Kapiti Island

On the north west coastline, about an hours drive and a ten minute boat journey from Wellington, lies a very special island - Kapiti. It is special because it is a Nature Reserve dedicated to preserving the native New Zealand birdlife, most of which has been wiped out by predation from the various predators introduced as a part of the human settlement of New Zealand. You see thanks to New Zealand's geological history the predominant form of life on the islands have been birds for a long time, and virtually nothing else. (Well insects, lizards and various forms of aquatic life feature as well.)

At least that was the case until the arrival of humans who brought rats, dogs, possums, stoats and a panolpy of other competing animals - with perhaps the worst being humans themselves - and the native birdlife suffered. Due to the lack of non-avian predators a signifcant fraction of the birdlife was ground based and if not flightless then ground nesting. Rats and stoats worked like wildfire through these populations and now most native birds are under threat of extinction.

Kapiti Island, looking beautiful in the sea. (22 Kb jpeg)

Realising this a group lobbied for and was succesful in 1897 in getting Kapiti Island declared a public reserve dedicated to be "a preserve for the flora and fauna of New Zealand". In 1949 access to the island was restricted with visitors now requiring a permit to land. Finally in 1977 it became a full fledged reserve under the care of the then Department of Lands and Survey. Nowdays it is managed by the 'newly' formed Department of Conservation and continues to be a restricted access area, something that isn't likely to change.

As a part of managing the island various programs to improve it have been undertaken. In 1980 through to 1986 22,500 possums were killed and removed from the island, succesfully eradicating the possum population. In 1996 a similar program designed to eradicate the rat population was undertaken and at the time of typing this the success of this program was being gauged. Early indications are that the eradication was successful making Kapiti potentially a doubly unique island in being one of the first reserves in the world to have both possum and rat populations successfully removed.

All of this has meant that Kapiti has become a haven to Native plant and birdlife, being one of the brighter jewels in the crown of nature reserves operated around the country. Without a permit the closest you can easily get to the island is the coastline, where the island provides a stunning part of the scenery - especially during sunsets. The best views can be obtained from the Paekakariki Hills which overlook Paraparaumu and Raumati beaches. The first three photographs featured on this page were taken from these hills on a particularly sunny and cloudless day.

Kapiti Island and Paraparaumu Coast. (29 Kb jpeg)

As you can see the island isn't terribly far off the coast with waves from the open sea just rolling in around it. Just sitting on the hill's observation point and watching this is terribly relaxing. Although I'd recommend bringing a sweater, even on sunny days, as the sea wind can be quite chilling. Looking down from the hills rewards you with the view below. The shallowness of water causes the waves to become more defined and the water is translucent enough to let you see the seaweed moving with the waves. If are visiting the region in a spontaneous way then this view is well worth seeking out. To get to the island proper will require a little more planning and preparation though.

Waves rolling into Paraparaumu Coast as seen from the Paekakariki Hills. (55 Kb jpeg)

As has been mentioned above access to the island is regulated, primarily to ensure that rats and other predators are not inadvertantly reintroduced to the island. It also is to ensure that human impact on the island is kept to a minimum with the birdlife coming foremost. Consequently it is imperative that if you want to visit the island proper that you book to visit the island with a firm that will not just arrange transport out to the island but will also arrange a permit for you as well. Fortunately there are two or three firms that will do that but it is important to book early, permits are limited and in demand. So if you are on a tight schedule it is vital to book well ahead to get to the island on the day you want to.

The trips themselves are day trips so there are a few things worth doing. These are all documented in the literature you get as a part of booking the trip but a few points are worth reinforcing here.

That all said and done, you clamber on the boat - are checked for rats and any other animals that might be trying to sneak onto the island with you and then taken for the ten minute boat ride out to the island. Landing on the gravel beach at the island proper greets you with the view below.

Kapiti Island coastline shrouded in mist and rain. (30 Kb jpeg)

Such a view is classic New Zealand, dense green foiliage and steep terrain all shrouded in mist & rain. This isn't to say that rain is the predominant weather here, apart from on the West Coast of the South Island where rain is common, but more that such a view contains the essential ingredients of New Zealand scenery. We are a raw, young country geologically speaking with still a strong hint of the unexplored, new territory, feel to it.

And Kapiti adds to that feeling enormously. Once you leave the lowlands and enter one of the wilderness tracks on the island you quickly leave behind all signs of civilisation. On this particular day the mist shrouded the coastline of the North Island from view and the sea drowned out any noise from the mainland. It became easy to walk in these woods, smell the earthy air and quietly believe that you had stepped back a few hundred years into the New Zealand of yesterday.

A forest path on Kapiti Island. (65 Kb jpeg)

Two of the forest paths lead to the summit of the Island, some 520 metres above sea level - the Trig track and the Wilkinson track. The Wilkinson track is bad enough at points as it is and the Trig Track is reputed to be somewhat worse than then Wilkinson track. I'd heartily suggest, and so do the park staff, taking the Wilkinson track. It's a long walk up, the round trip taking the better part of a day and try to make the trip on a fine day if you can. The view from the top when I got there was fairy grey and cloudy but I am told that on a good day you can see down the steep cliffs that are the back of Island and watch the birds use the cliffs to launch themselves as they go fishing.

As you can see from the above photograph the paths themselves are narrrow, twisty affairs that loop around and turn back on themselves many many times as the terrain demands. Not that it matters greatly, you aren't on the island for a quick trip to the top and the path's looping nature gives you a chance to see some parts of the valleys and hillsides from several different directions.

A forest glade on Kapiti Island. (63 Kb jpeg)

Indeed there are nooks and crannies along the way that are quietly spectacular, like this glade pictured above. You aren't allowed off the path so you can only look, but you can't help but wonder who else has sat in that glade. Thoughtfully provided along the way are occasional seats for you to rest on and about three quarters of the way up the track is a picnic table sited next to a bird feeding station. While you aren't allowed to feed the birds yourself various feeding stations are present on the island to encourage certains species of bird.

At the time of my visit it was Stitchbirds receiving the extra food and indeed while resting at the table a Stitchbird came by and used the feeder, giving me a glimpse of the rare bird. It is worth noting that the Weka, already an inquisitive bird, have realised the function of the tables and will be watching you while you eat. Frequently circling around, and even under, the table while you dine. And on the track you are constantly greeted by birds doing things.

Bush canaries swarm around, Fantails hunt insects, Tui and Bellbirds all hunt for flowers and the other birds make less frequent appearances. And throughout the day you hear their various calls. It's a beautiful chorus,I imagine the dawn chorus must be deafening given the volume of incidental day time singing.

Birds I met (and took good photographs of)

I tried to shoot a lot of photographs of the birdlife on Kapiti, it being the primary reason for the existance of the reserve and why it is so wonderful to visit. Unfortunately the birdlife doesn't seem to be particularly interested in featuring on any websites and made taking pictures difficult. For each photograph featured here I have three more that are either blurred, under-exposed or of nothing as the bird flitted out of shot.

Still, I caught a few of the birds well enough to present this abbreviated roll call. Naturally there are more species of bird present on the island than shown here. Consider this the rogues gallery of the most commonly encountered birdlife that actually stayed still long enough to be photographed. I did also see a Stitchbird, a Tui or three, some Saddlebacks, a whole heap of Whiteheads, one Kakariki and a few Fantails - but none of the photographs of them came out well.

A (very) Brief History of Kapiti

Related links

It is a little odd that there don't seem to be many sites out there directly about the Island. The only reference I found in the search engines was to a site that seems to have disappeared now, but otherwise details about the Island itself seem to be fairly thin on the ground.

Finally it has to be noted that a good percentage of the information presented on this page has been sourced from Department of Conservation literature, particularly the Kapiti Island Nature Reserve booklet which is a well written and presented account of the island, it's wildlife and history. You get the opportunity to purchase this on trips to the island and it is worthwhile having it available during your trip as a reference.

Philip R. Banks
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