Ailsa Cain recollects her childhood experiences of muttonbirding.
The most important thing for me when muttonbirding as a child was the way we got together as a family. We lived in Milton and would drive down to Bluff, where we would take a fishing boat to Papatea (Green Island). At that time there were only three houses being used on the island. Attached to the house where we stayed was a workshop for processing the muttonbirds. In addition, there was a pluck hut on the manu (birding ground). It had a coal range, radio and seats, but was otherwise pretty basic.
Jobs were allocated by age. The little kids were the unwaxers (where the wax is peeled off to remove the down). Then you graduated to a gutter. You knew that you would not become a wax dipper or salter until you were about 50. We stayed on the island for around a month and had to do our school work and write a diary. The jobs I remember disliking were throwing the guts away and collecting firewood.
We would get up around 9 a.m. and have breakfast. Then we would do school work and help out around the house. We would have lunch and do some work related to the muttonbirds. Then we’d go out to play on the beach or in the bush before coming home about 4 p.m. to go to bed. We’d get up at about 6 p.m., have tea, and then walk out to the manu. We would catch and pluck muttonbirds, with us kids usually going home about 11 p.m. If we were good and carried some birds back, our mum would read us a story and give us a girdle scone (a flat scone also known as a soda scone).
My enduring memory of this time is the absolute freedom we had as children to freely explore the bush and seashore. These places were totally unspoilt by people, as no one was allowed on the island other than during muttonbird season, between 1 April and 31 May.
Big South Cape Island
We later decided to go to another manu on Taukihepa (Big South Cape Island) because it was where my taua (grandmother) Naina used to bird as a girl. There are a lot more people and birds on this island compared to when we birded there as children. Some people now travel there by helicopter, leaving from Bluff or Riverton. Some people continue to travel from Bluff or Riverton by fishing boat, which can take up to nine hours. Others take the catamaran that leaves from Bluff, and this takes only four hours. Before, we tended to be a lot more conscious of our supplies because they had to last for the entire season. However, now with so many boats and helicopters calling in, it is much easier to get provisions, mail and the newspaper.
On this island we got to see many more ways of doing things. The manu is not as spread out and sparse as the one on Papatea, so the process is more intensive for the plucker – more birds are caught in a shorter time, and they have to be plucked while they are still warm.
We’ve found that by being on Big South Cape Island we have formed closer ties with the other families that bird there. Because birds don’t come out during a full moon, this is a great time to get together with nearby families and socialise. It’s a rare occasion, because harvesting and processing is so intensive the rest of the time.