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Hard by the Cloud House
by Peter Walker

'Like a dagger at a pyjama party': the histories of a giant raptor.

By May 14, 2024No Comments

Islington, London. On a bright autumn day in 2009, New Zealand-born journalist and author Peter Walker reads the headline in the newspaper: ‘Maori legend of man-eating bird is true’. His first thought: ‘I should have written this story’.

Walker had heard stories of Pouākai, the great raptor commonly known as Haast’s eagle that could fell a moa in one strike and carry off small humans. He knew the jagged skyline of Canterbury’s Torlesse Range from which the eagle might have soared with its ‘cool, property-owning eye’. His second thought: ‘There should be more.’

A few years later he finds more. An essay by University of London professor of Iranian studies David Bivar lists the great winged raptors of ancient, classical and Islamic myth – the Griffin, Anqa, Rukh (or Rukhkh or Roc) and Persian Simurgh. By the Middle Ages, these giant birds were all located somewhere in the ‘Great Encircling Ocean’ in or beyond the China Seas – ‘in other words,’ writes Walker, ‘the Pacific’. Since there were no other huge eagles in the region, argued Bivar, it stands to reason the Rukh must have been Harpagornis moorei, or the Pouākai or Hōkioi of early Māori. It is a long shot – a beautifully written and utterly engaging long shot – but for many years even the story of the feared Pouākai itself, swooping across early Māori tales and rock drawings in the South Island’s limestone shelters, was considered a long shot.

Walker begins his book in March 1860, when swagman Henry Davis, with a wide-awake hat and a gun in his pocket, seeks work or at least shelter at a Canterbury sheep station. Runholder George Moore shuns rural conventions of hospitality and sends him away. Two days later, Davis’ body is found. Moore is publicly reviled for his cold-heartedness, yet it is his name that is immortalised in that of the giant eagle, Harpagornis moorei. A decade later, at Moore’s invitation, Canterbury Museum director Julius Haast organises an excavation of moa bones on Moore’s Glenmark estate.

During the dig, taxidermist Frederick Fuller spots a single huge claw lying amongst the moa bones ‘like a dagger at a pyjama party’. The discovery comes to the attention of London palaeontologist Richard Owen. According to Henry Yule’s 1874 translation of Marco Polo’s Travels: ‘The bones of a veritable Ruc from New Zealand lie on the table of Professor Owen’s Cabinet’.It is a circuitous but intriguing introduction to Walker’s account of a giant eagle – our giant eagle – soaring through ancient stories of fabulous creatures and maritime exploration in ‘the great civilisations of Asia and Middle East’.

But after the initial flurry of attention, interest soon wanes. Within two decades Haast’s eagle has been demoted to a lowly flightless scavenger. One full skeleton is mislaid in the basement of the Royal Museum of Scotland, another abandoned in an old iron oven on the east coast of the South Island. Even when Westport menswear store owner and experienced caver Phil Wood finds a large wing bone in a sinkhole in Honeycomb Hill north of Karamea in 1980, Canterbury Museum staff remain woefully unimpressed. Moa skulls, it seems, are of far more interest.

It takes Richard Dell, retired director of the National Museum in Wellington, to give Wood’s discovery due attention. He alerts colleagues in Wellington; guided by Wood, they find a trove of eagle bones in the remote cave network. CAT scans show the bird to be related to the small eagles of Australia and Papua New Guinea, suggesting they were blown across the Tasman Sea ‘and could not go home again’. Within several hundred thousand years they grew at least ten times in size ‘in the fastest change of morphology known in evolution’.

Walker is gleeful. The Māori legends were true. Phil Wood was right and the scientists had been wrong for a century. Harpagornis moorei was a kind of winged lion, the apex predator in a complex ecosystem, swooping down to kill giant herbivores ten times its weight which roamed the forests and grasslands. And these scenes had been witnessed by modern man, the first Polynesians to arrive, whom according to Māori, were also amongst its victims.

Walker’s follows the eagle’s trail, going to Westport, to Honeycomb Hill, then back to the once-forested mountains valleys on the eastern side of the Main Divide, now bare, scalped. Walker digs down into that emptiness, setting aside the story of Pouākai to describe a second new predator: ‘a huge, land-hungry empire’. He describes the shonky deal-making that saw 20 million acres of Canterbury land sold to the Crown for £2,000. This included 260,000 acres north of the Waimakariri, originally not part of the agreement but slipped into the deal by accordion-carrying former postmaster Walter Mantell, and later validated by John Robert Godley, the high-browed and high-principled leader of the Canterbury Association hellbent, mutters Walker, on turning an expanse of swamp and tussock into a southern iteration of Christ Church, Oxford’s wealthiest ‘and most snobbish college’.

With these two ‘predators’ identified and verified, Walker turns his attention back to H.moorei and its possible connection to the giant raptors of Asian and Chinese mythology. By the time early Polynesians reached New Zealand in the 13th century, the location of these various iterations of a massive raptor had been pushed further south as early voyagers, blown off course during tumultuous storms, returned to their homelands with stories of a ‘terrifying bird’ ruling over a deserted island where the south wind is cold and a cone-shaped mountain appears to float above the horizon.

Could this be New Zealand? Could the mountain be Taranaki, the first tall peak visible to mariners approaching from the tropics (the perception of a mountain rising in the air can be caused by light refraction from the sea surface)? Did Muslim visitors encounter Aotearoa in the 10th or 11th century? Do ancient Polynesian tales of the ‘demon bird’ Matutu-ta’o-t’ao, said to attack explorers near the legendary island of Hiti Marama, refer to this same predatory eagle? And could Korotangi, a small stone bird found in the roots of a fallen mānuka tree in Kāwhia in 1878 and recognised as a long-lost taonga brought from Hawaiki to Aotearoa by Tainui ancestors, be a kind of ‘translator’s tool’, accompanying travellers sent into the southern ocean by Chinese emperor Kublai Kahn in search of the powerful bird P’eng in the 13th century?

As Walker admits, it is a highly provisional thesis, but in testing each fantastical account against the hard facts of geography, oceanography, maritime history and linguistics, Walker wrenches these huge-winged predators out of myth and brings them closer to the flight path of the mighty Pouākai. He does so with a sense of wonder and acuity, building his own, at times conjectural path out of scholarly research and scientific evidence, but also with a deep appreciation of landscape and the people involved in the story of a fabulous bird re-created from fantastic stories and found bones.

There’s imperious Moore, ‘as hard as nails’; Bivar, a ‘wise old bird perched at the crossroads’; defensive Phil Wood, ‘white of beard and blue of eye’. And there’s his own young self, reading The Thousand and One Nights under Christchurch’s vast sky, never thinking that:

the Rukh in the stories might refer to a gigantic bird which had once lived just up the road, so to speak, in the foothills of the Southern Alps which, white with snow, could be seen on winter mornings from the outskirts of town, past the Ovaltine factory on the Main North Road.



Hard by the Cloud House

by Peter Walker

Massey University Press

ISBN: 9781991016713

Published: April 2024

Format: Paperback, 288 pages

Sally Blundell

Sally Blundell is a journalist, writer and reviewer based in Ōtautahi Christchurch.