No visit here would be complete without taking time to discover its very first residents. You see, as you walk under Stravon's canopy, it's quite easy to find yourself drifting off and imagining what life was like in these parts one thousand years ago. At that time the world was marching through the Middle Ages with a population of around the 275,000,000 mark while New Zealand's was probably more like 75. Man had quite literally just arrived.
Up until then, New Zealand was a utopia for birdlife and for millions of years our birds evolved in such a unique manner that one of their transformations was gigantism. New Zealand was heavily forested, particularly in these parts and it was here where two of the largest birds ever known existed in high abundance. The giant Moa and it's only predator, the hulking Pouakai were two of the real heavyweights in the bird department.
At the top of the food chain was Pouakai (known later as Haast’s Eagle - Harpagornis moorei) which had evolved into a raptor of massive proportions. It was natures ultimate killing machine, weighing somewhere in between 10–15 kg (22–33 lb) with a wingspan of 3 metres and talons like a tigers, it would hit its prey with the force of a car crash. The giant South Island Moa (Dinornis robustus) which stood 3.6 m (12 ft) in height and weighed about 230 kg (510 lb) were no match for the eagle, in fact, nothing was, there are even stories of them carrying away young Maori.
The forest, shrubland and subalpine ecosystems east of the Alps was the birds perfect habitat and early Maori had to live a 'hunter-gatherer' existence where they would take hunting expeditions from their coastal villages into the interior of the South Island. These nomadic hunters would shelter under the limestone caves & overhangs eating food they had brought and what they had gathered along the way. It was during this time they began to draw and it was on these expeditions that New Zealand’s earliest artworks were created and where you'll also discover our oldest signs of human occupation.
Initially using the charcoal from their fires and then bringing red ochre in later, it’s impossible to know exactly why they started doing this but it’s thought, it was to make ‘‘spatial markers'' or road signs for the future expeditions. In time the walls started depicting local mythology and ancestry. Birds and fish were obviously popular with humans being the most recognisable, some cannot be identified, while some represent mythical monsters such as the Taniwha or more locally, Mananui (The Great Bird).
And then almost suddenly, like a scene out of The Lorax, the next 200 or so years saw most of the east coast forests destroyed by a series of fires & floods rendering the once favoured hunting grounds and their rock shelters completely inhospitable. The area was abandoned for centuries and with it, the practice of rock art. The bad news didn't stop there, Moa (all nine different species) and other large unique birds endemic to New Zealand such as adzebills, flightless ducks, & flightless geese were hunted to extinction and with it’s main food source gone... Pouakai soon followed.
Today, as you look east to the Pacific, over the limestone outcrops of Maungati and the other ancient sites* you can begin to appreciate what life was like here one thousand years ago. It's all guess work mind you but all you can really do is sit back, listen to the birds and ponder 'what might have been' as much has changed since Man first arrived here...
Or has it?