The Thrill of the Night

Photos: the Honey Centre, bees upclose, interior shot of the Kauri museum and my personal trainer

Skylon, Karl and I set off for Northland, which, if you look at a map of New Zealand, is essentially the narrow strip of land sticking up northward from the North Island. North, north, north… and it is very northern feeling. A lot of the tiny towns I passed through reminded me of Newfoundland and the more rural bits of British Columbia, as did some of the massive coniferous forests… until I noticed some of the many trees unique to New Zealand mixed in among the pines, including several different kinds of massive ferns that give their woodlands a prehistoric feel.

My first stop was the Honey Centre, where I got to taste more than a dozen different honeys, including the much-heralded Manuka honey (delicious and indeed a completely different flavor than your usual clover variety) and the equally tasty and Kiwi-specific Pohutukawa honey.

Just as exciting was getting to see all the bees right up close and personal. The saleswoman even pointed out a few being born, some feeding and others surrounding the queen like a celebrity entourage.

It was amazing and I could have spent the rest of the day there, eating honey and staring at bees, but destiny beckoned.

Continuing north, I checked out the Kauri museum. This part of New Zealand is called the Kauri Coast because it has the world’s last remaining large groves of Kauri.

What are Kauri? Oh, I’m so glad you asked.

Kauri are amazing trees that can grow up to 60 meters tall (about 200 feet) and live for thousands of years. Because their wood is highly resinous, it can be used without chemically treating it in a number of ways. The wood is also beautiful so, yes, in the 19th and 20th centuries, people went crazy for Kauri and chopped down an estimated 99.3% of existing trees (that is, if my teenaged nighttime tour guide assistant is to be believed… more on him in a moment).

Peter Jackson said they based the trees the Elves live in at Lothlorien on the New Zealand Kauri and, if you remember the scene where the Fellowship is going up into the trees to meet Galadriel (I know I do!) you’ll know what a kauri looks like.

The Kauri Museum had a lot of exhibits on the timber trade, stopped in the 50s when people started to realize hey, you know, maybe we should save these things instead of turning them into ships and armoires. In one of the photos you can see a plank made from the length of a kauri that was struck by lightning and had to be taken down. On the far wall are the diameters of other kauri, including the two largest still living. Alas, the biggest rings on the wall represent Kauri long since sliced and diced by the timber industry.

Lost, Precioussss, lost!!

In the basement the museum had the world’s largest exhibit of Kauri gum, which is essentially amber. Having had my fill of amber traveling in Russia and Eastern Europe, I didn’t take any pictures, but there was a heck of a lot of it down there.

If you’re wondering what the cat photo is about, the following morning, I took my mat onto the grass near my campsite to do my morning Pilates and one of the campground’s resident cats came over, rubbed himself all over me, demanded affection and then sprawled happily on the middle of the mat, purring. Here he is investigating my Spaceship later that morning.

Unfortunately, I do not have photos of the highlight of the day (night, actually).

I took a nocturnal tour of Trounson Forest, which they’ve established as a kind of kiwi sanctuary. Kiwi (the bird, not the people or the fruit) are pretty much defenseless against dogs, cats, stoats, ferrets and other introduced species of toothy carnivorous mammals.

Before the Department of Conservation started banning dogs from the reserve and trapping and otherwise eradicating other kiwi-eaters, they estimated that a kiwi had about a 5% survival rate for its first year. Now it’s up to 50-80%, depending on the year and whether any voracious hounds get off-leash (one loose dog alone was estimated to have killed more than 600 kiwi in a few weeks a few years ago.)

Tina, our tour guide, and her son Hayden, her assistant, took us – me and the two women camping next to me, who turned out to be from Chicago! – up to the park just after dark, warning us that kiwi were nesting so we likely wouldn’t see one. With a red-lens flashlight, she pointed out both tree and cave weta (the famous giant cricket-like insects of New Zealand)… one of them was the size of a rat with antenna as long as a lobster’s! She also showed us glow worms living under a rotted tree, an incredibly fat, long (7-8 feet) eel that Hayden fed cheese to and a rare snail. A few times we heard a male kiwi cry… it’s a shrill, plaintive sound that reminds me of a cat getting stepped on.

Then, she signaled us to stop and turned off her light so we were in utter darkness. I could feel my pupils dilate and then try to dilate more, stretching as if to find any possible light in the thick forest canopy at night.

We heard noise off in the distance and it got closer, and closer. And I’m thinking that sounds like a person walking around, not some little bird. Stomp clomp stomp clomp rustle rustle. I think I make less noise walking around in the woods. I was starting to wonder if maybe there are bears in New Zealand when Tina turned on the light and, after a quick scan of the area, shone it on an adorable little kiwi waddle-stomping his way past us.

I cannot describe how cute he was, especially when he started to run, alarmed no doubt by the sudden red light. He looked like a small penguin in a wookiee suit with a long thin beak.

We saw him for maybe five seconds before he vanished back into the bush, but it was amazing to see one out in the wild, waddling about his business.

As for how noisy he was, Tina said that kiwi feet take up 30% of their entire body weight. The little wookiee-penguin did look like he was wearing clown shoes come to think of it…


One thought on “The Thrill of the Night

  1. Finally getting around to reading this….I guess I didn’t realize there were large insects like that in NZ. Luckily, I never saw one of those weta things when I was there, or I prolly would’ve weta my pants!

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