From the shrubbery comes a sound like a güiro being scraped by an unmusical child in a school assembly. Then Quammen struts forward, with brilliant patches of deep blue on his body and a huge red beak primed to cut like weaponised garden secateurs.
“He’s missing his mate, bless him,” says Sue Hensley, head guide at the Orokonui Ecosanctuary just outside Dunedin. “She’s gone to hospital to get her injured wing fixed. We had to temporarily put him inside this enclosure because he kept wandering further and further down the valley trying to find her, and he wasn’t eating properly.”
That Quammen is here at all is remarkable. He’s a takahe — a rare, flightless bird — and in 1898, what was thought to be the last of his ancestors was shot and stuffed. For 50 years, the species was assumed to have gone the way of so many of New Zealand’s native birds: hunted into extinction by humans and the interlopers they brought with them.
But in 1948, Dr Geoffrey Orbell set off into the Murchison Mountains in the South Island’s remote and rainy Fiordland region. There, he discovered footprints he hadn’t seen before, and they led him to a tiny population of takahe in a valley. They’d managed to survive, unseen and unbothered, for half a century. Careful management since then has ensured that there are now around 260 takahe, including 50 breeding pairs. Some are in the Murchison Mountains, others in predator-free sanctuaries such as Orokonui.
The sanctuary is a phenomenally ambitious project, with the eventual aim of restoring a 760-acre habitat to how it would have been before humans arrived in New Zealand. In order to do this, a five-mile long, predator-proof fence has been erected around the outside, and all introduced species have been systematically eradicated from the forest within it. This gives creatures such as the tuatara — an indigenous reptile that was around when dinosaurs roamed the earth — a fighting chance.
“Mammals wiped them out apart from on a few tiny offshore islands,” says Sue Hensley. “This is the furthest south they’ve been in 200 to 300 years.”
Tuatara are not that well-equipped for the modern world. They take a decade or two to reach sexual maturity, the females only lay eggs every four years, and those soft-shelled eggs sit in the ground for over nine months. To the average rat or stoat, that presents an incredibly easy, free meal.
Similar evolutionary disasters have befallen another of the sanctuary’s inhabitants, the Haast tokoeka. The rarest of all kiwi subspecies (there are only around 250 left), their comical, feathered bottoms can be found bobbing along the tracks at night. If the youngsters feel threatened, they instinctively stop dead in their tracks and stay perfectly still. This is a wonderful form of defence against aerial predators such as the Haast’s eagle, as it makes them very difficult to see. But it’s utterly disastrous against ground-based attack.
To understand why New Zealand’s native species are so utterly hapless, it’s necessary to look into the paleoecological past. New Zealand broke off from the Gondwana supercontinent around 85 million years ago, well before the rise of mammals. It, therefore, developed in splendid isolation from the rest of the world. Conditions were so benign for the creatures living there that they evolved to suit the utopian setting. Birds stopped flying, and got much bigger. Without the evolutionary imperative to adapt, long lifespans, leisurely childhoods, lengthy gaps between breeding and only giving birth to one or two young at a time became the norm.
This was all well and good until 800-1,000 years ago, practically an eye-blink in evolutionary terms, when the Polynesian descendants of today’s Maori arrived. It became one of the last land masses on Earth to become exposed to human settlement — indeed, there are some living trees in New Zealand that have been there for longer than humans have. The Maori brought with them rats and dogs, and a catastrophe began to unfold for the native species. Death no longer only came from above, and the ability to adapt quickly had been bred out over the millennia. The larger birds — such as the 11ft tall, 500lb moa — proved too tasty and were hunted into extinction.
The Europeans then arrived in the 18th century and added several extra layers of devastation. Around 90% of the wetlands were wiped out, vast tracts of slow-growing forest were cleared for farmland and all manner of exotic creatures were introduced. Rabbits, possums and deer destroyed habitat; new rat species, cats and mustelids (stoats, weasels and ferrets) happily gorged on the ridiculously easy prey.
Mercifully, New Zealanders cottoned on to conservation relatively early. An act to protect forests from burn-off was established in 1885, the first island reserve was set aside in 1893 and a Scenery Preservation Act was passed in 1903. Around 33% of the country’s land area is now under some form of environmental protection, and it’s not just government agencies putting in the hard work. On one Otago Peninsula sheep farm, the owners have taken up the cause of the yellow-eyed penguin. Penguin Place is merely one in a series of animal attractions, but the effort that has gone into it is remarkable. Around 10% of the McGrowther family farm has been set aside for the penguins, there’s a hospital for the injured and little nesting boxes have been built into the hillsides.
Of the 17 penguin species in the world, the yellow-eyed is the most solitary. Unfortunately, this lack of sociability has also helped make it the most endangered. They don’t like being able to see their neighbours when they’re nesting, and prefer to set up home in the bush. Alas, coastal farms have seen a lot of that bush wiped out, so the penguins are left sitting in the sun, where they can’t regulate their body temperature properly. The chicks can be killed off by the summer heat — especially on 30C days.
The poor things are also terrified of humans. If they see us, they freeze in the hope we’ll leave, and this can lead to heart attacks. This is why Penguin Place has installed a series of World War I-style trenches, along which visitors can creep and observe the penguins without disturbing them.
Given that the penguins don’t migrate, staff get to know the different characters rather well. “It’s a bit of a soap opera here,” says the guide, as he leads a gaggle of us through the trench. “A fair few affairs. A bit of domestic violence.”
By each nest, there’s a little sign giving details of the inhabitants and their breeding history. Jim is the oldest resident, his 21 years far outlasting the average six-year life span. “He’s now with Maggie. But he was once with Jess, until she ran off with Brian,” runs the abridged account of the love life of this avian Ian Beale. “Then he got together with Sarah, but when she disappeared, he got back with Jess again.”
Flight of the albatross
Hopefully, Maggie will come back in the evening, but she’s out fishing. They take it in turns to guard the nest while an egg is waiting to hatch. Jim stoically looks out to the horizon — the yellow stripes around his eyes a similar shape to Denis Healey’s bushy eyebrows — his soon-to-be new son or daughter kept safe and warm beneath him.
Jim and Maggie aren’t the only birds to call the peninsula home; their slightly more graceful compatriots live further along the coast. The Taiaroa Headland is home to the world’s only human-inhabited ‘mainland’ albatross colony. A former military fort there has been turned into a viewing hide. But seeing these birds tottering on terra firma is like staring at fireworks when they’re still in the box. It’s only when we’re on the deck of the MV Monarch — chugging across Otago Harbour, then around the headland — that we get to glimpse these big birds properly unfurled. Wingspans reach 9ft, and the effortlessness of the flight is hypnotic. They skim over the surface of the water with fixed wings. There’s no flustered flapping, just icy, mesmerising calm.
Consistently strong winds around the headland are a dream for an albatross, and having the continental shelf just six miles offshore makes it a hugely fruitful feeding ground. Shearwaters, gulls and boisterously aggressive petrels join the throng, and the circling birdlife fills the sky like planes around Heathrow at peak hour.
Skipper Nigel Young’s deep fascination with the albatross shines through. “There have been full-time rangers here since the 1950s and they know a lot about the birds through the tracking devices put on them,” he says, steering the boat towards a fur seal lugging itself up the rocks. “Albatross spend around 85% of their lives at sea, and can fly 620 miles in a day. But the most incredible journey is the first one.”
The parents will only guard the nest for a month, although they’ll continue bringing food back to the chicks for around eight months. But once the happily fattened chick steps off the headland, it will not return to land for four years. Sometimes, on their first flight, they’ll fly to the Chilean coast without stopping to eat or sleep. The first day in a new job doesn’t get more extreme.
Further round the coast, where the Pacific Ocean has safely given way to the Southern Ocean, the Southern Scenic Route kicks in properly. A 380-mile drive linking Dunedin and Queenstown, the route takes the little-travelled, long way round, skirting the very bottom of South Island.
The first chunk heads through the Catlins, a drowsy world of farms, forests and tumbling streams. It’s an unharried region of limited real-world intrusion — geared to squelchy woodland trails — and buffeted, end-of-the-world headlands.
The native podocarp forest at Kaka Point — liberally lashed with ferns at the lower levels — is a haven for birdlife. Flitting wings brush through the coniferous canopy, and the birdsong soundtrack is ceaseless. If you find yourself foolishly unarmed with binoculars or birding books, it becomes a case of using imagination rather than identification. One native sounds like a swinging gate in need of oiling, another like a fruit machine paying out, another the bass intro to Everlasting Love, by Love Affair. It’s almost more fun not having the faintest clue what you’re listening to.
At the end of the road is Nugget Point, where an old, wind-wracked lighthouse stares out towards Antarctica, thousands of miles away. Below, it’s possible to see the black wings of the gulls as they and dozens of other seabird species glide by. Blubbered up to withstand the bone-chilling cold of the water, fur seals merrily feed on the kelp that’s been forced into narrow channels by the irrepressible swells.
Stand there long enough, and sea lions, orca, southern right whales and dusky dolphins will pass.
As the route heads into New Zealand’s forgotten southern depths, the walking trails alternate. For every ancient rainforest idyll that looks like Jurassic Park — but with thundering waterfalls replacing velociraptors — there’s a viciously exposed, brooding clifftop where the raindrops feel like bullets.
Elsewhere, beaches have traces of petrified wood in the rocks, and tiny islets become part of the mainland at low tide. Yet it’s what’s on the horizon that becomes more alluring — as the white-capped mountains of Fiordland draw ever closer. Te Anau is the closest Fiordland gets to having a big smoke, although it’s barely more than a resort village. It sits next to the large, spindly-armed and deceptively deep Lake Te Anau, which has been carved out by retreating glaciers. The eastern shore is all merino wool, trekking gear shops and rustic-chic restaurants, but take a water taxi over to the west and it’s a road-free wilderness — apart from the odd Department of Conservation hut, put up for masochistic walkers taking on multi-day hikes.
There’s also a rather special cave system. The Maori had long referred to a ‘cave of the swirling water’ on the western side of the lake, but its location had been lost. In 1948, the co-owner of the transport company that’s now Real Journeys rediscovered it. The waterfalls and whirlpools were expected, but something very unexpected was found further inside.
Since then, it’s been turned into a well-honed tourism operation. A catamaran cruise takes visitors to the cave and metal walkways lead the climbers through it, with pure snowmelt water running underfoot. And then the trail ends, right next to a rather ordinary-looking metal boat.
Once boarded, passengers are urged to remain absolutely silent. The guide pushes the boat off into a quiet stretch of the subterranean river, then turns off the cave’s light switches as well as his torch.
The darkness doesn’t last for long. The cave roof and walls begin to twinkle, with clusters of spotty white lights breaking into life. They’re glowworms, a disingenuously cute name for gnat larvae that create light in order to trap prey on dangling, cobweb-like tendrils. But once all grisly thoughts about what they really are have been parked, a magic spell takes over. There’s a feeling of dreamy disembodiment, of floating aimlessly under an endless night sky. A powerful, trance-like sense of drifting into the afterlife and being serenely overjoyed about it takes over. The silence holds long after the boat has docked. There’s a dazed, shared emotion that no one wants to pierce.
Waiting for the catamaran back to Te Anau, display boards explain the natural wonders inside and outside the caves. On the map describing the topography, one name suddenly rings a bell. Behind the cave are the Murchison Mountains, where Quammen the takahe’s relatives were rediscovered. In the virtually inaccessible valleys, the bird that came back from the dead roams undisturbed. Who knows what other remnants of pre-human life could be hidden away up there?
The Southern Scenic Route is best done as a loop from Christchurch (taking in Queenstown and Mount Cook). From Heathrow, Singapore Airlines offers one-stop flights to Christchurch. Two-stop alternatives with varying stopovers are available to Dunedin and Queenstown with Air New Zealand, Korean Air, Etihad and Emirates, among others. The latter two have departures from regional UK airports.
Average flight time: 25h.
A car is the best way to see this region, as public transport is poor. Pick a vehicle up at Christchurch airport.
When to go
The climate in the south of South Island is similar to Northern England, albeit with the seasons reversed. Summer (December to March) is warmer, although accommodation prices are higher.
Need to know
Visas: None needed.
Currency: New Zealand dollar (NZD). £1 = NZ$2.
International dialling code: 00 64.
Time: GMT +12 (GMT +11 from early April to late September).
New Zealand’s South Island (Lonely Planet). RRP: £13.99.
A Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, by Julian Fitter (Field Guides). RRP: £16.99.
Tourism New Zealand.
Department of Conservation.
Southern Scenic Route.
How to do it
Responsible Travel has a 21-night trip around both islands, with a focus on wildlife-spotting experiences, from £2,650 per person, including car hire and accommodation, but not international flights.
Cox & Kings has a three-week, tailor-made tour of South Island from £2,450 per person, with car hire, four-star accommodation and breakfast.
Published in the June 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)