A Kiwi in the Wild

Searching for Rowi: Ōkarito, Westland

A couple of months ago I entered a competition. The prize included two night’s accommodation in Franz Josef and the opportunity to spend a day with DOC staff tracking rowi or Ōkarito kiwi (Aperyx rowi) in South Ōkarito forest. Because the competition made no allowance for travel to and from Franz, and offered places for five winners (and their partners) I thought I would have a good chance of winning — which turned out to be true.

It’s been a long time since I’ve travelled to Ōkarito. Growing up in Christchurch I used to spend a lot of time on the coast but now it is just far enough away from Dunedin to make a weekend trip a bit uncomfortable. My son, Harry, and I headed over Haast Pass early in the day, making our first stop at Tauperikaka River (Ship Creek). Rental cars and mini vans fill the car park. People mill around the toilet block and the observation tower, and a few stand on the boardwalk that leads over the dunes and through forest to the nearby wetlands. I tell Harry that we used to camp here in the 1970s, that before the road was tar sealed you could put up your tent by the creek and see no one for four or five days. We used to look for eels and there were lots of weka. Somehow, the place, despite all its visitors, seems barren now so we head off to the beach, and walk south. After only a few minutes two Hectors Dolphins surf into view. They are about 100 metres offshore, playing in the break. The sea is so clear, calm and free from chop that it is possible to track their southward passage with ease. Once more I find myself ‘telling’ Harry a story about Hector’s dolphins — how seeing them always reminds me of my dad and the walks we used to do around Godley Head on Lyttelton Harbour. I wish, as I speak, that I could just leave him in peace but I have a need within me that makes me drone on about what places like this used to look like before Lonely Planet came along. It’s as though I need to assert my right to this landscape — that my relationship to the area is more real or deep than that of other people. Being here, now, feels like another piece of my past has been snatched away. Worse, I wonder what’s the point of even bringing Harry to the coast.

On Friday we meet at the DOC visitor centre in Franz Josef. There are ten of us — a crowd —but it seems as if each one of us has the same reaction to seeing the other participants. We all want to be here but we all want to be here alone. It takes around fifteen minutes to drive north along State Highway 6, before heading west at the Ōkarito turnoff. Another ten minutes or so and we pull into a car park by the side of the road. The place is deserted. Following the DOC ranger who carries a telemetry unit, we head straight across the roadside ditch and into conifer-broadleaf forest. Above and around us are tall rimu and kāmahi, nest epiphytes visible in the high branches. Beneath are various tree ferns, ferns, liverworts and fallen, rotting trunks. Kie kie, supplejack and bush lawyer is everywhere. For the first time in years I am not so much walking through the bush, as pushing. The vines grab at my legs. The leaves of the kie kie cut like paper. Within minutes my fingers are bleeding. At this point the bushwalk feels like a bit of a battle and I can’t stop thinking about the early Westland explorers, men like Charlie Douglas and A. P. Harper. I turn to Harry to ask how he is doing and he doesn’t respond. He just stares at me, wordlessly. I don’t talk to him again.

For twenty minutes, we continue to shove our way through the undergrowth— all the while tracking a faint beep beep made by a rowi named Fauna. Approximately 60 pairs of rowi — from a population of around 400 —are monitored by DOC. When monitoring first took off, back in the early 90s there were only thought to be 150 individual birds. Despite the increase in numbers the rowi are still on the ‘nationally critical’ list. Left in the wild, the rowi chicks have a 95 percent chance of being killed by a stoat and so DOC has taken the step of collecting or ‘rescuing’ eggs when they are around 28-35 days old, hatching them and raising the chicks in captivity until they are around 1 kilogram — big enough to fend off a predator. Two of the objectives of the DOC scheme are to double the population of rowi and to increase genetic diversification.

Despite the transmitter it’s difficult to gain a bearing on the bird’s location so we begin to climb a low hill, hoping the signal will be clearer from the top. In places we have to pull ourselves up, clinging to tree trunks, ferns and roots. Patches of sky blue fungi (entoloma hochstetteri) surround us, their caps around 20 mm in diameter, and all with that strange enamel-like, sticky-wet gloss. When we stop for a rest a tomtit flits by — the only bird I see on the whole walk.

The whereabouts of Fauna is still unclear so we drop off the hill, hit a creek and for a few minutes our passage through the forest is clear. I am suddenly aware of just how much I am enjoying this. Whereas thirty minutes ago the walk struck me as a constant struggle, it now entices me. I no longer feel any desire to see a rowi. In many ways, I hope I don’t because I don’t want this walk to be ‘goal focused’. I just want to enjoy being in the bush. I like the physical relationship that exists between me and the undergrowth. Feeling the uneven surface beneath my feet. Noticing the vividness of the yellow-green light which seeps around us.

We walk for another thirty minutes or so and then, unexpectedly, we pop out on to the side of the road. I didn’t even see it coming.

Back at the car park we follow a walking track to the top of another low hill. From a wooden platform near the top we gaze out at the pakihi in one direction, Aoraki in the other. A signal is picked up. This time it’s for a rowi called Beaumont. Leaving the marked track we head straight down through the bush, once more pushing through the undergrowth as if swimming against a strong current. The beep beep comes and goes. The telemetry is playing up. At the bottom of the hill is an old bullock track, wide enough for a car. The signal now becomes very strong and as we all stand quietly, the DOC ranger gets down on her hands and knees and enters a thick mess of kie kie and fern. No one talks. She reappears and works her way above the bushes and goes in again. We can’t see her. We wait. After several minutes she reappears, a rowi held against her body.

There is something overwhelming about coming across a kiwi in the wild. Despite all the technology, the ‘beep, beep, beep, static’, that comes with tracking, the first sight of the bird renders everyone silent. No one steps forward to touch it, or hold it. If anything, everyone draws back — as if to make room for it. It’s difficult to explain but it’s as if we have found ourselves in the presence of something ancient or other-worldly. The silence doesn’t last long, and one by one we touch the bird’s feathers, which are soft and the colour of ash. The rowi appears to sleep. Its head is tucked down, but its feet poke up in the air: massively powerful, they remind me of the (dead) penguin feet I saw at Cape Royds, in the Antarctic. Eventually, the kids (there are only two) take turns holding the bird. Both of them cradle the rowi, as if it was a new-born baby. I have no idea what Harry is thinking. I don’t know if this will be a moment he will look back on and cherish, or not. Quite possibly not.

When the transmitter has been replaced on the rowi’s leg, it is returned to the patch of bush where it was found. It vanishes. We walk back to the car park. We follow the 4WD bullock track and within five minutes of leaving the kiwi we are driving away.