Just north of Wellington and five kilometres off the coast of the North Island, Kapiti Island feels like a lost world. Disappearing for a day off the grid here is something special – but the real magic happens when you stay overnight.
So close yet so far
The adventure begins like a slowly unfolding dream as the scenery changes by degrees. Our small boat is pulled from the sand at Paraparaumu Beach into the water by a tractor with comically high wheels. It’s a clear day as we set off, bobbing up and down with the waves. Ahead of us looms a large, green mass: Kapiti Island, shining like an emerald in the blue sea.
The beauty of Kapiti Island is that it feels beautifully remote. Just to get to this little ferry crossing the Rauoterangi Channel, I’ve taken a train from Wellington Railway Station through grassy hills, green forests and pretty, colourful neighbourhoods to the town of Paraparaumu – an hour-long journey worth doing in itself. Once on Kapiti Island, I find myself in a protected reserve where nature and New Zealand’s native birds – many of which are flightless and not found anywhere else in the country – rule.
“Kapiti Island represents a really special balance between Aotearoa New Zealand’s ancient and unique natural world and the fascinating human stories that have been woven into the landscape over the last thousand years,” says Manaaki Barrett, environmental manager and guide from Kapiti Island Nature Tours, which operates the ferry and offers guided tours of this, his family’s home.
The Barretts are the only whānau (family) on the island. They serve as both hosts and guardians of this natural sanctuary.
Hit the natural highlights
“Seeing our beautiful and charismatic native wildlife in its natural environment is always a big drawcard,” says Barrett.
And there are many others. You can explore several kilometres of trails, hugging the coast of the 10 kilometre-long sanctuary and passing through forests of kohekohe, tawa and kanuka trees that seem straight out of Jurassic Park. You will see native birds including the little brown weka (known for its cheekiness – if you’re not careful, it might steal your food when you’re not looking) as well as stitchbird, kōkako, kākā and takahē, the latter of which was presumed extinct for nearly 50 years before being rediscovered in 1948. Hiking to Kapiti’s highest point, Tūteremoana – an elevation of 521 metres – offers views across the island, the sparkling blue channel, and the North Island beyond.
Glamp off the grid
To explore Kapiti Island, you must be hosted by an approved operator with a permit and most sign up for an easy day trip from Wellington. But I stay overnight to see what the wilderness does when nobody seems to be watching.
The accommodation for the night gives adventure a shot of luxe. There are little cabins fitted out with single, double or bunk beds to choose from, but I’ve plumped for a tent with a proper double bed. From my wooden deck, I watch the sunset colour the manuka-dotted hills with a glass of local wine in my hand as a chef prepares my dinner of island-grown vegetables and fish – and I wait for dark.
The few who remain on the island for the night are here for the Overnight Kiwi Spotting Tour and the rare chance to spot a kiwi in the wild. As we walk through the night-time forest lit by stars, including the brightest Southern Cross I’ve ever seen, our ears lead the way. Nocturnal birds call loudly but it’s a little snuffle sound that tips Barrett off: a little spotted kiwi appears as a beaked ball of fluff on the forest floor.
Back at camp, I listen to the kiwis’ noisier bird neighbours while contemplating stories shared by Barrett, including one about the Māori rangatira (chief) and war leader Te Rauparaha, who used the island as a fortress and trading base.
For Barrett, the way the past and present are brought together on Kapiti Island is a kind of magic. “Being able to do that while surrounded by beautiful endemic species is pretty special.”
Image credit: Ben Mack (Waiorua Bay and Kapiti Island signage); Capture Studios (Wildlifeand Paraparaumu Beach, Boulder Bank Loop Track); Johnny Hendrikus (Kapiti Island).