When one is in Karori, one must visit the Karori Nature Reserve. So we did.
It's a small area bounded by a pest proof fence. The fence goes deep underground so that the vermin can't dig underneath it; it has a fine mesh so that they can't get through it; and it has a complex slope at the top so that anything that climbs up it won't be able to climb over without falling off.
Building the fence must have been a job and a half in itself. It runs firmly up some very steep hills, and it pays little or no attention at all to the local geography. There is not so much as a zig in it, and scarcely even a zag. The fence is so straight, it could have been built by the Romans. I shudder to think what it must have cost, and how difficult it must have been to build, given the extraordinarily steep terrain that it marches through.
Once the fence had been put in place, the area inside it was cleared of pests – no rats, no stoats, no ferrets, no mice, no possums. Native flora and fauna were then introduced into the reserve and left to flourish. For a modest fee, people can wander round inside the fence and if they are lucky they get to see and hear lots of amazing nature.
Just outside the entrance gate is a small fenced area containing a table. On the table is a plastic rat which is sitting up on its hind legs snarling at the visitors.
"Ahhh," said Robin, stroking it lovingly, "it's so cute."
The Karori Nature Reserve lady glared at her.
"This," said the lady, "is the kind of pest that has decimated New Zealand's wild life over the years and we simply don't want it, or anything like it, in the reserve. So before you go through the gate, can you all please examine your bags very closely to make sure that there are no rats or mice or pussy cats hiding in them."
We examined our bags.
"Do people really come here with rats and mice and things in their backpacks?" I asked.
"Oh yes," she said. "It's quite common – usually they are people who've been on a camping holiday or something, and things sneak in to their bags without them knowing anything about it! We've had quite a few shrieks and screams from visitors when the unexpected nasties run out of their bags."
"And is the fence successful at keeping the reserve free from predators?"
"Pretty much," she said. "There's certainly nothing large and vicious in there. No rats or cats or possums; the fence does a wonderful job of keeping them out. We do have some mice though, and we suspect they've been carried there by birds flying over the fence with their prey in their talons. When the birds settle down for a good feed, some of the not-quite-dead-yet mice manage to escape. We've got traps set and hopefully that will stop them from getting to be too much of a nuisance."
"Are there any birds strong enough to fly over the fence with a rat or a possum in their talons?"
"I hope not," she said grimly, "but I'm suspicious of the morepork."
"The morepork?" I asked.
"Yes," she said. "It's New Zealand's native owl. Do you know why it's called a morepork?"
"Because that's what it's song sounds like," I said. I was quite certain of this, having heard the story many times. "morepork. morepork. I've heard them singing."
"Well, that's part of it. But there's a bit more to it than that. Pork really is their favourite food and they'll go to any lengths to get hold of a pig. All the neighbouring farms have to keep their pigs in morepork-proof sties. But sometimes the pigs get out, and several times I've seen a giant morepork flying over the pest proof fence with a squealing, wriggling pig clutched in its talons. Fortunately moreporks always seem to eat the entire pig, including the squeal. We've never even found any bones! But one day one of those unfortunate pigs is going to escape, and then we'll have a real problem on our hands as the reserve fills up with feral pigs."
Solemnly, she handed me a bowl of salt. I took a large pinch and returned the bowl to her.
Once our bags had proved to have no cats or dogs or dragons or pigs in them, we were allowed into the reserve proper. It's just bush, with paths through it. The creatures are not captive, they are not in cages, so it's pure luck whether you see anything on your visit. The guidebook admonishes you to keep quiet and listen closely. Often the first intimation that something is sneaking up on you is a rustling in the bush, or a chirrup from up a tree. And if you pause and look carefully, you might just spot something looking back at you.
Of course sometimes it's easy.
"Chirrup, chirrup, tweet tweet tweet," sang something.
We looked around eagerly, and a tui came crashing through the canopy, singing at the top of its voice. It made a bee-line for a nice looking tree and came in fast for a three point landing. It grabbed hold of the branch, and engaged full reverse thrust on all its engines to soak up the momentum. But I think its instruments must have been faulty because it fell off the branch and tumbled head over heels all the way down to the ground.
And as it fell, it said: "SQUAWK!", and we all knew exactly what it was saying. Some words are part of a universal language.
It landed with a thump and struggled to its feet. It seemed a bit dazed. It shook itself, looked a little embarrassed and preened all its feathers very thoroughly. Then it said: "I meant to do that, you know. It was all done on purpose."
It flew back up into the tree and settled down on a better branch.
It is quite obvious to me that tuis are descended from cats, and they still retain much of their feline nature. I do so enjoy seeing evidence of evolution in action.
We saw a tuatara as well, though being a lizard and not a bird, it didn't sing any songs. Indeed it didn't do anything except sit in a hole and look at us.
"People," it said to itself. "I don't like people. Noisy things. Far too active. I think I'll move away from them."
"Look, look," we said to each other excitedly. "It's a tuatara. Look!"
"Any week now," said the tuatara, "once I get a round tui. I mean tuit."
"Quick, quick, where's the camera? Gimme the camera!"
"Definitely going to move," said the tuatara. "They've got a camera for goodness sake. Every picture steals a bit of your soul. I can't be having that. I've got to move."
"Is it real? It isn't even blinking. I'm sure it's a plastic model."
"Yep!" said the tuatara, "I'm definitely going to move somewhere else. Plastic model, indeed! I've never been so insulted. Moving. Moving..."
The connection between the tuatara's brain and its muscles is notoriously slow, and by the time we left it in order to go in search of further excitement, it hadn't even blinked yet, let alone moved its body. However when we came back about two hours later there was no sign of it. So obviously the messages had finally got through to the muscles in the legs. Either that or a Karori Ranger had come by when we weren't looking, and had picked up the plastic model and put it elsewhere in the reserve to fool another batch of tourists.
One of New Zealand's more amazing creatures is the weta – a fearsome insect that is named after the famous digital effects studio that did all the computer graphics for the Lord Of The Rings movies. The weta is best described as a cross between a cockroach and tyrannosaurus rex. They are quite harmless (though the larger ones can give you a painful bite). However they have all the aggressive instincts of their T. Rex ancestor. They are one of the very few insects that will actually chase a human being, though they seldom know what to do with one when they catch it. Most New Zealanders, suitably bribed with beer, can tell you horror stories about being trapped in a corner of the garage by an angry weta out for blood.
The Karori Reserve has built quite a lot of hotels for its wetas where they can live a life of unbridled luxury and decadence. A weta hotel is simply a dead tree with lots of holes going deep inside it. Such holes are very attractive to wetas. A section of the tree has been cut in half lengthways, thus exposing the interior of the holes. Transparent plastic has been set into the holes so that the viewing public can see inside them. Then the tree is put back together again, complete with a set of hinges so that one side can be swung open by any passing visitor. In the fullness of time, wetas will move in to the hotel in search, perhaps, of unbridled luxury. Wetas enjoy being waited on hand, foot and antenna. Visitors to the Reserve can open up the hotel and stare through the plastic at the wetas as they consummate their passions.
I swung open the door of a weta hotel. A dozen or so wetas, who were sitting around a table in the bar drinking vintage champagne, waved their antennae furiously at me.
"Shut the bloody door! The sunshine is blinding!"
"Sorry," I said.
"Hey Jimmy, can your mother sew?" asked one particularly vicious specimen.
"Yes," I said, puzzled.
"Then tell her to stitch this, Jimmy!" And he head butted me through the plastic.
I staggered back, shut the hotel door and left them to their carousing. It was time for me to go home and do some carousing of my own. Someone had moved the plastic rat at the entrance and now it was staring longingly into the reserve that it was forbidden to enter.
"Poor little thing," said Robin, and she gave it a final stroke as we left.