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Murder, mayhem, pigeons & cod

Our trip to Stewart Island is...endangered

by Thor Iverson

[Land’s End from the ferry]

Leaving Land’s End
Murder in the night

Somewhere around midnight, I feel the bed shake.

In a half-conscious state, abruptly yanked from REM sleep but with my eyes still closed, I attempt to make sense of the situation. Theresa’s moving around, somewhat jerkily. I appear to have an upset stomach, and a bit of a headache as well. Maybe a bad mussel, maybe a chill from yesterday’s rain-enhanced cold, maybe just crankiness from being woken up. I choose to ignore the shaking, and go back to sleep.

Somewhere around one a.m., I feel the bed shake.

It’s Theresa again…or at least it appears to be…as she makes what, in my sleepy state, seem like unconscionably violent movements. I’m getting crankier, and wonder if this is going to go on all night. Finally she stands up, heading for the bathroom. I turn around, attempting to go back to sleep.

At two a.m., I snap awake. Again in the middle of REM, but something’s different this time. I actually open my eyes. Theresa is sitting up in bed, twitching her head around like an agitated bird.

“Are you OK?,” I mumble, still sleepy. I figure she’s had a bad dream of some sort.

“There’s a big bug in here.”

(We’ve been down this road before. Theresa hollers from the kitchen, “there’s a huge bug in here!” I stop what I’m doing, enter the kitchen, and find some tiny crawling thing, or a completely average-sized spider, and sometimes an ant. I kill it…danger averted…and go back to work.)

“Probably one of those sand flies.”

“No, I’m serious. There’s something really big in here. It keeps landing on me.”


But…I’ve been married long enough to know that going back to sleep isn’t going to satisfy anyone. So I get up, turn on the bedside lamp, and gaze blearily around the room. Theresa slips from the bed and tiptoes across the room, sees some fleeting shadow (probably me in the way of the lamp), and lets out a yelp. She is seriously freaked out. Really, though, how big could this thing be? I feel ridiculous, standing here in my boxers and still half-asleep, looking for some no-doubt tiny phantom menace that’s haunting Theresa’s dreams. If it’s not a fly, it’s probably drifting lint or something.

I see nothing. “What bug?”

“I thought I felt a bug on me earlier tonight, and I just brushed it off. Then I felt it again. It felt…it felt like it was covering the entire right side of my face. I could feel it touching my neck, and at the same time my cheek right below my eye.” She demonstrates with her hand, fingers on each named location. OK, that would be a big bug. But there’s no way there’s something like that in here. We’re not in the Amazon rainforest. “The last time I felt it, I brushed it away, and I heard a ‘thump’ as it hit the floor.”

Sure you did,” I think to myself, looking around again.

Something catches my eye. I stop, retreat, look at the curtain that covers the window nearest her side of the bed. I pause.

“Oh. That bug.”

“Where!” Theresa squeaks, agitated. She doesn’t like bugs, but she’s never this girly about it. Well, now that I see it, I don’t really blame her. But she’s across the room without contacts or glasses, and I know she won’t be able to see it clearly.

I point. “There.” She lets out a small scream, turns around, faces the wall and cups her face in her hands. She might even be shaking.

I’ve never seen her react this way. But OK, sure, it is a huge bug. Like some unnatural offpring of a locust and a giant beetle mating on top of a nuclear reactor, it’s a body that’s maybe only an inch long, but with legs that telescope forward, backward and up – they’re strong, angry looking legs – to something closer to four inches. Yeah, I’d freak if it was on my face, too.

OK, so now what do I do? I’m not particularly squeamish about bugs, but I don’t know what this thing is, and I’m not picking it up with my fingers until I do.

An idea occurs.

I retreat to the bathroom, grab a hand towel (the washcloth is, I’m afraid, just a little too small), return. The bug is clinging to the curtain, which gently sways in the overnight breeze. I position the towel in my hand, gingerly approach the bug – it’s not moving – and grasp it by the back. And pull. The bug stays in the towel, but it also stays attached to the curtain. Eventually, I’ve got the curtain at full stretch, and still the legs aren’t detaching. If I keep this up, I’m going to rip the curtain. Defeated, I’m just about to let go, when – at long last – the bug releases the curtain, which flutters back towards the window.

OK, now I’ve got a bug in a towel, and it’s squirming. I pull the curtain aside, grasp one corner of the towel with my left hand, hang my arm out the window, and start shaking. Nothing happens.

[locator beacon sign]

Just where are we going?
“Is it gone?” I’ve never heard Theresa’s voice reach quite this level of soprano.

“Uh, no, not yet.” She faces the wall once again.

The bug, it seems, has now permanently bonded with the towel. The only way it’s letting go is via the use of another towel, which seems like it will bring me right back to where I started. I consider just throwing the towel out the window, but I don’t want to get charged for throwing away linens. And yet, I can’t see any way short of grabbing the bug with my fingers – something I’m still unwilling to do until I know what the hell it is – to make it release the towel.

Unfortunately, that leaves only one option if I am ever to get any sleep tonight. I enter the bathroom, close the door, and roll the towel around the bug, then drop the towel on the floor. And stomp. Hard. Again. And again.

At this point, I don’t actually know if it’s dead or not. A cockroach wouldn’t be. But I’m not going to check, and I’m certainly not going to let on to Theresa that it might not be. I bunch up the towel, put it in the cabinet under the sink, and close the doors, which are heavy enough to make a pretty solid seal.

“OK, it’s dead.”

Theresa makes me check the rest of the room for more bugs, a ritual she’ll make me repeat virtually every night for the rest of this vacation. When I fail to find any, she shrinks into the middle of the bed and pulls the covers around her, eyes wide open and darting about. I sigh. It’s going to be a long, sleepless night.

Breakfast, with a side order of guilt

Somewhat surprisingly, I do eventually get some decent sleep, and wake up the next morning reasonably refreshed. Theresa has done less well, sleeping in fitful half-hour stretches, and dreaming of giant bugs the entire time. She wonders, out loud, if she’ll ever sleep again.

Downstairs, our proprietor/head chef greets us for breakfast. It’s traditional English – though with a few local additions, like kiwifruit juice – and it’s only marginally damaged by the unceasing hectoring from last night’s American “friends.” The food is pretty good, but the coffee is – gasp! – a little thin. As we finish, I figure I have to warn our host about the bug-filled towel. I relate the story, and he asks me to describe the bug, which I do.

He shakes his head. “That was a weta.”

“It was?”

“They’re endangered.”


It turns out that there are no truly harmful (to humans) creatures in New Zealand. No carnivorous giant mammals roaming the woods, no poisonous snakes, no nasty spiders. Kiwis like to make much of this – no doubt because Australia is a virtual death trap in comparison – but it is one more thing to appreciate about this wonderful country. However, it also means that last night’s creepy-crawly engendered a lot of fear for little reason. Had I known, I would have just picked it up. But now…now I’m wracked with guilt for stomping on an endangered species.

Theresa feels a little less guilt – harmless or not, she still hates bugs – but her freakish mood dissipates a bit when I identify the creature that’s haunting her dreams. For, after all, the weta is also the symbol of Weta Workshop and Weta Digital, the effects houses responsible for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. That said, she now wonders if some ancient and angry weta god will haunt her dreams.

I attempt to make light of things. “You had a national symbol crawling on you.”

“That’s fine,” she responds, “but you’re still checking the room every night.”

If it’s Friday, this must be Stewart Island

The Bluff ferry terminal is a mere two minutes from our B&B, which gives us time to repack the car and leave a few things behind that we won’t need…like our case of Waiheke Island wine. And the check-in process for the Stewart Island Experience (formerly known as the Foveaux Express) is typical low-key New Zealand: a bunch of burly guys grab your bags and toss them into baggage crates, you pick up your ticket, and you hang out with the other passengers amongst the sweaty business of loading the supplies and freight that will accompany our voyage.

Before long, the ferry itself – a sleek, low-slung catamaran – pulls into the dock and discharges weary-but-happy-looking passengers, most in light rain gear. It’s still grey and dreary, with rain that oscillates between a light mist and a moderate shower, and the seas look a bit rough…more so because we are essentially crossing water exposed to the open ocean on two sides. But without much delay, cargo and passengers are aboard, and we’re motoring away from the dock and into the watery unknown.

[pink flower][Anglican church roof]
Flowers (and church roofs) of Stewart Island
[yellow flower][pink fuchsia]

Behind us, the Bluff coastline retreats in dismally wet monochrome. Ahead of us, there’s only the featureless horizon, the waves, and one of our onboard hands – a weather-beaten old fisherman nicknamed “Friday” – who, in a voice rasped to sandpaper by years of salty sea air, talks a bit about our destination and his home, Stewart Island. He’s a true character, one of those people that leave a memory all out of proportion to their impact on your life, and Theresa enjoys some one-on-one banter with him during the crossing.

Despite the seeming roughness of the sea, our catamaran handles the chop of the Foveaux Strait with aplomb, and not long before our hour-long crossing is complete another coastline comes into view. This one is truly wild, with rocks and trees and waves clashing in untamed rhythm, and virtually seethes with looming adventure.

Wicked Uncle Ernie

If we’d approached the Otago Peninsula with trepidation, our diversion to Stewart Island is practically a leap over a precipice. It’s a remote island, large but sparsely populated by humans (just under 400 people, almost all of them concentrated on a single small bay), and instead heavily populated by innumerable throwbacks to a bygone era.

New Zealand was, once, overwhelmed with unique wildlife. Flightless birds, like the nationally symbolic kiwi and the extinct moa, were common, and the birdsong was allegedly deafening. Those times are no more, and a walk through almost any New Zealand forest with open ears throws the current state of affairs into sharp delineation: the woods are almost completely quiet. There’s an occasional twitter, but little more. The birds are gone; hunted to extinction or near-extinction by Maori, Europeans, and the many destructive ground mammals brought by the latter. But Stewart Island is, all by itself, a sort of natural reserve. It has the highest population of wild kiwi anywhere, a huge collection of otherwise extinct (or virtually so) plants and animals, and the opportunity to get into the wild and see these things in their native habitats. Plus, it provides access to true nature reserves, with even more unlikely wonders.

…which is why it’s so unlikely that we’re here, and yet so fortuitous at the same time. Nature hikes are not what we’ve ever been about, but our time on the Otago Peninsula has changed us – for the better, we think – and as our ferry pulls into the dock, we’re covered with a tingling sense of anticipation.

On the other hand, it could just be fear of wetas and their vengeful cousins.

[purple bush]

Hebes jee-bees
[abalone wall]

Abalone without you
[red flowers & Golden Bay]

Red flowers over Golden Bay

Having fern in the woods

A slightly damp-looking man in shorts and t-shirt holds up a sign with our name on it. This must be Ernie, a name that’s caused no little hilarity between Theresa and her two city-dwelling older brothers. Ernie is the live-in caretaker at Rakiura Lodge, and has been the subject of much phone and email joking about “crazy, bird-loving serial killers” and the like. But even a few moments with Ernie and we know it couldn’t be farther from the truth. A kind, gentle and quiet – though prone to long musing – war veteran with a truly stunning knowledge of the length and breadth of New Zealand, he packs us into his van and immediately takes us to a beautiful lookout above the town. Surrounded by dense ferns and dangling, rain-sparkled fuchsias, with Halfmoon Bay and Patterson Inlet spread out beneath us and tangled brush and forest everywhere else, we’re immediately introduced to Stewart Island’s central identity as a haven for all things untainted. After a brief tour of the island’s necessities – “brief” being perhaps a bit of an overstatement; it’s a tiny, tiny settlement – we head just up the hill to our lodging.

Rakiura Lodge is modern and slick, with Maori-themed decorations and a massive common room comprised of a well-equipped kitchen, a comfortable living room (with a TV that, for all its modernity, doesn’t pick up many stations very well), and an outdoor patio. On the other side of the common room is an interesting foursome of two married couples: Australian, Austrian, English, and Zimbabwean. The latter was an internationally-known speaker until a mild stroke instantaneously robbed him of fluency in five languages, and he still occasionally struggles to find the right word. But they’re a fascinating group to converse with…when one can hear them. Because, right outside every window, one is immediately struck by an intensely musical birdsong coming from all directions and all manner of species, one that starts before sunrise and doesn’t stop until the last rays of the sunset have dissipated.

With cod as my witness

We decide to do a bit of walking during a short break in the rain, and start by touring the town, stopping into a few shops along the way. There’s really not a whole lot to see: one self-contained restaurant, a café, a tiny Anglican church, a hotel doubling as a restaurant and tripling as the locals’ one and only pub, a few small shops, and the tourist center. Other than an elementary school and a few service industries (mostly centered around aquatic activities), that’s it.

We’re suddenly peckish, however, and there is one more easting establishment in town. The Kai Kart is a small trailer not far from the elementary school, anchored to the ground and serving up a small assortment of fried fish, chips, burgers and other assorted deep-fried delicacies…and it will turn out to be the most satisfying of all the island’s dining destinations. We don’t know this at the moment, however, and just ask for two helpings of fried blue cod and chips to take the edge from our hunger. The fish is heavenly, with a deep buttery flavor I’ve never before experienced in a fish, and the chips aren’t bad either. In fact, this is the best fried fish I’ve ever tasted. With a sugary/lemony L&P soda (“World Famous in New Zealand”), it’s an inexpensive, snacky delight. Our dining companions are a procession of sweaty, and often somewhat smelly, backpackers and trampers emerging from overnight and multi-day hikes, and they seem just as pleased as we are.

Feeling energized and exploratory, we consult our map and decide on one of the shorter walks, which takes us past beautiful flowers into dense, humid, fern-lined caverns of trees in which the dominant sound is that of dripping water. Birds are all around us, though we can’t see most of them. The bell-like chime of the tui is unmistakable, and there are twitters, tones, and rustles all around, but the only bird we regularly see is one that we’ll quickly come to re-designate (in honor of Opus, of course) “lard butt”: the New Zealand pigeon. These enormously fat, ungainly birds bend to the breaking point any branch upon which they sit, and their furiously flapping, feather-flying takeoffs are as noisy as they are (initially) shocking. Flying overhead, they sound like an undisciplined child making injured helicopter noises. And not until our third day on the island will we ever really get used to their passage.

[Stewart Island robin]

Stewart Island robin
[New Zealand pigeon]

Lard butt (a/k/a New Zealand pigeon)

However, in the stillness of this dark forest, we do have one visitor. A tiny little ball of black, white, and faint yellow flitters from branch to branch above our heads, then descends. He gets closer and closer, obviously as intensely curious about us as we are about him. It’s an incredibly rare Stewart Island robin, one of only about three dozen in the world, and only recently re-introduced to the island. Just a foot or so from our heads, he shakes water from his back with one lightning-fast quiver, stares a bit more, and then zips away.

The hike back towards town is, like virtually every other walk on Stewart Island, bordered by vivid wildflowers on all sides, though it’s hard to properly enjoy the flowers when one is constantly ducking in surprise at the rampaging pigeons overhead. We stop at the local Ship to Shore market for some groceries – for a tiny general store, it’s surprisingly well-stocked, though meat is in short supply – and at the fishermen’s co-op on the wharf to buy something for dinner, at which we encounter a particularly no-nonsense young man with an apron and a blade.

“What’ve you got?”

“Blue cod.”

“Anything else?”

“Well, we’ve got some deep-sea shrimp, but it’s all bullshit. Get the cod.”

We get the cod.

[Kai Kart]

The world-famous Kai Kart
Oh weta night

The multi-national crew at our lodge is out for the evening, so we have free run of the kitchen. Theresa unpacks our cod – twice in one day! – and prepares it with a fruit and ginger salsa that we’ve been able to assemble from ingredients at the local store, along with a wine snagged at the same location.

Fiddler’s Green 2003 Riesling (Waipara) – Sweet and fruity, showing lime and sweet melon, but little else. Very simple and a touch cloying; any bit of complexity here would help things immensely.

We eat, clean up, and relax on the sofa, watching the bustling activity in the trees just above the patio. Small emerald-green parakeets with brilliant red and yellow heads dance around the trunks and the upper branches, but they don’t approach.

Eventually, we succumb to fatigue, and head for the comfort of bed. But not before Theresa reminds me:

“Weta check!”

I sigh. The ghost of the dead weta haunts us, still.

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Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.