Having decided on a whim to head to Kapiti Island (pronounced cuppa-dee) for a mini adventure, I’d not had time to do any research. I just had a gut feeling to go there, based on the few times I’d driven past this malevolent shape on the horizon and felt a curious pull towards it. (Only later, sitting on the veranda of the island lodge with a history book in hand, did I learn of the popular belief of Kapiti’s magnetic energy.)
Sold as a wildlife sanctuary with a violent past, I went to meet my group at 8am on a Sunday for our tour, the first I’d found and rather hastily-booked. As we queued to sign in, I noticed I was the only person by themselves (not unusual) and under 60 (slightly more unusual).
“Are you a keen bird watcher?” A woman ahead of me in the queue asked, smiling in in a kind, grandmotherly way. Bird watching? I frowned, and remembered the same question had been an optional box on the booking form I hurriedly completed last night.
“Bags open please!” A weather-beaten guide luckily interrupted us, beckoning us to come forward for a bag check. “This island is a controlled conservation area. Make sure there’s no rats, mice, rodents please…”
“The only rat I know of is my husband, and he’s in the loo.” One woman snorted. There was a pause in the group, which I tried to fill with a supportive laugh. Everyone stared at me and I stared at my bag, hoping I could climb in and zip up.
We headed to the beach, where a boat on the back of a tractor waited on the sand. We clambered in, facing each other politely with our bags on our laps, and the guide lifted up the gangway and banged the side to tell the captain to get going.
“Quick roll call.” He shouted over the noise of the tractor dragging us towards the waves. Each couple did synchronised gestures to their names, mine was a blunt full stop to the list.
We neared the island, a 10km long hulking shape of mountainous forest, its ridges smoothed over with the tops of tangled trees. We drove straight onto the stone beach, the two metal hulls scraping and clunking to a stop in the clear water. Another guide was waiting to greet us at the top of the beach. We created an untidy semi-circle around her.
“Kia Ora and welcome to Kapiti Island.” Her name was Therese, and she would be one of the most interesting guides I’d ever met.
Therese lead us to a wooden hut in the middle of a flat meadow, surrounded by scraggly bushes and singing cicadas. Once seated, she spoke the official Maori greeting and then translated. It is a clipped, melodious sound, and I wondered if hundreds of years ago, when the Polynesians first arrived on a land where birds were the dominating species, their language had been influenced by the sounds of the forest.
Therese gave us a quick intro to Kapiti. Whilst there are only a few families left living here, this used to be a highly sought-after island by Maori tribes, strategically placed on New Zealand’s west coast of the north island.
“Many have fought for this land.” Therese told us, a captivated class to her stories. “Its most famous battle, where Chief Te Rauparaha fended off over a thousand men with just a few hundred of his own, happened right on that beach you arrived on.”
“After they massacred most of the invaders, they took them to this lagoon for a complex ritual feast and ate their defeated enemies. Their bones still lie at the bottom of the lake, undisturbed. Many don’t like talking about it, but you can’t sanitise history.”
She moved seamlessly past the bloody territorial battles and the trading between European sealers and whalers, to its more recent conservation efforts.
“Like much of New Zealand, when we landed on Kapiti, we started farming and introduced pests that decimated a colourful and rich ecosystem of birds and wildlife.”
I got mentally prepared for the depressing history of man vs NZ nature, but it turned out some forward-thinkers declared Kapiti Island a wildlife sanctuary over a hundred years ago. A conservation story with a happy ending? I was ready to hear this.
“See this scrubland?” She gestured to the flat land with long grass and scratchy bush. “Almost everywhere looked like this. But nature bounced back. It only took 100 years for this native forest to rejuvenate.”
There were gasps as we took in the entangled forest with new appreciation. Next up were the birds, where our guide held up photos and introduced some of the island’s most popular characters. With each different bird her face lit up, as if she was greeting an old friend.
“Ah, this is the Tui. Cheeky little bird, they can imitate sounds, and were trained to speak Maori, used for greetings.”
She moved on, I was surprised to have recognised a few. Perhaps I was a secret bird watcher? Then she flicked to one we all knew.
“This is our star of the show. The little spotted kiwi. Nocturnal of course, so we won’t be seeing anyway today.”
After a few more wise words, Therese led us through the bush, bending and fingering certain leaves and branches, sharing her knowledge of the land. She wove stories of making berry compote for prime ministers and royals (“That Queen Camilla of yours, she’s cracks the rudest jokes!”), and promised to brew some fresh Kawa Kawa leaf tea for our lunch.
We were left to walk through the humming forest (I was told within two minutes to lower my voice as I was scaring the birds), past the lagoon of bones, up a gentle climb that rewarded stunning views of the Pacific. Birds wheeled over the sky and sea, too far to identify with an untrained eye. Only the Weka, an inquisitive bird the size of a chicken and the shape of an oversized duckling, wasn’t scared to stare back at us, weaving through the tree trunks onto our path.
The half-day tour included a lunch, and after two hours of walking, we made our way back down towards the lodge. Just a few houses could be seen hidden in the valley, in the shadow of the hills. It was agreed the island would be a wildlife sanctuary, but 13 hectares were kept by the Maori families to live off the land.
It was a beautiful lunch, and we had a spare half an hour after to relax. I wandered down to the beach, picking over the Paua that glittered the stones and bejewelling my palm with furling shells. So lost was I in my beach-combing, Therese rang me to make sure I was ready for ferry at 3pm.
I caught up with the group, subject to some light-hearted scolding and a few white-browed frowns in my direction, but we made the ferry with plenty of time. Just as I was about to board, I heard my name called.
“Rosie Posie!” Therese slid down the rocks to me, and pressed something in my palm. “You’d asked where to get Kawa Kawa tea, here’s a sample from the T Company. See if you like it.” I thanked her, overwhelmed by how thoughtful she was.
Tucking the tin of tea bags into my bag, we set off, bobbing towards the mainland. The island was already playing tricks on our eyes, the afternoon light casting its shape into violet shadow. Jumbled words from the history book I’d read over lunch played in my mind, of artists speaking of its spiritual shroud and energetic currents. But all I could think of was Shakespeare’s The Tempest;
[Caliban]: Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again.
My nature tour was run by Kapiti Island Nature Tours, and I would 100% recommend it to anyone interested in wildlife, New Zealand history or just escaping Wellington city for a weekend!
A huge thank you to Therese, one of many New Zealand guides who’ll never know what powerful impact their knowledge and passion has upon us.