Latest in our The Vanishing series: Charlotte Watson goes into the mountains to retrace the steps her explorer grandparents made in their rediscovery of the 'extinct' takahē, one of Aotearoa New Zealand's most rare native birds.
is a New Zealand born visual artist and writer whose work expands across drawing, sculpture and printmaking. Her work looks at the stories that inhabit the land, and how place inhabits us. She is currently the Curator and Gallery Manager of Tinning Street Presents in Melbourne, Australia.'
It was freezing. My purple hands clung to the rail as the boat crossed Lake Te Anau. The western shore was cloudy, concealing the wall of mountains behind. We’d had serious doubts about being able to hike in today, and tomorrow – plan B – was forecast for snow. As if to welcome us, sunlight emerged as the boat neared the bush on the water’s edge. We were on the shore of Te Moana o Atawhenua, or Fiordland, the remote ‘shadowland’ that rarely permits the sun.   

We’d come by special invitation from the Department of Conservation (DOC) to celebrate 70 years since the rediscovery of the takahē in November 1948. As descendants of Dr Geoffrey Orbell, Neil McCrostie or Rex and Joan Watson, who found the bird on a cold November morning, 25 hikers including myself had been granted special access to the site of one of the world’s most important ornithological discoveries. Takahē Valley, as it is now known, is the major conservation ground for the takahē; a flightless rail endemic to southern Aotearoa New Zealand. It is famous for its stunning blue and green plumage – and for ‘coming back from the dead’. 

Guided by a DOC ranger, we followed a faint track alongside the aging Tunnel Burn water race, that feeds the mini hydro station for the tourist centre by the beach. The heavy rainfall saw copious water cascade outside of its designated path, bursting through rusted seams and onto the ground below. Mud sucked at my boots as we squelched through gaps between mossy boulders. I thought of how arduous this journey must have been for early Māori, passing through steep, wet mud in flax sandals for days at a time. 

Cut by ancient glaciers, Te Moana o Atawhenua acts as a net for the Tasman Sea’s rough weather – high ridges and steep inclines squeeze the clouds of rain before they pass eastward over the lower part of the island. The coastal weather and heavy rainfall make for dense flora with vigorous growth, serving as a kind of sponge where lichen, ferns, beech and moss grow easily. The area has been visited by various iwi/kinship groups for centuries, for fishing, hunting and gathering pounamu/greenstone, but outside of seasonal gathering was not permanently occupied. . 

However this changed in the late 1700s. Over the previous century, the Ngai Tahu iwi had moved down from Te Ika a Maui/ the North Island, pushing the smaller Kāti Māmoe iwi further down Te Wai Poumanu/the South Island. This conflict had a flashpoint around 1785 when a group of Kāti Māmoe was attacked on the shores of Lake Te Anau. Knowing their rivals were coming, the Kāti Māmoe split into two groups: one crossing the lake to the western side, with the other escaping south toward Moturau (now Lake Manapouri). Those who crossed Lake Te Anau were killed on the shore, with survivors assumed to have fled into the mountains. 

Joan Watson, Neil McCrostie and Rex Watson on the beach near Te Wai O Pani/ Lake Orbell

Herries Beattie, a Pakeha ethnologist and historian, worked from the 1920s to gather as much oral history from Māori elders as he could. Upon learning about a ‘lost tribe’ living in deep in the south west, he concluded that as a result of having lost many rivalries against the incoming Ngai Tahu, those Kāti Māmoe who did not ally or intermarry escaped toward the mostly uninhabited areas of Te Moana o Atawhenua. There it is supposed the escapees acclimatised, despite the steep slopes and harsh weather, with records of Māori settlements sighted by the whalers and sealers who were placed along the south west coast in the early 1800s. Perhaps not surprisingly this supposed ‘lost tribe’, was notoriously wary, with not much seen or known about them until a lone Kāti Māmoe woman was mistakenly killed by Ngai Tahu men on Mauikatau/Resolution Island, one of the furthest reaches of Te Moana o Atawhenua. 

With its heavy rainfall and steep terrain, it is no wonder that this wild corner of the country has so often been a final bastion for those in retreat. Moa, a large flightless bird (and a major source of protein for early Māori), had been almost entirely hunted since the 1400s. Systematic burns made over the Waimate and Ōtākou/Otago areas flushed birds out of the forest until eventually tussock and matagouri took over. Many native birds gradually moved into the deep south west, temporarily protected by geography and climate that made hunting hard. By European arrival Aotearoa’s mega fauna, including the moa and pouakai/Haast eagle, had gone; the delicate ecosystem unable to cope with the extinction of certain species. The takahē, once populating both of Aotearoa’s major islands, followed this retreat. Due to hunting, ecological and colonial pressures, takahē were presumed to be extinct in 1898.

Joan Watson (nee Telfer) handling a Takahē

After an hour we take another break. The altitude is cool and I’m thankful for the damp atmosphere. The great-grand-children amongst the hiking party manage to scramble up the path and tree roots at twice the speed of us. With each break the leading DOC ranger points out a feature of the forest: how we’d moved from red to silver beech, or the bizarre contraptions left near the track. One looks like a large black cone held into the ground with steel stakes. He explains that it funnels the falling beech seed into a concentrated spot, so seed fall can be monitored each year. He repeats a term I have not heard before but makes me think of a spike in data. ‘Beech Mast’: the years where the seed count is extra high, leading to more food for both native and exotic animals alike. Though a normal part of the forest cycle, as the summers are warming beech masts are becoming less predictable and more frequent. In mast years, both natives and exotics produce more offspring but it’s the natives that are out of luck. After an initial population boom, exotics such as mice and rats die off, leaving their predators, stoats, to source their protein from native birds instead. Though climate and environment cause many natural bird deaths, the stoat’s ability to self-regulate their populations make them a major contributor to the volatility of many native birds, including the kiwi, mohua/yellowhead, kākāpō and takahē. 

The impact of exotic introduction was only beginning to be understood when my grandparents entered this valley in 1948. Some members of the party had been into the valley before, familiar with the land through deer stalking, where it was not uncommon to see herds of 30 or more  cutting tracks through the forest. Rats, an almost inevitable passenger on all early ships, have been here since the time of Captain Cook. Mustelids (including stoats, weasels and ferrets) were introduced by acclimatisation groups and the New Zealand government from 1884 to manage the plague of rabbits. What the acclimatisers did not factor was how rapidly stoats and ferrets would travel, swimming across rivers and moving into forests whilst hardly impacting the rabbit population. While suspected of being a threat to native birds the impact of mustelids took some time to be noticed, with a protection placed over them until 1936. 

We continued further up the track, nearing the yawn of a wide cave. The roar got us first and as we leaned near the ledge mist rose out of the mouth. Someone in the group said, ‘this is where they went down with candles – or was it torches?’, and I suddenly recalled my grandparents telling me about exploring a series of caves that made its way down to the glow worms – the reason for the name ‘Te Anau’. During early European settlement the Māori legend stated there was a cave of light near the western shoreline of the lake–information repeated by the Māori interviewees of Hearris Beattie. Publishing in 1945, his interviewees mentioned that Te Anau was a shortening of Te Ana-au, meaning ‘the cave of swirling water’. However the cave’s location and the origin of its name were unknown to Pakeha until this labyrinth of caves on the western shore was also discovered in 1948. 

Pressing on, the climb became increasingly steep. Our faces hovered inches away from the forest floor as we hauled ourselves over complex tree roots clinging to the rock underneath. Chatter amongst the group slowed and movements focused on the next grip, the next step. We heaved ourselves upward, now amongst the clouds. The forest was almost silent. Old, hollow beech had fallen sideways, resting on their younger siblings. Thick mosses, beech strawberries and plates of fungi angled into the bark of trees. It was a whole other ancient world. We had reached the highest point and peering down, could see through gaps in the cloud line into Takahē Valley below. 

From now, it was a steep decline in pure mud. Those of us without walking poles used our backsides to slide down sections of the track between the wide ferns and tree roots that hold this place together. Occasionally we would pass little alpine gentianella, its white flower glowing against the dark peaty mud. 

Once in the gully we jumped across the source of the Tunnel Burn, which should have been a stream but with yesterday’s rain was now rapid water. Rounding the other side, the beech trees thinned, and we were amongst rusty ferns and chest high tussock. The ranger stopped and pointed out how to look for long takahē faeces, who, like panda, require constant grazing for little nutrition. The groups’ excitement grew as we moved up amongst beech again and emerged next to an old green hut. It was straight from the 40’s: peaked roof, corrugated iron and still occupied; coffee cups and tins sitting inside. Out in front of the hut was Takahē Valley. The place I had known from sepia prints and afternoon stories for as long as I could remember. It was breathtaking. 

The deep green shoulders of Te Puhi a Noa/the Murchison Mountains sloped down toward a long alpine lake. This was Lake Orbell, named after the lead explorer following the rediscovery, but to Māori the lake was known as ‘Te Wai o Pani’ or ‘the lake/water of Pani’. Exactly who or what pani was is unclear, however the word has a few meanings, one being ‘orphan’. In my grandparent’s time this lake was known parochially as ‘The Lake of the Friendless’ and considering the fate of the Kāti Māmoe on the shores of Lake Te Anau below, perhaps this seems more fitting. 

Those unable to hike flew in by helicopter. My aunt and I stood by the beach where her parents and my grandparents were photographed on that historic day, stunned by their discovery. I mentioned the Māori name for the lake and my aunt said amongst her tears, ‘something very sad happened here.’ Though she was referring to the story of the Kāti Māmoe, the sadness is still tangible. 

Suddenly a takahē shrieked its unusual call. I couldn’t see it but watched the lake as the sound ricocheted; a call that had all but been silenced a hundred or so years ago.

In its time, Takahē Valley has been a place of loss. Thanks to the longest conservation effort in the nation’s history, takahē are being reintroduced here as well as other locations on the mainland. But beyond the anniversary’s celebrations lies the next valley, mountain range or island where Aotearoa is losing an estimated 25 million native birds per year. With much hard work the takahē have moved from Nationally Endangered to Vulnerable, but kākāpō, tokokea and even the infamous kea have slipped the other way. 

Outside of bird life the picture is equally concerning. As summer temperatures increase, so does the instability of the forest. According to Ngai Tahu’s recent Te Tāhū o Te Whāriki/Anchoring the Foundation Climate Change Strategy, the western coast of Te Wai Pounamu could receive up to 1700mm more annual rainfall, with alpine snow levels receding over the next century. For Te Moana o Atawhenua, that already sees more rain than sun, it is uncertain how it will hold. 

We stayed in the valley for about an hour. The ranger went with the group further down the lake, simulating takahē calls to lure them out and monitor their locations. I took the opportunity to be alone and let the place sink in. Weather blocked the sun over the far ridge and I thought of how the land holds its stories. For this secluded, wild corner of the world much of the narrative has included disappearance. In 1948, as headlines of the radical rediscovery swept around the globe, takahē stood here on the edge of vanishing, the harsh climate and incoming predators seriously threatening the very bird they found. 

Suddenly a takahē shrieked its unusual call. I couldn’t see it but watched the lake as the sound ricocheted; a call that had all but been silenced a hundred or so years ago. 

Unidentified area of Te Moana o Atawhenua, near Lake Te Anau

Our group walked back out of the valley, quiet and moved. The return trip was faster than the climb in, walking – or sliding – down the steepest parts of the track, as we dreamt of a shower and a beer. We passed a trapper, a plastic egg container strapped to his chest, replenishing some of the 3000 traps around Te Puhi a Noa designated for rats and stoats. For a moment I envied him, living in that beautiful valley doing something meaningful for this corner of the world. Near the lake we noticed a sole pīwakawaka/fantail, roused by our movements. I realised it was the only bird I had seen. 

Tired and muddy we boarded the boat for the trip back across the lake. Glossy water passed under the window as the DOC ranger pointed out a layer of yellow hovering above the trees on the mountainside. ‘That’s the beech pollen bloom,’ he said. ‘It starts at the lake level and works its way up the forest.’ I stood on the deck as we crossed the lake, the gold waft lingering while the snow rolled over the mountains, concealing the valley we’d left behind. 

Dark Mountain: Issue 15

The Spring 2019 issue is a collection of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and artwork that responds to the ‘age of fire’.


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