There is a tableau in the Canterbury museum that stops my terminally soft heart every time I see it. It shows a gloomy bush scene with a large moa (mow-ah for non-New Zealand speakers) on a nest trying to protect the egg, and another facing down a Maori and his dog. The man is about to fling a spear.
Once upon a time, more than three hundred years ago, New Zealand was home to the moa – a species of large, flightless, and indeed wingless, birds. The largest could weigh 230 kilos and stood taller than a man when the head was up, although normally they walked with their heads poking forward as they foraged in the bush. Until the Maori came, the moa's only predator was the Haast eagle. But the Maori came, and they hunted the moa to extinction.
Or did they?
In 1994 traces might have been found near the Bealey River, up in the Southern Alps. There was a flurry of interest, round about the time that the staff of the Bealey Hotel in Arthur's Pass, wondering how they could drum up business in a slow year, went tramping in the Avoca Valley. They saw something strange. It looked like a moa. They took a blurry photograph. Wow! If it was a moa, it would be of enormous interest to science, a huge boost to the tourist industry, and wouldn't do the Bealey Hotel any harm either.
The news spread. Everyone got excited. The Department of Conservation inspected the photograph and declared that they really couldn't say but the thing looked more like the rear end of a red deer. Too late. Moa clawprints were seen everywhere, even in the city. I remember prints in the snow going all round the roundabout near my house. Sightings of moas were recorded and passed on, growing wings as they went. People rang up radio stations to say that they had moas in their garages, good condition, just needing a bit of oil and a tidy-up, going cheap. Others said bleeping moas, making a dickens of a din on Sunday mornings and waking the neighbours.
I myself, only the other day, had a helluva job wrestling my moa into the boot of the car so I could take it to the man for sharpening.