"You're Guaranteed to See a Kiwi"

Stewart Island Brown Kiwi Tokoeka

The DOC ranger in Oban had assured me, "You're guaranteed to see a kiwi in the wild." Yet four days into the trail, I had only heard their screeching calls. One by one, gleeful trampers reported sightings but not me. I tried not to show my despondency. It surprised me, how much I hungered for a glimpse of this shy, ground-dwelling, nocturnal bird. The longing might have been founded on a Maori woman's insight a year before, long before I thought about undertaking this te araroa through NZ. She told me with clairvoyant certainty that kiwi, the guardian of the forest, was my totem and guide.

To be honest, I felt disappointed about the unglamorous association. Who wants to be linked to such a dull, brown, dumpy, short-sighted, earth-probing bird? They can't even fly!

But when I read about how much Maori esteem kiwi, I changed my mind.

In Maori mythology, all living things are descended from the union between Rangi-nui, the Sky Father, and Papa-tu-a-nuku, the Earth Mother. Two children came from the joining: Tangaroa, who brought the fish and other sea-going creatures into being and Tane-mahuta, who made the forests, birds and humans.

Tane-mahuta's first-born, Kiwi, took on the role of protecting the children that followed.

Somehow, the natural order became imbalanced. Insects multiplied and feasted on the trees, causing them to grow sick and die.

Tane-mahuta summoned the birds for a family conference to deal with the crisis. He asked for a volunteer to leave the forest canopy and live on its floor where it could hunt the insects and protect the trees.

One by one, the birds refused. Tui feared darkness. Pukeko disliked cold and damp. Pipiwharauroa was too busy building a nest.

Only Kiwi agreed to forsake his love of sunlight and the company of his tree-dwelling family.

Overjoyed, Tane-mahuta nonetheless wanted to make sure Kiwi understood the magnitude of his decision. He warned the bird that he would have to grow thick strong legs and a long ugly beak to break apart rotting logs and dig into the damp earth, that he would lose his coloured feathers and wings and that he could never return to the canopies above.

Even so, Kiwi accepted his losses and stood by his choice.

Tane-mahuta rewarded the selfless bird by making him the most beloved and famous of all his creatures. Today, the kiwi is a national symbol and shows the qualities that all human Kiwis admire: integrity, courage and humility.

And what of the birds that refused Tane-mahuta's plea? He punished Tui by giving him the white throat feathers of a coward, by banishing Pukeko, the swamp hen, to the marshes and by preventing Pipiwharanuora, the cuckoo, from ever building another nest.

After hearing this tale, I had decided, "Give me a kiwi any day and to hell with glamour!". After all, I'm the eldest of my siblings,  into blundering over trails at night and prefer muted colours. And I'm growing more short-sighted by the year.

I also love forests. One purpose in walking this land is to showcase its imperilled beauty to others. If our children, recent immigrants and politicians do not value it, then we'll lose it for future generations. Once again, nature is out of balance and Tane-mahuta's beloved forests are under threat.

While I walked just after dawn on the fourth day, a fleeting grey shape darted across the path.

"Just another deer," I sighed. "How dull. I want to see a kiwi,"

Then another movement, a few metres closer, caught my eye. A long beak prodded the earth from behind a grass tussock. A rounded unmistakable shape followed.

No tramper ever stood more amazed and delighted at the sight of this dowdy bird.

The morning brought one more gift. After the kiwi had moved out of sight in single-minded pursuit of breakfast grubs, I paused to peer into the scrub the deer had entered.

Instead of a deer, a metre-tall yellow-eyed penguin glared at me through the tangled branches.

We eye-balled each another with marvel on my part and suspicion on his. Goose-bumps prickled my arms and neck.

Were Tane-mahuta and Tangaroa touching me? I could almost guarantee it. Stewart Island is the kind of place where the ancient stories come alive.