Sandflies: A notorious New Zealand nightmare

When you decide to venture out on a road trip it’s important to pick the right travelling companion, and they don’t come any better than Mrs P. She’s a meticulous planner and an excellent navigator, the latter being essential given that I have no sense of direction and have barely mastered the difference between left and right.

Mrs P is also a wizard in the suitcase packing and car loading departments. Her skill in this regard often appears to defy the laws of physics, and leaves me scratching my head in puzzled admiration.

PHOTO CREDIT: By rawpixel.com via Pexels

But her most important qualification for the role of being my travelling companion – other than, of course, the fact that I’m married to her – is that she’s a magnet for biting bugs.

For reasons that neither of us can explain, insects all over the world make a bee-line (ha ha!) for Mrs P, while leaving me alone. She’s been eaten alive in various parts of the world – Alaska, Canada and Tokyo to name just three – while I’ve escaped virtually unscathed.

To use the modern idiom, Mrs P’s always ready to take one – or, on a bad day, one hundred – for the team.

However this is no laughing matter. At its worst, a swarm of biting insects can leave her sick, sore, dispirited and covered with angry red rashes and welts. Mrs P was, therefore, alarmed to read about the notorious New Zealand sandfly.

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PHOTO CREDIT: “DSCN7760.jpg” by NelC is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Captain James Cook, the first European to set foot in New Zealand, had the measure of the sandfly. Here’s what he wrote in his journal in May 1773:

The most mischievous animal here is the small black sandfly which are exceeding numerous … wherever they light they cause a swelling and such intolerable itching that it is not possible to refrain from scratching and at last ends in ulcers like the small Pox.

Quoted in Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, retrieved 23/09/19
Embed from Getty Images

So what do we know about New Zealand’s notorious nightmare, the cause of so much abject misery?

  • New Zealand’s sandflies are known as namu by the Maori. Similar species in other parts of the world are called blackflies.
  • Sandflies are tiny – just two to three millimetres in length – and they all look the same to the naked eye. But as we know size isn’t everything, all that really counts is what you do with what you’ve got.
  • The males are vegetarians, so it’s only the females that bite. I’m absolutely not going to comment on this.
  • There are 13 species of sandfly in New Zealand. Fortunately for locals and tourists alike, only two of these [or possibly three, depending on which source you look at] actually bite. However I find little comfort in the fact that a bad situation could be even worse if the other 10 or 11 species were also biters.
  • The worst biters are found on South Island, which is bad news for us as we’re due to spend most of our time there. And on South Island they’re a particular problem on the west coast … guess which part of the island features most heavily in our itinerary? Yep, you got it in one!
  • They don’t bite at night; peak biting times are in the morning and as dusk approaches. In other words they are active when we, as tourists, are most likely to be out and about. Great!
  • Sandflies breed in fast-flowing streams and rivers, and adults can be found wherever there is water, also including beaches and the edges of lakes and swamps. And yes, you’ve guessed it, as keen bird watchers we’re certain to spend lots of time next to streams, rivers, lakes and swamps.

I bet you’re reading this and thinking I’m exaggerating, that sandflies aren’t really that bad, just badly misunderstood. Well don’t take my word for it, here’s what the New Zealand-based news website Stuff has to say on the subject:

On occasion, the bites cause nasty swelling, itching, hives, and a general desire to scream.

At their worst, in the most intense sandfly-ridden spots of the West Coast, entomologists have recorded a bite rate of up to 1000-an-hour. In a couple of minutes, that could be hundreds of little bites, on your arms, neck, face, feet.

Source: Stuff website, retrieved 25/09/19.

Stuff also reveals one particularly fascinating fact, that although sandflies enjoy snacking on human blood they’d much rather dine out on penguins. Strange, but apparently true.

Yellow-eyed Penguins

PHOTO CREDIT: “Yellow-eyed Penguins” by Chris Gin is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Also possibly true – but then again, possibly not – are the rumours that sandflies can be deterred by garlic, or a mixture of baby oil and Dettol. So, as Stuff points out:

Theoretically then, one way to deter sandflies is to walk around carrying a penguin as bait, while eating garlic, covered in Dettol and baby oil. That might raise eyebrows as penguins are protected, so best not.

Source: Stuff website, retrieved 25/09/19.

If penguins are off-limits what is Mrs P to do to protect herself from New Zealand’s notorious nightmare? Well, it’s said that early European settlers would cover their bodies in rancid pork fat to deter sandflies, so I’ve suggested that my good lady purchases and packs a kilo or two of the disgusting grease before we leave the UK.

So it sounds like Mrs P has the sandfly problem licked, though I shall definitely avoid standing next to her in confined spaces for the duration of trip.

And lets hope the wretched sandflies don’t decide to take it out on me instead.

Walking on the wild side

We’re beginning to get our heads around the itinerary for our New Zealand adventure. And what a big, impressive beast it is!

We’ll drive down to Heathrow, where our first novel experience awaits us: the priority check-in and all-round pampering that is – I sincerely hope – the lot of the business class traveller.

PHOTO CREDIT: From Pixabay via Pexels

We’ve never flown business before, and probably never will again, so we plan to make the most of it. I hope they load plenty of champagne to keep us suitably mellow during the flight to Singapore, where we’ll spend a couple of nights before flying on to Auckland.

Sultan Mosque, Singapore (2016)

Auckland is New Zealand’s biggest metropolitan centre, being home to around a third of the country’s entire population of a little under five million. After spending four nights in and around the city, acclimatizing and recovering from the inevitable jet lag, we’ll pick up a rental car and spend a further ten nights visiting some of the highlights of North Island.

Then it’s a short internal flight from Palmerston North, across the Cook Strait to Christchurch where a second rental car awaits us. We’ll spend the next 32 nights touring the length and breadth of South Island, before returning to Christchurch for the flight back to the UK.

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That’s if we make it to South Island, of course. Before we get there, we’re due to visit White Island on the east coast of the North Island, in the Bay of Plenty. It’s New Zealand’s most active cone volcano, and has been built up by continuous volcanic activity over the past 150,000 years. Active it surely is, as our itinerary advises us that we’ll be issued with hard hats and gas masks before we arrive.

White Island, New Zealand - 2 of 16

PHOTO CREDIT: “White Island, New Zealand – 2 of 16” by Phillip Wong – http://phw.co.nz is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

GAS MASKS! For heaven’s sake, what sort of trip is this going to be? I’m feeling my age a bit these days and was rather hoping New Zealand would be a walk in the park. But instead it looks like we’ll be walking on the wild side.

White Island, New Zealand - 4 of 16

PHOTO CREDIT: “White Island, New Zealand – 4 of 16” by Phillip Wong – http://phw.co.nz is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

On the other hand, why not? After all, you only live once. It could even be fun, and if the volcano blows its top while we’re there at least I’ll leave this life with an impressive bang.

Hard hats, gas masks, random unpredictable volcanic eruptions and accompanying earth tremors? Bring ’em on I say, bring ’em on!

Bringing tears to the eyes

We really can’t put it off any longer, we’ll simply have to pay off the balance we owe on our forthcoming seven-weeks long road-trip around New Zealand.  To be fair, Paul Carberry, head honcho at New Zealand in Depth, is relaxed about it.  He knows we’re committed to the adventure, and obviously reckons we’re good for the money.  But we need to get it sorted.

Queenstown NZ. Photo credit: Ketan Kumawat via Pexels

This holiday has been so long in the planning that it sometimes seems like a fantasy. Stumping up the cash will make the whole thing seem more real, although it may bring a few tears to our bank manager’s eyes.

The drive to New Zealand in Depth’s offices, on the outskirts of Buxton, takes us through the area of Derbyshire known as the White Peak.  The roads are almost deserted, and the hillsides are dotted with sheep. We pass through the occasional village, but for the most part it’s a sparsely populated rural landscape of green fields and rough pasture, all apparently untouched by the trials and tribulations of the 21st century.  A foretaste of New Zealand, maybe?

New Zealand: a sheep-filled landscape. PHOTO CREDIT: Peter Gabriel via Pexels

Paul greets us like old friends, ushers us to an office and sorts out some tea.  Wearing black-rimmed specs, and dressed casually in jeans and a checked shirt he’s friendly, informal and chatty, but totally passionate about what he does, which is enabling his clients to see New Zealand at its best. 

While Paul’s making tea Flinker the office dog pops in to say “hi,” his tail thrashing furiously.  I fondle the hairy hound’s ears and scratch his back. He laps it up, and thanks me by slobbering enthusiastically over my balding head. Flinker’s a lovely lad, and if I thought I’d get away with it I’d smuggle him out with me when we leave. 

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Huntaway. PHOTO CREDIT: “File:Huntaway.JPG by Cgoodwin is licensed under CC BY 3.0

I ask Paul if there are any breeds of dog that we should look out for on our travels, and he tells us about the Huntaway.  The Huntaway was bred to support the country’s sheep farmers. It fills a New Zealand-specific niche thanks to its ability to herd sheep by barking, rather than by sight alone.

The Huntaway is a cross between the Border Collie and breeds that are known for their stamina, such as Rottweilers and Dobermans. They sound like real characters, and I hope we get to meet one on our travels.

Mrs P, on the other hand, very much hopes that we don’t meet another New Zealand character, the Katipo spider.  She has a thing about spiders but not in a good way, and was expecting Paul to confirm that New Zealand – unlike neighbouring Australia – has no poisonous spiders. 

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Katipo spider. PHOTO CREDIT: “File:Latrodectus katipo close.jpg” by Ole is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Paul’s response, that the native Katipo, a relative of the Black Widow of the Americas and the Redback of Australia, packs a significantly poisonous punch is therefore greeted with surprise and dismay.

Mr Google quickly reveals some grisly details:

A Canadian tourist in New Zealand suffered a swollen penis and chest pain after he went for a nude swim and nap and was apparently bitten by a katipo spider.

The 22-year-old “woke to find his penis swollen and painful with a red mark on the shaft suggestive of a bite. He rapidly developed generalized muscle pains, fever, headache, photophobia [light sensitivity] and vomiting,” Dr. Nigel Harrison of Whangarei Hospital in Northland, New Zealand, and his colleagues reported in Friday’s online issue of the New Zealand Medical Journal.

Source: CBC News, accessed 13/09/2019

Paul points out that the Katipo is now very rare, so I could make a bit of a name for myself if I get bitten by one.  In fact, he chuckles, I should make a close encounter of the Katipo kind one of my must-do goals for the trip. 

female katipo and finger

PHOTO CREDIT: “female katipo and finger” by Mollivan Jon is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Well, thanks mate, but I’ll give it a miss if it’s all the same with you. I won’t be rushing to scour the bush for this particular New Zealand ne’er-do-well . Nor does any accidental seaside meeting seem at all likely for the very good reason that, out of concern for the sensibilities of innocent passers-by, I’ve put my skinny-dipping days behind me.

All things considered, therefore, the chances of any toxic arthropod getting up close and personal with my old todger are, thankfully, very remote. This is a relief because although there are probably worse things that could happen to me in New Zealand than an intimate bite from a cantankerous Katipo, right now I’m struggling to name one.

Eventually we get down to business.  Paul hands over a large ring-binder containing a detailed day-by-day itinerary of the magnificent trip he has arranged for us.  In return, I pass to Paul a large cheque containing the proceeds of my hard labour in the months before my retirement.  Job done, I think.

PHOTO CREDIT: Rawpixel.com via Pexels

Honour duly satisfied, we swiftly return to more important stuff, including a discussion of the cricket.  The Barmy Army will be in New Zealand at the same time as us to support the touring England cricket team, but no doubt the Kiwis will be looking to avenge their defeat in the World Cup Final earlier this summer.  Almost certainly, therefore, the Barmies will be sadly disappointed, and there may well be tears before bedtime. 

PHOTO CREDIT: Gerd Altmann via Pexels

Could be worse though, the brazen battalions of the Barmy Army could nip down to the beach for some naked freestyle and get a special welcome from a Katipo.  Now that really would bring tears to their eyes.