Nat­u­ral beauty

Peter Need­ham vis­its Kapiti Is­land in search of birds and leg­ends

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.

Check­list

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.

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