Constellations and Kiwis

“That’s a kiwi blowing its nose.”

I grinned, quiet at first, but a couple of seconds later, I had to fight the urge to dissolve into laughter as the picture of a kiwi stretching out his wing to enfold the end of his long beak in a Kleenex danced in my head. The guys would never forgive me, I thought, if I scared away the shy nocturnal bird.

Regaining my composure, I listened for more clearing of snotty noses. I heard the sound twice more. We pointed as we heard rustling through the plants along the side of the trail. Then, we’d move in the direction of the sounds and point our lights into the understory of the bush.

There were four of us: D, an Englishman who had worked at a well-known botanical garden in London; M, a German whose specialty was physical geography; J, the plant specialist and bird enthusiast from Hawaii who could talk sheep and was close friends with someone I knew from Pennsylvania; and me.

All of us were intent on seeing a kiwi.

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green-and-the-greyI had walked that same trail earlier that day. The light was perfect, greens and greys on tree bark blending as colors on a camouflage shirt. Nickel Creek’s “Green and the Gray” played in my head:

“Green is the color that everyone sees all around me,
Gray is the color I see around her, she’s just a blur.”

It was a portion of a bus trip for which I had purchased a ticket in June and was now taking as part of a week on the North Island. A Swedish information technology specialist who worked for a major car company, my fellow American, and I hiked a short section of the trail to an overlook where we could see the town and bay below and gaze out to the Pacific Ocean. We watched parasailers gliding over the water and ferries making the trip between Paihia and Russell, an island town. I composed photographs and then pulled out my notebook to write. The guys studied the plants along the trail, the plant scientist explaining flower heads to the IT specialist.

At lunch time, we headed down the hill to the centre of town, where we purchased chicken salad sandwiches and pizza from a small bakery. We then headed back to the hostel so we could say good-bye to those we had met on our bus who were leaving for Auckland. I was staying an extra day in Paihia, as I didn’t need to be in the city until the weekend.

It turned out that three of the guys from that bus also were staying an extra day. After our traveling companions departed, the four of us walked up the road to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, a historic place where the founding document of New Zealand was signed between Great Britain and the Maori people. We weren’t able to walk on the actual grounds without paying a steep museum fee, so we continued our trek up the hill, pausing to take photos of trees and discuss the scientific names of the plants we passed.

Toward the top was a golf course and a fence barricading us from the treaty grounds. The land sloped toward the sea. We followed the fence to the land’s end and found ourselves at the edge of volcanic rocks. I studied the charcoal topography for a path to the water and began picking my way down the smooth blocks as if I was walking down stairs. The guys followed. I snapped some pictures and then found the perfect place to sit, a shelf attached to a rounded nook. I leaned back. Birds flew so close it seemed I would soon have a creature landing on my head. I kept my camera at the ready as I scratched in my notebook, looking up to watch sailboats speeding across the bay and gannets diving. The first time a gannet dove, I was writing and heard the three behind me exclaim, “Whoa!” I looked up to see a splash and then turned around to hear the explanation of what I had missed.

lava-rocksI began watching the gannets, sometimes borrowing J’s binoculars. They would soar above the sea, and then, only slightly slowing down, change direction with their heads pointing toward the water, tuck their wings into a triangle and dive straight down, spiraling for a whirling entrance into the sea swell, a spinning torpedo aimed at a fish. A few seconds later, the bird would reappear above the water’s surface, fishless, floating calmly on the waves. We’d wonder if it actually caught anything, then conjecture that the fish was eaten underwater.

Through the binoculars, I also studied the sails on a replication of a ship from the 1800s and the way the waves rolled across the surface of the sea, wondering at the fact that, even though the horizon looked still, the waters would be as dynamic as they were here if I sailed to meet them. We looked northeast to see out to the Pacific, and I knew if I looked hard enough, home would be there.

We sat in that place for maybe an hour before looking at our clocks and knowing we needed to leave so we’d have time for supper and preparations for our next venture, something I’d wanted to do for a long time: searching for kiwis.

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On the way back to the hostel from the volcanic rocks, we found more birds, including pied shags and a beautiful white heron that stood in the sand bank near the bridge from Waitangi to Paihia. We stopped to watch a group of young Kiwis playing cricket, D explaining the nuances of the game for the benefit of Americans who watch baseball. Along the trail were informative signs about birds, including some we’d just seen, and we each took turns in reading the Maori words printed next to the English paragraphs.

A place right next to our hostel featured a $6 hamburger and fries deal, so we ducked in for a cheap supper. It didn’t fill me up (the burgers here are small and expensive; an American cheeseburger may be the first thing I eat when I arrive back in the States), but the waffle cone filled with white chocolate and raspberry ice cream made up for the wanting burger. We strode off to the trail with desserts in hand.

The green and the grey from earlier in the day had faded. Darkness was falling, but we held plenty of lights. A chorus of tuis began as we walked halfway up the hill.

And then, we heard the ascending pitch of a kiwi from the valley below us.

Another answered from the hill above.

We stood silent in the center of the trail, a steep grade, as night gently began to cover us, evening bird chorus surrounding us.

The chorus gradually faded to solo singers. Tuis continued. The kiwis stopped. We decided to walk back down the trail and found a gentler slope on which to stop and listen.

It was darker by now, although the sky still clung to its tinge of deep navy before it descended into midnight black. J played a video of a kiwi calling on his phone in an attempt to encourage the kiwis in the valley to respond.

We heard the call once more, and then the forest grew silent. I crouched down, sitting on my heels with my phone outstretched, audio recorder rolling in an attempt to capture the remaining sounds of the woods.

After that loud bird call and a quiet kiwi speech, I lowered my head and closed my eyes. There was nothing. Hushed conversations on what we had heard and from where the calls had originated followed.

We stayed for twenty or so minutes, and then continued to work our way back down the trail.

I was third in line, and when we turned a corner, I heard the voice ahead of me: “What is that?”

I stopped and looked toward where the speaker was pointing. Pinpricks of green lights glowed steadily in the valley below. If they had moved, we could have believed they were the green glow of animals’ eyes staring into lamps. But the lights stayed still.

dscf5368“Turn off your lamps.”

Those holding flashlights switched them off.

The lights below us stayed on. What are those?

“They’re glow-worms!” someone exclaimed.

Behind me, the fourth of our company said, “Look, there’s more!”

I turned.

Along the trail were suspended constellations, glowing green. The stars were arcs of neon luminescence I could fit on my smallest fingernail. They clung to the exposed soil of the bank along the trail, traps laid for food, their light the lure for their breakfast.

All four of us sat along the trail to study what we had found.

The glow-worms often are associated with the famous Waitomo caves. Tours to the caves are advertised far and wide. The insects aren’t actual worms, though: they’re fly larvae that need damp climates, so the forest was the perfect place for them.

I took pictures, shooting blind because I couldn’t see the creatures on my camera screen. The plant scientist arranged lights so he could take pictures of the insects themselves and their surroundings.

We soon wanted a closer look at the glow-worms we had first spotted, so we descended to a wooden bridge suspended over a clear, fast-flowing stream. J and D laid on their stomachs to look beneath the bridge for any signs of wildlife. I sat on the slats and tried to take a picture of the neon green Big Dipper in front of us to no avail.

Regardless, every time we turned off our lights, more glow worms appeared, waking up to catch their first meal of the night.

I closed my eyes again, listening to the stream running over the rocks.

Then, the question: “Do you want to stay here or do you want to go?”

“Let’s stay here for a few more minutes,” I responded.

dscf5373I knew it was impossible to look at the creatures long enough. I was reluctant to leave, but when it was time, we turned a corner and found arcs of glow-worms, the most we’d seen yet, high up on the bank opposite the creek. Squares of green lower on the landscape reflected on the water, and when our flashlights were turned off, it seemed we were surrounded above and below by the glow-worms.

When our lights were on, we spied something moving in the water. Ever the enthusiastic scientist, J immediately lay on the ground and held a lamp over the water, discovering several New Zealand native species: banded kokopu and bullies (fish), as well as nocturnal crayfish (which remind me of a lobster or shrimp). To avoid falling in the water as I gazed at the sight, I leaned against a tree, holding J’s backpack over my left shoulder and my camera bag and camera over my right.

Once we’d seen all we could, we sat on the trail once more, looking at the glow worms. J began explaining the insects’ scientific aspects to D and M, which I was interested in, but I turned back to my corner of the glow-worm universe and wondered at the magic of it all: the scene of dark woods lit by constellations, the smell of rich earth and the feel of the trail’s gravel below. The night was cool, but coolness came slowly to that place. I bent up my knees and crossed my arms over them. I rested my head there, and I dreamed.

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The glow-worms had been a wonderful surprise, but we hadn’t forgotten about the kiwi. We didn’t know where the birds we heard had gone but felt we were at the end of our evening in the woods. The four of us headed toward the boardwalk that indicated the end of the trail and the return to the road.

At the end of the walk, I heard crashing through thick brush. I stopped dead in my tracks, pointing at the spot.

We stood silent.

There was more rustling.

We slowly moved some plants aside, shone our lights through the undergrowth, and waited. I crouched down, trying to see through the ferns.

And then, that’s when I heard a kiwi blowing its nose.

The birds sort through the soil in their search for food. Because of this, dirt travels up their noses, and they have to blow it all out.

We heard that particular sound twice more. The plants moved back and forth. I pointed every time I heard rustling or thought I saw a figure dart around a tree. Pointing helped me resist talking or exclaiming in excitement.

Then, we heard that ascending kiwi call right next to us and tried again to shine our lights past the ferns to where we thought the bird would be.

But the call only came once. The rustling faded away.

It was time to leave.

We ascended out of the small valley to the paved road, traveling amongst the street lights, quietly thinking about how close we had been.

Then, a kiwi called above us, loud, from trees next to the road near a resident’s steep driveway. We heard the sound two or three times as we stood in that quiet back street, no cars approaching.

But then, the call stopped. Once again, there was nothing.

Subdued silence fell as we walked away, broken intermittently by our expressions of disappointment. We had been so close.

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Returning to the hostel was jarring. Music blared from the bar. Backpackers, younger than us, milled around the parking lot. The four of us walked past them and stood for a while at the bottom of the stairs leading to our dorm rooms. We looked at pictures we had just taken. It felt like the ending of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where Edmund, Lucy and Eustace return to England from Narnia, smiling at each other, sharing a secret and a new connection.

dscf5392I didn’t want to go inside, and I couldn’t sleep. I packed my camera away under my bed and picked up my pen and small notebook, leaving the dorm room quietly and sliding the door shut behind me. I searched for a space as far from the bar as possible where the noise would not intrude, but it wasn’t feasible. I sat on the furthest set of stairs and wrote by the harsh light of the laundry room, trying to block out the music and the talking. I wrote about the kiwi; a weta (native insect) on the wooden bridge; the stars that stole through the tree canopy; my eyes continually gazing to see my favorite constellation, Orion, which I didn’t realize would be in the Southern Hemisphere; my observation of the absence of the Big Dipper and the North Star.

The last line I wrote: “Closing my eyes now because such an amazing day brings sleep happy.”

I returned to the dorm room, believing I was finished writing for the night.

I wasn’t. The click and scratch of the pen seemed harsh in the silence.

“After an experience like that, you come back and you’re not the same person.”

When I finally closed my eyes around 12:45 in the morning, I saw pricks of glow-worm stars.

***************************************************

The next day, the four of us had a name: The Kiwi Night Rangers.

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