Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 25, November 1981
By Henry Rawle
Visitors to the northern beaches of the Bay of Plenty will be familiar with the island which dominates the skyline but few will realise that Mayor Island, known to the Maoris as Tuhua, is the tip of a submarine volcano which rose from the sea some 7,000 years ago.
The island was named by the ubiquitous Captain Cook who sheltered in Opo Bay during his voyage of discovery in 1769. Whether or not he was inspired by the impending celebration of Lord Mayor's Day in London is debatable, but a lingering nostalgia for the civic affairs of his distant homeland may be detected in his naming of two other island groups as the Aldermans and the Poor Knights.
Long extinct, the island's former function of safety valve for the undersea volcanic zone has now been taken over by White Island which frequently sends up towering columns of white steam.
Mayor Island, roughly circular in shape and some 2½ miles across, is one of the few South Pacific islands readily accessible to holiday makers being 25 miles from Tauranga, or three hours by motor launch. Its waters are the focal point for big game fishermen the world over but it is not only fishermen who are attracted to its shores. Its 3,154 acres of unspoiled forest with its many miles of bush walks make it a mecca for trampers and bush lovers alike. The island teems with bird life both native and introduced, and is well known for its dawn chorus of thousands of bell birds. Other species include fantails, tuis, kingfishers and the now rare native parrot, the kaka. The rocky coast is home for many kinds of sea birds, the swamps abound with teal and pukeko and colonies of shags nest around the crater lakes.
Groves of native trees with exotic names like karaka and rewarewa stand tall amongst the fern and manuka but it is the great pohutukawas for which the island is renowned. One ancient giant, the sacred Ngauriapo (descendant from the past) is over 3 metres in diameter with branches radiating 18 metres from the gnarled trunk. Large tuatara lizards who lived amongst the roots, accredited by Maori legend to be the guardian of the tree, was never seen again when the Maoris left the island nearly a century ago.
Popular with seasoned trampers is the 16 [? - E] kilometre track around the coast taking in various bays and Maori pas before striking inland to Opuhi Spring and the crater lakes. Opuhi is one of the few springs on the island which has no streams or natural waterways except for the two lakes. Another track from Opo Bay climbs sharply to Tutaretare trig which gives the best possible view of the crater lakes besides taking in the broad sweep of the Bay of Plenty coastline. Green Lake, known to the Maoris as Aroaratamihine, is the larger of the two. Eight kilometres [? - E] in circumference and 12 fathoms deep the water-filled crater is ringed by 90 metre cliffs except in the east where a declevity gives access to the shore. Smaller and less spectacular, the swamp-encircled Black Lake, or Te Paritu, owes its sombre colouring to decaying particles of breccia which give the water a peaty-brown appearance
Both lakes are steeped in Maori folklore but it is Green Lake which has the more colourful story. Legend has it that the Tuhua, the Original inhabitants after whom the island was named, lived in peace before they were invaded by a great host of warriors called the Pounamu who came from the sea in a fleet of war canoes. After a fierce battle the islanders routed their enemies but so many of the Pounamu were slain that the waters of the lake turned green with their blood, the colour of the greenstone. A more scientific if less picturesque explanation of the lakes' striking green tinge, is the presence of large quantities of algae in the water.
Mayor Island has extensive deposits of obsidian rock, used by the early Maoris for tools and weapons requiring a keen cutting edge but an American scientist who visited the island in 1953 found another use for it. He shipped a slab of the black volcanic glass back to the States and fashioned it into a telescope mirror. Cut and polished the obsidian made an excellent reflector, immune from "stain laminae" sometimes found in ordinary crystal.
In earlier years the island was inhabited by some 170 Maoris, who cultivated extensive areas of land. When Eric Goldsmith, the surveyor, went to the island in 1884 he found nine Maoris still living in the Painui [Panui – E] pa which was surrounded by 25 acres planted in potatoes, corn and kumera. The natives also grew tobacco and many varieties of fruit including apples, figs, cape gooseberries and bananas. They brought cats, pigs and cattle to the island but while the former thrived in their new habitat most of the cattle died because of a deficiency of cobalt in the soil. When the Maoris eventually left their island home the cats and pigs took to the bush and multiplied causing havoc to bird and plant life. The bird population was decimated and by the 1950s starving wild pigs were feeding on the last of the tree fern roots.
A story from the period tells of a hungry piglet which was adopted by a cook at the Big Game Fishing camp. The piglet, known as Honkie, reputedly developed a taste for beer, went for a daily swim in Opo Bay and slept in the cook's bedroom. Honkie ended his days on a Waitawheta farm where, it is said, he used to ride on the farm tractor and help bring in the cows.
It was not until 1964 that a Pest destruction programme accounted for the last of the pigs and wild cats and cleared the island of the few remaining rats the cats had overlooked. At the same time a conservation party destroyed over 3,000 pines which were endangering native trees and, shrubs making way for the exotic growth which covers Mayor Island to-day.
Honeymoon Bay (Otiora to the Maoris), is probably the most romantic of the many Legends, which tells of a young chief who, ashamed of his poor performances at tribal games, went to Otiora Bay to brood alone and falling asleep dreamed of a beautiful young wahine with whom he fell in love. Soon afterwards he met his dream girl in the flesh and married her, the union resulting in a baby daughter. Unhappy at her husband's lack of prowess in other directions, the girl made him a humming-top with the magical quality of ensuring his success in tribal contests and made him promise never to reveal the secret. The top lived up to expectations but pressed by his kinsmen for the explanation of his improved athletic powers, the chief finally gave away the secret he had pledged to keep. His wife and child were never seen again, but often after that, their far-off wailing could be heard in the dawn-misted forest and the sound of a humming-top in the low moaning of the wind at sea.
The most accessible of the old Maori pas is Painui [Panui – E] which overlooks Opo Bay. All were built in strong cliff-top positions but perhaps the most impressive is Taumoe with its seven great terraces leading down to sheer cliffs rising from the sea.
Not far away a heap of stones marks the summit of the famous Tautari defile, a well-known landmark in the annals of Maori tribal warfare. Around the coast are the Okotere, Tikitikinahoa and Otura pas all with their seperate histories of savage warfare followed by cannibalism of the defeated slain.
In those early days Mayor Island was constantly under attack by sea-borne raiding parties who assaulted the coastal pas rather than confront the mainland Ngaiterangi, the Tauranga tribe of which the island was an outpost. Over the years the endless bloodshed, coupled with disease, put an end to Maori occupation of the island the last handful of survivors leaving around 1890. All that remain to-day are the softened outlines of their pas and the occasional discovery of Maori skulls or artefacts in the vicinity of their long-deserted strongholds.
Mayor Island is world famous for the wide variety of big game fish; among them being Mako, Marlin and the Great Broadbill Swordfish, described by Zane Grey as "the gamest fish in the seven seas, a mankiller that would charge a boat". The renowned writer's favourite fishing grounds were the Bay of Islands where he is credited with landing the first Broadbill ever caught in New Zealand waters. While he visited the Mayor in 1927 there is no record of him ever landing a big game fish in the vicinity. One of the biggest fish caught off Mayor Island was a 613 klg Tiger Shark. Too big for the scales at Opo Bay the monster was towed to Tauranga for weighing. While the Tiger was the heaviest fish caught in New Zealand waters at that time it was never recognised as an official record because of damage caused by the towing chains.
Fishermen's tales are legion in the club rooms of the Big Came Fishing Headquarters, amongst them the epic story of a 410 klg Black Marlin caught in 1957 which took 16 hours to land. When struck it swam straight ahead for six miles, feeding on shoal fish as it went. Reeled in several times it took off again streaking like a rocket at the end of the 750 metre line. The battle continued through the night when the line was illuminated by a searchlight, the fish finally being brought to gaff at 7.30 in the morning. One that got away in 1968 was a monster Broadbill estimated to weigh 545 klg which fought for 32 hours before the line snapped under the strain.
The relative scarcity of larger fish since those years of abundance has been attributed to current changes and increased temperatures at the South Pole which altered the cycle of plankton drift and disturbed the feeding patterns of the fish. However, the capture of a 307 klg Thrasher Shark near the Mayor Is. in February 1977 and a record-breaking 445 klg Black Marlin off White Is. in the summer of 1978 could signify the return of the big fish to the area.
The ownership of Mayor Island is shared by several hundred Maoris now scattered throughout New Zealand and the Crown, which claims one twelfth of the 3,154 acres. Administration is in the hands of a Trust Board comprised of representatives of the Maori owners, officers of the Maori Affairs and Land Departments.
While most people go to Mayor Island for the fishing, the dawn chorus of thousands of birds, or just to get away from it all, others less privileged go there to earn a living. At peak holiday periods a staff of 17 is employed in and around the Tauranga Big Came Fishing Headquarters in Opo Bay. Many, looking for a temporary change of scene, discover an alternative life style, a better way of living and stay for several years.
Such is the charm of the island of lakes and legends.
Henry Rawle: Contributor to the New Zealand Herald, Caravan and Camping, N.Z. Yachting and Power Boating, N.Z. Outdoors, etc.