The remarkable story of Fiordland's Dusky Sound

NZ Herald
By Peta Carey
Not for sale

In an extract from her new book, Peta Carey explores the history and conservation of Fiordland's Tamatea Dusky Sound

Watching Mike McConchie wield a small chainsaw through the forest on Indian Island is like watching a master carver at work. The chainsaw is relatively small, as is Mike, yet he deftly carves this way and that until a slender tree falls to the side of the track, and then with the blade, he clears the undergrowth in one scythe-like motion.

Cutting down native trees in the name of conservation seems paradoxical, but we're here to install traplines, and ease of access means several thousands of dollars saved every year in time and resources. Now in his early 70s (although seemingly ageless), Mike McConchie spent the first 30 years of his working life in the New Zealand Forest Service. That experience means McConchie is more discerning than most. He knows every native species in the bush, in all strata from canopy to ground level. He approaches each tree with an upward glance, sometimes resting his hand momentarily on the trunk to decide which goes or stays. Rātā seedlings are left, he's fond of them, as are tōtara. The track weaves slalom-like around them.

Heading up a steep slope through a mass of tree falls, McConchie pauses, deciding whether to go under or over. Creating footholds and handholds is second nature to him, but most seedlings are cut low to the ground, "otherwise they can be lethal," he says. "Fall on a sharp spike of a seedling and it could go straight through you."

Mike McConchie cutting traplines on Indian Island in Fiordland's Dusky Sound. Photo / Peta Carey
Mike McConchie cutting traplines on Indian Island in Fiordland's Dusky Sound. Photo / Peta Carey

Safety is also instinctive. He laughs at the insistence on wearing "chaps" (chainsaw-resistant over-trousers) and the bright-orange helmet. "At least it keeps the sun out of my eyes." When he finally turns off the chainsaw (usually to refuel), he will delight in pointing out tiny sun orchids, Thelymitra, or a sea of miro seedlings. One of the many Fiordland characters who leave their mark on the story of Dusky, McConchie refuses to be paid for his labour. "It's crazy getting the pension at my age when I can still work," he says. "This is my way of giving back. And I get a holiday, in a place I love."

Indian Island lies in the midst of Dusky Sound. From its high point, at just 192 metres, one can look out to Five Fingers Peninsula and the entrance to the Tasman Sea. Anchor Island, and those en route, Passage, Nomans, Stop and Many islands, lie to the northwest. On its western coast, stark black cliffs rise up out of the sea, and in the centre, smooth granite rocks surround the one small, deep-green lake. Within a few hundred metres of stepping-stone islands to the mainland, Mamaku/Indian Island is within swimming distance of rats and stoats.

DOC worked alongside a local community trust, Fiordland Conservation Trust, attempting to rid Indian Island of rodents by 2014. But the rats came back. Now, four years later, the traps are coming back. Mike McConchie, his brother Don, and several other volunteers are here for a week to install a 100 x 100 metre network of traplines across the whole island. It's another piece of the jigsaw; another island central to the Tamatea/Dusky Sound Conservation & Restoration Plan.

Mamaku/Indian Island in Fiordland's Dusky Sound, seen from Pukenui/Anchor Island. Photo / Peta Carey
Mamaku/Indian Island in Fiordland's Dusky Sound, seen from Pukenui/Anchor Island. Photo / Peta Carey

It's a hell of an overall plan, logistically daunting, expensive, but, according to Principal Ranger of Biodiversity in Fiordland, Lindsay Wilson, possible. Like many conservationists, Lindsay Wilson is a risk-taker but also a pragmatist. Having done his time at university studying zoology and botany, he spent many years deer and possum culling, then moved into the Department of Conservation. He was able to apply the practical skills of large-scale predator control within Te Urewera National Park to see the recovery of the North Island kōkako. (Unlike its South Island counterpart, the population of North Island kōkako, with blue wattles, is increasing.)

When Wilson arrived in Dusky in 2008, predator control had begun on Resolution Island, while Chalky, Anchor and, most notably, Breaksea had all been cleared of predators. There was a focus on marine conservation, bird transfers and endangered species, yet Wilson describes every project as being separate initiatives from passionate and driven individuals: "There were a lot of great activities going on, but little in the way of connection."

Lindsay Wilson could see a bigger picture, not only the opportunity within the geography and ecology of Tamatea/Dusky Sound to link every project together but also an awareness from public and private organisations of the benefits of conservation, the nub of which could result in hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund an overall plan. "We needed a long-term vision for the whole place. There was an amazing opportunity to restore all the islands of Dusky Sound back to a time when Māori were here. This place could be a biobank of threatened species, for all of New Zealand."

The Flightless moored alongside Indian Island in Dusky Sound. Photo / Hayden Parsons
The Flightless moored alongside Indian Island in Dusky Sound. Photo / Hayden Parsons

This vision is detailed in DOC's restoration plan. The overarching goal is to ensure all islands within the greater Dusky Sound are predator free or at least intensively predator-managed by 2025, leading to the longer-term vision of "Predator Free 2050". Predator Free 2050 was a bold ambition put forward by scientist Sir Paul Callaghan just before he died in 2012. He described it as New Zealand's equivalent of the Apollo moon landing. The government of the day lauded the idea, creating an entire marketing and branding exercise to encourage predator control, nationwide, and establishing organisations to oversee research and development. Some have scoffed, saying it's impossible to rid the country of every introduced pest and predator (just think of the topography of Fiordland) and that we do not have the miracle tools for eradication.

Yet. Other scientists and politicians are confident the answer will be found, and that if we were to wait for that miracle device and do nothing in the interim, we would lose all.
Dusky could be viewed as the ultimate test of predator free: a corner of Aotearoa with no permanent human residents, with more than 700 islands (the surrounding water at least limiting the reinvasion of introduced predators), and terrain that is challenging in the extreme. Tamatea/Dusky is the crucible of New Zealand conservation. It's also utterly beautiful. No one can help but be entranced, beguiled by the possibility of restoring almost all its native biodiversity as it was 250 years ago.

Lindsay Wilson's an enthusiast, obtaining funding from Treasury for one project after another, and encouraging those with money to donate. Watch him sit down with management officials. The maps come out and he leads energetic descriptions of what's possible – not just for separate islands but entire mainland peninsulas. Sometimes it's to those outside of government agencies, such as private individuals with resources or potential to give. For example, the work on Indian Island is being funded privately, the operation gifted by a charter boat company called Pure Salt. They're hosting McConchie and the entire crew onboard their vessel Flightless. The entrepreneurial young couple behind Pure Salt, Sean Ellis and Maria Kuster, simply "want to give back to Fiordland". Taking on predator control across Indian Island is no self-promotional marketing exercise; they believe in it.

Lindsay Wilson admits to a feeling of unease when he sits at a desk for too long, preferring to be hands on, at least initiating each project. He's here marking out another trapline on the island. This is the first step before the chainsaw crew comes through. Lines are created on a map, each 100 metres apart. This map, with a line optimistically drawn across contours, is then transferred to the GPS. And with GPS in hand, it's then up to someone to mark that track, to push through whatever lies in their path and flag out a line for chainsaws to follow.

The entrance to Indian Cove/Waka Harbour in Fiordland's Dusky Sound. Photo / Peta Carey
The entrance to Indian Cove/Waka Harbour in Fiordland's Dusky Sound. Photo / Peta Carey

Mamaku means black tree fern. You see them now and then, particularly in the damp valleys. There are, however, many more pink and yellow pines – stunted, wiry native conifers that create a mass of thick, sinuous stems one has to push through, climb over or under. When you're having to negotiate a sea of pink pine, even with someone with long legs like Lindsay Wilson, you soon appreciate walking behind a chainsaw. It's painfully slow and often painful, and you pause every several metres to tie pink tape to a prominent branch or nail a triangle to a tree. Now and then that optimistic line on the GPS comes up against a cliff or bluff. Twenty minutes of reconnaissance (bush-bashing; hanging off precipitous rock faces) means a deviation to the GPS line is required.

Working up the northwest face, we finally arrive at a natural clearing with a 180-degree view west. The high cirrus is thickening, meaning rain, casting every island under a haze of grey. Anchor Island sits quietly off to the north. There are kākāpō booming there every night, the first chicks of the season are emerging from eggs. The only hope is that any stoat brave enough to swim the distance – potentially using Indian Island as a stepping stone – has been lured into one of the hundreds of traps along its shores.

Indian Island covers an area of only 170 hectares. Pure Salt's plan is to complete the installation in four to six weeks, with teams of up to 10 people on successive expeditions. (In comparison, Resolution, over 120 times the size of Indian and six times its height, has so far taken well over 10 years and involved countless thousands of hours of labour.) Behind us are Long and Cooper islands, additional pieces of the Dusky Sound restoration plan. DOC has installed traps along the shores of Long, and another private company, Real Journeys (the oldest tourism company in Fiordland), has taken on the task of predator control on Cooper.

Kakaruai/South Island robin on Indian Island in Fiordland's Dusky Sound. Photo / Jake Osborne
Kakaruai/South Island robin on Indian Island in Fiordland's Dusky Sound. Photo / Jake Osborne

The first spots of rain begin to fall as we complete the "B line": 3 kilometres across the island, a good amount of blood spilt in the name of pink and yellow pine, and a marked trapline for McConchie and others to follow in subsequent days. It's blowing hard from the northwest, so any pick-up by dinghy needs to be on the eastern side of the island. We head to Waka Harbour, the GPS critical to finding our way under darkening skies to the Flightless standing by.

Ancient rātā trunks are sprawled across the ridgelines here, trees that have flowered red for well over 300 summers. Push through the lower canopy out towards the northeast corner of the island and you find yourself in the historic clearing. There is the sound of the wind and the waves below, but sadly, today, little birdsong. Once all traps on this island are set and working, once the numbers of rats and stoats are as close as possible to zero, perhaps the resident lingering populations of native birds might once again thrive. Is it folly to even aspire to restore and protect what is left? On the way back down through the rātā forest, a kakaruai/South Island robin appears on the track, with its long legs and short wings. It pauses, its intent black eyes watching us closely.

Indian Island, like so many islands in Dusky, appears as a potential life raft, the surrounding water affording at least a semblance of protection. The ultimate challenge for predator free, or even predator control, however, lies on the mainland. On the tortuous terrain of the surrounding mountains there are no barriers to the steady stream of reinvading predators. But high on the mainland surrounding Tamatea/Dusky, deep within the podocarp forest and on the margins of the alpine zone, some of our most treasured native birds are still, somehow, hanging on.

Extracted and edited with permission from Tamatea Dusky by Peta Carey ($69.99 RRP, Potton & Burton)

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