I was prepared for disappointment. It usually ends that way.
As part of an overnight kayak in the islands of the Hauraki Gulf (four islands in two days with Auckland Sea Kayaks) we had been promised a spot of kiwi hunting on Motuihe Island. Our energetic guide Nic Mead had told us of the 40 little spotted kiwi released on the predator-free island over the past two summers; how frequently they'd been seen about their business. But, I've had plenty of the "oh you should have seen all the orca/dolphins/kiwi we saw last week" stories in the past.
So when we ventured out in the dusk around the headland from our DoC campsite at Waihaorangatahi Bay, red-light torches in hand, I wasn't holding out much hope. We were well pleased at spotting the two tuatara in their burrows - sweetly dug out by volunteers to include a turning circle at the bottom - who'd obliged by posing just like the old five cent coin. But as we kept walking, we heard kiwi cries. Torches off, we sat in agonising silence as the cries got closer 'til Nic beckoned us over. More disappointment: under the speckled pohutukawa branch all I could see was speckled rock.
Then the rock moved. Up popped a kiwi head, long beak, beady eyes. It pecked about, just like the song, and lolloped back into its lair. Miracle. I will admit there were tears and unseemly teenage-like "OMG, OMGs".
The day's perfect kayaking, a stunning campsite and a splendid meal had just paled into insignificance. Which is a little unfair, as Nic had created a flawless kayaking itinerary, provided for our every need (we needed to bring only our clothes, toothbrushes and cameras) and was a wealth of information about the islands.
Six of us in double kayaks, plus Nic, had set off from the St Heliers boat ramp on Saturday morning. We'd watched in awe as the guys packed bin after bin of clothes, jackets and safety gear into the holds of the New Zealand-made vessels (Nic works only with local suppliers who know our local conditions; similarly he uses Kokako to supply the wonderful meals). After life jacket and spray-skirt fittings, a safety briefing and some paddling lessons, we set off in convoy for Motukorea (formerly known as Browns) Island.
Auckland's perfect summer obliged us with pancake-flat water, lulling us into a false sense of how good we were. It wasn't until we rounded the headland of the island and struck the late-morning headwind that we realised why we needed a guide, as this was tricky stuff for a novice. My sister and I didn't quite go backwards, but nearly. Fortunately, this meant that by the time we reached shore, the others had had time to unpack the lavish lunch.
Spirits revived, we hiked to the top of the island to look down on the Auckland waterfront, islands and the Tamaki estuary spread out before us. That savvy John Logan Campbell knew what he was doing when he bought this pa site from the tangata whenua to wait out his land grab when Tamaki Makaurau became New Zealand's capital.
The afternoon's paddle to Motuihe was more flat perfection, with lots of pauses for photographs. With only three other camping parties, we had the pick of the DoC campground sites to set up our tents - and the very eco-longdrop with the world's best view. Nic cooked dinner before we tramped off for sunset photography and our kiwi expedition. It was fitting that the fireworks from the Domain Arts Festival show fizzed and popped as we re-lived our kiwi moment around the camp table.
We felt like old hands as we took on Sunday's kayak, stopping first at Motutapu for lunch (we had been warned the food was good, and I suspect that, despite all our paddling, the weekend may have been calorie-neutral), then on to Rangitoto for a swim.
We obliged Nic in our final push for home by expertly skimming under the wharf and past a ferry-load of admiring passengers, looking every bit the relaxed pros we were feeling by that stage. We were sure our luck would yield a final pod of orcas or dolphins ("you should have been here last week etc") but that would have been gilding the lily.
So you wonderful islands of the Hauraki, you wonderful volunteers and conservationists, this time you didn't disappoint.
• Auckland Sea Kayaks' island-hopping packages include day and sunset Rangitoto, half-day Motukorea and overnight tours from $135 to $365 a person, with all meals and gear provided. Bookings ph 0800 999 089 aucklandseakayaks.co.nz
• Motuihe Trust motuihe.org.nz
• 360 Discovery ferries run Wednesdays until March 27, and Sunday March 31. Go to 360discovery.co.nz
• Motutapu Restoration Trust runs volunteer planting days, with special Fullers Ferry fare. See motutapu.org.nz or email firstname.lastname@example.org for dates.
Catherine Smith was a guest of Auckland Sea Kayaks.