The idea that moose roam the most remote corner of New Zealand has long been an urban legend. The New Zealand moose is no ‘Bigfoot’. It’s far more plausible than one might think.
It was listed on the map as “unexplored territory”. A dim cove in the mist, separating the fiord from the colossal forests that cloak the steep valleys of Fiordland.
The famous government steamship, the Hinemoa, had rescued shipwreck survivors in the sub-Antarctic and dropped supplies to the lonely lighthouses dotting the southern coast. But when it crept into the gorge at Doubtful Sound, past the waterfalls and the caves and the steep, rolling ridges, it had entered truly inhospitable territory.
Eight men stepped off the ship at Supper Cove, a small arc of sand at the end of the sound. More than a century earlier, Captain James Cook had anchored his ship, the Resolution, nearer the beginning of the fiord for repairs. Cook was struck by the feeling of utter isolation: ”In this bay we are all strangers,” he wrote in his journal.
The Hinemoa’s men hauled 10 large, wooden crates from the steamship, dragged them through the shallows and onto the sand. There were six females and four males, all less than a year old, about a metre and a half in height at the shoulder. The animals stepped carefully into the dim light.
They were here because the governor of Saskatchewan, Canada had received a request from New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Sir Joseph Ward, for assistance in complementing a grand vision: New Zealand as the world’s largest game reserve, collecting the Earth’s most prized, living trophies in one place.
The animals were duly caught in the frozen wilds and raised in captivity. They were fed cow’s milk from a bottle. They were docile and thought capable of surviving the treacherous boat trip across the world, through the tropics and into the cold, perpetual rain.
It was the beginning of autumn in 1910 and the air was thick with sandflies. When the animals stepped onto the beach, some were scared and returned to their crates, but the men upended the boxes and they toppled out. One animal, in a panic, attacked another, breaking its leg.
The men returned to the Hinemoa. They sailed back down the fiord, away from the darkness and the cargo they’d left behind.
And so the moose, young, small and afraid, were alone. They dissolved into the mist and the Fiordland bush, strangers in a strange land.
THE PAUSE OF AN ERA
One of the last verified photographs of a Fiordland moose, taken in 1952.
There are millions of trees in Fiordland, and Ken Tustin, a biologist, had them all to choose from when setting up his surveillance network.
He’s had cameras in the bush for more than 20 years, hoping they will capture a glimpse of the ghosts of the forest. As the years progressed, so did his cameras his latest ones automatically triggered upon sensing movement, taking photographs of deer, possums, and the occasional tramper. The cameras took many thousands of photos and videos, weathering some of the world’s harshest conditions, where it rains 20 days a month and tremendous storms emerge from the quiet, rattling the trees and turning paths into creeks and creeks into torrents.
He caught one on video, once. In 1995, the deer like animal wandered into frame; The camera was in time-lapse mode so the image was blurry, but the animal’s shape was distinctive. It was nearly black and had a curved back, a thick neck and a beaked nose, swaying through the bush with the lumbering gait of a large animal, unlike a deer but suspiciously like a moose.
It was too blurry to convince everyone, though. The camera was a “monstrous arrangement,” Tustin says, powered by car batteries and primitive by modern standards. It took a photo every four seconds and would only record video when the animal came close, which happened just as it moved out of frame. Since then, the cameras had caught nothing.
Having failed to capture his target, Tustin decided to retire his cameras late last year.
“That’s it. The end of an era”, he told the local newspaper.
“Well, the pause of an era.”
More than a century after the animals disappeared into the forest, the strange tale of the Southern Hemisphere’s only moose population has entered the realm of New Zealand folklore. The moose have encouraged intrepid explorers seeking sizeable bounties and inspired tall tales told in southern pubs.
There have been blurry photos and stray hairs, suspicious droppings and sinister hoaxes. The gossip circle of the West Coast bush still spits out the occasional story of huge antlers glimpsed in the dark, or a strange, cloying smell disrupting the thick smell of deer.
What there hasn’t been is clear, undeniable proof that the descendants of those 10 moose still roam the forest somewhere in the mist, even as the body of circumstantial evidence has continued to grow.
“We’re just talking about a remnant population, hanging on by the skin of their teeth”, Tustin says in an interview.
“The scale of Fiordland is just monstrous. They’re not living in the open, and there’s very few people who frequent the places under the canopy.”
On its face, it sounds completely implausible. A fully grown Canadian bull moose would be 6ft tall at the shoulder and weigh 350kg, roughly the size of a large horse, with giant, sprawling antlers. How could one creature that size, let alone dozens of them, remain unseen for more than 60 years?
But moose are famously elusive, and the Fiordland bush is a uniquely superb landscape for disappearing. Legendary hunting guide Jim Muir, who hunted Fiordland moose in the 1920s and 1930s, once said he could tell a moose was just metres away by its tracks, but he could not see it through the trees. They are silent and solitary and move like shadows.
“They’ve got all the senses that make humans seem rather clumsy,” Tustin says.
“I can think of half a dozen times where I’ve been within a step or two. You can smell them and you’re surrounded by sign… You feel the hair stand on the back of your neck. Out of all those years, only half a dozen times.”
He began his search for moose in the early 1970s at the behest of his then employer, the Forestry Service. During their 70 days in the bush, his team found a cast antler, what was then the most convincing evidence of a live moose in decades.
At the time, he believed the moose would soon become extinct, they would struggle to compete with deer for food. But shortly afterwards, helicopter deer hunting became popular and mass deer culls greatly reduced the population. It was a respite for the moose.
In the time since, Tustin has spent the equivalent of several years in the bush, much of it joined by his wife, Marg, searching for moose. Although he took his cameras down, he is not capitulating: He had been trying to track one particular moose since 2002, which he believed roamed through Herrick Creek every July up to about 2011. It stopped leaving physical signs, leading Tustin to assume it was dead. The cameras were pointless.
He still ventures into the forest for weeks at a time, despite his advancing age, hoping to map the route of another moose.
“I’m 72 now, which is a pain in the arse, being this old,” he says.
“It’s demanding, and I like it like that. If it was soft and easy you wouldn’t feel you were having such an adventure. I’m still on the case. Maybe not with the same intensity as a few years ago, but we’re still out there.”
‘FOLLOW YOUR NOSE’
The sheep farmer was tramping through the forest when he smelled something unusual, a cloying, honey-like scent, clinging to the wind. An animal, but not a deer, and not any of the plants familiar to him from his previous expeditions into the bush.
Steve Jones had a tarpaulin and a week of food, but chose to walk on. The sun was sinking and the hut was some ways away. He realised later what he had sensed: The elusive moose, likely bathing in a small stream near him in the Hauroko Burn.
“There was a moose not 200 metres upwind from me, and I walked on,” he says. He had ignored his own advice: “Follow your nose”.
The Australian has made several trips to Fiordland in search of the moose. His quest began when he picked up a copy of Australian Deer magazine in the 1990s, which featured a photo of famed Hastings moose hunter Eddie Herrick carrying a bull moose’s head on his back, trudging through the creek which now bears his name, where many historical moose sightings took place.
Only three moose trophies were ever obtained in New Zealand; two were shot by Herrick, including the first bull moose killed under licence, in 1929. One of the moose was old and weak and missing one of its legs, likely as a result of gangrene, it was thought to be the original moose that had broken its leg in a panic 20 years earlier.
Jones recreated that trip, an arduous slog through the wilderness. He enjoys the enormity of the landscape, the sense of wilderness: “It is somehow deeply reassuring and invigorating to be alone with all that silence, moss and vastness,” he says in an email.
He says it wasn’t the first time he had come close. On one trip, he was crawling through a stream when “something very large and dark surged up and thundered off in a cloud of spray further up the stream, giving me just the barest glimpse of it”, he recalled.
It was not a bull, as he could not see its antlers; he followed it to a patch of sand, where he saw its large, fresh prints. The animal ventured into a swamp, where he circled it for an hour, catching occasional glimpses of its leg through bush. He had his gun but refused to take the shot and so was conquered by the coming darkness.
“It simply could not have been anything else,” he says.
“I would never shoot at something I could not see clearly, it would be dangerous and unethical. I’m glad I didn’t though as they are rare and special and it would have been just a waste.”
Jones, who has hunted deer for more than 40 years, has detailed his years long hunt for the moose on his blog. Like others who have gone searching, he says the evidence is unmistakeable: Only a moose could feed on branches three metres high, leave footprints that large.
Around this time every year, Jones yearns for Fiordland. He plans to come back next year to finally capture a moose on camera. He says he has a strategy, which he declines to reveal, but may arrange helicopter supply drops ahead of time so he can stay in the bush for some time, searching.
He’s not sure if he would make the photos public; He seeks personal, not public triumph.
“The herd might be better off if I did not publicise it, so they might just be enlarged on my wall”.