January 10, 2012
New Zealand is a nation large enough to host hundreds of millions of invasive pests but just small enough that the federal government sees an honest chance at winning the war against them–and so the battle is on.
I met a young couple this morning in the campground kitchen–Jo and Jason, of Invercargill–who told me all about it. We began talking about trout and diving, but it soon became apparent that they hunted and ate more than just fish and abalone; pigs and deer were also favored quarry. What’s more, Jo told us, she, Jason and their relatives are guns-for-hire, quite literally, and spend two-week family holidays shooting feral tabbies, rabbits, brushtail possums and other non-native mammals in trade for room and board on Stewart Island–a cat-and-rat infested island national park off the southernmost tip of New Zealand. On one recent vacation to this wilderness, they spent 11 days in a government cabin eating food bought with government vouchers, all provided by the New Zealand Department of Conservation, which only asked for an honest-to-goodness effort to stomp on vermin in return–which the family did. (A request for an interview with a D.O.C. pest control officer about this volunteering opportunity went unanswered; he was reportedly swamped with duties.)
“We shot nine kets ‘n’ twinny-somethin’ possums,” Jo said cheerily. “We also tre’apped a lot of retts.” Jason’s preferred game was pigs, he said, and he pulled up his pant leg to show us a vicious scar below the ankle. “Got misself bit by a pig hee’ya,” he said happily as he launched into a detailed and bloody account of the 180-pound boar that fought its way through a pack of pit bulls, broke one’s jaw plumb in half and slashed Jason’s ankle before the young hunter tackled the kiwi-killing swine and forever silenced it with a knife to the heart.
“It’s good fun,” he chirped.
Stewart Island is just one site of earnest pest-culling schemes in New Zealand. Throughout the nation, multiple deer species severely overgraze low-lying brush, plant species that never knew, until the 1800s, the unpleasant reality of being stalked by ravenous, cud-chewing ruminants. The animals were introduced as quarry for gun-slinging outdoorsmen–but populations ballooned out of control. By the mid-1900s, the government was actively trying to cull or eliminate the herds. Using helicopters to access remote areas became popular in the 1960s, with hunters sometimes shooting from the chopper, and the practice remained common for decades. Many culled deer are sold commercially as venison, and helicopters are still used to hoist bundles of carcasses from remote areas back to civilization. Only occasionally do hunters still shoot from the aircraft. (According to Jo, whose father works with the Department of Conservation, showers of blood and gore have sometimes drained from the helicopters and splattered cars and properties, sparking groans of bemused c’est-la-vie-in-New-Zealand annoyance in the rural communities below.)
Possums, of which New Zealand is the host to 70 million, pose a tremendous problem. They were introduced in the 1800s by entrepreneurs hoping to start a healthy fur industry, but today the nation–and its fragile plant community on which the fluffy buggers graze–is overrun. Possum traps lie everywhere in the bushes, road-killed carcasses litter the roadsides and at least one elementary school has held a gala in which the children shot possums and competed afterward in a possum-throwing contest.
Meanwhile, 30 million rabbits and countless millions more of rats, hedgehogs, feral goats, seven deer species, weasels, stoats and many other pests swarm New Zealand and live more or less happily together, even though some were released as means of eliminating others. Consider the stoat–a predator in the weasel family intentionally introduced to New Zealand in the 1880s to control rodents and rabbits. The stoats turned out to prefer kiwi (the feathered kind). The stoats are blamed today for the extinction of several New Zealand bird species and are often considered one of the worst mistakes made by colonists. Rabbits and rats remain as abundant as ever.
And there are Canada geese, of which 18,000 have been killed recently in organized culls.
The good news is that locals and tourists can get involved in culling many of New Zealand’s peskiest problem animals through a variety of NGO and government volunteer programs that takes ecotourism in a unique blood-and-bullets direction. I’m not criticizing; New Zealanders are in a tough jam and have got to do what they’ve got to do–but it’s fair to say that in few, if any, other nations are people so encouraged to kill.
Fish Report: We caught one two-pound brown trout at Lake Wanaka. Later, in the streams running into and out of South Mavora Lake, we found excellent fishing for rainbows – hard-fighting, fat and muscular 17-inchers – and caught two brown trout. Each was two feet long and perhaps six pounds. Many other browns just as large hunkered in the slow, clear waters, among silken ropes of algae, like submerged logs. New Zealand trout fishing is truly phenomenal. The trout all have pink flesh like salmon, and we’ll be doing our best to cull this invasive species.
January 5, 2012
At least 48 earthquakes rattled Christchurch on January 2. People here are losing track as the ground keeps shaking and fears of more big temblors have them walking on their tiptoes. In the city center, the devastation from last February’s 6.3 quake remains plain, as condemned buildings stare bleakly over the nervous city. And with the memories of that deadly day still vivid, two more large earthquakes struck Christchurch on December 23, and on the second day of this year the shaking hardly stopped at all.
“We haven’t slept much in the past 24 hours,” said a weary-eyed cashier at the airport currency exchange office as she handed me a few bills and tried to produce a smile.
But for my brother, my parents and me, January 2, 2012 was a day of no consequence. In fact, it never happened. Somewhere between leaving San Francisco on the first, flying west and crossing the International Dateline, January 2 vanished; we arrived on the third.
We rented a car and left the city immediately—not that we were following the advice of blogger Bridget Gleeson, who recently listed Christchurch as one of 11 places in the world not to visit. No, Andrew and I simply wanted to get checked in to our hostel, put on our wetsuits and get in the water with time to catch dinner’s main course. So we drove east in our Subaru wagon, hugging the left side of the road as we wound outward onto the Banks Peninsula, toward a small seaside town called Akaroa. From here the road turned sharply uphill for the final miles and ended at the Onuku Farm Hostel, a green and grubby little cluster of shacks, huts, outhouses and hammocks, all clinging to a 30-percent slope about 700 feet above sea level.
Andrew and I grabbed our wetsuits, spears and snorkeling gear and scrambled down the mountainside. The woods were thick with ferns, eucalyptus and strange native trees that doubled over periodically when enormous green New Zealand pigeons settled upon their branches. Sheep grazed abundantly, making for scenery like Scotland’s—yet the green hills gave me a bizarre feeling that, at any moment, a pterodactyl or tyrannosaur might suddenly appear through the treetops. For there is a prehistoric strangeness in the wilds of New Zealand, and I think I have pinned it down: It’s the absence of native mammals, except bats and pinnipeds, which gives the impression that one is walking in the age of dinosaurs.
At the water’s edge, we suited up and jumped in. It took a moment to adjust to the shock of the cold before we could begin diving—and we had to hunt for our paua fast, as we wouldn’t last long in this frigid sea. The water was murky, and at the bottom we sifted through the kelp and vegetation, looking for the small abalone clamped to the rocks. The larger ones we pried off using butter knives, and we filled our bags. We looked for fish, too; Andrew saw a large trevally dash past him in the glacial green shadows, and large wrasse slipped through the cloudy water, in and around kelp fronds like phantoms haunting a forest. But we speared none and, after 30 minutes, crawled from the water a few degrees from hypothermic. We shivered ourselves warm again in the summer sun before hiking back up the mountainside to the hostel. Paua require some diligent preparation, and we spent an hour in the open-air kitchen clubbing the snails’ feet with beer bottles to tenderize them for the frying pan. We began cooking at 8:00, when the sun was still high, and it only got fully dark by 10:00. By then we’d packed away a feast of paua, local wine and brown rice. The next night we ate nine paua, and by the time dinner was done we had all decided we could go weeks without any more slippery piles of sautéed sea snail.
Today, we drove for hours south and west on the coastal Highway 1, a bleak route through suburbs, sprawl, malls and endless offerings of gas and fast food. We saw the ocean just once on our left side, though we were reminded that, not far away, New Zealand’s famed natural beauty glimmered and shined. On the western horizon ran a range of jagged mountain peaks that sawed at the ceiling of clouds like shark teeth—the Southern Alps. We had a few glimpses of Mount Cook, the 12,000-foot peak that bears snow all year and has taken the lives of scores of climbers. We drove through Ashburton, Timaru and Waimate, turned upstream along the Waitaki River, and finally stopped in the river town of Kurow, where a trailer park was all we could find. The wind was howling almost too hard to cast flies, and it began to rain. I gave the river a few casts, then turned my back, but Andrew walked and waded for four hours. He returned an hour before dark and said he saw several large brown trout and received a strike from one, which broke his line. He plans to skip coffee and be on the water again before sunrise. Such is the power of the brown trout, New Zealand’s favorite invasive species.
Next week: A New Zealand fishing report that includes fish.
January 4, 2012
As the Europeans went about settling new lands in the 18th and 19th centuries, there were at least three things they rarely left home without: grapevines, rats and brown trout. The last–Salmo trutta--is a favorite quarry of fishermen everywhere. Though native to western Eurasia, brown trout have been released into watersheds around the globe–but in few places have they thrived, flourished and conquered as they have in New Zealand. Seeing that I’m flying tomorrow to Christchurch, my fly rod is packed.
Years have passed since I’ve taken a proper cast at a wild trout, and now I must step back into the water, for both the North and the South islands of New Zealand host thriving populations of brown trout almost implausibly large and abundant. The fish first arrived in 1867–the brood of English stock–and they took to the almost countless streams and lakes of New Zealand like Himalayan blackberries along an American highway. The browns grew huge–especially at first–sometimes weighing well over 20 pounds, and as they multiplied, they also dispersed; they went to sea, swam up and down the coasts and nosed their way into virgin rivers where few, if any, salmonids had gone before. They devoured local species and generally reset the balance of New Zealand’s aquatic ecosystems. Over time, the brown trout collectively sized down, and today they average three to five pounds–still, very big, and a huge tourist draw. Loved though they are, browns are an invasive species–and in places the government is dealing with them as a pest.
We’ll be touring New Zealand with a guide. His name is Andrew. He’s my brother. He traveled here last January and tells us anyone would be a fool to visit the South Island and not see the cliffs and marine scenery of Milford Sound, perhaps the closest thing the real world knows to the fabled “Cliffs of Insanity” that Andre the Giant and several friends scaled in the film The Princess Bride. The sheer walls of rock that plunge into the deep waters here also skyrocket out of sight, as boatloads of tourists gape from below. Cameras barely do justice in Milford Sound.
Elsewhere in the wilderness of Fiordland National Park, there are few, if any, roads, and the adventurous traveler faces the tempting prospect of vanishing into the mountainous temperate rainforests. From the ocean on the west side and Lake Te Anau on the east, fjords penetrate deep into the Southern Alps of the national park, and Andrew and I are speculating whether to paddle kayaks into Te Anau’s western arms, which wind deep into wild country that few people on Earth ever see.
In our baggage we also have snorkeling gear and wetsuits, with plans to spend many days in the ocean collecting the paua–that’s local vernacular for what most English speakers call abalone–which cling to tidal and subtidal rocks almost as abundantly as barnacles in places. So promises Andrew, who also tells me that the traveler who arrives at a hostel bearing a sack of paua for the cast iron (or a large brown trout for the broiler) is a man for whom new friends will soon arrive.
And we’ve packed rain gear. Though we go to New Zealand in the peak of summer, it won’t be dry; the South Island extends into high enough latitude – as far south as 46 degrees – that it intercepts the wettest of westerlies weather much like coastal Oregon and Washington do. Annual rainfall can exceed 300 inches in parts of Fiordland, and if the skies are persistently gray, there’s always the drier, warmer wine country.
Other attractions in New Zealand:
Marlborough Sounds Maritime Park. A second-best by some opinions to Fiordland National Park, this immense region of islands and inlets is located in the very north of the South Island and receives just a fraction of the rainfall that soaks the South Island’s west coast. Towns and villages, and warmer waters, make it altogether a more hospitable place.
Longfin eel. These beasts prowl many of the waterways of New Zealand–and fly fishermen regularly spot them snaking through the shallows along the shoreline. Though seen as fair game by some fishermen, the eels, which may live for a century and grow to six feet, are also a beloved artifice of natural heritage and a declining species, imperiled by destruction of watersheds.
The glaciers. In the Southern Alps, glaciers like Fox and Franz Josef invite tourists and trekkers to see and even venture onto these massive flows of ice, each remarkable for their relatively low latitude and elevation; both terminate at less than 1,000 feet of elevation, amidst temperate rainforest. Also remarkable, as climate change impacts other glaciers in New Zealand and rest of the world, Fox and Franz Josef glaciers have actually advanced in recent years.
Dolphins at Kaikoura. At this small east coast cape north of Christchurch, tourists may enter the water and swim with groups of the dusky dolphin. The dolphins show no fear of their admirers and will swim within yards of submerged divers, yet just how Kaikoura’s dolphin diving industry may be impacting the animals themselves has become a matter of concern.
The Great Walks. More than a dozen famed hiking trails on the North and South islands take walkers through some of New Zealand’s most tremendous scenery. The Milford Track, for one, leads trekkers deep into the wilds of Fiordland. Due to intense pressure, applications and permits and required for some of the Great Walks.
Kiwi Bird. The five species of New Zealand’s most famous wild creature, in the genus Apteryx, are all endangered. Stewart Island, a wet wilderness off the southern tip of the South Island, offers the best kiwi viewing opportunities.