I was walking back from a stroll along the shoreline of the tumultuous Tasman Sea. Huge white frothy waves rolled in fast and tossed the beach rocks smooth. The sea was reclaiming its territory and I needed to move. Giggling as I scurried to miss a wave whose speed I had miscalculated, I felt energized and happy. The mountainous western coast of the South Island of New Zealand (also known as Westland) is wild and unpredictable. Exhilarating! Gazing up at the craggy cliffs, I enjoyed the strong breeze and penetrating sunrays and wondered what the day would bring. I could not have predicted the rare adventure to come later that evening.
Off the beach, I headed to my B&B on the main drag of town. Okarito, population 35, has just one main road dotted with smallish beach houses on stilts, a couple rustic B&Bs and a Kayak rental purveyor. Our B&B felt more like a dorm with plywood walls, thin beddings in small bedrooms, and a dysfunctional bathroom with a showerhead that came up to the middle of Bill’s chest. The couple who owned the place were lovely, however, and their homemade breakfast granola, afternoon tastings of local wines and cheeses (sheep cheese, of course) and their caring and helpful conversations made the accommodations feel special. Few tourists ever make it to Okarito. It’s a 60-minute drive away from the relatively larger town of Franz Josef (population 350).
A few homes down from our B&B there was a light blue two story split level house with a ten-foot sign on the front that said Okarito Kiwi Tours. At the curb was a hand painted sandwich board - not there when I went out to the beach. The sign said, “Kiwi Tour tonight 8:00pm, inquire within.” As I walked back to my room, I wondered what a Kiwi Tour was. In New Zealand they use the word “kiwi” to describe almost anything New Zealand-like. The sign made me think, however, that the tour had something to do with kiwi birds. Does this tour take people to see captive kiwi birds? I had read something about special dark rooms that allow people to see kiwi birds during the day. Do we walk through ancient kiwi territory while learning about their habitat and decline? I knew that this area had once been populated with a lot of kiwi. I was intrigued.
When Bill returned from his three hour hike up the hill that overlooked the beach I mentioned the Kiwi Tour. He did not seem very interested but humored me and suggested I walk back down to find out the details. As I walked up the driveway, I could see that the garage was converted into an office, the headquarters of Okarito Kiwi Tours. The left side was covered in bulletin boards filled with maps, pictures, and leaflets. The right wall had a white board that recorded the details of each night’s tours – wildlife sightings, calls heard, and the size of the tour group. Near the back were shelves with equipment stacked high – safety vests, flashlights, bug net hats and whistles hung on hooks. I tapped the bell at the front desk and heard steps overhead.
Ian, a friendly freckled blond man, arrived and spoke softly like they do while broadcasting golf. His quiet but otherwise dramatic delivery seemed a bit odd, but I now know why he does this - it’s because of what happens after the sun goes down. As he told me about the tour, he pointed to maps of the forest, pictures of kiwi birds, and articles about recent conservation efforts aimed at bringing the kiwi back from near extinction. He tells me he is the only tour guide that the New Zealand government has approved to take people into the local kiwi habitat. He is limited to bringing small groups in for no more than five nights per week. As he talked about the birds and the tour experience, his passion was palpable and he kept repeating words like “rare,” “special,” “exclusive,” and “close.” He could take only seven people on each tour and had three spots left for tonight. Without checking with Bill, I signed us both up for the 8pm tour and headed back to our room.
Bill is a nature lover but, as a geologist, is more interested in rocks than wildlife. Although he was tired and did not want to go on the tour, he agreed because he could see I had to go. He acquiesced with an attitude, however, and for the rest of the day he was grumpy until the moment that changed everything.