The good news is that there are no snakes or scorpions in New Zealand, let alone bears, mountain lions or coyotes/wolves/dingos. And the two venomous spiders are unlikely to be encountered. So you don’t have to worry about dangerous animals. But some can certainly be a nuisance.
Rats are everywhere, even if you never see them. Put food out of reach of rats (and mice), especially in older huts. You can hang up just the food, or your entire pack, but what you mainly want to avoid is a rat gnawing a hole through your brand new pack to get at the food inside. I dutifully suspended my food at Comyns Hut but left the pack itself on the floor, forgetting that my scroggin (trail mix) of nuts and dried fruit for the next day was in the belt pocket. I was woken several times in the night by rustling noises (and at one point by what felt like rats or mice running over my sleeping bag) and cursed the idiot who hadn’t put their food away. But in the morning I found that I was that idiot. The critters had spent the night gradually pulling open a tiny gap where I hadn’t closed the zipper fully, dragging out the plastic bag with my food, and eating the lot.
You will come across furiously backing dogs, but generally they are just protecting their territory and are restrained in some way. If you are confronted by aggressive, unrestrained dogs the general advice is not to make eye contact, to stand still or back away (but don’t turn your back on them) and definitely don’t run, as that just triggers the hunting instinct to chase a prey animal and you can’t outrun a dog. And don’t wave your arms around or scream and shout. Dogs get excited easily, and can feed off each other’s excitement if there is more than one, as well as from your own level of agitation. So, basically, you want to de-escalate by not challenging the dog nor appearing as frightened prey. See at the bottom of my Weather and Hazards page for more on dogs if you are worried about them.
Possums are not usually going to be such a problem, unless you leave the hut door open, but may be an issue when camping out. Also, in case you think that hut tank water is pure rainwater, bear in mind that possums often climb on hut roofs and leave their droppings there. And if you think they look cute and cuddly, remember that they are an introduced pest to New Zealand and cause colossal damage to the forests and bird life. Shoot on sight!
Kea, mountain parrots (see header photo), can be an issue in mountainous areas, especially around Arthur’s Pass. You shouldn’t feed kea, as this just encourages dependency on humans and can lead to eating stuff that is bad for them. They are entertaining to watch, but also very inquisitive. They will apply their razor-sharp beaks to anything lying around, including boots left outside a hut. I put my boots to dry out under the porch at Hamilton Hut, near Arthurs Pass, after warning a fellow TA hiker not to leave her washed clothes hanging there. We watched the kea playing near the hut for a while and then I went for a lie down, only to be roused by the woman yelling, “Your boots, a kea has them!” I rushed out and found a kea trying to remove the laces. One benefit of heavy boots: too much weight for a bird to fly away with.
Weka are another bird that likes to steal portable belongings, or work their way into a pack of food. They are ground birds slightly smaller than domestic chickens and will outrun you with your watch, toothbrush or sunglasses in their beak. What they do with these is unclear. But while you might get a shredded item back from a kea you will never see possessions stolen by a weka again.
This reminds me of a story I read of someone clearing bush in the early part of the twentieth century who woke up to see a brown shape rushing away from the campsite. The next thing he noticed was that the box with his false teeth had gone. Most of the cutlery had disappeared as well, and the men had to share a single spoon for their meals from that point on.
A general rule to discourage all these animals is to never feed them and don’t leave food lying about in or around huts. And take all your rubbish with you too.
Sandflies and Mosquitos
Now we come to another type of animal, insects. Mosquitoes don’t seem to be too common along the TA (especially in the South Island), but sandflies, known as blackflies in other countries, sure are. Captain Cook recorded the first European encounter with the insect in 1773 and he gave a good account of their troublesome nature: ‘The most mischievous animal here is the small black sandfly which are exceeding numerous … wherever they light they cause a swelling and such intolerable itching that it is not possible to refrain from scratching and at last ends in ulcers like the small Pox.’
These tiny biting insects typically hang about areas where there is water, including huts. They prefer to stay out of sunlight and the wind too, and while they are at their worst at dusk, they do stop biting once it is dark (though mosquitos may take over for the night shift). You may never notice them while you are walking, but within moments of stopping for a rest under a nice shady tree by a stream you can be engulfed. They apparently detect you from the carbon dioxide you exhale. Some of the most attractive resting or camping spots are simply ruined by sandflies. Repellent can be worth carrying, but has to be spread on every patch of skin you want to protect and only lasts an hour or so. Long clothing is a better way to avoid being bitten. Some say that they are less attracted to light-coloured clothes. But sandflies are rarely so severe that a head net is needed, especially as they seem to go for the feet, legs, hands and arms first.
Apparently Māori used the crushed leaves of the ngaio tree as a repellant for both sandflies and mosquitos, and as a balm for soothing bites. The leaves are a bit sticky, but so too are most commercial insect repellents. A liberal coating of oil on the skin is said to deter sandflies by bogging them down in it, but I’ve not tried this.
There is an app for mobile phones called Sandfly Map that purports to show places where sandflies are active, but it relies on users making reports. With relatively few people making reports, and with sandfly activity dependent upon the season, the weather, and the victim, the app is next to useless. A website called Goodbye with a sandfly and mosquito map suffers the same problem.
The introduced common and German wasps are present in large numbers on sections of the TA in Nelson-Marlborough. Sometimes the air is filled with the persistent background sound of their buzzing. They are typically associated with beech forests, where they feed on the honeydew secreted by sap-sucking insects. (You will see the lower parts of beech trees covered in black, sooty stuff – this is a fungus that grows on the honeydew that has run down the branches and tree trunks.) You are not likely to get stung by the wasps, but Landcare Research offers this as a caution if you are: “For most people, a sting means initial pain followed by localised swelling and itching. However, 2‒3% of the general population may be at risk of systemic hypersensitivity reactions to insect stings. Hypersensitivity reactions range from large localised swelling to sudden death from anaphylaxis. You can be stung several times and think that you are not allergic, but the next sting may result in anaphylaxis. …Studies have shown that about 10% of people stung more than once become allergic to wasp venom.” If you think you could be susceptible to an adverse reaction the Landcare web page offers some medical information on treatment.
Header photo: Kea, by Christian Mehlführer, Creative Commons
Possum: photo by David Midgley, Creative Commons
Weka: photo by Alan Liefting, Creative Commons
Common wasp (Vespula (Paravespula) vulgaris): photo by Martin Cooper, Creative Commons