Wild Things Of The South Island
This far south, the stars seem like they could fall right out of the sky. Tug the blanket of blue holding them up and they’ll flutter down on our heads like snow. We sit—two Dutch, a kiwi, and an American—passing around a beer, looking up. The stars of the southern hemisphere are all new to me; I can’t find the arrangement of constellations I grew up learning the names of. The sky is a glowing, uncharted array with the Milky Way smeared on top like finger paint.
Liam points out the Southern Cross, a bright crux of four stars and a fifth that sits off-center like a freckle. Drawing a line from the top star down the longest axis points towards the South Pole. It’s the same constellation on the flag he stole from the top of city hall, the one that hangs on the wall of the flat. Sailors once used the crux to find their way, and the ancient Greeks charted it before it sank below their horizon in the precession of the equinoxes, but credit for its discovery is given to the Brazilians, who dubbed it “Las Guardas.” Now, I can’t un-see it. I can see the lights of the city-limits too, of Dunedin, my home, of the suburbia of flats with televisions and refrigerators and flags declaring whose land this is. The Polynesians came in their canoes around the year 1300, and the Europeans in the 1600s. I came in 2014, when the maps were fully drawn and the islands were a strange hybrid of enduring wilderness and human settlement.
New Zealand was once part of the supercontinent Gondwana, a land mass that’s split apart into Australia, South Africa, South America, India, and Antarctica. In the middle of the Cretaceous Period around 80 million years ago, New Zealand broke off from Gondwana and began its divergent evolution. In isolation, New Zealand bloomed into a biome of species known nowhere else in the world, including the Moa: huge, flightless birds hunted to extinction by the early peoples. Even without the Moa, New Zealand is biogeographically like its own continent. Alongside Madagascar, scientists describe the island chain as the closest we can come to observing continental-scale evolution in as extreme isolation, barring the discovery of higher life forms on another planet. There are no known living, endemic mammals in New Zealand besides bats and marine mammals, making birds the backbone of the islands’ indigenous wildlife. Of the roughly 245 species of birds found at the time of human discovery, 71% live nowhere else in the world.
Once without predators, many of these birds evolved to be flightless. New Zealanders chose the kiwi, a rare, nocturnal orb of feathers with a long and narrow beak, as their national symbol. It’s found on coins, billboards, souvenir T-shirts, and as the name of the people themselves. Kiwis: sometimes hard to figure out if one’s talking about a person, a bird, or a fruit. Kiwis eat kiwis and watch kiwis. Who’s doing what?
I saw one of these wee fellows in a nature preserve: a brown, feathery ball about the size of a chicken. It was sleeping.
“You won’t see a kiwi in the wild anymore,” we were told. The birds are monogamous, choosing mates that can last for as long as 20 years, but they lay only one egg per season, a monstrosity almost a third of the size of the female. The introduction of land mammals like cats, dogs, possums and rodents nearly wiped out these slow-breeding, flightless birds.
The different subspecies of kiwi range from vulnerable to critically endangered. And house cats aren’t just responsible for the loss of the kiwi. 37% of New Zealand’s bird populations are threatened, and countless have gone extinct. That isn’t to say that conservation efforts aren’t being undertaken: government groups and other independent organizations will pay up to $20 per possum. And you’re no true kiwi in favor of saving the kiwis if you don’t own at least one article of clothing made out of possum wool.
“Who wants to see some dolphins?” Liam suggests casually on a sunny day before classes have started.
“What, in the ocean?”
“Yeah, you can swim with them.”
I’m instantly sold. We pile into Liam’s station wagon: Liam driving, Jan the Danish backpacker in the front, my roommates Colin and Roos in the back, and another Dutch girl named Lon crammed next to me in the trunk. Lon and I exchange courtesies as our knees bump together and we drive out of Dunedin, heading south.
Liam has one CD in the car, a mix of oldies with a backstory I never learn. Neil Young croons “Heart of Gold” as Lon tells me about life in Holland. Her English is surprisingly good. The station wagon’s got one of those old trunk seats that have since been phased out as safety hazards, facing backwards and forcing our legs in to our chests. Folded up against each other, we watch the yellow lines speed out from under us and disappear into the notches in the verdant hills while Neil hums in the background. Lon nudges me and sighs audibly.
“You see, we never see anything like this in Holland! There are so many buildings and so many people.”
I can’t help but share her excitement. It’s in the place, the golden touch of sun that turns everything into a photograph, the harmonica warbling from cheap car speakers.
“Where do you go then, if you want to get away from the city?”
Lon shrugs. “Well, some people go to Germany. It’s not so far. But did you know they are trying to build a fake ski mountain in Holland?”
“They are going to dump a lot of concrete into the ocean and make a mountain,” she says in her halting English, giving a chirping laugh. “But everything is fake in Holland.”
Liam’s CD makes a full round and is playing Neil Young again by the time we’re driving through the Catlins. Sparsely populated and uncultivated, the Catlins Coast is a wilderness area where visitors can find some of New Zealand’s rarest residents, whether in the temperate rainforest or along the rugged beaches. Jutting out into the Pacific, the Catlins are battered by storms in the winter months and have been the site of numerous shipwrecks. The giant swells are also a draw to fearless big-wave surfers who come with helmets, knee pads, elbow pads and a barrage of other gear to protect them from the teeth of the coast.
Liam pulls off the car into a dusty embankment on the edge of Porpoise Bay. A huge U-shaped inlet peeks at us from behind cattails and sea grasses. A blue sign bearing a picture of two dolphins describes the species as Hector’s dolphins, “one of the rarest and smallest marine dolphins in the world.”
Hector’s dolphin is another endemic species, and it teeters on the brink of survival. The New Zealand Department of Conservation estimates there are only 55 adults left in the wild. “Love us from a distance or lose us forever,” the sign warns visitors. We strip into our swimsuits, tossing clothing and bags and flip-flops back into the car. I can hear the breezy crash of the surf. “NEVER APPROACH A DOLPHIN,” the sign says. “Let them come to you.”
“We used to rent a beach house here for a few weeks in the summer,” Liam tells us as we walk towards the water. Sandflies scurry around my feet. The beach extends out forever in either direction, golden sand fading into soft green hills. It’s entirely empty, save for the specks of a couple and their dog a ways down. There are a few one-story huts planted in the dunes, cheery white and yellow with colored trim.
“Let’s go in,” Lon says breathlessly. We’re all thinking the same thing: holy shit. Dolphins. The water temperature can’t deter me this time, and I wade in resolutely while my skin prickles with goosebumps. I suck in a breath as a wave slaps my bare stomach, icy fingers pinching at my skin.
And then I see them: two shadows rippling beneath the water, flitting in little circles. They’re tiny, about as big as toddlers, with silvery-grey skin. As I wade towards the forms, they recede. But there are more, deeper; I spot the curve of grey backs surfacing and then disappearing again as if turning on an imaginary wheel. The dolphins cluster in groups of two or three, sometimes four, spotted by the puff of tiny blowholes or the glint of wet skin when they break the surface. Their motions remind me of Liam, though perhaps Liam got his lessons from watching the dolphins when he was younger. He’s got his flippers on again and motions for us to come deeper, at ease enough to be a marine mammal himself.
I wade out. My lower body feels like it’s gone completely numb, but the dolphins are closer now. I can see the bend of snouts beneath the water, the flat, half-moon shape of their tails, the nub-like fins that sprout from their backs. So close, I could reach out and brush their silk skin with my fingertips.
“Don’t try and touch them,” Liam says, as if reading my mind. “The oils from our hands will damage their skin.”
I don’t think I could if I tried. When my arm stretches out, dark shadows dart away with unimaginable speed, propelled by flippers more powerful than my clumsy limbs. They pop up again almost instantly here my eyes don’t even think to look, hovering around where the waves break, periodically shooting forward in a cloud of bubbles. I follow their lead, pointing my arms in front of my head and riding the surf. Compared to the dolphins I’ve got the grace of an inner tube, but I grin when we ride the same wave. One of the only pods of Hector’s dolphins in the world, and they’re hanging out with me, catching waves at my side. They don’t do it for any reason except pure fun. I laugh out loud from the sheer wonder of it, spitting out a mouthful of seawater.
I hear Lon shriek and I tear my eyes away from the dolphins.
“What’s that? Look over to the left!”
I follow her hand. It’s definitely not a dolphin trawling through the waves. It looks like someone’s dog swimming in the surf. Not a dog, I realize. Much too big. It’s the whiskered muzzle of a sea lion, huffing its way through the water. As it gets closer I can see just how big it is, a fat, blubbery mass of flesh that has none of the grace of the dolphins.
“Don’t get too close,” Liam calls sharply. “Bastard’ll charge you.”
This new intruder, along with the fact that I can’t feel my extremities, convinces me to take a break from the water. Teeth chattering, I stagger towards the shore and flop onto the hot sand. The sea lion decides he wants out too. He lugs himself out of the waves farther down the beach, rolling on his belly like a gleaming brown log.
In the water he had an odd kind of finesse, but out of it he looks like nothing more than a tubby pile of skin. The dolphins, meanwhile, become more comfortable with all intruders at a distance. They periodically jet into the air, flipping over and diving back beneath the water. The shows last no longer than a second, too quick to even catch on our cameras. It’s only the radiant grins of Lon and Roos that convince me I’ve really spotted the glistening corkscrew of fins. Like me, they’ve never seen anything like it.
It isn’t until the next day that we learn about the surfer who was mauled by a great white shark at Porpoise Bay not a week before. The shark reportedly swam up beneath the man, knocked him off his surfboard, and bit him three times before he made it back to shore. We look at each other nervously when we hear this and comment that it’s good we didn’t decide to go a few days earlier.
Shark attacks are uncommon in New Zealand, but not unheard of. It’s a risk understood by surfers down under. In Western Australia, where shark attacks are frequent, professional hunters have license to kill any of the big guys that wander into swimming beaches using baited drumlines. Thanks to human cullings, Great White populations are declining and they are considered “vulnerable.” But the powerful predators have a sinister allure, one of man’s last great enemies in the wild, or so we like to believe thanks to the Jaws industry.
There’s an uncomfortable paradox going on underwater. Kiwis and Australians see the sharks as both enemy and commodity. Shark baiting and cage diving is a growing industry. I met a Swedish backpacker whose dream it was to go on one of these “shark safaris” and stick his pinky finger out of the bars of the cage so he could later boast that it was bitten off by a Great White. “It would be fucking awesome,” he stressed in his guttural accent. But cage diving leads sharks to associate humans with prey, causing an increase in shark attacks, despite the fact that humans aren’t the natural pick for lunch. And the more attacks, the more cullings.
I scramble to catch up with Liam’s long stride, my boots digging furrows in the mud. The light of his headlamp bobs along further up the hill. Behind me, Roos has her cellphone held aloft like a torch, with Lon in close tow. I can hear the gurgling of a river to my right, though I can’t see it. It’s the Leith, the same river that runs through a murky canal on campus from where it starts as a dribble in the hills. We slog up a muddy trail that follows its bank. It’s almost midnight and the trail is completely empty. Surprising, since we’re not the only visitors who make this sort of trek in the dark. We’re here to see glow worms: Arachnocampa luminosa. Titiwai, to the Maori, meaning “reflected over water.”
We come to the place where the trail meets the river. I’ve had a few glasses of wine and my head is buzzing pleasantly. The stream parts around our crooked island, following the way of least resistance and gurgling on beyond my sight. Mossy walls rise up on either side of us, a little canyon crisscrossed by a lattice of vines. The walls drip with moisture, clods of damp mud pack into cracks from where ferns and little saplings emerge. A thick canopy of branches settles overhead like a gable, closing us in to this earthen cavern.
“Turn off all your lights,” Liam says, clicking off his headlamp. I shut mine off too, and Roos puts away her phone.
The darkness is overwhelming. I can’t see Liam or Roos’s silhouettes at all. They’ve completely disappeared. The boulder I’m leaning against is only accessible by touch. I wave a hand in front of my face, shocked that it, too, is invisible. The murmur of the stream seems louder now, amplified by the loss of my other senses. And then, like the white spots in one’s vision solidifying, lights begin to appear in the periphery. Yellow-bluish, clustered together, in every direction, but especially on either side of the river. If I didn’t know where the walls of the ravine stood, it’d appear they were floating in midair.
“They look like stars.” Roos’s voice floats out of the darkness, voicing my thoughts.
“Do you know why they glow?” Liam asks.
“Bioluminescence,” I begin, about to launch on a science diatribe. “They must have this chemical called luciferase—”
“It’s their poo,” Liam cuts me off, and then releases his high chuckle. It bounces lazily off the ravine walls. “Their shit glows.”
Glowing shit or not, it’s beautiful. The longer we stand in the darkness, the more lights seem to wink on. No matter how I try, my eyes can’t adjust to see anything but the little glowing worms, only now, hundreds of them. In truth, they aren’t worms at all, but the larvae of a fly known as a fungus gnat. I like them better as stars, or maybe as the Maori see them, as the reflection of stars on water.
“How about some real stars?” Liam asks.
“Got somewhere in mind?”
“Top of Signal Hill.”
We’re back in the car, speeding up a winding switchback. The road is gravel, and I bounce madly against my seat. Liam’s got the sunroof and all the windows open and the warm summer air floods the car, tugging my hair about my face in a windy cloud. From the front, Lon stands up impulsively, sticking her head out of the sunroof.
“Grab my feet!” she calls down to us. We anchor her, and she pushes the rest of her body from the waist up out of the car. With a shriek of delight, she thrusts her arms up into the night. Liam revs the ignition and Roos and I clutch Lon’s legs tighter to hold her down.
“Corner!” Liam shouts. We feel Lon’s body jerk as the car banks around the turn, but she stays put. She’s laughing loudly, a howling wild thing.
From Signal Hill’s bare crown, the Greater Dunedin Area unfurls. I can see the bright cluster of lights marking downtown, that ebb as they approach the city limits and then fade away into sleepy pastoral hills. Fog spills in from the ocean, painted pearly white by the moon. I can make out the flash of lighthouses as their flares revolve. Wind gusts relentlessly from the sea, that familiar, briny smell, and I zip my jacket tighter.
A huge satellite dish looms above, planted on three legs and tilted up towards the sky. Its curved belly is half moonlight, half shadow. Our car looks like a toy parked beneath it. Signal towers soar upwards, needle-shaped spires of trussed metal encasing narrow ladders that taunt the brave or foolish. I can hear the wind squeezing between them, like a gust of breath whistling between teeth.
We sit on the dirt in quiet contemplation, looking at the stars. Satellites trace lazy arcs, indistinguishable from the stars unless I pin my eye to one. I sip my beer. The Southern Cross is bright and obvious, winking between the other constellations. It’s an emblem of man’s presence here. As the Australians poem goes, “The English flag may flutter and wave / where the world-wide oceans toss / But the flag the Australian dies to save / is the flag of the Southern Cross.”
I take another swig of beer and let my lids fall heavy, so that the Southern Cross blurs into the rest of the stars and the satellites and I can’t tell any of them apart. Stars and satellites. Maybe they can coexist.
Jackie is based in Boston, currently working as a software engineer until the day her writing pays her bills. She spent several months working and studying in New Zealand and is eager to get back to the land down under, as well as the other couple hundred places on her traveling bucket list. In her free time she enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and snowboarding.