The question hung in the air between us ‘So what drew you to the Chatham Islands in the first place?
The two pairs of eyes looking back at me widened, the heads nodded together and two voices in unison replied ‘Fossilised sharks teeth’.
Kiri jumped up from her chair and disappeared into the farm house returning minutes later with an oblong box. Plonking it down on the table she reached in, pulled out a jar and unscrewing the lid tumbled the contents onto the table top, laying there glinting like jewels were over a dozen shiny jet black pointy teeth. But it was the photograph laid on the table beside the glinting teeth of a rather attractive carved little bird that would have hung upside down from a thong about one’s neck that caught one’s attention.
The story in the telling of the discovery of this little bird was like something out of a 1920s Boy’s Own Annual.
It all began back in 2008 when Kiri was working up at the Ports of Auckland and it was here that she met a young lad called Robbie Smith.
The friendship that grew between Kiri and Robbie was based around the common ground of pig hunting. To Robbie’s delight he had discovered that Kiri and her husband Dave are keen pig hunters with their own pack of trained hunting dogs.
The couple are also participants and supporters of the local initiative ‘Tuakau Youth Hunt’ which is a community group of hunters who work co-operatively with the Tuakau police and Tuakau kaumatuas. Young troublesome teenage lads who are known to the police who manage to stay out of trouble through the course of the year are awarded with the experience of going into the bush with experienced hunters to hunt wild pigs.
It is for most of these young lads a life changing experience and an activity that both Kiri and Dave are proud to be part of.
And it was Robbie’s enthusiasm for hunting that led Robbie to bring his father’s photograph album to work one day in order to share the Chatham Island experience of pig hunting with Kiri, not knowing that by doing so, he was setting Kiri and Dave on a collision course with an ancient world that by extension would see Kiri and Dave enter the annals of New Zealand, Chatham Island and Moriori archaeological history.
Robbie’s father Greg Smith, born and bred on the main Chatham island of Rekohu, had commissioned a professional photographer to take a series of photographs of the Chatham Islands, by land and by air in a Catalina, the results were, in Kiri’s words ‘Simply stunning. Once I saw these photos of the desolate and wind swept landscapes, the mountains and crags, I just knew I had to go there, the Chatham’s were drawing me in’.
This compulsion was echoed by Dave’s own response ‘I got the impression from this album of images that this is what New Zealand may have looked like once, before the people came. It helped that this was also pig hunting country and it was possible to take our own dogs over to the main island of Rekohu to hunt. Kiri and I were keen pig hunters and we had awesome dogs at the time, Sabre (who has since died) and Bella. But the tipping point though, were those fossilised shark’s teeth, Kiri and I are beachcombers at heart, and were very keen to add some of those teeth to our collection. And besides, it was a different sort of hunting experience on offer and we were up for that’.
It was through the friendship of young Robbie that Kiri and Dave were welcomed onto what was once his families’ ancestral land in the north of the island of Rekohu which by 2008 was in the hands of very genial hosts, Carl and Jenny (not their real names).
When not hunting or mustering cattle, it was from this homestead that Kiri and Dave explored the beaches of the north coast, spending their days fossicking along the windswept beaches of the northern coastline and camping in amongst the dunes at night.
It was on one of their long treks with their heads down scanning the debris and driftwood piled up beyond the high tide line where the continual erosive action of the often violent storm tossed ocean waves are gradually stripping away the layers of the long gone past that Dave’s attention was taken up by the sight of a jaw bone.
‘It was just lying there among the driftwood, completely exposed to the elements, initially I thought it was perhaps a body part from someone who had drowned, that was my first thought’ says Dave, ‘and to be honest, it didn’t surprise me that we had found something like this, as we had been well primed by Carl. He said we would probably run across human remains and if we did, to treat them as if they were our own people’s bones. To treat them with respect and to re-bury them best we could back into the sand.’
However in this instance Dave couldn’t help but notice that what he was looking at was a jaw bone that appeared to be rather on the large size.
Holding the bone up to his face he found that his own jawbone fit within the artefact with plenty of room the spare either side of his jawline. Incredulity baffled Dave and he could only imagine the physical stature of the human from whom this bone had come from.
‘I did what Carl had told us to do, I went up into the sand dunes and buried it, thinking to myself ‘If you punched this bloke he’d probably just smile back at you’, it was big alright and undoubtedly from a big boy. But what really had me thinking was the fact that there were still teeth in the jaw, initially that is what made me think it belonged to a modern person, that the bone wasn’t that old. But then the size of it blew that theory away, right? Anyway I buried it and that was that.’
It was as the pair were heading back along the beach towards ‘home’ that Dave had the good fortune to discover a small white adze in amongst some driftwood, for the beachcombers this was a special discovery indeed. As Dave admired the smooth features of this little treasure Kiri was busy poking about in the sand around the locale of the adze’s resting place and it was then that their most momentous discovery was made did they but know it at the time. There poking out of the sand was an s-shaped object, sandstone in colour and on closer inspection, shaped like a bird. Kiri reached the conclusion based on its seamless no-fuss appearance that it was something modern that must have been part of a necklace, that someone had perhaps ‘lost’.
Slipping it into her pocket she and Dave continued their long walk along the beach toward ‘home’ while preparing themselves for a possible encounter with ‘Elephant Tusk’, a very scary feral bull legendary on the island for his ornerinous and ability to make grown men run for their lives. Between Kiri and Dave and a nice cup of tea were some of the islands scrub cattle of which ‘Elephant Tusk’ was leader of his pack.
Chatham Island cattle are in the main feral, there are no fences keeping them in, they wander where they will all over the island and mustering, which is only done very two years or so, is something to behold according to Dave. ‘I had heard about it but had to see it for myself, these beasts are smart alright. They throw their heads in the air sniffing, and if they detect you, they melt into the scrub going down on their bellies to conceal themselves which makes them bloody hard to find. If they smell you first before you see them, well you’re not going to be able to muster them in unless you’ve got dogs. The farmers over there have big packs of dogs, they need them.’
Later that evening gathered around the dining table with their hosts and a number of other locals, Kiri and Dave showed Carl and Jenny their fossicking booty, picking up the little bird Carl, a Maori by descent, said ‘This isn’t Maori’ and promptly dropped it back onto the table. Other hands that night handled the little bird as it was passed around the table but Carl did not touch it again. For Kiri and Dave, the little bird seemed to be burrowing into their psyche, the more they looked at and handled it, the more certain they felt that it was something special. ‘We just felt that it was something significant. It is hard to explain. All we knew at the time was that we had this weird connection to it.’
As much as Kiri and Dave wanted to bring the little bird home with them, they felt the right thing to do was to leave it with Carl and Jenny. The beach that the pair had found it on was Carl’s land and so it seemed right to leave the artefact in his hands.
The remaining days of their holiday passed by quickly and it was time to head home back to Pukekawa and Carl offered to drive Kiri and Dave to the airport.
It was as they were taking their leave from their host that Carl reached out and caught up Dave’s hand, palming a small bundle in it.
Wrapped up in a kitchen paper towel lay the little bird. ‘Take this back to New Zealand, find out what you can about it, what it is and what it’s made from. Then when you know you can bring it back to us. That will give you an excuse to visit us again’ said Carl.
The unexpected gesture caught both Kiri and Dave by surprise, looking at awe at the figurine in his palm Dave promised Carl that they would one day bring the little bird home.
By the time Kiri and Dave made it back to their front door in Pukekawa, the little carving had a name, for them it became ‘Albie’ and as they were to about to learn, it had its own agenda.
To be continued...