Trail of Death. How's that for a clickbait heading?
Before you go accusing me of cynically exploiting your curiosity by topping this story about our last day on the trail as if it was an episode of CSI, I'll remind you that this whole blog has followed a loose theme of death and destruction from the outset.
When we're not watching telly Whiona and I like to go stoat trapping in our spare time. We do this to protect a very small Manawatu population of Whio or Blue Duck and we went on this walk to raise a bit of money and awareness for a bird that's rarer than Kiwi.
Yes, we walked the South Island for fun, but we also wanted to find out for ourselves how the rest of New Zealand is coping with the bloodbath and associated destruction that's been going on all over the country for the past few hundred years. A bloodbath that is likely to end soon because there will be no rare birds left on the mainland for stoats and rats to slaughter.
Am I being a drama queen?
A local bird sanctuary, Pukaha Mount Bruce, has just had what it thinks might be a rogue ferret (whatever that is) trash its Kiwi population, although the native bird sanctuary's website is saying...
We're celebrating success!
The team at Pukaha Mount Bruce are celebrating having again been awarded a Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence and also retaining their Qualmark Endorsed Visitor Activity and Enviro Gold Status with an increased score from 76% to 91%.
...it has proved itself a failure when it comes to doing what I would have thought would be its core business - protecting birds.
Not that I'm blaming the sanctuary for the tragic loss of several of New Zealand's rarest birds - including the mutant and excessively rare white Kiwi. Ferrets, stoats and rats are killing machines and we, as a country, just don't have the willpower, manpower or knowledge to stop them. My point is that if we can't even save our most cherished birds in a well-resourced (I assume) wildlife park, what hope does the other 99.99 percent of the country have of retaining its fauna?
Well...read on, I might have some good news.
WE WOKE BEFORE DAWN and made our way around Punga Cove by torchlight, quietly walking through the campsite beside the resort as its tenters slept on.
Tom and his blisters were taking our packs on the water taxi to Picton, so we only carried bags with some food, water and our raincoats. We were slightly nervous that we wouldn't make our date with the taxi on time, but only slightly.
As light started to make its way across the bay we expected to be walking through some sort of dawn chorus, but the bush was eerily silent. We had seen Bellbirds the day before so looked forward to walking with them on our last day.
But we heard nothing. No bird song. Not a flutter.
Then we came across the first body...or what was left of it. A pile of olive Bellbird feathers lay in the middle of the track.
We walked on in more silence. The sun rose, the dawn was gone.
Then we came across the second pile of olive feathers.
At this point I'd like to point out that this is not normal. Yes our forests are being pillaged by stoats - but it is very rare to find evidence of that pillage on actual tracks. We'd come across one stoat burrow in Southland that had Kereru feathers at its entrance, but in the hundreds of kilometres of trail we'd walked, that was it.
I felt angry. Queen Charlotte Track is one of the country's most popular tracks. The trust that oversees the walkway is now demanding walkers pay for the privilege, but we hadn't seen a single stoat trap. The beauty of the place is being commercially exploited but for no return to conservation. Is QCT JUST a tourist trail?
Our last day was getting kind of depressing.
Then we saw it...a sign letting me know we'd walked into conservation country. There is a pest control programme on the track - the Endeavour Inlet Conservation Trust is a community/DoC effort with exactly the same goals as the group that we work with in the Manawatu - The Ruahine Whio Protectors. Phew. All was not lost. Stoats, rats and possums were being managed on Queen Charlotte. But was it really enough to make a difference? Perhaps the dark start to the day was effecting my mood.
We walked on around the bays to Furneaux Lodge with the idea that a cup of coffee would cheer us up. The signs on the track invite walkers in for refreshment, but TeA walkers might like to get in a bit of personal grooming before trying this swanky place out. A quick shave, some lippy and a hose down are probably what's needed to get the lodge's eatery interested in taking Te Araroians' money.
You can buy full meals there, but something to accompany your tea or coffee? A biscuit? A muffin? Nope.
"Do you mind if we open our Ginger Nuts to have with our coffees?" I asked.
This request was met with a loooooong pause. Without making eye contact our host eventually gave us permission and we skulked off to our table feeling unwelcome.
It's not often that a cup of coffee makes me feel worse, but we were really starting to feel grim as we left the lodge. This was not right. It was my last day! Where was the elation I had been expecting all these months?
We, well I, needed an attitude adjustment. Whiona is a little less prone than I to getting wound up by the problems of the world, so thankfully she was able to drag me and my worries on towards the boat.
The track from the lodge was being widened and straightened to make way for more walkers and cyclists so DoC warning signs, diggers and tools were strewn along the edge of the muddy path.
It wasn't long before we met a couple of cheerful DoC rangers on a quad bike coming the other way. and they stopped for a talk.
They'd been off cleaning longdrops (one of New Zealand's most thankless non-conservation jobs?) and were returning to the track for some more digging. I nudged the conversation around to the serious lack of actual conservation work on the Queen Charlotte Track...and was met with some good news.
"Just wait till you get round the corner a bit mate. You aren't going to believe what you see," was the somewhat surprising reply.
And he was right.
As we approached the end of our walk we came to a peninsula called Bottle Rock. It was like walking into a Heath Robinson cartoon. Every 50 metres or so, there wasn't just one trap...there were at least three. Some of the traps were straight out of a medieval battlefield, some out of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie. Antennas attached to pieces of corrugated plastic that in turn were coated in peanut butter. Runways made their way up to sprung platforms that dangled with chains.
At one stage we came across a Weka investigating one of the new weapons in this war - a Good Nature trap. It was jumping up and trying to get a taste of the meaty bait inside. The trap seemed to be set out of reach, but we had to wonder how this curious Weka would fare on the unprotected and inviting ramp traps around the corner.
But all in all the massive killing potential on display was heartening.
The gloom and hopelessness of the silent bush lifted as the sun started to warm our way. As we closed in on Ship Cove we came across walkers as they were starting the first day of what would usually be a four day Queen Charlotte trek. We usually stop and talk with whoever we meet, but we had our buds in and the music up loud. We smiled as we passed and breathed in their smells. Yes...their smells.
We hadn't spent much time with "clean" people over the three months of our trip, but when we did, the thing we really noticed was the deodorants, perfumes and cleaning agents humanity smothers itself in these days. Our last few ks of Te Araroa was like a night at the opera - there were no pearls, but the cloud of exotic stink wafting about our fellow travellers was eye watering.
As we walked down the last hill to Ship Cove, Whiona had a real tear in her eye. I may have too, but I'm not one to talk about that kind of stuff...yeah right.
We fell into the sunlight of the bay. The sunny beach was a fitting way to end a trip blessed with amazing weather.
We swam. We dried off. We ate and we waited.
We had done it. It was good.
OUR WATER TAXI RIDE to Picton was quite an involved thing. The boat seemed to stop at every bay and house along the way, delivering everything from barrels of beer to groceries. The first stop was the most impressive.
The crew unloaded a large pile of traps from DoC HQ onto the jetty. Traps that were clearly on their way up to Bottle Rock Peninsula. Wow. Whatever was going on up there was something special. Conservation carpet bombing.
From despondency to delight. The day's journey had been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, but we were on a high.
It wasn't long before we were in Picton with Tom and our packs. As they sorted our luggage (unlike our plane ride to Bluff we weren't allowed to carry our walking sticks on board for security reasons), I went off to the Four Square for some supplies. I'd hoped for something substantial as a celebratory feast, but there was only junk food on offer. In desperation, I bought myself a soggy, but piping hot mince pie. It was gone by the time I walked out the door. This was my guilty little secret. The others would have to make do with...I can't remember what.
The ferry trip was like a dream. We sailed through the Sounds and sunset, into a very calm waters. The Cook Straight used to be a long tortuous affair, but our perception of time and distance had been left in a crumpled heap 1300 kilometres back at Bluff.
After three or so hours of sitting in the luxury of the ship's bar and diner, we were back in the North Island with family. Thanks for the lift, bed and wine, Jo and Andrew.
The traps that were dropped off by the water taxi at Bottle Rock had a name on them. Once I got home, I tracked down who was responsible for the interesting conservation effort we'd witnessed.
My enquiries lead me to a project called ZIP (Zero Invasive Species Limited), a joint effort by DoC, Gareth and Sam Morgan, and the dairy industry. ZIP is a research and development company that has the goal of completely eliminating stoats, rats, possums and their unwelcome buddies from as much of the mainland as they can...and keeping them out.
Finding out what was going on took a bit of uncovering, and when I asked ZIP's CEO, Al Bramley why, I got a refreshingly simple reply:
"Truth is we aren't setting out to create much of a public profile and we're not focusing on engagement of hearts and minds (that's another big job for others like Predator Free NZ). However, we are interested in collaborating with others who have expertise or ideas on how to take our key predators to zero."
Concentrating on simply killing stuff seems to be paying off. Al continued:
"As you've discovered we've begun learning and developing on the Bottle Rock peninsular in Queen Charlotte Sound. So far we've largely used existing tools at really high intensity, to target rats and possums (at 440 ha it's probably a bit small for stoats) and we're still in the mode of eradicating them. Probably be at it for another few months - we're down to tracking 4% rats and 2% possums. Somewhat surprisingly though the barrier system (a series of six lines with high intensity tools, 100 m apart) appears to be holding the rats and possums at bay better than we expected. That said there is still plenty of room for improvement. One of the novel things we have been working on is automated reporting and so far we have a network of about 600 traps, all talking to us via satellite, letting us know their status every hour.
The big challenge for us is detection of invaders in a big landscape, so that's what we will be spending a lot of time on over the next couple of years. Whether predators breach the defence system or come in via the sea, invasion is a certainty and we need the ability to detect them before they establish a population."
Perhaps ZIP will soon be called on to help the Kiwi, Takahe and other rare birds that are being wiped out in sanctuaries like Pukaha Mount Bruce and the Murchisons near Te Anau. Perhaps Whiona and I will soon be wandering into the bush in the Ruahines with transmitters and other high-tech gadgets.
What once seemed hopeless, now seems possible.
SOME FACTS AND FIGURES (from DoC):
- 25 million: A conservative estimate of the number of native birds killed by predators like possums, stoats and rats each year. [Mojo my cat has killed three birds that I know of this week alone.]
- 10: The number of offspring that a female rat can potentially produce every 8 weeks in ideal conditions.
- Monitoring work suggests the [2014-15] South Island beech forest seeding could potentially generate more than 4 million rats in the areas DOC is targeting for pest control alone.
- 50 hectares: The total area of Rotorua forest that was targeted in a 2013 conservation blitz resulting in 337 possums, 385 rats, and 7 stoats trapped in the first week alone. This involved over 700 hours of work at an estimaged cost of about $40,000 in materials and labour.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP:
VOLUNTEER or DONATE