Moas, Moose and Moehau

New Zealand's bush mysteries

I was nine when a moa sighting made headlines. Paddy Freaney, the owner of the Bealey Hotel and a former SAS soldier, was hiking with two others in the Craigieburn range when they supposedly encountered a moa. It was a large reddish brown thing, which promptly ran away. Freaney took photos of it, and also documented its footprints. The story went international, and several theories were put forward to debunk the group’s claim. It was an emu they said, a red deer or simply a hoax to boost the patronage of Freaney’s pub.

I choose not to listen to any of the naysayers, because the story had come to me at the exact right time. At that age my visits to the library were exercises in stocking up on books about mysteries. I devoured everything I could read on ghosts, the Bermuda triangle and, a particular favourite, the pirate treasure of Oak Island. Suddenly I had a mystery like those in my own backyard, and I read the newspaper just as avidly as I had read about bigfoot. I daydreamed about launching my own moa hunting expeditions, right down to imagining the supplies I’d pack.

I’m no longer so sure about that moa sighting, but I still feel a little of that same thrill. There’s something to be said for the idea that we don’t know what’s out there, that there’s still mysteries in the bush. Fiordland with its vast, misty forests is the El Dorado for this cryptozoology or study of mythic beasts. It was there that in 1948 Geoffrey Orbell discovered that the takahe lived despite reports of its extinction. And it’s also where many believe that the moose introduced to New Zealand in the 1900s still roam.

But while it rates as our most inaccessible terrain, it’s not the exclusive home to our bush mysteries. Freaney’s moa was around Arthur’s Pass after all, and the Coromandel Ranges are said to be the terrain of our own Bigfoot, the hairy Moehau man. Sightings date back to goldminers’ tales, and also include the story of an Australian tourist who encountered a gorilla-like creature while on a bush walk in 1969. While more recently, there are the big cat sightings of the Canterbury Plains.

All these strange beasts need further investigation, that’s a point where my nine-year-old self and I would still agree. Menswear retailers Hallensteins led the charge in 2011, offering a bounty on proof of the Fiordland moose in an effort to promote their winter collection. But the torch bearer has to be Otago man Bruce Spittle for his three volume work on moa sightings. Spittle goes into meticulous detail, devoting 283 pages to an analysis of Freaney’s grainy photograph. And yet, the moa, the moose, although maybe not the moehau, still remain mysteries, reminders that we still don’t know the bush well enough to say goodbye to them for good.