This article was written for a University Assignment for a Third Year Travel Writing Course … let me know what you think 🙂
My brother was visiting from Sydney with this perspicacious five year old daughter and as we stood around the polished black granite of my mother’s kitchen guzzling Merlot from Adelaide he asked me what I was up to for the weekend. I reported that on the morrow I would be driving into the King Country to see the Mahoenui Giant Weta. Choking on his wine, my brother raised a bent eyebrow and batted a patronising eyelid at me, “Giant Weta?” he confirmed incredulously.
Okay, so giant insects aren’t high on the list of things to see in a lifetime, so I felt inclined to point out how privileged I was to be invited to see the iconic New Zealand creature. Giant Weta habitats are firmly guarded by the Department of Conservation, only found wild at wildlife sanctuaries such as Little Barrier and Mercury Islands, which are not only very difficult to get to but can only be visited on invitation.
The problem is, Giant Weta were thought to be extinct on mainland New Zealand, until 1962, until a farmer in Mahoenui accidentally stumbled upon a small population living amongst a patch of gorse on his farm. This small patch of gorse in Mahoenui, which comprises of 240 acres, is now owned by the Department of Conservation, and with the exception of released Terapunga Giant Weta at the Kaoiri Wildlife Sanctuary in Wellington, Mahoenui is the only area in mainland New Zealand where Giant Weta are found in the wild and access is strictly monitored.
“Besides” I extolled in a childlike fashion “they haven’t changed in hundreds of millions of years and were around even before the dinosaurs, and that’s pretty cool”
“So were Cockroaches” was my brothers lofty response, his eyebrows still fixed into the upper reaches of his forehead, “but you go see those Giant Weta” and at a hunched shuffle he was then lead from the kitchen by a finger attached to a small curly haired girl in a pink tutu.
The truth is the idea of Giant Weta captivated me. The Weta is almost as old as time, it is a living breathing prehistoric resident of Gondwanaland, and as one biologist discovered whilst unsuccessfully trying to kill one, the Weta can survive being frozen and drowned, as well as survive a brief boiling. The Weta also holds the heavy weight title for weight in the current insect world and the idea of holding one excited me.
The drive into the King Country towards Mahoenui simply oozes old world, it is definitely a place for Tolkien’s Hobbits to inhabit. You experience sensations of abandonment on the chunky landscape as you zap along winding roads surrounded by the swelling and falling paddocks, scattered with grazing sheep and ancient rocky sentinels; knobs of limestone karst and Jurassic greywacke, risen up from an ancient seabed and laden with giant clam fossils from the cretaceous period. This is particularly awe-inspiring as you follow a fault line, towards Poipoi, where sheer cliffs of pancaked greywacke and limestone tower over you, bewildering in their immense age, the sheer power of the earth to thrust them up there, and the physical contrast – reminiscent of a Paul Cezanne cubist landscape – that makes them so beautiful.
My Weta escort for the day would be Scott, the ebullient Waitomo Education Officer, a Papua New Guinea born Cantonese-Australian, who is well qualified to take bug tours. When asked about his childhood in the tropics, and what kinds of animals or insects were found I received some interesting stories.
“Lots of snakes, and I once had some leeches that I keep in my bedroom, but I felt guilty that they didn’t have any food, so I’d put them on my arm and let them drink my blood,” Scott laughed during the telling.
“OMG, how often did you have to feed them?”
“Oh, not very often. They can survive for weeks without food” was the matter-of-fact answer “Eventually I set them free”
But nowadays you’re more likely to catch Scott at the Waitomo Discovery Centre, enthusiastically educating school children on cave geology, turning innocent round bushes into dead-sheep with a flick of his whiteboard pen to demonstrating how nitrogen leaches into the earth to the delight of his audience. And after lobbying the Department of Conservation for access to Mahoenui for a full year, he now takes small groups to visit the Mahoenui Giant Weta.
Today there are no school groups. It was just Scott, his daughter and I. We drove into Mahoenui along a dirt access road among what appear to me as unkempt and forgotten farm land, that had lots of old tree stumps and half decomposed trees limbs and gorse growing haphazardly everywhere. We parked off the road. Scott bent over and fussing around in the boot. He was wearing full green overalls and knee length gumboots and I briefly considered what might befall my light blue jeans and city boots. Wrapping my scarf tighter around my neck, I jumped the fence, and tour had started. We crossed a large waterlogged paddock where a flock of Paradise Ducks were grazing, and then started to hike up a precipitous farm knoll. Avoiding cow pats and mud we assaulted our calf muscles until we reached the top and the entry to the fenced off Mahoenui Weta Reserve.
We looked down into the 240 acres of dark green gorse sitting in the gully. A few white goats roamed in the distance. These lucky goats are the only protected non-indigenous animal in the country, and have all the immunity rights of a diplomat, just so long as they continue to keep the gorse neatly trimmed and the Weta safe.
Supplied with heavy-duty thick leather elbow length gardening gloves, Scott gave us a quick run-down on Weta spotting.
“Weta are solitary and nocturnal, so during the day they bury their head in a fork of the gorse’s branches, where the vegetation is thick and unfriendly to predators. About in this area where the green shoots are turning brown” Scott opens up the gorse carefully with the leather gloves that have the word “WETA” in large print across the top. “You’ll only be able to see their large abdomen and legs poking out. You usually only find one, or at the most two, on any one bush as they’re pretty territorial. They also seem to like the warm side, the side of the gorse facing the sun and out of the wind.” We follow Scott along a track on top of the ridge, and Scott is enthusiastically jabbering in his Aussie lilt with his long neck hauled to the bushes at the same time, “I’ve found a lot just in this area” he assures us.
I surmise, “So basically we’re looking for a Weta’s big fat black arse poking out from a fork in sunny side of a very prickly bush?”
“Correct” Scott laughs, and the hunt for Weta is on.
Scott quickly found a medium-sized female. He very delicately removed her from her nest. The gloves are for the gorse, not the Weta, who were surprisingly docile, not putting up much of a fuss, or a defence, to the invasion of their privacy. The female made a small ‘tick’ sound and threw her legs back in an innocuous display of warning, but she quickly settled down. Hardly a deterrent to even the most insipid rodent, so it is easy to see just how susceptible these creatures are to predators, and why they so nearly became extinct if it was not for the gorse protecting them.
The Maori named the Giant Weta in Hauraki Gulf Terapunga (meaning the god of bad looks) and Taipo in Southland (meaning demon). I thought they were beautiful gleaming in their bronze plated armoury. Their abdomens were huge and corrugated like a Slater. They had a shiny dark chocolate brown back, but underneath a soft grey and yellow patterned abdominal. Sporting two massive black beady eyes adjacent to its very long antenna, the overall look of them reminded me of a fat juicy prawn. I briefly wondered what they would taste like barbequed in lashings of butter and garlic, and quickly chastised myself for such unpatriotic thoughts. But with the aroma of garlic on my mind I was hooked, and I didn’t notice the hours slip by as we scoured bush upon bush of gorse for more of these tasty looking creatures.
But I proved to be an awful Weta spotter, which was all the more maddening as Scott and his daughter continued to shout out their tally of finds. By the time we stopped to picnic all I had discovered was two tree weta in a love embrace (not in the least bit endangered), who took great offense at being disturbed and leapt right at me, propelling me yelping straight into the back end of Scott.
But I couldn’t stop for lunch. With sandwich in hand, I couldn’t stop peer into the gorse like a woman Weta-possessed. Finally I was redeemed by finding the biggest Weta of the day (apparently I wasn’t going to find anything unless it was blatantly obvious), and my echo of jubilation rung through the gully.
I enjoyed my few hours with the Wetas, and I’ll never look at a patch of gorse the same again. Just yesterday by the lake in Taupo, I found myself peering into a patch of gorse – wouldn’t it be cool, just to ‘accidently’ find another community of these awesome little dinosaurs!
COOL GIANT WETA LINKS:
Kiwi Conservation Club http://www.kcc.org.nz/weta
Scott Akins-Sellar. Waitomo Education Service Officer. Waitomo Discovery Centre http://waitomoeducationservice.wikispaces.com/file/view/Mahoenui+Giant+Weta+Scientific+Reserve.pdf
Terra Nature: New Zealand Ecology Website http://www.terranature.org/weta.htm