Contemplate magnificent trees hundreds of years old and get up close to rare and beautiful animals in the unique protected environment of Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari.

From the lookout tower at the top of Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari you can gaze out over a forest canopy that is hundreds of years old. Like most forests in New Zealand, the canopy is untouched. Unfortunately it’s a different story at ground level in most of New Zealand’s ancient forests, which is what makes this place so special.

Sanctuary Mountain, on the North Island, allows visitors to travel back in time and see what New Zealand used to look like before European settlers introduced mammals. And seeing some of New Zealand’s unique – and critically endangered – creatures is a highlight of the experience.

Getting up close to the nation’s iconic kiwi bird is an activity that many visitors rate highly. Throughout the year rangers are required to perform health checks on the resident Western North Island brown kiwis and guests who book in advance can come along and get to know one of these gorgeous little creatures.

Observing New Zealand’s own living dinosaur, the lizard-like tuatara, in its natural habitat is another highlight. And afternoon tea with a gang of large, cheeky parrots is an interesting way to start (or finish) the educational experience.

Surrounded by one of the longest pest-proof fences in the world, this ancient forest offers a sanctuary for numerous populations of New Zealand’s most endangered species, from birds and bats to frogs and reptiles.

Sanctuary Mountain is the largest ecological mainland ‘island’ in New Zealand (there are several others) and a guided tour of the grounds offers visitors an insight into how the introduction of livestock, pets and unwanted tag-a-longs, such as mice and rats, has affected New Zealand’s pristine natural environment.

It’s another world beyond the pest-proof fence! As we slowly wind our way up the mountain our knowledgeable guide delves into stories about the natural habitat – he points out birdlife, educates us about orchids and brightly coloured fungi, and finds a few giant wetas (an insect species that is endemic to New Zealand) for us to study.

Since the completion of the pest-proof fence in 2006, 14 unwanted mammal species have been eradicated from Sanctuary Mountain, including hedgehogs, cats, rats, ferrets, rabbits, possums, deer, pigs and goats, allowing New Zealand’s endangered species to flourish in their natural environment.

The sanctuary also runs breeding programs for several of the endangered species including the kiwi, tuatara, kaka parrot and takahe bird.

As we wander through the grounds, we spot several rare creatures along the way including the beautiful little hihi (also called stitchbird) and a few of the bright kakarikis.

Once we reach the summit we all clamber up to the lookout tower where we are met with stunning vistas of the canopy, made all the more rewarding now that we are more knowledgeable about the creatures that again call this forest home. 

We assemble afterwards in a clearing to meet and greet our afternoon tea companions, the resident kakas. About 40 of these mischievous parrots arrive and practically climb onto our laps for a feed, not in the least bit afraid of the human touch.

Having a close encounter with these unusual, inquisitive creatures is a wonderful reminder of how unique New Zealand’s wildlife really is – and why it’s worth trying to turn back the clock to save it.

Our guide says, “Hopefully everyone that joins us on a tour of Sanctuary Mountain will take away just a little bit of the passion.”

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Sanctuary Mountain’s Stars

The kaka

These parrots, while quite large, are hole-nesters, making them especially vulnerable to stoat predation. They were reintroduced to Sanctuary Mountain in 2007 and today there are now a dozen or so breeding pairs.

The takahe

The takahe is one of Sanctuary Mountain’s biggest success stories. Thought to be extinct, a few of these beautiful birds were discovered in Fiordland by a tramper in 1948. Sanctuary Mountain now boasts two breeding pairs and two chicks.

The tuatara

Once present throughout New Zealand, since the introduction of rats to the mainland the lizard-like tuatara’s existence has been squeezed to the offshore islands. Fifty were reintroduced to Sanctuary Mountain in 2012 and are now breeding.

The kiwi

Western North Island Brown Kiwi Conservation programs around New Zealand focus on rearing the chicks until they are at a stoat-proof age and Sanctuary Mountain is part of the nationally managed breeding program. There are 66 kiwis in Sanctuary Mountain’s breeding program.

Top North Island Eco-Adventures

Waiheke Eco Zip Line, Waiheke Island

Waiheke Island’s EcoZip Adventures experience starts at a scenic high point with stunning outlooks across the harbour to Auckland city. On one of three zip lines you’ll zoom over vineyards and virgin forest to the bottom of the valley. After the adrenalin rush, a guided hike back up the hill and through the rainforest offers an opportunity to learn about the natural environment and the history of Western settlement.

Footprints Waipoua, Hokianga

Footprints Waipoua walking tours take you into the ancient Waipoua Forest where you’ll encounter some of the oldest kauri trees in the world – and learn the Maori legends they inspired. Along the way you’ll visit legendary trees, such as the Te Matua Ngahere (Father of the Forest), which is estimated to be more than 2000 years old with a girth of 16 metres, and Tane Mahuta (Lord of the Forest), which is a towering 51 metres tall.

Tiritiri Matangi Island, Auckland

Tiritiri Matangi Island is an island sanctuary that lies four kilometres off Auckland’s eastern coast. It provides a pest-free habitat for rare and endangered species, including some of New Zealand's most tuneful songbirds, such as the takahe, kokako, saddleback, stitchbird and North Island robin.

Habitat Tours, Auckland

Habitat Tours have a range of half-day, full-day and day-night tours through Tawharanui Regional Park and the Waitakere Ranges. Tawharanui Regional Park is a haven for native bird species, and a walk along the white sandy beaches and coastal forests is a scenic exploration. A hike through the Waitakere Ranges, on the west coast of Auckland, will have you navigating lush rainforests and a wild black-sand coastline.

Rainbow Springs wildlife park, Rotorua

Rainbow Springs is a sanctuary in Rotorua, which runs New Zealand’s largest kiwi hatchery, raising chicks from eggs found in the wild. You can view kiwis in a purpose-built outdoor nocturnal house or pay a little extra for a behind-the-scenes experience, which takes you through the hatch and nursery rooms.

Rotorua Canopy Tours

Take a three-hour journey using a 1.2-kilometre network of zip lines, swing bridges and treetop platforms through the treetops of magnificent Mamaku forest for the ultimate education-adrenalin buzz. A portion of all ticket sales go to conservation projects to help rid the forest of unwanted feral animals and help restore the forest to its former glory.

Words by Deborah Dickson-Smith

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