Despite sitting right on the edge of a city of 400,000 people, Wellington's Zealandia is well on the way to achieving its goal of returning 225 fenced hectares to a pre-human state. Join an evening tour to meet some of the eco-sanctuary's most elusive residents.
For nature enthusiasts, no visit to Aotearoa New Zealand’s capital city — Te Whanganui a Tara Wellington — would be complete without taking time out to explore Zealandia.
This is the world’s first fully-fenced urban eco-sanctuary, and it has an extraordinary 500-year vision to restore the area’s forest and freshwater ecosystems to their condition prior to human settlement. I’ve been wanting to visit Zealandia for some time and finally get the opportunity on a wintery June weekend. I decide to book day entry to explore the sanctuary at my own pace, and a guided night tour for the chance to see kiwi and wētāpunga (giant wētā insects).
Zealandia operates a free shuttle service to and from the city, so I make my way to the pick-up location near the i-SITE on Wakefield Street. The shuttle arrives right on time and I’m joined on board by four other passengers who are also visiting Wellington for the weekend. The drive to Zealandia takes just over 10 minutes and our driver uses the time to provide an overview of the sanctuary. At the drop-off point, we’re given instructions for catching a return shuttle. Those staying on for the night tour (like me) must organise their own return journey by taxi or Uber.
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A friendly staff member at the front desk quickly organises my entry ticket and advises me of the amenities in the main building (which include toilets, a souvenir store, museum and cafe). I’m provided with a map of the site and details about the daily talks offered by staff. I also get instructions for doing a gear check before entering the eco-sanctuary to ensure no pests have hitched a ride in my belongings. A detailed search duly completed, I head off on foot towards the lower dam and meeting point for a presentation on the kākā.
The map is easy to follow and the distances between areas of interest are short. I make it to the kākā talk with a few minutes to spare, and spend the time getting some great photos of the birds hanging out at the feeders. A staff member shares interesting information about these native parrots that once inhabited forests across New Zealand. Unfortunately they’re now an endangered species, but do extremely well where pest and predator numbers are low. Zealandia has had so much success breeding kākā, that they’re no longer tagging every bird.
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After the talk I continue along the main trail to the upper dam. Just before reaching it, a kererū (native wood pigeon) surprises me by swooping close by and landing on a branch to pose for a photo. Then I hear a sound I’m familiar with: a tīeke (saddleback), which sounds like a car engine turning over but not quite starting. It doesn’t take long to spot the tīeke and I get close enough to take a few pictures. Tīeke are black with a burnt orange saddle and red wattle. Extremely rare in the wild, they’re one of my favourite birds.
At the upper dam a fog has closed in and bird sounds fill the air, giving the setting a mystical feel. I hear screeching kākā and the sweet song of the tūi, and spend some time enjoying the scene. Heading back down the valley, a side track leads me towards the wetlands — and here I spot another tīeke taking a bath in a stream right in front of me. What a treat! On arrival at the wetlands, I’m greeted by two cute pāteke (brown teal ducks). They’re New Zealand’s only nocturnal duck. You will see them out and about during the day, but they do most of their foraging for food at night.
Further on I meet Zealandia’s two resident takahē. As one of New Zealand’s critically endangered birds, it’s a real privilege to see them. It’s estimated that there are just over 400 of these flightless birds remaining in the world, and most of them live in wildlife sanctuaries. It highlights the importance of protected habitats like this one. Takahē are not the most attractive of birds, but they have plenty of character (as I later discover on the night tour!).
It’s taken me two hours to get around the sanctuary at a relaxed pace. I return to the main building with half an hour to spare before the night tour, and head to the cafe for afternoon tea. There’s also a bit of time to browse in the souvenir shop before tour guide Lynda gathers everyone together and introduces herself and her support guide, Glenda (who will lend a hand locating the special creatures we hope to see this evening). There are twelve of us in the group, which is the maximum number of participants on a night tour.
The tour starts with a short movie in the museum on the evolution of New Zealand and its wildlife. It’s interesting to learn that before humans, no mammals lived here except for very small bats.
From there, we venture out into the darkening landscape. Leading us towards the lower dam, Lynda explains how native aquatic species were recently removed from the water in order to eliminate the perch (non-native fish). This also meant lowering the dam’s water level. The process was successful and the sanctuary is looking forward to refilling the dam and allowing native inhabitants, such as tuna (freshwater eels), to return.
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We move on to the wetlands to find the takahē before it gets too dark. Lynda has a bit of food with her to entice them out of the bushes, and it doesn’t take long for both to make an appearance. The male is quite aggressive over his snack and Lynda tells us that sadly the pair haven’t bred successfully.
We continue up the track to the fence line of the tuatara enclosure. These prehistoric-looking reptiles are another endangered species that’s kept in sanctuaries to facilitate breeding programs. We see three tuatara in total, including a juvenile and large male.
It’s dark by this point and we’re all keen to spot a kiwi, but there’s no call or sound of scratching in the leaf litter to be heard anywhere near us. We venture on to the kākā feeding boxes and down a track to the stream where the forest is denser. Here, Lynda introduces us to some interesting insects, including slugs and cave wētā. But the real highlight is the colony of glow worms. They create sticky strings that capture insects attracted by their glowing tails. To see them en masse is like viewing a starry sky on a clear night.
We hear some distant kiwi calls, but there are no birds to be seen. Lynda is keen to show us some large spiders, so we make our way back towards the main building where there are plenty of webs to be found. We also see another wētā (a tree dwelling type this time). Lynda hasn’t given up hope on the kiwi and tries another side track, but much to our disappointment we reach the end of the tour without having spotted these elusive locals.
The tour wraps up at close to 7pm with a cup of hot kawakawa tea, which is a lovely touch. I thank Lynda and Glenda for their time and farewell the others in the group before calling a taxi. Despite not seeing a kiwi, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed both the afternoon visit and evening tour. And besides, I now have a good reason to return!
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Cover image: Jeff McEwan, Capture Studios. Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Hailing from Aotearoa New Zealand, Karllie Clifton is an avid midlife traveller and blogger who loves an adventure. In 2015, Karllie left her teaching profession, sold her home, and spent the next three years travelling full time. It sparked a real passion for budget solo travel, which she now loves to inspire others to do. In recent years, Karllie has visited more than twenty countries across three continents. She loves hiking and anything to do with the ocean.