Dec 19


by in Drawing & Writing

Zealandia is surrounded by a 8.4km/5-mile, reinforced mesh fence with a curved steel lip on top to keep out cats, rats, possums, and curious boys.

The entry includes two sets of 20-foot-tall gates with a mandatory bag-check in between. There they screen for – of all things – mice. Antje and I laughed, and after checking my own bag, I said, “All clear, just a raccoon in there.” The manager smiled politely.

“Not too long ago,” she said, “we actually did find a mouse in one.”


“They’d been staying in an RV park. I guess it just snuck in!”

How shameful. I mean, a bottle of water at the airport, sure. But a mouse?

After the gates, everything goes quiet. A gravel trail curves past a reservoir and into the forest, where it branches off and loops around for a grand total of 30 km (18 miles).

A few steps in, things get noisy again. Bird-call after bird-call echoes off the hills, off the reservoir. At the lake’s near end a mama Paradise Duck (like a Mallard with a better paint job) watched her ducklings learn to waddle. Almost within arm’s reach, a Tui dove into some honeysuckle. At the far end, a dozen “Shags”, which I think we call cormorants, were looking at things and doing nothing.

A few gates later (or really, “kiwi sections” later), a volunteer, Gil, came up the path. “You seen any Tuatara? If you come over here, I just showed another couple–there’s a baby one over the fence.”

Peeking out of a dirt burrow was a nondescript lizard, engaging us in a staring contest that never stopped.

“Just a baby, that one. Quite vulnerable. If one of the of the adults comes by, he might be in trouble. They eat them.”

“Wait, like cannibalism?”

“Not too nice, is it.” He poked his finger at the nickel-sized slots in the mesh. “Mice can get through here, believe it or not. Baby mice.” A Tui flew by. “They’re seen a whole lot more in these suburbs now, Tuis. Ever since we started this project here. Hey, if you’re interested in the Kakas, there’s a presentation at 2 o’clock, that way. Plenty of time from here.”

Before the presentation point, the Kakas had appeared. They’re coffee-colored parrots with burnt-orange underwings… except that they’re not really parrots. Charlotte explained:

“They do use that beak like a third foot, mm hmm, just like parrots. But they’ve evolved on their own. Anyone know what they use their beak for?”

We all looked hopefully at two little Australian boys. They looked back at us, amazed by the sudden attention being paid to them. We willed them on; they watched us willing them on. The father asked if they knew, and the boys looked back at him. It was all very quiet and a little bit strange, and Charlotte intervened:

“They use their beak to dig in trees for beetles, mm hmm. Sometimes they’ll dig for hours, just for one beetle. That causes problems sometimes–when they do it with rare trees. Kakas aren’t too popular over at the botanical garden. Would anybody like to see some Kakariki’s?”

Kakariki? The diminutive Kaka?

Not at all. Kakarikis are green parakeets that resemble the flocks let loose in Cologne, which now thrive in the parks.

But enough Kaka.

From there the trail looped upwards. Just before it crossed a dam, there came a placard summing up the two “interesting facts” found by a recent geological survey:

The concrete dam lay directly atop a tectonic fault.
The dam had 284 million liters of water behind it.

Thus a big slow drain of a significant portion of the water, and, following that, the pleasant encroachment of native flora and fauna atop the freshly exposed soil. It’s all part of a 500-year plan to return the bush to pre-settlement states. At least someone’s thinking ahead. Antje and I certainly hadn’t.

It was 57 (14) degrees that day, and, exposed atop the dam, it felt like less. Antje had whipped out the poncho, and I was willing myself warm with happy thoughts and a gentleman’s blazer. We had a choice: extend the loop by another hour, or head back. It wasn’t really a choice.

On the way back there’s a wooden suspension bridge that’s something of an illusion. When it starts wobbling up and down halfway across, you think, ‘Hm, how high is this thing?’ It feels like 20 feet (6m). But it’s 20 feet to the treetops, then another 80 feet (26m) below. At that point a Kaka gave a loud “Ka-ka!” and buzzed our heads, gliding down the valley for about 10 seconds before banking right down another valley and out of view. It was a moment that makes you think, ‘I want to be a philanthropist and donate to this project.” Or, ‘I want to be a Kaka.”

Kakas have had a bad run of it here in New Zealand, though. They like to lay eggs inside the warm safety of a rotting log. There’s one entrance, one exit, and they sit there incubating for about a month. Cats love that. 17 Kakas were introduced to the park, and, thanks to the fence, they’ve hit 300. The nocturnal Kiwis are also doing well.

One bird that’s not faring so well is the Takahe. If you want to know what a Takahe looks like, just imagine the creation that would happen if a turkey mated with an eggplant (aubergine).

A few decades ago there were 240 of them. And today? 240. We saw one munching grass by the reservoir, and, on cue, one of the volunteer staff walked up.

“That’s T2,” she said, “for Terminator 2. His dad was Terminator 1. He was mean, really mean. Aggressive. So we called him Terminator. We think Terminator 2 actually killed him.”

Patricide? In birds? No wonder there’s only 240.

“His lady’s back at the nest. Zealandia’s supposed to be a retirement facility for them. It was a big surprise when she laid an egg. Hopefully it hatches.”

We asked about Sirocco, a Kakapo parrot whose imposing green face adorns nearly every advertisement for Zealandia. He was gone for the summer.

“Oh he’s a character. He thinks he’s human. As in, he actually tries to have sex with humans. He climbs up on their heads and–”


Cannibalism. Patricide. And now, inter-special intercourse.

On second thought, the mouse-screening process made sense. It wasn’t for the protection of the birds. It was for the protection of the mice from bad thoughts.

Would we go back to Zealandia again? Unequivocally yes.

But at that moment it was time to go home, get warm, and start having nightmares.


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One Response to “Zealandia”

  1. From Brooke/mom:

    This made me laugh out loud several times–one of your best written yet. And, another outstanding illustration, of course. Love to you both.

    Posted on December 20, 2011 at 01:12 #