Searching for the South Island's 'grey ghost'

by Bruce Ansley / 22 December, 2018
kokako chaser Rhys Buckingham

South Island kōkako chaser Rhys Buckingham with loosened lumps of moss he believes are signs of the bird in Marsden Valley, Nelson. Photo/Tim Cuff/Alamy

Writer Bruce Ansley answers the call of the wild again. In a series of adventures that span the most remote to the most populated parts of the country, he retraces the path of a doomed surveyor, a raiding Māori chief, intrepid sailors and a famous prison escaper. These and other audacious tales are compiled in Ansley’s new book Wild Journeys. In the extract that follows, he sets off on a hunt for the South Island’s “grey ghost”.

One fine weekend I arrange to meet Rhys Buckingham in South Westland to search for the country’s most elusive bird.

It seems simple enough, except that phrases such as “fine weekend” and “South Westland” do not sit easily with each other. The weather office might think the weekend will be fine, but South Westland has other ideas. Or vice versa.

Worse, the “country’s most elusive bird” has eluded its putative hunters for years and is unlikely to make an exception for a visiting writer. Does the bird exist? Was I instead searching for Rhys Buckingham, who is almost as cryptic as his bird?

Cryptic. My dictionary defines it as secret, mystic, mysterious. Zoologists use it to describe an animal so anonymous in its colourings, so careful in its proceedings, that it is all but invisible. Ghost-like, in other words.

All of this describes the South Island kōkako, as much as it can be described, for the bird is usually no more than a shadow, a wish in the deep green bush. It has earned the title “grey ghost”.

This list of extinct New Zealand birds is long and ignoble. It runs from the huia to the Haast’s eagle, from false-toothed pelicans to the New Zealand lake-wanderer, from 19 species of penguins to all nine species of moa.

We are not good with birds.

The South Island kōkako was another victim of the usual litany of habitat loss and predators. It was declared extinct too, for a few years, until the various bird authorities decided they might have been a little fast off the mark and improved its official status, marginally.

Everyone has heard the kōkako’s call, although they may not know it. It is that deep, melodic, lonely, haunting note that so often introduces a tale of the New Zealand bush. Without it the song of the forest is lighter, like an orchestra missing its bassoon.

Rhys Buckingham heard it first 40 years before, in the 1970s. This what he says about that: “I heard the most amazing call, at the head of Lake Monowai. It was right on nightfall. It was the most beautiful, bell-like tolling. It has never gone out of my mind. It went for some time and then it stopped and after it stopped I could hear it still in my ear.”

In his soul too, I suspect.

The North Island kōkako (left) has blue wattles, while the South Island kōkako has orange wattles. Illustration/A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

NZ Birds Online plays the kōkako’s calls he has recorded over the years (listed as “possible calls”): a long clear pipe, an organ-like mwonngg, joyous, tragic, tremendously moving, the magical calls of sirens luring voyagers onto the rocks.

The voyage hasn’t wrecked Rhys Buckingham, yet. I think of him more as a knight errant on a quest that began a very long time ago.

He calls himself an ecologist, primarily. He has worked, often on threatened species, for the old wildlife service, the former forest service, the early versions of the Department of Conservation. Now he works with clients who need resource consents. That’s his job, he says, although I suspect that if he could bill someone for all the hours he has put into the South Island kōkako he’d be a very rich man.

I think of him as Tantalus, who in Greek mythology stood in a pool forever, fruit dangling over his head but always out of reach, the water running away before he could drink it. But he isn’t simply tantalised by the kōkako, he is tormented by it.

All told he counts seven sightings, four of them either certain or close to it. Not many for four decades’ work, perhaps, but definitive. 

At the turn of the new millennium he and the loose consortium of kōkako-watchers decided on a massive search, financed mainly by the then-ascendant Maruia Nature Catalogue and Ecologic Foundation. The search immediately threw up two leads.

In 2000, a Westport bushman called Dan McKinnon reported hearing, and seeing, kōkako in the Charleston area. No kākā, no tūī could have imitated it. The call was more than 20 seconds long, full organ song, clear, perfect and Dan’s descriptions were foolproof enough to be unofficially accepted by experts. He recorded the call. The recording was lost in a house fire. The search was running true to form.

I first met Rhys in those Charleston forests in 2004. He was working deep in craggy territory with two fellow kōkako hunters. They had heard the calls of three birds. No question, Rhys said.

Charleston is a goldmining place once fabulously rich and said to have had 99 hotels. Tourism is its new gold. Visitors climb through limestone caves, through pits and tunnels. So did we.

We drove into the Paparoa mountains to where Rhys’ two companions, Peter Rudolf and his wife Mon, were hunched on a track eating their breakfast. Then, off up the side of a valley we went. It was tricky going, and our silence was broken by yelps of anguish from his visitors as we tried to negotiate fallen trees and avoid the deep fissures and pits in this limestone country, all the while scanning the treetops should the kōkako, Madonna-like, decide to reveal itself to its most recent converts.

We hadn’t gone very far before I was completely lost, unable even to say with any conviction which way was down. I realised what a fine bushman Rhys must be, for he was at home in far more remote and difficult country than this, often alone.

Rhys played a flute-like, melancholy recording of a kōkako as a contact call. We heard a riroriro, a tūī, a bellbird. Otherwise the forest was quiet until Rhys and his companions froze like pointing dogs, their noses aimed at the canopy. “Hear that?”

Perhaps it was, perhaps not. Fourteen years on, the memory has gelled into a call, the music lodged in my mind.

geoff reid

Buckingham’s colleague, fellow kōkako chaser Geoff Reid, changes the batteries on a sound-recorder. Photo/Tim Cuff/Alamy

The new lead came from an old sighting by a pounamu carver in Greymouth, Mick Collins. He reported kōkako in South Westland. He gave a very detailed account of finding 17 kōkako with two kākā in the Lake Moeraki area in the 1970s.

Lake Moeraki lies near the coast, a little north of Haast. Rhys followed his track along a small creek, Venture Creek, to a ravine which usually had a dry creek bed.

He bashed through thick wet undergrowth, played a recording, his kōkako contact call. Got an instant response from perhaps 300m away. He headed for it, through the heavy understorey, played his tape again when he reached a rise, a small spur. Boop boop boop, came the answering call from right above his head, an unmistakable kōkako call.

“So here I am, dead still, binoculars, camera, everything focussed. Nothing more. Silence. After a while I quietly move on. You never know. I move a few metres and suddenly here it is, exactly as Mick Collins had told me, this dry creekbed, steep ravine.”

The kōkako fell silent. But Rhys remains certain there’s something in that forest.

We arrange to meet there in November, 2017. The trip falls through. I miss my shot for the first time, but not the last; and this would have been the most promising of meetings, for he had three brief glimpses of birds which looked exactly like kōkako.

We make new arrangements. I’m to fly to Christchurch, drive to the West Coast, travel to the south of South Westland, leave my car at the Whakapohai River bridge, ignore a more recent track, take another one along the river to a small clearing in the forest where Rhys has set up a fly camp.

The weather forecast goes from threatening to truly awful. We call it off. The forecast storm simply doesn’t appear. The weather turns out to be quite good. Damn.

I hear a defeated note in Rhys’ voice when I next talk to him. It’s so unusual that I cannot miss it, in fact. Usually he is cheerful. He has to be, to sustain hope and enthusiasm for so long.

We set a new date and I make new bookings. The weather forecast goes from ominous to truly awful. Is this a recording? Alas, no.

Rhys calls. It’s a weather bomb, he says. It’s going to strike first exactly at the spot where we’re going into the bush to pitch our feeble tents. They’d be blown over the mountains all the way to Dunedin probably, either that or they’d be flattened by falling trees, even if we got there, for he was certain that a bridge or two would be down, roads washed away or blocked by slips.

The heck with it, I say, it all came to nothing last time, let’s take the chance The lesson I should have learned, even if not from long experience of the Coast then from our arrangement a few weeks earlier was, never bet on West Coast weather.

A fierce nor’-wester is blowing hard as a blacksmith’s bellows as I fly in. The Canterbury Plains have the bony look of a bare-knuckle fight. The day before, temperatures in Central Otago have reached 37.6°C, the hottest January in 14 years. Today severe gales and horrid rain are forecast for, well, right where I’m going.

Leaves, small branches fly onto the road and smack into the car windows like bullets. The air goes cloudy with a grey glaze like an old bathroom window. The mountains are black with menace.

I pass through the Plains towns, Kirwee, Darfield, Springfield, and the tussocks lie down like whipped dogs. Shingle slides trickle down the mountainsides as if the iron clouds above are leaking metal. The first raindrops hit the windscreen like hailstones and suddenly I’m inside that Canterbury nor’-west phenomenon, fiery hot to wild to storm in half an hour.

Over Porters Pass where the wind turns gullies into blowpipes, whipping rocks off the cliffsides, sniping at the car. Up the Waimakariri River whose vast reaches seem to be on fire, clouds of spray whipped off the water and blown into the air like smoke.

Into the dark deep tunnel of Arthurs Pass and over the Alps I go, the mountains spectres in the grey. The heat is just a memory. The rain is clanging on the roof.

Hokitika seems quiet. It is quiet. People at the petrol station say power to the town has been cut off, right down the Coast too, and it is likely to stay that way for 48 hours.

Things are getting worse. I head south, but only for a few kilometres. A friendly man stands at a road block. The road south has been blocked, he said. The good news is that it’s now open. The bad news is that it’s only open as far as Hari Hari.

I go through anyway and it’s not long before I see why the road has been closed. Trees, some of them giants perhaps a century, two centuries old, have been plucked at random and thrown across the road. Why would the cyclone pick that tree, and not its neighbour? Heaven knows what it’s like inside the forest. I think of the fly tents where we planned to spend the night and shudder. Rhys was right.

wild weather

Author Bruce Ansley encountered some wild weather on his South island odyssey. “The first raindrops hit the windscreen like hailstones,” he writes in Wild Journeys. Photo/

Tree trunks have been chainsawed to allow the trickle of traffic through. A caterwauling giant fully two-storeys high almost blocks the road completely. It’s an upturned tree viewed from the bottom, its roots gesticulating in the air. I sneak around its edge, zig-zag along the highway, past, around, sometimes even over the debris and reach Hari Hari.

It is growing dark, and it is clear that this is the biggest thing to happen to Hari Hari since Guy Menzies crashlanded his biplane in a nearby swamp and tried to convince disbelieving locals that he’d just made the first solo trans-Tasman flight.

The hotel is full, of drivers and drinkers, many of them hoping to be guests. There’s no room at the inn. He could have filled his hotel 20 times over, the owner tells me. It looks as if it has been filled 20 times over. People pack the hallways, the reception office, the bars, the dining room.

Try down the road, he says wearily. A set of motels, or cabins stands beside the road. The owner is talking to tourists and I can see his body language from afar. He comes down the drive. “We’re full,” he says, unnecessarily.

“Oh well,” I say, “it’s an ill wind…..” He laughs. “Certainly is.”

I drive back along the road, past the lovely Lake Ianthe and the roots and the wrecks, the rain spurting, to the old bushman’s camp at Pukekura. It’s dark, of course.

I have no cash (stupid of me) and if they have no electricity, there’s no Eftpos….. “Well,” says the man, regarding me with bright blue eyes, “we can’t turn you away on a night like this, where will you go? Do you have a sleeping bag?”

I do. He unlocks the door of a small room in what seems to be an old accommodation lodge, a row of bedrooms each opening on to a verandah, a lavatory and cold shower at one end, kitchen at the other. Even without its glow of refuge, it’s a nice room, three walls pale yellow with cabbage trees painted on them, the fourth black like the ceiling, whose gold-painted stars sparkle in the dark.

It has an old dresser with droopy plated brass handles and a mid-century Danish armchair which would fetch a fortune in Ponsonby, and an old double bed, very soft. It is paradise in the storm and I stand on the grape-covered verandah and listen to happy voices from the kitchen and don’t think about Sky or spa baths.

And leave a message for Rhys, who has taken refuge at Lake Paringa: “I’ll be there in the morning, don’t despair.”

Next morning I get some cash, pay for the room ($25, he says, but I force him up to $40) and drive back to Hari Hari.

Everything is dripping. Beech trees lie everywhere. Huge pieces of earthmoving equipment pass on trucks. I follow them, through Hari Hari and on to Whataroa.

This road is supposed to be closed. It’s a wobbly course. But past the Mount Hercules bendy bit the road evens out. I reach Whataroa.

Yes! I celebrate all the way through the little town until the road turns at its end and here’s a roadblock. A local has parked his car across the highway in case some dumb tourist or greenie doesn’t believe the story.

Which is, that the road is blocked, that Franz Josef and Fox Glacier and points south are isolated, that 115 motorists, mainly tourists, have been stranded overnight in their cars and buses on the high road between the two tourist spots, that the road will be closed for at least two days.

A crowd of tourists clusters around a man in a hi-vis jacket. He’s explaining to them why they can go no further: huge trees lie across the road, they’ve brought down power lines and they’re now tangled in the branches, that one slip in particular might be passable but slipping into the lake is much more likely.

A kind of groan, an amazed chorus, rustles through the crowd. Asian tourists look puzzled, Europeans indignant. “What do you expect us to do?” one demands, in an English accent. The roadman looks as if he might make a suggestion, but desists, although he has the contented look of an official giving bad news.

A few locals hang around. For years tourists have been looking at them. Now they’re looking at tourists. They’re essential to the local economy but that doesn’t mean locals have to like them. For many Coasters, tourists are like the Greens, or ratatouille: they might be all right in their place, as long as their place is somewhere else.

Greens? That brings me back. I’m chasing a man who’s chasing the South Island kōkako, but must be getting very sick of me. I’ve pursued him around and around the most remote parts of the South Island.

I leave him a message. The road is closed for days. He’ll have to go over the Haast Pass and through Wanaka to get to his home in Nelson. Why don’t we meet in Christchurch, on his way back?

I go back over the Alps to Christchurch. Next day I get a message from him. He’s in Hokitika. He got through the slips, the road blocks no trouble. The road was only closed for a day. But where am I? Evidently our messages to each other have been marooned all over the hills, like tourists.

We give up. Instead, he flies up to Auckland and we meet on Waiheke Island, where I guarantee no one has ever spotted a kōkako, North Island or South, and he mourns his life’s work.

“It’s very, very spiritual. But there’s still the scientific reality that there’s one or two birds hanging on in there, in flesh and blood. I’ll never have any doubt of that. Without the sightings I’d definitely have had that doubt. But there are other things too. I never hear, now, that magnificent, cathedral bell-like call that I once heard. There’s a graph and it’s downwards. It’s very sad to me, but it’s disappearing. You no longer hear that call and we may never hear it again.

“It is the most beautiful call I’ve ever heard from any bird here or anywhere else, like the Amazon or Himalayan jungles. It is like a violin being tuned through a whole different range of frequencies, in the most divine spiritually wonderful way imaginable to the human ear.

“Then I heard the term ‘functionally extinct’, not being able to save the bird for the next generations. It has dwelled with me, and now I’ve got to give up my obsession because I’m dealing with something that cannot be saved for future generations. It’s really, really sad. Such a grand scale of sadness.”

I’m not sure which is the more sad, the disappearance of the South Island kōkako or the failure of a lifetime’s quest.

Then: “The frustration, the psychological side of it, but you know, it only stops you at a point in time, a few weeks later I’m raring to get back there.”

Where?

Well, Lake Fraser possibly.

I look it up. It is a tiny lake beside West Cape in the deepest, most remote recesses of Fiordland, wedged between Chalky Inlet and Dusky Sound, untracked, dense, difficult country with deeply incised gullies all but impenetrable, tight wet vegetation, so rainy the possums won’t get in there and eat the mistletoe because they don’t like getting their fur wet, no beech mast to attract the rats, out of the reach of earthbound human beings, a fine habitat for kōkako.

Rhys seems to put on hold his plan to give up his wild quest.

A float plane could get in there…

Extracted from Wild Journeys: New Zealand’s Famous & Infamous, Historic & Off-the-beaten-path Journeys, Tracks, Routes & Passages by Bruce Ansley (HarperCollins, $45) and published in the November 2018 issue of North & South.

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