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  • Keith Newman

Getting to the gannets

More than 20,000 people head to Cape Kidnappers by tractor tours along the beach or overland by 4WD or coach each year. ​Tours to the gannets are one of New Zealand’s longest running eco-tourism business.

Cape Kidnappers is considered by the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council (HBRC) “a site of international of the world’s most accessible mainland gannet colonies and the subject of considerable scientific investigation.”

The 12 ha Cape Kidnappers Reserve was gifted to the Crown by property owner Frank Gordon in 1914.

Aerial view of Cape Kidnappers Peninsula

There are four different gannet colonies within the 13-hectare reserve including the Plateau, the gradually diminishing Saddle, Black Reef on the beach itself 1km before the Cape and Whalebone Reef. Both the Saddle and Whalebone Reef are closed to the public but can be viewed from the elevated Plateau colony, the main viewing place for nesting birds.

Around 20,000 gannets make their home here with the overall number estimated to be growing by two percent a year. They are members of the booby family and related to shags, pelicans and frigate-birds, known to Maori as takapu, and protected at the reserve administered by the Department of Conservation.

Gannet landing at the Plateau colony

The migration of smelt, herrings and whitebait from spawning grounds in the river systems attract kahawai and bigger fish including snapper with the gannets, seagulls and other birds creating the spectacle known by Cape Coast locals as the “boil up”, often starting around October each year.

The sounds of the birds jostling for place in the ocean frenzy as they work with the larger fish to herd the shoals of smaller migrating fish creates an equivalent human frenzy on shore as young and old run with their fishing lines or race their quad bikes to haul in crazed kahawai as the sea literally boils with activity.

Gannet parents generally mate for life and both can fly a round trip of over 400km to get fish for their young. They can remain at sea up to 48 hours. On spotting fish from their aerial surveillance, the gannets enter a vertical dive with folded wings and if quick and accurate enough will emerge with their prey in their 9cm long bluish beaks and return with a predigested meal for their chicks.

The parents then swap places in the continual fishing expedition to ensure their offspring grow fit and strong for their own migration from around March or April of each year. At around 16 weeks, the chicks who have never flown previously, take on a massive maiden adventure, a 2,800 kilometre Tasman Sea crossing. Three to four years later, they return from Australia to undertake tentative mating. It’s not until they are five years old that they get serious about settling down and nesting and then spend much of their lives around coastal New Zealand.

Access includes a long walk from Clifton, quad bike or trail bike if the tide is right; by sea kayak or boat, or organised trips with commentary on tractor and trailer and overland by bus.

From Scotmans Point, in front of Hygge at Clifton Café, DOC suggests people set aside at least 5 hours for a comfortable return walk along the beach but only at low tide, starting no sooner than three hours after high tide and returning no later than 1.5 hours after low tide to avoid being stranded.

The 18km return journey affords spectacular views of stratified rock beds of gravels, conglomerate and mudstone carved into irregular shapes by sea, wind and storm.

There are two main commercial businesses, Gannet Safaris, operating overland from Summerlee Station since the 1970s with a strong clientele from visiting cruise ships, and Gannet Beach Adventures which unofficially started in the 1940s.

Organised trips to the gannets were sporadic for many years with locals acting as guides to take visiting families or groups to witness the birds in action. A Hastings Taxi firm took people out along the coast up until the 1931 earthquake which resulted in numerous slides, changing the terrain significantly.

Terrain takes toll

Gannet Beach Adventures initially used Model T Fords, old trucks and buggies to take people along the beach but the harsh terrain and corrosion took its toll on those vehicles. Tractors were introduced around 1969 with purpose-built trailers.

Lynette Boaler (nee Burden) recalled that in the summers of 1947 and 1948 her mother Jesse who ran Burden’s Motor Camp in Te Awanga, talked her into walking to the Cape to show campers and friends. “It was expected that I would do this two and sometimes three times a week. We would see little blue penguins at Black Reef. The gannets then only nested near the lighthouse.”

The light beacon on Cape Kidnappers, often referred to as a lighthouse, is right next to the gannet colony. It was first constructed in 1963, flashes every 15 seconds and is visible for eight nautical miles.

Burden Family setting out for a trip to the Gannets

Mrs Boaler recalls one incident when it was feared the instability of the sheer cliffs of the Cape may have ended in tragedy. “Just beyond Clifton and before Rabbit Gully, a huge slip had come down. A truck got stuck so we were told to walk on over the slip which we all did. However, the great vibration of the vehicle motor and pulling on the truck to release it bought a great deal more of the cliff down.”

It appeared for a time that people had been buried on both sides of the slip and so the ambulance and fire brigade were called. “They sent a boat around from Clifton and with great surprise found everyone was still alive.”

While the Burden family had unofficially taken friends and guests from their Te Awanga Motor Camp to the gannets for decades, Gannet Beach Adventures didn’t officially become a business until 1952. “Back then it was just a family thing, really. We never anticipated it would some day become a money-making business. We didn’t have a license to carry passengers so we couldn’t charge anyone,” said Neil Burden.

When the company was celebrating 60-years in business he told Hawke’s Bay Today that initially the family just passed the hat around to cover costs. “Usually that meant passengers who had plenty of money gave nothing, while those who had nothing often gave something”.

Despite numerous offers to buy the company with its tractor and trailer transport he decided to keep it in the family, eventually selling it to nephew and Hastings District councilor Rod Heaps and wife Dayna. In 2008 Colin and Kim Lindsay bought the business. The tours which had begun with a single tractor and trailer now boasts eight casual staff and six tractors with a maximum number of 200 tourists per trip.

Rod Heaps and Neil Burden were still occasional drivers in 2018.

Two happy visitors enjoying their day with Gannet Beach Adventures

Overland gannets

In the 1970s visitor interest in seeing the gannets overland first took hold when the owners of Cape Kidnappers Station Farm partnered with the Hawke’s Bay Bus Company.

Transport was provided using ex-army trucks and Gannet Safaris Tours was born. In 1978, the company which became known as Hawke’s Bay Motor Company was struggling to make a profit before ​Andrew Neilson who farmed the land around the gannet colony took over the business.

From October 1979 he began ferrying visitors across his farm in a Landrover to visit the sanctuary. “I don’t want to be critical of the motor company, I think it did a good job but I believe I can make the safari pay by providing a more personal and comfortable service,” he said.

Gannet Safaris Overland began at his farm gate alongside the road to Clifton winding over 18km of farm road following the bed of an underground stream and then climbing steeply toward the coast and the headland at the edge of the peninsula to where the gannets nest in an open section of paddock overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The business has changed hands several times with more comfortable vehicles providing transport including large coaches or 10-seater mini-buses and 4-wheel drive luxury vehicles bus leaving from the entrance to Summerlee Station.

Source material: Regional Coastal Environment Plan (July 2008) which became operative on 8 November 2014 Adventure firm celebrates 60-years, HB Today, 13 November, 2012 Te Awanga Our Home, Burden Childhood Days, Burden Family, 2008, p. 80 DOC 2009 signage

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