Like many motu or islands in the Hauraki gulf, Tiritiri Matangi, has had many lives - as a prime fishing site for early Māori inhabitants, a sheep and cattle farm, a military base and more recently a wildlife sanctuary.

Early Occupation

Meaning ‘buffeted by the wind’ this small island was once home to Māori settlers who fished, hunted birds, burned off some of the bush and planted gardens around 800 years ago. It is thought that the settlements totalled around 100 people.

An archaeological excavation in 1997 near the wharf suggests Māori arrived on this island about six hundred years ago, and established campsites and small villages close to the sea. Filling their gardens with a range of Polynesian produce such as taro, kumara, breadfruit and yams provided a steady food source. Come winter, however these ground vegetables would rot, so storage pits or kumara pits were created to keep these precious food sources safe. 

Short on carbohydrate sources, Māori would clear the land to encourage the growth of bracken fern. The starchy root was known as ‘aruhe’ – the food that never fails. After being beaten and roasted, these sticks rendered into an edible state, something that European colonisers struggled to fathom. The botanist of Cook’s second voyage, Georg Forster, wrote ‘that wretched article of the New Zealand diet, the common fern root consists of nothing but insipid sticks’.

Evidence of these early settlements and gardens comes in the form of several storage pits, burial sites, house terraces and nine middens filled with dog, fish, bird, shellfish and marine mammal refuse. It is thought that iwi used the island on a seasonal basis for shark fishing and fern root gathering, later settled into more permanent residences, and after dispersing due to the musket wars utilised it for seasonal fishing.

Remnants of communities who occupied the island are visible in the land. Two defensive sites or pa, known as Tiritiri Matangi and Papakura, occupy the western headland and northern end, and are associated with Kawerau and Ngati Paoa iwi respectively. Ngai Tai and the Marutuahu iwi also have ancestral links with Tiritiri. Both Kawerau and Ngati Paoa have been recognised in the naming of tracks constructed through the restored area.

In 1841, George Clarke Senior bought the island off the Kawarau iwi on behalf of the Crown as part of the larger settlement of Mahurangi. The Maritime Board erected a lighthouse in 1864, which prompted Matini Murupaenga, supported by Te Hemara Tauhia, to dispute the title in the Native Land Court in 1866.

Closer inspection of the deed showed that Tiritiri Matangi didn’t fall within the purchased land. Te Hemara told the court he had never sold the land, and regularly used it for fishing and collecting shellfish from 1841.

The final decision was made on the basis of one settler, sheep-farmer and 200 hectare lease-holder Thomas Duder, who had lived there for six years and claimed he had never seen Māori occupy or cultivate there. The native claim was denied in 1867 because the case consisted ‘mainly of ancient occupancy’.

A Legendary Lighthouse

Sitting within the gateway of the Hauraki Gulf, Tiritiri Matangi was a prime site for a lighthouse.

To help guide ships into the harbour, the Government ordered a prefabricated lighthouse from England in 1863 that was fitted with a one million candlepower light. The 75 ton lighthouse came in 279 packages and 3 cases that were hauled up the hill with the help of twelve bullocks.

It was first lit on 1 January,1865, when Auckland had a population of 12,500 and steam was overtaking sail on the busy waters of the Hauraki Gulf.

That distinctive strobe quickly became a part of Auckland’s night-time character. In the 1960s, former Auckland Mayor and philanthropist, Sir Ernest Davis paid to boost the light to 11 million candlepower

The Tiritiri Matangi light was then the brightest in the southern hemisphere, visible 80 kilometres out to sea and illuminating, at 15-second intervals, the bedroom walls of houses on Auckland’s North Shore. Mariners in the Gulf complained of its effect on night vision, and in 1984, with shipboard navigational aids improved, it was reduced to 1.6 million candlepower, and automated.

The island lighthouse is now the oldest working lighthouse in New Zealand.

An Island Farm

Covered in fertile soil and positioned close to one of New Zealand’s largest towns, Tiritiri Matangi was an attractive farm site.

In fact, in the road-less North where people travelled via water channels throughout much of the 1800s, island farms were favoured as they were accessible, easy to clear and required little fencing.

One of the first farmers on the island was Thomas Duder who lived on the Island from 1860 to 1866 as a sheep farmer. A longer settlement was taken up by the Hobbs family who cleared the land which quickly removed all ground dwelling birds, lizards and invertebrates.

The family ran it as a sheep and shorthorn cattle farm from 1902 to 1971.

The Hobbs family lived on Whangaparaoa Peninsula and crossed to the farm by steamer, sailing boat and sometimes dinghy. They went to muster or shear sheep, and were watched by the lighthouse keeper’s children who sometimes secretly rode the farm horses.

After 130 years of farming, the Hobbs farm lease was withdrawn and it became a Recreation Reserve in 1971.

Largely denuded except for a few cliffside pohutukawa trees, the Island was home to a few populations of birds. During this time it became a popular picnic spot for boaties who walked up to the lighthouse area, but aside from small verges of trees found in the unfarmable valleys and on some of the cliffs, little of its primordial character survived.

In 1974, Dick Veitch, a protected-fauna officer with the Wildlife Service, got permission to release kakariki – red-crowned parakeets – on Tiritiri Matangi. That release caught the attention of John Craig, then a junior lecturer in zoology at Auckland University.

He visited, enlisted botanist Neil Mitchell, and the two young academics arranged a scientific study of the Island by student teams. The students found themselves opposed by the lighthouse-keeping old guard for their alleged ‘hippie ways’, but their research suggested natural regeneration was unlikely. Every natural seedling on the Island was gnawed by kiore rats, and rank farmland grasses smothered growth.

Craig and Mitchell pioneered an unusual plan – to replant a forest. Attuned to a new mood of conservation, they made a further bold suggestion. Tiritiri Matangi should be a forested sanctuary made safe for endangered birds, but open to the public too. Citizens of Auckland would be welcome to see, and to join, what Craig called “conservation in action”. That was how New Zealand’s first island restoration project began.

Craig and Mitchell’s ideas were formalised in the Tiritiri Matangi Island Working Plan, prepared by the Department of Lands and Survey in 1982.

After the light was automated in the mid-1980s, former lighthouse keeper Ray Walter stayed on to manage the restoration project, and was the Department of Conservation (DOC) ranger on the Island until 2006. His wife Barbara was also employed by DOC, to manage the shop, organise guided walks and bunkhouse accommodation.