Cry of the Kiwi: A Family’s New Zealand Adventure, Book 1

 ONCE A LAND OF BIRDS

©2015 Magi Nams

 

November 10

Again, the Port Hills etch inviting peaks against clear sky. The Southern Alps beckon with snow-capped heights that rise high above the Canterbury Plain. I’m invaded by a restlessness that I can control only until mid-morning when the boys have completed their reading, writing, and arithmetic. Then I have to break free. “Let’s go to Lake Ellesmere,” I suggest. “Perhaps we’ll see some new birds there. And it’s close. We’ll be back for lunch.”

“But we haven’t finished all our schooling,” Jānis reminds me.

“You’ve done everything important. Besides, we can have a class in ornithology. That’s the study of birds.”

The lake is everything I need and more peaceful than I imagined. Still and serene, its surface reflects the Port Hills, a few cottony clouds, scattered clumps of tall rushes near shore, and hunters’ box-shaped wooden blinds built fifty metres or more out into the shallow water. My sons and I sit on an ancient weathered tree trunk, washed up onto the shore by some past storm, and gaze out over the lake. Its serenity and the sun’s surprisingly gentle warmth soak into us.

In the distance, white-faced herons tilt forward on long legs as they scan the water for prey. Pied stilts fly overhead, trailing long red legs. Mallards mutter in small rafts among black swans that sail away from us, their fuzzy beige offspring at their sides. Welcome swallows skim insects from the lake surface, their wings forming dark angles that dip and rise. Each swallow’s reflection in the lake is so perfect it seems that two swallows rather than one skim the surface, one from above and one from below. Like lovers, the two come together to kiss at the water’s surface then gracefully curve apart before coming together again.

For an hour, we watch the birds, soothed by a skylark’s song, lulled into lassitude by the ducks’ gabbling. No people, houses, or roads interrupt our quiet reverie. The lake, which is neither groomed into the manicured neatness of Lincoln yards nor bounded by the trimmed hedges bordering Canterbury pastures, stretches away before us to the horizon where mirages of trees and hunters’ huts dance on rippling air.

Stirred by the sun’s increasing heat, we stroll through a pasture jutting into the lake. The boys whistle brightly, as though our decision to move gave sudden permission for joyful sound. I note that the black swans don’t swim away when we stroll closer, as they did earlier. Near shore, two rusty-brown and blue-grey dabbling ducks with wide bills cruise past. I raise my binoculars to study their field marks and flip through my bird guide to identify them as male Australasian shovelers. Still, even with these movements that would normally be sufficient to startle wary birds into retreat, the black swans remain near.

Suddenly, I’m listening, really listening.

“It’s your whistling,” I tell the boys. “I think the swans like your whistling. Maybe they think you’re a new and interesting kind of bird.”

Jānis and Dainis laugh, delighted at being thought to be birds by another bird.

“Keep whistling,” I say.

The boys whistle louder and brighter than ever, and in a moment of sheer magic, the swans whistle back. Interspersed with gabbling, talking sounds, the birds issue deep, breathy notes like those produced when air is blown across the top of a long bamboo tube. The magic of the moment lights my sons’ eyes. They exuberantly continue their musical discussion with the resplendent black waterfowl while we walk farther out on the point so I can identify little shags perched on the tops of fence posts protruding from the lake. Like royal friends newly acquired and enjoying a novel and entertaining conversation, the black swans accompany us. They sail alongside the boys and blow their deep-toned flutes. It’s as though Dainis and Jānis are providing harmony for a symphony the swans have for too long performed alone.

With no watches among us, we don’t know what time it is, other than what our bellies tell us, and they say it’s time for food. Reluctantly, we bid the swans farewell, turn away from the point, and slog back through the sodden pasture.

Swarms of long-legged insects flush from thick clumps of tall rushes and hang about our faces. Above us, the male skylark continues to perform his display of territorial defence. He hovers high in the air, his wings beating madly, his song pouring down to earth.

We cross from the close-cropped pasture into one less recently grazed. The tall grass tugs at our boots, and we note that the October 12th gale washed flotsam far inland, leaving a dead swan and a brown crust on the grass that reaches as far as the willow-lined perimeter. Then we follow our stomachs home, like Winnie-the-Pooh did when he and Rabbit were lost in the forest after leading Tigger there.

On North Belt, we meet Vilis. “It was so peaceful and so big,” I tell him, trying to communicate the serenity we felt at Lake Ellesmere. “There were no houses and no roads.”

He laughs. “And no cyclists zooming past or climbers scrambling.”

“Exactly! And the swans whistled back to the boys.” I relate our experience. Then he’s on his way to Landcare, and my sons and I return home with the lake, the sun, and the swans still stirring our souls.

 

November 11

Mission: find palm trees for desperate palm seeker.

Destination: Nīkau Palm Gully, Banks Peninsula.

After Vilis and Jānis return from the rink, we drive south on the Christchurch–Akaroa Road. If we were in Nova Scotia on this Canadian Remembrance Day, the boys and Vilis (a Cub leader) would be preparing to march with the Cubs and Scouts down the main street of Tatamagouche in the Remembrance Day Parade, and we would all attend the memorial service in Sharon United Church honouring the war dead. But we’re here in New Zealand, which along with Australia, honours its war dead on April 25th. (We later learned that April 25th commemorates the loss of Kiwi and Aussie soldiers at Gallipoli.)

Near Birdlings Flat, we make the right-angle turn and follow the highway beyond Lake Forsyth into the heart of Banks Peninsula. From Cooptown to Barry’s Bay, the road twists, climbs, and drops like a serpent writhing in pain as it traverses the broad tongue of land between the head of Lake Forsyth and that of Akaroa Harbour. Lush vegetation edges the road, with no gorse in sight. Red and white swirling designs on rock walls create vivid natural artworks against the backdrop of green.

Beyond Barry’s Bay, we detour to Ōnawe Pā Historic Reserve, a nugget of land shaped like a tear drop, which on a map hangs like a pendant from the north shore of Akaroa Harbour. An island when the tide is high, the reserve was once occupied by a Māori fortress or pā. This morning, with the tide low, we cross from the mainland to the historic reserve on a narrow rocky ridge, its top pocked with tide pools. Once across, the ridge climbs steeply and exposes red clay flanks and nodding grasses and wildflowers. It broadens into a grassy hillock on which we can distinguish the only as long lines of dirt mounds with a single mound at the end of the reserve, nearest the ridge. Quickly, we scramble down the ridge to return to the mainland.

A dozen kilometres past the inland tip of Akaroa Harbour, we reach the small town of Akaroa, which nestles on the shore of French Bay and creeps back toward the slopes of ancient Akaroa Volcano. Although it’s the largest urban centre on the harbour, the town bears no likeness whatsoever to Lyttelton. Whereas Lyttelton bustles with the action and noise inherent in a port town, Akaroa exudes a relaxed “summer home” atmosphere. French names adorning road signs are the legacy of settlers who arrived in 1840, only ten years after Te Rauparaha’s murderous rampage during the Musket Wars, and mere days after the Union Jack was raised to proclaim British sovereignty. The French settlers chose to remain even under British rule, and their influence lives on.

Beyond Akaroa, we follow the harbour’s shore, then drive inland to a sheep station that’s the trailhead for both Nīkau Palm Gully Track and the far longer Banks Peninsula Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. The hiking phase of our mission begins on the station’s hilly pastures. At its start, Nīkau Palm Gully Track is roomy and grazed by sheep less wary than most we’ve come across. It leads us over close-cropped grass and through thickets of mānuka, a low-growing tree that’s considered to be a nursery species for regenerating forests although some farmers think it’s a weed. The boys climb, laughing, onto rounded “sit-able” shrubs. Some of the tiny-leaved plants thrust into the sky like bizarre sculptures.

In the pastures, we experience numerous close encounters of the woolly kind. Young sheep with undocked tails frolic like wild creatures on green slopes high above the magnetic blue of Akaroa Harbour. In the distance, gulls spin in circles around a fishing boat almost invisible on the harbour’s turquoise. Beyond the boat, the massive, vertical cliffs of Timutimu Head, on the far side of the harbour, rise from the water.

As we approach the gully, the track skirts rocky cliffs and ends at a wooden gate. A stile beckons us over a fence, and we follow a narrow path down into a rare example of what remains of the native Banks Peninsula coastal forest. In single file, we slide down a slope of rich brown soil, descend a newly built ladder, and cling to vines and trees while slithering down a steep, rocky slope. Above us, leafy tree branches interlace to form a dense, shading canopy. The trunks of widely spaced nīkau palms, which Jānis has so much wanted to see, push up through the canopy like pale cement poles that end in upward-flaring clusters of leaves.

It’s dark and dank beneath the forest’s roof. Yellow and red containers labelled “danger poison” hang from the trees, their poisoned baits intended for brushtail possums. Like many other feral mammals in this country, possums are fair game anytime and anywhere. They’re colloquially called “coons,” a fact Vilis discovered while reading Kiwi outdoorsman Charlie Janes’s hunting and flying adventures in Time for a Brew and Possum on a Cold Tin Roof. Photographs on the covers of Janes’s books show a tanned man attired very much like the Ashley’s Tow & Taxi driver, except that the driver’s wool jersey is replaced by a camouflage jacket. Photographs within the books display airplanes, rifles, hunting dogs, and the carcasses of shot feral deer and pigs.

On the gully floor, we scramble over moss-covered boulders edging a rocky stream, lured by the sound of falling water. Around us, the coastal forest is a gloomy tangle of shrubs, ferns, and young nīkau with individual leaflets that are as long as Jānis is tall.

“Don’t touch that tree!” I warn, pointing to a tree nettle (ongaonga). Its many thin branches end in toothed leaves barbed with white stinging hairs. “See the hairs on the leaves? They can inject enough toxin to cause severe pain or, if someone touches a lot of them, even death. My guidebook says that horses and dogs have died after contact with tree nettle, and so did at least one tramper.” That tramper decided the quickest route to a destination was through a
stand of the toxic shrubs.

Our upstream hike ends beside a pool at the base of a sheer wall. The cliff face is green with mosses and ferns and slick from moisture that falls a dozen metres and sounds like rain. The pool mesmerizes us, its blue-green colour emphasized by concentric ripples that emanate from its centre, into which the gentle waterfall spills. Shadows and moisture surround us. This sheltered forest is the antithesis of the exposed pastures through which we hiked to arrive here. In Nīkau Palm Gully, as in others like it between rocky headlands that drop to the ocean, we catch a glimpse of what existed before humans set foot on this land.

After our tramp, we return to Akaroa where we watch a glassblower shape exquisite vases from vivid coloured glass, and revel in the green fire of jade carvings displayed in art galleries. Red-billed gulls strut near a picnic table beside the harbour, hoping to share our hoki and chips beneath a sky so clear and sweet with warmth I wish the evening would never end.

My sons are cheerful and sweet, too, on the long drive to Lincoln. To relieve the tedium, we play the end-letter, beginning-letter word game, this time testing our alphabetical-Aotearoan acumen (Aotearoa is the Māori name for this country): New Zealand. Democracy. Yellowhead. Dolphins. South Island. Dock. Kiwi. Irises. Sensational views. Song thrush. Hiwi the Kiwi. Impudent children. North Island. Dinner (not lunch). Raptors. Scotch broom. Mānuka. Akaroa…

Hours later, in the darkness of Lincoln’s oncoming night, we all stride to the rugby field to cap this day for Jānis. Leftover fireworks we bought for Guy Fawkes Day flame and sizzle against the night while my younger son dances with joy.

 

 

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