Ness Wards – A very Kiwi adventure

See kiwis in the wild on the Matakana Coast.  Discover kiwis in Tawharanui Regional Park with insider tips from local guide, Ness Wards.

When Ness Wards set out to see the world at 17, she never imagined she’d find paradise right on her front doorstep.

Ness grew up in Tawharanui Regional Park, where her father Colin was the park ranger for 35 years. In the early 90s, the family lived for a time in the old villa that still stands by the park entrance at Jones Bay.

It was the ultimate free-range childhood, roaming the hills, bush and beaches with her older and younger siblings. ‘We’d be gone all day, swimming, surfing, riding motorbikes in the back paddock and helping Dad check the campers’ permits in the evening. He’s so social that we’d often end up playing with the campers’ kids while he had a beer. No wonder I ended up in tourism.’

Back then, the road was mostly unsealed and it was a dusty, winding one-hour bus ride to college in Warkworth.  ‘We lived in the Wop Wops. It was a beautiful backyard, but we used to complain that no one would come and visit us.’

No surprise then, that teenage Ness couldn’t wait to get out of there. After university, she headed for the mines of Western Australia, later working in outdoor education in Ireland, before getting her ‘dream job’ as a travel and hiking guide based in Queenstown.

For seven years, Ness loved life in the deep south, eventually starting her own business offering wine tours and private transport. All was well, until she came home for a short visit in 2019 and suddenly saw the Matakana Coast with fresh eyes.

‘It took me all that time to realise this is the best place on the planet. The climate is great, my family is here and I honestly can’t find a beach that beats Tawharanui. Coming from Queenstown, I could see this area has a lot of potential for tourism.’

So Ness drove her van north and started again, offering tours of the Matakana wineries and private transport. She rebranded as Kiwiness Tours – her ‘Kiwiness’ being something Australian clients had always appreciated –  and slapped a picture of Tawharanui across the back of her van.

Then Covid-19 struck and what seemed at first to be a disaster for Ness’ burgeoning business, ended up a blessing as Kiwis set out to see their own backyard.

Kiwis – there’s that word again. For what Ness had overlooked, was that in her absence Tawharanui had become predator-free, with the construction of a ‘Jurassic Park fence’ near her childhood home, and a whole lot of pest-eradication work from the volunteers of Tawharanui Open Sanctuary Society Inc (TOSSI). More than 200 northern brown kiwi had been introduced, along with other endangered birds like the kaka, saddleback and takahē, filling her former playground with native birdsong and incredible opportunities to see the birds up close. Crucially, the road is now sealed all the way, making it far more accessible to daytrippers.

And so a new offering was born – a three-hour nocturnal kiwi tour at Tawharanui. It was an instant hit. ‘Most New Zealanders haven’t seen a kiwi in the wild, so I’m now busier with kiwi tours than anything else.’

She whips out her phone and plays a recent video of a kiwi pecking at her shoe. ‘In the first eight months I led a tour almost every night and there were only two occasions we didn’t see a kiwi. People can’t believe how big they are and how close we get. These birds are so oblivious to danger that it’s no wonder they are endangered.’

The small-group tour departs Matakana Village an hour or two before sunset, so that visitors can appreciate the beauty of the park. There’s time for a cup of milo and Ness’ home-baked chocolate chunk cookies at the sanctuary hut, before they set out on the walking tour, red-light torches in hand.

While Ness is no expert in ornithology, she says she’s learned a lot about the national bird. ‘My point of difference is that I’m a girl who grew up as the ranger’s kid. I can tell you all about the bays and beaches and share the history of the park.’

Now happily settled on the Matakana Coast, Ness almost can’t believe her luck. ‘Work is never a chore. By day I take people around the wineries and at night I go looking for kiwi. I get to meet so many neat people and they can tell that I love what I do.’

So aside from Tawharanui, what are Ness’ other favourite places on the Matakana Coast?

‘I sometimes take my wine tours to lovely Brick Bay beach, it’s a little hidden gem. The Highfield Garden & Donkey Sanctuary reserve at Algies Bay is amazing too, it has the most incredible views.

‘Matakana Country Park‘ is exceptional. It’s a 20-year old vision for a place where people could gather and children could run free. I take my tours there for a coffee, to explore the craft shop or see  the ponies.

‘The Puhoi Valley Café and Cheese Store’ is a really good stop on the way to and from Auckland and it’s just that little bit past the village, so people often don’t even realise it’s there.