A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to return to one of my favourite nature places in the country, the fantastic Pukaha Mt Bruce - found between Masterton and Eketahuna on State Highway 2.
Up close and personal at Pukaha Mt Bruce with a curious wild kaka - Photo: Nicola Toki
There are two parts to this story, both telling crucial conservation stories of New Zealand.
Pukaha, which means "strong winds", is the last remaining patch of what was once known as the 70 Mile Bush - a huge tract of forest that once once stretched from Masterton to Norsewood and swelled with birdsong. But most of the forest was lost to logging and development, and the introduced predators took their toll on the wildlife.
Ten years ago, the once deafening sound of the forest was deadly silent. That's when the Department of Conservation decided to turn the tide, creating an almost impenetrable predator-proof fortress of traps, bait stations and constant vigilance against introduced predators.
What you can experience in the Pukaha part of Pukaha Mt Bruce is pretty awesome: a series of easy walking tracks through beautiful bush, with that pungent earthy smell of the New Zealand forest and plenty of wildlife along the way. What I like about Pukaha is that apart from feeling as though you're in an ancient oasis in the middle of farmland and just off a main highway, there is a treasure trove of nature all around you - my two favourites can be experienced by everyone daily, since they get a regular feed. At 1.30, the enormous longfin eels are fed from a bridge, with a ranger to interpret the story of these freshwater taniwha. Some of them are simply huge, and well worth watching as they jostle for the mince and peas fed by the ranger. This is an activity that kids (yes even big kids!) can enjoy watching for some time.
My other favourite highlight of a visit to Pukaha is the kaka feed at 3pm. These wild kaka (last count there were 166 resident wild ones) start fluttering down from the farthest reaches of the 942-hectare Pukaha reserve from about 2pm, waiting patiently (and sometimes impatiently) for their 3pm feed. I am always a fan of a native wildlife experience, particularly with wild birds free to do as they please - and they did not fail to disappoint this time.
My friend and I decided to wander over well before the feed and we thrilled to have almost an hour alone with the cheeky kaka who clowned around in the trees just centimetres from our heads, hanging upside down, playfighting, investigating our cameras and generally being the entertaining and intelligent birds they are. I can attest to not getting your fingers too close to those secateur-like beaks - ouch! (that will teach me!).
Pukaha Mt Bruce's kaka feed means you can get close up to kaka - but don't get THIS close! OUCH!
The other crucial part of the Pukaha Mt Bruce Wildlife Reserve is the captive breeding part. It started with a local farmer, Elwyn Welch, who despaired at the loss of native birds and wanted to take action to try to help. He partnered up with Geoffrey Orbell (who rediscovered the takahe in the Murchison Mountains in 1948) and together they began a cunning plan, which involved Elwyn successfully training his bantam hens to sit on takahe eggs.
In 1962 the Wildlife Service took over, and the captive breeding facility at Pukaha Mt Bruce has been an essential aspect of our conservation story ever since. The team there have bred a huge range of native wildlife (including whio, brown teal and tuatara) and they have some beautiful native wildlife on display - including Kahurangi the kokako, who is a delight to visit. Rats, stoats and possums have all but destroyed our kokako population, so it's a really neat opportunity to see just how beautiful they are.
Kahurangi the kokako is amazing to watch, and because she was hand-raised she likes to interact with human visitors.
However, it is their kiwi story that is earning them all the coverage at the moment, due to three white kiwi chicks hatching at the centre in the past year or so.
White kiwi (like most white animals) are fairly rare, and we humans seem to go for the rare white animals. Personally, I've never seen the big deal, but, hey, if it gets people interested in our conservation story, then I'm in. I have to say too that seeing the first white kiwi (Manukura) in the kiwi house was pretty cool, since her bright feathers made her easy to see in the darkness of the enclosure.
There was an egg in the incubator while we were there (all of the incubators and eggs and so on can be seen by the public in the relatively new kiwi facility), and it hatched five days after we visited into the third white chick - an early white Christmas present for the very dedicated Pukaha Mt Bruce team.
So if you're looking for something to do up that way this summer, take the family to Pukaha Mt Bruce - it's well worth a visit.
Have you ever been to Pukaha Mt Bruce? What did you think of it? What was your favourite bit?