Captain Cook had plenty to say in his log about the southern headland of Hawke’s Bay.
After all, it was here that a party of Māori had tried to carry away one of the Tahitian passengers he had aboard. The boy was returned after the Endeavour’s crew opened up on the fleeing waka with cannon and musket fire. Cook named it Cape Kidnappers in honour of the incident.
Strangely, though, the observant Yorkshireman didn’t say anything about gannets, even though Cape Kidnappers now hosts the largest and most accessible mainland colony of the big, yellow-headed birds in the world. It’s possible it wasn’t there, as gannets prefer to nest on offshore rocks and islands. The Kidnappers colony had only 50 breeding pairs when first described in 1870. Now it has over 2200.
You can get to this ornithological marvel under your own steam, on foot. Or you can join any one of a number of guided, motorised tours. In the most entertaining of these, you are seated aboard a large dray drawn by a tractor. In every case, the guides are adept at explaining the points of interest along the way, as well as the quirks of gannet behaviour.
The worst time to visit the colony is between May and mid-July, when the birds are all AWOL, out at sea stocking up for the big breeding effort ahead. They begin returning to roost in July, and from August onward, the several nesting sites on the high, humped spine of the Cape are a bustling, pungent, feathery furore.
Gannet courting rituals, where the birds face each other from a few inches’ range, extend their long bills skyward and commence a kind of sword-fight are the funniest mating behaviours you’ll see outside Singles Night at the Red Rooster Tavern.
Full-grown gannets weigh two kilos – more than a Size 14 chook – and have a wingspan of two metres. They’re quite a sight wheeling in from the sea. Some of the birds arriving to get some action are last year’s chicks which, incredible as it seems, took off from Kidnappers on their maiden flight as soon as they thought they could fly, and without the benefit of any kind of practice, guidance or experienced tuition, flew to Australia for their OE.
While you’re in the Kidnappers area, there’s plenty of other things to do. There’s the world-class golf course at the Cape itself, which commands spectacular views of Hawke’s Bay. There’s a bunch of museums in and around Haumoana and Te Awanga, including a petting zoo, a Clydesdale ranch where you can ride a cart behind draught horses, and a British car museum boasting the largest collection of Morris Minors in the world.