Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 17, 1884
This text is also available in PDF
(848 KB) Opens in new window
– 417 –

Art. LIII.—Description of Mayor Island

[Read before the Auckland Institute, 11th August, 1884.]

Mayor Island, or Tuhua, is situated in the Bay of Plenty, twenty-three miles north of Tauranga Harbour and about sixteen miles from the nearest part of the coast of the North Island. Its name was given to it by Captain Cook, who discovered it on the 3rd November, 1769, when on his first voyage to New Zealand.

– 418 –

The island contains 3,154 acres, its greatest width being three miles and its least two miles, with a coast-line of eleven miles, whilst the highest point on it, Opuahau, is 1,274 feet above sea-level.

The formation is volcanic, and it has been well named by the natives Tuhua, that being the Maori for obsidian or volcanic glass, of which, with basalt, the island principally consists; cliffs, reefs, boulders, etc., being composed of this mineral, or a conglomerate of it mixed with other volcanic matter.

The island is very picturesque with its grand coast scenery, consisting of majestic arches and deep rugged caves and caverns in the basaltic rock. It has also its hot springs and large crater, which latter is five miles in circumference, with well-defined walls, the sides of which are composed of various kinds of volcanic débris, affording a grand field for geological study. The island is, however, of no use for settlement, the whole surface being very broken, and with the exception of two small lakes, situated in the crater, which are difficult of access, badly watered. A few very small springs are to be found, but they would not supply sufficient water for an European population or for stock. There are no running streams of any description.

The climate is very mild and pleasant. During the time I was there, viz., from the 23rd January to the 16th February, 1884, the mean shade temperature taken each day at noon was 79°, the maximum being 90°, the minimum being 72°, with a pleasant breeze blowing off the sea. I was informed by the natives that no frost is ever experienced—the place is therefore well suited for the growth of some kinds of fruits. Bananas, apples, peaches, grapes, figs, raspberries, strawberries, and Cape gooseberries, were seen in a flourishing condition on various parts of the island. Tobacco grows very well, the natives having some very fine specimens of it in their cultivations, in addition to potatoes, kumaras, and maize.

At one period the Maori population must have been very large, pas, now in ruins, are found scattered over the island on every commanding hill or point of vantage. At present the inhabitants number only nine, viz., three men, four women, and two little girls, who all belong to the Urungawera hapu of the great Ngaiterangi tribe, and these lay claim to the ownership of the island.** Of the former inhabitants many have left for the main land, where they now reside on a reserve at Katikati; others have been cut off by sickness, more particularly about the year 1862, when sixty of them died within a few days of some epidemic. The greater number of the old inhabitants were, however, killed in the numerous battles which took place in

[Footnote] * Mr. J. A. Wilson in his “Story of Te Wakaroa,” says that in 1835 they numbered 70 people.

– 419 –

defending themselves from invasion by other tribes, who endeavoured to wrest it from them. In these attacks Te Arawa, Ngatimaru, and Ngapuhi, took a principal part. The latter tribe in 1832 landed on the island under Te Haramiti, and by surprise killed and ate many of the inhabitants; but the majority took refuge in their impregnable pa at the east end of the island, and thus escaped the fate of their friends. All the old pas have a history, which the natives delight in recounting. The people were generally able to hold their own against outsiders, though losing many of their number. The handful of them still left all reside in Opo Bay, at a village called Te Panui.

The live stock of the island consists of one horse, a few pigs, fowls, and peafowls. There are not many birds, but most of those still living on the main land are represented here. I noticed the following:—Pigeon, tui, korimako, kaka, ruru, piwakawaka, toutouwai, kingfisher, duck and teal in the lakes, and pukeko in the swamp, and various sea birds. Acclimatized birds are represented by the sparrow and blackbird, the latter being a late acquisition from the main land. The common locust and grasshopper were seen, and the poisonous katipo spider is also to be found, but strange to say that troublesome pest the sandfly is absent. The little brown lizard has found a home here, but the great tuatara only inhabits a small island or rock called Motuoneone, situated about a hundred feet from the shore.

There is nothing particular to note in the vegetation, as it is similar to that on the main land, though possibly a botanist might find treasures that would remain unnoticed by an ordinary observer. Common fern, tutu, tea tree (very thick), koromiko, and a little grass, form the ordinary vegetation, whilst the few clumps of trees consist of pohutukawa, mapou, manuka, rewarewa, akeake, whau or corkwood, pukapuka, and a few puriri, which, however, is of little value, being very scattered, and ruined by fire. Locomotion is very difficult, as all the old native tracks are grown over, and never used by the people, as they prefer to travel by water on the rare occasions when they leave their settlement.

There are no rare shells; I had expected to find the Bulimus or landshell, but could discover none. In certain winds the delicate paper nautilus sails into Opo Bay and is there caught by the natives; I was able to obtain one fair specimen. The fishing off the island is very good, there being abundance of hapuku, kokiri, kohikohi, maumau, schnapper, kahawai, tarakihi, in addition to plenty of shell-fish such as koura or cray-fish, crabs, paua, etc. The mako shark, so well known for its beautiful teeth, which are highly prized by the Maoris as ornaments, is found off this island and nowhere else in the world I believe, but the natives told me it was getting very scarce. Beyond this there is nothing to note as peculiar

– 420 –

to the island if we except the vast cliffs of obsidian. Possibly there are many geological treasures amongst the volcanic débris in the crater, many of the specimens brought away being new to me, but my knowledge of geology is very limited.

I propose now to describe the principal places and objects of interest in detail, starting with the landing place at Opo Bay, which is the only one of any size in the island. It is situated on the south-eastern curve, and is well sheltered from all but east or south-east winds, and affords a safe refuge for small craft, the anchorage being good and the landing on a nice sandy beach equally so. The bay is very picturesque, having most beautiful arches washed out in the basaltic cliffs by the action of the waves, which are overhung with grand old pohutukawas. It is a fine sight to see a heavy south-east sea breaking into this bay, dashing its waves into the caves and against the glittering cliffs of obsidian. In the south-west corner of the Bay is situated Te Panui, where all the present inhabitants live, and on the flat on the south side are their cultivations, about 25 acres in extent; here they cultivate potatoes, kumara, corn, and tobacco, and, in the way of fruit, strawberries and raspberries, all of which grow very well.

The pa before mentioned is a very strong position; from the seaward side it is only accessible by climbing up perpendicular cliffs of basalt, pumice, and obsidian. The natives make use of a rough ladder, by which they descend to the foot of the cliffs, where hauled up on the beach they keep their canoes. The pa is situated about one hundred feet above sea-level. In the good old times of Maori history many a hard fight and cannibal feast took place at this pa. There are also in addition two other pas of note situated in the same bay, viz., Okotore and Tikitikinahoa, both of which are very strong positions, particularly the latter. Tough fights have taken place here, the ground being full of the bones of those who fell in the fray; a heavy gale blowing into the bay during the time that I was camped there, the waves washed out many skulls, which in some cases showed the impression of the crushing blow which ended some warrior' career. Turning from war to peace and industry, we find situated near the centre of the bay two weather-boarded sheds, which were built by the natives some eight years ago as the nucleus of a whaling station, the timber having been brought from Tairua in a cutter. They also purchased whaleboats and all necessary gear, but the enterprise turned out a failure. I asked one native, why? He replied, “that the whales would not stop to be caught!”

At the head of one of the wooded glens, running inland from the bay, and about twelve chains from the beach, is situated one of the few springs to be found on the island. It is a bad one, the supply being very scanty, the water only dripping from the rock slowly into a hole made to receive it,

– 421 –

and you have to dip it up cup by cup. During my stay of three weeks on the island, in which we only used the water for tea and cooking food, this meagre supply was nearly exhausted. The spring in question, and one other of the same kind, is all that the inhabitants of the three pas had to depend upon for their water supply. A few chains from the spring, in another pretty glen, are growing a few fine bananas, which bear fruit that ripens, but not of a large size. They were brought to the island by a Kanaka some years ago. Cape gooseberries and peaches are also plentiful, though the latter here and generally over the island are a very bad kind. It is into this bay that the fragile nautilus sails at certain seasons, and it is also the landing place of excursionsts, the other places of interest being most conveniently approached from its shore. Leaving this beautiful bay with its charming scenery and perfect sea-bathing, and passing an open bay with high rugged cliffs, we arrive at Ruakikino Point, which presents to view a fine specimen of wild coast scenery—the sea having washed its way far into the basaltic rock which forms the point, and scooping out most beautiful caves and channels winding through the rock, these chasms being spanned by grand rugged arches. On a very calm day it is possible to take a boat up these channels and underneath the arches into the dark caves beyond, where the echo of the voices and the dashing of the waves produce a very weird impression. About a mile off this point is situated the Karoa Reef, which is the best fishing ground for hapuku, and the home of the mako, a small shark much prized by the natives for its teeth, which they use as earrings. These mako, however, are not often caught. There is one objection to this fishing ground, viz., its great depth of water of one hundred fathoms. The sea here and all round the island is beautifully clear, objects being visible at a great distance from the surface.

Passing on past Waitangi Bay with its crags and beetling cliffs we come to a small open bay, in the north-west corner of which (between Taratimi and Taumou Pas) is the lip of the crater. It was here that the sides of this large crater were broken through, and the lava poured into the sea. The cliffs here are about one hundred feet high, and it must have been a grand sight to have seen the glowing lava falling into the blue sea over this fall of one hundred feet.

The crater is five miles in circumference and is very well defined, being marked out by lofty hills and ridges which vary in height from 1,162 feet down to 100 feet. The interior sides of this vast amphitheatre are very precipitous, and composed of a great variety of volcanic débris; obsidian and pumice are, however, the principal minerals found: the obsidian in some places having evidently cooled in layers, which gives it a stratified appearance; at other places you find it in rocks, boulders, lodes and reefs,

– 422 –

which, glittering in the sun' rays, produce a very pretty effect. On some parts of the sides one finds a conglomerate of minerals, all of which have been in a state of fusion.

I obtained specimens of all the varieties, many of which are very interesting; I have one particularly fine specimen of obsidian which has a high polish all over it, also a piece of petrified wood in obsidian, which is very curious. Some of the obsidian is marked by a blue pattern, which appears to have been stained upon it by the decomposition of some vegetable matter, which got into the obsidian when it was in a state of fusion.

There is one very well demonstrated fact noticeable in places within the crater, viz., that mud volcanoes were in operation—the consolidated layers of mud with sharp edges being still to be seen, giving an appearance to some parts of the sides similar to that now to be seen at the active mud volcanoes of Rotorua, the only difference being that the mud in this old crater has hardened.

In the bottom of the crater are two lakes, connected by a swamp, the larger of which, Aroarotamahine, is thirty chains long by seven chains wide; the smaller, Te Paŕritu, is twelve chains long by five chains wide. These lakes can hardly be called pretty, as their general appearance is very sombre. I had no means of sounding them, but they appear to be very deep. They are at present about sea-level, but there are indications which show that they obtained a much higher level at one period, though it must have been many years ago. The water in them is clear and good for general purposes.

Standing on the banks of the lakes one obtains a grand view of the vast amphitheatre formed by the precipitous sides of the crater. The thought passed through my mind: Will it ever break forth into life again? If so, it will be a grand spectable.

At the north end of Aroarotamahine Lake is situated the best pohutukawa bush upon the island, and on the east side of it, and running towards the other lake, there is a fine tea-tree bush. The natives cultivated the flats by these lakes some years ago, and, as might be expected, obtained very good crops.

In the north-west corner or curve of the crater there is a most peculiar hill called “Tarawakoura,” with a strong pa on its summit; it is connected with the crater edge by a narrow ridge, and, from its appearance, was a volcano. It is about seven hundred feet high. Its slopes are not very steep, and are covered with large blocks of scoria, over which has grown a dense vegetation of stunted rewarewa, pohutukawa, tea-tree scrub, fern and tutu, etc. The natives point with pride to the pa on its summit, and narrate how it is that it has never been taken by an enemy; even their

– 423 –

dreaded foe the Ngapuhi, who, being the first Maoris to possess guns, thought, like Alexander the Great, to conquer the world, could not take it, at which I am not surprised, for with no enemy to pay me delicate attention, it was all I could do to cut my way a little distance up one of the slopes, the travelling being very difficult, owing to having to climb over the large scoria blocks, and force one' way through the dense vegetation. All the walking round the seaward side of the crater, which is a mere wall of volcanic débris with precipitous sides, is very dangerous, footing being very difficult to obtain and keep.

Another very strong pa is situated above the lip of the crater, named Taumou. It is on a crag 500 feet high. This is the strongest pa on the island, in fact their citadel, and has never been taken. The Ngapuhi, owing to the advantage they had in the possession of guns, were able to drive the natives of the island from pa to pa, until they retired to Taumou and Tarewakoura (before mentioned). Here the Urungawera made their final stand, and defied every effort of the Ngapuhi to dislodge them; and finally with the help of obsidian drove them off with heavy loss.

The pa as before stated is situated on a crag on the side of the crater, with precipitous slopes on three sides, and with only a very narrow steep approach to it up a ridge of obsidian which the pa commands. There are large quantities of obsidian about the pa, in blocks of from a few pounds weight up to many tons. This the Urungawera used with great effect against the Ngapuhi, hurling the blocks of obsidian down on their heads as they rushed to the attack, which it is no wonder failed, for the heavy blocks of obsidian with their sharp edges must have caused great havoc in their ranks.

Another of the few springs in the island issues at this pa in a place where one would not expect to find it. It is situated at the root of a small pohutukawa which grows out of the steep cliff, about two hundred feet above the sea, on the seaward side of the pa.

Leaving the crater with all its wonders, and passing Okawa, which is a rugged, low-lying rocky point, on which the sea breaks heavily, we come to an open bay with steep cliffs of basalt and pumice, and a reef of obsidian. In this bay is Motuoneone, a small island or rock, which is the home of the tuatara lizard. This island is about 100 feet off shore. The lizards, like the inhabitants of Tuhua, appear to have expected an attack from the sea, for the sides of the rock are quite perpendicular for a height of 80 feet, and it is therefore impossible to get at them without the aid of ropes and ladders. I therefore could not get any. They are the same species as those on the Karewa Island. I brought twenty of these lizards home with me on my return from surveying that island, many of which I turned out in my garden, and have thus had many opportunities of observing their habits,

– 424 –

an account of which may not be uninteresting. The lizards which I turned out thrived very well, and were quite at home. They lived under the fir trees and in the earth banks and ditches, subsisting on snails and any insects which came in their way, being particularly partial to the large fat green caterpillar. The cats and dogs did not take any notice of them at all. I also had some of them shut up, but they did not do well. One of them presented me with twins, but they, after a few days, vanished. I am afraid that their unnatural parents made a meal of them. They are of great use in getting a place rid of rats. There were a number of these pests in my shed when I turned some lizards in, and in a few days the rats had disappeared. Others have found the same thing, the rats always going. I do not think they kill them, not being quick enough to catch a rat; but whatever they may do, the desired end is gained, for the rats vanish. They can bite very hard, and if they get a hold, hang on like a bulldog. Returning to their home, Motuoneone, I cannot understand why they are only to be found on this rock and not on the island, the rock at one time being connected with and having formed part of the main island (Tuhua).

Leaving Motuoneone and its quiet inhabitants, passing Paretao, a low-lying point which has been under cultivation, we come to Turanganui Bay. This small bay is very picturesque, having frowning basaltic cliffs all around it, studded with obsidian, from 50 feet to 100 feet high, with the exception of the two corners, where a landing can be effected on a rough boulder beach; but only in fine weather. This bay is very deep, and the water being very clear, fish, sea-eggs, etc., can be seen at the bottom—producing a very pretty effect. On the north side of the Bay is Wharenui Point. This is a flat point, with some fine pohutukawas growing on it; it has all been under cultivation. One of the principal wahitapu or burial-grounds of the natives is here in the centre of the pohutukawas. Passing round this point, we come to Orongatea Bay. In this bay are the hot springs, situated about its centre, on a boulder beach. Scattered about the bay are pillars of basaltic rock, about 100 feet high, which with their clearly-defined weather-beaten sides and majestic elevation, give a very picturesque appearance to the inlet.

The hot springs are very small, being only little pools of warm, not hot, water, a few inches deep, scattered over about a chain of rough boulder beach. They are below the present high-water mark. To obtain a bath you have to wait until the tide goes out; you have then to clear away the boulders to make your bath; you can then recline on the hard sharp boulders and enjoy yourself, if possible! I found the boulders a little hard. The natives informed me that these springs are very good for the cure of skin diseases, etc. The pillars in the bay have at one time formed part of

– 425 –

the island, and this fact—together with that of the hot springs being below high-water mark, and numerous other indications all round the island—point to the rapid encroachment of the sea. The cliffs in this bay are very precipitous, being about 300 feet high, and they extend to the end of the range below the Taupiri trig, station (585 feet), where they terminate in a bold bluff, the hills then running inland, leaving a flat, named Te Ananui, of about one hundred acres in extent, which has all been under cultivation. There is a small pohutukawa bush upon it. The landing-place to this locality is in an open bay called Hurihurihanga, and is a very bad one, all amongt large rough boulders. Inland, about half a mile from the flat, in a small patch of mixed bush, and at the foot of Opuahau Hill, is Opuhi, where the best spring of the island is situated, where there are also numbers of the korimako, or bell-bird, to be found—a bird not often now seen in the Bay of Plenty.

The flat before mentioned is bounded on the east by a range which crosses the island in a generally northerly direction, the principal peak of which, Opuahau (1,274 feet), is the highest point on the island. The termination of this range, called Tekopua, which forms the eastern boundary of Te Ananui flat, is very singular. The bluff falls from Te Ohineiti hill, 897 feet high, with a gradual fall for a few chains. The whole range has then slipped away into the sea, and now forms a huge slope, at about one in one, with about 600 feet fall. This slope is composed of pumice sand, pumice, obsidian, and other volcanic débris, into which one sinks up to one' knees. This loose material in a wind or rain slides away into the sea, and from the appearance of it has been doing so for years. It is very dangerous work crossing it, the whole huge slope having an inclination to slide down with you into the sea, some 600 feet below. At Tumutu Point, about a quarter of a mile from Tekopua, is an immense cave, washed out by the action of the sea in the side of the range. It is a very wild-looking spot, and when a heavy sea is breaking into it, and dashing the spray up its rugged sides, the effect is very grand.

From this point to Mawai Bay there is nothing interesting, it being the most dismal aspect of the island, consisting only of a mountain slope falling from Opuahau with a steep incline into the sea, and covered with a growth of tea-tree scrub and fern, without any bush or interesting feature.

Mawai Bay.—This is a very pretty little bay, with a boulder beach, and some fine pohutukawa trees growing round it; and in the little glens leading up from the bay are some fine peach trees, the best to be found on the island. These small glens have all been under cultivation at one time or other. Passing round a rocky point with obsidian cliffs, about 20 feet high, we arrive at

– 426 –

Oira Bay.—This is a very picturesque bay, having a good sandy beach, but owing to its being so open, it is difficult to land upon, except in very fine weather, there generally being a sea running. At the head of the bay is a small bush of fine old pohutukawas, and scattered along the beach are a number of kauri logs, which have been washed up by the sea; they come from the sawmills at Tairua and Mercury Bay, and are much prized by the natives. The land around this bay is pretty level for Mayor Island, and also very good soil. It has all been under cultivation. In a little glen there are some fine flax bushes (Phormium tenax) planted by the natives, and which they still use for fishing lines, &c. At the southern end of the bay, on a rugged rocky point, is the picturesque pa of Te Ruamata. It is a very strong position. The ditch which cuts it off from the main island is very deep, and must have been hard work for the natives to excavate with their primitive spades of obsidian. This point is highly “tapu.” Off it and south to Whatipu for about half a mile out to sea, the ground is very foul, being covered with sunken rocks, which are only awash at high water, being very dangerous for boats. At Whatipu Point is one of the beautiful arches which go so far towards making the coast scenery so picturesque. This arch is very well defined and about 40 feet high by 20 feet wide. One can take a boat through in calm weather, when the effect of its rugged architecture is very grand. Round this point we come to

Otiora Bay.—This is the only bay (except Opo, the landing place) with any shelter for boats, and it is not a good one, being open to the south and south-west, and even in a north-west wind a nasty sea rolls into it. At the head of the bay there is a nice sandy beach on which you land, and very pretty wooded glens run inland from it, a few chains up one of which there is a small spring; at the head also of these glens are some very fine “corkwood” trees about one foot through, the largest I have seen; this wood is called “corkwood” by bushmen from its being, like cork, very buoyant in water. On the east and west sides of the bay the cliffs are very steep, about 200 feet high. On the west side and running down to Te Whatipu Point, was situated the second important settlement of the island (Te Panui, the present one, being the principal). This land has all been cultivated, and the ruins of old whares are still to be found; and such cultivation shows that at one time it must have had a large population. Between here and Te Panui ruins of old houses are to be found in every favourable spot, though in most cases the inhabitants had a long way to go for water, there only being the two small springs—one at Otiora Bay and the other near Te Panui—a distance of a mile and a half. A good track runs from Otiora Bay to the present settlement on Opo Bay.

– 427 –

From Otiora Bay to Waikawa the coast and inland scenery is much the same, the cliffs being about one hundred feet high and very precipitous. The country inland falls from the top of the hills which form the crater in a steep slope for about half a mile, it then spreads out into a fairly level country, though it is cut up by small ravines, down which the lava flowed on its road to the sea from the crater. The soil on the bottom of these ravines is very good, and peaches, fern, tutu, etc., grow luxuriantly. Off Waikawa Point is another pillar of basaltic rock, about seventy feet high and two chains off shore—another sign of the encroachment of the sea. In a ravine close by is the spring, a very small one, which, with the little spring in Opo Bay before described, is all the natives have to depend upon for their water supply. Close to the spring in question are growing bananas, grapes, apples, figs, and peaches, also flax, all doing well, the latter being cultivated. We next come to

Omapu Bay.—This is another very pretty little open bay, with a good sandy beach, and is one of the principal landing places. Inland from here is a nice little flat, having a good pohutukawa bush growing upon it, one tree of which is the largest I have seen in New Zealand; the whole of this flat has been under cultivation. At the east end of the bay are the present cultivations of the natives, which extend across from this bay to Opo Bay. Going round to Tokomata Point to Te Moreote-maiterangi, the south-east point of Opo Bay, the coast is very rugged and picturesque, the cliffs being about 200 feet high, overhung with fine old pohutukawas; the cliffs have reefs of obsidian in them, which at a distance look like bronze; on the top of them, and all over Otutawaroa Point up to the settlement, the country has a park-like appearance, being in rough native grass, dotted about with clumps of pohutukawa, and, with the patches of native cultivations, looks very pretty.

We have now made the circumference of the island, and arrived back at our starting-place, Opo Bay.

Tuhua, or Mayor Island, does not offer any very great attraction to the ordinary tourist; but to the geologist, student of nature, or artist, it is very interesting.