Hawkes Bay, Cape Kidnappers Gannet Reserve is a major tourist drawcard.
Hawkes Bay, Cape Kidnappers Gannet Reserve is a major tourist drawcard. Paul Rush / NZ Herald

Life in the colonies

BRIGHT sunlight falls on pale sandstone cliffs above me and gentle waves hiss over a swathe of golden sand at my feet. The tide is ebbing as I hike along the beach towards a distant aerial display. A flock of white-plumed, gold-crowned sea birds are wheeling and diving on huge outstretched wings.

I'm one of the many bird-lovers flocking to see a multitude of Australian gannets nesting in the largest, most accessible mainland gannet colony in the world.

Cape Kidnappers Gannet Reserve is one of the biggest drawcards for visitors to Hawkes Bay. In November and December, up to 20,000 birds can be seen in the Black Rocks, Saddle and Plateau colonies.

As I hike towards the distant cape, I pass tight clusters of spur-wing plovers, oystercatchers and white-fronted terns sunning themselves at the water's edge.

High overhead, I can hear the faint twittering of skylarks darting around the cliff tops, drowned out at intervals by the raucous screech of black-backed gulls.

Slowly the jagged outline of the cape begins to take a tangible form as the kilometres of golden sand fall away.

The cape is a barren wilderness of rocky headlands, striking reef formations and towering cliffs shaped by wind, rain and the tempestuous moods of the sea. I can see fault lines and slanting layers of river shingle high in the cliffs and 4-million-year-old shell fossils at their base.

Black Reef Colony looms on the horizon and the bird activity increases dramatically. Gannets are landing and taking off on the cliff top; a picture of aeronautical perfection.

Out to sea, it is a different scene. I hear the same shrill cries, but see birds suddenly drop out of the sky in blurring vertical dives. Just before they crash into the sea, their wings fold right back to lessen the impact. Ten seconds later they surface with silver fish held firmly in their beaks.

I have to pass the sheer rock face of the Black Reef outcrop, where nests are hanging over the edge. A bird launches off its nest just as I walk underneath and dumps a guano bomb on top of my sun hat.

At the end of the beach walk, I come to the Department of Conservation shelter and picnic area. This is the point where walkers decide to stop or to climb for 20 minutes up a track to the Plateau Colony. I decide to go the extra mile.

It proves to be the right decision, with stupendous views across Hawke's Bay to Mahia Peninsula. On a clear day Mt Ruapehu is visible, but not today.

A few more steps and I am right on the edge of the Plateau Colony. And what a sight it is. Ranks of nests are spaced less than one metre apart in every direction. Each nest is occupied by a beautiful bird with bright-white plumage, edged in ebony and topped with a delicate crown of palest gold. There are thousands of them.

As I watch their antics closely, I notice that male gannets returning from fishing forays make very clumsy landings. They seem out of control the instant they lose lift under their wings and they crash to earth with a great flurry. Woe betide one that strays into a neighbour's territory; it is given the hurry-up in a blinding flash of beaks.

But in all other respects, gannets are masters of the airwaves. This begins to unnerve me somewhat, as every few seconds a great flash of white passes over my head with an ominous whirring sound that signifies I have been the subject of what is known in aviation circles as a near-miss.

With catastrophe averted, I step back a little and watch the behaviour of each pair of gannets. The snuggling, preening, beak-crossing and neck-entwining adds up to a very public display of affection and a dignified serenity amidst the chaos, deafening sound and nauseating smell of the multitude.

I find the scene quite captivating; as addictive as an afternoon TV soap. In the end, I have to force myself to turn away. Time and tide waits for no man and I must leave within one-and-a-half hours after dead low to make it back to Clifton with dry feet.

On the way, I reflect on the remarkable challenges a gannet chick faces when it enters the world. There's no mollycoddling in the booby family. For a start, these little balls of fluff have to steer clear of those marauding black-backed gulls that I can see circling above the cliffs.

Those chicks that manage to evade the scavengers have to make the fateful decision at 13 weeks of age to launch themselves off the 100m cliffs, having never attempted to fly before. And this is no brief trial flight. The chicks don't stop flying until they reach the Australian coast and find a cosy nook on the Great Barrier Reef. They are setting out on their great OE to the Lucky Country just as most of their fellow Kiwis do.

But unlike many Kiwis, they only remain expats for four years and then return to their homeland to stay for life, often dropping in to the very same nesting site in mum's old colony.

That's an achievement that still has ornithologists scratching their heads. It's just part of the wonder and excitement of Cape Kidnappers.

My hike to this hallowed ground has been a genuine New Zealand eco-experience.

Fact file:

Getting there: The start of the Cape Kidnappers shoreline track is reached by driving 25 minutes south of Napier, following the coastal route to Haumoana, and to the road's end at Clifton. From there, the gannet colony is a moderate grade, five-hour return hike, which must span the low-tide period as the sea washes up to the base of the cliffs. The ideal timing is to start about two hours after high tide and plan to return from the plateau colony no later than 1 1/2 hours after low tide.

Modes of transport: There are several options for accessing the cape. As well as the beach hike, there's commercial tractor-trailer, 4WD and helicopter trips available.

One company runs a 4WD tour across the working sheep station on top of the peninsula and another operates kayak trips in suitable conditions.

What to take: A sunhat, sunscreen, water and good hiking shoes are essential. There is no shade or refreshment stops along the beach.

When to go: The gannets are a fine spectacle over the viewing season (October to April) but the most excitement and activity can be seen from November to February.

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