Walk 2 - Cape Kidnappers

I would have thought that after walking 630 km along the south coast of New South Wales, we would be tired of coastal landscapes, but it seems that we are drawn to them. However, the 17.5 km return walk from Clifton to Cape Kidnappers on the southern rim of Hawkes Bay is a cliff walk with a difference. Most cliff walks that we have done to date pass mainly along the tops of the cliffs, but this walk is spent entirely at the base of the impressive cliff line in the narrow zone between high and low tide. In fact the walk can only be done safely 3 hours either side of low tide.

We set out 3 hours precisely after high tide and almost immediately found ourselves on a grey pebble covered beach at the base of the 140 m high cliffs; their size more impressive from below than from above. It was a cool morning, and the overcast sky created a moodiness that seemed to suit the location, the cliffs keeping the cold southerly wind at bay and adding a stillness that enhanced this moody ambience.

The sweeping curve of the 6 km cliff line between Clifton and Black Reef

Sedimentary layering in the cliff face

The cliffs illustrate some of the different geological influences on New Zealand landforms, with different sedimentary layers comprising siltstone, sandstone, volcanic ash, conglomerates and even narrow bands of marine fossils.

Tilting and slipping of the rock strata gave the cliff line a jagged saw tooth appearance and we passed several deep side gorges, with varying degrees of vegetation, that had formed in the cliff line where the fault lines had been further eroded by water flowing off the plateau above.


A pair of feral goats scrambling up the face of a side gorge

One of several deep side gorges dissecting the cliff line

Tilting and slipping of rock strata in the cliffs

Looking back along the cliff line from Black Reef

As we continued on, the tide gradually went out and the beach became wider and sandier. We soon found ourselves walking quietly together, lost in our own musings as the gentle sound of the sea was echoed back to us from the cliffs. Only passing encounters with the odd New Zealand fur seal or an interesting bit of shoreline geology brought us back to the real world.

140 m pillars near Black Reef

Fur seal pup at full gallop towards the sea ....

.... where it felt a bit more secure

This part of the coast has a rich marine bird life, with cormorants and Pacific gulls common, but is most reknowned for having the largest mainland gannet breeding colonies in New Zealand. Two nesting areas, high on Cape Kidnappers, are closed to the public at this time of year to prevent too much disturbance to the birds during nest-building, egg-laying and incubation. Later, when chicks are present they form a major tourist attraction. The third nesting area, on the shore line at Black Reef is accessible all year round.

Silhouette of cormorants on a rock

There are not many places that you can frame Pacific gulls against a backdrop of snow capped mountains

Soon, the characteristic angular silhouette of a gannet soaring over us signalled that we were nearing the Black Reef, where 1800+ pairs of gannets returned annually to nest on the 3-4 m high flat reef rocks and surrounding cliff ledges.

Black Reef - gannets nest on the tops of the flat rock shelves of the reef and along nearby cliff ledges

The highlight of this walk was being able to wander quietly through the gannet colony and enjoy these magnicifent seabirds at close range; watching courting couples, squabbling nest neighbours and the low-level aerial skills of birds bringing in nesting material. Even more impressive was the fact that all of these birds had made a one-off trans-Tasman crossing of 2700 km to Australia and back; a curious "right-of-passage" prior to breeding at gannetries scattered around New Zealand.

Leaving the gannets, we turned south towards Cape Kidnappers, with its sheer siltstone cliffline. On our right, the cliffs had been replaced by pasture covered slopes from which a few sheep watched our passage. We ended the outward section of our walk with lunch at the gannet reserve shelter as access to the main Cape nesting colonies was closed. After the end of October, these are open to the public and the walk could be extended by a climb up to the top of Cape Kidnappers - however, you then have to share the beach with tractors pulling wagon loads of tourists to see the birds. Up to you, but we think it would be better when the beach is a peaceful place and you can still enjoy the full gannet experience at Black Reef.

Although we normally don't like returning along the same track, the walk back from Cape Kidnappers to Clifton was very different, with views directed more to the land and mountain ranges across Hawkes Bay, as opposed to a more oceanic focus on the walk out. To look out at snow-covered ranges across the broad expanse of Hawkes Bay was something special.

If you like cliffs and sea birds, Cape Kidnappers is a top coastal walk.

The smooth siltstone cliffs of Cape Kidnappers