A date with skydivers

Cape Kidnapper's, in New Zealand's North Island, hosts a one of the largest colonies of gannets

I’m listening to a full-blown orchestra — the sounds and shrieks of squadrons of magnificent gannets (large seabirds belonging to the booby family) with piercing blue eyes and great wingspans, swooping overhead and plummeting like divers into the Pacific Ocean; some preening, others showing affection, couples and mother & babies snuggling with each other, nodding or beak-tapping.

I’m at one of the biggest colonies of Australasian gannets in the dramatic Cape Kidnappers on the southeastern edge of Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand’s North Island, with more than 20,000 birds at the height of the season. They arrive here in June to nest and stay on till late-February. I am taking a 4WD tour with Gannet Safaris and my guide David Grace is a veritable font of information, which he delivers with a big dose of Kiwi humour.

Rolling terrain

The drive to the colony has been a scenic one­­ — through vast stretches of barren wilderness, rolling hills and green pastures with thousands of scampering rabbits. We pass fields dotted with stocky Angus cattle and fluffy sheep, and I watch from my window the never-ending panorama of eroded craggy cliffs with fault lines and fossils, gullies, and steep rock faces that plunge into the ocean.

History whispers from every corner of Cape Kidnappers, and legends and stories abound. This coastline of Hawke’s Bay is shaped like a fish hook — a Maori legend has it that Maui, who went fishing with his brothers, took the jawbone of his grandmother smeared with his own blood to pull up North Island! The name of the cape is derived from the time Captain Cook landed here in 1769 — he had a Tahitian boy on board who was a translator. When the boy interacted with the local Maoris to source food and water, they thought he was one of them and took him as a prisoner. They tried to kidnap him, when Captain Cook had to fire two cannon shots, killing a couple of Maoris.

David drives me to a steep cliff called the Bank Manager’s Corner: the story goes that a bank manager who refused to lend money to the farm was ushered to the edge of the cliff until he agreed.

There’s more to Cape Kidnappers than just the gannet colonies — today, a part of this vast stretch is covered by sheep and cattle stations, as well as a luxury boutique hotel with 22 rooms, called The Farm, which offers five-course dinner, a luxury spa, and picnics. It also has one of the most spectacular golf courses in the world (designed by American Tom Doak) meandering over deep ravines and cliffs, where David says that ‘you can whack a ball into the ocean’. The eastern side of the cape, protected with a 10.5km-long predator-proof fence, has New Zealand’s largest private wildlife sanctuary. With over 300 volunteers, it has many indigenous and native birds and animals of New Zealand — like the native brown duck, the pateke, and the most important being, a 150-strong kiwi refuge.

We drive to the top of the cliff to see our first gannet colony called the Plateau Colony with a panoramic sweep of the beach and cliffs. Every inch of the floor is covered with mounds of nests made of seaweed, algae, mud, and guano (bird dropping) with gannets sitting on them. I see many juveniles with speckled fur, other adults with white plumage and neon-green stripes on their feet; some young ones trying to flap their wings and practice flying. Some perform a mating ritual of dangling a frond of seaweed in front of their partners — “This is akin to boys offering a rose to girls,” quips David. Others are on frenzied fishing forays, plunging downwards like reckless torpedoes.

“There are no test flights in their world,” says David. Once the birds are ready, they flap their wings and embark on their maiden flight, soaring in the skies and flying almost 2,800 km to the coast of Australia, over eight to 14 days! Why they undertake this marathon, hazardous journey is not quite clear, but they return only after four years, many of them as adults, to their original nesting sites. “Only 30% of the birds make it back; many are lost to the perils at sea, and predators,” explains David.

Model society

Each nest mound has just one egg. It’s an equal society where both sexes incubate the egg and take turns in looking after the brood. David regales us with stories of the gannets — according to him, gannets have survived because they are not good to eat. Apparently, Captain Cook sent out his men to catch some geese for his Christmas meal and what the men returned with were gannets. They cooked a couple of these birds for Christmas, and the captain said that it was the most terrible dish that he had tasted.

We walk down a winding path to see our second nesting site called the Black Reef, which is perched on the edge of the cliff. The cold winds from Antarctica whip our skin to sandpaper as we stand on the edge of a precipice. The setting is spectacular with the birds in flight and the azure sea in the backdrop.

I sit down on a rock and watch courting couples and squabbling neighbours; some of the young gannets are as graceful as ballerinas, others clumsy like clowns.

As I watch adult gannets swoop downwards at breakneck speeds, folding their wings and piercing the water like arrows, diving as far as 50 feet below and rise with a silverfish in their beaks, I feel extraordinarily blessed to be in this special place on earth.

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A date with skydivers

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