Wellington Walks: Visiting Zealandia

jamie standing on zealandia suspension bridge

Why is it that if we live close to a major landmark, we never have the energy to go to it? It seems we’re all so lazy about exploring our local area, maybe because it holds no surprises for us.

Since we moved to Wellington in June, we’ve been living a 15 minute walk from Zealandia. Arguably New Zealand’s biggest eco-tourism attraction. With the nature reserve basically on our doorstep, we’ve always put off going. There was always something else further away we could do. Zealandia could wait.

What is Zealandia?

zealandia upper dam
Zealandia is a nature sanctuary setup in order to have a safe haven for many of New Zealand’s endangered animals, especially the birds.

Historically, New Zealand was a land free from mammals, meaning birds and insects flourished here. When the first Polynesians arrived in the country, they brought with them a range of mammal predators (including themselves) that found the birds to be easy targets.

takahe in zealandia

This drove many species to extinction and even more to endangered levels. There was a time when New Zealand was covered in forests loud with birdsong. The forests were chopped down for wood. The birds driven to death.

Zealandia’s motto is “Bringing birdsong back,” they hope to create an area where birds can once again grow and so far they’re doing a really good job.

The Fence

The main focal point of Zealandia is its fence. The large fence surrounds the sanctuary turning it into an island of sorts. Most mammalian predators such as cats, stoats, rats, and possums have been killed within the sanctuary so that birds are free to live in an ecosystem without threats to themselves or their babies!

paradise shelduck guarding chicks

The only mammals, other than humans, inside the sanctuary are mice, which are kept at a low population by a large network of thousands of traps.

Many types of endangered birds have been released into the park and their populations have soared due to the safety of the fence. This has two positive effects: it’s helping to save bird species but it’s also great for tourists.

Becoming a Zealandia Member

rolled up fern

Eventually Jamie and I decided to stop putting off our trip to Zealandia and instead did the complete polar opposite and become members. The reason for us becoming members wasn’t actually anything to do with our interest in the sanctuary, but rather because I found a small loop-hole in their pricing structure.

You see, Zealandia offers two ways to see their park. You can visit for as long as you like during the day for $17.50 or you can do a two hour night tour for $75. Alternatively you can do a day visit and a night tour for $85.

We were dead set on going during the day and on the night tour, which would mean paying $170 between the two of us.

Now what I realised was that, if you become a member, night tours are half price. And if one person becomes a member, their friend gets a discount on their membership.

Meaning it’s cheaper (by $2) to become members – getting you free admission for a year – and do the night tour than it is to go once during the day and on a night tour. It’s a bit of a no brainer really, so we became members.

fern tree

Despite becoming members, I never expected us to visit that often. But it’s quickly become our most visited place in Wellington as it’s just around the corner.

If we have nothing to do we’ll just pop around, go for a walk and watch the birds. I’ve found myself going at least once a week and Zealandia is without a doubt my favourite place in the city.

Zealandia Stories

takahe eating in zealandia

A visit to Zealandia, for me, is all about the stories. Every time I visit, I have some unique experience and create some new memory, usually involving an encounter with an animal.

Whenever I go to the sanctuary I turn into Doctor Doolittle. Talking to the animals I saw on my last visit, becoming friends with strange creatures.

bellbird at feeder in zealandia

Some of the friendliest animals you’re likely to meet are New Zealand robins. You’ll be walking along happily minding your own business, when all of a sudden you’ll see a little grey ball jumping out at you. One of my best memories of Zealandia is when we found ourselves surrounded by a bunch of New Zealand robins. All of them curiously staring at us, jumping around the branches, as amused by us as we were of them.

robin peeking head out

Not so curious are the tuatara. People call them living dinosaurs, but that’s only because they’ve been around for millions of years. These large lizards spend all day lying in the sun outside of their burrows, some of which sit right beside the trails.

tuatara by zealandia trail

One day I was walking along when I heard a rustling. I looked down and there, right beside my foot was a giant tuatara. It ran quickly into its hole to hide, in the process giving me the fright of my life. I seriously almost crapped myself, looking down to see this huge lizard right beside my foot.

tuatara sitting in sun

Afterwards, I waited from a distance to watch it come back out of its hole. It looked at me with a kind of boredom. Basking in the sunlight. Just another story that connects me to Zealandia.

The Zealandia Night Tour

kaka flying in zealandia

Since we’re such big fans of going to Zealandia during the day, we were almost sure we’d love the night tour. As well as all of the usual awesome animals, the night tour also gives visitors the chance to see some of Zealandia’s nocturnal attractions such as eels, glow worms, native owls and best of all kiwi.

Zealandia introduced the little spotted kiwi a few years ago and the population has since grown to over 200 birds. I was most excited about the chance to see one. I’ve become a bit of a bird enthusiast since arriving in New Zealand and I was hungry for the opportunity to cross off another bird in my book.

ruru morepork in zealandia

Unfortunately, the trip was nothing but a disappointment. We were guided on a very short leash around the sanctuary as the sun set. We were introduced to a lot of the daytime animals that were coming back to roost for the night.

Since we’d been to Zealandia a bunch of times already, this part of the tour went over a lot of what we already knew. It was pretty much a repeat of the day tours offered inside the sanctuary for free. So we found ourselves waiting for the kiwi portion of the tour to offer us something new and unique.

After about 45 minutes we found ourselves standing by a trail, waiting for a specific kiwi that usually comes out early in the night. We waited silently in our large group, for what seemed like an eternity. Nothing happened. We were lead back to the entrance via some eels and glow worms. On the way back I was desperate for a kiwi to jump out on us, but it was no use. We heard a kiwi calling in the distance and that’s as close as we got.

Maybe it was just bad luck, or maybe because it was almost a full moon. Or possibly it’s because Zealandia have started to run two night tours, scaring off the birds with all the people. Regardless, the night was really disappointing as I felt the $37 we each paid wasn’t worth it (and this was with a 50% discount!)

As much as I love Zealandia, I just can’t endorse the night tour. I think at $75 it is nowhere near the same experience you’d get in the day. For $17.50 you can spend all day in the sanctuary, exploring to your heart’s content and going on a free tour. Or you can spend $75 on a night tour where the tour guide shouts at you if you get a few metres from your group.

Basically, I see it as you’re paying almost $58 extra for the chance to see a kiwi. In this case we didn’t see one, so it left a sour taste in the mouth. I understand that the tour guides can’t control wild animals and that there’s no guarantee of seeing the birds, but I don’t think the price is justifiable in comparison to the daytime price and experience – even if you do spot a kiwi.

Despite the disappointment, Zealandia remains my favourite place in Wellington and is a bargain during the day for the stories you’ll get to share afterwards.

Awesome Ruru photo by digitaltrails published under a CC license.

2 thoughts on “Wellington Walks: Visiting Zealandia”

  1. I have been living here for five years, and still haven’t managed a visit though it is on my to-do list! Thanks for the tip on becoming a member!

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