Over 20 years ago, I spent a weekend at my parent’s holiday home in Tutukaka. It was during a crisis in my life, and I needed some time to regroup and rethink my direction. The place literally touched my soul, and I did the proverbial; I came for the weekend and never went home.
The ‘Triangle in the Sky’
If you talk to some people, they say that there is a triangle in the sky; a place where energies collide and the planets align. The triangle is somewhere along the Tutukaka Coast, and one of its apex corners is at the Poor Knights Islands. The Maori say that from all over New Zealand, the souls of the departed fly North, meet and regroup in this space, before taking the direct line to Cape Reinga, where they finally shed this mortal coil to journey to the next life.
There certainly is something about this area, something spiritual, and anywhere along this coast, if you look out to sea; the Poor Knights Islands are on the horizon. They are the only thing between you and Chile as you stand on a white sand beach, the water lapping at your toes. They are made up of two main islands – Tawhiti Rahi to the North and Aorangi to the south, with ten smaller stacks and islets in the 10 kilometre long chain. Lying at a more tangible oceanographic intersection of temperate and sub-tropical waters, they have an abundance of sea life that is not seen elsewhere in New Zealand. Jacques Cousteau famously declared them “one of the top ten dives sites in the world”, and who would argue with that scuba diving legend? There are over 100 dive sites at the islands, and they are home to not only lush kelp forests, typical for temperate waters, but are also renowned for the more tropical visitors.
Currents that bring warmth, and life
The warm East Australia current meanders down from the Coral Sea, turns into the East Auckland current at the top of New Zealand and travels down the north east coast, bring sea temperatures that are warmer by about one to two degrees than found on the local shore. It not only brings warmer waters, and clearer visibility but also turtles, whales, manta rays, cowrie snails, shrimps, giant salps, and brightly coloured fish that really shouldn’t be here. But here they are, and here they stay. It must seem like a true oasis for the visitors, and they settle in like locals. Much the same way I felt all those years ago.
“For me what is distinctive about the Poor Knights is I dive in them, not at them,” said Wade Doak, one of New Zealand’s veteran divers and legends.
He and his buddies discovered a multitude of new species whilst diving there in the 1960’s and has written almost 20 books over 50 odd years of scuba diving. Such is their distinctive quality that they were declared a marine reserve in 1981. This status afforded them only partial security, and it wasn’t until 1998 that they were given the protection they fully deserved. A political battlefield, much lobbying was done to afford them this respite, but now they are pending World Heritage Status.
Fish life that you’ve never seen before
With over 125 species calling the Poor Knights home, the fish life is incredible. Schooling snapper, in their hundreds, break the surface feeding on krill and plankton; a behavior not recorded elsewhere. Blue maomao, and trevally numbering in their thousands often feed on the surface and cover an entire bay with their glistening backs. Hundreds of kingfish circle in packs, koheru dart and entire schools move as one. Huge schools of pink maomao drift in the blue, porae mooch and graze the rocks, Lord Howe coralfish, golden snapper, toadstool and black spot grouper, red moki, butterfly perch, sharp-nosed puffer fish, leather jackets, and many different species of wrasse; Sandagers, green wrasse, pig fish, kahawai, lizard fish, boar fish, John Dory, and literally thousands of two-spot demoiselles.
But wait – there’s more. It is like an onion out here; every time you think you have seen a site, another layer is revealed. Smaller fish dart about on the rocks, blennies, gobies, triplefins; and in the many nooks and crannies there are mosaic moray, grey moray entwined with yellow moray, and speckled moray eels. Nudibranchs abound, clown, gem, tambja verconis, Jason’s mirabilis. Vibrant and colourful, resting on sponges, curled around hydroid trees. The rock walls are certainly not drab; every spare inch has been painted with nature’s brush, a veritable palette of colour, with invertebrates lending vibrant contrasts. Jewelled anemones of pinks, oranges and purples, bluebelled tunicates, ascidians, soft corals.
The underwater archways hang with gorgonian fans, finger sponges stretch towards you, vase sponges, golf ball sponges adorn the rocky outcrops. The kelp forests sway with the rhythm of the water, red and green algae, starfish, sea urchins, all cling to their own niche and exist in absolute harmony and balance. An incredible biodiversity found nowhere else on earth. The underwater topography reflects the sheer cliffs above, and the archways beneath the surface provide shelter for species like the sting ray. They flock here in their hundreds and stack like a squadron of bombers as they mingle and finally mate. The walls bouncing the sonar and giving them privacy from the orca who seek them out for a tasty treat.
I have swum with pods of playful dolphins for over an hour in Maroro Bay, frolicked with the winter seal colony that arrives for a bachelor holiday, and followed pilot whales and orca pods. Minke whales, brydes whales, the rare southern right, humpbacks pass by the Poor Knights; the islands are a welcome break on the migratory path for many who journey.
The creation of the Poor Knights
The islands rise almost out of nowhere, with steep cliffs soaring 100’s of meters above the waterline. The dramatic volcanic features of the Poor Knights are due to a massive eruption about 10 million years ago, and have left eroded rhyolitic caves and archways that are remnants of what was once a massive volcano. Separated from the mainland for tens of thousands of years, the evolution of life here is not like the mainland at all. This seemingly craggy and inhospitable landscape is also a nature reserve.
Although the life beneath the surface is spectacular, it is most certainly not the only special draw card to these islands. With a marine biodiversity that is outstanding, the flora and fauna is also breathtakingly diverse and unique. The sheer cliffs are the canvas to a play of light as the day changes, from dark brown and chocolate, to a cream almost that is blinding in the afternoon sun. Rock formations look like a goat, a nun, a frog, an Easter Island-style head, a smiling lady. Your imagination runs riot as you pass by the Lost World and can almost see a hairy footed hobbit leaping along the ridge top in this middle earth in the middle of the ocean.
The Rikoriko Cave
A huge gas bubble, formed during the eruption, has been eroded by countless years of wave action to create Rikoriko Cave. The world’s largest sea cave, this speleological wonder is big enough to allow entry to boats. The water at the entrance is almost a luminescent turquoise blue and seems to glow. The name Rikoriko means dancing light, and comes from the light reflecting off the water’s surface, onto the walls and roof of this enormous cave. It measures roughly a hectare of sea surface on the inside, and the ferns that hang from the ceiling receive light for photosynthesis only from the reflections of the sea. They receive their water in its most pure form, filtered through the layers of porous rock in the ceiling of the cave. Naturally acoustic, an echo in here can reverberate for over a full minute.
Named after a popular breakfast dish
From atop a hill on the Tutukaka Coast, the cliffs shout brightness, the green foliage combined to create a cut out silhouette that looks like fallen knight, his feet facing north. Some say Captain Cook passed by in 1769, and named this image after a popular breakfast dish it reminded him of, similar to French toast. Regardless of the islands looking like chunks of bread with topping dripping off the top, their bounty is undeniable. Plant species here suffer from a phenomenon known as island gigantism. The leaves of plants are broader, larger and glossier than their counterparts on the mainland. Coastal tussock, ice plants, grasses and flax grab footholds on the rock faces where they can. The endemic Poor Knights lily, Xeronema calistemon has a succulent flax like leaf, and the most amazing crimson flowers that resemble a giant red bottle brush. You can see them hanging from the tops of outcrops, and the distance belies their size.
Landing on the islands – strictly controlled
Landing on these islands is strictly controlled, reserved only for those with special permits, granted for scientific use that will directly benefit the islands themselves. I have been fortunate enough to land on the island twice; once as part as a wedding party with the Department of Conservation, and once at the invitation of the local iwi, Ngati wai, when they undertook a spiritual returning.
Walking on the forest floor, the ground underfoot is like black gold. A unique peat soil that is rich with fertilizer and life. One of the largest pohutukawa canopies in New Zealand is here, and beneath their high and sprawling branches, I walked through an acre of astelia and mammoth sized Poor Knights lilies. As if planted by some giant gardener, the clumps of lilies were over 4 metres in diameter and over 2 metres high. The lush richness of the native forest was incredible; tawapou, kohekohe, karaka, kawakawa and all of them bigger than I had seen before. It truly felt like stepping back in time to a prehistoric world.
There have never been any mammals on these shores. No native kiore, no rats, cats or possums. The invertebrate life is king here. Even they are colossal. Giant flax snails, giant centipedes reach over 25 cm in length, and the world’s largest insect, the Poor Knights giant weta. Poorly maligned as a horrid scary cricket on steroids, these gentle insects can weigh as much as a chubby mouse, at almost 50 grams. The gecko and the lizards on the islands pollinate the flowers, and there are as many species of lizard on the Poor Knights as there are forest birds. There are around 1000 tuatara living on the islands, the world’s only living dinosaur, they live for over a hundred and fifty years, and share their burrows with a few of the 2.5 million Buller’s shearwater seabirds that dwell here. This is the only place in the world where these birds nest and breed, flying to North America and returning back to their homes. Silent at sea during the day, they crash clumsily into the forest canopy at night, and squawking loudly, make their way to their burrows.
The tuatara exist symbiotically, leaving their flatmates to forage nocturnally, and guarding the eggs while the birds area at sea during the day. It is hard not to step on the many thousands of their underground burrows that cover the forest floor. Whilst sleeping on the islands in a tiny tent, I was kept awake with their noisy and ungainly return every night. And every morning the dawn chorus of the other bird residents certainly woke me up!
Rare native fauna
The Buller’s shearwater are not the only birds to call these islands home. The bellbird song here is deafening in the early hours, and even as you are anchored in a boat below, their daytime song is loud and clear, something you no longer hear back in New Zealand. Scientists have conducted research on this koromiko population, and their evolution is different to their few mainland counterparts. Spottless crake can be seen near the streams, and native cuckoo are here also. The seabird life contributes greatly to the islands fertility with their droppings playing a role in the balance of life here. Fairy prions, rare ternlets, many species of petrel, and a gannet colony on the Pinnacle and Sugarloaf stacks to the south of the main islands. There are literally millions of birds. Looking up at the islands from their base, and seeing no beaches, no landing spots, and no easy way to gain access, you would be forgiven for thinking that man had never made it this far. This is not the case.
Who used to call these islands home?
The Poor Knights Islands weave a rich tapestry of natural history, but also a valuable cultural and spiritual heritage is threaded throughout. Over 400 people once called these islands home. There are five pa sites over Aorangi and Tawhiti Rahi. The local people were from the Ngati wai iwi, and there were two main hapu. One lived on a seasonal basis, travelling back to Matapouri and Ngunguru, and the other hapu lived here all year round. Imagine their richness! The seas teeming with life, a fertile soil, fresh water, an impenetrable fortress with limited landing access, their position meant they could see anyone arriving from miles away. The micro-climate is warm, temperate, and with over 400 hectares of land atop the 200 metre high cliffs, they were the envy of many.
Ruled over by a chief called Tatua, they built stone walls, and intricate terraced gardens. They cultivated much of the land, and although dependent on trade with the mainland for obsidian, and some timber, they were very self-sufficient. There is a spot in South Harbour where they would pull their waka up out of the water, and a huge rock on a high peak with a mysterious carved bowl in the centre of it that is over 1 metre in diameter. The highest peak on Aorangi is named after Tatua’s wife Oneho, but the main pa is on Tawhiti Rahi. It has a commanding position and its stone-walled base is over a kilometer around.
When Captain Cook passed by in 1769 he dropped off some pigs, and these helped immensely with trading. They were kept in stone sties, and were the main item of barter. In the very early 1800’s a Chief from the Hikutu tribe on the west coast in Hokianga, paddled all the way over to do business. For whatever reason, Tatua decided against selling his pigs. Chief Waikato and his Hokianga crew paddled away empty handed. This was an insult that was not to be forgotten.
An insult that was not forgotten
Fifteen year later, Tatua and his men were part of a warring party that travelled south. He left his islands and his people defended by only a handful of men. A slave named Paha escaped, and made his way to Rawhiti and then across to the Hokianga. Chief Waikato gathered his warriors and set off to extract tutu. On December 10 1823, they set out from the Bay of Islands in three war canoes. The Ngati wai must have seen them coming across the sea, and knew they were in trouble. The following massacre would have been terrifying. They lay defenseless, and unarmed, women and children were jumping from the cliffs to escape, preferring to leap to their deaths rather than face the capture and slaughter. An old man took the chief’s son Wehiwehi and hid with him in one of the myriad caves on the island. He managed to survive, as did a handful of others. They watched as their people were murdered and their queen Oneho taken as a slave.
In December the pohutukawa trees would have been blossoming red and crimson, the islands would have indeed been tinged with blood. Upon his return Tatua would have been surprised to not see the smoke of his home fires burning. I am sure the knot in his stomach would have grown as he travelled closer and no welcoming party came to greet him. He was devastated that his place was desecrated and his people had been destroyed. He left the islands, forever, declared them tapu, or scared, and vowed never to return. And no one ever did. The only change has been the mighty gnarled roots of the pohutukawa trees climbing over the stone walls, and the forest with its inhabitants, taking control of the island again. People were left as they lay, axes and tools, cooking utensils, strewn across the pa. Even now the remains have been untouched. Tapu is a powerful deterrent, and very few visitors have set foot on the Poor Knights since that summer of 1823.
Several years ago a group of us paddled a six man waka out to the islands. We had a support boat and changed paddlers, conditions were good in February and we travelled at about 5 knots. As we got within 800 metres of the Poor Knights we fell silent, there was the sound of the paddles hitting the water rhythmically and the stroke calling out “hip” for the change. I felt the islands watching this return of a waka, for the first time in over 150 years. I have approached many times but never with this spine tingle. I quietly said my mihi, who I was, where I was from, who my people were, and introduced myself. You have my mother sleeping with you, you picked her up, embraced her, and walked with her to the other side, in doing that you connected us.
These islands are my turangawewae, I said, this is my place, and it touches me. This is where I feel a belonging. I could almost hear the ghosts whispering, discussing, and deciding. As we came closer, the feeling changed to a welcome, a relief, and a homecoming. A three year archeological study has been undertaken on the island, and the findings are groundbreaking. These Poor Knights Islands are a time capsule, a treasure. They are the only window we have into what life was like in New Zealand pre-European. They are a pristine snapshot that has remained untouched, and have many answers to reveal. Their value is priceless.
We can’t go back to the way things were at the Poor Knights but we can learn from the past, and draw a line in the present so we can go forward into the future. The Poor Knights Islands are my turangawaewae, my place to stand.
Tūrangawaewae is one of the most well-known and powerful Māori concepts. Literally tūranga (standing place), waewae (feet), it is often translated as ‘a place to stand’. Tūrangawaewae are places where we feel especially empowered and connected. They are our foundation, our place in the world, our home.