Its most famous resident is no longer around, but the Pūkaha National Wildlife Centre in the Wairarapa still has many wild attractions,
The eels get tangled as they swarm in the shallow water trying to reach the metal spoon laden with leftover chicken skin.
With only our head torches to light the way, it's hard to tell where the rapids end and the mess of eels begin. They come right up to the step from where we're feeding them and reach their ugly heads above the water hoping to be the chosen one to get the scraps.
The trick is to hold the spoon almost vertical so they can't suck on to it and take it with them.
"Look at you, you're so beautiful," our guide Noeline coos to the grotesque creatures.
Pūkaha National Wildlife Centre is perhaps best known as having being home to the rare white kiwi Manukura, as well as tuatara and cheeky takahē. Manukura - the first white kiwi hatched in captivity, died on December 27, aged 10. DoC Wairarapa operations manager Kathy Houkamau told the Herald in December that Manukura will be missed. "She was a fantastic ambassador for Pūkaha, kiwi, conservation and tourism in Wairarapa and we are all very sad that she has passed."
But, even without its most famous resident, the centre is still full of surprises. I, for example, would not have expected to walk away with the highlight being a newfound respect for the humble eel.
My distaste for the species dates back to the day my family visited a waterfall in the Waitākere Ranges when I was about 7 years old. As we ate our lunch in the sun on the rocks, I dangled my feet in the cool water — until an eel nibbled on my toe.
More than two decades later, I still hadn't forgiven the eels.
Then came Noeline and the night tour.
We came to Pūkaha, 30km north of Masterton, on our pre-Christmas campervan trip through the Wairarapa up to Hawke's Bay following part of the 380km Classic New Zealand Wine Trail. Spotting an opportunity, the sanctuary has started offering a package to let campervans stay overnight in their car park next to the reserve, combined with either a morning or a night tour.
With a bottle of plonk in our fridge from one of the many Wairarapa wineries we'd stopped by as we wound our way up from Wellington and a pre-packed dinner from Finom Kitchen in Carterton, we were happy campers as we waited for nightfall.
About 7pm we met Noeline and her two grandchildren, who had been dragged along to their no-doubt umpteenth tour after a last-minute staffing change. The kids were pros and knew the tour off by heart. Their keen young eyes proved valuable for spotting wildlife.
After a quick briefing on how to best use our head-torches - red for enclosures, white for trails and waved up and down to signal a bird sighting - we were on our way into the ngāhere.
Our first stop was the kiwi house. On our way we were spotted by a curious kākā who swooped low over our heads then perched on the railing to listen in as Noeline explained the parrots can land on a visitor's head to transfer oil from their hair to their feathers.
Sometimes though, explains Noeline, they're after more than just oily hair.
The kākā can work in pairs outside the cafe. One will land near a table to snatch the attention and admiration of the diners while the other sneaks up from behind to steal their food.
"Today I heard they grabbed a piece of cake and flew off with it," she says.
We head into the forest to find the eels.
Like me, Noeline also wasn't always a fan of the species.
"I must admit, when I first started I was quite terrified of them. But now I've got to know them, I've realised they're quite social and quite loving," she laughs.
There is admiration in her voice as she tells us a fully grown female "going flat-tack" can hurl herself out of the water and knock over a cow before the pack works as a team to break its ribs and devour the entire animal.
Though the eels are smaller now than when she started, she says.
"In the old days, you could pick up an eel and its head and tail would still be in the water - that's how big they used to get."
This evening she's pleased because she spots a large female who's starting to prepare for "the big swim" up to the trenches under the sea near Tonga, where the females release 20 million eggs.
We learn eels are really quite incredible and a poorly understood species that go through two massive transformations in their lives. The first is when the eggs float back to New Zealand from Tonga. By the time they get here, the spawn has transformed into little glass eels the size of an index finger. At this age they can suction their way up a 20-30m cliff.
They then adapt to live in the freshwater that flows through Aotearoa's waterways and stay for about 25 years - though sometimes up to 80 years - before they start to go through another radical change again to prepare for their second "big swim".
Instinct kicks in, their heads get pointy and their eyes double in size. When they smell the saltwater, their gills adapt then they start on their year-long journey up along the seafloor back to Tonga.
"They've got a lot of challenges - but the biggest challenge is us, because we've removed a lot of their wetlands," Noeline says.
As they thrash in the shallows trying to get the chicken skin scraps, Noeline says they're actually really well-behaved.
"They'll swim round your legs, they'll sit on your foot."
The childhood trauma of an eel softly nibbling my toe means the thought of one sitting on my foot is enough to give me nightmares but I do feed them some scraps, which is rather rewarding now I know their struggles.
While it was a good night for working through my relationship with eels, it's not a wildly successful evening for bird sightings despite the extra help of Noeline's grandchildren. Though we do manage to see a wētā, glow-worms and a kiwi in the aviary, running along the fence line to snatch the insects that come to the surface.
The closest I've ever come to a kiwi is in the enclosure in Auckland Zoo so seeing one in the pseudo-wild is really special. While I'm still elated from my renewed respect for the humble eel, this is the highlight of the night for my other half, who talks about it for days afterwards.
Later that night, asleep in our campervan next to the aviary, I'm woken about 2am by shrieking as the reserve comes alive with echoing bird calls.
My sleepy brain thinks back to the pack of eels taking out a large land mammal before I realise it was the kiwi calling into the night for his mate - and my toes are safely locked away under the blankets.
The Classic New Zealand Wine Trail encompasses Hawke's Bay, Wairarapa, Wellington and Marlborough. classicwinetrail.co.nz
Find out more about Pūkaha's overnight campervan tours at pukaha.org.nz