It hovers on the coastline like a giant ocean liner, its silhouette resembling an impregnable floating fortress.

Long on my Kiwi bucket-list, I finally took a foray to Kapiti Island on a mild winter's morning.

Kapiti Island from the air.
Kapiti Island from the air.

Departing from Paraparaumu Airport on the shortest chopper ride of my life, Kapiti Heliworx hoisted me over the water from the mainland to this storied island sanctuary. Waiting to greet me was Manaaki Barrett, the walking, breathing embodiment of manākitanga, who runs the Kapiti Island Nature Tours Lodge.

Manaaki Barrett.
Manaaki Barrett.

Kapiti Island's designation as a nature reserve enjoys an interesting quirk. Twenty hectares of the legendary island remains privately owned by the Barrett whānau — in a family trust — who are dedicated to guarding this bird-lover's Eden and to preserving their whakapapa.

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The Barrett family sit atop an overturned dinghy.
The Barrett family sit atop an overturned dinghy.

Their roots run deep, ever since their warrior ancestor, Te Rangihīroa, journeyed down from Waikato with Te Rauparaha to settle on the island.

Back then, more than 2000 people lived here, powered by the booming whaling and sealing trade. As Manaaki put it delicately, there was a lot of intermingling between people. The Barretts have lived here in some shape for the past 200 years — Manaaki's grandmother was the last person to be born on the island.

Declared a nature reserve by the Government in 1897 — bar the Barretts' block — John's whānau continued to farm their piece of Kapiti Island until 1966, as native bush regenerated around them.

Seeing the potential of eco-tourism, Kapiti Island Nature Tours was set up by Manaaki's parents, John and Sue, and his aunty Amo over 20 years ago.

All of the flax table placemats and lodge decorations are still weaved by Sue. Most of the whānau split their time between the mainland and the island, but their commitment to helping safeguard and share the spirit of the island is undeniable.

I also met John's cousin, the delightful Wayne Spratt, who has a prime residential spot on the island reaching out towards the lodge across Waiorua Bay.

 Kapiti Island Nature Tours is well signposted.
Kapiti Island Nature Tours is well signposted.

Wayne ushered me back to the mainland on his fishing boat, which entailed wading ashore on Paraparaumu Beach, due to the low tide. That was a disembarkation I will never forget!

Wayne remarked that Manaaki's passion for birdlife was readily apparent as a young boy. He enthralled me with his cautionary advice about the cheeky kaka and scavenging weka, the island's local muggers, along with guidance on how to avoid falling foul to a kererū bomb.

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Kererū thrive on Kapiti Island.
Kererū thrive on Kapiti Island.

I walked past trees positively groaning under the weight of kererū, some trees had 30 of these fat wood pigeons nonchalantly perched on their branches. I thought my eyes were deceiving me.

Predator-free since 1998, birds absolutely rule the roost here. The last incursion of this sanctuary was when a stoat swam ashore and gave birth to two babies. It cost DoC a million dollars to track them down and finally kill them, taking over two years.

Among the island's greatest hits of conservation achievements, the saddleback thrives here, brought back from the verge of extinction.

The little spotted kiwi programme has been such a roaring success that they now number over 1200 on the island. They live a super secretive life, specialising in maximum stealth. Manaaki pointed out numerous kiwi burrows to me in the bush.

The species is now being exported to other bird sanctuaries around the country, because the island has so many of them.

Okupe Lagoon.
Okupe Lagoon.

At the north end of the island, I struck out on the verdant and supremely scenic Okupe Valley Loop Track, thickly sound-tracked by a cacophony of avian life, raucous and melodic in equal parts, which led me up to the most seraphic views across the western cliffs and the Okupe Lagoon.

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Building up a healthy appetite, Manaaki had whipped up a generous platter for lunch, which I eagerly devoured, while admiring the magnificent historic photos of the whānau, taking pride of place on the wall.

Manaaki Barrett's great-great grandmother.
Manaaki Barrett's great-great grandmother.

Manaaki's great-great granny, Metapere Waipunahau, who led the staunch resistance of land being subsumed by the Government, is buried on the island.

If you're keen for a flavourful day trip or overnight stay with Kapiti Island Nature Tours, the full range of experiences resumes from September 1. As one of the oldest publicly accessible nature reserves in the world, it's a must for every Kiwi.

  • www.kapitiisland.com