Earlier this month, we decided to take a trip to Kapiti Island (Kapiti), a nature reserve off the coast of Paraparaumu, New Zealand.
Now, I have actually visited Kapiti before. If you were a child that attended school on the Kapiti Coast, a visit is basically part of your curriculum. My sister went with her class, with dad accompanying. Mum came with me. We managed to end up with a very slow friend of mine, who forgot her asthma inhaler. We were late to the top. In order to make it back to our boat on time, we were told to go down the faster, steeper Trig Track. I fell over and said a very naughty word loudly, and it echoed all the way down the island. These days, you are only allowed to go up the Trig Track.
I was hoping for a slightly less eventful trip this time.
The history of Kapiti Island
Kapiti was spotted (and surveyed) during the voyage of James Cook. The name Kapiti is an abbreviation of the Māori Te Waewae-Kapiti-o-Tara-raua-ko-Rangitane, or, the junction line of the boundaries between the Ngai Tara and Rangitane tribal lands. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Māori settled on the island. European ships frequented the area, and the great Māori warrior, Te Rauparaha, realised that ships passing through Cook Strait were key to getting trade goods, including weapons. In 1823, his tribe, Ngāti Toa, seized Kapiti. Te Rauparaha established both a fortress and a trading base on the island.
Te Rauparaha let several whalers and traders use the island during the short lived whaling boom. In the 1800s, six whaling stations took advantage of mother whales and their calves swimming close to shore, heading to sheltered nursery bays. Intensive whaling throughout New Zealand nearly decimated the local population of Southern Right Whales. By the 1840s, whaling in the area had begun to die out.
The conservation potential of the island was seen as early as 1870. The government acquired most of Kapiti in 1897.
Richard Henry of Resolution Island
The story of Kapiti can’t be told without a nod to Richard Henry. Richard Henry was the caretaker of a world first island sanctuary for birds, Resolution Island, in 1894. With his assistant, he tracked and trapped endangered birds to be moved to the Resolution Island bird sanctuary, shifting over 700. However, in 1900, tourists to the island told Henry that they thought they saw a stoat running on the beach. The island wasn’t a terribly long distance from the mainland. The these pests had swum over to Resolution Island, and there was no point continuing his conservation work.
However, Henry’s skills did not go to waste. He was transferred to Kapiti, located further offshore, in the hope of developing the island as a reserve.
The reserve comes into its own
In July 1908 Henry was appointed ranger at Kapiti. He stayed there until 1911. There isn’t a lot of information about Henry’s time on Kapiti, but it’s likely that he contributed a great deal to the early ideas of conservation in New Zealand. Sadly, Henry died in obscurity in 1929. Only the local postmaster attended his funeral. He was, however, later honored by having the last wild Fiordland Kakapo named in his memory.
However, Kapiti remained overrun by pests and farm animals until quite late in the 20th Century. It was not until 1987 that the New Zealand Department of Conservation took over the administration of the island. In the 1980s and 1990s efforts were made to return the island to a natural state; and the first step was removing all of the sheep and possum. In an action few thought possible for an island of its size, rats were eradicated in 1998.
Are there any predators on the island today?
No – and this is very important. It is a predator free reserve. If you want to visit Kapiti, you need to be exceptionally careful not to take anything unwanted to the island.
This means that you will have your boots, packs and equipment checked for any ‘stowaway’ pests. You also need to take all of your waste back off the island with you.
How hard are the tracks?
I’d say a medium for a day hike. I run a few times a week, and I found them fine. Mum didn’t quite make it all the way to the top, so I left her sitting like a frog on a log about 20 minutes below the summit. It does get quite steep up towards the top. She was worried she wouldn’t get up and back in time, but she definitely would have – we had about 40 minutes spare once we finished our walk.
One thing she did comment on was that there isn’t a lot of signage to let you know how much further to go. Our guide let his know that the first hihi feeder was about 30 minutes in, and the official signage said it was then another hour or so to the top. This seemed fairly accurate.
The view from the top is lovely, but don’t stress too much if you don’t make it up there. There is only a small area at the top, which was busy, and we saw plenty of birds on the way up. In fact, we saw the most birds on the Rangatira Loop Walk right down the bottom, near the Historic Whare!
Where on the island can you visit?
There are two different areas you can visit. I have visited the Rangatira area on both trips.
- Rangatira area: Walk through forest to view birds and the historic whare, the oldest building associated with nature conservation in New Zealand. This is also where you climb the track to Tuteremoana, the highest point on Kāpiti Island, 521 m above sea level.
- North End: Walking tracks at the northern end of the island pass through grassland, shrubland, regenerating forest and coastline, and provide fantastic views of freshwater Okupe Lagoon.
As well as seeing the local birdlife, there are a few other sites you can visit – such as the Historic Whare and the whaling pots.
What birds did you see?
The island of Kapiti is home to many bird species, most of these reintroduced once the predators were removed. These include takahe, North Island kōkako, brown teal, stitchbird (hihi), North Island saddleback (tieke), tomtit (miromiro), fantail (piwakawaka), morepork (ruru), weka and North Island robin (toutouwai). The brown kiwi and little-spotted kiwi were released on the island between 1890 and 1910. Rat eradication has led to increases in red-fronted parakeets, North Island robin, bellbirds, and saddlebacks (thanks, Wikipedia!)
The island is considered one of New Zealand’s most important sites for bird recovery. The gallery below shows the birds that we saw on our trip to Kapiti. Although we didn’t see one, we did also hear the haunting call of the North Island kōkako – which I believe is one of the most beautiful New Zealand birds. I counted myself very lucky!
The pictures below remain the property of the New Zealand Department of Conservation. Click on the images below to learn what each bird is!
Just a note. If you are scared of birds, some of them do get up close and personal to you. Case in point – the kākā. We stopped, as most people do, to have lunch at the hihi feeder. A very friendly kākā decided he really wanted our sandwiches. Note – you are not supposed to feed the birds on Kapiti Island. We tried very hard to prevent this particular bird from getting our lunch. But he was adamant. Even stuffing a sandwich in my pocket wasn’t enough to distract him.
My advice? Take bite sized pieces of food. Or eat your lunch at the seats before the hihi feeder – where the mischievous Mr. Kākā is less likely to get you!
How do I get there?
You need to travel with an approved company, by boat. No unauthorised landings are allowed. We visited Kapiti Island with Kapiti Island Eco Tours. The cost was $80, and this included round-trip transfers. We felt this was excellent value – the company staff were friendly and knowledgable, and would highly recommend you use them if you are interested in visiting Kapiti. Our guide was lovely. The operation felt like a well oiled machine!
I believe there is a maximum number of 100 people per day being admitted to the Southern landing site – where we visited – on Kapiti. If you want to visit on a particular day, make sure you book in early – it was fairly busy when we went, even though it wasn’t in the peak season.
Know before you go!
There is more information on the official Department of Conservation website, but some key points to note are below:
What to bring
- Your own lunch and drinking water.
- Sturdy footwear (I wore hiking boots, and they were very comfy)
- Warm clothing and a waterproof jacket – weather can change quickly.
On the island
- A shelter and toilets are available on the island.
- Keep to marked tracks.
- Ensure that your belongings are placed out of reach of weka and kaka. They are very inquisitive and expert at getting into bags.
- Be ready to leave the island at the departure time announced by your boat skipper.
- Overnight stays are not permitted within the nature reserve on the island. Some of the island is in private ownership. On this land Kapiti Island Nature Tours offers a homestay option for visitors.
- All fires, including barbecues and cooking stoves, are not allowed.
- Smoking is strictly prohibited at all times.
- Everything on the island is protected, and nothing may be removed – including plant material, insects, lizards, birds, feathers and shells.
- Do not feed birds and other wildlife.
- Remove all your rubbish from the island. Carry out what you carry in.
- Do not take pets to Kapiti Island.