It’s about time

Juvenile tui feeding - note the missing cape feathers and throat 'poi'


It’s no secret that the future of my favourite bird watching place, ZEALANDIA, has been much in the news of late as the media and the public has debated its financial future and the proposal the Sanctuary Trust has put to the Wellington City Council for funding to get it through the current financial difficulties.

Fortunately this debate has elicited a considerable amount of public support for ZEALANDIA, with letters to the editor of the DomPost emphatic in their support.

But there have also been detractors, and it is they who I would like to specifically address in this blog.

Almost unanimously the detractors have written that ZEALANDIA is overpriced, and/or overrated – “offers little, boring, you don’t see much”. An incredible example is one correspondent who complained that they went to ZEALANDIA and “only saw birds”!  Others who complain they saw nothing but bush and there’s “better bush elsewhere we can see for nothing.”

The beauty of this little native scented broom is worth a pause (Carmichaelia odorata)

My analysis of the comments, and the visitor experience that prompted them, suggests that they largely stem from three basic problems.

One, some people have a misconception as to what Zealandia is. Their comments suggest they expected a zoo, with captive animals easy to view, including “more interesting” exotic animals (nothing but birds indeed!). They have no conception that the sanctuary is a wild valley with wild animals free to come and go (the birds at least), and that the “attractions” cannot be produced on demand for their entertainment.

"Only saw birds" - precisely, and what amazing birds!

Two, they misunderstand what ZEALANDIA is all about. One “helpful” critic suggested it would make more money if people were allowed to walk dogs in the sanctuary! Imagine the fate of the kiwi in the forest if that was allowed to happen. Another critic posted the only slightly less bizarre suggestion that the trails be opened up for mountain bikes! The concept of a 500-year journey back in time where walkers can experience something of the biology, and atmosphere, of pre-human Zealandia is lost on these folk (let alone the curiosity as to why dog walkers and mountain bikers would pay for access to the valley when they have free access to facilities created especially for them elsewhere).

Garden orb web spider (Eriophora pustulosa) wrapping its prey

Third (two related sub-points here), the modern preoccupation with instant gratification – “I want to be entertained, now!” – and the failure of many people to take the time a taonga like ZEALANDIA needs to be fully appreciated. This latter point is reinforced by my direct observations of visitor behaviour. Too many people charge around the valley at pace, completing the circuit from the visitor centre to the top dam and back in less than an hour, and then complain they didn’t see anything. While instant, time-short, gratification might be achieved at an amusement park, or even at a zoo (though I can’t imagine rushing around Wellington Zoo in less than an hour would be a particularly rewarding experience) a different approach is needed at ZEALANDIA.


Tieke (North Island saddleback - Philesturnus carunculatus rufusater) feeding on pigeonwood berries

An illustrative story here.  I was photographing tui feeding on harakeke flowers when I heard a party of tourists approaching. I say heard because their presence was conveyed to me audibly a full five minutes before the hove into sight. They were walking very fast, chatting very loudly. As usual my camera attracted attention.

“Getting any good photos?  We’ve hardly seen anything, bit of a waste of money really.”

Respectfully – I can be occasionally – I suggested they sit down, shut up, and watch the harakeke flowers in front of me. I guaranteed that within ten minutes they’d see a tui feeding. Mother nature smiled on me, it was only three minutes. They were entranced. Turns out the party had the whole afternoon to kill so I suggested they do the same visitor centre to top dam circuit again, this time slowly and quietly. I saw them again about 2 hours later. They still weren’t very quiet but this time it was delighted chatter.

“Oh, we saw bellbird and stitchbird and saddleback and kaka and fantail and tui and robin . . .” A totally different experience than their first time around.

This last problem is not unique to ZEALANDIA. Friends of mine own a garden park covering many hectares. Visitor feedback (which includes recording when people arrive and leave) shows that those who understood that a garden the size of half a farm would take a while to enjoy, and planned accordingly, thoroughly enjoyed their experience. The “been there, done that” visitors who whipped around in less than an hour were more likely to complain, say the garden wasn’t worth the admission price, and suggest the attraction was overrated.

A native "garden" beauty - northern rata - Metrosideros robusta

This garden is an economically viable tourism success, suggesting that there is a market out there comprised of people who will not only pay to experience the beauty of nature, but also understand that time is needed to get the most value from their experience.

The rewards of standing still - sunbathing brown skink (Oligosoma zelandicum)

The issue, then, at ZEALANDIA is not the cost of entry, or even whether it can be a viable tourism attraction, but how to increase understanding of what type of attraction the sanctuary is, what the 500-year programme is all about, and that time is needed to extract real value from the experience. Get that right, and people with the right understanding and approach will comprise the majority of visitors, and the issue of admission price becomes far less problematic.

Having said that, I also believe the controversy over the admission price is one of perception rather than reality, especially as regards Wellington locals. Out-of-Wellington visitors seem not balk at the price, and locals can easily reduce their daily admission by purchasing a membership, which is the option I took.

Stand still and toutouwai will come to you! (North Island Robin - Petroica australis longipes)

By my reckoning, because I go to ZEALANDIA most weekends, I probably pay little more than a dollar a visit. Now, not everyone wants to go once a week, but even if someone wanted to go, say, quarterly to catch the change of the seasons, a full membership fee would represent a substantial discount. ZEALANDIA is an undoubted conservation success and is proving it has the ability to be a visitor success also. Numbers are going up and the new centre is starting to make a small profit. A little more support from the Wellington City Council, and all friends of conservation in New Zealand, and this national taonga will be around for our children’s children, and the 500 year vision will become a reality.

Now, if only I can work out a way to be around to see it!

Note: The pictures in this blog are just a few from a walk around the sanctuary (a little less than four hours) on Saturday 7 January 2012. The shots are a typical experience for someone walking slowly and taking time.






A quiet place to pause and just enjoy the sound of water


21 thoughts on “It’s about time

  1. Great read. I have never been to Zealandia but will next time I’m in Wellington. I think you are right. Our hectic modern pace means we have lost touch with nature.

  2. Such a good article – we have a family membership and NEVER fail to be impressed every time we go to Zealandia. there is always something to see and always something different. Our 3 children love it (aged 5, 6 and 8) and if you take your time (and even a yummy picnic) its a great day out. We never spend less than 3 hours. Our recent guests from the UK were very impressed.

  3. I totally agree. It IS relatively expensive on a Wellington level, but not on an international level. For those who give it a try, and give it a try as you have suggested – allow plenty of time, and some quiet periods, and some still time – it is a stunning experience. It certainly helps to like birds of course. 🙂 As you say, it’s our instant gratification society! Very, very well put.

  4. Great post! I (shamefully) never went despite living for four years in Wellington, one of which was right around the corner in Kelburn. I’ll definitely take the time during my next visit!

  5. I hope everybody gets to read it. The first day I took my wife to have a look we ended up staying all day – and that was before they had the new visitor center.

  6. Steve, you have hit the nail firmly on the head with your comments. It seems respect and appreciation, when it comes to issues related to environmental issues, are forgotten words.
    I remember some years ago, while staying in the D’Urville Hut, being woken-up by the sounds of nature – the Tui,Kea,Woodpidgeon,Owl. It was a sound I will never forget.

    • Cheers Ross. I had a similar experience when I was a student on my three-day solo at outward bound. Being woken by the going to bed calls of kiwi at dawn was a precious experience!

      • Steve,I assume when you say “Outward Bound”, you mean the complex at Anakiwa? I have been there, as-well-as other part of the Marlborough Sounds, and it is heaven. I lived in Nelson for 25-years and were spoiled with what was available for the outdoors person.
        Am looking forward to more of your blogs.


  7. Hi Ross, yes I mean Anakiwa. I was fortunate enough that for my solo experience I was placed on one of the outer bush-clad coastlines where there were (then) still kiwi. I think stoats have decimated the population since then.

    • Here stoats are family pets. Horrible fuckin’ thinks. I would love to visit Maude Island sometime.
      Are you on Facebook? If so, I am – Ross-Barry Finlayson.

  8. When we go to Zealandia, we take the side tracks, walk slowly, talk quietly or not at all and from time to time, just stop and listen. It’s astonishing what you see and hear and when you do that. My favourites are the robins which come and fossick through the leaf litter right at your feet and follow you as you walk. We’ve never been disappointed at the plethora of birds we’ve seen and heard. I want to tell noisy chatterers that we meet,”Be quiet and then you’ll really experience this place”.
    Perhaps there needs to be more education, telling people about the need to talk quietly and from time to time, just to say nothing at all and listen.

    • Cheers Sharron, couldn’t agree more. I ran into a group of Wellington first timers last weekend, gave them the same advice as you’ve just suggested and they had an amazing time. So much so that they went and got memberships straight away and intend to come back regularly.

    • Sharron – Ditto. Have you ever been hiking and stayed in a D.O.C. Hut, and been woken to the “Dawn Chorus”? It’s a sound that remains with you forever.

  9. We visited NZ in January 2012, we did a whistle stop tour of both islands in 18 days and tried to see as much s possible. We fell in love with the bush and I can say our night tour in Zelandia with Alison and Joanna was the highlight of my holiday (Kauri trees come a close second) and that includes wineries, Abel Tasman, geysers etc etc. I would recommend it internationally as an experience, quite phenomenal and very good value for money.
    I’m disappointed Puffin’s egg has proved infertile, but understand old bird’s problems.
    Sadly I live to far away to visit regularly, but will definitely visit again if I get the chance.

  10. Excellent article Steve. Spot on people’s attitude today. I have visited Zealandia twice on visits to NZ from UK.It is a place not to be missed. It is very strange that people are quite happy to pay silly price for a drink then ended up standing again wall later when nature calls. Yet they moaned on the price of admission. It It is ashame people fails to really enjoy what’s around them and once its gone we lost it for life. We have National Trust membership in the UK and visit as many of the sites as possible and it is very cost effective in the long run. Conservation is an expensive business. I will defintely going again on my next visit to NZ.

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  13. A motivating discussion is worth comment. I believe that you need to write more about this topic, it might not be a taboo matter but usually people do not discuss these issues. To the next! Many thanks!!

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