A world of thanks goes out to Zealandia for providing Greg and me with half off tickets to their Zealandia by Night tour in exchange for our honest review.
Wildlife viewing is the impetus for much of the travel Greg and I do. We’ve been to numerous preserves, conservation areas and wildlife sanctuaries. But I can say with compete and exhilarated honesty that Zealandia ecosanctuary – just outside of Wellington, New Zealand – gave me one of the most exciting eco experiences of my life. What we saw on the Zealandia by Night tour will likely remain one of my fondest travel memories.
Zealandia is a genuinely unique wildlife experience. It is a fully-fenced, 225-hectare ecosanctuary with a 500-year plan. Its mission is to restore those “forest and fresh water ecosystems as closely as possible to their pre-human state.”
The Zealandia team has “reintroduced 17 species of native wildlife back into the area, six of which were previously absent from mainland New Zealand for over 100 years.” And get this – the entire sanctuary is 100 percent mammal pest-free! Due to meticulous planning and execution, the stewards of Zealandia have managed to remove every rabbit, stoat, rat, opossum and other invasive mammal that remains so destructive in other parts of New Zealand.
Zealandia by Night Tour Preliminaries
Although Zealandia is equally exciting by day, it was the Zealandia by Night tour I was most eager to experience. On the night tour you have the chance to catch a glimpse of some of their more secretive, nocturnal residents such as the tuatara (a reptile similar to an iguana), glowworms (the larval stage of a fungus gnat that glows in the dark), weta (a sort of giant cricket), and of course – the state bird of New Zealand … the kiwi.
Upon arrival we were treated to an awesome film that presented a condensed overview of New Zealand’s eco-history. We learned how the arrival of the Maori – and later the Europeans – impacted the natural history of the islands. Destruction of habitat, over-harvesting of resources and the introduction of invasive species all took their toll on the pristine natural order of New Zealand.
Next we were outfitted with red-light flashlights – to view the nocturnal wildlife without over stressing them – and audio receivers to ensure we heard every word that Katie, our outstanding guide – explained.
The Zealandia by Night Experience
As we began our tour there was still plenty of daylight to see many of the diurnal residents of Zealandia. Most notable for me was a pair of takahe, a brilliantly-colored, flightless bird that was once thought to be extinct. Although they were rediscovered in 1948 there are still less than 200 individuals remaining in the world.
As our eyes slowly adjusted to the fading light we were treated to the sight of several tuataras. Some quickly scurried to their burrows upon discovery while others sat perfectly still, giving us time for a good, long look.
Once total darkness had fallen we were briefed on where to look and what to listen for in hopes of spotting a kiwi. That was my #1 goal on the tour, although we were told at the onset that seeing a kiwi wasn’t guaranteed.
We soon came upon a stream where the water level was quite low due to the drought. However, the shallow water provided a fantastic opportunity to view a long-finned eel, one of the largest eel species in the world. This particular eel has an amazing life cycle. They stay in the river for 50 to 60 years, or until such time their biological clock tells them it’s time to breed. Then they change shape and swim approximately 2500 kilometers out to sea. There they breed, the female lays about two million eggs, and the adults die. The baby eels swim back to the river and the cycle begins again.
Our next wildlife encounter was with the weta – New Zealand’s monstrous version of a cricket. Zealandia had a very cool contraption for viewing them, so we got an up close and personal look. We saw both tree weta and cave weta while there. You wouldn’t believe how everyone oohed and aahed over these insects … they are really quite interesting!
As we made our way back we came upon a wetland area where we encountered another special treat – glowworms. These “worms” are really the larval stage of a fungus gnat. They contain a specific combination of chemicals that, when combined, cause a reaction that glows in the dark. When you encounter hundreds of them at a time, it is a beautiful and enchanting experience.
We were about three-quarters of our way into our two-hour Zealandia by Night tour at this point and we had yet to spot a single kiwi. Katie announced that we were on our way back to the center, but that there was prime kiwi habitat along our route. So we redoubled our scouting efforts and continued in alert silence.
And then it happened … we spotted a kiwi! It was up a steep hill about three meters away. It was incredibly well camouflaged and difficult to see at first. But once you caught that first glimpse it was a little easier to follow. We watched it move about for a few minutes until it wandered out of sight. We were all very excited and pleased to have been so lucky.
We were all chatting excitedly as we casually strolled back towards the center when it happened again! There was another kiwi, and this time it was closer and easier to see. At one point it turned and looked directly at us, giving us a full-frontal view that was worthy of a feature in National Geographic! Greg and I simultaneously released a whispered gasp that spoke volumes. It was one of the single most exciting eco encounters I have experienced.
I cannot recommend the Zealandia by Night tour highly enough. It is a must-see when visiting the Wellington, New Zealand, area.
Do you enjoy wildlife viewing? What has been your most exciting wildlife experience?