The International Writers Magazine: Part One
The Moa Stalker
John M Edwards
Bumbling into a Big Bird better than Popeye’s (or even Boston Market and 'The Colonel’s') in a primary rainforest on a remote New Zealand isle, John M. Edwards raves, 'Don’t mess with dinner!'
In Auckland, New Zealand, I was roosting in the common room of this crap budget flophouse, perusing my guidebook and gearing up to fly to Fiji soon despite a recent military coup, when the heated roundtable discussion of the relative cleanliness and cheapness of Kiwi backpacker hostels was interrupted by a scruffy young dolebludger:
“Hey, did you hear about the Yank who got stuck out in the bush on Stewart Island and had to be rescued?”
My eyes fluttered off the South Pacific map and up, up.
He wasn’t talking to me, nor did he know he was talking about me!
New Zealand is a small world. In the “other downunder,” word travels quickly and it doesn’t take much at all to get famous. Still, it was somewhat disconcerting to be discussed so recklessly in the third person. Like a funereal fly on the wall, I eavesdropped, feeling an odd admixture of pride and paranoia as the mercurial messenger embellished on the tale of my bad trip of two months ago, even venturing an apocryphal comparison of yours truly with the Wild Boy of Aveyron. For my part, I led him on incognito with the occasional smartass question.
In so-called Abel Tasman’s Land, I experienced the premature letdown of my fifteen minutes of fame.
I flew to the Antipodes where the stars are different and water circles counterclockwise down the drain, then went off in search of a fabulous lost bird.
Like the ancient Maoris before me, who circa 1000 A.D. paddled ashore in their ornately carved canoes, donned their mystical jade talismans, tattooed their faces, brandished their sharp spears and akeake clubs, and barbecued this largest species of land bird to ever walk the earth, I had arrived in The Land of the Long White Cloud to hunt down the Moa.
While no Sinbad’s Roc, Dinornus maximus (the Moa), a flightless native New Zealander resembling the ostrich and distantly related to the kiwi, was still the very stuff of nightmare Thanksgivings. British colonial sketches pictured a kind of benevolent-looking creature like Big Bird from Sesame Street, but without the goofy expression and cheery yellow feathers. In Following the Equator, Mark Twain claimed that the “Moa stood thirteen feet tall, and could step over an ordinary man’s head or kick his hat off; and his head, too, for that matter.” On average, though, this terra-firma-bound, weak-winged, furry dark bird -- if this monstrorum artifex can fairly be dubbed a “bird” -- stood ten feet tall and weighed in at a whopping quarter ton. Unlike most topheavy flying birds, she bore a flattened sternum like the breastplate of a medieval Maltese knight; her terrible swift beak could descend like a plastic cocktail bird toy and crack open a human skull as if it were a farm-fresh egg. An insatiable herbivore, she could hop unimaginable distances in relentless pursuit of grass, leaves, berries, seeds, and her only natural enemy: man.
Any way you sliced it, this bird meant business. Big business. Even Colonel Sanders would have winced with orgiastic delight digging into a bucket of their gamey gargantuan buffalo wings. Still the idea of attempting to purloin an oversize pre-Purdue oven stuffer with a temperamental flock of Food of the Gods chooks hopping behind at 40 m.p.h. quite frankly gave me the heebie jeebies. I’d track down this fearsome poultry giantess, yes, but not with an elephant gun; instead, I’d shoot her with a duty-free autofocus Nikon, zooming in from a great distance away.
The only real problem was that the Moa was now supposedly extinct.
“Won’t find no Moas round here, just a luttle fesh ‘n’ chups and mooshy peas at the pub,” said Gavin, a ginger-haired South Island sheepshearer, squinting up at me with a Winfield cigarette tucked into an impish grin. He wore a fuzzy brown Swandri parka and was doing a fair job of fleecing the golf balls off a bleating cloud of mutton. “You’ll be lucky to spot even a kiwi, mate.”
A silent Maori truckie had just deposited me at a sheep station outside Dunedin (Celtic for “Edinburgh”), a foggy Victorian city whose Cadbury factory makes the whole area stink of chocolate. After seven months of hitchhiking in the Southern Hemisphere (six months in Australia and already a month in New Zealand’s South Island), I couldn’t help thinking that I’d somehow taken a wrong turn, scaled Hadrian’s Wall, and ended up upside-down in the land of the Picts.
“Now, if you’re keen on baggin’ a kiwi instead,” Gavin shouted, razoring away amid the piping castrato pleas of the bah-bah, “go for a lookaround on Stewart Island. Nothing but bloody birds and poms [“prisoners of Mother England”] huntin’ and trampin’ all over the bloody bush.”
I noticed with alarm that the shivery razor-nicked sheep was sporting a long bushy tail!
Gavin explained that his sheep were bound for Iran and that all sheep do have tails, of course, until they are hacked off to the nub -- from the look of it, for sage reasons of hygiene. The Persians, he told me, slaughter their sheep wholesale by slitting their throats facing Mecca, with outlandish ceremonial daggers. There are over seventy million sheep and only three million people in Abel Tasman’s Land. Neither species is native to New Zealand.
Since the last Moa was reportedly offed in the early 19th century, I adjusted my plans accordingly. Now my sights were more modestly set on capturing on Kodak 100-speed film a negative nocturnal kiwi, as absurd a bird as ever winglessly walked the earth. But if mildewy mammoth Moa skeletons were still unearthed throughout New Zealand to decorate museum wildlife displays and dioramas, wasn’t it at least possible that a modern Moa refugee camp lay hidden away somewhere in the barmy bush?
Anything was possible in the world’s strangest topographical dreamscape, where fjordlands (Milford Sound), alps (Mount Cook), and glaciers at sea level (Franz Joseph and Fox glaciers) lay only a couple of hours away from active volcanoes (Tongariro National Park), tropical beaches (Coramandel Peninsula), and primary rainforests (Stewart Island). Way off the beaten track on Stewart Island, a place chockablock with rare endemic species of warmblooded flightless vertebrates, I hoped to find my bird -- a bird that like man wasn’t meant to fly, but unlike man still had the clipped remnants of wings.
I bussed it to flat and featureless Invercargill, the gateway to Stewart Island. Invercargill’s only other claim to fame was that its museum held a real live tuatara -- the only true reptile to survive the age of the dinosaurs. If this last South Island outpost had managed to trap a prehistoric Mesozoic “lizard,” I reflected during the prop plane flight over the Foveaux Strait toward an uncertain future, what other evolutionary curiosities would I find a little farther south toward Antarctica, in the little lost world of Stewart Island? As the “Tierra del Fuego” of New Zealand, the remote third island was not only an unspoiled “tramper’s paradise” but also the closest you could get to the South Pole and still down a schooner of beer in a pub. Like every traveler who makes it this far, I at least wanted to get a T-shirt from the famous South Sea Hotel.
From above, I fancied the island looking like it was about to hatch.
I had a major score to settle, you see, with our little feathered friends.
Months earlier, I was riding a bike in the lush green countryside of New South Wales, Australia, when the magpie attacked.
It came swiftly and hit like a premonition.
A savage Woody Woodpecker beak repeatedly rogered holes into the back of my head until I squeezed the brakes, flew headfirst over the handlebars, and landed in a nest of tall grasses. With prehistoric shrieks of bird and blood beating in my ears like the thrumming pulse of pterodactyl wings, I prepared to rip the magpie apart with my bare hands. An animal moment. But the avaricious avian assassin just fluttered off into the wild blue yonder, shrilling Hitchcockian curses: Tippi Hedren! Tippi Hedren!
The pain had been quite unlike anything I’d ever experienced.
“Ya can’t get too close to their nests!” said the scarecrowy farmer later, stinging the warm sticky back of my head with a whiskey-soaked rag. In the fierce sunlight, firefly phantoms buzzed; I felt dizzy, like crying. “They’re just protecting their young? Same thing happened to a sepo [Septic Tank Yank = American] just last week? Luckily around here magpies go for the back of the head? Another breed goes straight for the eyes? Get that, mate? Straight for the eyes! People wear caps with buttons sewn on back to fool ‘em?” The farmer’s gawky pet Emu pecked awkwardly outside the barn, orbiting within the limits of her chain.
“Are ya a Yank? No wuckin’ furries, mate! I thought you were maybe Canadian? Where ya from? How long ya been in Oz?”
I was from New York and beginning to feel the gravitational pull of homesickness. Until that moment I knew almost nothing about birds, except that I had just nearly been killed by one.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the natural world was a frightening and bewildering place. Those How and Why Wonder Books I read as a juvenile could not have prepared me for any of this. In Australia, there was a plant called a “stinging tree” that secreted a poison so powerful that one simply died from the pain: I’d heard plenty of rumors of what happened to campers squatting in Queensland rainforests and grabbing the nearest leaves. There was also that newspaper item about a man taken by a saltwater crocodile right out of his tent near Darwin in Kakadu National Park, matter-of-factly drowned in a “death roll,” and stuck under a riverbank to decompose. The only problem being that the half-chewed man woke up in medias res, muttering, “How in earth did I get here?!”
What was I doing here? So far, I’d swum in a lake full of floating logs that turned out to be freshwater crocodiles, which supposedly don’t attack humans (Catherine Gorge), I’d nearly sat down on an outhouse seat beneath which lived a poisonous redback spider (Coober Pedy); I’d inadvertently allowed a poisonous taipan to slither menacingly across my toes (Magnetic Island); I’d been pestered by lepers in a pub, even though dry leprosy, they say, isn’t contagious (Broome); I’d met folk who knew surfies who’d lost their legs to Great White sharks, and I gave windsurfing a go anyway (Perth); and I’d entered a remote mining town straight out of Wes Craven’s “The Hills Have Eyes,” and quite promptly fled (Tasmania). I couldn’t wait to leave this puzzling jigsaw piece of the former supercontinent of Gondwanaland. My Australian visa was almost up; I’d soon be forced onward to New Zealand anyway.
Unlike the oldest continent in the world, relatively new New Zealand had no dangerous animals or snakes and only one poisonous spider (the ketipo), but it did have lots and lots of birds. Many of them who couldn’t be bothered flying anymore and preened and strutted about the place as if it were they who lorded it over the earth. In fact, the whole godforsaken antipodal demesne had literally become a retirement home for strange endemic species of uncompetitive birds, who had bred and evolved for over a hundred million years in isolation, unmolested by predatory mammals. This time I’d go prepared.
Who knew what exactly might be hiding out there in the bush?
Part Two continued here
© John Edwards March 2010
The Late Great Bruce Chatwin:The Great Pretender
John M Edwards
Obsessed with nomads, he became one himself, ditching two successful careers, as Sotheby’s art expert and Sunday Times columnist, to roam the exotic edges of the literary wilderness