If you like seascapes, you can see one of the best from the summit of Mount Maunganui. On a clear day the whole of the Bay of Plenty is laid out in a curve from horizon to horizon. To the south-east the line of white sand beaches draws the eye along the coastline to the Maketu headland. Past that the shore rolls on to Whakatane and beyond.
On the northern side of Mount Maunganui the beaches of Matakana Island continue the sweep of the coastline to the blue-green jumble that marks the beginning of the Coromandel Peninsula.
If it is a calm morning and you look slightly south of east across the flattened top of Motiti Island towards Cape Runaway, you can sometimes see the plume of steam that rises from White Island, New Zealand’s most active volcano. Look to the north, past nearby Karewa Island; there on the horizon, looking like some strange blue whale, is another volcano: Tuhua, or Mayor Island.
White Island continues to push steam and gas into the air, and its crater floor is dissected by boiling streams of pure sulphuric acid, but Tuhua is dormant.
The geological evidence shows that the island escaped only slowly from the grasp of the sea. Over millennia, lava oozing from a fracture in the sea floor began to build up a volcanic shield under the water. The shield grew, pushing up from the sea bed until it broke the waves, the hot rock hissing into the air. And still the shield continued its slow upward surge.
At times all activity ceased, and wind and rain combined to weather the cooled lava into soil. Trees grew, only to be overwhelmed when the lava flows came licking and rolling down the slopes again. Buried soils, baked orange by the heat of molten rock, are the only record of these intervals of quiescence in Tuhua’s violent geological history.
About 35,000 years ago, when the new volcano had risen to nearly a kilometre above the sea bed, the island erupted. Trapped gases many kilometres below roared upwards through a fracture in the lava shield, sending superheated pumice and magmatic gas high into the atmosphere in a glowing column. Between one and ten cubic kilometres of molten material was ejected in a matter of days, and the great shield, its foundation blown away by the explosion, sagged into the empty chamber beneath.
The result of this collapse was a large, flat-bottomed caldera* nearly two kilometers across. And now a new growth phase began. Lava seeking release from far below oozed into the caldera, filling it with a disc of rhyolite stone nearly 12 kilometers in circumference.
Like a giant saucer turned upside down, the rock dome curved upwards to over half a kilometer in height, before a portion of it collapsed during a second mighty eruption 6300 years ago.
As with the earlier eruption, thick sheets of lava continued to spew out of the volcano and a new dome began to form. But it was like the painful efforts of an old smoker to clear phlegm from the throat. The lava flow slowed and grew viscous, until finally it stopped. The last of the hot gas escaped, leaving a shallow dish depression on the summit of the small dome. Apart from a few bubbling hot springs along the rocky shore, Tuhua lay quietly on the surface of the sea, its volcanic energy seemingly spent.
Again the lava weathered and formed soil for seeds brought by seabirds, wind and tide. A pohutukawa forest filled with birds clothed the island, hiding for a short time yet the secret treasure of Tuhua. That treasure was mata tuhua, obsidian or volcanic glass, formed on the surface of fast-cooling lava flows.
It was the explorer Ngahue who first came to Tuhua and found the treasure. He rode across the sea from Hawaiki on the back of Poutini, his magical green fish, and when he reached Tuhua he rested. But not for long. Poutini, the magic fish, picked a fight with Mata, who lived on the island, and lost. Ngahue and Poutini were forced to flee until finally they reached Arahura, the Grey River on the West Coast of the South Island. There Ngahue tore off one side of his fish and returned to Hawaiki, leaving Poutini behind. Today, Poutini lies in pieces among the river bed stones as pounamu or greenstone. Mata remains on Tuhua as the boulders and cliffs of obsidian.
This is only one of many stories which tell how greenstone came to Aotearoa, but it is important because it names Tuhua as a place where obsidian is found. To Maori migrating from Eastern Polynesia the name Tuhua would have been like a factory signpost, for wasn’t Tuhua the ancient name for the island of Me’etia, 130 kilometres south-east of Tahiti, and like its Aotearoa namesake a source of obsidian?
Obsidian, mata tuhua, was indeed a treasure. Sharp flakes of the glossy black rock were used as knives for cutting up flesh, scrapers for flax and skins, and chisels for working with wood. Tuhua obsidian was widely traded, and is found at ancient settlement sites from Northland to Stewart Island.
Such an important source soon attracted a permanent population. Though it is not certain who were the first to settle Tuhua, at one time it was the home of an ancient people known as Te Ananui. These people were exiled by later invaders to a large terrace on the northern end of the island, and forbidden to mix with the newcomers. Te Ananui were suspected of being patupaiarehe (fairy people) and were thought to have supernatural powers which allowed them to grow giant kumara under the cover of the sea mist.
Because they were not allowed to intermarry with the newcomers, Te Ananui began to dwindle, and they decided to return to their own people in Hawaiki. Against the advice of their chief, who remained behind, the rest of the people sailed away and were never heard of again. Their memorial is the terrace on which they grew their magical kumara, and which carries their name.
Whoever held the coastal waters of Tauranga also held Tuhua, and when the Ngaiterangi tribe moved into Tauranga, the Whanaua-Tauwhao hapu (sub-tribe) was given the island as a home. Because Tuhua was a desirable target it was attacked time after time, and its defenders turned it into a fortress. Pa were built on nearly every headland and hill, and the traditions say that the strength of some pa was such that they were never taken.
Taumou, a fort perched on the eastern cliffs, consists of seven giant terraces, carved out by hand, which step down to the sea cliffs. Some of the terraces are three storeys high and several acres in size. They provided level places for houses and gardens. The only approach to the fort is by a steep, narrow path that follows the spine of the crater wall. A few men could defend the entire pa by hurling down rocks on attackers.
When the pakeha came and Maori soldiers were able to buy muskets, warfare between tribes was stepped up. In the 1820s expeditions set out all over the country to settle old scores. Ngapuhi of Northland were the first to equip with guns, and under fighting chiefs such as Hongi Hika they raided almost to the ‘head of the fish’, establishing a reputation for invincibility.
The most famous attack on Tuhua was made by a raiding Ngapuhi taua (warparty) led by the tohunga Te Haramiti. Although he was old and nearly blind, Te Haramiti set out for the Bay of Plenty in late 1830 with 50 men. They were well armed with muskets and even a small cannon, but possibly underestimated the strength of their opponents. The day of the invincible raider had passed; most of the coastal tribes had become just as well armed as Ngapuhi. Familiarity, too, with the smoke and noise of firearms meant that defenders no longer panicked and ran away, as had happened in previous Ngapuhi victories.
The raid started successfully enough. When the taua landed on Mercury Island they slaughtered a hundred people. Many of the Ngapuhi thought this sufficient ‘satisfaction’ and wanted to return home, but Te Haramiti insisted the gods were with them. The taua were persuaded to sail on to Tuhua, where some of the Whanau-a-Tauwhao people were surprised and killed. The rest managed to escape to the safety of the forts on the eastern side of the island, and when darkness came they sent a message by canoe to Tauranga to summon their relations.
Ngaiterangi and their allies quickly assembled and set off for Tuhua, timing their arrival for daybreak. But Te Haramiti had already left to attack another Whanaua-Tauwhao settlement on nearby Motiti Island. Ngaiterangi followed and by noon had closed on Motiti. Ngapuhi, finding Motiti deserted, had had to content themselves with burning crops and destroying property. When they saw canoes approaching they cheered up, thinking it was the reinforcements they had arranged to follow them. But then the first musket volleys rang out.
Ngapuhi were surrounded, and were forced to fight. Te Haramiti sat in his canoe chanting karakia to urge his men on. But soon, except for Te Haramiti and a young man who had been spared for ransom purposes, all Ngapuhi were dead. (To avoid having his body cut up and eaten, one Ngapuhi soldier is said to have draped himself over the cannon mouth and, using a long firestick to light the fuse, blown himself to smithereens). Now Ngaiterangi gathered around Te Haramiti. They dared not spill a tohunga’s blood so they pounded the old man to death with their fists.
A pakeha unwittingly put the final seal on the Ngaiterangi victory.
The heads of some of the beaten Ngapuhi had been sold to Captain Jack of the schooner Prince of Denmark. Captain Jack then sailed for the Bay of Islands where he invited some Ngapuhi on board and foolishly had the sack of heads emptied in front of them. When they saw the heads of their relatives they hurried away to assemble a warparty and take the ship. Captain Jack thought nothing of the incident until he saw war canoes coming. He hastily cut his anchor rope and made all speed for Sydney.
Ngapuhi sent one of their chiefs to Sydney to beg Samuel Marsden to have the heads returned. Marsden not only recovered the heads, but was also able to convince Governor Darling to issue a proclamation putting an end to the importing of preserved heads from New Zealand. And so ended an infamous trade.
Six years later, on June 14, 1836, Tuhua was again attacked, this time from the south. Tautari was a chief of Ngati Pukeko at Whakatane, and a famous warrior. The scars of 12 hatchet wounds on his body were evidence of his fighting ability. He had already defeated a Ngaiterangi assault on his pa but thought the satisfaction of killing a number of the attacking soldiers to be insufficient payment for their insulting behaviour. From his home at Whakatane he planned a revenge attack on Tuhua.
Tautari landed under cover of darkness, but his fleet of canoes had been spotted by lookouts and the people had fled for shelter to Taumou fort. During the night Tautari’s men sneaked up the path. What they didn’t know was that a giant obsidian boulder, levered out to the edge, was kept in position for just this purpose. When Tautari’s party neared the top, the rock was released and sent crashing down on them. Several were squashed and others badly injured. Ngati Pukeko gathered up their dead and wounded and returned to Whakatane. In the morning, when the coast was clear, the women of the pa rushed out and, exulting in victory, began to lick up the wet blood from the rocks.
Tuhua’s fighting history came to an end in 1841 in an incident that signalled the finish of a long feud between the Ngaiterangi and Te Arawa tribes. Tohi Te Ururangi was an Arawa chief. When his son was murdered by some Tauranga people, Tohi decided to revenge himself on the relations of his son’s killers at Tuhua. He used a stolen pakeha schooner to take a warparty to the island, and when they got close to the shore Tohi made most of them lie down and hide. The Tuhua people came alongside in a canoe, expecting to trade. Suddenly Tohi’s men jumped up and fired. Among those killed was the chief Huata. As he lay dying, he asked, “Why am I attacked?” When it was explained to him that this was revenge for the death of Tohi’s son, he replied “It is well,” and met his death calmly. His killers then cut off his head.
The numbers of old pa and the extent of the former gardens show that at one time Tuhua must have supported a large population. But war and disease took their toll. An epidemic swept the island in 1862 and sixty people died. Whanaua-Tauwhao left to settle on Matakana Island and by 1884 only nine people — three men, four women and two little girls — remained.
In that year a government surveyor, Eric Goldsmith, visited Tuhua. He was impressed by the island’s frost-free climate in which the Maori settlers grew bananas, figs, grapes and peaches. The surveyor noted that the Maori tended with particular care their tobacco plants, of which they had “some very fine specimens”. He didn’t seem surprised that nine Maori, with the assistance of only one horse, managed a garden of 25 acres. A few pigs, some chickens and some peacocks completed the inventory of the island’s livestock.
By 1901 the last of Whanaua-Tauwhao had left Tuhua to join their relatives living at Otawhiwhi. In 1916 a group of pakeha visitors found three old people on the island, but they were probably visiting too, tending their gardens. Certainly after this date there were no Maori living permanently on Tuhua at all.
One saturday morning in late summer I joined the day trippers and fishermen waiting on Mount Maunganui’s ferry wharf for Te Kuia, a sturdy kauri launch used as a ferry between Mayor Island and Tauranga.
The fishermen, in shorts, Swanndris and caps, stood around smoking and talking. At their feet wet sugar bags held the day’s bait; their fishing rods leaned against handy bollards and railings. The trampers stood around their packs munching muesli bars and apples, while a troop of Bible class kids galloped around, over and through their piles of sleeping bags, clothes and cartons of sandwiches and sausages. A fearsome looking ghetto blaster was spirited away by a parent before departure.
Te Kuia came up to the wharf, gear and people were loaded and we set off on the three and a half hour trip out to the Mayor. Immediately we cleared Tauranga harbour entrance, the fishermen with possies at the stern and the `hips’ (where the boat is widest) had their lines out trolling for fish: bonito and mackerel at this time of the year. The trollers gave a shout whenever a fish took their lures and the skipper revved off to give them a chance to haul in their catch. Several bonito disappeared into the sugar bags.
As we chugged along, big game launches cruised past, heading off to the far horizon. Blue penguins darted away from our boat, while over towards Karewa Island petrels and gannets dived around the edges of a school of fish. The bulge of Mauao, Mount Maunganui, faded away behind us, and the Bible class kids opened their packets of chippies and munched away in the sunshine.
The water turned from a warm green to a colder blue-black, and as the island neared the occasional flying fish lifted out of the water in front of us and skimmed away on glittering wings.
As we came around the corner and glided into its sunny shelter, Opo, or South East Bay, looked a picture. Several boats were at anchor, kids were swimming and playing around in a rubber inflatable, and blue smoke from a barbecue filtered up through a canopy of grey pohutukawa branches. In a more or less central position and nestled in under some low cliffs were the white buildings of the Tauranga Big Game Fishing Club lodge. Off to the right were several baches, cabins and shelters which make up the Tuhua Trust camping ground.
Te Kuia was nosed into the beach and an aluminium ladder placed on her bow. A long plank bridged the gap from ladder to shore. Getting ashore in this fashion is known locally as `walking the plank’. Once the passengers who were going to stay on the island had disembarked, Te Kuia headed out to the fishing grounds.
The cheerful host of the lodge, Laura McLaren, came to Mayor Island four years ago to help out for a week and ended up as manageress of the club facilities. She and her late husband immigrated to New Zealand from the Falklands in 1960 and ran a small game fishing launch out of Tauranga; that’s how she got to know Mayor.
Laura loves living on the island. Certainly the climate is an improvement on the Falklands, but she told me she still hasn’t got used to the heat. “Winters are more reminiscent of the Falklands, because while they never bring frosts, they do bring a damp cold to the island. It’s probably got a lot to do with the overhanging pohutukawa trees, which are appreciated for their cooling shade in the summer, but not so on winter mornings when they block out the warmth of the sun.” But Laura thinks winter has its compensations: time for reading in front of the huge open fire, and endless hours frittered away watching storm waves beating on the beach.
Like everyone associated with the island, Laura has a fund of fishing stories. She recalls fondly the biggest fish she ever reeled in, a giant mako shark. She also remembers the cray pot she `played’ for several hours, but compares that experience favourably with another hard-done-by angler who spent all day playing a snagged boulder.
Tuhua is roughly circular in shape with a diameter of three and a half kilometres. There are a number of tracks around the island, which on the $2 tourist map look fairly easy going; on the ground it is a different story.
The climb out of South East Bay is a stiff one, but the track levels out as it swings away to follow the crater rim. The vegetation consists of a thick growth of pohutukawa, rewarewa and mahoe trees, with an understorey of manuka, rangiora and tree ferns. The tall, spindly pohutukawa are a surprise to anyone used to seeing pohutukawa strung out along coastal roads in isolated clumps, or growing as massive individual trees.
The first glimpse of the crater interior is a dramatic one. As the track starts to descend, a sudden break in the trees shows Te Paritu and Aroarotamahine, the black and green lakes, lying snugly up against the southern crater wall. The path then drops down Halls Pass and into the crater, the steep sections made easier by the provision of some metal ladders. It is here that the island’s name takes on real meaning because the track leads over and around huge outcrops of shiny obsidian. Obsidian boulders litter the pathway and shards of the rock lie scattered around in glittering black piles.
On the windless crater floor the heat can be oppressive, and it is easy to believe stories that the Maori inhabitants were able to grow two crops of kumara per year in their crater gardens. The crater rim track offers a cooling sea breeze and spectacular views.
Near the site of Taratimi Pa the pumice cliff is so narrow that it is hard to imagine how it has managed to resist being breached by the sea. One story says that during World War II the Americans considered tunneling through the crater wall at this point and building a secret submarine base within the crater.
This spine of cliff also marks the beginning of a narrow track leading up to the scrubby heights of Taumou Pa. The path peters out at the bottom of a sheer rock wall. Looking up, you can just discern a zigzag route which utilises cracks and breaks in the rock face. It takes a good twenty minutes of careful climbing, hanging on to tree roots and branches, to reach one of the pa terraces.
It is easy to see how Tautari and his men were defeated when they attacked this pa that dark night 150 years ago. A climbing man would have been defenceless, and rocks dropped down one of the chimneys through which the path travels would have stopped any attack.
As a defensive fort Taumou Pa is brilliantly sited. On all sides it is protected by cliffs which drop away into the crater or the sea. While the growth of trees makes it difficult to appreciate the extent of the semicircular terraces, the height between them averages over twelve metres. One can only marvel at the physical labour that would have been required to carve them out.
The pa narrows towards the top, from which there is a good view down into and across the crater and, in the opposite direction, out over the southern sea. Even on a calm day a fierce wind whips up the crater wall and it is easy to see why these narrow upper terraces had not been completely levelled: thick banks of earth had been left on the very top terrace and at the ends of the next two to act as windbreaks.
The path across the crater floor winds around the north-eastern end of Aroarotamahine Lake. Here and there the rotting stumps of exotic pine trees are a reminder of the conservation work put in by Pat Burstall, Conservator of Wildlife, and boys from Rotorua Boys High School. In a series of visits during the 1960s they cut down all of the pines which, if left to themselves, might eventually have come to dominate the island forest.
The track passes lava dikes and great heaps of boulders and ends abruptly against the crater wall. From here it is a steep climb out which seems to go on forever, fully deserving its nickname ‘The Gutbuster’.
On the western side of the crater floor the forest is thick and shaded.
Bird life is abundant, particularly at Opuhi, one of the few natural springs on the island. A quartet of drinking fantails, some sparrows and a twittering blackbird lifted away on my approach. The spring itself was a disappointment, because it had been churned into a quagmire by wallowing wild pigs. It seems that despite many efforts over the years to eliminate them, the sheer ruggedness of the island hides the pigs from even the most skilled hunter.
From the spring the track begins to climb again as you leave the floor of the ‘old’ crater. A hard climb brings you from there to the top of Te Kukuta, the third highest point on the island, and from there it’s a gentle descent towards the western coast.
On my visit, accompanied by my triathlon-trained brother-in-law, it took a good seven hours, not counting our Taumou Pa excursion, to tramp around the island.
The locals told us that this was the first fine weekend since before Christmas, and it showed. We found South East Bay crowded with boats: yachts, launches and a monstrous catamaran which seemed to fill up half the bay on its own. Twinkling navigation lights off the bay entrance announced more boats coming in for the night.
Several fishermen rowed ashore to have their catches, a blue shark and some large yellow fin tuna, hoisted up on the ‘gallows’ to be weighed. Phil Dalley, the island handyman, told me later that the blue shark is useless as food because of the very strong ammonia taint to its flesh. Under club rules the fisherman has to take the shark away and dispose of it at sea. The tuna, he said, would be smoked.
The bar was fairly crowded and doing a brisk trade in cold beers. Painted plaster casts of record game-fish, complete with unblinking glass eyes, hung on the walls and ceiling beams, while chopped off ‘swords’ protruded from wooden shield plaques. It was depressing. I’d read about that moment just before death when the body and eyes of the fish suddenly glow in all their radiant colours; then the lustre departs, to be replaced by the pearly grey tones of death. The plaster casts on the bar wall were only able to capture the death tones.
Around the room the fading photographs of summers past showed smiling men and women posing proudly beside hung gamefish of incredible size, the details of each catch chalked up on a blackboard for the eye of the camera. There were photographs of boats and men messing about in them, photographs of swordfish swords stuck into the sand like a miniature forest to show a successful day’s fishing, and photographs of dead sharks, their jaws forced open to show gaping caverns filled with vicious teeth. At a time when wildlife conservation and concern for the environment have become vital issues, these fading images seemed vaguely upsetting.
Outside, in the warm evening air, I talked to one fisherman who resented my suggestion that it’s all slaughter for fun. “We smoke marlin and eat marlin steaks — it’s good tucker,” he said. But after another beer he admitted that wasn’t always the case, and many fish were simply dumped at sea after being photographed on the gallows. “At least in catching a fish,” he said, “I respect him for the fight he puts up, for what he is. You compare that with the way those Japs fish — they catch them in the thousands — it’s just meat to them, money and protein. You can see the way they think with this wall of death stuff,” he said angrily, referring to the practice of driftnet fishing.
We talked about the apparent decline in fish stocks around the island. Despite his views on driftnet fishing he didn’t think this had had a major effect on game fish numbers in local waters. “They’re having a terrific season in the Bay of Islands this year,” he said. “Nah, I reckon it’s a change in water temperatures — it’s getting colder so the big fish don’t come down here any more. Smaller fish numbers are down too. They’re the ones getting fished out. There’s too many jokers out here fishing; it’s just got to have an effect in the end.”
He wandered off, jandals slapping, to find his mates, and I supposed his position on the overfishing question was shared by most of the cheerful crowd around the bar.
After breakfast the next morning I met Mavis Stanton, who was having a holiday at Mayor. Originally from the King Country, Mavis was another one who had come out to Mayor to help out temporarily in the kitchen and ended up staying. That was one Easter over 25 years ago. Mavis retired a few years ago and lives ‘ashore’ — as people on Mayor call the mainland. But on this bright summer morning she was feeling chipper, and her walking stick and rheumatism hadn’t stopped her from raking up the pohutukawa leaves in the courtyard, the tines leaving a neat pattern in the sand.
Mavis talked nostalgically about the days when up to 90 boats would be jammed into the bay and the club staff had to cope with hundreds of overnight guests. “When I first came here there were only the two cooks and, if we were lucky, a washer-upper. Later on there were 18 staff, counting the manager and his wife. The people would come in starving. They’d have left early in the morning and been too busy fishing to bother with food — so we’d put on huge three-course meals. They loved our soups, especially oxtail soup, and oxtail stews. We’d give them two choices of meat, but shepherd’s pie made from all the leftovers was a real favourite. We’d make steamed puddings in the big soup tins and they’d take what was left over for boat lunches. There’d be a hundred of them wanting breakfast, which had to be served in three sittings — same as dinner.
“We used to get rats here, native rats. Pretty little things, but they used to make the waitresses jump up on chairs. One time we found one in the piano and somebody took a photo which got in the paper. There was a huge fuss because here was a rat in the club lounge. One time we chased a rat around the kitchen. We broke the broom handle chasing that rat. Eventually it went and hid behind the stove and we couldn’t get at it. One chap had this bright idea, he tipped pepper down behind the stove and we could hear this rat sneezing, but it still wouldn’t come out! We gave up then. I suppose it got out later or got cooked to death by the heat.
“I’d never seen really big fish until I came here. There was lots of money then. Wealthy farmers would come out — big charters, year after year. The boat skippers had a real rivalry going. They each had their own table in the dining room with the name of their boat on it. They used to make a proper ritual of it when a fish was caught. The captain would stand up and make a speech and present a card, or if it was a pinfish, a fish over a certain size, present the pin. Then they’d take a photograph. For some of them it was a lifetime achievement. Cups were presented for various things like the first marlin of the season or the first marlin caught by a lady.
“Some of the skippers were tough men. They’d drink a lot. But a lot of them didn’t drink at all. You know, it’s a wonder more of them didn’t drown going back to their boats. They’d set off in their dinghies and somehow end up going round in a circle and trying to row back up the beach. People were always falling out of their dinghies and into the water. One time some engineers off a ship came out here to visit. Their captain had given them a bottle of rum, so by the time they arrived they were as drunk as crows. When it was time to go back to Tauranga the skipper wouldn’t take them because they were so drunk. They had to send a float plane out to get them because their ship couldn’t sail without them.
“One skipper had a group of people from the Waikato, I think. They went out fishing and caught these really big snapper. The skipper told them, as a joke, `Those are no good, they’re too small — throw them back’, and they did! Well, they gave him a hard time after that, but he got his own back by hiding some fish under the spare tyre in their car. They drove around for days with this terrible smell before they discovered what he’d done.
“Storms come up very quickly here. The southerly is the one to look out for. We used to get our first warning when the pohutukawa leaves fell and rattled on the roof. All the skippers would head out of the bay straight away so they wouldn’t get caught. See this lifesaver, [she pointed to a suspended lifebuoy hung between the bar and the dining room] well when it starts swinging you know there’s a southerly blow coming. I’ve come out here on a boat sometimes when it’s been really rough. One time it was so rough the window of the launch was smashed in by a wave and I was lying in the corner of the cabin. I was so seasick I couldn’t have cared if we made the trip safely or if the boat went down.” Mavis chuckled at that memory. “With my rheumatism I can’t walk the plank anymore. I came out on a helicopter this time — it was only fifteen minutes!
“The kaka come here sometimes to feed on the figs. They’re mostly down in the crater. There are fewer bellbirds now. A naturalist told me that it’s the wasps eating all the honey. There used to be thousands of bellbirds. Old Bluey [Kernot], he taught the bellbirds to whistle a different tune. When one birdwatcher heard them whistling this tune, he thought he’d discovered a new subspecies! But it must have been only the babies of the ones that Bluey taught. Bluey used to feed them at the back door with honey and water — he’d put it into little tins strung up on the branches and he’d make them come by hitting the side of a tin cup with a spoon.”
Mavis talked about magic times. Rowing out alone in her dinghy one still evening to watch the eclipse of the moon and being so fascinated by the sight that she rowed into the side of an anchored boat. Pulling up her craypot at night with the rope, oars and pot shimmering with silver phosphorescence. The amazing night of the flying fish — attracted by the lights of the bar the fish hurled themselves out of the water and up the beach. Or the nights when the paper nautilus were on the move; the big, fragile shells drifting into the bay on the tide like a fleet of little sails.
“Mostly the nautilus runs were at Western Bay. One time the beach was just white with shells. But you had to get there early to pick them up because the seagulls would break the shells to get at the eggs inside. The eggs are just like sago. I got 300 nautilus one time — I don’t know why they run. I used to pack them in paper inside biscuit tins. I never charged for them.
“One day, it was raining, all these dolphins came into the bay and were playing around and suddenly they all went into a big circle. They were having their babies and they were in a circle to protect the little ones as they were being born.
“Someone gave me a viewing box with a glass bottom. I’d row out in my dinghy with that box and look down through the clear water at the kelp and fish. Sometimes I’d see teapots — people would go to empty them over the side and forget to hang on to them. You know, the water’s so clear that if someone had dropped a paper in the water you could read the headlines on the bottom.
“I got into trouble in that dinghy sometimes. One time I saw some dinghies floating out to sea, so we went off to chase them. A westerly came up and started blowing us out to sea. A launch had to come and get us. But their engine broke down. We were way out there in our dinghy and the skipper came alongside and said to us, `Have you got a spanner?’ I said to him, ‘What? Way out here? What do you think!’ Another time I rowed out to watch these big dolphins playing. I got a bit of a fright later on when they told me they were killer whales, but I don’t think they would have hurt me. We used to row out to dump our rubbish and the handyman would take his rod. The fish got to know and would follow us — you could tell they were the same ones by the markings on their fins. I had a load of cabbage leaves once and I threw them into the water and a big hammerhead shark just came up and chomped the lot.
“After one storm all these pink maomao fish were washed up on the beach. I picked them up — there was nothing wrong with them — and served them up for breakfast! I learned how to smoke fish out here. Bob Gray showed me how. I used pohutukawa wood. I’d take a wheelbarrow and get it from a dead tree up the back here. The first time I had a go at smoking it was some pieces off a black marlin. Manuka sawdust is the best. Some people used to bring their own sawdust from the mainland. Smoked mackerel is nice; bonito is good, too, if you take out the dark bits. But albacore is the best. It’s the chicken of the sea.”
As we sat by the beach talking there was a sudden shredding of the water. It was a hungry kingfish hunting a school of herrings, and they leapt out of the water in panic. “That kingie’s been hanging around here for days,” Mavis said. She looked out across the bay and was pensive for a moment. “I’m a bit concerned about what could happen to the island in the future, but I think because it’s a bird sanctuary it will be safe. The fishing is not the same — tuna and albacore are being fished out. Whoever’s in charge of fishing, I don’t think he’s ever caught a fish because he’s not listening to what the skippers say. They’ve fished out the snapper and now there’s an epidemic of paddle crabs. They’re now catching marlin which have been eating leatherjacket fish because there’s nothing else for them to eat.”
It was time for lunch and Mavis went off to get hers. The tide was out and I went for a walk along sandy Western Bay. Later in the afternoon Te Kuia came back to the beach, the ladder and plank were set up and we all climbed aboard for the trip back to Tauranga. The Bible class kids were tired out. They had taken a wrong turning on their circuit of the island and had to walk an additional two hours, some of it in the dark. There was a small sea running and a cool crosswind had got up, kicking spray across Te Kuia’s bows. Our faces turned to the mainland, and everyone seemed to be thinking about tomorrow. Behind us Tuhua faded, a blue whale shadow again on a far horizon.