THE ATTACK OF THE KEAS
While we were putting up the tent, large, olive-green parrots flew up and landed confidently close. They had bright red plumage under their wings and sharp polished beaks, and there was just something in their manner which suggested that they were entirely unafraid of humans. Within seconds, they had landed on the rucksacks and were busy throwing all our equipment over the snow. It was quite amusing at first, until the little buggers really started to get stuck in. I went over to shoo them away and one parrot waddled back three or four paces, happy in the knowledge that he could fly and I couldn’t. Then, as soon as I turned my back, he got back to the business of gnawing on my water bottle once again.
‘They love rubber, apparently,’ said Andrew matter-of-factly. ‘They’re called kea birds, and they are supposed to be really intelligent.’ Fantastic - I was going to be outwitted by the only mountain animal that had a penchant for ski gear. I later discovered that kea birds have been known to attack adult sheep. If food is scarce, they land on the sheep’s back, tear through its fleece and then peck out the poor animal’s kidneys. It takes a bird that’s pretty sure of itself to attack a fully grown sheep. As I watched them savage my water bottle, I decided never to lie face down and remain still for any length of time.
That night it was seriously cold. The sky was completely clear and full of an incredible number of stars. The moon reflected off the snow and you could see the panorama of mountains encircling our little campsite. Next to me, Nick was cooking an obscene mix of French onion and Bombay-mix super-noodles when we felt the guy ropes bouncing up and down.
I zipped back the fly-sheet to see a kea bird tucking into the side of the tent. Did these things ever sleep? The night turned out to be very long indeed, with each of us (but mainly Nick - it was his tent, after all) having to shoo the birds away. Even in the pale moonlight, the keas had a contemptuous look that seemed to suggest they knew that however much we shouted and shone the head torches in their eyes there was no chance we’d be getting out of our warm sleeping bags in minus 15 degrees. As I got out of bed to bang the fly-sheet for the eighth time that night, I vowed silently that the next time I came up to the mountains I’d be including in my standard kit a little catapult for just such an occasion and, just to add a little ironic justice, I’d use rubber pellets as well.
Nick thinking how to get even with the keas twinge makes me test about fifty different tightness combinations to ensure I am blister free.
After a few hours the sun came out and we had a glorious day’s seal skinning up peaks and skiing down the other side. We had a huge valley of mountains to ourselves and the snow was fantastic. Unfortunately, Shark’s Tooth alluded us, as it was absolutely miles away, but we still skied from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with only about twenty minutes’ rest all day.
Coming back to our tents, we dropped over a ridge way too low and had to pick our way through some nasty couloirs, which looked as though they avalanched on a regular basis. The snow was good, but tiptoeing across the exposed sections made me think, as it always does, of the time I saw my father swept away in an avalanche a few years back. It’s something I have subsequently gained a very healthy fear of.
Once again, we spent the night rattling tents and scanning the shadows with head torches. It became a matter of personal pride that I should catch the keas savaging the tents. I had a sneaky feeling they were trying to trick us by flying off with loud squawks, only to return silently minutes later. Like those of prison guards, the beams of our torches criss-crossed in the darkness, but our feathered adversaries managed to successfully ruin our sleep - and my ski pole.