Today’s Moa Hunters

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Today’s Moa Hunters wear head-lamps and overalls, and carry trowels and paintbrushes, not spears and obsidian knives. They hunt their quarry not in the depths of some primeval forest, but in underground caverns with names like Moonsilver and Golon Dreamer.

Trevor Worthy is one of them. Raised on a farm in Broadwood, Northland, Trevor developed an early affinity for the subterranean by exploring the local tomo (sinkholes found in clay country) using baling twine to lower himself in.

Later, at secondary school in Whangarei, an interest in bones, particularly bird bones, was sparked during volunteer beach patrols in which boys would look for oceanic birds that had been washed up on the ocean stretches of Dargaville, Whangarei and Ninety Mile Beach.

The two interests came together when he took a job setting up displays of fossils in the Museum of Caves at New Zealand’s most famous cave site: Waitomo. A Master’s thesis on fossil frogs followed—”my official entrance into the fossil world.” Then it was back to birds, and for the last four years Trevor has catalogued and categorised existing moa bones, and searched at every opportunity for new deposits.

He is now recognised as an authority on moa classification, and whenever a caver stumbles across a significant new find (such as an articulated skeleton) he is called in to identify it and assess its impor­tance to the scientific community.

In a limestone cave somewhere in the backblocks of Golden Bay, Trevor is guiding us to a moa skeleton he first sighted some years previously. Earlier, he and local conservation officer Nigel Mountfort—another caver—had been consulting an enormous hand-drawn map of the cave system, trying to pinpoint the skeleton’s exact loca­tion among the labyrinth of passages. Underground, remembering, let alone interpreting, the map becomes a major challenge.

“Wait here. I’ll have a look up ahead and see if we’re in the right place,” calls Trevor. The helmeted figure in faded blue overalls strides away, crossing a narrow ledge, clambouring over boulders that look like discards from a giant’s marble game, until his lamp is just a pin-prick of light, then gone altogether.

We wait, the only sound the hiss of our carbide lamps; the only smell the sweet sharpness of acetylene escaping from imperfect seals.

In minutes, the moa hunter is back. He’s found the place, and we go to record it on film. (See fold-out between pages 64 and 65.)

Later, we’re in another part of the cave, looking at another skeleton. Photographer Geoff Mason is strug­gling with a flash unit which has chosen this precise moment of maxi­mum inaccessibility to give up the ghost.

Nearby, Trevor is on hands and knees, sifting through the accumulated millennia of cave dust and searching for remnants of a lost fauna. He points to the shell of a native snail, a rifle­man’s humerus, the pelvis of a frog.

The insatiable curiosity can’t be quenched. Trevor tells me he’s now making forays into the classification of lizards and frogs, as well as birds, but he says the real challenge is defining the environments in which these extinct animals lived.

In my mind, I wish him good luck, this energetic discoverer of the past, and think of an old Maori saying that has an appealing irony: Ko te many hou nei e, te moa. The new bird here, the moa.

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