Tiritiri Matangi is a small island in the Hauraki gulf of New Zealand. Just a short ferry trip from Auckland, it’s still a world away. Most of the island was up until the 1970’s leased as farmland, but as the lease expired and conservation biologists made an attempt to introduce threathened species onto the island, Tiritiri Matangi got a new purpose. Allthough only about 6% of the native forest still remained on the island and it was heavily infested with pacific rats, it was still a safer place for endangered animals than mainland New Zealand, which was infested by more challenging predators. Various kinds of skinks, geckos, weta and birds had survived their on their own (allthough in small populations) even before the conservation work began. Now, as the goal was to restore a native ecosystem best possible, they not only – following the eradication of pacific rats – saw their populations grow, but they were also joined by other endangered animals, such as the iconic takahe, the tuatara, and ofcourse kiwis.
The island was planted with native plants in the hundreds of thousands, all by volunteer labor. At first hardy species were planted, to give shelter to more vulnerable species that would grow beneath them. In most places throughout the island, the forest is no older than 30 or 40 years, and 40% of the island is covered by grasses (in order for the critically endangered takahe to be able to feed), but there are a several larger patches of old growth forest and lots of small patches of groups of very old trees – some of them almost a thousand years old. The most widely visited two larger patches are easily accessible from the wharf, while the others are off trail and reserved for research purposes.
Tiritiri Matangi was from early on a project that depended on volunteer labor. Among the paths, the buildings, the boardwalks, trees and often even animals themselves, none have not been touched by the volunteer labor that has been consistent on the island for decades, performing services such as maintenence, weeding, guiding and planting. It has been called the most successful conservation project in New Zealand and is by now so successful indeed that they do not need to import species anylonger – but instead send them to other places around New Zealand.
I volunteered for one week on Tiritiri Matangi, arriving the 5th and leaving the 11th of August 2018. It was an amazing week, possibly the best I had in New Zealand, and I’d like to promote it a bit. I have so far not met a single backpacker who went there, no less stayed there for a bit of volunteering. So just in case there are others out there that are interested in trying this amazing thing out, I will give a bit of a description of my experience. And in case no one was interested from the start I do hope that at least a bit of interest is sparked by now, because it’s really a great chance to experience New Zealand native wildlife. As a day visitors it will be pretty much impossible for you to spot kiwi, tuatara and other nocturnal animals, and even the animals active during the day are more cautious and go off to hide in the bush. Not everyone sees a takahe during a day visit, while it’s impossible to not see plenty of them during a quiet day.
Day 1, Sunday
Arriving on the ferry, the island looks a bit like a forest floating on the sea. A thick forest covers most of the visible parts of the island. I have arrived with the only ferry company actually taking passengers to Tiritiri, which has daily morning departures from Auckland. DOC (the department of conservation) has provided me a volunteer’s ticket, giving me a free return ticket along with bunkhouse accommodation and a complimentary group tour as an introduction to the island.
At the dock I am met up first by a volunteer from Friends of Tiritiri Matangi, who instructs me about what to do with my backpack and my bags of food (and there’s quite a lot of food – as there are no food available on the island, volunteers must bring suplies enough for a week!). I’m also asked to look through my bag one more time, in case a mouse, skink, some ants or other possible foreign harmful species have slipped down during the night. If for example rainbow skinks would get a foothold on the island, it could very well mean the local extinction of the island’s endangered native skinks. I had already looked before departure, but gave it another go. Better be careful! No skinks or other animals or seeds in my open bag, I put them in the trunk of a vehicle and later listen to the DOC ranger’s introduction and greeting.
I soon meet the other volunteer (there are two new volunteers per week), a young engineer from Auckland who has come for a bit of a birding holiday. He had never seen most native birds before and thought that it was about time.
We are taken on a tour of part of the island along with a small group of other visitors, five in total. We visit the wattle valley and the east coast, before we head up to the visitors center (filled to the brim with information about the various birds and the work done on the island) where the group disbands and me and the other volunteer, Michael, go for lunch.
Meeting up with the ranger Vonny after lunch, we are given another sort of a tour of the island, but this time with her showing us places relevant for us as volunteers. We walk around for perhaps an hour before we go for a bit of a drive around the island in a small golf wagon, Vonny showing us tracks that needs maintence. She’s showing us a total of four places or so and tells us that there is quite a lot of freedom of choice. We can work with any of the tasks when we want. She also tells us a lot of things about the island and other things, and throughout the week on the island she is very helpful in trying to spot different kinds of animals. The tuatara, for example, she tells us come down to the wharf in the evenings, to soak up the last of the heat stored in the concrete wharf. It’s perhaps the best place to see tuatara.
Soon enough, the ”tour” is over and we are left with the whole day off, told that we will start tomorrow morning filling the throughs with water for the birds along the wattle valley track and in the area around the visitor center and the lighthouse.
Me and Michael decide to take the chance to walk the East Coast track, which our tour guide had told us was her favorite track on the island. Even though it runs along the whole coast, it does not take more than an hour to walk it, and there’s lots of viewpoints to see the other islands of the Hauraki gulf, along with the more closeby patches of old growth forest. We stumble upon two takahe, feeding off the grass on a path through the forest. Big, blue, extremely gentle and cautious ground dwelling birds with sharp red beaks, I think I’ve never before seen an animal that endangered, with only a few hundred individuals left alive, believed extinct for decades until by chance they were stumbled upon in one of the most remote parts of the fiordlands, only a small isolated population still alive.
We sit down and stay quiet. Soon the birds, still aware of us but no longer scared, come out and continue feeding. Soft strange sounds, unlike those from other birds, are heard as they forage for edible roots.
Day 2, Monday
The island is empty today. Two days per week – Monday and Tuesday-, there are no ferries arriving to the island. It must be in order to give the birds some peace and quiet, because as me and Michael leave the volunteer’s bunkhouse in the morning, we are amazed by how many pukoke and even takahe we can see in the fields around the lighthouse.
We will fill the throughs with water, for the birds to swim and bathe in. There are a small number of throughs in two parts of the island, both in order for visitors to more easily be able to see birds, and in order for birds to always have access to water. Volunteers change the water in the throughs daily. While walking from through to through, we see birds of all kinds. Mostly such birds as tui, hihi, bellbirds and forest pidgeons, but throughout the week we also manage to see parakeets, quail and even the elusive kokako. Further up towards the lighthouse, and during the night, other animals can be seen at the throughs. The pateke, takahe, pukeko and even kiwi.
After filling the throughs, we head to the visitor center to clean it out. While washing the floor and cleaning the windows, and at the outside sweeping leaves, we leisurly take breaks to read some of the signs. I had never before been very interested in birds, but while immersed in a place like this, completely surrounded by birds and information about them, it’s difficult not to get pulled along. And since I’m interested in general about environmental conservation, the signs about the work on the island are really interesting. I even read a little book about Tiritiri Matangi and it’s birds during my stay, available in the volunteers’ bunkhouse.
After lunch, we head out to improve one of the tracks for a few hours before we finish for the day, withdrawing a bit until the evening, when we go out to try to find kiwis.
Following the popular Kawerau track in the dark, we listen for the snuffling sounds the kiwi makes when it clears it’s nose. Probing the ground with it’s beak, the kiwi get it’s nostrils stuffed with earth, and has the blow it’s nose to open up it’s airways. After walking around for perhaps an hour, seeing nothing more than the tail of a tuatara, disappearing into a bush, we finally decide to sit down and switch of the lights. We use infrared lights but are concerned that the kiwis are cautious even about these. And true enough, after sitting down quietly for a few minutes, we hear a ruffling and snuffling little beast approach us. Another one is soon heard a bit further down the path.
Turning on the infrared lights again, we observe the two kiwis for a few minutes while they forage among the fallen leaves.
Day 3, Tuesday
Having filled the throughs and cleaning the visitor center, we head out to improve one more of the tracks. It’s in the furthest northern end of the island, with fifty meters or so of it passing through an area prone to flooding. Extending the ditch to drain rain water out down a gentle slope, we dig and cut flax for an hour or two before we’re done and go to have lunch at one of the old maori village sites, located on the top of a small hill with views on three sides of the ocean. If it weren’t for the map telling us, we’d never have thought that a village had once existed there, and true enough, the only trace the archaeologists have found seems to be traces of meals eaten a long ago. One wonder how the island would have looked like.
Going for a bit of a walk we decide to make a beach cleanup for much of the rest of the workday. Seeing seabirds feels a bit odd, so close to the more strange and exotic looking species that lives just a few hundred meters up into the forest.
On the way back, for the first time we hear a kokako. Gently slipping into the bush, we manage to get a good view of it and for a minute or two we stand there, until – not having made another sound – it flies away.
Day 4, Wednesday
We clean the throughs extra thorougly today, as in a few hours the first visitors of the week will appear. While, much later, we are in a northern part of the island, cutting shrubs on the sides of a path, we encounter some of the visitors. People with big cameras. Couples. Several asians.
The workday passes by quickly, mostly spent on cutting shrubs, but when we are done for the day we still have several hours before the sunset. We decide to head for one of the oldgrowth parts of the forest, which has no information about it anywhere and no trails on the map. It’s the biggest and furthest continious patch of old growth forest on the island, shaped like a long arm following a small creek. Perhaps it did not make sense to cut it down, since most of the land is too steep to farm anyway, and much of it is soggy and would get flooded during rains.
We manage to find a way to enter it from the pohutukawa creek on the east coast. A small almost invisble opening, probably meant for researchers to use. The track is lined with nesting boxes for the island’s hihi or stitchbird. It takes about an hour and a half all in all, walking up to pohutukawa creek, through the forest and back to the accommodation, but it was a very interesting part of the island, with plenty of old growth trees, some of them just vaguely similar to their younger cousins around the freshly planted parts of the island.
In the evening we go out again. We have been talking to a few visitors who are staying in the bunkhouse, there is space enough for perhaps 20 people or so, with most rooms having about 5 people each. Unless in high season, you’ll probably rarely find it very busy. Some of them go out early but me and Michael wait until perhaps 8 or so until we go. We have been out early before and not had much luck with either the penguins, tuatara or kiwi (which we only saw once). But today we depart at eight and manage to see not only all these various birds mentioned above, but also the pateke, which we did not even know existed until the moment we saw them. Small, cute and very endangered, these native ducks almost makes you want to try out that oldtimer’s activity, duckfeeding. We also saw a slightly less cute side of life on the island, when we encountered a tuatara (the perhaps closest living relative to the dinosaurs – actually even a dinosaur itself!) about to devour a lost and lone little baby penguin.
It’s raining a lot but it doesn’t bother us. It’s still warm enough, and it’s amazing to finally be able to see some penguins, a few of them very close up, and in the end even a lone kiwi, which quickly runs of into the bush, not at all satisfying our curiosity.
Day 5, Thursday
The tui have started fighting. We’ve been told that they are the most aggressive native birds and we can clearly see it now. They are fighting over dominance over the wattle trees, that are about to start flowering, producing an abundance of food. After doing all the throughs we head over to the two tracks we had been digging ditches for, to see how they survived the rain. The one through the wet area has seen it’s better days but it’s still better than when we got started on it. While we go to continue cutting bushes along another track, we suddenly hear a kokako. Again, we leave everything where it is and tries to locate where the bird could be. Carefully walking through the thick undergrowth, we manage to spot the kokako. We had only seen it once before and only for a minute, sitting on a branch, completely quiet. This time we had more luck. For several minutes we stood there listening, as the kokako sang, until suddenly it left, taking much of the strangeness of the world with it.
Later on, we walk down the nearby track which we saw two kiwis on one of the first nights, and we notice that it was just in front of the perhaps biggest tree we had so far seen on an island. Completely unaware of it back then, we had assumed it was like any other patch of forest, but now during the day we could see further than with the dim flashlights.
When we come back after lunch we start cleaning out the aviaries. These are a group of three little rooms in which the rangers keeps birds while they prepare to send them to other parts of New Zealand. Filled with various plants, our job is to get the twigs and brances and leaves out, jumble them upon a vehicle and then dispose of them in a remote corner of the southern grasslands. While it was the job of all which had the least fresh air, it was still very enjoyable and we managed to find in the remains of the plants not only skinks and beetles (and spiders), but also the massive wetapunga – ”God of Ugly Things” in Maori – which is a giant grasshopper-looking insect. It was a small wetapunga, but I really think it was the same species. It looks different from other weta. If you would see an adult one, they are massive – larger than your hand!
Picking this finger sized one up with a twig, I leave it in a hopefully quite safe place, where it managed to hide until nightfall, which is the time of the day when they usually awake.
What we did during nightfall was the same as usual – we went out to look for kiwis. This time, we thought, we should finally get a bit more lucky and see kiwis from up close and for a bit of a longer time. Within three minutes, we had a kiwi running towards us. When it noticed, it got scared and hid, but then it came out again and came to look at us. It was so curious that it even came up to smell the foot of my friend, standing just centimeters from him. As another kiwi was heard a bit further up, it ran off and disappeared.
The rest of the walk, we see nothing, but when returning through the same patch of forest, again, we spot the same kiwi. At first cautious, again curiosity got the better of it and it came up real close, but this time to me. Standing just a few centimeters from me, it runs off again when another kiwi comes out of a bush.
For several minutes we see him trying to seduce a slightly reluctant female. From only a few meters, this was the closest we ever came two kiwis, and the longest we ever got to observe any.
Day 6, Friday
We finish cleaning out the aviary before we start digging up heavy rubble onto a vehicle, in order to fill out the little sorry looking path passing through the wetlands. All kinds of rubble, it’s used instead of gravel as transporting gravel to the island is both expensive and risky – it would be possible to introduce various species (for example ants) that could damage the ecosystem.
It’s the heaviest work so far, digging up various rocks and other rubble, and we manage to see only a horrible looking centipede and a skink. I think that most people would not have been asked to do this job, the volunteer said that volunteers are given tasks depending on such things as fitness, and that’s why me and this other young guy got to do so much of the heavy work. Anyway, after a while we’re done and now we just have to go to unload it onto the track which is a lot easier. We are given the rest of the day off, as a thanks I guess for having exhausted ourselves. And since for saturday – the last day – we only have to fill the throughs, we basically have 24 hours until the ferry, during which we can do whatever we feel like.
Trying to spot the elusive rifleman, the only bird we have not yet seen – supposedly the smallest bird in New Zealand, which could be why we hadn’t seen it – we headed out towards the only other contiguos patch of old growth forest we had not visited. It’s a lot harder to navigate through and not really rewarding, dense and rugged and marshy, filled with weta nesting boxes. But now at least we have been everywhere on the island and almost anything is worth a try.
Falling asleep later on, I go for a short walk, hearing kiwis outside the bunkhouse. Somehow I do not even bother much to try to see them. The experience the day before was a good last one and I just wanted to enjoy the quiet of the evening and the rotating lights of the lighthouse, the view of distant Auckland and it’s city lights.
Day 7, Saturday
Surprisingly, the last day was one passed almost doing nothing, despite the fact that almost the whole day was off. I finished up the last of my food (having brought almost exactly as much as I needed to not be hungry – but a fair bit less variety than I would have needed to enjoy my meals) and went with Michael for a walk up the east coast to do a last beach cleanup. We did a total of three beach cleanups during the stay, finding all sorts of things, from rubber wheels to a New Zealand Royal Navy hat and plenty of interesting remains of sea creatures.
Coming back to the visitor center, I read the last few signs and realize that the Rifleman does not exist on the island, despite what the other signs have said. They are just a bit ahead of their time: the rifleman will soon get introduced. Having been wanting to see it for several days and been joking about it not being a real bird, but a joke, it’s something of a revelation. Walking down towards the ferry, I laugh about it a bit with Michael when he suddenly says: ”Look there! It’s a yellowhead!”. Supposedly the Yellowhead is an even rarer bird which is very new to the island. I didn’t even know that the species existed. So in some strange way, the lack of riflemen was weighed up for. And as if providing an extra little reconciliatory bonus, Tiritiri Matangi gave us a view of a stingray laying to rest in shallow water, just down by the wharf, as the ferry came in and we were ready to leave.
Information from DOC
Application for and information about volunteering
Two other volunteers writing about their week on the island
Bring lots of food!