One of my goals when I moved to New Zealand was to take advantage of owning a car and getting to visit places that are often overlooked by tourists.
This is one of the many reasons I fell in love with Wellington and Wanaka, both are places often overlooked by the big busloads of tourists but are still loved and revered by people from New Zealand. Once you start to scratch the surface and start listening to locals when traveling, those places aren’t actually that hard to find.
It wasn’t long after I arrived in Wellington last August that I began to hear whispers of a beautiful beachy place nearby called the Kapiti Coast. After completely butchering the pronunciation in front of my new roommates (Ka-piti rhymes with “la” and “meaty” sorry couldn’t come up with anything better), I quickly added this area of the North Island to my ever-growing New Zealand bucket list.
I was keen to hop on and join one of the famous Kapiti Island Nature Tours.
After camping on Somes Island in the Wellington Harbor and taking a nighttime tour of Zealandia in Wellington, I was well on my way to becoming a certified, unabashed #BirdNerd. I’ve already waxed poetic about how absolutely awesome New Zealand birds are, in my first #BirdNerd post here, but I thought it was high time to show you my continuing birdie education in this part of the world.
The long and short of it is that New Zealand evolved without mammal predators until humans arrived in the 13th century (and ruined everything. Just kidding, but they did bring along unpleasant things like rats, possums, cats and weasels). This was incredibly damaging to New Zealand’s delicate birdlife who had never met creatures like this before. Before people and rats arrived, New Zealand was a booming natural wonderland filled with birds, many of which were flightless because they weren’t hunted on the ground by mammals. Afterwards, not so much.
In fact, when Captain Cook arrived in New Zealand in the 1700’s, the naturalist on board his ship described the birdsong as “deafening.” Oh how I wish I could have experienced that for myself. What a poignant reminder of how damaging humans have been to New Zealand’s wildlife. Sigh.
This means when mammals arrived, it didn’t take long for a big chunk of this awesome bird population to go extinct and come close to extinction. Lucky for us, people began to realize that New Zealand was a special place filled with special one-of-a-kind birds that deserved to be protected, sometime in the late 19th century. Phew!
In order to bring back the dwindling bird population, like with kiwis for example, they started to clear the small off-shore islands (of which there are many) of pests like rats, and then reintroduce those endangered bird species. This was extraordinarily successful.
As it turns out Kapiti Island was one of the original off-shore bird sanctuaries in New Zealand, and is quite famous for this among kiwis today (both the birds and the people).
A short 40 minute drive north on Highway 1, the main highway, will bring you to Paraparaumu, one of my favorite towns in New Zealand based entirely on its name alone. I’ve spent no time in Paraparaumu at all except once to stop at Wendy’s to satisfy an American burger craving, so perhaps I am not so qualified to make such sweeping observations.
But I am sure you can agree, it has the best name ever.
5 miles off the Kapiti Coast and Paraparaumu in a little boat will bring you to Kapiti Island itself. The entire island is a nature reserve, and has been committed to rebuilding both the ecosystem and the native bird population for over 100 years!
Dare I point out the irony of how long and seriously committed New Zealand has been to conservation, and yet we still fight to have recycling in the US, let along animal and land conservation?!
Politics aside, the story of Kapiti Island is a fascinating one.
Originally part of a land bridge that connected the North and South Islands, Kapiti Island has now become a much smaller island that’s only 10km long. Controlled by the famous Maori chief Te Rauparaha, war leader of the Ngāti Toa tribe, in the 1800’s (who also composed the very famous ‘Ka Mate’ Haka), Kapiti Island played an important role during that time.
Then it became a whaling station, with a couple thousand people living on the island before it was finally given over to farming. Eventually almost all of the island was taken over and made government land eventually acquired by the Dept. of Conservation (DOC) except for 13 hectares which were preserved by the same whanau (family) since the 1820’s. It’s on this part where the lodge and where the Kapiti Island Nature Tours is run from, and one of the few ways to be able to experience the magic of the island can happen.
By 1996, Kapiti Island was completely pest-free!
Even now the operation is family-owned and operated, a fact that doesn’t escape me when I plan trips around the world, and something I often look for in places to visit and experiences to have, and where I find pride and passion are the most often found.
As soon as I started researching Kapiti Island and how to visit, I knew I wanted to stay the night. Home to over 1,200 little spotted kiwi, one of the densest populations in New Zealand, I was hoping and excited to get the opportunity to see them again.
Kiwis are nocturnal, so if you are hoping to catch a glimpse of them in the wild, it needs to be at night.
Luckily, Kapiti Island Nature Tours offer an overnight kiwi spotting activity, and has several different sleeping arrangements available, including camping.
And not sleeping on the ground in a cramped old tent, Kapiti Island takes camping to a whole other level with this beauty of a tent – if you can even call it a tent! It even has a bed!
While not categorized as such, I am pretty sure I just had my first “glamping” experience – glamorous camping!
How will I ever go back to camping in my musty old second-hand leaky tent?
After I met the boat over in Paraparaumu, we were quickly off in the blue waters heading straight for Kapiti Island. With a warm welcome by the local family, we all sat down for some tea and coffee and I began to learn just how important Kapiti Island is to New Zealand conservation.
Oftentimes here I am so happy and proud to see how much people care about protecting New Zealand’s beautiful land and wildlife, it’s a passion that goes much deeper than the superficial interest I encounter in the rest of the world. =
New Zealand doesn’t care so much about the fad of being “eco” since they have been pioneering conservation for well over 100 years. It’s a way of life here, and it’s just as important as things like education and breathing.
On top of that, most kiwis I’ve met all have a favorite native New Zealand bird (usually the kea or the tui, both of which have a lot of personality).
Here on Kapiti Island, it’s almost as if time has stopped and reversed back to the age of colonization in New Zealand. Strolling along the sharp, rugged coastline, looking out and not seeing a single human or sign of life for as far as the eye can see is just extraordinary.
Here it’s almost effortless to notice and observe all of the incredible native bird species that have come back and thrived on the island without threat, and while their song might not yet be “deafening” it’s well on it’s way.
Within minutes of arriving, I saw not only a little blue penguin (not a good sign as it was daytime and they are nocturnal), but plenty of odd wekas, and heaps of cheeky kakas (similar to the southern keas) trying to steal my food.
There were even two rare takahe hanging around the lodge. Thought to be extinct, they were rediscovered in the 40’s and now there are around 280 in New Zealand. I think it’s amazing that so many of these rare birds have been brought back from the brink of extinction in living memory! Certainly gives hope!
After walking and exploring the coastline around the lodge, getting the DL from the family about all of the amazing birds that you can spot and hear, and learning about the history and conservation projects going on, I was able to go off exploring all around the island.
And of course have a little snooze and relax in my own hammock in the summer sunshine! Gotta take advantage!
Later on I got to know everyone who was staying that night while we sat down to an amazing home cooked meal together in the lodge – I was curious to hear what brought each person to the island and why they were interested in it.
I thought everyone would be a seasoned #BirdNerd with just me poking around as a beginner #BirdNerd – but like with all things in life, I was curious about this new world of New Zealand birds and I was eager to learn. I’ve found as long as you are interested and willing to try something new, people are very welcoming.
That night after the sunset, we set out with the guides looking for kiwis. Because of its dense kiwi population and the fact that it’s a small island, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see at least one kiwi at night on one of the walks.
Of course, they didn’t factor in that I was visiting and as one of the unluckiest girls in the entire world. Ehem.
We walked for a long time in the dark, guided by the light of the bright New Zealand sky, which if you haven’t seen yet, it’s an experience in and of itself. The night skies here are some of the brightest and clearest I’ve ever seen thanks to the small amount of people and little to no light population. It’s just incredible.
Of course luck wasn’t on our side and we didn’t see any kiwis because of the weather, though we heard them and even got close to one scuttling around the bushes.
As the sun set the wind picked up and it was so windy it was very difficult to listen for the kiwi’s movements and sounds. They are not the stealthiest of birds, to say the least.
In spite of that, I still had an amazing time on Kapiti Island, and I was not ready to leave the following afternoon. It was a little slice of paradise, and a most welcome escape from the big city of Wellington.
If I had to chose between going somewhere just to visit and go somewhere where I can actually learn something and take away valuable lessons, I will almost always chose they latter.
When I came to New Zealand 10 months ago, I could have never imagined that I would become interested in birds, of all things. I love how countries and cultures can surprise you that way.
Have you heard of Kapiti Island? Ever heard about New Zealand’s crazy bird history? Ever been glamping?
Many thanks to Kapiti Island Nature Tours for hosting me – like always I’m keeping it real – all opinions are my own!