Kiwi hunting on Kapiti Island

Dreaming of your next summer holiday? Sarah Heeringa goes hunting for a top spot to birdwatch the days away

By Sarah Heeringa

Our party of eight is shuffling as stealthily as we can along the dark bush track. The sun has long since gone down and though it’s been a picture perfect day the air now has a frosty bite. Apart from the odd muffled giggle we pick our way silently, listening for every crackle and cry of the night. Up front our barefoot guide is sweeping her red torchlight back and forth, occasionally stopping to identify in whispers the various sounds from the bush. After half an hour or so in the quite and the darkness my thoughts are drifting – what must it have been like, I wonder, to have been a WWI foot soldier on night march though enemy territory? My imaginings made more surreal by the fact that I’m following closely behind a young woman dressed in a bumble bee onesie.

Then our guide beckons us over to a clump of bushes. In the red light we see several kiwis fossicking about and after a few minutes of chook-like poking they scoot away into the gloomy shadows. The call of our beds is now overcoming the call of the wild, so we turn back to the campsite elated at having witnessed kiwi in their natural habitat. Further along the track there’s a sudden scuffle of another kiwi in the scrub and from across the still night air comes the clear shrill call of a male marking out its territory.  

My husband Vincent and I are overnighting at Kapiti Island, the bird sanctuary 5km off the Kapiti Coast to the north west of Wellington, and home to more than 1,200 little spotted kiwi and many other rare native birds. Earlier that afternoon we’d stopped at the Rangatira shelter to laze for a few minutes in the late afternoon sun and had been surrounded by a twittering, chirping flock of tīeke (saddleback), hihi and toutouwai (robin). Dozing with the sun on our faces while listening to the birdsong was amazing enough – that was before a pair of magnificent kereru swooped overhead.

Kapiti Island Nature Tours are run by John and Susan Barrett, John’s sister Amo Clark and other whanau. John and Amo’s iwi have been living on Kapiti Island since the 1820s and today the family work closely with the Department of Conservation in a successful public-private partnership to jointly protect and nurture Kapiti’s precious inhabitants. We discover more about the island’s past talking with John over dinner – shared meals at the main lodge being both a DOC requirement and part of the family’s personal approach.

In the lodge’s relaxed and friendly atmosphere we enjoy the home cooking and laughs with the other travellers while learning more about the local birds and bushes. A highlight of pre-dinner drinks served out on the deck is the arrival of a friendly kea that hops on my shoulder and tries to steal my cracker. Minutes later a takahe (a bird once thought to be extinct) sets off a flurry of camera grabbing when it pops out of the bushes and casually makes its way across the lawn.   

With bird spotting opportunities such as this it’s no surprise that the island is a popular destination for dedicated twitchers. You can day trip at Kapiti; one entertaining sight during our stay is the arrival of a troupe of European baby-boomer tourists alighting from the ferry in time for lunch – kitted out in designer hiking gear and zoom lenses to rival the most determined paparazzi. 

There are various accommodation options on offer but we’re luck enough to be bedding down in a Kapiti Camping luxury tent, complete with a wooden floor and generous bed, set in a private manuka clearing away from the more basic cabins. The tent provides the perfect spot to experience the island atmosphere – while we’re at dinner we even get a visit from a nosy weka who rifles though our toiletries. 

Having heard other’s rave about the island’s musical dawn chorus I’m looking forward to a special morning wakeup call – but with the bed so cosy and my post kiwi-hunting sleep so deep, I’m woken instead by the bright morning sun against the canvas. Never mind, it’s just one more reason to make sure I come back. 

For more summer travel inspiration, see Sarah’s Cape Palliser feature here

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