International travel

Cape Kidnappers Overland Gannet Safari

Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, is known for many things: Wines, produce, beaches, the annual Art Deco festival in Napier.

Perhaps not as well-known is Cape Kidnappers on the southern part of the Bay.

According to Maori legend, the Cape itself was the hook with which the Polynesian god Maui pulled the North Island from the sea.  It received its name in 1769 from the famous explorer Captain James Cook, when local Maori attempted to kidnap a young Tahitian boy from Captain Cook’s ship.

Our group visited Cape Kidnappers to go on safari. A gannet safari!

And since I love photographing birds, I was very eager for this excursion!

Images by RJMOur Safari

According to Lonely Planet New Zealand, 16th edition [which, by the way, is a wonderful travel reference]: “From mid-September to late April, Cape Kidnappers … erupts with squawking gannets. These big birds usually nest on remote islands but here they settle for the mainland, completely unfazed by human spectators.” (pg. 361)

Gannet Safaris Overland LTD led the three-hour safari, which we had wisely booked well in advance, as pre-booking is essential. We traveled by 4-wheel-drive bus; another (smaller) 4-wheel-drive vehicle followed us bringing some late-arriving guests.

Images by RJMOur adventure began with entry to a private area owned by American billionaire Julian Robertson, which includes a grand lodge, known as The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, and a golf course (with greens fees at $425 during high season – just slightly less than those collected at world-famous Pebble Beach in California).

We then entered New Zealand’s largest privately-owned wildlife preserve, Cape Sanctuary, created to regenerate endangered species, particularly birds. The preserve area is protected by a predator-proof fence, 10 1/2 km in length, stretching across the neck of the peninsula from coast to coast.

After stopping at the top of a cliff for a spectacular view of Hawke’s Bay to the Mahia Peninsula …

Images by RJM … we continued to the tip of the Cape and the gannet nesting area, which is managed by New Zealand’s Department of Conversation and is the world’s largest mainland gannet nesting place.

Images by RJM

My journal notes:

Generally solitary birds, gannets come together at breeding time. We enjoyed seeing (and photographing) very young white chicks, mottled grey-and-white juveniles, and yellow-headed adults. Images by RJMThe males and females look identical, with distinctive black eye markings and a pale gold crown.

Images by RJMThey feed on small fish, and the parents split the duties: One fishes and feeds the babies, the other sits on the nest to raise the chicks.

Images by RJMGannets are members of the booby family. It was entertaining to watch these guys land; their large feet made for a less-than-graceful touchdown!

Images by RJM
Those big feet make for a rather clumsy landing!

Upon exiting the bus, I first noticed the distinct nesting-bird-and-poop smell. The beauty of the birds, and their constant soft calls for food, quickly overrode the smell.

Images by RJM
We were able to get very close to the nests, and the gannets didn’t seem to mind.

I was fortunate to get some great close-ups…

Images by RJM … as well as a few lucky shots of them in flight.

Images by RJM

A Few Other Gannet Facts

Most gannets will not breed until they are at least 4 or 5 years old. When they do mate it is often for life. Gannets may live as long as 33 years, although 20 to 24 is more common.

Images by RJMPaired gannets rub their beaks and necks together, preen head feathers, bow and call to each other. These displays occur during courtship, and when a partner returns home to the nest.

The chick lives in the colony for about 15 weeks, changing from its black birth color to a white fluffy month-old chick …

Images by RJMthen becoming grey and speckled by three-months.

Images by RJMThe knowledgeable commentary of our guide, the scenic beauty of the drive, and the thrill of this up-close view of these birds, made the Cape Kidnappers Overland Gannet Safari another highlight of my New Zealand adventure!

 Wheelchair Accessibility

I contacted the company to confirm wheelchair accessibility, and was told that if the person could get into the vehicle with assistance [note the steps in the photo of the bus], they would be able to enjoy the adventure. Since Carrieanna uses a foldable wheelchair, which could also be loaded into the bus, she would be able to get out and roll to the nesting area.

By Jeri Murphy

Traveler, writer, photographer, former wedding officiant, mother, friend, explorer and new Texian ... that's just a little about me!

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