Island sanctuaries provide precious freedom for native wildlife to flourish, writes Thomas Bywater
New Zealand looked a lot different before humans got here. It sounded different, too.
Anyone who has had the privilege of staying on predator-free islands such as Rotoroa will have heard the waraki - a dawn chorus from a land before time.
Kākāpō, once thought to be extinct, were found alive and well on Stewart Island, by DoC rangers in the 1970s who overheard the spooky, rolling "boom" of the giant parrots. Takahē and other motu residents have similar stories of miraculous return from the edge after being heard.
Who knows what huia would sound like if they were found today?
Many birds and their songs have gone the way of the moa. Pacific rats, stoats and, yes, humans have made a mess of things and there's no Jurassic Park for extinct species under DoC's care.
But there's the next best thing. There are more than 80 ecosanctuaries - some on motu - deemed predator-free. Many are open to the public to visit.
They are places conservation groups have worked to restore. Some are in New Zealand's really wild places, others are only 20 minutes from urban centres.
Why not roll back the clock to a prehistoric vision of Aotearoa, and visit one of these predator-free islands, as soon as your local alert levels allow.
Ulva Island, Southland
Ulva Island/Te Wharawhara is a tiny motu off the shore of New Zealand's southernmost island, Rakiura Stewart Island. You'll find podocarp forests, golden sands, and the odd snoozing sea lion on the beach. Easy walking tracks form a two-hour loop of the west end of the island cut past weka and kākāriki (red crowned parakeet).
You may be lucky enough to see a kororā (blue penguin) swimming under the jetty.
The Ulva Island ferry, which runs from Golden Bay every other hour, is a trip in itself. Tickets are printed on leaves of Rangiora Muttonbird scrub. Once used as wrapping and even postcards, you'll find them growing on the shores.
Poor Knights Islands, Northland
Poor Knights Islands are world treasures, as New Zealand's first marine reserves. They've attracted divers and snorkellers from around the world. Although you cannot land on the islands, there's plenty to see beneath the waves. If the predator-free islands have been designed to regenerate birdlife, fishing bans and carefully controlled boating rules have led to an explosion of life under the water. It was a favourite dive site for Jacques Cousteau, the grandfather of scuba diving.
Coloured sponge fields attract a host of tiny animals that attract stingrays to the island in summer. You might even see pods of orca, which come to feed on the rays.
On the island you'll also find the Riko Riko Sea Cave - the world's biggest coastal chasm.
As the start line for the Poor Knight's Challenge, it's big enough to hold 100 waka ama and canoes ahead of the race to Tutukaka.
Kapiti and Wellington Harbour
Somes Island/Matiu is the jewel of Wellington Harbour, with ferry links for an easy day-trip to predator-free Somes.
There are two bookable DoC huts for overnights and camping facilities for those wanting to get closer to nature.
For the more adventurous day out, Fergs Kayaks run a five-hour trip by sea kayak. But no stowaways! You can't bring any pets and you'll have to check your dry bags for pests.
Around the Kāpiti coast, Kāpiti Island is one of the largest predator-free islands in the country. Visible from the mainland, it's the Skull Island of Peter Jackson's childhood that inspired him to make the film King Kong. Although you're unlikely to sight any giant gorillas, you will see weka and kākā and, if you are lucky, Little Spotted kiwi.
Overnight kiwi-spotting tours and glamping hut accommodation will boost your chances and are available through ferry operator Kāpiti Island Nature Tours.
Hauraki Marine Reserve, Auckland
Although they are off limits right now due to level 3 restrictions, Tāmaki Makaurau is lucky enough to have four predator-free sanctuaries as close as 20 minutes from the downtown ferry terminal.
Tiritiri Mātangi might be the best known of these as home to a takahē breeding programme and an impressive white lighthouse. However on the other side of Waiheke, Rotoroa Island is a hidden gem. A stopover for the Coromandel ferry, there's one service a day in summer. The former rehab centre is now a paradise for takahē, kiwi and swimming beaches.
In the most remote parts of the Hauraki, off the shore of Aotea Great Barrier Island is the stylish sanctuary of Kaikōura Island. Motu Kaikōura Lodge is an award-winning accommodation option only open to those volunteering to help with the restoration project.
It's worth noting that travel to DOC-managed islands in the Hauraki Gulf is prohibited under level 3, even for day trip visits. Island staff and their families are considered one bubble and to keep them safe, DOC is asking people to not venture to the islands until level 3 restrictions are lifted.
Whale Island, Bay of Plenty
Off the coast of Whakatāne, Moutohorā/Whale Island is a sanctuary not only for feathered creatures but also fur seals and rare reptiles. The island on the edge of the Bay of Plenty is home to a host of skinks and northern tuatara.
The humpbacked island is full of scenic landings, ancient pōhutukawa forests and, hidden on the west of the island is a secret hot water beach, Onepū/Sulphur Bay.
Landing on Moutohorā is by permit only. However, Ngāti Awa Tourism and Prosail charters lead guided tours around the island and the bays.
It's maunga not motu that normally bring visitors to Queenstown. However, in the middle of Lake Wakatipu is a unique sanctuary, nestled under Mount Larkin and with views towards Earnslaw. Pigeon Island/Wāwāhi Waka is home to uniquely predator-free beech forest, transformed by the Wakatipu Islands Reforestation Trust in just two decades. Only accessible by private boat, check your boat and bags for pests before landing.
The waters of Queen Charlotte Sound are full of motu with unique birdlife. On Motuara and Blumine Island, you'll find New Zealand's rarest parrot, the Orange-fronted Parakeet (kākāriki karaka), fledgling Rowi kiwi through Operation Nest Egg and the most confusing entry into the annual Bird of the Year contest - the long-tailed bat (pekapeka-tou-roa).
The half-hour Motuara track or hour-long trail through Blumine Island's gun emplacements can be reached by water taxi from Picton.
D0C's guide to pest-free motu
To protect New Zealand's pest free islands and other motu, prepare by:
Check your bags and gear for pests such as insects.
Clean you footwear and kit, washing treads and checking for mud or seeds.
Close your bags with zips or sealable bags to keep stowaways out.
You'll have to leave your pets at home and don't be surprised if rangers ask to check your gear on arrival. Always check specific rules at doc.govt.nz, before you set off.
Check alert levels and Ministry of Health advice before travel. covid19.govt.nz