We all have our favourite bushwalk, mountain hike, or beach, but New Zealand's wetlands haven't been so easy to visit.
Things are changing though, and the spotlight is being turned on our squishy sites, with an increasing number of boardwalks, bird hides and info panels bringing wetlands out of the back blocks and on to our tourist trails. And for those who baulk at the thought of a steep bush slog, the best thing about wetland walks is they are generally flat.
To help people find these hidden gems the National Wetland Trust is developing an online directory of wetlands open to the public. Here are a dozen of our favourite sites from the Cape to the Bluff.
Lake Ohia, Northland
Lake Ohia is a Lord of the Rings-type place - a bizarre landscape of charred stumps, sun-baked clay crusts and stunted native shrubs in a drained lakebed. Not your typical "wetland" site - the lake is a fleeting feature present for only a couple of months each year – it's classified as a gumland wetland. A short loop track passes a series of holes excavated by last-century gum diggers seeking fossilised resin left by a long-gone kauri forest.
Gumhole Walkway starts off Inland Rd on the Karikari Peninsula.
Kaitoke Wetland, Great Barrier Island
Just a short flight or a relaxing ferry ride away from the bustle of Auckland city lies the region's biggest freshwater wetland. With a stunning jagged mountain backdrop, it's a wonderfully scenic place. You can hire a kayak to paddle into its pristine interior, then take an easy walk across the wetland and soak your tired biceps in a natural hot spring under giant nikau palms. Listen for the high-pitched peep of mātātā (fernbirds) in the rustling reeds along the boardwalk and keep your eye out for cheeky banded rails. Walkway track starts from Whangaparapara Rd, Claris.
Rotopiko Lakes, Waikato
Formed at the end of the last ice age, Rotopiko is one of the best peat lake complexes in the Waikato. Within a pest fence are a small lake, a towering kahikatea forest, picnic areas, walkways and a hands-on activity trail built by the National Wetland Trust, which plans to build a Wetland Discovery Centre here. Families can play eels and ladders, mudfish scrabble, whose poos? and more.
Off State Highway 3, 15 minutes south of Hamilton.
Rainbow Mountain Crater Lakes, Rotorua
Enjoy a short walk past colourful cliffs, geothermal vegetation and steaming ground to a cluster of crater lakes, or a longer slog to the summit for expansive views. In the rest area across the highway, you can enjoy views of Lake Ngahewa and its varied water birds. With nearby Kerosene Creek offering a post-walk soak under a hot waterfall, it's a great winter escape.
Entrance off SH5 at Rainbow Mountain. You can see more geothermal wetlands at Waimangu Volcanic Valley and Ōrākei Kōrako.
Pekapeka Wetland, Hawke's Bay
Strolling along boardwalks that snake their way across this picturesque wetland, it's hard to comprehend the remarkable makeover that has occurred here. Tonnes of rubbish were removed or turned into an educational "artwork" - a stark reminder of how not to treat natural areas. Thickets of invasive willows are also gone, opening up broad vistas. Information boards give the wetland a voice, telling its history, ecology, and cultural value to Māori. Picnic tables make this a great place to break your journey, stretch your legs and enjoy a snack in the countryside.
Off SH2, 25km south of Napier.
Lake Rotokare, Taranaki
Pulling up to the impressive automatic gates in the pest fence surrounding this stunning forested catchment is like arriving at a grand manor. The jewel in the crown is the 18ha natural lake with extensive wetlands jam-packed with mātātā. The mature native forest is home to a fabulous diversity of forest birds, including returned rarities - kiwi, tīeke (saddleback), and pōpokatea (whitehead). A 4km track meanders around the lake, with the first 600m a wheelchair-friendly boardwalk leading on to a floating pontoon.
Situated 12km from the township of Eltham, South Taranaki.
Manawatū Estuary, Foxton
This site is one for the birds, and with more than 90 species it's one of our globally significant (Ramsar) wetlands. The estuary draws a significant international crowd each year - hundreds of godwits, knots and other migratory birds fly in from Alaska and Siberia for a spot of southern sunshine. They share the estuary's rich feeding grounds with the locals (spoonbills, dotterels, oystercatchers and assorted terns). The Dawick St viewing platform is a great place to get the binocs out for a bit of "twitching".
The estuary is at Foxton Beach; drive 5km west of SH1 in Foxton.
If you've flown into Wellington on a blustery northerly you may well have taken a wide sweep over these lakes on your final descent. Situated in East Harbour Regional Park, the lakes are just 4km "as the crow flies" from Wellington airport, but as Google will tell you, an hour's drive and a 30-minute mountain bike ride away. The lakes are dammed river valleys, blocked by land uplift during ancient earthquakes. Keep your eye out for seabirds and wading birds – and maybe the odd shipwreck.
Access from Burdans Gate near Eastbourne (bike hire available).
Mangarakau, Golden Bay
If you haven't visited Mangarakau Swamp south of Farewell Spit, you're missing a real gem. It's a unique and special place - the largest remaining wetland in the region and a great place to hear and see matuku (bittern). Stay at the Friends of Mangarakau House with fantastic views of the wetland and Kahurangi ranges. Pull up a deckchair for sundowners and be serenaded (in season) by the resonant booming of bitterns on the hunt for romance.
Follow Pakawau Bush Rd, north of Collingwood. You can also tour nearby Farewell Spit, another of our internationally important Ramsar wetlands.
Ō Tū Wharekai
Tucked between towering mountain peaks on the eastern side of the Southern Alps, this medley of snow-fed lakes, braided rivers and wetlands is literally on the road to nowhere – the road to Erewhon Station up the Ashburton Gorge from Mt Somers. In combo, they form one of New Zealand's best examples of an unspoiled, inter-montane wetland system. Ephemeral (sometimes-wet, sometimes-dry) kettle hole wetlands are a special feature here - shallow dents formed by ice boulders left behind as glaciers retreated. They're home for special tiny plants - nirvana for "hands and knees" botanists and macrophotography buffs. The 10-minute Kettle Hole Walk near Lake Heron is an easy way to see some, but there are many more walks and mountain bike rides on offer here.
At Mt Somers village, turn off the Arundel-Rakaia Gorge Rd (Scenic Highway 72) and follow Ashburton Gorge Rd towards Hakatere Corner.
Ship Creek and Dune Lake, Haast
Here you can take in two wetlands at one stop – an ancient kahikatea swamp forest, and a dainty dune lake surrounded by wind-shorn trees. Both can be enjoyed as short (under 30 minutes) easy walks along boardwalks. Kids will love playing pirates in the rustic timber "crows nest" offering dramatic views along the coast and over the lake to the snow-capped Southern Alps.
Signposted from the Haast Highway, about 25km north of Haast. While on the West Coast check out the Okarito White Heron (kōtuku) tours further up the coast.
Te Nohoaka o Tukiauau Sinclair Wetlands, Otago
Bookended neatly by two lakes, the "dwelling place of Tukiauau" is owned by Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, valued as a wāhi taonga (culturally significant site), for mahinga kai (traditional food and resources), conservation, recreation, and education. At 315ha, it's one of the largest reclaimed wetlands in the country. Just 40 years ago it was marginal farmland on the site of a former swamp, until far-sighted landowner Horrie Sinclair turned off the pumps and let nature back in. It's now a magical mix of river channels, pools, swamps, and forested islands. Visitors are welcome to walk or kayak, stay overnight or stay on as volunteers.
Access is off Clarendon-Berwick Rd, clearly sign-posted from SH1 at Henley and Clarendon.
Waituna Lagoon, Awarua, Bluff
Prepare to be blown away at this internationally significant site – not just by its vastness and scenery, literally blown away. Perched on the edge of Foveaux Straight near the bottom of the world, in the full force of the roaring forties, you can stand on a multi-coloured pea gravel beach and gaze at alpine plants. Or visit on a calm summer's day and enjoy views of the extensive Waituna lagoon and a stroll among the peatlands, taking in a bird hide and interpretation panels. Pack your macro-lens, this is a lepidopterists paradise - more than 120 species of moth alone have been found here.
Accessible from Awarua Bay Rd, part of the Southern Scenic Route.
Karen Denyer is the executive officer for the NZ Wetland Trust. wetlandtrust.org.nz
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