Tuesday, October 25th, 2011: Wellington, New Zealand
We’ve returned to the capital of New Zealand with a full day in port as we continue on a northbound course with the cruise ship Dawn Princess. As this was our fourth straight day of active ports, we were excited about a leisurely day at Zealandia, an animal sanctuary for endemic birds and animals. Established on the outer boundaries of the city of Wellington, the goal of the project is to provide 500 years of protection to not only the animals, but to reclaim the lost rain forest of this region on its grounds.
As we arrived into the Wellington port, the skies were dark gray and the wind was howling. Though it wasn’t terribly cold, it wasn’t exactly the red carpet welcome that most of the cruise passengers were hoping for. We jumped onto a shuttle into town (the port is about 4kms from the city center and given the weather, we figured it would just be an easier option) and arrived shortly before 9am. We walked around a little bit and arrived at a local hotel, one of the pickup points for the free Zealandia shuttle. Normally, we would consider a leisurely walk, but Zealandia is located just past Kelburn Village, on the outskirts of Wellington city after a lengthy and significant uphill climb. At ten minutes to ten, the shuttle driver arrived and we got into the empty van and less than 15 minutes later, we were at the front doors of the sanctuary.
It has been a few years since the release of Jurassic Park, but on some levels, it felt like we had arrived at the front gates of a massive and ongoing science project. A huge and towering fence ran along the front gates, and as we paid our admission, we had to pass through a checkpoint and two indpendently locking gates. One must close before the other opens. This not only keeps the animals inside the park, but helps to avoid visitors, like us, from bringing any unwanted stowaways, like mice, rats, etc. Fortunately, no dinosaurs started walking by, so for the moment, we were safe…
Once inside, we began to read about the ongoing non-profit objectives of Zealandia. The first is to re-establish the natural ecosystem of the Wellington area as it was over 500 years ago at the time of the Maori people. In addition, to release, breed, and propogate endemic species of birds, animals, and plant life to restore the lost balance of the natural environment of this place. Though the final results will require more than 500 years to complete, the project is well funded, for the moment, to see the goals through for many decades to come. The massive fence, specially designed for the sanctuary is in place to keep anything and everything out of the park, including mice, rats, stoats, cats, deer, and other creatures that were introduced to New Zealand at a later time period (ususally with the colonists) and in some cases were the cause of the decline in the native populations.
We were looking forward to a nice leisurely stroll through the park, anticipating its size to be that similar to a zoo or other animal park. When we found out that the park was 22kms (13 miles) long by 9kms (5.4 miles) wide, with 30kms (18 miles) of walking tracks, we realized that we were significantly in over our heads. A park map provided some well marked walks to take that blended some easy level loops to most of the park’s key sights, along with a couple of intermediate trails and one recommended advanced track, called the Round The Lake loop that recently has had a number of animal and bird sightings.
All in all, that set of walks came to somewhere in the vicinity of 6.5 – 7 kilometers (about 4 miles) of walking, so we just started slow and worked our way through the park, one section at a time. Shortly after we entered, we arrived at the Gecko Grotto, the home of the Wellington Green Gecko. Though they have to be in small wooden terrariums to keep them safe and at the proper temperature, we were able to see several of them. From here, we passed by a large lake/pond area that was home to a large number of shags, endemic new Zealand birds. There were four different types at this location, some of which with teal and yellow bands around their eyes.
As we continued along the path, a boardwalk brought us down along the edge of the water, where we found ducks and their spring ducklings following close behind. As we rounded a corner, though, we were face to face with a Takahe, one of the most rare birds on Earth. At Zealandia, two pairs of takahes were released in late 2010, in the hopes of getting them to breed. They are 4 of only about 120 in the world. And we’re staring at one as it walks ever so slowly into the weeds on the banks of the pond to hide away from something other than us, as it almost didn’t register the people as a threat.
From here, we walked along the path, winding our way through a number of trees where we began hearing dozens of bird calls, all of which were unknown to us. Fortunately, signage along the way introduced each of the species in the park and how to identify them and examples of their calls. As we continued along we saw several kaka birds. Beyond the less than lucky name this bird got for itself, its plummage is brillant in dark reds and greys, and looks a lot like a parrot, but with a dark face and black beak. Extremely powerful, that beak can snap through a lot, so as long as its beak and our fingers were not in proximity, it was a beautiful bird to view.
We also ran into another duck with nine chicks. They were all following mom along in a bunch, and as we drew closer, they huddled up with mom awaiting further instructions. We kept our distance, using only the camera to take pictures and let them all work their way back into the brush and away from the big human people making all of the noise on the gravel pathway.
We approached a dam holding back a sizeable lake. Only then did we realize that the “Round The Lake” walk would take us all the way around this massive body of water. We took our time and had plenty of rest breaks, and finally made our way around to the other side. The only major hangup along the way was that a recent rain has turned the reasonably solid pathway into a mudbog in several locations, requiring some degree of gymnastics to skip, hop, and dodge the goopy mud in a number of spots.
The weather unfortunately never really changed through the course of the day, so the wind continued to howl and at times blew through the park with some impressive fury. Thankfully, it kept us cool as we hiked up into the hills, round the lake on a number of switchbacks and through the miniature mud bogs, and finally back to our starting point at the dam.
Once we returned to the southern edge of this route, we were back on the easy path again, crossing a wooden suspension bridge, and then to the Hihi and Bellbird feeders. These birds again are extremely endangered, and the tiny hihi can’t be larger than your fist, but lets off the loudest birdcall you could possibly imagine. When we heard it, we kept looking for something 10x as large and once we finally spotted the source of this blaring noise, we were dumbfounded when this tiny little puffball of a gray bird, set on a log and let out a noise that sounded like it had its own amplifier. We grabbed some photos and then headed back out towards the main entrance of the park.
Our last stop before calling it a day was at the Tuatara Research Facility. Zealandia has more than 100 tuatara on the property, and the researchers are attempting to find the best possible methods of breeding and increasing the populations of these lizard looking, leathery, ancient reptile like creatures. We had been waiting to see one in the flesh for some time and we were fortunate enough, with the help of a guide to spot two of them. Since they camoflauge extremely well, we were fortunate to find them in the brush.
Once we arrived back at the front gate, we passed through the double independent doors, through the stowaway bag check and back out at the front entrance, we took the shuttle back into downtown Wellington. We were on a new mission, and this one was for food.
Being back in New Zealand meant that we had the privilege of once again getting a burger at Burger Fuel. If we haven’t mentioned it earlier, it has fantastic burgers and they specialize in Gluten Free Buns for all of their creations! Natalie ordered a hamburger with beetroot on a GF bun and when it showed up, it looked so good that she actually had to double check with the chef that it was a GF bun, because it looked and tasted similar to the bun on Darin’s cheeseburger! It was a great meal and then it was time to head back to the shuttle and to the ship.
Another great day in port, and though we had the clouds, overcast, and the wind, it couldn’t dampen the day at Zealandia, a fantastic sanctuary that will hopefully continue to be around and serve to share the great animal and natural history to many generations to come.