ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake.’ `Come and get me!’ ‘Go and stuff yourself,’ is roughly how it would go in human terms.
As it happens the male has a wide variety of other noises it can make as well, but we don’t know what they’re all for. Well, I only know what I’m told, of course, but zoologists who’ve studied the bird for years say they don’t know what it’s all in aid of. The noises include a high frequency, metallic, nasal ‘ching’ noise, humming, bill-clicking, ‘scrarking’ (scrarking is simply what it sounds like – the bird goes ‘scrark’ a lot), `screech-crowing’, pig-like grunts and squeals, duck-like `warks’ and donkey-like braying. There are also the distress calls that the young make when they trip over something or fall out of trees, and these make up yet another wide range of long-drawn-out, vibrant, complaining croaks.
I’ve heard a tape of collected kakapo noises, and it’s almost impossible to believe that it all just comes from a bird, or indeed any kind of animal. Pink Floyd studio out-takes perhaps, but not a parrot.
Some of these other noises get heard in the later stages of courtship. The chinging for instance, which doesn’t carry so well, is very directional and can help any females that have been aroused by night after night of booming (it sometimes goes on for seven hours a night for up to three months) to find a mate. This doesn’t always work, though. Females in breeding condition have been known to turn up at completely unoccupied bowls, wait around for a while, and then go away again.
It’s not that they’re not willing. When they are in breeding condition, their sex drive is extremely strong. One female kakapo is known to have walked twenty miles in one night to visit a mate, and then walked back again in the morning. Unfortunately, however, the period during which the female is prepared to behave like this is rather short. As if things aren’t difficult enough already, the female can only come into breeding condition when a particular plant, the podocarp for instance, is bearing fruit. This only happens every two years. Until it does, the male can boom all he likes, it won’t do him any good. The kakapo’s pernickety dietary requirements are a whole other area of exasperating difficulty. It makes me tired just to think of them, so I think we’ll pass quickly over all that. Imagine being an airline steward trying to serve meals to a plane full of Moslems, Jews, vegetarians, vegans and diabetics when all you’ve got is turkey because it’s Christmas time, and that will give you the idea.
The males therefore get extremely overwrought sitting in their bowls making noises for months on end, waiting for their mates who are waiting for a particular type of tree to fruit. When one of the rangers who was working in an area where kakapos were booming happened to leave his hat on the ground, he came back later to find a kakapo attempting to ravish it. On another occasion the discovery of some ruffled possum fur in the mating area suggested that a kakapo had made another alarming mistake, an experience which is unlikely to have been satisfying to either party.
The net result of all these months of excavating and booming and walking and scrarking and being fussy about fruit is that once every three or four years the female kakapo lays one single egg which promptly gets eaten by a stoat.
So the big question is: How on earth has the kakapo managed to last this long?
Speaking as a non-zoologist confronted with this bird I couldn’t help but wonder if nature, freed from the constraints of having to produce something that would survive a great deal of competition, wasn’t simply making it up as it went along. Doodling in fact. ‘How about sticking this bit in? Can’t do any harm, might be quite entertaining.’
In fact the kakapo is a bird that in some ways reminds me of the British motorbike industry. It had things its own way for so long that it simply became eccentric. The motorbike industry didn’t respond to market forces because it wasn’t particularly aware of them. It built a certain number of motorbikes and a certain number of people bought them and that was that. It didn’t seem to matter much that they were noisy, complicated to maintain, sprayed oil all over the place and had their own very special way, as T.E. Lawrence discovered at the end of his life, of going round corners. That was what motorbikes did, and if you wanted a motorbike, that was what you got. End of story. And, of course, it very nearly was the end of the story for the British industry when the Japanese suddenly got the idea that motorbikes didn’t have to be that way. They could be sleek, they could be clean, they could be reliable and well-behaved. Maybe then a whole new world of people would buy them, not just those whose idea of fun was spending Sunday afternoon in the shed with an oily rag, or marching on Aqaba.
These highly competitive machines arrived in the British Isles (again, it’s island species that have never learnt to compete hard. I know that Japan is a bunch of islands too but for the purposes of this analogy I’m cheerfully going to ignore the fact) and British motorbikes almost died out overnight.
Almost, but not quite. They were kept alive by a bunch of enthusiasts who felt that though ,the Nortons and Triumphs might be difficult and curmudgeonly beasts, they had guts and immense character and the world would be a much poorer place without them. They have been through a lot of difficult changes in the last decade or so but have now re-emerged, re-engineered as highly prized, bike-lovers’ bikes. I think this analogy is now in serious danger of breaking down, so perhaps I had better abandon it.t.
A few days earlier I had had a dream. I dreamt that I awoke to find myself lying on a remote beach spreadeagled on huge round pink and pale blue boulders and unable to move, my head filled with the slow roar of the sea. I awoke from this dream to find myself lying spreadeagled on huge round pink and pale blue boulders on a beach and dazed with confusion. I couldn’t move because my camera bag was slung around my neck and jammed behind a boulder.
I struggled to my feet and looked out to sea, trying to work out where on earth I was and if I was still embroiled in a recursion of dreams. Perhaps I was still on a plane going somewhere and was just watching an in-flight movie. I looked around for a stewardess but there was no one coming along the beach with a tray of drinks. I looked down at my boots and that seemed to trigger something in my head. The last clear memory that came to mind of looking closely at my boots was after emerging from a bog in Zaire when they were sodden with African mud. I looked around nervously. There were no rhinoceroses on the beach either. The beach was clearly not in Zaire because Zaire is landlocked and doesn’t have them. I looked at my boots again. They seemed oddly clean. How had that happened? I remembered someone taking my boots away from me and cleaning them. Why would anyone do that? And who? An airport came swimming back to me and I remembered being questioned about my boots and where I had been with them. Zaire, I said. They took my boots away and returned them to me a few minutes later spotlessly clean and glistening with disinfectant. I remembered thinking at the time that any time I wanted to have my boots really cleaned properly I should remember to fly to New Zealand again. New Zealand. They were quite naturally paranoiac about any foreign bacteria being imported into one of the most isolated and unspoilt countries in the world. I tried to remember flying out of New Zealand and couldn’t. Therefore, I must still be in New Zealand. Good. I’d narrowed it down a bit. But where?
I stumbled a little woozily up the beach, clambering over the boulders of quietly hallucinatory colours, and then from my new vantage point saw Mark away in the distance on his knees and peering into an old log.
‘Moulting little blue penguin,’ he said when at last I reached him.
`What? I said. ‘Where?
‘In the log,’ he said. ‘Look.’
I peered into the log. A small pair of black eyes peered anxiously back at me from out of a dark ball of ruffled blue fluff.
I sat back heavily on a rock.
‘Very nice,’ I said. ‘Where are we?
Mark grinned. ‘I thought you seemed a bit jet-lagged,’ he said. ‘You’ve been asleep for about twenty minutes.’
‘OK,’ I said, irritably, ‘but where are we? I think I’ve narrowed it down to New Zealand.’
‘Little Barrier Island,’ he said. ‘Remember? We came here this morning by helicopter.’
‘Ah,’ l said, ‘so that answers my next question. It’s the afternoon, yes?
‘Yes,’ said Mark. ‘It’s about four o’clock and we are expected for tea.’
I looked up and down the beach again, thunderstruck by this idea.’
‘Tea?’ I said.d.
°With Mike and Dobby.’
‘Well just pretend you know them when we get there because you spent an hour chatting to them this morning.’
‘Dobby is the warden of the island.’
‘I see.’ I thought for a bit. ‘I know,’ I said, suddenly. ‘We’ve come to look for the kakapo. Yes?
`Will we find one here?’
`Then remind me. Why are we here?
‘Because this is one of the only two places where there are definitely kakapos living.’
‘But we probably won’t find one.’
`But we will at least get some tea.’
`Well, let’s go and get some. Tell me all about it again on the way. But slowly.’
‘OK,’ said Mark. He took a few last pictures of the little blue penguin, a bird which I was destined never to find out anything more about, packed away his Nikons, and together we set off back to the warden’s lodge.
‘Now that New Zealand is riddled with predators of all kinds,’ said Mark, `the only possible refuge for kakapos is on islands -and protected islands at that. Stewart Island, in the south, where one or two kakapos are still found, is inhabited and no longer even remotely safe. Any kakapos that are found there are trapped and airlifted to Codfish Island which is just nearby. They are studied and protected there. In fact they are so well protected that there’s a certain amount of doubt at the moment about whether we’ll even be allowed to go there. Apparently there’s some furore going on at DOC about…’
`The New Zealand Department of Conservation. There’s a disagreement about whether to let us go there. On the one hand there’s a feeling that we might do some good by getting some publicity for the project, and on the other there’s a feeling that the birds should not be disturbed on any account. There’s only one person available who could help us find the bird and he doesn’t want to take us at all.’.’
‘Who is he?
‘A freelance kakapo tracker called Arab.’
‘He has a kakapo-tracking dog.’
‘Hmm. Sounds like the sort of person we need. Is there a lot of work for freelance kakapo trackers? I mean, there aren’t a lot of kakapos to track, are there?
‘Forty. In fact there are three or four kakapo trackers…’
‘And three or four kakapo-tracking dogs?
‘Exactly. The dogs are specially trained to sniff out the kakapos. They wear muzzles so that they won’t harm the birds. They’ve been used to trap the kakapos on Stewart Island so that they can then be airlifted to Codfish Island and here to Little Barrier Island by helicopter. First time any of the species have flown at all for thousands, perhaps millions, of years.’.’
`What does a kakapo tracker do when there aren’t any kakapos that need tracking?
‘Out of frustration?
‘No. Codfish Island was infested with feral cats. In other words cats that have returned to the wild.’
‘I always think that’s an artificial distinction. I think all cats are wild cats. They just act tame if they think they’ll get a saucer of milk out of it. So they kill cats on Codfish Island?
‘Killed them. Every last one. And all the possums and stoats. Anything that moved and wasn’t a bird, essentially. It’s not very pleasant, but that’s how the island was originally, and that’s the only way kakapos can survive – in exactly the environment that New Zealand had before man arrived. With no predators. They did the same here on Little Barrier island too.’oo.’
At that moment something happened which I found a little startling, until I realised that it had already happened once that day, only in my befuddled jet-lagged state I had completely forgotten about it.
Coming from the beach we had trudged through thick undergrowth and along rough muddy tracks, across a couple of fields full of sheep, and suddenly emerged into a garden. Not just a garden, but a garden that was meticulously mown and manicured, with immaculate flower beds, well-kempt trees and shrubs, rockeries, and a little stream with a natty little bridge over it. The effect was that of walking into a slightly suburban Garden of Eden, as if on the Eighth Day God had suddenly got going again and started creating Flymos, secateurs, and those things I can never remember the name of but which are essentially electrically driven pieces of string.
And there, stepping out on to the lawn was Mike, the warden’s wife, with a tray full of tea things, which I fell upon with loud exclamations of delight and hello.
Meanwhile, I had lost Mark altogether. He was standing only a few feet away, but he had gone into a glazed trance which I decided I would go and investigate after I had got to grips with some serious tea. He was probably looking at the birds, of which there seemed to be quite a lot in the garden. I chatted cheerfully to Mike, reintroduced myself to her as the vaguely Neanderthal creature she had probably encountered lumbering in a lost daze from the helicopter that morning, and asked her how she coped with living, as she and Dobby had done for eleven and a half years, entirely isolated on this island apart from the occasional nature-loving tourist.
She explained that they had quite a few nature-loving tourists a day, and the worry was that there were too many of them. It was so horribly easy to introduce predators on to the island by mistake, and the damage would be very serious. The tourists who came on organised trips could be managed quite carefully, but the danger came from people coming over to the island on boats and setting up barbies on the beach. All it would take would be a couple of rats or a pregnant cat and the work of years would be undone.
I was surprised at the thought that anybody thinking of taking a barbecue to an island beach would necessarily think of including a pregnant cat in their party, but she assured me that it could happen very easily. And virtually every type of boat has rats aboard.
She was a cheerful, sprightly and robust woman, and I very much suspected that the iron will which had been imposed on the rugged terrain of the island to turn this acre of it into a ferociously manicured garden was hers.
Gaynor emerged from the neat white clapboard house at this moment with Dobby, whom she had been interviewing on tape. Dobby had originally come to the island eleven and a half years earlier as part of the cat-killing programme and stayed on as warden of the reserve, a post from which he was going to have to retire in eighteen months. He was not looking forward to this at all. From where they were standing, in their domain of miniature paradise, a little house in a mainland town seemed desperately constrained and humdrum.
We chatted for a while more and then Gaynor approached Mark to record a description of the garden on to tape, but he gestured her curtly away and returned to the trance he had been in for several minutes now.
This seemed rather odd behaviour from Mark, who was usually a man of mild and genial manners, and I asked him what was up. He muttered something briefly about birds and continued to ignore us.
I looked around again. There certainly were a lot of birds in the garden.
I have to make a confession here, and it’s going to sound a little odd coming from someone who has travelled twelve thousand miles and back to visit a parrot, but I am actually not tremendously excited by birds. There are all sorts of things about birds that I find interesting, I suppose, but the things themselves don’t really get to me. Hippopotamuses, yes. I’m happy to stare at a hippopotamus till the hippo itself gets bored and wanders away in bemusement. Gorillas, lemurs, dolphins I will watch entranced for hours, hypnotised as much as anything else by their eyes. But show me a garden full of some of the most exotic birds in the world and I will be just as happy to stand around drinking tea and chatting to people. It gradually dawned on me that this was probably exactly what was happening.
`This,’ said Mark at last in a low, hollow voice, `is… ‘
I waited patiently.
`Amazing!’ he said at last.
Eventually Gaynor prevailed on him to bring himself back from his trance and he started to talk excitedly about the tuis, the New Zealand pigeons, the bellbirds, the North Island robins, the New Zealand kingfisher, the red-crowned parakeets, the paradise shelducks, and the great crowd of large kakas which were swooping around the garden and jostling each other at the bird bath.
I felt vaguely depressed and also a little fraudulent at being unable to share his excitement, and that evening I fell to wondering why it was that I was so intensely keen to find and see a kakapo and so little bothered by all the other birds.
I think it’s its flightlessness.
There is something gripping about the idea that this creature has actually given up doing something that virtually every human being has yearned to do since the very first of us looked upwards. I think I find other birds rather irritating for the cocky ease with which they flit through the air as if it was nothing.
I can remember once coming face to face with a free-roaming emu years ago in Sydney zoo. You are strongly warned not to approach them too closely because they can be pretty violent creatures, but once I had caught its eye, I found its irate, staring face absolutely riveting. Because once you look one right in the eye you have a sudden sense of what the effect has been on the creature of having all the disadvantages of being a bird – absurd posture, a hopelessly scruffy covering of useless feathers and two useless limbs – without actually being able to do the thing that birds should be able to do, which is to fly. It becomes instantly clear that the bird has gone barking mad.
Here, to digress for a moment, is a little known fact: one of the more dangerous animals in Africa is, surprisingly enough, the ostrich. Deaths due to ostriches do not excite the public imagination very much because they are essentially so undignified. Ostriches do not bite because they have no teeth. They don’t tear you to pieces because they don’t have any forelimbs with claws on them. No, ostriches kick you to death. And who, frankly, can blame them?
The kakapo, though, is not an angry or violent bird. It pursues its own eccentricities rather industriously and modestly. If you ask anybody who has worked with kakapos to describe them, they tend to use words like `innocent’ and `solemn’, even when it’s leaping helplessly out of a tree. This I find immensely appealing. I asked Dobby if they had given names to the kakapos on the island, and he instantly came up with four of them: Matthew, Luke, John and Snark. These seemed to be good names for a group of solemnly batty birds.
And then there’s the other matter: it’s not merely the fact that it’s given up that which we all so intensely desire, it’s also the fact that it has made a terrible mistake which makes it so compelling. This is a bird you can warm to. I wanted very much to find one.
I became increasingly morose over the next two or three days, because it became clear to us as we traipsed up and down endless hills in the rain, that we were not going to find a kakapo on Little Barrier Island. We stopped and admired kakas, long-tailed cuckoos and yellow-eyed penguins. We endlessly photographed pied shags. One night we saw a morepork, which is a type of owl that got its name from its habit of continually calling for additional pigflesh. But we knew that if we were going to find a kakapo we would need to go to Codfish Island. We would need Arab the freelance kakapo tracker, and we would need the freelance kakapo tracker’s kakapo-tracking dog.
And all the signs were that we would not get them. We flew off to Wellington and moped about.
We understood the dilemma facing the Department of Conservation. On the one hand they regarded protection of the kakapos as being of paramount importance, and that meant keeping absolutely everybody who was not vital to the project away from Codfish Island. On the other hand the more people who knew about the animal, the better the chances of mustering more resources to save it. While we were mulling all this over we were suddenly asked to give a press conference about what we were up to and happily agreed to this. We talked earnestly and cheerfully to the press about the project. Here was a bird, we explained, that was in its way as extraordinary and unique as the most famous extinct animal of all – the dodo – and it was itself poised on the brink of extinction. It would be far better if it could be famously loved as a survivor than famously regretted, like the dodo.
This seemed to cause some movement within the Department of Conservation, and it transpired that those within it who supported us won their case. A day or two later we were standing on the Tarmac of Invercargill airport at the very south of South island, waiting for a helicopter. And waiting for Arab. We had won our case, and hoped, a little nervously, that we were right to do so.
Also in our party was a Scotsman from DOC called Ron Tindal. He was politely blunt with us. He said that there was a lot of resentment among the field workers about our being allowed to go to Codfish, but a directive was a directive, and we were to go. One man, he said, who was particularly set against the whole idea was Arab himself, and it was just as well that we be aware of the fact that he was coming under protest.
A few minutes later Arab himself arrived. I had no idea what I expected a freelance kakapo tracker to look like, but once we saw him, it was clear that if he was hidden in a crowd of a thousand random people you would still know instantly that he was the freelance kakapo tracker. He was tall, rangy, immensely weather-beaten, and he had a grizzled beard that reached all the way down to his dog, who was called Boss.
He nodded curtly to us and squatted down to fuss with his dog for a moment. Then he seemed to think that perhaps he had been a little over curt with us and leant across Boss to shake our hands. Thinking that he had perhaps overdone this in turn, he then looked up and made a very disgruntled face at the weather. With this brief display of complete social confusion he revealed himself to be an utterly charming and likeable man.
Nevertheless, the half-hour helicopter trip over to Codfish Island was a little tense. We tried to make cheerful small talk, but this was rendered almost impossible by the deafening thunder of the rotor blades. In a helicopter cockpit you can just about talk to someone who is keen to hear what you have to say, but it is not the best situation in which to try to break the ice.
`What did you say?
I just said, “What did you say?…
‘Ah. What did you say before you said, “What did you say?…
‘I said, “What did you say?”‘
`I just said, “Do you come here often?” but let it pass.’
At last we lapsed into an awkward, deafened silence that was made all the more oppressive by the heavy bank of storm clouds that was hanging sullenly over the sea.
Soon the sombre bulk of New Zealand’s most fiercely protected ark loomed up out of the shining darkness at us: Codfish Island, one of the last refuges of many birds that are hardly to be found anywhere else in the world. Like Little Barrier Island it has been ruthlessly purged of anything that was not originally to be found there. Even the flightless weka, a fierce and disorderly duck-sized bird, which is native to other parts of New Zealand, has been eradicated. It wasn’t a native of Codfish, and it attacked Cook’s petrels which were. The island is surrounded by rough seas and strong currents, so no predator rats are likely to be able to make it from Stewart island three kilometres away. Food supplies to island workers are stored in rat-proof rooms, packed into ratproof containers, and rigorously examined before and after transfer. Poison bait is distributed around all possible boat landing places. There are people ready to swing into immediate fire brigade action to eliminate any rat invasion if a boat wreck occurs.
The helicopter came thudding in to land, and we clambered uneasily out, hunching ourselves down under the rotating blades. We quickly unloaded our bags and walked down and away from the tussocky hillock on which we had landed towards the wardens’ hut. Mark and I caught each other’s eye for a moment and we realised that we were both still hunched over as we walked. We weren’t actually rats, but we felt just about as welcome, and we hoped to God that the expedition was not going to go horribly wrong. Arab stalked silently behind us with Boss who was now tightly muzzled. Although tracker dogs are rigorously trained not to harm any kakapos they find, they can nevertheless sometimes find them a little too enthusiastically. Even wearing a muzzle an over-eager dog can buffet and injure a bird.
The wardens’ but was a fairly basic wooden building with one large room which served as a kitchen, dining room, sitting room and work room, and a couple of small dormitory rooms full of bunks. There were two other field workers already installed, the eccentrically named, or rather spelled, Phred, who turned out to be the son of Dobby and Mike, and also Trevor. They greeted us quietly and without enthusiasm and let us get on with our unpacking.
Soon we were told that lunch was ready, and we realised that it was time for us seriously to try to improve our general standing around the place. Clearly our hosts did not want to have a bunch of media trendies rampaging round their island frightening the birds with their video cameras and Filofaxes, and they were only slightly mollified by the fact that all we had was one tiny Walkman tape recorder, and that we were being very meek and wellbehaved and trying not to order gin and tonics the whole time.
The fact that we’d actually brought some beer and whisky with us helped a little.
I suddenly felt extraordinarily cheerful. More cheerful, in fact, than I had felt for the whole of our visit to New Zealand so far. The people of New Zealand are generally terribly nice. Everybody we had met so far had been terribly nice to us. Terribly nice and eager to please. I realised now that all this relentless niceness and geniality to which we had been subjected had got to me rather badly. New Zealand niceness is not merely disarming, it’s decapitating as well, and I had come to feel that if just one more person was pleasant and genial at me I’d hit him. Now things were suddenly very different and we had work to do. I was determined to get these surly buggers to like us if it killed me.
Over our lunch of tinned ham, boiled potatoes and beer we launched a major conversational assault, told them all about our project and why we were doing it, where we’d been so far= what animals we had seen and failed to see, whom we had met, why we were so keen to see the kakapo, how much we appreciated their assistance, and how well we understood their reluctance to have us there, and then went on to ask intelligent and searching questions about their work, about the island, about the birds, about Boss, and finally, why there was a dead penguin hanging on the tree outside the house.
This seemed to clear the air a little. Our hosts quickly realised that the only way .of stopping us talking the whole time was to do some talking themselves. The penguin, Phred explained, was traditional. Every 28 February they hung a dead penguin on a tree. It was a tradition that had only started today and they doubted if they would keep it up, but in the meantime at least it kept the flies off the penguin.
This seemed a thoroughly excellent explanation. We all celebrated it with another glass of beer and things began at last to move along with a bit more of a swing. In an altogether easier atmosphere we set out into the forest with Arab and Boss to see if we could at last find one of these birds we had travelled twelve thousand miles to see.
The forest was rotten. That is to say that it was so wet that every fallen tree trunk we had to clamber over cracked open under our feet, branches we clung on to when we lost our footing came away in our hands. We slipped and slithered noisily through the mud and sodden undergrowth, while Arab stalked easily ahead of us, just visible through the trees in his blue plaid woollen windcheater. Boss described a chaotic orbit around him, hardly ever visible at all except as an occasional moving flash of blackness through the undergrowth.
He was, however, always audible. Arab had fastened a small bell on to his collar, which rang out clearly through the clean, damp air, as if an invisible and deranged carol singer were cavorting through the forest. The purpose of the bell was to allow Arab to keep track of where Boss was, and also to let him know what the dog was up to. A flurry of agitated rings followed by silence might indicate that it had found a kakapo and was standing guard over it. Every time the bell fell silent we held our breaths, but each time the clanging started up again as Boss found a new avenue in the undergrowth to plunge through. From time to time the bell would suddenly start to ring out more loudly and clearly, and Arab would summon Boss back to him with a quick shout. There would then be a slight pause, which on one occasion enabled Mark and Gaynor and me to catch up with them.
We came tumbling breathless and wet out of the forest to a small clearing, where we found Arab squatting beside Boss stuffing a small wad of mossy earth up into the cavity of the bell to dampen its sound a little. He squinted up at us with his slow shy grin and explained that the bell mustn’t be too loud or it would only frighten the kakapo away – if there were any in the area.
Did he think there were any around? asked Mark.
‘Oh, they’re certainly around,’ said Arab, pulling his fingers through his streaming wet beard to clean the mud off them, `or at least, they’ve been around here today. There’s plenty of scent. Boss keeps on finding scent all right, but the scent goes cold. There’s been quite a lot of kakapo activity here recently, but not quite recently enough. He’s very excited though. He knows they’re definitely around.’
He made a fuss of Boss for a few moments, and then explained that there were major problems in training dogs to find kakapos because of the terrible shortage of kakapos to train them on. In the end, he said, it was more realistic to train the dogs not to track anything else. Training was simply a long and tedious process of elimination, which was very frustrating for the dog.
With one last pat he let go of Boss again, who bounded back off into the bush to carry on snuffling and rummaging for any trace of the one bird he hadn’t been trained not to track. Within a few moments he had disappeared from sight, and his muted bell went clanking off into the distance.
We followed a path for a while, which allowed us for the moment to keep up with Arab; while he told us a little about other dogs which he had trained to be hunting dogs, for use in clearing islands of predators. There was one dog he was particularly fond of, which was their top hunting dog, a ferocious killer of an animal. They had taken it all the way to Round Island, near Mauritius, with them a few years ago to help with a big rabbit clearance programme. Unfortunately once it got there it turned out to be terrified of rabbits and had to be taken home.
It seemed to Arab that most of his recent life had been spent on islands, which was not just a coincidence: island ecologies are so fragile that many island species are endangered, and islands are often used as last places of refuge for mainland animals. Arab had himself tracked many of the twenty-five kakapos that had been found on Stewart Island and airlifted by helicopter in soundproof boxes to Codfish. They always tried to release them in terrain that corresponded as closely as possible to that in which they had been found, in the hope that they would re-establish themselves more easily. But it was very hard to tell how many of the birds were establishing themselves, or even how many had survived here.
The day was wearing on and the light was lengthening. Excitingly, we found some kakapo droppings, which we picked up and crumbled in our fingers and sniffed at in much the same way that a wine connoisseur will savour the bouquet of a fine New Zealand North Island Chardonnay. They have a fine, clean, herbal scent. Almost as excitingly we found some ferns which a kakapo had chewed at. They clip it and then pull it through their powerful bill so that it leaves a neat ball of curled up fibre at the end.
A lot less excitingly it was becoming very clear that the day was going to be completely free of any actual kakapos. As the evening gathered in and a light rain began to fall, we turned and trudged the miles we had come back through the forest. We passed the evening in the but making friends with the whisky bottle and showing off our Nikons.
Towards the end of the evening, Arab mentioned that he hadn’t really expected to find a kakapo today at all. They’re nocturnal birds and therefore very hard to find during the day. To stand any chance of seeing one at all you have to go and search when there is just enough light in the sky to let you actually see the thing, but when its scent is still fresh on the ground. About five or six in the morning was the time you wanted to go and look for them. Was that OK with us? He stood up and dragged _ his beard to bed.
Five in the morning is the most horrible time, particularly when your body is still desperately trying to disentangle itself from half a bottle of whisky. We dragged ourselves, cold, crabby and aching, from our bunks. The noise of sub-machine-gun fire from the main room turned out to be frying bacon, and we tried to revive ourselves with this while the grey morning light began to seep hideously up into the sky outside. I’ve never understood all this fuss people make about the dawn. I’ve seen a few and they’re never as good as the photographs, which have the additional advantage of being things you can look at when you’re in the right frame of mind, which is usually about lunchtime.
After a lot of sullen fumbling with boots and cameras we eventually struggled out of the door at about six-thirty and trudged our way back out into the forest. Mark started to point out exciting rare birds to me almost immediately and I told him to take a running jump. A great start to a day of virtually unremitting ornithology. Gaynor asked me to describe the scene as we walked into the forest and I said that if she poked that microphone in front of me once more I’d probably be sick over it. I quickly found that I was walking by myself.
After a while I had to admit that the forest wasn’t that bad. Cold, wet and slippery, and continually trying to wrench my legs off at the knees with some bloody tangled root or other, but it also had a kind of fresh glistening quality that wouldn’t go away however much I glowered at it. Ron Tindal had joined us this time, and was busy striding his way through the undergrowth in an appallingly robust and Scottish manner, but even this ceased to make my head ache after a while as all the glistening began slowly to work a kind of soothing magic on me. Way ahead of us, half-glimpsed through the misty trees, the blue plaid windcheater moved silently like a wraith, following the busy clinking of Boss’s bell.
After a longish while of trudging, we caught up with Arab, who had stopped again on a narrow path, and was squatting in the sodden grass.
‘There’s a fairly recent dropping here,’ he said, holding up a soft, dark mottled bead for our inspection. `It’s got that white on it which is uric acid, and it hasn’t been washed off by the rain or dried out by the sun. That’ll disappear in about a day, so this is definitely last night. This is just where we were, in fact, so I expect we just missed him.’
Great, I thought. We could have stayed out a little longer last night, and stayed in bed a lot longer this morning. But the early sun was beginning to glimmer through the trees and there was a lot of fragile beauty business going on where it glistened on the tiny beaded dewdrops on the leaves, so I supposed that it wasn’t altogether bad. In fact there was so much glimmering and glistening and glittering and glinting going on that I began to wonder why it was that so many words that describe what the sun does in the morning begin with the letters ‘gl’, and I mentioned this to Mark, who told me to take a running jump.
Cheered by this little exchange we set off again. We had hardly gone five yards when Arab, who had already gone fifteen, stopped again. He squatted once more and pointed to some slight signs of digging in the earth.
`That’s a very fresh excavation,’ he said. `Probably last night. Digging for this orchid tuber. You can actually see the beak marks through the bottom here.”
I wondered if this was a good time to begin feeling a bit excited and optimistic about the outcome of the day’s expedition, but when I did it started to give me a headache so I stopped. The damn bird was just stringing us along, and it would be another gloomy evening of sitting in the but cleaning our lenses and trying to look on the bright side. At least there wouldn’t be any whisky this time because we’d drunk it all, so we would be leaving Codfish the following day clear-headed enough to know that we had flown twelve thousand miles to see a bird that hadn’t turned up to see us, and all that remained was to fly twelve thousand miles back again and try to find something to write about it. I must have done sillier things in my life, but I couldn’t remember when.
The next time Arab stopped it was for a feather.
`That’s a kakapo feather that has dropped,’ he said, picking it lightly off the side of a bush. `Probably from around the breast by its being quite yellow.’
`It’s quite downy isn’t it?’ said Mark, taking it and twirling it between his fingers in the misty sunlight. ‘Do you think it was dropped recently?’ he added hopefully.
‘Oh yes, it’s reasonably fresh,’ said Arab.
`So this is the closest we’ve got yet… ?’
`Yes, I suppose it is,’ he said `Doesn’t mean we’re going to find it though. You can stand practically on top of one and not see it. The signs are that the kakapo was quite active in the early part of the night, just after we were here. And that’s bad news because there was rain during the night, so some of the scent has been washed away. There’s plenty of scent around, but it’s inconclusive. Still, you never know your luck.’
We trudged on. Or perhaps we didn’t trudge. Perhaps there was a bit more of a spring in our step, but as half an hour passed, and then an hour, and as the sun gradually crept higher in the sky, Arab was once more a floating wraith far distant from us in the trees ahead, and then we lost him altogether. The spring had certainly dropped from our step. For a while we stumbled on, guided by the very faint sounds of Boss’s bell which were still borne to us on the light breeze sifting through the trees, but then that too stopped and we were lost. Ron was a little way ahead of us, still bounding with rumbustious Scottish gusto, but he too was now floundering for the right direction.
We were clambering over a bank that was thickly covered with ferns and rotten tree trunks, and which led down into a wide, shallow gully in the middle of which Ron was standing, looking perplexedly around him. Gaynor lost her footing as she negotiated the muddy slope into the gully, and slithered down it elegantly on her bottom. I got my camera strap caught in the only branch that didn’t break off the moment you touched it. Mark stopped to help me disentangle myself. Ron had gone into bounding mode again and was hopping up the far side of the gully calling out for Arab.
`Can you see them?’ Mark called out.
A thought struck me. We were lost because Boss’s bell had stopped ringing. The same thought obviously hit Mark simultaneously and we both suddenly called out, `Have they got a kakapo?
A call came back.
Gaynor turned to us and shouted, `They’ve got a kakapo!’
Suddenly we were all in rumbustious bounding mode. With much shouting and hallooing we clambered and slithered our way hectically across the floor of the gully, hauled ourselves up the other side and down into the next gully, on the far side of which, sitting on a mossy bank in front of a steep slope, was a most peculiar tableau.
It took me a moment or two to work out what it was that the scene so closely resembled, and when I realised, I stopped for a moment and then approached more circumspectly.
It was like a Madonna and Child.
Arab was sitting cross-legged on the mossy bank, his long wet grizzled beard flowing into his lap. And cradled in his arms, nuzzling gently into his beard, was a large, fat, bedraggled green parrot. Standing by them in quiet attendance, looking at them intently with his head cocked on one side, was Boss, still tightly muzzled.
Duly hushed, we went up to them. Mark was making quiet groaning noises in the back of his throat.
The bird was very quiet and quite still. It didn’t appear to be alarmed, but then neither did it appear to be particularly aware of what was happening. The gaze of its large black expressionless eye was fixed somewhere in the middle distance. It was holding, lightly but firmly in its bill, the forefinger of Arab’s right hand, down which a trickle of blood was flowing, and this seemed to have a calming effect on the bird. Gently, Arab tried to remove it, but the kakapo liked it, and eventually Arab let it stay there. A little more blood flowed down Arab’s hand, mingling with the rain water with which everything was sodden.
To my right, Mark was murmuring about what an honour it would be to be bitten by a kakapo, which was a point of view I could scarcely understand, but I let it pass.
We asked Arab where he’d found it.
`The dog found it,’ he said. `Probably about ten yards up this hill, I’d say, under that leaning tree. And when the dog got close it broke and ran down to just here where I caught it.
`It’s in good condition, though. You can tell that it’s close to booming this year because of its spongy chest. That’s good news. It means it’s establishing itself well after being resettled.’
The kakapo shifted itself very slightly in Arab’s lap, and pushed its face closer into his beard. Arab stroked its damped ruffled feathers very gently.
‘It’s a bit nervous,’ he said. `Especially of noise probably more than anything. He looks very bedraggled because of being wet. When Boss first caught up with him he would have been in a dry roost up there and probably at the noise of the bell or the dog going too close, the bird broke out and ran down the hill, and was still going when I caught it. It’s just gripping me a bit and that’s all. If he wanted to put the pressure on… ‘ He shrugged. The kakapo clearly had a very powerful bill. It looked like a great horn-plated tin opener welded to its face.
`It’s definitely not as relaxed as a lot of birds,’ muttered Arab. ‘A lot of birds are really relaxed when you’ve got them in the hand. I don’t want to hold it for too long since it’s wet and will get chilled through if the water penetrates to the skin. I think I’d better let it go now.’
We stood back. Carefully, Arab leant forward with the bird, whose big powerful claws stretched out and scrabbled for the ground even before it got there. At last it let go of Arab’s finger, steadied its weight on the ground, put its head down and scuttled off.
That night in the wardens’ but we jubilantly polished off the remaining beers, and pored, over the records of all the kakapos that had been transferred to Codfish. Arab had made a note of the identity number of the bird, which had been fastened to its leg – 8-44263. Its name was Ralph. It had been transferred to Codfish Island from Pegasus Harbour, Stewart Island, almost exactly a year ago.
`This is excellent news,’ exclaimed Ron. `This is really very, very good news indeed. If this kakapo is coming up to booming condition just a year after being relocated, it’s the best indication we’ve had yet that the transfer programme is working. You know that we didn’t want you to come here, and that we didn’t want to track kakapos and risk disturbing them, but as it happens… Well, this is very useful information, and very encouraging indeed.’
A few days later, standing on top of Kakapo Castle in Fiordland we tell Don Merton that we think we’ve been forgiven.
`Oh yes, I think so,’ he says. `You may have bumbled around a bit and trodden on a few toes, but you’ve actually stirred things up a bit as well. The press conference was very effective, and from what I hear there’s an imminent decision coming from quite high up to move the kakapo conservation programme to the top of the Department’s priority list, which should mean that we get allocated more resources. I just hope it’s not all too late.
`There are now twenty-five kakapos on Codfish, but only five of those are females, and that’s the crucial point. There’s only one kakapo that we know of left on Stewart Island, and that’s a male. We keep searching for more females, but we doubt if there are any more. Add those to the fourteen birds on Little Barrier and we have a total of only forty kakapos left altogether.
`And it’s so difficult getting the blighters to breed. In the past they bred very slowly because there was nothing else to keep their population stable. If an animal population rises so fast that it outgrows the capacity of its habitat to feed and sustain it then it plunges right back down again, then back up, back down and so on. If a population fluctuates too wildly it doesn’t take much of a disaster to tip the species over the edge into extinction. So all the kakapo’s peculiar mating habits are just a survival technique as much as anything else. But only because there was no outside competition. Now that they are surrounded by predators there’s very little to keep them alive, other than our direct intervention. As long as we can sustain it.”
This reminds me of my motorbike industry analogy, which I have tactfully kept to myself. There are remedies available to motorbike engineers that zoologists do not have. As we tread our way carefully back along the ridge to the helicopter I ask Don what he feels the long term prospects for the kakapos really are, and his answer is surprisingly apposite.
‘Well,’ he says in his quiet polite voice, `anything’s possible, and with genetic engineering, who knows. If we can keep them going during our lifespan, it’s over to the next generation with its new range of tools and techniques and science to take it from there. All we can do is perpetuate them during our lifetime and try to hand them on in as good a condition as possible to the next generation and hope like heck that they feel the same way about them as we do.’
A few minutes later our helicopter rises up above Kakapo Castle, puts its nose down and heads back up the valleys to Milford Sound, leaving behind a small scratched depression in the earth and a single, elderly untouched sweet potato.