The Elusive Kiwi
I don't normally talk to strange men in pubs, but when you are in New Zealand, you sort of have to. Everyone is interested in where you have been, where you are going, and more often than not they want to share a little something special, a locals-only secret, with you.
This is exactly what happened in a pub on Stewart Island, the large island to the south of the South Island of New Zealand, one sultry summer's evening.
The man propping the bar up was not tall, more hobbit like in stature, and wore clothes that were smart casual when I was a lad (not exactly recent history). He smiled a gummy smile at my stories and experiences throughout the country, and complained bitterly about the "mainlanders", "the government", and the country's anti-smoking laws. He inhaled beer to no obvious effect.
Yet his heart was in the right place, and as the sun set on the western horizon, Rangi (Rangbo to his friends) leant his wrinkled face close to mine and said "If you love wildlife, you've gotta see this. But don't make it obvious. We don't want every looney following us."
We left the pub, and made our way through thick bush in the diminishing light, stumbling often due to hidden stumps and beer, heightened senses picking up the screams of unknown birds and the scent of rotting undergrowth. I didn't wonder if our twilight excursion was suspicious until later, how stupid I was, he could have been leading me to my death. Or worse.
But New Zealander's don't think like that, and soon I could hear waves lapping lustily at a sandy beach. Rangi stopped and whispered in my ear, his musty breath coming short and fast from the exertion - obviously this had been more exercise than he was used to.
"You must be quiet," he said. "And still. It's important that you are still. Or they will know you are there. They won't come if they know."
It was like the X Files.
We emerged from the undergrowth onto the beach, my eyes were already accustomed to the dark, and white ocean spume glowed like ghosts in the moonlight. But there was something else, shadows moving, shuffling, snuffling, making their clumsy way towards us.
I held my breath when I realised what they were. Kiwis. The little round flightless bird, the symbol of all that is New Zealand. They poked in the sand with their long curved beaks, pulling at grubs, their poor eyesight making them totally unaware of our presence. Occasionally they would hold back their heads and let fly with a bloodcurdling, eardrum popping scream, before thrusting their noses back into the sand, relentlessly feeding.
We stayed there for 20 minutes or so, watching the group of 8 birds dabble their way from forest to ocean and back, before something inaudible spooked them, and they were gone to where ever kiwis go. We were left with impressions in the sand and a heart full of memories.
I will never forget that.