New Zealand attracts people from all over the world every year to its mountains and coasts (and sheep?) in search of picturesque hiking and plentiful bird-watching opportunities. Colourful and unique species abound over the the islands, from flightless penguins and kiwis, to the bold and intelligent kea, an alpine parrot living high up in the Southern Alps. The South Island is even home to one of the few known nesting grounds for the royal albatross (a very big bird in case you didn’t know).
So what makes the island nation’s bird life so prolific? Well, it’s the same reason that caused my mother to be detained in Auckland’s international airport. The remoteness of the archipelago has led to it being ecologically independent for millions of years, meaning New Zealand’s (surprisingly almost-bird-only) diversity of species have mostly lived without any outside contact; but also that the country’s agricultural industry is particularly vulnerable to foreign diseases and parasites.
Like other (relatively small) island nations such as Iceland, the risk of accidentally importing a harmful virus or bacteria into the country is a very real concern. Worse still, the contaminated item transporting such a bacteria could be as seemingly harmless as a child’s lunch–or in our case: an apple.
Having just flown from Tokyo’s Narita airport, we were landing in Auckland to catch a connecting flight onwards to Christchurch on the South Island. Walking out of the gate towards customs, there were signs and warnings hung all about the airport advertising a stiff penalty for bringing any kind of produce into the country. When we arrived at customs, we placed our bags on the conveyor belt which feeds through the scanners, walked through the metal detectors and went to collect our bags. This is when the guard halted the belt and told us (just a little too firmly) to stop.
“Is this your bag?” the guard asked us, gesturing to the frayed and well-worn backpack I was about to pick up.
“Yes” we responded, wondering what was happening.
“Did you pack this bag yourself?” he asked, looking more and more stern with each word. I’m honestly not sure how we responded to this question exactly, but since one of us had clearly packed the bag, we agreed. The guard gestured to someone behind us, and from over my shoulder approached a female officer and her canine companion. I understand and appreciate the purpose of drug dogs trained to sniff out smuggled narcotics. They look intimidating, do their job well and are something you should avidly try to avoid contact with, regardless of whether or not you’re clean. What we were about to experience was something entirely different: a very friendly looking basset hound.
Sure, they have an acute sense of smell, but a basset hound is not an intimidating animal and from what I’ve learned during my time as a kid in the elementary school principle’s office, I can safely say that authorities don’t appreciate it when you’re laughing while being questioned. The officer reached into the bag, rooted around and pulled out a ripe, green apple which both mom and I had completely forgotten about. I’ve had my fair share of stern faced adults ask me a ridiculous question, but what was about to be said would take the number one spot on the list. Holding the apple out at us, the guard asked in all seriousness:
“What is this?”
“Uh… it’s an apple” mom replied, stifling a laugh.
“What were you going to do with it?” he continued. I was dying at this point; between getting the third degree by an angry kiwi waving an apple and being panted at by a tail-wagging basset hound, I was having a great time.
Turns out this adorable show of force actually does come with a price, and a hefty one at that. The guards brought us over to a counter where a large Maori man came out to fine us $400. At this point the whole circus had lost its appeal and the very real reality set in. It was beginning to dawn on me that 1) $400 is a lot of money, and 2) our plane was about to leave without us.
Mom teared up out of genuine shock that she was being processed as an international felon. In fact she was upset enough to the point where the guard, convinced that it was a genuine mistake, let her go without paying anything. I was long gone at this point, waiting at the gate to board the next flight.
In the end, we both boarded the plane and met my father in Christchurch a few hours later, so everything did work out fine (though mom has been blacklist by the NZ government until she pays the money). So to conclude: when flying, don’t bring food off of the plane; and as a general rule, don’t buy apples when you’re travelling (more about that here, once it’s written).