Peter Needham visits Kapiti Island in search of birds and legends
N the 18th century, the massed birdsong in New Zealand forests was so loud that conversations had to be shouted. James Cook wrote in 1770: In the morning we were awakened by the singing of the birds. The number was incredible and they seemed to strain their throats in emulation of each other. This wild melody was infinitely superior to any that we had heard of the same kind; it seemed to be like small bells most exquisitely tuned.’’
Cook, it should be noted, was not in the forest. He was listening from his ship Endeavour, lying about 400m off the NZ coast.
Today, one of the best places to catch a sample of the sound Cook heard is Kapiti, an island bird sanctuary on the west side of the lower North Island, an hour’s drive north of Wellington. About 15 minutes by boat from the mainland, Kapiti Island was closed to the public for many years. It’s now open and you can visit on a daytrip or stay overnight in a nature lodge, although you must book in advance and require a permit, which is easy to obtain, from the Department of Conservation.
The island offers walking tracks, grand views, dramatic precipices and a bloodcurdling history.
Best of all, it gives the chance to see NZ’s native birds in the wild, flitting and striding about fearlessly as they did before human hunters and feral predators reduced their numbers and drove some species into extinction.
Kapiti (pronounced carpety) loomed large in my childhood. A brooding, dominating eminence about 10km long and 2km wide, the island faces Paraparaumu Beach, a popular family holiday destination now favoured by retirees. When I was young, landing on Kapiti Island was prohibited, though many children dreamed of sailing there on driftwood rafts. Viewed from a windswept stretch of grey sand in the school holidays, the island’s cloak of dark native bush, its central peak (the 521m Mt Tuteremoana) and its forbidden status suffused it with a mysterious fascination.
Its history is equally gripping. Kapiti’s placid role as a bird sanctuary followed a turbulent period under Te Rauparaha, a Maori chief who used the island as a stronghold to launch raids on mainland enemies.
In 1825, a force of 2000 Maori, drawn from many tribes, attacked Kapiti with a fleet of canoes so numerous that they blackened the sea’’, according to contemporary accounts.
After a ferocious battle involving the use of muskets, stone clubs and spears, Te Rauparaha’s tattooed warriors drove their attackers back across the beach at the island’s northern shore and into the sea.
Now, after years of looking and wondering, I’m finally heading to the island. My trip begins, incongruously, aboard a boat in a car park, after checking my backpack for stowaway rodents. The check is compulsory; you don’t want rats or mice in a bird sanctuary.
With all passengers aboard, the launch Kiwi Express is towed by a modified tractor out of the car park, across Paraparaumu Beach and into the sea, where it sets off on the short trip to the island.
We are lucky; the sea is calm. Trips are cancelled if the wind builds and the water turns choppy.
Arriving on Kapiti, our little band crunches across a shingle beach past cushion-like masses of small-leafed, tangled shrubs that gradually give way to flax and trees. Home turf: Kapiti’s flightless brown weka, top, and kaka parrot, above Our first stop is the educational centre, where guide Witana Kamariera sets the scene. Following the days of warfare, Kapiti was farmed. It became a bird sanctuary in 1897, then 90 years later a nature reserve and in 1992 was declared a marine reserve. These days, Kapiti’s warriors work for the Department of Conservation, battling to keep feral pests off the island. We got rid of 2000 goats,’’ Kamariera says. The last one was shot in 1928. Cats were eradicated next, along with possums and rats. You’ll see little baits still on the island; that’s just in case mice or other animals decide to drift over on a piece of wood.’’
Kamariera’s talk is punctuated by birdcalls, an encouraging sign. After the final rat bit the dust in 1996, bird populations rebounded, especially the red-crowned parakeet, robin, saddleback and bellbird. Rats used to attack them in their nests.
Weeds are another enemy. The Department of Conservation plans to eradicate the lot, leaving only original native plants to sustain native birds.
Weeds are a big problem because birds can carry them over from the mainland,’’ Kamariera explains. Visitors are shown a poster of notorious weeds, including villains such as old man’s beard and climbing asparagus. Any spotted on the island should be reported to the authorities.
We soon discover a couple of tracks lead around the island but the most popular heads to the highest point. It is well tended and the going is reasonably easy, though steep. Visitors are allowed to take a picnic lunch with them. Feeling gracious, I have decided to take enough for my travelling companions, including large quantities of fruit, a loaf, cutlery, crockery and a roast chicken. Halfway up, though, I begin to regret this. Along with a camera and two lenses, plus a litre of water, the load is beginning to feel heavy. I make a mental note for future trips: just take water, camera and a sandwich. Still, the glorious bush and birds make it all worthwhile. The walk heads initially through flax at the base of the island, abode of the takahe, a handsome blue flightless bird with a red face and beak. It was once thought extinct but is thriving on Kapiti.
The flightless brown weka is also common here, sometimes walking along the track just ahead of you. Graceful blue, green and bronze wood pigeons, known to the Maori as kereru (after their call), sit motionless on branches. Kamariera has seen up to 50 of these birds flying in a group, making a distinctive whoosh as they zip through the air. Other birds include the tui, with its distinctive tuft of white throat feathers, and the rare hihi, or stitch bird. Hihi is Maori for ray of sun, alluding to the yellow band across its body. Hihi are the only birds that mate face to face.
Kapiti is also home to the world’s largest population of the little spotted kiwi. As they are nocturnal, you’re unlikely to spot one unless you take the overnight kiwispotting tour run by Kapiti Nature Lodge.
Arriving finally at the summit of Mt Tuteremoana, the island’s highest point, it’s time to relax, climb the lookout and take in the view. On a clear day you can see all the way to the South Island. Kapiti falls precipitously away into the sea on the western side. It’s the side I’ve never seen, like the dark side of the moon.
Staying well away from the edge, I remove the enormous lunch from my backpack and set it out on a wooden table. There is no shortage of volunteers to help me eat it.
Visitors to Kapiti Island can choose between two destinations, Rangatira or the north end. Both require a visitor access permit from New Zealand’s Department of Conservation. Fifty people may visit Rangatira (about halfway along the island’s eastern shore) each day, and 18 may visit the north end. Permits can be issued up to a year in advance and it pays to book at least a month ahead for a weekday visit and a couple of months ahead for weekends. More: http://booking.doc.govt.nz. Permit fees are $NZ11 ($8.90), adults; $NZ5, five to 17 years; infants to four years free. The family-run Kapiti Nature Lodge in the Waiorua valley in the island’s north runs a day tour and an overnight kiwi-spotting tour. The former includes all permits, ferry, guided history-nature walk, morning and afternoon teas and lunch. Adults $NZ300; children $NZ220. The overnight kiwi-spotting tour lets you see the little spotted kiwi in the wild, which is not possible on the mainland. Cost is NZ$488 twinshare, including overnight accommodation, all permits, ferry, morning and afternoon teas, guided history-nature walk and dinner with a bottle of wine. The lodge is remote, with limited facilities, but is known for its hearty meals, hospitality and authentic Maori experience. More: www.kapitiislandalive.co.nz.