Motu Kaikoura: Magnificent isolation

Department of Conservation —  18/12/2020

On the outer edge of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park/Ko te Pātaka kai o Tīkapa, there is an island that is quietly, gently, regaining its mauri/life essence. Motu Kaikoura, found just 80 metres off the west coast of Aotea/Great Barrier Island is playfully described by Rod Miller, Chair of the Motu Kaikoura Trust, as “twice as big as Tiritiri Matangi, and twice as rugged.”

The island initially made headlines in 2003 when it came up for sale as public debate blew up over plans for a $10m glass building in memory of Sir Peter Blake. At the time, Herald reporter Brian Rudman made the suggestion that Motu Kaikoura would be a more fitting memorial, writing, “Blake’s dream was to save endangered parts of the planet for future generations and to educate the youth of the world about the fragility of the eco-system. Where better to start than at home on Kaikoura Island?”

Overlooking the bay.
📷 :Courtesy of the Motu Kaikoura Trust

The public overwhelmingly supported the idea to purchase the island for restoration and public enjoyment, and the motu/island was eventually bought for the people of New Zealand by the government (via the Nature Heritage Fund), ASB Charitable Trusts, Auckland Regional Council and Auckland local authorities. It was opened by the Prime Minister at the time, Helen Clarke, on 7 May 2005.

Located on the western side of Aotea, 90km from Auckland, Motu Kaikoura (previously known as Selwyn Island) is 564 hectares in size, making it the seventh largest island in the Hauraki Gulf. The triangular shaped island forms the natural harbours of Ports Abercrombie and Fitzroy, providing sheltered, deep water anchorages for the boaties that flock to Aotea in summer. Mimicking its parent island, Motu Kaikoura offers a remote wilderness and island experience quite different from the more sheltered inner Hauraki Gulf islands, with rocky outcrops, steep forested gullies, and the aforementioned sheltered, crystal-clear blue water bays.

Old Selywn Island map.
📷 :Courtesy of the Motu Kaikoura Trust

Changing hands

As with most islands of the Hauraki Gulf, the island has a long history of occupation. Māori occupation began formerly with Ngāti Tai and latterly with Ngāti Rehua, for which the island’s seafood resources were immensely valuable. To this end Ngāti Rehua established two fishing pā, Motu Karaka and Pahangahou, on prominent headlands. The island then passed into European ownership in the early 1850’s, changing hands more than twenty times in 150 years. Despite the clay soils and the tempestuous climate of the outer Hauraki Gulf, it was mostly used for farming, but notably was once a deer farm, and was used briefly as a wilderness retreat, resulting in various chalets being built. During World War II, a 6-inch Howitzer gun was mounted on the southern side, while an observation post and bunker were constructed on the northern edge.

Healing begins

A review in the early 2000s found that sporadic farm clearing and grazing by deer and goats over the last 150 years had left much of the island devoid of its original forest vegetation. But pockets of native bush remained in gullies and on the outer edges of the island, while mānuka and kānuka scrub were popping up on the bare land, naturally beginning the island’s long natural journey back to regeneration without a policy of replanting. As such, the decision was made to gently guide the island back to its former state, with initial efforts focused on removing deer and cats (goats were eradicated in 1993), before starting on rat control. The Trust has successfully reduced the rat population to a level under 6%, with ship rats virtually unrecorded for 18 months. A great result considering the island’s proximity to Aotea/Great Barrier Island.

Surveys of flora and fauna in the late 2000’s recorded 26 native bird species living or visiting the island, 12 of which were seabird and shorebird species including Cook’s Petrel, reef heron/matuku moana and the Caspian tern/taranui. Kākā frequented the bush, while banded rail/moho-pererū were found in the wetlands. As for flora, pōhutukawa and coastal natives made up the coastal fringe, and natives such as kauri, kohekohe, taraire, tawa, nikau, puriri and ngaio were found in gullies on the southern and eastern parts of the island.

Love at first sight

For Rod and Rosalie Miller, farmers near Warkworth (north of Auckland), it was love at first sight. The couple already had a keen interest in conservation, converting 60 acres of their 200-acre farm to native bush, and quickly saw the potential of the island after visiting it on their aero club’s Cessna 172. The Motu Kaikoura Trust was formed not long after, with Geoff Davidson, followed by Harry Doig, and now Rod Miller at the helm, Rosalie as Secretary, and a team of dedicated and experienced volunteer Trustees to manage the island as a scenic reserve.

Since then, the Trustees have created and begun enacting the Motu Kaikoura Scenic Reserve Management Plan and Biodiversity Management Plan. Significant milestones include deer and cat eradication, keeping the rat population to levels under 6%, and pine tree removal to allow for the regeneration of native bush. The Trust has also upgraded facilities on the island through grants so that visitors have safe access to the island via the airstrip, wharf and floating pontoon, and can enjoy the benefits of hot water, 3G, and flushing toilets. But the showpiece of the island is, without a doubt, the stunning Motu Kaikoura Lodge created by Strachan Group Architects and installed by Architecture+Women, which has gone on to win numerous awards. The Lodge replaced the previous one destroyed by arson, and fulfils the need to accommodate research workers, volunteers and public visitors, and enable education initiatives.

To manage the predator control and various activities involved in keeping the facilities operational, the Trust also employs a contractor, Clint Stannard, who works alongside his wife Jacinda and children, sharing island and home tasks between one another. They have lived and worked on the island for nine years, putting the couple’s backgrounds in environmental management to excellent use.

The Stannard family.
📷 :Courtesy of the Motu Kaikoura Trust

The Stannard family initially began volunteering on the island while sailing around Aotea/Great Barrier Island, after completing a voyage across the Pacific on their yacht. Asked what conservation gains they have witnessed over the last decade, they respond, “We have taken much pleasure in watching regeneration in areas of the island that have changed from grass to native bush in the short time we have been here. A great reward is being in the presence of kākāriki/New Zealand parakeet, which arrived after working so long to get rat numbers down to such low levels.”

Another devotee of the island is resident volunteer Nick Mitchell. As a pilot, Nick first visited the island twenty years ago, and after dropping off Trustees, thought to himself that this was a place he would like to return. A stalwart of the outer Hauraki Gulf, Motu Kaikoura offered itself as a haven within it, and six years ago he sailed his new yacht to the island. Nick performs various maintenance tasks for the Motu Kaikoura Trust to offset his use of facilities. Asked what he loves about the island, Nick responds, “When Buzz Aldrin stepped on the moon, he described it as “magnificent desolation”. When I hopped out at the airstrip and everyone buggered off, I felt “magnificent isolation”, and wanted to get a tent and stay there.” As for Rod and Rosalie Miller, we think the 464 flights they have clocked up to the island since, speaks for itself!

Creating a legacy

Sir Peter Blake’s kaupapa to protect our precious green and blue spaces and educate youth about our environment is coming to fruition on Motu Kaikoura. As the bush slowly regenerates, it is providing habitat and food for a range of native species, while its low predator numbers mean that species from nearby predator-free islands are gradually relocating to the island.

The Trust also encourages and facilitates school children and tertiary students to participate in outdoor and conservation activities on both land and sea. Refurbishment of the six chalets has been completed and Bradshaw Cove Homestead is underway,to accommodate school and youth visits. Meanwhile, youth development organisations such as the Spirit of New Zealand, which empowers young New Zealanders to reach their potential through the challenge of the sea, are regular visitors.

Study in the Motu Kaikoura lodge.
📷 :Courtesy of the Motu Kaikoura Trust

The Trust also has a Heads of Agreement with Hillary Outdoors whose students frequently use Motu Kaikoura for their activities.

Getting and staying there

Motu Kaikoura lodge.
📷 :Courtesy of the Motu Kaikoura Trust

You can visit Motu Kaikoura by boat or air, and enjoy a range of accommodation options. There are several walking tracks that take in the panoramic views found on the ridgelines, regenerating bush and WWII relics.

We highly recommend you take a trip to Motu Kaikoura, the island bought for the people, to experience the “magnificent isolation” it offers.

Love it, Restore it, Protect it.

Protect the native species of Motu Kaikoura Island by watching this short video on how to check your gear for pests, and this webpage on how to check for, and control pests, on your boat, as well as other useful advice on visiting pest-free islands of the Hauraki Gulf.

2 responses to Motu Kaikoura: Magnificent isolation


    Like Peter see earlier comment, how much I would like to add to my bucket list, sadly now in UK all I can do is dream who knows one day might win lotto

    Peter Hallinan 18/12/2020 at 1:06 pm

    lovely post – but I have a grouch… at 82, you’ve just gone and added another item to my bucket list! 🙂