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July 2013 Issue
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A best kept secret

The dreaded sandfly makes a meal out of Englishman Matthew Pike. Photo: File

An Englishman in New Zealand wonders if the sandfly is part of a great nation-wide conspiracy

Sandflies are New Zealand’s best kept secret. When you go to Australia you know there’ll be redbacks in wood piles and crocs in the swamps. When you travel to Kenya you know there’s an outside chance a lion will pounce on you from behind a bush. But no-one warns you about the winged cretins that swarm in the back country of Aoteroa.

Foreigners like me are lured to the country by impossibly stunning images of people gazing towards a lake with snow capped mountains reflected in the water and the sun setting in a golden sky. What the camera doesn’t pick up is the thousands of tiny black dots surrounding the hapless individuals in the shot, just waiting to saw their way through layers of skin. The picture caption will also fail to point this out, as will the travel agents, flight attendants and passport controllers who all greet you with a cheery smile and an evil secret.

I believe this is a conspiracy of which you are all a part. Whether you’re taught it in school or given telegrams from the government by men in dark glasses, you all partake in a vow of silence which ensures no-one knows about these nasty insects until they encounter them in person – by which time it’s too late to go back.

Even then, the Kiwis you meet play down the issue. To them, the sandfly isn’t a big deal – it’s something they’ve grown up with – as much a feature of the backcountry as rivers, fantails and long drop toilets. A bit of a nuisance perhaps, but nothing to worry about.

But to us less hardened souls they are certainly worth worrying about. Our maladapted immune system suffers far more from those microscopic teeth. One only has to observe the pus-filled blister-like pocks that wouldn’t look out of place on a promiscuous medieval peasant. And the itching lasts for so long you feel it would only relent if you were encased in ice.

If tramping with New Zealanders, a visitor has to pretend to be as unconcerned about the sandfly as a local – so as not to stand out. They have to sit there with trousers tucked into the socks and hoods pulled over their heads and convince themselves that there aren’t 30 or more pesky little biters desperate to drain their ankles of blood.

Looking round, the Kiwis in the group don’t even appear to notice them. Either the sandflies prefer fresh blood, or the locals have become immune to the pain. So you try and emulate their care-free persona, join in the chat and laugh at the jokes, when all you really want to do is jump around in circles, wave your arms and scream, as if just realising you’re on fire.

The British equivalent of this troublesome beast is the midge. This is also found in warm humid conditions, infamously on Scotland’s west coast. Compared to the sandfly it’s smaller in size, greater in number and equally as nauseating. Research has even been conducted to assess the possibilities and potential pitfalls of trying to eradicate the insect. Scottish Natural Heritage has said that eradication would cause no conservation issues.

I’m not sure the same applies to the midge’s New Zealand counterpart. Some of my favourite interactions with fantails are when they swoop to within inches of my head to grab a hungry sandfly. Eradication could easily cause a chain reaction that would wipe out native bird populations and destroy the nation’s eco-system.

Personally though, I think it’s worth the risk.