With all manner of bungee jumps, white-water rafting trips and tandem skydives, New Zealand has a well deserved reputation for adventure activities set against a magnificent backdrop. But there's considerably more to this curious geologically-young land where birds have occupied the ecological niches normally occupied by mammals. Getting intimate with New Zealand’s birds and sea life is one of the finest ways to get to grips with this dynamic land. 

Zealandia: The Karori Sanctuary

Perimeter fence around Karori Wildlife Sanctuary keeps out nonnative animals at Wellington, New Zealand.

Many New Zealand birds are virtually defenceless against the teeth and claws of introduced predators. Attempts to control pests have had limited success and in desperation, ecologists have resorted to creating sanctuaries encircled by specially designed predator-proof fences. One of the earliest was Zealandia, a 225 hectare haven around a disused Victorian reservoir in Karori, right in the heart of Wellington. With the nasties gone the native wildlife has recovered and critically endangered birds have flourished.

Of course, the birds don't know they're in an enclosure.  Nectar-eating native tui and bellbirds are now welcome visitors to neighbouring backyards while the otherwise-rare kaka – a large endemic parrot – can now be seen ranging all over the city returning to the sanctuary each night to roost.

Swimming with the world’s smallest dolphin

Hector's Dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori) underwater portrait, New Zealand

Adult Hector's dolphins are little more than a metre long and weigh the same as an average dog. They’re one of the world's rarest dolphins and with only a few thousand left you'd think that humans would be kept well away. And yet handing over a few dollars on the wharf at the Akaroa (a small settlement near Christchurch that was initially settled by a shipload of French immigrants) gets you a cruise out to the mouth of the harbour and a chance to swim with these playful creatures. You're instructed not to touch them, not that they'd give you a chance as they flit by in dizzying circles.

Hanging out with kakapo on Ulva Island

New Zealand almost lost the flightless kakapo, the world's largest and rarest parrot. Back in 1995 there were only 51 left but a successful breeding programme has more than doubled the population of the birds. Early European settlers found them tame companions in the bush, but his fearlessness cost the kakapo dearly. Almost all the remaining birds are now confined to a couple of tiny, protected islands, but each October the personable kakapo is brought to Ulva Island (just off the southerly Stewart Island) where visitors are invited to get some face-time with this avian entertainer.

Penguin watching on The Catlins Coast

It is only a few years ago that the road along this southerly coast of the South Island of New Zealand got an asphalt surface, and although there are a couple of villages, creature comforts remain rare. But that seems just perfect for seeking out wildlife in this rainforest-clad part of the country. Top of most people's list are penguins, and here they come in two flavours – the cute little blue penguins and their slightly larger yellow-eyed cousins. Standard late afternoon visitor behaviour is to stake out a spot on hills behind the beach (or perhaps in one of the hides provided) and sit quietly as the birds waddle ashore for the night – sometimes up to a kilometre inland.

Elsewhere, fur seals loll on the rocks, elephant seals grunt threateningly if you approach their patch of beach too closely and at Curio Bay, Hector's dolphins cavort in the surf among the swimmers.

Kiwi spotting in the Kauri

A keeper holds in his hands two Kiwi chicks at the zoo in Berlin.

It might be the national bird, but most New Zealanders have only ever seen a kiwi in the nocturnal house at the zoo. Out in their natural environment these flightless birds are increasingly rare. In suitably wild spots you may catch their distinctive kee-wee call drifting through the still night air, but there are only a few places where you've got a reasonable chance of seeing one scurry through the undergrowth. One such place is Northland's Trounson Kauri Park, where the local campground runs night-time brown kiwi-spotting walks with a high success rate. Just walking through the forest at night can be a stirring experience, and the sight of a couple of these strange birds is a suitable finale for a New Zealand wildlife tour.