Dinosaur hunter: Joan Wiffen

Last updated 00:00 16/11/2007
RANK AMATEUR: Joan Wiffen found proof dinosaurs once lived here tens of millions of years ago. Photo: John Cowpland

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Kim Knight goes back in time with an amateur fossil fossicker who made a triumphant discovery.

Joan Wiffer looks critically at the reporter's jeans and cotton shirt.

"I hope you've got some appropriate clothes," she sniffs. "You're going to get wet up there."

Up there, in the Hawke's Bay hills. Through three locked gates, and one of them with bullet holes. Through hours of dust and gravel, and potholes large enough to lose a large four-wheel-drive wheel in.

Dinosaurs once roamed here. Today, the woman who discovered their bones is taking the Sunday Star-Times back to where it all started.

Wiffen is 85 1/2. Is this her last trip to Maungataniwha native forest?

"Well, I've promised the family I won't be messing around in the creek," she says, twig-thin and frustrated by the blood pressure condition that is keeping her out of the water.

In 1975, Wiffen, a housewife who was "not bad at making jam", packed the family into the Hillman and went looking for fossils.

At Maungahouanga Stream, the rank amateurs found proof dinosaurs once lived here; that, 73 million years ago, New Zealand was still part of Gondwanaland.

Using rock hammers, saws, explosives and acid baths, Wiffen and friends discovered toe bones, vertebrae and other remnants of meat and plant-eating dinosaurs and marine reptiles.

No one can be certain exactly what kind of dinosaurs they were, but Wiffen believes she has identified at least three, possibly four, different types of therapods (from the same family as the movie- famous tyrannosaurus rex), and one "little, four-legged, scaled, spiny-backed plant-eater that walks on four legs, and is heavy, like a tank".

She also described and named one completely new marine reptile genus - the moanasaurus, after the Maori word for sea.

Wiffen's stream is the country's richest dinosaur site. While a single Jurassic bone was subsequently reported at Port Waikato, and late-Cretaceous period remains have been found on the Chatham Islands, for two decades Wiffen's discoveries were unique.

The site is smack in the middle of forestry projects, and she says researchers have "at best" been tolerated by previous landowners. But today, Wiffen tells her story to a new audience: the management team of Tasti Products.

Chairman Simon Hall runs the company that makes fruit peel, muesli bars and Christmas cake cherries. He's also the new owner of this 12,000ha bush block. Yes, he says, he could have bought a luxury home. Instead, over the past seven years, he's poured more than $10 million of profit into a private wilderness.

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Kiwi nest-egg recovery and blue duck monitoring projects are in place. He hopes to control wilding pines enough to let the native forest regenerate. It's locked to public access, but, says Hall: "We are fortunate to have the resources to do a lot more ecological work than on the surrounding Department of Conservation land."

He welcomes the palaeontologists. "It's another thing that just makes that forest more interesting."

Taking Wiffen into the bush, he says, "is a bit like the Titanic story . . . like taking the old lady back to the site of the discovery and finding out what really happened in that camp, many, many years ago."

Wiffen's story is well worn, but not so well known.

A new three-year touring exhibition may change that. Three of her fossil finds feature in Dead Precious, the GNS Science project that opened in New Plymouth last month, and will travel to Rotorua, Napier, Invercargill, Otago, Christchurch and Nelson.

"Children want to see a great skull, and gaping teeth," says Wiffen. "It's a bit disappointing when all we've got is a little tail vertebrae."

There were 10 inches of snow up this valley last weekend. Today, the sun blazes and Joan takes off her green wool cardy and settles into the shade of her hut. Animal skulls hang in the wood shed. One night, they trapped 14 rats outside this building. In the beginning, Wiffen cooked on an open fire and carried water from the creek in buckets. The hut, mostly built from used materials, was "luxury".

She was a rock hound before she became the dinosaur lady. In the 60s, says Wiffen, everybody collected stones. Hers were polished and turned into key rings and pendants for the family.

"I got tired of that."

Her husband, Montague ("Pont") Arthur Wiffen signed up for a geology night class. When he couldn't attend, Joan went in his place. "And I realised how interesting fossils were. Every little shell, every piece of wood, every shiny pebble, all had a history. They didn't need cutting and polishing, they were a total story in themselves."

In a toy store in Hastings that sold Meccano and doll's houses, Wiffen bought two geological survey maps for $1. One referred to reptilian bones in the brackish waters of the Te Hoe River.

"That sounded quite exciting. And out of a lot of bravado, I said 'oh, perhaps we could go there, you never know what we might find'."

If the road is rough today, imagine it back then. Canvas tent in the back of the car and spaghetti for emergencies. "I was always in a quandary whether it was better to shut all the windows and doors and put up with the dust that seeped in irrespectively or whether you just opened it up and let the breeze blow through."

Wiffen plays down the action- girl imagery. But an early heroine was Jean Batten. The aviator's exploits convinced the only child, who left school at 12, to apply for the Air Force. Her father refused to sign the permission slip.

"I never had any mad ideas that I would fly planes or anything, because I knew they used girls to do mundane tasks, on the whole . . . but I thought if I could get into the Air Force, it would be interesting."

She did six years of service. Married and had two children. But, she says, the most exciting time of her life has been the hunt for dinosaurs.

"We went down the bank, crawled down with some difficulty . . . and here were rocks and stones, covered in moss, and others just covered in fossils. Shells and fish vertebrae and gleaming little fish teeth. It was a sight. We were speechless."

Millions of years ago, this inland site was the East Coast of the North Island.

"Probably winter floods carried debris from the land, animals that had died or been scavenged - and that's how both marine and terrestrial fossils came to be together."

One day Joan and Pont found an odd vertebra in a piece of rock. Clearly not of marine origin, it didn't match anything they could find in a textbook, and for several years, it sat in the family china cabinet. On holiday in Australia, Wiffen visited Dr Ralph Molnar, an American palaeontologist working at Brisbane Museum. He had a similar bone on his desk, "and I said, 'we've got one of those at home'." Molnar requested a cast copy. Wiffen prepared one, drying it in the kitchen microwave. "About 10 days later, I got a phone call from him to say 'you've got a dinosaur'."

The meat-eating therapod was presented to the scientific world in February, 1980, by Molnar at a conference in Wellington. "I attended in the background," says Wiffen. Back then, she says, "nobody knew who I was. But that was OK. I didn't know who they were, either!

"You have to have credibility. You couldn't expect the professionals of the world to accept that I said we had a dinosaur."

Now she has an honorary doctorate from Massey University. Her borrowed graduation gown had to be stapled on the hem to stop her tripping on the stage.

"It was a great honour, and I thought I'd take it on behalf of my husband and all the people who had worked on the site."

Some of them are here today, handing around coffees and bacon- and-egg pie, and hauling rocks from the creek for Wiffen to examine. "When you're working with fossils," she says, "most professionals only work on one item. A single type of shark's tooth or something. It's only ignorant people like us, who have undertaken to find and extract and in some cases describe a whole range of things.

"The great thing about being an amateur is they can't make you redundant. You can stay there in the background annoying them all the time, and there's not much they can do about it!"

- Sunday Star Times

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