Kawau Island has long been a Hauraki haven for boaties looking for safe harbour at Bon Accord or for tourists to enjoy the unique flora and fauna of Mansion House Bay.  

Its shallow inlets are home to an abundance of wildlife, from Black-footed shags, seabirds, Cats’ Eyes, over 2000 Weka, and various denizens of the deep. Since before the colonisation of New Zealand, the 5000-acre Island’s charms have been seducing mainland visitors. Stories tell of a local hapu who would harvest the fishing grounds surrounding Kawau, once abundant with Sharks. Although the land was unsuitable for crops, 16-century Maori favoured the area for its ample fish stocks. Battles over its resources were not uncommon between neighbouring iwi. The arrival of Europeans increased stock pressures on School Sharks in particular, who were caught and processed in a factory for their oil, and as an effective fertiliser for crops, at the nearby settlement of Sandspit. 

Unfortunately, overfishing of pregnant school sharks by both Maori and Pakeha led to the inevitable decline, and commercial shark fishing was halted in the 1880s. Today, in the waters around Kawau, bigger Bronze Whalers are still spotted regularly, but school shark numbers will most likely never return to the levels seen before exploitation. Today, Kawau is home to less than 200 residents, often owners of baches passed down through the lineage, although increasingly more people are making a permanent sea change. 

Pedestrian Transport to Kawau is by way of ferry, including daily steam of the historical “Royal Mail Run”, or by water taxi. The commute is pleasingly short, at around 25 minutes on a calm day. For those sailing-inclined Waihekians, Kawau lies about 42 kilometres North-west of Matiatia. In the 1830s, after an excavation, European settlers made an important discovery that the Island was rich in ferromanganese, an essential alloy in iron and steel manufacture. The further discovery of Iron Ore promoted a claim to mine from a group of entrepreneurs from New South Wales who subsequently incorporated a mining operation under the name the “Kawau Company” and bought the Island. The businessmen’s perceived ‘rights’ to the land were undoubtedly enhanced by the Australian State’s dominion over New Zealand until 1841. 

In an early example of using tech specialists, Expertise and specific knowledge of running a successful copper operation were sought from miners from Cornwall in the United Kingdom. After discovering the perils of transporting roasted iron ore off the Island by barge, it was decided an on-site smelter would be more advantageous. With proficiency in the art of smelting being paramount, professional help was sought from Wales. For the next 20 years,200 Cornish miners and Welsh smelters of mixed denominations worked symbiotically but had occasional conflict over resources. One incident in 1846 saw a rival ore smelting company granted a secondary claim to the mine and given control of the wharf used for transport. Shafts were dug underneath land owned by the Kawau Company, which led to a violent confrontation between prospectors. However, the Kawau Company had the last laugh when, in 1846, the upstart’s licence was not renewed. In 1856, The Great Kawau gunpowder robbery saw 107 barrels of gunpowder stolen from the miners’ magazine at Stockyard Bay. The smelting house, which Heritage New Zealand has afforded Category 1 status, once housed Maori prisoners from the 1863 land wars battle of Rangiriri in the Waikato after they were transported to Kawau aboard the Hulk Marion.

Kawau Island as seen from Parohe retreat. Photo JIm Birchall/Gulf News

After several ownership changes, Colonial Administrator Governor Sir George Grey bought Kawau in 1862 to make it his retreat away from the political drudgery of Auckland. Grey, who served his second term as Governor after an earlier stint in 1845, purchased the old miner’s cottage in an area between the high and low watermarks. At the time, there was even a cottage on nearby Beehive Island, left behind from the tenure of a departed mine manager. Grey set about extending the old cottage and overtime completed a spectacular mansion. After falling into disrepair after the return of Grey to England, it was renovated in 1979 and today sits resplendent- largely in its original form. The Mansion was home to an extensive library, and Grey would hospitably open its doors to the public on sunny summer weekends. 

The Governor also populated the Mansion’s surroundings with curious and exotic flora sourced from his travels. Today, Chilean wine palms, treasured for their palm honey extract, still, stand on the estate grounds. The descendants of four types of Wallabies, namely the Dama wallaby, the Parma or White-throated, the Brush-tailed Rock Wallaby, and the Swamp Wallaby all made their home on Kawau, along with introduced staples like rats and possums. On an island too steep for cattle grazing, the Wallaby population exploded, particularly the Darma and Swamp Wallaby, which became a favourite for hunters who would skin them and use the meat for dog food. After becoming extinct in their native Australia, twenty brushtail rock wallabies were relocated back across the ditch in the 1960s, and into a successful captive breeding program established by Wahroonga- based Waterfall Springs Conservation Association. 

Today, despite efforts by the Department Of Conservation (D.O.C) to contain the animal via culling programs, Wallabies can still be found hopping around Kawau. During the first world war, Charcoal and wood alcohol was produced at North Cove. Charcoal was used to substitute in conjunction with modified vehicles to counteract wartime petrol shortages. In December 1917, a crew from a German raider, who had been interned at Motuihi, escaped on a scow called the Moa and made a daring escape led by one Count Von Luckner. The prisoners stayed the night close to Kawau after approaching another scow. They eventually made their way in a vain attempt to flee near the Kermadecs. Here they were apprehended and returned to Auckland. D.O.C currently has a ten per cent ownership of Kawau, run as a publicly-owned reserve. The remainder of the land is owned by individuals, many of whom are families of earlier inhabitants. Kawau Island Historic Reserve runs the Mansion House.

On this writer’s first visit to Kawau since school days, I was hosted for the day at the beautiful Parohe Retreat, the newest addition to the increasing luxury Yoga and wellness revolution. On stepping off the water taxi onto the huge jetty, as if almost on cue, two stingrays float their way right up to the jetty’s piles- no doubt the expectant recipients of a treat from Parahoe’s visitors. A short work inland and one is instantly transported through the annuals of time. The Island’s Jurassic feel is juxtaposed with a remnant of its colonial past- a small cottage, now repurposed as accommodation, that once housed Governor Grey on his frequent nocturnal visits to his mistress. A remarkably well-preserved Tugboat sits in drydock at the water’s edge. 

The tranquillity of birdsong personifies the experience of this Hauraki Gulf Jewell. Nestled in 20 hectares of native bush, luxurious Scandinavian-inspired accommodation, organic gardens, and orchards with land and sea activities, Parohe hints toward a deepening connection with our Environment. While no Wallabies or Weka were making themselves known, the retreat is home to four female Alpaca, known as Steve and the Karens. 

Navigating the canopy of native bush, I stumble across a swamp adorned with Cabbage trees, the perfect place to reflect and forget life’s troubles. The discovery of a giant red and white spotted toad still is almost wonderland-esque. Tales of a Giant 1.57-metre earthworm, found in 1982, add further to the mystique. A walk up the hill produces a spectacular vista of the bay and a sense of satisfied entanglement with nature. So much so that one can become grounded to never wanting to leave this stunning Island to return to the trials of everyday life. 

This article originally appeared in Waiheke Weekender.