View Comments

Our boat rams up on a beach of boulders and we scramble ashore via a ramp from the bow. We have arrived at Kapiti, an island that was once the centre of an empire ruled by the famous Maori warrior chief, Te Rauparaha (1770-1849).

The island, 10km long by 2km wide, is 5km off the south-west coast of the North Island. Now it is mostly a nature reserve, and few visitors know its dramatic history.

Before I boarded the boat to the island from Paraparaumu, 50km from Wellington, I discussed Te Rauparaha with Maori elder John Barrett.

Te Rauparaha employed his strategic brilliance, ruthlessness, courage and eloquence as he led his war parties, armed with muskets, to conquer vast areas of central New Zealand.

His haka or war dance, Ka Mate, is now performed by New Zealand's national rugby union team, the All Blacks, before international rugby matches.

"So was he a great man," I ask John, whose tribal background is allied to that of the chief.

"Depends who you ask," he replies with disarming honesty and big grin. "To us he was, but others may have a different view."

His family owns Kapiti Nature Lodge, the only accommodation for visitors to the island. His grandmother, unlike all other indigenous landowners, refused to sell the property to the government.

  • Welcome *

As we arrive on the island, John's sister, Lodge manager Amo Clark, gives us a warm welcome.

Melodious tones of bellbirds accompany us, and, unlike in most areas on the mainland, we have close-up views of another famous New Zealand songbird, the tui. Its plumage resembles a dinner jacket complete with bow tie.

The stunning resurgence of birdlife is proof that the battle waged in recent decades to rid Kapiti of possums, cats, rats and stoats has been won.

  • Parrot *

When we arrive, Amo pauses in an introductory talk as a kaka, a fat native parrot, lands on the sill of an open window.

Handing me a plastic water bottle complete with spray nozzle, Amo issues a command: "Spray him if he gets close."

Less than a minute later, the mischievous kaka edges into the room towards the fruit bowl.

A true Kapiti warrior, I fire my water cannon. The bird makes a strategic withdrawal but doesn't quite leave, no doubt waiting for me to drop my guard.

"They're very clever," Amo says with a laugh. "Sometimes two will sit outside as decoys and another one will fly through a different window and grab a banana."

Amo gives us some background on the nature reserve that covers most of the island, and the small piece of property owned by her family.

"When I was young there were no trees on this island but since the 1960s, all the trees have just gone mad," she says. We look over at the beautifully forested hills on the island and see what she means.

Then we walk on to a veranda for an experience ornithologists of previous generations could hardly have believed would happen in modern New Zealand.

Strolling about the lawn are two takahe, flightless birds indigenous to New Zealand and once thought to be extinct. Even now, with careful breeding programs, there are only a few hundred in existence.

"What's the fuss," they seem to say as they emit their raucous call and show off their purple/blue plumage and a green-feathered wrap. Their costumes are colour co-ordinated with a red frontal shield over a pink bill, not to mention the red legs.

Impromptu performances by other stars of the New Zealand bird world then break out.

Fat native kereru (wood pigeons), handsome in their iridescent green plumage, dangle awkwardly upside down from shrubs, gorging on berries. Hyperactive wekas - brown hen-like birds - hurtle around the lawn in a madcap routine.

For dinner that night, chef Lindsay Thorpe serves us soft, white fillets of a fish that eats only seaweed. It can't be caught using ordinary bait but the extra effort required is worthwhile because the meal is delicious.

  • Kiwi *

At 9.45pm, John Barrett's son, Manaaki, leads us on our evening search for the little spotted kiwi. He carries a torch with a red filter that is less disturbing to kiwi than white light.

Following behind him through the bush, we try to be quiet because, although the birds have poor eyesight, their hearing is acute.

We hear their distinctive trill, the sound that gave them their name. Unusually for Kapiti, we have difficulty finding any. The name "little spotted kiwi" is starting to seem very apt.

After a couple of hours, some of our party head back to base. That is a mistake. We turn a corner and there stands a kiwi on open ground, illuminated in a soft red light. The experience is uncanny, exciting and funny all once.

After peering short-sightedly at us for a few seconds, the bird takes off like a cartoon kiwi carrying a rugby ball.

And, like most All Blacks, its speed is surprising. It soon dots down the imaginary ball to score, turns left, gives us a final myopic glance and disappears into the bushes.

We are all exhilarated, clapping each other on the back and hugging a smiling Manaaki.

An island once known for war has turned into a place of peace, a New Zealand version of the Garden of Eden.

Michael Day was a guest of Kapiti Island Nature Tours.├é┬Ěkapitiislandnaturetours.co.nz