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Sport 36: Winter 2008

The Ghost of Blueskin Sound

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The Ghost of Blueskin Sound

June 1. Sunny. My hand is shaking as I write these notes. Something extraordinary has happened. I've found a ghost. The profound and unexpected thing I knew was lurking in the dark gullies of this deep place has shown itself; a ghost, or maybe a rat, I only got a quick look. Now in the half-light I struggle to read what I've just written and realise I'm rambling like a bad poet. Must be more scientific, less emotional, and I've got to get back to the hut before I freeze to death. Will write again tomorrow; I must document everything, or no one will believe me, they'll think I'm mad. I'm not, I'm just beside myself.

June 2, a.m. Bitterly cold—the coldest night this winter. By the time I got back to the hut, stumbling through the uncompromising bush in the moonlight, lit the woodburner so I could have hot water in the morning (filled the hut with smoke, as always), and cooked something to eat, I was exhausted. Fell into bed in my filthy clothes and was asleep almost immediately. This morning a thin coating of white frost sat in the pockets of shade outside the hut. Had to be very careful walking out on to the wooden jetty; ice invisible.

For the record: My name is Geraldine Bidwill. I have been a ranger here in Blueskin Sound for nearly two years. Paid a pittance to trap possums, rats and stoats. I have a degree in Zoology if anyone doubts my ability to recognise different types of animal. The animals here, as elsewhere, have adapted to the peculiarities of the place, and Blueskin Sound is a peculiar and isolated place, named not for the effects of the short cold days, but for the tribe of Maori who lived here when the European whalers arrived. The Maori were so heavily tattooed that their skin was ink-blue, which impressed the whalers. There are no Maori or whalers here now. There are those who will say I have succumbed to the solitude, and that my surroundings have influenced page 15my sanity. Now that I think about it, I don't really care what they think. I am not enamoured of the human race. Why else would I be here like a rat among the animals?

June 2, late p.m. Cloudy. Four possums in the traps I set yesterday. Dispatched them. Spent the afternoon fishing out in the bay in my small aluminium runabout, caught a good-sized snapper for dinner. Everything silver—the sea, the sky. A risso's dolphin (Grampus griseus) joined me for a while, easily recognised by its flat face and bulging forehead more akin to a pilot whale than a dolphin. It came very close at one stage, nudging the dinghy with its muscular body. Risso's are solitary animals, rarely seen in pods. Not many people realise Blueskin Sound's famous dolphin, Blueskin Bill, was a risso's—most illustrations show him as the more widely-known common dolphin. Common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) are not common here.

June 3, a.m. Thick drizzle. Set out to view the ghost, better prepared this time. Hiked two hours to the old homestead, had lunch under the shelter of the decrepit house's remaining veranda roof. I don't know if there is anyone alive who remembers the existence of the old homestead; it is back from the sea and partially covered with vegetation, a black beech grows in the dead centre of it, out through the ruined roof. No glass in the shadowed windows. The jetty in the tiny bay has long since rotted, although at very low tide some ancient piles are visible, but completely camouflaged by a covering of mature green-lipped mussels (Perna canaliculus). (Delicious.) There is a stream near the house, with a deep pool surrounded by moss-grown hydrangeas with ghostly white flowers. A mature female long-finned eel lives there (Anguilla dieffenbachii). Maybe 90 years old. Two metres long, nearly as broad as my thigh, and senile. (It will never migrate from this pool, it will never breed, it defies nature and chooses to stay.) I always feed it. Today it came halfway out of the water to claim the morsels of fish I put on the stream bank. The long-finned eel has an excellent olfactory sense—its nostrils extend like little tubes above its upper lip, but its pale blue eyes are quite glazed and blind-looking.

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June 3, p.m. Walked for a further two hours. I am not going to write in which direction. Beginning to feel protective of my find. Need to think about how and when and IF I am going to present it. Arrived at my campsite, set up my bivvy and fireplace. The drizzle has lifted. It's another half an hour's scramble to the place I saw the ghost. Will set off now and spend the evening watching. If my hunch is correct this creature is crepuscular.

June 5. I've seen the ghost for two nights in a row. It's a platypus. Yes, a Platypus! It might as well be a poltergeist.

June 6. Sunny, light wind. Back at the hut. I'm sure now, having collected my wits and consulted my books, that the creature is as I thought, the mythical New Zealand platypus. Any zoologist with half a brain knows the story of the New Zealand otter, first seen by Captain Cook's crew in 1773 in Dusky Sound, followed by many sightings, none confirmed, by hunters and hikers and madmen. A theory held by the lunatic fringe of the academic world is that the otter was much more likely to be a platypus, or similar monotreme mammal, given the wildlife and shared continental history of our neighbour, Australia. Most scientists believe that no such animal exists. It Exists. It is small—about rat-sized, with short legs and webbed feet. Its tail is wide and flattened like a beaver's but hairy. Its face is dominated by its elongated rubbery nose, narrower than the nose of the Australian platypus, but it seems to be used in much the same way, fossicking for food in the stream bed. I have named it Ornithorhynchus bidwillii. I could be famous. I intend to trap the animal, to get a closer look. Will write all my findings in this book, but will tell no one. Fleeting glories are of little use to me.

June 7. Heavy rain (12mm). The Sound rough, the wind chopping up the water into white caps and swirling water spouts. This does not stop the gannets fishing, they dive through the murky air straight as shining arrows into the murky sea. Even on the most inclement of days this place has a beauty beyond imagining. I will be happy if I never have to leave.

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June 8. Rain, clearing to low cloud. Sea very calm, like green silk. In the afternoon I fished off the end of the jetty. Small white clouds sat below the mountains and gathered in the coves across the Sound. As I fished three black pigs came out of the bush at Murderers Point and grazed noisily on the oysters exposed on the mud flats by the receding tide. Considered going to shoot them but was distracted by the big stingray passing under the jetty like a disembodied shadow. It hovered close to the wooden piles and began to feed on the oysters too, the ones still submerged in the shallows. I could hear it eating, a noise like car tyres on gravel. Then I realised I could also hear a motor boat approaching. I don't get many visitors.

The boat contained a young man and a blue heeler. The man asked if I had seen any hunting dogs recently, saying he'd lost two, but had tracked them to the Sound from the neighbouring inlet. The man was sure they were somewhere near as they wore transmitters on their collars. He waved his aerial in the air and it beeped. I told him I'd deliver them to town if I found them, a 1 hour 40 minute trip by boat. He said he'd reimburse my petrol. (If I see his dogs I'll shoot them.) He asked if I was here on my own. Men always do. I tried not to look like I'd just made the biggest discovery in New Zealand zoological history, but really, what must I look like? The only mirror in the hut is nailed to the wall in the small dark bathroom, it's pocked and shadowed. The woodburner wafts streamers of smoke continuously, I must reek. A small representative of Homo sapiens, female, ungroomed, uncertain age, grey haired, strangely scented of ash.

June 9. Drizzle. Checked Timms Traps for corpses. Re-baited. Shot a pig near Murderers Point. I was carrying a leg back to the hut when I found one of the dogs. Or it found me. It was standing in the middle of the muddy track behind the hut, a big German-shepherd cross, with a broad head and honey-coloured eyes. As I reached for my gun it sat down and held out one paw and I just couldn't do it. Sentimental fool. Took the transmitter off her collar and smashed it. The tag on her collar indicates her name is Sheba. Ridiculous name for a dog. She's Queen now.

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June 10. Slight frost. Cold, clear day. Finished making my trap for O. bidwillii and a muzzle for Queen. Both principally of woven flax.

June 11, a.m. Fine. The tide was out this morning so I walked to the homestead by way of the shoreline. There is large tidal variation in Blueskin Sound, the sea drops 3 metres or more at low tide, exposing wide mud flats and stony beaches. At high tide it slaps at the land. Stopped at Oyster-tree Bay to pick some lunch from the oyster tree, a totara toppled into the water, its branches colonised by the shellfish. Queen and I ate the oysters raw, sitting on the beach beside three stranded plate-sized jellyfish. Watched a multitude of little black shags (Phalacrocorax sulcirostris) out in the bay, swimming partly submerged like a many-headed sea monster, diving and fishing as a synchronised team, herding sprats into the shallows and feasting. The Maori considered the black shag to be an omen. Shakespeare said cormorants devoured time.

Found signs of disturbance on the bank of the eel's pool at the homestead; odd tracks and slides of mud, not indicative of pig or deer, the tracks seem more like those of a clawed animal. Looks like a crocodile, or other large reptile. Unsettling. Fed the eel some oysters.

p.m. Set up in same campsite near O. bidwillii. Placed trap on stream edge. Baited with live koura, freshwater crayfish (Paranephrops planiforms). Ate the same for dinner, fiddly but delicious.

June 12–15. Mostly cloudy, mist in the mornings and night. Perfect days. Caught the platypus the first night. Ornithorhynchus bidwillii. Held it trembling in my hands. It was cool but furred. Legs on the sides of its body like a lizards. The strangest mammal. It growled. I was happy to catch it and even happier to let it go. Over three days I saw two others, in the same stream, each over a kilometre from the other. My eyes are always peeled.

Spent the rest of the time exploring the wider area, other stream valleys on either side of the platypus habitat. Difficult walking country, much clambering required. (Queen follows like a shadow.) The bush is rampant: beech, totara, rata, neinei papering the creek edges with shed strips of orange bark, nikau palms and tree ferns, mistletoe page 19and orchid and clematis vines, purple pouch fungi, black puff balls, and red stinkhorns. Lower down the mountains kohekohe abounds, festooned with inflorescences. Titoki trees rain red and black berries like drops of blood. There is no sign of any pest species here at all. At night as I sit and write the bush is alive with noise. The screeches of weka and kiwi and the mournful hoots of moreporks. And there are bats here—a species I thought was known only on other islands, the short-tailed bat (Mystacina tuberculata). It prefers to walk rather than fly, and last night I watched as one used its folded wings for front legs and hopped about the forest floor like a tiny crippled goblin.

June 16. Light rain. Woken this morning by a dawn chorus such as I've never heard before. As if one hundred thousand birds were singing simultaneously. Deafening. Walked down and set up camp at homestead. Days are short; only 5 hours when the sun shows above the towering mountains. Arrived here just on dark. The eel has gone. Its pool is surrounded by churned mud and reptile tracks, and one side has collapsed in a smooth slip. Crocodiles have not lived in New Zealand since the Miocene, at least 10 million years ago. It's another ghost. It was too dark to investigate properly so I've decided to stay and look tomorrow. Set up my camp in the clearing next to the homestead, caged in by black-leaved rhododendrons and giant tree ferns. Queen won't settle, she is restless and growls at the dark. I've tied her inside the homestead so she won't disturb the kiwi. There are four in the clearing now, hairy things probing around with their long beaks like three-legged animals, oblivious to my presence. Time, I know, neither speeds nor slows, but I wonder if sometimes it circles.

June 17, a.m. Overcast. Queen has disappeared. She broke her ties and escaped from the homestead. I woke in the night to the sound of ferocious barking, snarling and howling coming from a downstream direction. I couldn't see anything in the dark; torchlight too feeble. The noise of the fight was bloodcurdling. With numb fingers and half-blind I loaded my gun and fired into the air. The dog screamed, there was splashing, then silence. No sign of her this morning, only tracks on the stream side; dog and reptile. I was growing fond of the dog, but she really didn't belong here—introduced species.

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p.m. Back at the hut after a long search of the stream failed to shed any light on the mystery. Nothing to see but small eels and bullies in the brown water, and scores of koura scuttling along the bottom, their pincers snapping. The bush was alive, seething. Tree weta (Hemideina thoracica) clung to every available branch, their large heads masked like the face of the devil, their legs beset with sharp pointed spines. I thought they were nocturnal. Snails too, giant Powelliphanta, some 80mm across, huge things with gleaming shells and drooling black bodies, sucking up earthworms in broad grey daylight. Stick insects pink and thorny on shiny green leaves as if they wanted to be seen. Thick spider webs slung and dripping. And birds, birds everywhere. I could find no trace of the crocodile, so I've come back to the hut to shoot some possums for bait. Will return to the homestead tomorrow.

June 18. Rain. Heavy overnight, easing to showers. The homestead gleams in the damp like a ruined palace, its black windows unblinking eyes. Wetas creep like a plague of mice over the veranda. Tuis, blue-black and collared like missionaries jump and hop in the spiky kanuka, and in the trees' hairy bark giant centipedes swarm. Blue furred velvet worms walk purposefully through the undergrowth, spitting slime and eating spiders. Three dead possums lie on the bank of the stream oozing blood and viscera into the water, eels tangle in the gore. I sit and wait. The sun is eaten by the mountains, and out of the swamp the crocodile crawls.

Diary ends.

Letter to the Department of Conservation, dated May 2007:

To whom it may concern,

Enclosed a diary we found in an old house near Shag's Cove, Blueskin Sound. We were hunting last week, 2 men and 5 dogs, and we spent a night there and found this book inside, and the skeletal remains of a dog. To be honest it was a hellish spooky place, neither of us could sleep and the dogs whined continuously and we ended up camping on the beach. The house gave us the creeps. Please pass this diary on to page 21your ranger. (We read some of it—sounds like she was losing it, hope she is OK now.)

Cheers, Bruce Weir

Letter to Bruce Weir from Jeff Coddington, Department of Conservation, dated June 2007:

Dear Bruce,

Thank you for your letter and the enclosed diary. We have passed it on to Ms Bidwill's family. Unfortunately, as you may have heard due to recent renewed media coverage, she went missing and was assumed deceased, only six weeks after she started working for us in Blueskin Sound in January 1982. At that time her boat was found capsized in the Sound, and as no body was ever found it was thought that she had probably drowned. The discovery of this diary of course challenged that finding, and so we and the police have conducted another thorough search of the area. No sign of anyone recently living in the area, or any remains other than that of the dog you mentioned were ever found. No sign either of the incredible animals she mentions in the diary, and so we have come to the conclusion that it is a work of fiction. (As no doubt you are aware, even the bush is very different than she described, being mainly secondary re-growth, manuka and broadleaf, with considerable areas of gorse.)

Thank you again for returning the diary, I am sure Ms Bid will's family are grateful to have some reminder of her.


Jeff Coddington

, DOC supervisor, South Island.

P. S. Our searchers were also unable to camp near the old house. The general consensus is that it was haunted by the dog.