One House, Two People, and Some Rare Flightless Birds: Welcome to Mana Island | New Zealand

tThe island where I live, Te Mana, Kobe or Aotearoa, is located half an hour off the coast of the North Island of New Zealand. She has one home and two permanent human inhabitants: my husband, Pat, and me. In April, that number will go up to three because we just had a baby.

From the mainland, Mana looks exposed. It rises from the sea like a stone slab. Once here, the view flips. The mainland lounges across the horizon and the island reveals itself as a lush green haven from the swells of Cook Strait.

With its serene gaze towards Poriru, the island of mana is revered by the Ngāti Toa Rangatira, mana whenua iwi. Te Rangihayata lived here: chief and nephew of Te Rauparaha who wrote Ka matte.

Since the 1830s, the Villa family has farmed the island, but in 1987 it became a nature sanctuary, run by the Department of Conservation (DOC). They shipped out the cattle and, with the Friends of Mana Island community group, replanted the 500,000 native trees over the pastures. Vines grew atop fence posts. Birds flock back to the bush. Today, Ngāti Toa and DOC are working together on a vision of mana.

Writer Flora Feltham is in Te Mana, Cobb, or Aotearoa, or Isle of Mana.
Writer Flora Feltham is in Te Mana, Cobb, or Aotearoa, or Isle of Mana. Photography: Patrick Elliott

Time manifests itself differently here. Pat works for the DOC so our beats follow his shifts. Ten days, four days off. When each task is over, a boat picks us up and we sail to the mainland to visit our families and see the midwife. After the weekend, we transfer 10 days’ worth of food to the boat and disembark again on the small rocky beach of Mana. Our first task on the island is always the same: at the quarantine station, we check all our supplies – oranges, cheese, clothes, office books – for disguised mice or invading seeds.

I write and work remotely in a library on the mainland, but I spend a lot of time exploring mana. You can get around it in a couple of hours on an easy day – when the wind is down and the seagulls are not swooping – but I’m slowing down. I look at seashells and learn the names of plants to tell the child.

I can’t shake the mainland, I say one fall evening right after we moved in. We take a stroll together as he wraps up his workday. He drives his quad bike back in the huge island shed and stores a barrel of bird feed. When he rolls out the garage door, I mistook his barking clatter for a Labrador. The birdsong entering our home sounds like coffeehouse chatter, a lingering soundscape of suburban instinct.

Pat takes care of Takahi Mana. He monitors their territory, feeds them, and feeds them against beak rot. As I watch the takahē go about their ordinary days, I think, None of these beautiful blue birds knows how rare these birds are. There are less than 500 in the world and six breeding pairs live here. All 500 of them have names: here’s the big and hungry Hana, with her shy sidekick, Govan. There, Pukekohe and Astelia, who have the longest legs and blushing on the island.

Flightless birds are nurtured to evolve away from flight (cf The Dodo) But given the brave and purposeful Astelia, it makes sense to me. Its legs remind me of a dinosaur, all red scales and wide, clawed feet. Tucked under her iridescent green back, Takahi’s round blue body would give the impression of planet Earth, if swallowed by a chicken.

The endangered takahi that live on Mana Island.
The endangered takahi that live on Mana Island. Photography: Leon Berard

And they still have wings. Each one is equipped with a single knife-like trigger.

Takahē nesting begins in the spring. They mostly fall into the tussocky toetoe, on top of the island. I think of them constantly as my pregnant belly gets bigger, as if I too have stuffed a globe under my blouse, waiting for a chick to hatch. Outside the kitchen window one sunny afternoon, I saw two Takaho, with a long-legged chick, stocking up in our vegetable garden. They pick weeds.

Pūkeko Exuberance and boldness in mana are less considerate. luscious! The pūkeko is in the compost again! I cry out one day. He runs out to drive them away laughing.

At night, while Takaho and Boukiko are sleeping, various animals appear. I escort little brown geckos out of the bathroom while I brush my teeth, and in our bedroom, we hear Cora snarling and blowing in their nests. These penguins are like babies, very small but loud. They seem to prefer storms, rising louder over the rain and the mighty seas that sometimes get us here after our 10-day shift. Some nights it is as if the entire island is screaming and singing.

In the morning we can see where Cora is, as they stroll from their nests back to the freshly calm sea for breakfast. Their locomotion leaves tracks criss-crossing wet grass, like giant wobbling snails or public servants heading to Cook Strait for work.

Soon, the takaho chicks will shed their black fluff and turn blue. My body is round like a Swiss ball. Today, I’d stroll down to the beach for a swim, but I was petrified by the seals basking on the hot pebbles.

This is all starting to feel normal and my mainland instincts are changing. This past weekend in town, I kept mistaking sparrows for little brown geckos. I walked very slowly and stared at the bottle caps stuck in the road. I hoped for calm seas and a quick return to my mana nest.

Flora Feltham is a writer, weaver and archivist from Wellington. She lives on Mana Island.

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