Life in an Empty Cathedral


I remember Burto, who guided us through the rainforest in Milford Sound, once describing New Zealand as an empty cathedral when it comes to wildlife, and more specifically, bird life. While the towering mountains and dense rainforests are impressive and almost overwhelming at times, even more overwhelming is their silence.

How did it get this way? How did a country, once bursting with a variety of unique birds become such a deserted one? The answer is simple – before people got here, the birds became accustomed to living in a practically predator-free environment. Then along came man, who brought rats, cats, dogs and the dreaded possum. Birds like the giant Moa, the Kiwi and the Takahe weren’t used to having to defend themselves and were, one could say, sitting ducks. The Moa is now extinct. So is the Haast Eagle. There are only 200 Takahe left.

Despite this, every now and then you stumble upon a hidden pocket of native flora and fauna, where the air is alive with a variety of calls and songs, from the R2D2 mechanical melody of the Tui to the sad, mournful call of the Kokako. These are my top 3 places, sanctuaries dedicated to bringing these birds back:

Stewart Island anchors more than Maui’s canoe. It anchors in its rocks, rivers, and rugged shores and in its garnishment of plants and animals, the hope of generations unborn that places like this will always exist.

Neville Peat 1992

The ferry trip across the Forveaux Strait to Stewart Island might as well be a time-machine taking you back to the past. Some locals told us that they had moved there for a simpler life, one where nature is appreciated and time seems to slow down. There is one grocery store that doubles as a post office. There are no banks. There are no shopping centers. It has a deep family history, and it takes years for someone to be considered a local. One man told us that although he had lived on Stewart Island for seven years, and was still considered an outsider. 85% of the island is dedicated as the Rakiura National Park, which is something that those who live and work on the island take great pride in.

Stewart Island Main Road

We spent our first day on Stewart Island exploring, wandering down to the water where we spotted kingfishers perched on old wooden fishing boats. We climbed the hill to observation rock, a quick but steep walk just out of the center of ‘town’ which gives you a panoramic view of the surrounding inlet and bays. From there, there is a fun and easy walk along the coast, following a path through the rainforest alongside the bay. It was on this walk that I first experienced New Zealand native bird life.

I have never been terribly interested in birds, in fact I’m not sure many people are anymore. My eyes are rubbish so I have always battled to see them properly, and to be honest, I never really gave birds much thought. Hicksy, however, is far more ornithologically inclined, his father is passionate about birds and Hicksy has inherited his enthusiasm. I think that it was on Stewart Island that I first got excited about birds. And I believe that it takes a special kind of place to ignite that interest.

The coastal rainforest is full of all kinds of Native NZ birds. There are tuis, with their dual voiceboxes making a cacophony of cracks, clicks, cackles and wheezes. There are fantails, who flit around your head searching for insects. There are bellbirds with their beautiful melodic songs. As you walk, you will also notice trap after trap, set to catch the rats and possums that feast on these endangered birds and their eggs. The New Zealand government has spent millions on ridding parts of their country of rodents and pests brought here by early explorers.

Thanks to this dedication, Ulva Island, a short water taxi trip from Stewart Island, is completely pest and rodent free. It’ll take you about an hour to wander around Ulva, although you could probably stretch this out a bit more. We took 4 hours! If you’re new to birds, I would recommend one of the guided walks. The guides are passionate and friendly, with a plethora of knowledge of all things flora and fauna, and will thrill you with stories of the first explorers of the island as well as the cultural ties it has to the Maori tribes. With them, you won’t miss out on anything.

Ulva Island

If it’s kiwis you’re looking for, then a tramping trip across or around Stewart Island is probably your best bet. There are a number of hikes you can do, that take from hours to days. We did a 4 hour (which took us 6) tramp from Freshwater River to Mason Bay.

wellies are a good idea

Mason Bay has the highest concentration of kiwi than anywhere else in NZ, so your chances of spotting one are good. The walk is an easy flat one, although it has been known to get quite muddy. We opted for wellies rather than hiking boots and were very glad we did when we found ourselves knee deep in sludgy mud! We arrived at the dock huts, which you will need to book in advance, at around dusk. We could already hear the kiwis starting to call and set of on a hopeful search.

Despite the high concentration of kiwis, we saw none that night. After being taunted by their calls we returned to the hut around 2am, frustrated, tired and disappointed. After an interesting night, we rose early the next morning and began the trek back to Golden Bay. At 7am the sun was already out and we had just about given up on seeing a kiwi. Anyone in New Zealand will tell you, however, that it’s only when you give up that they come out. All of a sudden, about 10 meters away from us, a kiwi appeared alongside the path, stretched its neck and walked across to forage in the foliage next to us. We were frozen in excitement and joy! We had finally seen our Kiwi! We reached Golden Bay exhausted, but satisfied. Stewart Island had lived up to its expectations.

Tiritiri Matangi is a predator-free island sanctuary located 30km east of central Auckland. 120 years of farming stripped the island of 94% of its native bush, so from 1984 to 1994, volunteers planted between 250 000 and 300 000 trees. In conjunction with this planting, all rats, possums and other predators were booted from the island and a number of endangered birds and reptiles were introduced. The island holds a special place for us because in 1988 Hicksy’s parents planted a tree for him there, to celebrate his first birthday.

23 years later, we decided to see if we could find that tree! Armed with an “X-marks the spot” map that Hicksy’s dad emailed us, we took the 1.5hr ferry ride to Tiri. It was cold and windy intitially, but in typical NZ style, the skies soon cleared and the day became crisp and bright. We opted for a guided walk with one of the volunteer guides, which was short and easy walking for unfit me. All guides on Tiri are volunteers, which speaks mountains for their dedication.

Along the way we saw some of the best views of birds that we have seen in New Zealand. Sugar-water feeding stands set up around the island mean that you can sit and watch rare stitch birds, tuis, NI saddlebacks,  bellbirds and whiteheads all hopping and flying within arm’s reach as they enjoy their sugary drink. You’re also able to get up close and personal with the takahe, one of the world’s rarest speicies that looks like the pukeko’s rugby-playing cousin.

While we didn’t find Hicksy’s specific tree (there were over 300 000 to look at!) we found one of the same species in roughly the right area, which was good enough for us. The real joy of the day was the proximity that I could get to the birds, which meant that my rubbish eyes could pick up all the intricate details of their feathers, and I could also get some decent pictures.

One of them's my tree! Maybe.

Tiritiri is a magical place, just the abundance and concentration of birds that have been on the brink of extinction really lifted my spirits. I also love how close it is to the city, an hour and a half on a boat and you feel like you’re in another world! Our guide, Stu (who takes an icy dip in the sea every time he visits Tiri) said that he felt like whatever was happening in the world, whatever stresses he was facing in his life, it only took him one trip to Tiri to remember that all’s not lost yet.

Waipoua Forest and the adjoining forests of Matarauna and Waima make up the largest native forest in Northland New Zealand. Just a 3 hour drive from Auckland, this is another accessible haven of native NZ wildlife, and most prominently, the kiwi.

The abundance of kiwis is almost overshadowed by the giant, magnificent kauri trees that tower above you and make you forget why you came in the first place. I have seen some big trees but daaaaaaamn! Once exploited, these trees are now protected in another outstanding effort by the New Zealand Department of Conservation. The trees also hold a special spiritual and cultural significance, for example the largest tree is known as Tane Mahuta, Lord of the Forest. In Maori cosmology, Tane is the son of Ranginui the sky father and Papatuanuku, the earth mother. Tane is said to have torn his parents apart, breaking their primal embrace, to bring light, space and air and allowing life to flourish. The tree is 51.5 meters tall with a trunk girth of 13.8 meters. That’s a big tree.

We arrived at the Top 10 backpackers in the Waipoua Forest at about 9pm, having driven there straight after work. The owners were welcoming and helpful, telling us that kiwi had been spotted just the night before. They lent us their red-light torch and a map and we set off on the track through the forest. On average, the circuit track takes about an hour to complete, although as usual, we took our time. It’s a very easy walk, most of it is along a deck to protect the delicate Kauri roots. What will hit you the most is the darkness, with the torch turned off it is a very disorientating, engulfing blackness. A bit like stepping into a jar of Vegemite.

Hicksy navigates the darkness

Again we were tormented with the screeches of the kiwis, trying our best to creep along the track as quietly as possible. In hindsight, I would have worn less squeaky shoes. We had a few close brushes with kiwis, hearing them in the bushes near us but not being able to see them. The walk is exciting, the darkness and the eeriness of the forest, and being surrounded by such massive trees makes it quite an adventure. There are also a few areas where you can see glow worms, weird little lights dangling from the rocks and overturned kauri stumps.

The track is well sign-posted with information about the trees, birds and bugs, and after a while we came to a little box with a button that said “press.” We pressed, and nothing happened. Then all of a sudden, a great deep voice boomed “KIA ORA,” sending Hicksy and I screaming about a mile into the air. “Well, that’s it for kiwis,” we thought after the voice had finished telling us the story of the tree behind it. We headed back to camp, once again disappointed.

And just as we reached the end of the track, just as we’d given up all hope, guess what we saw. There, next to the toilets, about 5 meters in front of us, rummaging around, was a kiwi. Cue more frozen smiles of excitement! The sighting was brief, the kiwi wandered into a little shrub garden next to the ladies loo, but we hung around and listened to it for a little while longer. Our 100% kiwi-spotting success rate was still intact!

While searching for the kiwis allows you to experience the kauri forest in a completely different way, in its all-encompassing darkness, it is still worth having a look during the day. We had a wander around the following morning and it was amazing how different everything looked and felt. The trees really are magnificent in their size and history. Some are thousands of years old. There’s not much other birdlife, but it doesn’t really matter as there is still plenty that will take your breath away.

Tree hug!

All three of these places are special in their own ways. Tiri and Waipoua are wonderful day trips from Auckland, a great way to get out of the city and experience ‘real’ New Zealand. Stewart Island is more of a weekend trip and you really do feel the seclusion and remoteness of the island. What thrilled me most is the almost fairy-tale way in which dedicated conservation efforts have brought birds back from the brink of extinction. I suppose it’s the way it is with kiwi spotting – just when you’re about to give up, the birds come out and surprise you.

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4 thoughts on “Life in an Empty Cathedral

  1. Rory says:

    You have managed to be both evocative and entertaining. I love this blog.

  2. katinka says:

    Makes me want to go back to NZ! Your writing style is very engaging, your voice is very clear. The places that you describe and your reactions would benefit, I think, from a little more clarification of the senses – what you smelt, how the earth felt to walk on it, (for example), to expand upon what you have already included, (the vegemite analogy is brilliant!) and how that might relate to the flora and fauna that you went to visit. But so far what you have written made me wonder about those things, and become curious about visiting, so I think the writing is very effective, anyway. Thanks for putting it up – I’ve yet to begin my assignments (and still trying to work out the technical set up aspects), and reading yours is inspiring. The down-to-earthness, I think, is what appeals to me the most.

    • Jacs says:

      Katinka, thank you so much for your kind words! I agree with you, I could have done a lot more with sensory descriptions. Sometimes it’s hard to know when enough is enough, I don’t want the article to be vague, yet I’m also aware of it becoming to ‘flowery.’ Good luck with your first assignment, I must say I emailed Julie non-stop doing this one, and she was really helpful and supportive, so if you need to know anything I would definitely recommend sending her a note. I look forward to reading your stuff! Jacqui

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