Zealandia is, without a doubt, my favorite attraction in Wellington thus far.
What’s that, you ask? Watch this.
Zealandia (formerly known as Karori Wildlife Sanctuary) is a stunning eco-sanctuary spanning approx. 225ha of forest where native birds, mammals, bugs and reptiles are preserved. I had the blessing of going with my flatties, who are practically natives of NZ by now, so it was great to follow around and hear their experienced perspectives.
The entrance road to Zealandia is a great indicator of the massive amounts of lush hills, bush and jungle-like sceneries that await. I was blown away by just walking along the fenced area that overlooked huge hills comparable to large, green mountainsides in Maui (don’t ever expect me to stop comparing NZ to Hawaii, since the two will always be beautifully similar). I’m positive that my jaw was gaping open in amazement while I recorded sceneries with my GoPro.
First-time visitors should definitely check out the Exhibition, which showcases not only the history of the sanctuary but also New Zealand’s unique natural history and conservation. There are heaps of interactive sounds and models encased in glass that show the rare types of mammals, both endangered or extinct, native to New Zealand. The 7.5-minute high-quality video shown on a panoramic film screen is definitely worth the time, with stunning videography techniques and angles that reenact historical scenes 1,000 years ago. The world’s tallest bird, the Moa (think Big Bird, but not yellow and more ostrich-looking), is also the first large animal model you see when you walk in and is one of the subjects of this video. Other videos showcase the famous steel fencing that surrounds the sanctuary, which cost $2.5 million to complete in 1999. It was pretty unbelievable to watch how the fence was created to ensure that pests were kept out and animals were kept safe within the sanctuary. And the night vision video showing Kiwis stomping around was absolutely hilarious (not even kidding… the birds are cute and also rival me when it comes to walking loudly and briskly).
We entered the sanctuary valley in the afternoon, so in total, we spent three hours roaming around until it closed at 5pm. I knew it wouldn’t be enough time, especially since I like to explore things for full days at a time. Much like Wellington Zoo, the easy track (2-3 hrs rountrip) loops you around in a circle so you won’t get lost that easily. Unlike Wellington Zoo, the sanctuary is massive– we’re talking about three times the land, forestry, and beautiful landscapes. I’m well aware that Karori also blows homely little Newtown out of the water, and I now understand why so many locals prefer Zealandia over the zoo.
Since Zealandia is an eco-sanctuary, it’s a hit or miss type of adventure in terms of how many wildlife you’ll end up seeing. We ended up seeing quite a lot, especially for my first time, which probably made me fall in love with the place that much more. There are various types of birds that live in the sanctuary, and we walked into the Takahe birds a few minutes into our trek.
Takahe birds are adorable. Then again, 99.9% of ALL wildlife in New Zealand is beautiful, harmless and far more tame than anything back in America. Takahe birds resemble mini Kevin birds (from the Pixar film, Up) with large beaks, stocky legs and vibrant, iridescent-like purple/green/blue/black feathers.
But the best part was realizing that the animals walk RIGHT up to you here.
No fences. No looking glass between you and the animal. No illusive impressions of any caging. The animals downright chill with you and will get so close as to peck your feet while foraging your food.
There were two little Takahe birds that kept walking around us as we eagerly snapped photos and watched them in awe. They emitted these “coo-eet” type of sounds that paralleled a wheezy, soft squeaky toy (which upped their cuteness). Around the size of a chicken (but fairly larger), it looked a bit funny when they towered over some of the little toddlers that were having a picnic with their family in the middle of the grass. Some professional photos by Zealandia can be viewed here.
Quite a few ducks were sleeping along our walking path, with their heads burrowed into their bodies and plumped out. If you walked close to one while it was sleeping, it wouldn’t move; in fact, some would open their eyes and blink, but not move. It’s still so interesting to me to see how tame wildlife is in this country.
We walked past California quails, Tuatara, shag birds (there was a tree full of them by the lagoon), mini robin-type birds, sparrows, and even saw Kaka birds up close in their feeding spots. The coolest moment was probably when two large Kakas flew over our heads– twice– and so rapidly that we had to duck because they flew so low to us.
Did I mention how FAT the New Zealand wood pigeons are?! They’re stunning, with hues of green and purple throughout their bodies… but they’re so plump, the tree branches usually stoop lower when they land on them. Definitely a step above the ordinary drab pigeons (which Wellington CBD has too much of).
Since we’re in the tail end of our summer, the weather was incredibly beautiful with blue skies and lots of sun. The vast amounts of native bush, wetlands and forest seemed too perfect to even be real– it was like looking at something straight off a postcard. For that reason alone, I encourage EVERYONE to see New Zealand in person. No amount of photos, no matter how incredible or expensive the lenses or cameras are, will ever do the experience justice. There’s nothing quite like seeing picture-perfect landscapes like this in person, where you can just reach out and touch, smell, observe and take everything in as so much more than just a memory.
Summer also means constant sounds of cicada bug symphonies (or cacophonies, especially after a few hours in a forest). One cicada bug’s chirping (think like a cricket, but just 100 times louder) can echo for miles. Put a bunch in a sanctuary, and the sound is deafening. There were moments when my ears started to ring because there were so many in one tree we passed.
And those views. OH, THOSE HEAVENLY VIEWS.
The highest peaks, bridges and top points of trails revealed breathtaking views that yielded plenty of Is this real life? moments. Granted, a lot of New Zealand in general has been stunning thus far, but each area is different in its own right.
I was overjoyed to see my very first Weta bugs (both tree and cave ones) as well.
They looked nothing like I imagined. Especially after you think they’ll be like the large, black cricket-like logo for Weta Digital.
Overall, the tree weta look like plumper cockroaches and cave weta look like skinny crickets with massively long antennae and legs. The males are actually smaller than the females, but I’ve heard they’re both pretty harmless and not aggressive at all, despite how they look (spiny legs, long feelers). When I go back in the future (especially at night), I do hope to run into one of the Giant Weta (yes, they’re called that), about the size of one’s palm. Apparently they were extinct until 100 were released into a portion of the sanctuary in 2007.
Don’t they look cute?
(Yes, I can’t do fake bugs, but I think real bugs, predominantly Weta, are fascinating)
Teenage ducks also came right up to us (not quite baby ducklings since they were moderately sized) and walked around/flopped themselves down next to our feet. Unlike California ducks (especially ones at Disneyland), the ducks in the sanctuary are incredible tame and aren’t afraid of human contact. The two large ducks next to the teenagers appeared to be the mother and father ducks, although they didn’t seem to care much that their offspring were roaming around three giants with cameras. They were also going through puberty or an identity crisis, since they were “cheep-cheep”-ing rather than quacking.
I loved it SO much, I’ve already purchased membership for the year to come back continuously and explore. It’s a beautiful place just to run, hike, relax, or animal watch in… crazy that it’s only a 10-min. drive from Wellington CBD. It’s similar to other forests I’ve hiked around in, as well as Wellington Botanical Gardens (which is FREE!), but I highly recommend any visitor to come here just for the sheer experience. You’re definitely not going to find this type of thing anywhere in California, that’s for sure (unfortunately).
Zealandia seems to be very much the literal sanctuary I’ve always wanted.
Official Zealandia social media to browse: