Island home of 'dinosaurs'
Living in a fiercely protected haven for tuataraMAIKE VAN DER HEIDE
At the top of the Marlborough Sounds, at the windy entrance to Cook Strait, lies an island unlike any other in New Zealand. A fiercely protected haven for most of the world's tuatara, this is also Marlborough's most remote Conservation Department outpost. Maike van der Heide is permitted entry for a day..........
Scrambling up the old metal ladders connecting each floor, between circular walls of flaking paint, Piripi Higgott reaches the sweltering glass top of the building and asks to be lifted up to see the enormous lightbulb close up.
Not many children can say they have a lighthouse in their backyard but this 5-year-old can.
Just metres from his new home on Takapourewa, or Stephens Island, the white lighthouse presides over the headland from where, on a clear day, you can see Mt Taranaki, Tasman Bay and a long stretch of the North Island's west coast.
Piripi and little sister Heeni, 3, will spend the next three years living on steep, rocky Takapourewa while their parents, Frank Higgott and Sue Caldwell, look after the most remote Conservation Department (DOC) outpost in the Marlborough Sounds.
Situated north of D'Urville Island, the 150-hectare island is on the edges of Ngati Koata land and lies on the same latitude as Levin.
The family will be surrounded by the thousands of tuatara for which the island is best known, winds so wild it is rumoured a full grown dairy cow was once carried away on them, and a fragile and complex ecosystem that is struggling with the elements to regenerate after 100 years of destructive human intervention.
It is their job to help the island limp back to the way it once was.
The family arrive by DOC boat on calm seas, the lack of wind and blue winter sky contrasting sharply from weeks ago when wild southeasterly storms stripped a stand of established ngaio trees of their foliage and an angry ocean licked away two enormous sacks of concrete stored eight metres above the high tide mark.
On the boat they list their expectations: remoteness, intense weather, amazing wildlife and nocturnal birdlife, living off rainwater, the lighthouse, fishing. And dinosaurs: the prehistoric tuatara that thrive on this remote island.
It's the remoteness and a "slightly morbid interest" with marooned sailors that drew Frank and Sue to this job.
"You're slotted into survival mode to a certain extent," says Frank. "It's a good chance for us to instil some things into our children. It's more about living without and surviving without and making do. That's one part of the whole experience we're really looking forward to."
Frank's ties to the area run deep. His whakapapa includes Ngati Koata and his great-great grandfather was Morgan Carkeek, who drew the first maps of Stephens Island and surveyed D'Urville Island in 1907.
Piripi and Heeni have never known anything other than island life, having grown up on Mana Island near Wellington interspersed with days off living on Frank's yacht, the Alana B.
Frank rebuilt the gaff-rigged double-ender in five years before sailing it from from Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf, where he met Sue 16 years ago, to Mana Island via the west coast in 2006.
The yacht is now moored in Pelorus Sound at the home the couple bought two years ago but have yet to live in fulltime.
Before they do, there is much to do on Takapourewa.
The island's shaded nursery is crammed with 8000 seedlings, including ngaio, kohuhu and taupata, planted out annually by volunteers.
Hamilton's frogs occupy a small patch of island and this must be kept free of hungry tuatara.
The house needs painting, the winch, water and electricity systems must be maintained and Piripi will soon start correspondence school.
But first the family must move in and this involves manoeuvring their gear from a rocking boat to a slippery slab of concrete and up an equally slippery, sloping path.
At a second platform their belongings are loaded into the island's winch system, complete with rail, turntables, trolleys and a bridge. Piripi is fascinated.
He is, as his father describes, in 5-year-old boy utopia.
The island is busy, a rare occasion on a nature reserve where all visitors need DOC permits.
Bustling around with homemade scones, coffee and tea, departing DOC ranger Tim Bacon is at pains to make everyone feel welcome.
He greets his successors with a carefully studied but nervously delivered speech in Maori during a small, humble ceremony that marks his departure from a place he deeply loves.
He acknowledges Ngati Koata Trust chair Jeanette Grace and trust general manager Frans van Boekhout, who are visiting for the first time.
Jeanette treads the footsteps of her ancestors, feeling close to the land belonging to her people but upon which she has never walked.
To Maori, tuatara are kaitiaki, guardians of knowledge. Difficult to spot even if directly before you, the tuatara guard this knowledge well.
Nobody knows how long these secretive creatures live, with estimations ranging from 80 to 300 years. As for the number living on Stephens Island, there could be as many as 50,000.
It is Tim, who has lived among the dinosaurs for three years, who shows Piripi and Heeni their first tuatara, found lurking in the undergrowth just metres from their new home. The colour and mobility of set concrete, the tuatara's only sign of life is a languid half-blink at its visitors.
Not known for speed, tuatara have nevertheless survived the destruction of their island habitat.
Stephens Island was taken from Ngati Koata in 1891 to build the 15m cast iron lighthouse and three houses for the lighthouse keepers. Sheep and cattle grazed the island and most of the native bush was cleared.
In World War II a navy lookout was built, remaining today as the island's firefighting base. But it was not war, grazing animals or forest destruction that threatened the wildlife: it was the lighthouse keeper's cats. After 30 years of breeding and snacking on seabirds, cats were eradicated in about 1925.
A landmark Waitangi Tribunal decision saw the island returned to Ngati Koata in 1994.
Conservationists balked at the idea Ngati Koata would have full ownership and the iwi gifted it back to the Crown, but insisted the iwi's special relationship with the island should be recognised.
Iwi and the Crown would work together and iwi would be consulted about the conservation management of the island, according to the deed of settlement.
However, the relationship would be rocky, with both sides unable to fully agree on the future of the island as a conservation reserve. In 2006, Tuatara Maori Ltd, of which 10 per cent was owned by Ngati Koata, proposed helicopter tours to the island to see tuatara but it was rejected by DOC, who saw too many risks to the island's fragile environment. Tuatara Maori argued that they would enforce more stringent biosecurity measures than DOC, but the plan was shelved in 2007.
Six years on, if the small gathering at the former lighthouse keeper's abode - now Frank and Sue's home - is anything to go by, relations between the iwi and DOC appear to be at an all-time high.
Tim says the children's energy and life will bring something special to the island. For him, after three years on Takapourewa, mainland life will be a shock.
He will take memories of watching 100 hawks soaring in an updraft on their northward migration, the seals, tuatara and lost homing pigeons, the many times he has struggled against the wind and "the peace".
He has lived in drought while watching the rain fall on D'Urville, waited as the wind stripped the regenerating forest he worked so hard to establish and learned an important lesson about nature.
"I think man has a problem. He's playing God and he wants everything consistent. He wants his roses abloom and his lawns mowed. But nature people say turn everything back to nature, but nature isn't constant. It's changing; it's destroying; it's regenerating."
Tim does not yet know where he'll end up but he hopes one day to return to Stephens Island to see what progress has been made. In the meantime, he feels now is the right time to go.
As Tim steps off the slippery landing for the last time, Sue, Frank and the kids are settling into their "awe-inspiring" home.
About two weeks after arrival, Frank writes, in an email: "Both of the children love it! Highlights for them are going for a walk just after dark and seeing the lighthouse sending its arcs of light out across the sea, seeing the tuatara out everywhere."
They have already weathered 50 knot winds that made walking to the workshop "a challenge", negotiated grumpy seals blocking the stairs to the landing and experienced "firsts that will stay with us forever – first sightings of tuatara, first sunset with Taranaki in the distance and our first night here by ourselves".
- The Marlborough Express