It was twilight, and I was alone in the campervan. My fiancé had left to have a look around the lonely campsite. He’d been gone a while. Suddenly, I heard a thud on the roof, followed by a series of scratches. Then more thuds, lighter, getting ever nearer to the open roof hatch.
Cautiously, I approached the hatch. Peering up through the black grid of the fly screen, I saw it: silhouetted against the indigo sky, a creature with sharp claws and a beak like a sickle blade, the tip of which it ran experimentally along the edge of the hatch lid, jerking it up and down a few times. Then the creature leaned in, so far it could have torn the fly screen from between us, and I saw the lurid yellow rims of its eyes.
There was intelligence in its stare, and a slight hint of madness. Its claws grazed the fly screen.
“Hello,” I said.
It cocked its head at me, now pressing its beak into the fly screen, trying to lick it. Not breaking eye-contact, I reached for my camera. My fiancé would be disappointed he’d missed this. This was the reason he’d been so eager to camp in Arthur’s Pass in the first place. I adjusted the focus, worried all I would do was scare the curious kea off.
Far from it. The noise and flash of the camera just made it angry. It redoubled its efforts to break into the campervan.
For those of you that don’t know, kea are the world’s only species of alpine parrot. They’re native to New Zealand and they’re the most intelligent birds on the planet. Until the onset of modern conservation measures, they were hunted as pests – and they really are pests! They delight in destroying things. They vandalise vehicles, steal people’s stuff and even – the ultimate affront to Kiwi sensibilities – kill sheep.
Well, sometimes they don’t kill the sheep. They merely swoop down, remove a tasty chunk of flesh from its back and fly off again. And they’re known as the clowns of New Zealand’s wildlife.
I just had a vision of a circus of kea – yes, a group of kea is called a circus – donning clown masks and terrorising the streets. They totally would. I know a story about a patch of roadworks in the South Island in which the cones kept mysteriously shifting, causing traffic to swerve in confusion. A security camera was set up and, sure enough, the culprits were kea.
Kea are incredible. I won’t go on about their intelligence, or share any more amusing anecdotes about them here, as I’ve already written a couple of articles on the subject. (New Zealand’s Funniest Bird and Kea: The birds that chose the thug life, if you’re interested.) I will, however, relate that they are the bane of New Zealand campervan rental companies’ existences. They snap off aerials and windscreen wipers, rip fly screens, peel the rubber from the windows and – according to the manager of the company we rented our campervan from – peck reversing cameras to death.
So, naturally, my fiancé was eager to see these monsters for himself. We headed to their most famous hangout, Arthur’s Pass, a village in the mountains, surrounded by a national park. (Be warned: there is hardly anything in the village. Buy plenty of supplies before you go.) We found a cheap Department of Conservation campsite and settled in for the evening.
Tim had a look, but there were no kea to be seen. He was really disappointed. It was only after he left the campervan to go exploring that kea began to turn up, which brings us back to the beginning of this article.
“Heeeeeere’s Johnny!” the kea trying to force its way through the roof hatch seemed to say.
I decided to get a photo of it from the outside, so opened the campervan door, almost stepping on another kea that had been trying to get in that way.
“Hey, cheeky bugger!” I said.
It merely laughed at me, flapping to a nearby fence post.
I made sure the campervan door was closed. The kea that had been at the roof hatch now leered down at me from the roof’s edge. And it had been joined by a friend. In fact, now my eyes were adjusted to the darkness, I saw that I was completely surrounded. I started taking photos, ready to dart inside should they become too pissed off.
It was at this point that Tim returned, grinning in delight. Another campervan had arrived, and the occupants got out to see what was going on. A couple more kea alighted on their roof.
“Oh no, I’m scared of birds,” the woman said.
“This probably isn’t the best place to camp, then,” Tim replied.
I was still clicking away with my camera. Most of the kea actually seemed to enjoy the attention, but one had definitely had enough. It suddenly turned into Bruce Lee and aimed a kick at me.
“Okay, okay,” I said, putting my camera away.
It squawked approvingly.
Eventually, the birds became bored of human-watching and melted into the night. Tim and I retired to our campervan.
“That was brilliant,” Tim proclaimed. “Did you see that one steal the receipt that fell out of my pocket?”
“Yup, I got a photo of it,” I said, going through the pictures I’d just taken.
“Did you get any good ones?” he asked.
I was about to say no, as they were mostly blurry, but then I saw this lucky shot!
We didn’t sleep well that night. We kept hearing strange thuds and scratches on the roof. Then, in the wee hours of the morning, came the longest, loudest, most distressing siren I’ve ever heard in my life! Turns out we were parked directly underneath the village’s emergency alarm, and there was a small scrub fire that needed taking care of.
Morning came. We shuffled zombie-like into Arthur’s Pass’s only open café. Here, we were treated to more cheeky kea antics, as they lined up along the roof of the café’s veranda. Inside the café, I saw this poster:
The circus was ever-hopeful.
In the end, our campervan escaped Arthur’s Pass unscathed.
Article by Abigail Simpson of Poms Away: A British Immigrant’s View of New ZealandFollow Not_Australia