Approximately 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) east of Australia lies the island nation of New Zealand. Comprised of two main islands, the North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui), and the South Island (Te Waipounamu), this is a land of rich history and vast natural wonders. One of the last major landmasses to be settled by humans, in additions to its soaring mountains and vast ecological diversity, during this remoteness and long isolation it has evolved an incredibly unique array of biodiversity found nowhere else on earth. Yet among the many magnificent animals to be found here are those of a more mysterious nature, and New Zealand had long held tales of strange creatures that hide from the eyes of humankind in these wildernesses.
We might as well get this out of the way first, but interestingly enough New Zealand apparently has its own version of Bigfoot. Called by such varied names as the Moehau, Maero, Matau, Tuuhourangi, Taongina, or Rapuwai, this mysterious creature has been spoken of by the native Māori people since time unremembered. The Maero has traditionally been described as a large, muscular, hairy ape-like beast with sharp teeth and formidable claws on its powerful hands, that inhabits very remote regions and is not supposedly very friendly at all. Indeed the Māori tales of these creatures have them attacking or killing anyone who is unfortunate to come across them or really even look at them the wrong way, and unprovoked attacks, threat displays, rock throwing or hurling of logs are apparently not uncommon in these reports. Māori living in areas inhabited by the monsters lived in terror of them, staying well away from where they were said to lurk. European settlers dealt with these creatures too. One case of a maimed miner in the Coromandel Ranges in 1882 was blamed on the creatures, as was the body of a woman found in the same general vicinity at around the same time, who had been kidnapped only to be discovered in the foothills with her neck twisted with apparent great force.
There are many historic encounters of these creatures in New Zealand, a possible example of which I have written of at Mysterious Universe before with a creature referred to as the Māori Gorilla, and these sorts of accounts have continued into relatively recent years. Campers in the Cameron Mountains of the South Island were allegedly chased from their camp in 1970 by unseen assailants hurling large boulders at them and making unearthly wailing noises, and in 1972 a hunter in the Coromandel Ranges sighted a hairy wild man measuring an estimated 2 meters tall meander cross a gully to leave massive footprints behind.
Indeed, there have been sporadic findings of physical evidence of such creatures in the form of tracks. In 1903 some very large, man-like footprints were found at the the Karangahake Gorge, and more were found in 1971 by a park ranger in the same area. More recently still, human-like footprints were found in 1983 by a hunter along a riverbank in the Heaphy River area, and in 1991 other campers in the Cameron Mountains were spooked by massive man-like footprints found scattered around their camp, which had materialized during the night as they slept and which sent them packing. Over the years sightings reports of the Maero have decreased, but we are still left with the question of what these creatures could possibly be, especially since there are no native mammals in New Zealand except a few species of bats. If there is some sort of Bigfoot-type creature residing here then what is it and where did it come from? It remains a mystery.
Another rather shocking large mammal to find in New Zealand would a big cat, but there have been sightings of just such a thing in the the Canterbury area of the South Island. The first sighting was apparently made in 1996, when a woman was biking in the Twizel area when she came across what she described as a large black cat about the size of a labrador retriever and which resembled a black panther. The report did not get much attention from authorities, who wrote it off as just a misidentification of a particularly large feral cat. In 1998, another sighing of a very large cat was made at the Dunstan Ranges near Cromwell, this time described as not black, but rather with a dark orange coloration, similar to a North American mountain lion.
Authorities were skeptical of such reports, but they continued to come in. In 1999 there were several reports of such a beast. One came from a hiker in Mackenzie Country, who saw a black feline similar in size to a large dog, and another still in that same month came from a paddock near Omarama, where a witness saw the same thing prowling about, described as a “black panther.” This particular cat was apparently even photographed. Also in 1999 there was a sighting made by a group of Canadian tourists near Moeraki, South of Omaru, who said it was around 3 meters in length, golden-colored, and looked just like a mountain lion. Large cats were reported throughout the early 2000s as well, and such accounts got so common that a team of investigators went in to see what was going on, but no evidence of the creatures was to be found. In 2005 another photograph of the New Zealand Panther was taken at a place called Clearwater, and an Australian tourist saw one that same year near a hotel at Queenstown, which he at first had taken to be a golden retriever dog but soon realized was actually a big cat of some kind. It is hard to figure out just what could lie at the root of such reports, but the main culprit has been suggested as being perhaps escaped exotic pets. Whether this is really the case or not remains to be seen.
To finish with mysterious land mammals in New Zealand we have a creature often called the Waitoreke, which is usually described as being some sort of aquatic mammal like a river otter or beaver, and which is something that is decidedly not native to the islands. Such creatures have been reportedly known by the native Māori for centuries, and were sighted by outsiders since the 18th century, when British explorer Captain James Cook reported them in 1773 as he he entered Pickersgill Harbor aboard the Resolution. In the 1840s there were sightings of an otter-like creature at Lake Hawera, which apparently built nests very much like the North American beaver. The natives apparently called this creature the Kaureke, which was said to be about the size of a cat, with a bushy tail and powerful swimming abilities, and which was said to lay eggs.
Walter Mandel, the son of Naturalist Gideon Mandel, supposedly became obsessed with gaining evidence of this creature, but never did find any. The creature was spotted in 1861 by a Captain McMillan as it retreated into the water, and in 1862 the explorer Julius von Haast also claimed to have heard reports of these elusive creatures from the natives. Von Haast apparently found their distinctive webbed tracks along the Ashburton River, and although he never did see one himself he reportedly got his hands on a Waitoreke pelt in 1868, although it is unknown what happened to it. In the 1900s there were numerous sightings of the aquatic mammals in the the Milford Track area and at Lake Te Anau.
Sightings continued on to 1968, when four individuals were seen at the Stevenburn Stream near the Whakea River, and in 1971 by a hunter in the Hollyford River area, who witnessed one frolicking about in the water for a reported 15 minutes. There have been scattered reports since then, but sightings are rare. It all leaves one to speculate on what these creatures could be, and there have been theories that it could be a remnant population of introduced otters or misidentifications of the introduced Tiger Quoll, which were brought to New Zealand in 1868, but this would not explain sightings made long before that. Just what are these amphibious otter-like creatures seen in New Zealand? No one really knows.
Beyond mysterious mammals there are also strange unknown reptiles said to roam these lands as well. Although New Zealand has many indigenous species of lizard, nothing is quite as strange or as large as the creature that has come to be known as the Kumi Lizard. Reports of outsized lizards in New Zealand date back to the 1700s, when Captain James Cook heard from a local chief of a massive lizard that was greatly feared by the local people and which they said lurked in the trees. One of the creatures was apparently killed in 1875 when a group of Māori found one in a river in Hokianga and set upon it with weapons to slash it and hack it to death. Also in 1875 was a report of some remains of the giant lizards found in a cave by a Mr F.W Hutton, and in 1898 there was a sighting made in an area called Arowhana, of a 6-foot long lizard that acted aggressively and charged towards a bushman. Although footprints were found the creature could not be located. Was this some kind of undiscovered very large species of lizard in New Zealand? Who knows?
Perhaps one of the more intriguing mysterious creatures of New Zealand is one that actually really is known to have existed here, but which has long been thought to be extinct. The country was once home to massive majestic flightless birds called the moa, which somewhat resembled ostriches or emus, and the largest species of which, Dinoris giganteus, towered up to 12 feet in height and weighed over 500 pounds. The hulking birds were plentiful when the Māori, who called them the Tarepo, first arrived to these shores, but their numbers rapidly dwindled due to overhunting by these new human settlers and by 1445 they were gone. At least, so it seemed.
Ever since the moa’s supposed extinction there have been reports of seeing what might be some of the smaller species of the birds roaming the remote areas of New Zealand, especially in the mountainous interior of the South Island. European settlers, especially prospectors and ranchers, often reported coming across large flightless birds, with one sheep herder in the 1800s even claiming to have had his sheep dog attacked by a moa after it was chased and provoked by the dog. In the 1840s the Australian wildlife painter James Gould made his own report of what he described as “giant kiwis” about 4 feet in height and with unique spurred feet, which were actually characteristic of moas. It is a remarkable account, as Gould was a naturalist and well acquainted with the local wildlife.
Such sightings and encounters were most common in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but have continued from time to time even up to very modern times, with several serious expeditions even launched to try and find evidence of the birds, such as a Japanese expedition in 1978, all to no avail, although purported tracks of the creatures have been claimed on occasion. Perhaps the most recent and most well-known moa sighting report comes from January 20th, 1993, when three friends named Paddy Freaney, Sam Waby and Rochelle Rafferty were hiking in the Craigieburn Mountain Range, which is part of the Southern Alps on New Zealand's South Island. As the group paused for a rest in a clearing, Freaney, who was an experienced mountaineer, noticed an enormous bird around 6 feet in height and with reddish brown and grey feathers that stopped at the knees lurking in the bushes. He excitedly gestured towards it to his friends, and as they all looked the animal allegedly got spooked and started to retreat. Freaney, who was astounded by what he was seeing, had the presence of mind to get his camera ready, after which he actually chased it and managed to capture a shot of the fleeing bird, which also reportedly left wet footprints in the mud and across a rock that were also photographed.
The picture became the first ever photographic evidence for the idea of surviving Moas, and was widely debated, analyzed and discussed. Considering that Freany was a respected member of his community and seasoned mountaineer, his testimony was taken fairly seriously, and examination by experts have leaned towards the admittedly blurry and out-of-focus image not being faked in any way, and seemingly of an actual large bird of some type. Nevertheless, there has also been a good amount of skepticism aimed at the photo, with accusations that the neck is too thick for a moa and that it is merely a red deer, and Freaney spent the rest of his life scouring the region in the hopes of getting more evidence for the bird he knew he had seen. The only other signs of possible moa activity that could be found in the area was possible damage caused by the bird’s feeding habits, but no other photos have been forthcoming and the Freaney sighting remains inconclusive and oft-discussed. Does the moa still live out in the wilds of New Zealand? No one really knows, but the area is perhaps remote enough to hide a remnant population.
The seas of New Zealand are not without their own mysteries as well, and one recurring type of sea monster that has been sighted for years is what has mostly been described as looking very much like a Mosasaur, which was a group of large marine reptiles somewhat resembling aquatic monitor lizards, with long webbed fingers, streamlined bodies, and powerful broad tails for swimming. The largest species of Mosasaur could reach sizes of up to nearly 60 feet in length, and with their formidable, tooth-filled maws they were for a long time the dominant predators of the ancient oceans. It is probably a relief to many that they went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous Period, around 66 million years ago. Or did they?
Although sightings of massive, lizard or alligator-like creatures in New Zealand waters have been going on since European settlement of the area, there are a surprising number of modern day reports of such creatures. In the 1970s there were several reports of enormous crocodilian beasts in these waters, beginning in 1972, when three startled women swimming at a beach at the mouth of the Orari river spotted a dark grey lizard like creature measuring an estimated 16 feet long and with a large, shark-like mouth lurking in the water not far away. Just a few years later, in 1974 the crew of the Japanese fishing vessel the 28th Konpiramaru was off Lytteleton Peninsula when all 28 crew members saw a grayish reptilian creature with nostrils atop its large head swimming along in the water. It was described as looking very much like an outsized crocodile of some sort, only with fins instead of legs. The creature, which was called the Kabagon by the crew, or roughly translated “hippo monster,” remains unexplained.
Such accounts go on into more recent years as well. In the 1980s there was another such sighting, when in 1983 a woman claimed to have seen a large marine reptile around 23 feet in length and with jagged teeth circling her raft as she bobbed about in the sea off the coast of Picton. Then in 1990 there was a sighting of two women out by a lagoon near Taupo, who sighted a “giant lizard” around 16 feet long cavorting about in a shallow area, during which time it apparently tried to eat a sea bird that drifted nearby. More recent still is a 2001 account of some teenagers who claimed to have been surfing in Paekakariki when a huge, crocodilian reptile of some sort came jumping out of the water right n front of them. In 2006 there was also the frightening experience of a Ivan Levy, whose boat was rammed by two beasts that looked like 20-foot long “lizards with fins.” They apparently swam around his damaged vessel for some time before sinking back down into the depths.
There can be no doubt that New Zealand has a rich natural history and is populated by all manner of strange and exotic wildlife. Do any of the bizarre mystery creatures we have looked at call this land home as well? Do any of these actually exist in these wilds? It certainly seems possible that New Zealand may harbor more mysteries that we know.