Wild south
Series

Wild South

Television, 1981–1997

TVNZ’s Natural History Film Unit was founded in Dunedin around 1977. The first Wild South documentaries began filming a year later. The slot's initial focus was on New Zealand’s perilously endangered birds, eg the Chatham Island black robin (then the world’s rarest bird). The results won local and international notice, and a loyal audience. Wildtrack was a sister series showcasing natural history for young viewers. Wild South ended in 1997 when the Natural History Unit was purchased by Fox Studios; it later became internationally successful production company NHNZ.

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Collection

The Nature Collection

Curated by Peter Hayden

Packed with creatures and landscapes that quite simply boggle the mind, the Nature Collection showcases New Zealand's impressive menagerie of nature and wildlife films. Many of the titles were made by powerhouse company NHNZ, which began around 1977 as the Natural History Unit, a small, southern outpost of state television. In this backgrounder, Peter Hayden — who had a hand in more than a few of these classic films — guides viewers through just what the Nature Collection has to offer.

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Project Takahē

Television, 1981 (Full Length Episode)

When the takahē was rediscovered in the Murchison mountains in 1948, it made world headlines as a back from extinction story. This documentary checks in on the big flightless birds three decades later, with their future under threat (by deer, stoats and breeding failure). Doctor Geoffrey Orbell recalls the 1948 expedition. Project Takahē was the first Wild South documentary made by TVNZ’s Natural History Unit (later NHNZ). The images of takahē – blue, green and red, plodding in the snowy tussock – marked the first time most New Zealanders had seen the bird in the wild.    

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The Black Robin - A Chatham Island Story

Television, 1989 (Full Length)

In the mid 1970s the Chatham Island black robin was the world's rarest bird. With only two females left, the conservation ante was extreme. Enter saviour Don Merton and his Wildlife Service team. Their pioneering efforts ranged from abseiling the birds (including the talismanic Eve of her species, 'Old Blue') down cliff faces, to left-field libido spurs. This 1988 Listener Film & TV award-winner united two earlier Wild South docos and updated the robin’s rescue story to 1987. It originally screened on Christmas Day 1987; and was reversioned for this 1989 edition.

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The Black Stilt

Television, 1983 (Full Length)

This film tells the story of the world’s rarest wading bird, the black stilt (kakī). With its precise beak and long pink legs the stilt is superbly adapted to the stony braided riverbeads of the McKenzie Country, but it is tragically unable to deal with new threats (rats, ferrets, habitat loss). An early doco for TVNZ’s Natural History Unit, the magnificently filmed drama of the stilt’s struggle for survival makes it “stand out as a classic of its genre” (Russell Campbell). It won the Gold Award at New York’s International Film & TV Festival (1984).

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Norwester - Wind of Contrasts

Television, 1990 (Full Length Episode)

This documentary, made by TVNZ’s Natural History Unit (now NHNZ), charts the progress of the nor'west wind from its formation in the Tasman Sea across the Southern Alps to the Canterbury Plains and the east coast of the South Island. Along the way it dumps metres of precipitation on West Coast rain forest and snow on the Alps, then transforms to a dry, hot wind racing across the Plains. The film shows the wind's impact on the ecosystem and farming and muses on the mysterious effect it can have on humans. It screened as part of the beloved Wild South series.  

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Castles of the Underworld

Television, 1991 (Full Length)

This award-winning film looks at the strange and ethereal world of New Zealand's limestone areas. The rocks and caves reveal ancient whale fossils, moa hunter art — and evolutionary one-offs (like giant carnivorous snails) that live in a limestone world. The film goes into the darkness to find glow-worms, cave wētā, albino crayfish and skeletons of moa who met their death falling down tomos (shafts). In underground cathedrals, exquisite formations formed by the alchemy of water and limestone are captured. There is also footage of Waitomo Caves and Te Waikoropupu Springs.

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Song of Protest

Television, 1986 (Full Length Episode)

This Wild South documentary opens with the haunting call of the kōkako ringing out over the forest canopy at dawn. The film tells the story of Aotearoa’s "avian squirrel" and its struggle for survival — living with introduced cats and rats, while the remnants of its North Island rainforest home face logging. The songbird is framed as an icon of both conservation loss and hope. The script is by poet Brian Turner. The use of composer Hirini Melbourne’s score (with lyrics in te reo) was praised by award judges at British nature film festival Wildscreen.

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Mount Cook - Footsteps to the Sky

Television, 1994 (Full Length)

From Māori myth to climbing and photography, to gliding and paraponting around its peak, Aoraki-Mt Cook is vividly captured in all its moods in this award-winning NHNZ portrait. Filmed for the centenary of the first ascent of a mountain that has claimed over 100 lives, it follows mountaineers as they climb toward the summit, re-enacting Tom Fyfe's pioneering pre-crampon route. Climbers, including Edmund Hillary, reminisce about encounters with NZ's highest and most iconic peak; and Bruce Grant takes the quick way down: a vertiginous ski descent.

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Bandits of the Beech Forest

Television, 1996 (Full Length)

The devastating effects of introduced wasps in New Zealand, particularly on kaka (the forest parrot, here beautifully filmed) remain a serious issue. The horde of yellow and black marauders has left scientists struggling to protect animal and human victims. This film looks at the effect on the ecosystem of wasps, who compete with natives for honeydew and prey upon insects. Bandits of the Beech Forest won the Environment Prize for Best Film Illustrating Protection, Preservation or Conservation of Bird Life at the Festival du Film de l'Oiseau.