Ashleigh Collis explores Kapiti Island nature reserve, where the little spotted kiwi population is thriving
I've often sat on the black sands of Horowhenua's coastline and looked over at the rugged and seemingly uninhabited Kapiti Island.
Finally, I've decided to visit.
On a crisp morning with not a cloud in the sky, I watch an extra-large wheeled tractor pull the Kapiti Island Nature Tours boat from the water, bringing it on to the beach for me and my fellow Kapiti-bound visitors to board.
After double-checking my bags for stow-aways such as organic items, rats or stoats, and brushing dirt from my shoes, I make sure I've stuck closely to the list of conditions designed to keep the island's flora and fauna safe from pest invasion, and board the boat.
It's a short but often rough trip skimming across the ocean towards the island.
We hear the rocks rolling beneath the boat as it slides ashore at Waiorua Bay. Then it's down the gangplank and across a stony beach strewn with paua shells and up a track to the checkpoint.
Here, I encounter hundreds of native lizards taking shelter under a bench seat.
My amazement at the sheer abundance of native life is the common theme throughout my island experience.
As I sit and listen to the history of the island as told by John Barrett, co-owner of Kapiti Island Nature Tours and a member of the last remaining family to own land on the island, I very quickly come to appreciate the island's pest-free status and the immense work involved in ensuring it stays that way.
The island had a scare in 2010 when a stoat was sighted but DOC immediately deployed a team which searched rigorously, discovering eight stoats.
The island hasn't had a pest incursion since, but hundreds of pest control traps are routinely checked and baited.
As I am here for an overnight say, I find my cabin nestled among a valley of flax. After ditching bags, my friends and I head for the island's peak.
The 4.8km Okupe Valley Loop track follows a gentle gradient to a lookout above the western cliffs.
We reach the top, where a precipice below plunges to a jagged coastline, home to a colony of seals.
It's a view that requires more than a moment of contemplation — but don't put down your bags. Cheeky weka are always waiting and watching for the perfect time to pounce, seemingly not afraid of anything.
After returning from our walk and washing up for dinner, we meet in the dining room which is perched on the side of the island looking out across the ocean towards the mainland.
The setting sun puts on an amazing display of golden light, filtering through the clouds and on to the ocean.
As we wait for dinner, local wine and cheese appears, lining the table and our stomachs.
In 1897 John's grandmother Utauta Webber refused to sell her land to the government, which was turning the island into a nature reserve.
This act of defiance, that future generations would come to thank her for, has allowed public access to the island and maintained its Maori roots.
Later, with dinner over, the sun has set and, warmed by the wine and hearty meal, we pull on jackets and set out into the valley in hopes of catching a glimpse of the national icon.
Following our kiwi-spotting tour guide, John's son Manaaki Barrett, we walk slowly and softly around the valley, careful not to make a sound.
The birds are calling to one another, giving away their location, and before we know it we hear a kiwi pair heading towards us through the bush.
I can hear scuffling in the leaves when suddenly one runs across the track, brushing up against my friend's leg. What an experience.
To have such a close encounter with this weird pre-historic looking bird is more than special.
Waking up the next morning, we find kereru are out in force, perched in the trees and pecking at the ground.
Weka bathe in the carved troughs dotted around for that very purpose, while little blue penguins are nesting under the deck and a pair of takahe wander the grounds, stopping in to say hello.
Though the birds on the island aren't tame, they are unafraid to be living in and around humans and often relax within arms' reach.
The bustling of birds makes my heart break for the mainland's bird populations and detest even more the pests endangering their survival.
Though my trip is taking place in the depths of winter, Kapiti Island has showcased its magnificent beauty and mauri, and it has opened my eyes to what we are in danger of losing.
There is endless adventure to be had on Kapiti Island.
It's a nature-lover's dream, and the embodiment of untouched native New Zealand.