Tramping Abel Tasman Coast Track, South Island, New Zealand (© Vilis Nams)

On Abel Tasman Coast Track, South Island, New Zealand (© Vilis Nams)

All my life, I’ve dreamed of travelling to far-away countries to hike through exotic landscapes inhabited by animals and plants I’ve seen in National Geographic or on television. In the year 2000, that dream first came true when my husband, two sons, and I left our rural home in Nova Scotia, Canada, and spent 10 months in New Zealand.

Our sojourn on the far side of the world was my family’s first extended absence from Canada. As we made our final preparations to travel there, we were filled with excitement at the prospect of hiking on volcanoes and exploring tangled rainforests – maybe we’d even see a kiwi! – but we also had qualms. Would the tenant renting our house take good care of it? Would our pet cats remember us when we returned? Would we like New Zealand? Would the kids make friends? Would we be safe?

We didn’t pack much to take with us to New Zealand – some clothes, a laptop computer, our binoculars, skates, sleeping bags, and a box of school books. We arrived wide-eyed and unsure of what to expect. We departed inspired and broadened in ways I had never imagined. Our New Zealand adventure opened our eyes to the world and helped make us who we are.

My Cry of the Kiwi Trilogy: A Family’s New Zealand Adventure began as observations I had scribbled in small notebooks during my family’s travels and outdoor adventures in New Zealand, and entries in our homeschooling journal. While living in New Zealand, I roughed out a few ‘NZ stories’ intended for a private memoir. After our return to Canada, a persistent internal voice told me I should write more of our adventures and turn them into a book. However, other responsibilites intruded, with the result that Cry of the Kiwi Trilogy was 13 years in the making and became not one book, but three – South Island I: Once a Land of Birds; North Island: This Dark, Thick Sheltering Forest; and South Island II: Tangy with the Salt of the Tasman Sea.

Now Cry of the Kiwi Trilogy is nearing publication. My editor has made a second pass through the manuscripts and will return her comments to me any day – maybe today! I’ve roughed out cover designs and am in the process of choosing photographs to include in the books. Then I’ll draw maps, write glossaries, polish covers (cover reveal in my next book post!), and make final changes to the manuscripts before my editor proofs them. The road to indie publication is a long one with steep learning curves, but it’s one that gives me full control over my project and a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

As our New Zealand adventure drew to a close in 2001, I realized that the heart of that country – sister nation to Canada in so many ways – lay as much in its people as in its riveting landscapes and intriguing native flora and fauna.

Thank you, New Zealand, for the adventure of a lifetime. Perhaps my family’s story will inspire other families to go adventuring far from home.  Kia ora.

Below, I’ve included an excerpt from the trilogy’s first book, which will be released March, 2015. Enjoy!


Once a Land of Birds

© 2015 Magi Nams

August 9, 2000

Orange streaks flare against the night like a beckoning light at the end of the world. I stare out a window at waning darkness while my husband and two sons sleep onboard the Air New Zealand jet. A strip of cloud below the jet looks like thick smoke tinged the colour of ripe muskmelon by the rising sun. Through gaps in the cloud, I see steel-blue waves that look like beaten metal, and brown peaks like the humps of stampeding bison. A thrill runs through me. This is it! These are my first glimpses of Nieuw Zeeland, so named by Dutch geographers for their coastal province of Zeeland. To the Māori, whose ancestors arrived from Polynesia centuries before the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sailed in search of a southern continent in 1642, this is Aotearoa, ‘Land of the Long White Cloud.’

At 5:00 a.m., darkness cloaks Auckland International Airport. Groggy from jetlag after flying half way around the world, my family trudges through New Zealand Customs. We’re detained by a sniffer dog, a beagle who’s detected the scent of fruit emanating from my daypack. If I had any fruit, it would be a contravention of New Zealand’s strict biosecurity regulations intended to prevent pests and diseases from entering the country, however I ate the last dried apricot somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. We’re released from the dog’s inspection and comply with directions that lead us through the airport and beyond its doors. A caress of warm air in the southern winter startles us.

“Look! There’s a palm tree!” My younger son’s voice is filled with wonder.

Despite our travel weariness, the sight of those gracefully curved, exotic leaves sparks excitement in us. We’re four Canadians 18 000 kilometres away from our home – an old farm in Nova Scotia – where palm trees definitely do not grow outdoors. I’m a writer and birder. My husband Vilis is a wildlife biologist and professor. Our 12-year-old son Dainis and 9-year-old son Jānis grew up running around in the woods and are fountains of endless curiosity. They love sports, Scouting, and building with Lego. [A note on pronunciations: Vilis rhymes with Phyllis, Magi sounds like Maggie, Dainis is pronounced ‘Dine-is’, and Jānis is pronounced ‘Yawn-is’.]

We’ve come to New Zealand because of that animal Kiwi conservationists wish didn’t exist in their country – the stoat. A stoat is a kind of weasel. It’s been declared public enemy number one of New Zealand’s native birds, particularly this country’s national icon and unofficial symbol, the kiwi. You know the kiwi – dumpy and flightless, almost blind, and with a long beak like a poker. It’s the reason New Zealanders are colloquially called ‘Kiwis.’ All five kiwi species face possible extinction, and stoats – which prey on kiwi chicks – are one of the main culprits threatening kiwi survival. This is where Vilis enters the picture. He’s in New Zealand to assume a short-term position with Landcare Research, a government agency that studies and manages terrestrial ecosystems. His research will be aimed at helping to rid New Zealand of stoats.

The Kiwi’s Arch Enemy

The stoat story in New Zealand is one of good intentions gone wrong with devastating results. Stoats (Mustela erminea) are slender brown weasels with white bellies and black-tipped tails. Agile carnivores, they’re native to Northern Hemisphere countries where they hunt rodents, birds, rabbits, and hares. In 1884, English colonists brought stoats to New Zealand to try to control exploding populations of rabbits – earlier introduced for sport hunting. Since New Zealand has no native terrestrial mammalian carnivores, the idea was to bring some in from elsewhere to deal with the rabbits. The stoats spread throughout New Zealand and did indeed hunt rabbits, however, they also killed vast numbers of native birds and now threaten the survival of New Zealand’s beloved kiwi.

As we stand in the warm Auckland darkness staring at a palm tree, I feel my family’s horizons stretch. What adventures will the next 10 and a half months in this country bring? For one of those months, Dainis, Jānis, and I will help Vilis live-trap and radio-track stoats at a research site in the Tongariro Forest Conservation Area on North Island, the northernmost half of this country. During the remainder of our sojourn, we’ll be based near the Landcare Research branch in Lincoln, a township 20 kilometres southwest of Christchurch in the South Island province of Canterbury. There, as a family, we’ll embark on a homeschooling and outdoor adventure odyssey intended to immerse us in New Zealand’s history, culture, landscapes, flora, and fauna. As for me personally, I have three goals for my time in New Zealand: lots of hiking, lots of birding, and lots of writing. We’ve been fortunate to receive the travel and education opportunity of a lifetime, and I plan to make the most of every minute of it.

A blue line painted on damp pavement directs us to the domestic terminal for our flight to Christchurch, New Zealand’s third largest city after Auckland and Wellington and the largest on South Island. Blessedly brief, this flight is the last leg of our half-way-around-the-world journey. As we approach our destination, the pilot announces a temperature of two degrees below freezing, much colder than the balmy air we experienced in Auckland three hours earlier and 750 kilometres northward. Below us, Christchurch is shrouded in ice fog beneath clear skies and sunshine. The Canterbury Plain that surrounds it sparkles with frost and is dissected into pastures and fields by tall, precisely trimmed hedges the likes of which we’ve never seen before. Intriguing.

In the airport, we’re met by Andrea Byrom, a short, anxious-looking brunette holding a sign with Vilis’s name on it. She smiles with relief when she spots my husband. Andrea first met Vilis at a zoology conference two years ago and has been his New Zealand contact for the past year. She’s supplied him with maps and documents and has coordinated details to enable him to assume his position with Landcare Research. Vilis will collaborate with Andrea and other ecologists in the Vertebrate Pest Management Unit in their efforts to eradicate stoats.

Vilis’s Expertise with Weasels and Telemetry

In North America, the species Mustela erminea is known as a short-tailed weasel or ermine rather than a stoat. It’s smaller and lighter than the Old World stoat and in Canada occurs from the High Arctic, south throughout the country. While a graduate student, Vilis live-trapped, radio-collared, and radio-tracked short-tailed weasels in the boreal forest of the Northwest Territories to study their hunting habits. Since then, he’s followed up that research with radio-telemetry studies of other mammals – striped skunks, snowshoe hares, lynx, coyotes, small rodents – and has developed and marketed radio-tracking computer software. It was his expertise with weasels and radio-telemetry that convinced Landcare Research to offer him a temporary research position.

Vilis grins and makes introductions. “Hello, Andrea! This is Magi. And this is Dainis, who’s twelve, and Jānis, who’s nine.”

Our sons lean against me, almost speechless with shyness and fatigue. Beneath their mushroom haircuts’ thick fringes, their eyes are weary. It’s been a long haul, first by train from Nova Scotia to Toronto, and then by jet to Los Angeles, Auckland, and Christchurch. I greet Andrea, and Dainis and Jānis add quiet hellos.

We load our luggage into Andrea’s suv, and she drives us to her home in West Melton, a quiet rural landscape comprised of small holdings and many pastures filled with sheep. Throughout the drive, the boys and I fight to follow her lilting accent, which to our ears tilts vowels and consonants in intriguing ways. She turns into a driveway next to a bright yellow mailbox, and we catch our first glimpse of her cement-block house. Its three-part layout incorporates large windows throughout. Cedar posts support a grey metal roof that overhangs a carport and veranda. Andrea gives us a quick tour, and we carry our luggage to the airy upstairs guest rooms we’ll occupy until we arrange to rent a house.

At 9:00 a.m. – only an hour after arriving on South Island – Vilis prepares to accompany Andrea to the Landcare Research branch in Lincoln to put in his first day of work. Ever the scientist, he’s keen to meet his new colleagues and jump into his research.

Andrea turns to me, her eyes concerned. “What will you do all day?”

We are, after all, strangers in a strange land. I tell her cheerfully, “We’ll explore your yard and go for a walk.”

“But you won’t know where you’re going.”

“We’ll keep turning left to form a loop. Will that work?”

“Yes, it should.”

In Andrea’s yard, my sons and I discover daffodils that will soon flower, and numerous ornamental shrubs, some blossoming in the late southern winter. [New Zealand’s seasons are the opposite to Canada’s. Here, winter spans June, July, and August; spring spans September, October, and November; summer spans December, January, and February, and autumn spans March, April, and May.]

Later, sunshine and warm afternoon temperatures lure us outdoors again, and we stroll along quiet country roads with narrow shoulders and wide grassy verges. We become accustomed to the sight of vehicles approaching from the left and practice the basic Kiwi survival technique of checking for traffic first from our right rather than our left. As we walk, our eager eyes are greeted by a wealth of unknown vegetation, although we recognize pine, cedar, and Lombardi poplar in some of the sheared hedges that tower eight to 10 metres and edge paddocks with clean, straight lines. Sheep, which we were expecting (sheep next 1200 km, according to a tourist souvenir sticker I bought at the airport), and a surprising number of blanketed horses graze in pastures green with grass, even in winter. We walk past a lone sheep tethered at the roadside and spot birds, some familiar and some new to us: mallards, house sparrows, starlings, a dead European goldfinch at the roadside, several spur-winged plovers cackling in a pasture. Again and again, my sons and I laugh and exclaim with excitement as we absorb our new surroundings.

At last, weary from jetlag, we turn left for the fourth time onto what should be the last leg of the loop back to Andrea’s house. That’s when my left-turn plan begins to unravel. Much sooner than I expect, we encounter another intersection, where we also turn left and then hesitate. Nothing on this road looks familiar, as it should by now, since I believe we drove this route from the airport to Andrea’s house. With dismay, I realize I don’t know Andrea’s address.

So much for my common sense. The novelty of our surroundings and my jetlag-induced mental wooziness enticed me away from Andrea’s yard before I took the precaution of checking her house number and the name of the road on which she lives. As a result, I have no idea exactly where we are. Panic sweeps through me.

“What will we do?” Dainis asks. His blue eyes are anxious, his brow furrowed. Beside him, Jānis stares silently up at me, his green eyes reflecting his fatigue. The three of us droop in the winter sun, exhausted and 18 000 kilometres from home.

Pull yourself together. I cast about for solutions to our dilemma and come up with a single fail-proof method to find Andrea’s home. I tell the boys, “We’ll go back the way we came. That will work.” I look at their tired faces, mentally kicking myself. “I’m sorry.”

Periodically, my kids astonish me with their stamina, their sheer determination, and their trust in me. This is one of those times. Dainis nods, and without complaint, he and Jānis retrace their steps, ever slower and more wearily. I hold Jānis’s hand and tug my nine-year-old along while I encourage him and his brother to continue trudging a foreign country’s rural roadsides. We no longer notice the newness of plants and birds. Instead, we look only for the next intersection and the bright yellow mailbox.

“There it is!” Dainis shouts in relief.

He and Jānis crash into bed at 4:00 p.m., shivering with cold in a house built without central heating, as most New Zealand houses are. A Kiwi student Vilis met in Nova Scotia, who one day dressed in shorts before she stepped out into a winter day’s cold and snow, explained that New Zealanders decide how much clothing to wear outside their homes based on the temperature inside their homes.

Dusk arrives at 5:30 p.m., hours earlier than the summer twilight we left behind in Canada. Vilis returns from Landcare with Andrea in a 1985 Ford Sierra station wagon he bought for eight hundred dollars, the car’s bright blue colour having induced its former owner to name it The Blue Bomb. Soon after their arrival, Andrea’s husband Andy Kliskey – a dark-eyed, muscular, slow-spoken geography professor who works at the University of Canterbury – rides up on his bicycle.

Vilis and I attempt to rouse our children into wakefulness to eat supper, but exhaustion has claimed them. He and I struggle against our own jetlag while we join Andrea and Andy for lasagne at a massive wood table that’s as much a piece of art as a functional surface. Our hosts are incredibly welcoming, yet we can only prop our eyes open until 8:00 p.m. Then we stumble to bed, shivering with cold like Dainis and Jānis. Gradually, we ease into warmth beneath a duvet, and I realize my thoughts are utterly disjointed. It’s as though the long flight over the Pacific Ocean and across the International Date Line stole more than just a day from my life.

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