Among the grasslands on New Zealand’s South Island west and southern coastlines, they lie in ambush for their human quarry. Swarms so thick they dull the colour of the air in a dark fog. As soon as an unsuspecting tourist steps into the open air, they mercilessly attack in a feasting frenzy. New Zealand sandflies dive-bomb in fleets latching onto bare skin seemingly munching chunks of flesh off their human prey. Somewhat strangely, locals seem to have adapted (or maybe they’ve stopped complaining!) and even reference them as “the friendly coasters”.
Nothing subtle – the bites hurt – the nasty, bloodsucking insects (and it is only the females) latch onto any bare skin like tiny black fridge magnets swelling to twice their size and turning pink on a cocktail of your own blood and life juices.
Under sandfly siege, people swat and jump around to little avail. And the bites are so itchy. Much nastier and redder than the humble mosquito bites. They swell into scarlet welts a day or two later seemingly impervious to the cleverest of antiseptic creams. It is impossible not to scratch, which leads to the need to scratch more…
Most insect repellent are mild inconveniencesto the incorrigible pests. Even if you discoverer an effective remedy, the pests will still swarm in squadrons, sneaking up your nostrils and buzzing around your ears and generally driving you to distraction and back to the safety of a tent or car (though the little buggers will happily colonise these locations if given a sniff of an opportunity).
The southern and western areas of New Zealand’s South Island have some of the most picturesque natural scenery in the world. Well known areas like the glaciers and Milford Sound are combined with the less known Catlins and Doubtful Sound for consistently unfolding magic panoramas. Yet the sandflies are a popular conversation point while touring the highlights of the region and various locations are even names after the ruthless vampire insect – Sandfly Point, Sandfly Bay and Sandfly Beach (who’d sunbake here!) to name but three.
James Cook, the intrepid English explorer noted in 1773 “the most mischievous animal here is the small black sandfly, which are exceedingly 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“.
In Maori legend, the goddess Hinenuitepo, on the completion of the stunning Fiordland landscape, was perturbed that the beauty has her people gaze at the views rather than work. So she created the sandfly to bite the idle ones and get them moving. This Maori goddess must struggle for popularity among the Maori stories.
Beyond being covered up (especially at dawn and dusk) and staying mobile, there are two popular recommended remedies (and believe me, you’ll employ one or both of them after one episode of sandfly hell). The first is any tropical-strength insect spray with decent concentrations of DEET. While clearly an unfriendly chemical (see what it does to plastic!), it does appear to work and is my favoured prevention. The other is the natural path with various suggested cocktails of eucalyptus, citronella and citrus-scented oils (at least it smells nice!). One local suggested eating lots of Vegemite (popular with Australians) or Marmite to heighten your Vitamin B intake.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, sandflies are an integral and memorable part of the New Zealand South Island experience. Cover up, put on your favoured repellent and enjoy the wondrous beauty of the area.
Comic courtesy of Swamp Cartoons
Photo Credit: bites