Moa and Personal Emergency Locator Beacons

My August beer of the month is the Moa 2015 Festive Season IPA, Pine Edition.Moa Pine.png


It didn’t actually taste like pine, and this is a good thing (I was steeling myself for the possibility). It was great; hugely hoppy. I could drink a lot of this.

Moa beer is named after a large extinct flightless New Zealand bird, a bit like an ostrich or emu.

moa exhibit auckland museum
Diorama of a moa reconstruction at Auckland museum in the 1960s.


Moa are – or were – huge flightless birds, found only in New Zealand, that became extinct by around 1400. Maori arrived in New Zealand around 1280 , thus making New Zealand yet another location where humans wiped out the local megafauna on arrival. There were nine species of moa, the largest standing 12 foot high. It seems they were a lot like the cassowary, disembowling with their powerful legs

But did Moa all die out? In 1844, Robert Fitzroy, former Captain of Darwin’s famous voyage on the Beagle and then governor of New Zealand, interviewed an elder Maori named Kawane Paipai. He claimed to have taken part in a moa hunt. Fitzroy’s account was later published by chronicler of extinct birds Errol Fuller:

“He remembered the birds being hounded, encircled and then speared to death, sometimes with weapons designed to snap easily once the body was stuck. Trapped Moas defended themselves vigorously with terrible blows from their feet but while administering these, the monstrous bipeds were forced temporarily to support their weight on one leg. A party of hunters would launch a frontal attack – a feint – while another crept behind waiting for the moment when the Moa raised a leg; then the party attacking from the rear would strike, knocking away the supporting leg. Once down, the victim was either dispatched immediately or such grievous wounds were inflicted that the final outcome was no more in doubt.”

Some New Zealanders my age grew up believing it was possible that moa continued in very isolated populations for much longer, mainly because of a non-fiction piece published in school resources throughout the 1970s and 1980s.Alice McKenzie, a daughter of early European settlers, saw a large and unfamiliar bird in 1880. In a letter dated 11 May, 1948, she wrote,

“First time I saw it was in 1880, I was 7 years of age. I was along the beach inside the sand hills, there are high sand hills covered with tussock, inside of them the bush starts, flax grows around the edge of the bush in the sand. I saw this large bird lying beside the flax. I got nearer and nearer, it took no notice of me. I got behind it, and sat down on the sand, it seemed quite round behind, as if it had no tail, and was the colour of a swamphen blue – I put a hand under it and drew out one of its legs, it was as thick as my wrist, and covered with dark-green scales, I thought I’d tie it up, so split a blade of flax and started to tie it around the birds legs, then it got up and making a harsh cry went for me. I went over those sand hills like a red shank, the bird after me for a short distance. I can’t remember if it had wings, but I don’t think so, when it went for me the feathers round its neck stood out like a ruff, I think if it had wings I would have noticed. I ran home and told of the huge bird which chased me, Mother thought I was exaggerating, but I persuaded Father to come and see where it had been, he saw its tracks where it went after me, he had a foot rule in his pocket and measured the feet 11 inches from heel to point of middle toe, its feet were three toes like a hen, he recorded it in his diary, but some allowance could be made for the feet sinking in the dry sand, and may have seemed larger than they were.”

One reason McKenzie’s description of the bird is not considered to be of a moa is

“. . . the leg of the McKenzie bird was  . . . described as scaly whereas no preserved moa leg skins have scales. The legs are either patterned with raised subcircular patches or . . . are feathered down to the toes.”

But this is a photo is of a mummified moa foot, found in a cold, dry cave in Mount Owen in 1987.

mummified Megalapteryx -moa- foot- Mount Owen- NZ- wikimedia commons

OK, sure, those aren’t technically scales. But your average human is unlikely to say, “its legs were covered with raised subcircular patches.” If I described those legs just looking at them now I would totally call them “scaly,” and I’m not even a 7-year-old being chased down a beach. Also, wow, when you look at that photo, can you believe it took us so long to work out that birds evolved from dinosaurs?

Alice MacKenzie lived in Fiordland; the very definition of inaccessible, scraggy terrain.


Tourists go missing  there every year. I think they figure New Zealand is small; how rugged can one little area be? Answer: fucking rugged. Gobsmackingly gorgeous, sure, but take one wrong step and you die. If a moa was going to survive anywhere, it would be in Fiordland. Not gonna lie, I want Alice McKenzie to have seen a moa.

Kiwis do like to take the piss with tourists. Each year someone starts another TradeMe auction of moa photos, or a reddit thread thread that culminates in someone advising tourists to “Make sure you ask the store clerk for their Moa repellent kit if you can’t find it on the shelf.”

Moa attack on camper
moa footprint photo

By the way, I’m not kidding about how fast Fiordland can kill you. Yesterday, weeks after I had written this blog post, Czech tourist Pavlina Pizova was found in a Fiordland hut after spending a month waiting for help. She and her boyfriend Ondrej Petr took that one wrong step, while walking the Routeburn track. He died. It took her three days to reach the hut. She expected other hikers would come by, but for five weeks no one did. She was only found because her family were concerned not to hear from them and asked the Czech consulate to start inquiries.

I am happy Pizova is okay. But she and her boyfriend did everything wrong. If you come to New Zealand and go hiking, do not take it lightly just because we are a small country. When tracks are closed, don’t walk them. Take a tent, even if you think there will be huts. Always leave your specific intentions and expected exit date with the Department of Conservation, or at the very least with a friend. Hire a Personal Emergency Locator Beacon. It’s only $15 for a day trip, $40 for a week. It will save your life.

Or just buy a Moa beer and drink it at your laptop. Safer, hoppier, and the view is amazing.

glacier lake firodland.jpg
Glacier Lake, Fiordland

2 thoughts on “Moa and Personal Emergency Locator Beacons

  1. I am more on the “let’s take a lovely walk on a not-too-difficult hiking trail and have a delightful shower at a hotel after”, etc, sort of tourist scale.

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