Plateau of hidden giants

Rod Morris
Rod Morris

There is a place in Aotearoa where giant insects and invertebrates slither and scuttle through a miniature landscape of native plants.

It's called the Denniston Plateau, and these flora and fauna unique to this area are not known by most New Zealanders. Even worse, are in danger of being lost before they are found, internationally acclaimed wildlife photographer Rod Morris says.

That's because the plateau is under threat from an open- cast mining plan put forward by Perth- based Bathurst Resources and to highlight what could disappear, Morris is on a nationwide crusade to share the special features and creatures of this plateau 14 kilometres north of Westport on the South Island's West Coast.

"Many are giant insects and invertebrates, like an earthworm as long as a man's forearm," he says, beginning the all-star cast.

"Like a weta that would cover a man's hand. Like giant slugs that are bigger than a human thumb at rest and twice that size when they are moving around. Like a giant flat worm as long as a school ruler.

"It is the land of the giants, and the thing that blows me away is that the plants are not giants - they are dwarfs. So many of my pictures are taken of giant invertebrates wandering through dwarf forests," Morris says.

The pine trees on the plateau are barely ankle height.

"My story is about these animals and how they live together and how some hunt each other. I'm not going to tell you about the most significant animal up there - the moss leopard - to find out more about you have to come to the talk," he says.

Hidden Wealth - the Biodiversity of the Denniston Plateau is being held in New Plymouth on Thursday, June 14.

For those in Blenheim, who may have missed his Forest and Bird talk in March and his presentation to secondary school students in May, Your World will reveal what this colourful giant new species is in a future column.

Morris will say the moss leopard is an invertebrate, and its existence was kept quiet by an energy company. It's also the reason he has been up to the plateau so frequently.

"It's an extraordinary place, but it's endangered because a mining company is wanting to develop a huge open-cast mine there," says Morris, who spent 25 years making wildlife documentaries for TVNZ's natural history unit.

"I can quite understand why they would want to develop a mine where they might not think there's anything special there, because most New Zealanders don't know about these creatures. I am very worried that we might lose these animals before ordinary people know what we had all along."

Many people may have read the book The Denniston Rose by Jenny Pattrick, and see coal as a hidden treasure of the plateau, he says.

"Equally, these giant invertebrates are hidden treasures. They prefer to come out at night and they like dark, drizzly nights, just like kakapo and kiwi do."

Also on the plateau, which is 600 metres above sea level, there are great spotted kiwi, bush robins, native butterflies, gecko, five different species of rata, and other unnamed species. "So it's a beautiful place," Morris says.

"I feel that these animals are as little known as kakapo and takahe were in New Zealand back in the 1970s," he says.

He has visited there eight times in the past 12 months, skulking in the dark with camera in hand to take pictures. This is a man who knows where to point his lens, how to zoom in on a subject, how to frame a subject. Morris began his career with the New Zealand Wildlife Service as a young man in the 1970s.

He would visit Fiordland and the Chatham Islands to work with rare species, including takahe, kakapo, black robins, saddlebacks and kiwi.

"I'd visit places most New Zealanders wouldn't get to and I had great adventures. I would come back to visit my parents and family and I found that my photographs were the best way to communicate with people."

His sister worked as an art editor for the New Zealand School Journal and she, along with fellow writing colleagues, especially Jack Lasenby and Brian Birchall, encouraged Morris to have a go at doing some articles himself.

"All in all I wrote about 30 children's articles when I was working for the Wildlife Service," he says.

He also began working with authors on books, especially for children. One of the first was one on weta with Joy Cowley.

Then he moved into film, beginning with a project to help a scientist analysing the behaviour of takahe. He asked if he could show the film to his parents and noticed they were even more interested than when he showed them photos.

"My parents were only partially interested in what I was doing," Morris says. "My father wanted me to be a lawyer, not someone who clambered around in the bush."

Strangely enough, now he is a fulltime freelance photographer, a job he has held for the nine years, the 61-year-old has almost fulfilled his father's dream.

In many ways, Morris is now like a bush lawyer, standing up for the rights of some of New Zealand's unknown, hidden native species, creatures that for eons have lived in the "land of the giants".

Hidden Wealth - the Biodiversity of the Denniston Plateau is being held in New Plymouth at 7.30pm on Thursday, June 14 in the Baptist Church in Liardet St. Entry is free.

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