I’d never seen an Australasian Gannet before. I’d seen pictures, and heard about how these incredible golden-headed seabirds nest in the Hawke’s Bay during certain times of the year. Shane hadn’t seen them since he was a child growing up in Flaxmere, on a school trip out to the colonies. We made sure we visited Cape Kidnappers, the spot where thousands of gannets have been coming to nest since the 1870s, on our summer road trip.
We travel in our van, which Shane has converted into a fit-for-purpose camper complete with bed, kitchen and side awning. When we go on road trips we prefer to stay at freedom camping spots, which are usually less crowded, quieter and cheaper than motor camps (if not free). These are places that usually only have a basic toilet and a quiet place to park, which is fine by us as we have cooking facilities in our van and always carry a large container of water.
Our first camp spot near the gannetry, a free spot beside the beach with toilets and running water, turned out to be the wrong choice – around 9pm some stern-looking security guards came around and asked us where our ‘responsible camper’ sticker was. “We are responsible campers”, we responded (which was true; we always leave a spot as we found it, use the toilet facilities rather than the bushes, and take any rubbish we create with us). Apparantly that wasn’t good enough – because our van doesn’t have a toilet and running water, we don’t qualify for a ‘reposnsible camper’ sticker and can’t stay at a freedom camping spot like this in Hawke’s Bay. It must be a rule unique to this area, as we’d found free camping reserves all around the East coast which were able to be used for free, with simple signs saying ‘please leave the area as you found it’ and full of (responsible) families in all kinds of situations and not policed at all. We found it hard to understand that at a site with its own toilets and running water, you still could only stay if you had an expensive-enough caravan and had paid for this ‘responsible camper’ sticker… it all felt a bit like a way of separating those with the means to afford that stuff and those without. We could see that these Hastings Council security guards weren’t going to debate the ridiculousness of the rule, so we packed up camp and headed up the road to Clifton Beach motorpark, which was closer to the start of the gannets walk, friendly and affordable.
To get out to the gannet colony, you need to leave and return with the tides. We had been advised that the best time to head out the next morning was ‘no earlier than 7:38am’ so we started up the beach around 8am. You can either pay to ride out on a trailor pulled by a tractor (run by the same family that started the business, who have a lot of knowledge to share about the region) or you can walk out there. Shane and I like a good walk, so we chose this option. The walk out to the gannets was along the beach the whole way, then up a steep track to the cliff top where the largest colony of gannets is. We managed to beat the tractor out there, even though it left half an hour later than we did.
The scenery at Cape Kidnappers is incredibly dramatic – sheer cliffs meeting swirling waters and rocky outcrops. You can see fault lines, fossils and different layers of sediment in the surrounding cliffs. We were the only walkers on the beach for most of the way out to the cape, and the place had a deserted, almost otherworldly feel.
This is the largest and most accessible mainland gannet colony in the world, and there are a number of nesting sites that the 6,500-odd pairs of gannets return to every year, with varying levels of approachability. One group nests in the rocks quite close to the beach, while others are high above sea level on flat clifftops. They return every year to lay their single egg and rear their chick until it is strong enough to make the 2,800km journey across the Tasman Sea to Australia (usually when it is around 16 weeks old).
I looked up the collective noun for gannets, and found that there are a number of choices, including a ‘plunging’, a ‘gannetry’ and a ‘company’. ‘A plunging’ is my favourite, probably because it’s the most unusual, but also because it describes the way these birds can dive at speeds of up to 165kmph to catch fish. They have air sacs around their neck and throat to help absorb the impact of such high-impact dives.
It was an ethereal experience being in amongst so many beautiful birds. We were able to get right up close to the gannets and observe their interactions and nesting performances. Most pairs had a fuzzy chick keeping warm beneath their feet. I won’t lie to you – they didn’t smell too good, but they are wild birds after all, and we were visitors at their home so we forgave them.
I loved seeing the way the partners greeted each other as one returned to the nest – a beautiful display of nuzzling adoration; a romantic ‘dance’ to show their love. Like penguins, these birds usually mate for life.
We saw lots of other neat birds on our walk out to the colony and back – white-fronted terns, variable oystercatchers and black shags being among my favourites. When we made it back to the van (return trip about 5 hours all up, including time spent taking photos) we were feeling pretty sun-kissed so we jumped into the sea for a refreshing dip.
If you’re ever in the Hawke’s Bay region, be sure to head out to Cape Kidnappers to appreciate the stunning scenery and special birds for yourself.