Waikato: To Sirocco with love

In Maungatautari, Elisabeth Easther is propositioned by a rare bird.

Sirocco turns on the charm as a visitor gazes on. Photo / Supplied
Sirocco turns on the charm as a visitor gazes on. Photo / Supplied

It's not often one returns from a weekend away insane with joy, but Maungatautari and a date with a hot bird have rendered me delirious.

The combination of lush New Zealand bush, fresh air, delicious food and an encounter with Sirocco, the personable kakapo, had me giddy as a teenager at a Beatles' concert, circa 1964.

Maungatautari is 3400 hectares of strictly fenced native bush that's doing wonderful things to preserve our native wildlife.

Just two hours by car from Auckland and 20 minutes from Cambridge, the mountain reserve's purpose is "to remove forever introduced mammalian pests and predators from Maungatautati, and restore to the forest a healthy diversity of indigenous plants and animals not seen in our lifetime".

And they're pretty much on track, bar a couple of mice that still need to be redeployed to mouse heaven. The 47 kilometres of predator-proof fence make this a gated community for kiwi, tui, kaka, hihi, and a swag of other precious native creatures.

The best place to stay when visiting the reserve is Out in the Styx, in Puketaua. Our hosts, Lance and Mary, (who've been in the business of making people feel at home for 17 years) suggested we take a stroll through the bush before dinner.

This was great advice. We couldn't believe the treasure that lay in wait for us a mere two minutes from our cosy digs.

Taking the Southern Enclosure entrance, through a space-age multi-gate system, we spent an hour marvelling at the well-tended, stroller-friendly paths.

All the routes have excellent signage, the information, and general upkeep of this facility is top notch. One particular highlight was the eight storey-viewing tower; high in the treetops we felt at one with the birds.

Back at The Styx, dinner was served on the dot of six, because visitors can't be late for their nocturnal kakapo tour. And the food was delicious. Mary, who is in charge of the kai, deserves a Michelin star. All four courses were flavoursome, healthy and would appeal to every taste.

Replete, we set off for our kakapo encounter, an experience that has been drawing visitors to the centre like a magnet.

Sirocco leaves Maungatautari at the end of September, when he will need to go back to his home on Maud Island in the Marlborough Sounds.

Our encounter began with a short talk about "one of the most critically endangered, intriguing, endearing enigmatic and totally weird birds in the whole world."

Leaving the reception area (great gift shop too) a group of about 25 of us were trucked into the forest in vans, then led through a magical moonlit night to Sirocco's VIP area. No doubt about it, the parrot is a rock star; anthropomorphism aside, our fine-feathered friend worked that room.

And we were all agog as Sirocco strutted up and down, looking us over, sizing us up. You see, 15 years ago, when Sirocco was just a chick, he caught a chest infection, so his human overseers took him to the kakapo hospital and reared him by hand for a spell. This saved his life, only now he thinks he's human as opposed to a rare, critically endangered parrot.

Consequently, Sirocco with his intelligent, cat-like face, inquisitive nature and loving heart finds other kakapo quite unpalatable. In fact, as I hand fed him pine nuts, macadamias and grapes, I believe he asked me out.

Then it was all over, like waking up from a dream, and it was good night Sirocco.

Back into the forest he went, with nothing but a transmitter backpack for luggage. He turned to me for a moment, squawked a few times, asked if I wanted to spend the night, but, being human and not nocturnal, I knew it was time for us to go our separate ways.

The next day, when you're done breathing in the fresh air, listening to the birdsong and marvelling at the towering native trees, pop down to Arapuni and take a walk across the 152m-long swing bridge that dam workers used to commute on in the 1920s. Then check out Rhubarb Cafe where food, service and atmosphere are cuter than buttons.

Oh Sirocco, you personable parrot, you really know how to turn on the charm.

KAKAPO FACTS

* There are only 125 kakapo left in the world.

* Kakapo are the heaviest parrots in the world, and can weigh up to 4kg.

* Kakapo are flightless but they can climb trees to get to food. Luckily they've not lost their wings, because they use them like parachutes as they fall like bricks from the rimu trees.

* During mating season, the men put on a display for the women, digging tracks and cosy bowls, while emitting a loud boom, sometimes for months. How could that fail?

* Sirocco is 15 years old and he hates penguins, detests petrels and isn't a fan of his fellow kakapo either, yet he finds white gumboots an aphrodisiac. Each to their own.

PS: Not everyone gets to hold him, I just got lucky.

TRAVELLERS' TIPS

Sirocco Experience: Tickets $22.50-$45, concessions available.

Sirocco will be at Maungatautari until September 26. Groups can visit seven days a week, across four sessions each evening. And remember, it's as much about him seeing you as you seeing him, so don't just stand there, say something. He's a real people parrot.

Where to stay: Out in the Styx Guesthouse at 2117 Arapuni Rd, Pukeatua, Te Awamutu. Ph (07) 872 4505.

Stylish comfortable accommodation nestled at the foot of Maungatautari. An ideal place to use as a base for doing the new cycleway, hiking or just lazing around. Year round heaven, delectable food.

Where to eat: Rhubarb Cafe at 6 Arapuni Rd, Arapuni. Ph (07) 883 5722.

Great food, friendly unflappable service, and fruity decor. And they rent bikes too.

Elisabeth Easther was a guest of Tourism Waikato.

- NZ Herald

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