New Zealand, Land Of A Thousand Natural Reserves

Columbia Hillen

If it’s stunning natural scenery you’re after on a holiday, then it’s hard to beat New Zealand as a destination.

An island nation with a rich geological history, New Zealand is home to snow-capped mountains, sweeping beaches, ancient volcanic peaks, lush native forests, glassy lakes, fjords and the rising steam and bubbling mud of Otherworldly geothermal features. Almost 30 percent of the land is under protection status, including over 10,000 natural reserves covering around 30,000 square miles.

After a month in North Island, my companion and I were impressed with the efforts being made to reinstate indigenous flora and fauna. Here are some highlights from our trip.

A feathered friend finds a shoulder to lean on. Photo by Columbia Hillen

Nga Manu Nature Reserve

Having a cheeky kaka boldly land on your head for a flutter and walkabout is one of the memorable moments my companion enjoyed at Nga Manu Nature Reserve.
This lovable New Zealand parrot is one of many feathered friendlies and other creatures at this 14-hectare reserve, home for at-risk birds and reptiles. 

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The reserve comprises a mosaic of habitats including the largest remnant of lowland swamp forest on the Kapiti Coast, as well as ponds, wetlands, open lawns, walk-through aviaries, reptile enclosures and a nocturnal house for kiwi. Tree lovers will enjoy the forest walk where swamp maire, pukatea, kohekohe, and several breathtaking 400-year-old kahikatea flourish. Birds nest here in abundance including tui, bluebill, kereru, kaka, piwakawaka, silvereye (tauhou) and waterfowl of all kinds, from grey teal to paradise shelduck, shovelers and grey warblers. Reptiles roaming around include geckos, tuataras, and skinks. 

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You’ll also see nectar-laden dactylanthus flowers, the only fully parasitic flowering plant much beloved by short-tailed bats. It grows towards the light using neighbouring trees as support, forming massive hanging gardens in the air. Maori people use them for weaving. 

This is the 50th anniversary of Nga Manu Nature Reserve so no better time to go.

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Kapiti Island

One of New Zealand's most important nature reserves, this island lies around five kilometers off the west coast of North Island.

It is an ornithologist’s dream, a predator-free paradise where endangered birds such as weka, stitchbird, kokako, takahe, brown teal and saddleback have been transferred since the 1980s.

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Other native and marine birds also thrive here and visitors will see black shags fanning their wings to dry, black-backed gulls nesting on rock stacks, even little blue penguins crossing the beach at night.

My companion and I went on a half-day tour hosted by Kapiti Island Nature Tours which have been the guardians of the island for eight generations. A short ferryboat ride and we arrived on the island where a guide gave a short introductory talk on the local fauna and flora. We then had the luxury of three hours to hike and explore the island’s grassy pathways bordered by dense forest, enjoying frequent panoramic views over the Pacific Ocean. 

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Best described as an eco-sanctuary in the heart of Wellington, Zealandia is located around a picturesque reservoir and features 32 kilometers of trails where some of the country’s most rare and extraordinary wildlife are free to roam. 

Over forty different species of native birds have been recorded here, twenty-four of them endemic (found in no other country). Dozens of reptile species, hundreds of plant species and thousands of kinds of invertebrates have also made Zealandia their home. 

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Tours here can be self-guided or with an expert guide. My companion and I chose the latter and were rewarded with insightful information and stories by expert Paul Wilson, sightings of birds including kereru, a peculiar pigeon that gets tipsy consuming fermented fruits, takahe and tui; reptiles such as tuatara; and exotic ponga, kawa-kawa and mamaku plants.

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Volcanic landscapes

Sitting on an active fault line, New Zealand experiences a lot of volcanic activity, particularly around Rotorua, Lake Taupo and the Bay of Plenty. It would be a cardinal sin to leave without seeing some of the impressive geothermal features that result from such activity including geysers, boiling mud pools and mineral hot springs.

Daniel Wade, guide at Whakarewarewa Village. Photo by Columbia Hillen

I chose the Maori village of Whakarewarewa, home of the Tuhourangi Ngati Wahiao people, to experience these natural phenomena while also learning more about the ancient traditions of these indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand. 

Daniel Wade, guide at Whakarewarewa Village. Photo by Columbia Hillen

One of the fascinating aspects of the two-hour walking tour with knowledgeable local guide, Daniel Wade, was learning first-hand how the Maori utilise underwater hot springs in so many different ways, including bathing and cooking. Another highlight of our tour was an uplifting finale, a live folk song and dance performance featuring men, women and young people in traditional costumes.   

Sean Hillen

During an international media career spanning several decades in Europe and the US, Sean Hillen has worked for many leading publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Times London, The Daily Telegraph, Time magazine and The Irish Times Dublin, as well as at the United Nations Media Center in New York. Sean's travel writing for and has taken him across A...(Read More)

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