New Zealand and its Environment

When thinking about island paradises, don't forget New Zealand. For a country that's only a few miles wide in spots, New Zealand covers enough latitude to make it a sort of southern-hemisphere mirror image of the western coast of the United States. Quite substantial coastal mountains in the south guarantee that, except for sandy deserts, every sort of climate and landscape is available, and, to the delight of the northern vacationer, in seasonal opposition. When it's winter here in Seattle, it's summer in Auckland, and likely to seem tropical as you head up the coast.

But New Zealand has more than just climate to fascinate visitors. Detached early from the land mass that made up the continents, the islands form a spectacular ecological workshop. First, isolation led to a population of unique plants and animals including several flightless birds, one of them impossibly large. Then discovery by humans and their fellow-travelers resulted in tremendous stress and near or outright loss of many creatures. The current phase is a test of the extent to which enlightened management can preserve or restore the damaged environment.

New Zealand is a place nearly without things that poison or sting. Today you will find a few spiders and the wasps that collect the honey-dew produced by the insects that live on the beech trees (oh -- and sand flies, about which more later), and two impressively poisonous native plants, but in prehistoric times at least there were no snakes at all and no land mammals, except for maybe a small bat. Birds flourished, and without the impetus of pursuit many lost the need for flight or at least laid their eggs on the ground.

The arrival of the earliest Polynesians turned everything upside down. They themselves hunted to extinction the colossal moa, a kiwi-shaped bird easily outclassing an ostrich. In addition, they brought rodents with them, not as stowaways as one might imagine but as easy-to-propagate travel snacks. (Traditional Maori cusine lacks the roast pig seen in other Polynesian cultures -- bigger mammals were neither transported nor found upon arrival.) The rats ate the birds' eggs. This was just the beginning, though: later settlers introduced the bushy-tailed Australian opossum (which destroys not only birds but forests) in hopes of establishing a fur trade (!) and slew forests to make boxes in which to ship butter to England. Subsequent waves of rabbits and deer also soon brought regret. Today, baggage inspection for agricultural products at international terminals in New Zealand is as thorough as it is anywhere. They took a long look at our hiking boots, though assured that we had used them only on snow for months past.

It's one thing after another. The choice of sheepherding as a national industry was met with a decline in the use of wool world-wide. As though to make it clear that New Zealand is to be put to the ultimate environmental test, the famous hole in the earth's ozone layer now subjects the islands to more than their share of solar radiation. Despite mounting pressures the Kiwis steadfastly defend their portion of the environment. Their status as a nuclear-free zone angered many of their allies and their dispute with France over atom bomb tests in the Pacific has led to bloodshed. In New Zealand we will see how much humans can do to save their world from themselves.

As for saving themselves from their environment, how about those sand flies? The middle of the west coast of the south island is an area of rare beauty but largely uninhabited, due not to the efforts of conservationists but to those of the sand fly, a tiny insect whose bite makes itself felt only after its departure, but increasingly over a matter of days. They are not wily like mosquitoes, and they are easy to thwart once you realize the importance of avoiding their attention. Their habits are predictable and they do not travel any distance, merely forming a low cloud near the surface in coastal areas. I traveled freely without any bites at all for days without using insect repellents by simply tucking my trousers into my socks and wearing long-sleeved shirts. But the day came when it seemed like a good idea to get into a kayak wearing short trousers. Paddling to the middle of Lake Moeraki should have been a good way to escape the sand flies altogether -- had they not entered the vessel before me. Do NOT let your guard down. My bites did not bleed from scratching, as did others I saw, but they did take much of the joy out of the remainder of my trip.


The national symbol of New Zealand is a bird that is not only flightless, but invisible. The kiwi is nocturnal, and if you think you saw one, what you actually saw was a weka, a similar-looking but diurnal model. Both of these are mere shadows of the ancient moa, an eight or maybe ten foot tall and, according to Maori history, pretty tasty creature. Their successors shrank greatly, probably in response to competition for food, but the eggs didn't -- kiwi eggs are huge in relation to the birds' bodies, but this gives the offspring a bit of a head start. Actually, we did see kiwis, but only by squinting through the blue glow of a museum exhibit in Queenstown, straining to detect the gentle movement of a pair teased into wakefulness.
Not a kiwi