The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 9 (December 1, 1938)
An Island Sanctuary - - — Historic Kapiti — Its Interesting Flora and Fauna
For a great number of years after the colonisation of New Zealand the people were chiefly concerned with material needs. “First things first” was the universal slogan when the Maori wars ended in 1872—immigration, land settlement, town and city building, the creation of industries, road, bridge and railway construction, and the search for overseas markets occupying the full time and talents of the people. Cultural amenities waited on the completion of the essentials of modern civilisation, and the interregnum was marked by an era of axe and saw and fire, for, in the process of building the State, reasoned consideration of the colony's future needs in certain directions was lacking, with the result that priceless economic and aesthetic assets were destroyed.
The wholesale felling of native bush has had tragic results in the form of periodical floods in all districts where this practice has been followed.
In his very valuable botanical survey of Kapiti Island, in 1906, Dr. L. Cockayne states: “Few incidents are more to be regretted in the settlement of new countries than the more or less complete destruction—unavoidable in many cases—of the fauna and flora. This is especially to be deplored when the members of these are of a rare or peculiar character, and such destruction has taken place in New Zealand to an extreme degree. Everywhere where the land has been specially suitable for settlement, the native animals and plants have in large measure been replaced by those of other lands, and these animals and plants are one of New Zealand's assets. Not a few of both classes have their like nowhere else upon the globe; while, if we consider the plants alone, their manifold combinations, and the congregation of so many peculiar biological forms, can be met with in no other temperate region of equal area.”
The tragedy of the depletion of our timber trees is very serious, but the accompanying loss of many thousands of trees that were the food-stores of our native birds, and other trees and plants that were marvellously beautiful, is also tragic. In addition to their food supplies being destroyed, the birds were constantly harried by native and pakeha, till at last the remnants of once-large flocks of bell-birds, tuis, pigeons, and other indigenous birds endeavoured by retreating to lonely fastnesses in the hills and gullies of the back country, to escape complete destruction.
So far as the birds are concerned, the list of those “absolutely protected” totals nearly 200 (inclusive of the various species of named birds). For instance, there are in this list (gazetted in March last year) nine varieties of albatross, six kiwis, twenty-two petrels, five robins, nine shags, five snipes, ten terns, six rails, ten penguins, seven parrakeets, and five wekas. One hopes that before the next godwit season arrives a place in this humanitarian list will be found for this little flying marvel.
Actually, however, the only sanctuaries that are maintained strictly for the propagation and preservation of native birds and plants are Kapiti and Little Barrier. The latter, in the Hauraki Gulf, has an area of 7,000 acres, and is very capably administered by a resident caretaker, under the control of the Tourist Department.
Kapiti has the distinction of having been constituted a sanctuary by a special Act of Parliament. The Lands Department controls this island, and the resident caretaker is Mr. A. S. Wilkinson. During the thirteen years since his appointment Kapiti has become famous amongst botanists and bird-lovers in many parts of the world. Just as certain specially fortunate individuals are blessed with what are known as “gardening fingers,” that enable them to bring to the highest stage of their destined beauty or utility flowers and plants and vegetable seeds, so do Mr. and Mrs. Wilkinson appear to possess the rare gift of making friends with the birds and to possess, too, that “extra” sense in the propagation of the many rare and lovely plants that now grace the hillsides.
Several portfolios of photographs of birds and plants and insects on Kapiti, taken by the caretaker and his wife, are monuments of photographic skill and of endless hours of patient waiting for the exactly favourable moment when the perfect bird picture can be snapped. A great many of Mrs. Wilkinson's photographs have adorned books and publications in New Zealand and elsewhere, and a similar compliment has been paid to Mr. Wilkinson's camera studies and descriptive articles.
Kapiti's Stirring History.
The date of this entry is Wednesday, 7th February, the day he emerged from the Sound 168 years ago.
Subsequently the island became the headquarters of many whaling parties who ruthlessly attacked the whales passing through the Strait to their breeding grounds, and its bush-clad hills also resounded to the savage war cries of contending Maori tribes.
The Ngatitoa Trek from Kawhia.
In his “History of the Taranaki Coast,” Percy Smith records that in 1821 the famous Ngatitoa chief, Te Rauparaha, whose followers were being continually harassed by Waikato tribes armed with muskets, made his historic trek from Kawhia. Hampered by all their belongings, and their elderly tribesmen and women and children, and travelling through country inhabited by hostile tribes, this exodus to the southern end of the North Island was indeed a heroic and desperate venture. Fighting their way almost every mile right down the coast from Taranaki, they eventually reached Otaki, whence they made frequent successful sallies against the Wairarapa and Rangitikei tribes.
Kapiti at this period was occupied by enemy tribes, and from his look-out at Otaki, Te Rauparaha cast longing eyes across the 12 miles strait that separates this strategic island rampart from the mainland at that point. He led several canoe expeditions across that sea barrier, but each attempt to surprise the defenders was repulsed, generally with heavy losses.
Capture of Kapiti.
While he was conducting a raid into the Rangitikei district an assault on the island was made by Te Pehi, one of his ablest warrior chiefs, and this was successful, the Maori occupants being severely defeated.
On returning to find Kapiti in possession of his own men, Te Rauparaha made the island his headquarters, settling in the spacious Taepiro Valley, toward the southern end of the island. Here he lived for several years, and it is reported that when the first whaling ships called at Kapiti between the years 1827 and 1829, “Te Rauparaha traded with them for guns and ammunition, giving in exchange dressed flax and various kinds of fresh provisions, including potatoes.”
Battle of Wai-o-rua.
On many parts of the island there remain small patches of cleared land, remnants of the villages of the various native residents, but these clearings are gradually getting fewer and smaller as the bush growth takes possession.
The Sentinel of Cook Strait.
Kapiti is a landmark in Cook Strait, about 30 miles north of Wellington, and four miles from the mainland at Paraparaumu. It is 6 1/2 miles long, almost uniformly 1 1/2 miles in breadth, and a trig station on its highest point records a height of 1,780 feet. Some what oblong in shape, it rises abruptly as a high ridge out of the sea. On the western side, facing Cook Strait, there is a huge precipice rising to 1,000 feet, and on the eastern side there are very steep slopes covered with dense bush, mostly of second growth. The whole of the eastern face of the island is cleft by numerous gullies, deep and narrow, their beds being almost impassable because of immense boulders.
At the north end of the island is an extensive flat, consisting of boulders, which is the remains of old sea beaches, numerous ridges of wave-worn stones marking former shore terraces. On this flat is a small and shallow lagoon, originally cut off from the sea by a boulder bank, but now filled with slightly brackish water. It is stated that this lagoon is a haven for wild duck during the shooting season on the mainland.
Being exposed to the fury of the north-west wind, the slopes of the hills at this end of the island are without forest, there being only a few patches of stunted scrub in gullies sheltered from the full force of the wind.
Of the 5,000 acres comprising the island, the Lands Department controls about 4,200, the balance being owned by Mrs. Webber, a descendant of the original native owners. On this area about a thousand sheep appear to thrive satisfactorily on the herbage on the windswept hills and the few hundred acres of flat valley in which the homestead is located.
At Rangatira, where the caretaker's house is situated, there is also an extensive boulder flat, but this is closely covered with grass which provides ample feed for his dairy cows, securely fenced off from the sanctuary area.
Generally speaking, the climate is fairly temperate, and during cloudless days in summer the temperature is extremely hot. The winter is mild, but violent gales from the north-west and south-west are not uncommon. On those occasions, connection with the mainland is practically impossible.
Adjacent to Kapiti are three small islands. The largest, Tokomapuna, is about 70 chains distant, and was once a prominent whaling station. A broken try-pot, an old cannon, and a few whale bones still litter the beach as reminders of those rough days. It was to this island that, according to E. G. Wakefield, Colonel Wakefield went in order to discuss with Te Rauparaha the purchase of the land adjacent to Cook Strait. Other accounts state that both Colonel Wakefield and his brother, Captain Arthur Wakefield (who was killed during the deplorable Wairau incident) visited Te Rauparaha at Kapiti on different occasions.page 39
The two other islands—Motungarara and Tahoramaurea—are each about three acres in extent, and are quite close to Kapiti. They, also, were whaling stations, but to-day they are occupied by fishermen.
“Where Every Prospect Pleases.”
In contrast to those warring incidents and to the turbulence of whaling days, is the peace and enchantment of this wonderful sanctuary for birds and trees and plants. To-day one can follow through the bush the tracks made by warlike tribes, and encounter nothing more fearsome than an inquisitive weka, or, if one is specially fortunate during a stroll in hours of darkness, a kiwi, that, in a fraction of a second, merges into the undergrowth and is gone.
The steep hillsides are completely hidden by the compact battalions of native trees, the amazing diversity of greens forming a bewildering mosaic. Contributing to this spectacle of arboreal loveliness are nearly every tree indigenous to the New Zealand bush, and practically all of them provide in their seasons some variety of food for the thousands of birds that make the island their home. Principal of these are the karaka, miro, matai, ngaio, tawa, akeake, kohekohe, kohepiro, mahoe, porokaiwhiri, rewa-rewa, hou-hou, kaikomako, titoke, and taupata, while the graceful hekatara, the lordly rata, puka, hinau, kamahi, horoeka, whau and nikau provide delightful aid to the riot of beauty.
Even in the cloistered gullies, where seldom the sun finds its way, there are gems of loveliness in plants that have been introduced by Mr. Wilkinson during his thirteen years as caretaker of Kapiti, and he is constantly adding to the list of approximately 150 that will, in time, make Kapiti a botanical museum. One of his specially-tended treasures is a kauri tree that in ten years has grown to nearly nine feet.
The Morning Chorus of the Birds.
Probably nowhere else in New Zealand can the morning chorus of native birds be heard in as great a volume as on Kapiti, and one can count it as a privilege indeed to have listened to it when several hundreds of tiny throats offer their benediction to the dawn. The time to hear it is early in October, before the bellbirds begin to breed, and on a fine morning, after rain. Just as the sky is beginning to grow light, from the bush come a few tentative notes from a tui, followed by a full-throated volume of music from tuis on adjacent trees. The lovely liquid notes of the robin swell the chorus, and this is the signal for the bellbirds to chime in as a lead for the blackbirds, thrushes, whiteheads, tomtits, and fantails, with the chattering notes of the parrakeets, to aid in the harmony. Once more the bellbirds, with ringing notes, as though silver bells were chiming in every tree, carry the song till all the bush seems throbbing with glorious music, each little chorister seemingly endeavouring to rival its neighbour. For about half an hour this wonderful woodland orchestra continues its harmony, and then the harsh, screeching call of the long-tailed cuckoo, and the not unmusical call of the kaka, seem to act as a reminder to the songsters that dawn has come and that the practical needs of life must be attended to.
Most numerous of the birds are the graceful little songster, the North Island robin, tui, pigeon, silver eye (tauhou), whitehead, fantail (pi waka waka), tomtit (ngiru ngiru), pipit (pihoihoi), and morepork (ruru). Mut-tonbirds in thousands arrive in the spring, and nest in the peaty soil on the lofty range on the western side, and Kapiti is also a favourite breeding-place for the little blue penguin, which have been seen in the early morning hours waddling in single file along the bush tracks from the beach.
Regular visitors are the shining cuckoo, which arrives (allegedly from the Solomon Islands) in the spring for the sole purpose of laying its eggs in the nest of the grey warbler, and the long-tailed cuckoo, another parasitic migrant which selects for its egg-laying the nest of the whitehead. These tiny birds are thus saddled with the job of incubating and feeding the voracious offspring of casual visitants.
Grey and paradise ducks, petrels, that handsome shore-bird the banded dottrell, and two varieties of seagull also find Kapiti a haven free from disturbance in their mating; and it is a tribute to Mr. Wilkinson's vigilant supervision of the island that even the shags are increasing because they are free from molestation.
At one period cattle, sheep, goats and cats were numerous on Kapiti, but at the present time only a very few cats, rats and opossums remain, the other animals having been destroyed. Opossums and rats are regarded as inimical to certain kinds of birds, and in order to get rid of them the Lands Department employs a trapper all the year round. Efficiently to police the rugged hills is a tremendous task, but the trapper is doing a very good job, and the days of the ‘possum are numbered, while continued and successful warfare is waged on the rats.