I guess one could say Napier is our favorite city in New Zealand since we visited thrice. One of our favorite spots to visit in the area is the gannet colony. So, with my parents in tow, we drove from Napier to the Gannet Safari headquarters. It is a short drive, maybe 20 or 25 minutes.
We departed headquarters on a bus at about 09:30. In less than one kilometer, the bus turned from the highway onto the private road to Robertson Lodges. These are exclusive accommodations. They range in price from around NZ$1,000 per night to NZ$13,500 per night. The 18-hole golf course there is currently ranked as number 16 out of 100 by GolfDigest. To play 18 holes is about NZ$495 for non-New Zealand residents.
Robertson Lodges is the brainchild of Julian Robertson, a hedge fund billionaire. He bought the roughly 6,500 acres (2,630 hectares) at Cape Kidnappers for his lodge and golf course. In New Zealand, instead of calling it a sheep farm or ranch, it is called a station.
As one approaches the lodges, one enters a wildlife sanctuary. Robertson is working hard to bring back indigenous flora and fauna to the Hawkes Bay area of New Zealand.
Shortly after passing the golf course, the four-wheel-drive bus diverts onto dirt roads. Manuka trees line the dirt road. I had not paid attention before, but the manuka trees are the flowering trees from which bees ultimately make manuka honey.
At roughly the halfway point, the bus stops at an overlook. Our driver/guide allowed us to disembark and view the cliffs of Cape Kidnappers. One can easily see the various volcanic layers exposed in the cliff face. At the overlook, one can see a danger sign, warning about the danger of the cliffs. The “railing” is much different than the railings at the Colorado National Monument. The fences at the monument are roughly one meter (3.2 feet) high. The railings at Cape Kidnappers are a mere 25-centimeters (10-inches) high. One does not want to stand too close.
Along the dirt road, the bus passed through numerous gates. After all, we were driving through a working sheep and cattle ranch. Since we sat near the front of the bus, I volunteered to open and close the gates. That made it easier for the driver/guide. He did not have to get in an out of the bus. Instead, I got in and out to operate the gates.
A few minutes later, the bus made a U-turn and stopped atop the mesa inhabited by the gannet colony. All of the tourists streamed off the bus and began snapping photographs of the birds. These particular birds are the Australasian gannets. The adults are white with yellow and black accents. The birds’ wingspan averages 1.8 meters (5.9 feet). The average weight is 2.3 kilograms (5 pounds).
The noise is quite loud at the colony. All of the birds; the adults at the nest, the chicks, and the flying adults trying to find their nest, call out incessantly. Exactly how one finds another is a real mystery to me.
The birds make their nest using sea kelp and their feces. Yes, that does lend itself to a rather strong odor at the colony. When the young chicks hatch, they have very fluffy, white feathers. As they grow older, the feathers take on a mottled gray and white. The adult male and female gannets take turns at the nest and feeding. The adult at sea feeds on small fishes. When the adult bird returns to the nest, the chick uses its beak to knock at the adult’s beak to induce the regurgitated goodness that is warm, partially digested fish…yum, yum!
The nesting sites are very arid. There is no source of freshwater. The gannet adults and chicks get their freshwater intake from the fish. Additionally, they have glands that help them shed the salt they ingest from their fishing and diving into the sea.
When the chicks take their first flight, it is a roughly 2,500 kilometer (1,553 miles) journey to Australia, nonstop. That is a fantastic feat.
Walking to the edge of the cliff, one can look down on yet another gannet colony. It is much smaller, but every bit as lively. Just beyond the gannet colony is a rock formation the driver/guide referred to as Sharks Tooth Island. It is easy to see how it got its name when one looks at the shape. I was surprised how visible the island was from the terrace at our motel.
Looking to the north, one can see an alternate way to get to the gannet colony. At low tide, one can pay to ride on a flatbed trailer behind a tractor. The tractor trundles along the beach, depositing passengers near a trailhead. The passengers can then walk up the trail to the gannet colony. I must say I am thrilled we opted for the bus.
While we were at the gannet colony, the driver/guide made some tea and coffee. He offered that with some biscuits — a lovely gesture.
On the way back to headquarters, I was on gate detail again.
Then it was back to Napier to relax. One of my favorite parts of relaxing was watching the spectacular sunrises from our terrace.
I woke up first the next morning; not unusual. I heated some water and placed it in a French press. I took the French press and my coffee cup out onto the terrace of our motel room. From the desk in our room, I also picked up a tourist brochure to look at while enjoying my coffee.
It was a beautiful morning. The view was breathtaking. The brochure I selected was for Gannet Safaris. I was not keen on booking a tour; instead, I wanted to drive to the nesting colony and look around on our own. In the brochure, I saw a photograph of a Range Rover parked very near the Gannet colony. I thought that bode well for our adventure.
Leslie joined me on the terrace for coffee. We discussed what we wanted to do and settled on a trip to see the Gannets.
In the car, I set TomTom to take us to the small town of Clifton. We arrived in Clifton in about 25 minutes. We found my description of Clifton as a “town” was a little bit of an exaggeration. The paved road stopped at a small parking area right at the edge of the ocean. To our left was a small trailer park. To the right, along a single lane path was a camping area. Directly behind us was the Clifton Café. That was it.
In the parking area (about five parking spaces), I saw a sign. I got out of the car to look at the sign. What I saw was a little disappointing. There are only two ways to get to the Gannet nesting colony; hike to it on the beach or access it by a private road. According to the sign, the hike was about 18 kilometers (about 11 miles) roundtrip. The sign estimated the walking time to be about five hours. The poster also warned that the trip required caution, meaning an understanding of when low tides and high tides occur lest one be stranded during the hike. We were not prepared mentally, physically, nor with proper equipment to consider such a trek.
We knew we could not drive on the private road because it was, well, private. Dejected by being so close yet so far, we decided to drive about half a mile back on the road to the Gannet Safaris location. Upon arrival, one of the safari drivers checked the availability of a tour. He happily noted there was space on the 09:30 tour. I asked him how much walking was involved in the tour. He thought there was only about 20 meters of walking, some 65 feet. We both thought that was more than reasonable, so we paid the NZ$75 fee each, about $97.
Since we were well over an hour early (imagine that, the Vice’s being early), the driver suggested we go back to the Clifton Café for a cup of coffee. Since we had just been there, I told him it was not open. We told him we were happy to sit at the site, under a tree and wait. He said our driver, Trevor, would arrive soon. Meanwhile, he and two other drivers left with three buses. Just before he left, he said they were driving to Napier to pick up cruise ship passengers for the safari.
Trevor arrived as advertised, as did several other passengers. Soon, the 21-seat bus was full, and we were off on our adventure. Trevor turned onto the paved road, toward Clifton. In just a quarter-mile, he turned off the way onto the private road. The trail is the private entry to The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, a very exclusive golf course and inn on over 6,000 acres. It is better known as Robertson Lodges. Julian Robertson, a U. S. billionaire, owns the development. He made his fortune managing hedge funds.
Had Leslie and I opted to stay at The Farm at Cape Kidnappers versus staying in Napier, it would have run about US$2,000 per night. On the other hand, we could have stayed in the Owner’s Cottage for about US$8,700 per night. We both could have added a round of golf for right at US$600 total. After learning that, we felt pretty thrifty with our US$130 per night room at Pebble Beach Motor Inn.
After driving through a portion of the golf course, near The Farm, the road changed from paved to dirt. At several points along the way, Trevor stopped so he could get out and open a livestock gate. After one or two of those, a passenger opted to get out, handling the opening and closing, making things a little easier on Trevor.
At one point, the bus emerged from some trees. We found ourselves on top of a bluff. Trevor stopped the bus and allowed us all off to take in the scenery. We were at the edge of a cliff. There was an ominous sign on a piece of wood stating, “DANGER, Unstable Cliff Edge Please stay behind the barrier.” The “barrier” was mainly a 4×4 post at the height of some ten inches. Standing close was a little unnerving.
Back onboard the bus, the journey continued. The narrow, dirt road wound around, up and down, sometimes very steeply. Just before we crested the final hilltop, the Pacific Ocean was visible out the right side of the bus. Trevor pointed out a large group of Gannets sitting on the ocean.
A few meters beyond where we had seen the Gannets sitting on the ocean, Trevor stopped the bus. Out the right side of the bus, we found ourselves face-to-face with the nesting Gannets. Instantly, we heard the noise of their calls and detected the rather wild aroma of their nests. The odor is due to their choice of nest-building material, kelp and their own feces.
After telling us a little about the birds, Trevor drove onto the flat bluff area and parked. We all exited the bus and stared in amazement at the colony of birds.
The Gannets, known as Australasian Gannets, are large birds. The adult wingspans are around six feet. The birds gather in colonies on Cape Kidnappers for mating and raising their young. They hunt for food in the ocean, diving into the water headfirst from great heights to catch fish.
The birds could not have cared less about us being there. Even though we were all standing mere feet away, the birds went about calling, taking off, caring for the young, and greeting each other after landing as though nothing was different about their surroundings. That is the main reason so many other New Zealand species of birds are now extinct. Before the arrival of the Maori people who inadvertently brought rats, there were no ground predators. The many extinct birds had no fear of the rats or the Maori. The European explorers compounded the problem with their arrival in the late 18th century.
When the Gannets came in to land, they passed by us tourists, often with only inches to spare, and went on to the colony. When they found their mate, they dropped out of the air from about three feet up or so, a rather ugly landing. Some of the birds that landed in the bachelor track had even worse landings, often skidding along on their bellies unceremoniously. The bachelor track is named after the younger males who pace back and forth, not quite sure yet how to woo a female Gannet.
About 100 feet below us was another colony. Trevor pointed out yet another colony on a small spit of land going out into the ocean. This additional group meant Gannets were everywhere in the air.
Trevor offered the best advice of the day. Stand in one place with your camera and let the Gannets come to you, no panning necessary. That turned out to be very helpful. I captured several good shots of the birds coming in to land.
During all of our gawking, Trevor set up a table at the rear of the bus and provided tea, coffee, water, and biscuits to those who wanted them.
We had the Gannets all to ourselves, all 22 of us, for about 30 minutes. That is when the other three tour buses from the cruise ship arrived on the bluff. Suddenly we were with 60-some of our new best friends. The sound of camera shutters was nearly deafening.
After nearly an hour on the bluff, we all got back on the bus for the 50-minute drive back to the Gannet Safaris headquarters.
When we got off the bus, we were both pleased with our decision to take the safari. We shall not forget that for a long, long time.