Gannets and Geological Marvels at Cape Kidnappers

What’s with Kiwis wanting to throw a bunch of people on the back of a trailer and take them on a wild adventure? Believe us, we have been in this scenario before and it’s about to happen again!

With a surge of crappy weather blasting through the North Island, we arrive at the base of Gannet Beach Adventures in Hawke’s Bay ready to brave the rain and wind with suitable bin bag-like attire. After checking in, it’s just a matter of waiting for our ride to come and take us to the world’s largest mainland gannet colony. We’ve heard that getting a closer look at these majestic seabirds nesting is a sight not to be missed in the Hawke’s Bay region, so we’re keen to get on this gannet colony tour out to the peninsula of Cape Kidnappers.

Cape Kidnappers by tractor

But getting to the seabirds’ natural habitat is quite the adventure in itself with Gannet Beach Adventures. With no roads to Cape Kidnappers, the easiest access is along a long stretch of beach at low tide by tractor and trailer – and a stylish vintage tractor at that, as we see when our guide, Colin, arrives driving the 1949 Minneapolis-Moline tractor.

He introduces himself enthusiastically, encouraging us to hop on a long trailer complete with a footrest, cushioned seating and a bars to hold onto. It’s a bumpy ride onto Clifton Beach, but during this 4-hour tour, it is about to get a whole lot bumpier! Don’t get us wrong, it’s by no means uncomfortable. We’re actually quite impressed that this tractor can drag us up and onto so many ledges of rock.

“Lift up your feet!” Colin shouts every so often as our path narrows and the tractor’s only option is to get in sea, yet we’re still moving without a problem!

Check out our ride Check out our ride
Colin explains heaps about the fascinating geology Colin explains heaps about the fascinating geology
Gannet behind: Dude, are you really going to eat that?! Gannet behind: Dude, are you really going to eat that?!
Getting our first glimpse of the stunning Cape Kidnappers Getting our first glimpse of the stunning Cape Kidnappers

A history told in the stone

It’s not long before we are well on our way away from civilisation. Out of nowhere, we are riding alongside towering cliffs with the most distinct layers of rock in them. It’s like someone has cut away the land and drained the water as we look at layers and layers of history where many of which have been formed underwater. Here we were, so obsessed with the prospect of seeing gannets up-close that we are totally blown away by the geology of the cliffs.

Moving earth

Colin stops the tractor along the way, first to show us what the layers are made up of, passing around said rock in the stage before it turns to coal, and, if compressed enough, turns to diamond! Further along, the layers in the cliffs get more and more dramatic as we see clear examples of tectonic activity. Up-close to the cliffs, we see huge fault lines miss-matching the different layers of colour. As we move further away and look back at the fault lines, we notice that the cliffs look like a tilted set of stairs. Colin explains that the land has been deformed due to the tectonic forces folding and tilting the land. We don’t think we have seen such an explicit example of the forces of the earth!

Arriving at the gannet colony in style

First wildlife sighting

Gannets are not the first wildlife sightings of the day though, as Colin points out cormorants, or as Kiwis like to call them, shags, drying off their wings atop a lonely boulder. Herons and oyster catchers wade in the shallow waters, barely disturbed by our presence. Then, we spot them in the air before we spot them on land: the large wingspan of the Australasian Gannet! They soar around and around the same area, some carrying seaweed in their beaks “to impress their mate” as Colin explains.

We stop at a colony called Black Reef, where the gannets nest on a low cliff and on three different stacks surrounded by water. A mix of bright white-feathered adult gannets with beautiful yellow heads and blue eyes and spotted grey and white gannet chicks show that we here during the time of the gannets’ nesting cycle where the chicks are nearly ready to make their first migratory flight to Australia. However, we do see one, just one, fluffy, white and cute-as-hell chick hiding under one of its parents.

Gawping at gannets

There are all sorts of behaviour to observe, from one mate landing beside another and engaging in some sort of love dance of clashing their beaks together to chicks making particular sounds and head-shaking to convince their parents to feed them. However, this is only a taste of the behaviour we get to observe at the Cape Kidnappers gannet colonies…

Close encounters with the gannets Close encounters with the gannets
Seaweed delivery! Seaweed delivery!
Absolutely not deterred by the gloomy weather Absolutely not deterred by the gloomy weather

Hiking up to the gannet colony

Chugging along in the tractor, we make it to the end of the beach and the start of the Cape Kidnappers’ walk. When Colin tells us it only takes 25 minutes to hike up to The Plateau colony, we are the first ones to race up to the top not caring that our lungs are about to burst out of our chests. The only thing stopping us is a stunning viewpoint of Cape Kidnappers’ weathered point and cliffs, where we momentarily take in the views, even on such a gloomy day.

Close encounter with the Cape Kidnappers gannet colony

With our legs burning, we make it up to The Plateau atop a huge cliff where we are on the same level at the nesting gannets. There are hundreds of these beautiful birds before us, and at a super close distance so that we can make out the colourful line patterns in their webbed feet and dark lines on their beaks. Gannets really are a damn fine-looking seabird – they put the small red-billed gulls wandering around the colony to shame.

A low fence shows us how close we can get to the colony and even then, the birds are hardly phased by our presence. We can watch them playing and fighting over bits of dried kelp, chicks beating their wings in preparation for their first flight. That’s not to mention all the birds giving us some flying action showing it really pays to come on these wildlife trips whatever the weather!

The journey back to base

After more than an hour hanging around the gannet colony, we come back down to the tractor. Colin talks about the Maori and European history of Cape Kidnappers, explaining how it got such an unusual name. On the way back, Colin also shows us full shell fossils embedded in the cliffs as part of their 4.5 million years of history! From there, it’s a pretty cruisy ride back to the Gannet Beach Adventures base.

With soggy waterproofs but cameras full of close encounters with the largest mainland gannet colony, we drive back to Archie’s Bunker in Napier for our final night at the hostel. Join us tomorrow where we are heading to Waiaroa.

Laura and Robin

Mingling with the gannets on the plateau colony
Mingling with the gannets on the plateau colony Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

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