I'm a Victorian freelance writer & photographer living in the Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne.
Published June 7th 2018
Battleground Turned Tourist Haven
These days New Zealand's Kawau Island, on the Hauraki Gulf and just north of Auckland, is a favourite spot with 'boaties', holiday-home or 'batch' owners and local & international tourists alike.
The jewel in the crown of beautiful Kawau Island is the historic Mansion House. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
But it hasn't always been that way. As early as the 17th century the islands strategic dominance over the Gulf and adjacent islands together with an abundant supply of seafood made it a favourite habitat of various Maori iwi and the site of a great deal of inter-tribal fighting.
The first European to see Kawau was probably Captain James Cook who passed on his 1769 voyage of discovery. The missionary Samuel Marsden visited briefly in 1820 but the island remained largely uninhabited until 1837 when it was bought from the local Maori by Henry Taylor for the princely sum of three muskets and a quantity of gunpowder.
The Engine House ruins are all that remain of Kawau's once thriving copper mine. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
In 1840, Taylor sold it to the North British Australian Loan and Investment Company for One Hundred and Ninety Seven Pounds and nine shillings, reaping a tidy profit on his investment.
The buyers were intending to develop Kawau's farming potential but, before any agricultural infrastructure could be established large deposits of copper were found.
The new owners wasted no time in forming The Kawau Company and brought in specialists from Australia to confirm the commercial viability of mining the copper. The reports were positive and a team of experienced Cornish miners was recruited, sailing from Falmouth for New Zealand in June 1845.
The pristine waters of the Hauraki Gulf are a magnet for locals and international tourists alike and just getting to Kawau Island is half the fun. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
The Kawau Company selected a site at Garlick Bay, later renamed Mansion House Bay, on which to create a small settlement for the workforce. The village consisted of a substantial house for the mine manager, a jetty and a street lined with cottages for the mineworkers and their families.
Within 3 years, the island's population had swelled to between 200 and 300 people and by 1850 an estimated 3000 tons of ore had been extracted. The mine continued to develop until competition, flooding of the mine and the loss of large numbers of workers to gold rushes on the Coromandel, in Australia and California led to its closure in 1855.
In 1862, Kawau was purchased by New Zealand's Governor Sir George Grey. A former soldier and Governor of South Australia who had arrived in New Zealand in 1845 Grey would go on to serve as the nations Premier.
He set about renovating the former mine managers house at Garlick Bay, converting it into a stately home by adding 20 new rooms to the original 10 and building houses for his staff and their families. Other structures included a school at Schoolhouse Bay and a number of farm buildings.
Mansion House Bay is an idyllic spot and a favorite anchorage for itinerant boaties. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
A renowned scholar and collector of rare books and artefacts, Grey was highly regarded by both Maori and Europeans alike as an expert in Maori language and mythology. But his greatest passion was collecting exotic plants & wildlife and Kawau stands today as a testament to his enthusiasm.
Despite warnings that it wasn't appropriate to introduce large numbers of plants and animals to areas in which they were not native, more than 30 species of animals and countless cuttings & seeds from around the world were brought to the island. African Zebras and monkeys shared the estate with Australian wallabies, Kookaburras and Peacocks.
South American palms, Indian rhododendrons and Mediterranean olives thrived alongside Australian Eucalypts and much of the island remains covered with pine trees which have spread from plantations planted by Grey.
The wallaby and possums in particular spread like wildfire, destroying much of Kawau's native flora & fauna, even threatening the surrounding marine ecology with silt emanating from the bare soil.
Between 1888 and the 1930's, Kawau changed hands several times and the condition of the Mansion House deteriorated in later years. This was very evident to the final private owner, Alan Horsfall, who was keen to see it restored and given over to public ownership.
Originally a residence for Kawau Islands copper mine superintendant Mansion House was transformed into a stately home by Sir George Grey, a key figure in New Zealand politics. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
Sold to the Government, the property was absorbed into the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park in 1967 and leased as a licensed hotel until 1976 when the lease was surrendered.
The support of a number of high profile benefactors enabled Mansion House to be restored to its former glory, closely resembling its condition during the period of Governor Grey's ownership.
Today, the Kawau Island Historic Reserve is administered by the Department of Conservation and is a great day out exploring the Mansion House, copper mine and some of the nearby beaches.
There are 6 kilometres of walking trails within the Historic Reserve and the walk from Mansion House to the old copper mine is a round-trip of about 2.5 hours.
Of course, if you want to stay a little longer you can take advantage of the broad range of accommodation options available and enjoy an extended stay savouring Kawau's peace and tranquillity and learning a little more about its blood-thirsty past.
Guests arrive at Kawau Lodge, one of the islands enticing accommodation options. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
Fact File …..
Kawau Island is in the Hauraki Gulf, just under 50 kilometres north of Auckland.
Kawau Cruises and Kawau Water Taxi's operate from Sandspit, just a short drive from Warkworth. See the website for up to date timetables and pricing.
Why? No trip to New Zealand would be complete without a visit to Kawau Island, one of the largest islands in the Hauraki Gulf and steeped in a mix of Maori and European history.
When:Kawau Island is closed in June, July & August and on Christmas Day. The remainder of the year it's open Monday to Friday 12 midday to 2 PM and Saturday, Sunday & Public Holidays 12 midday to 3.30 PM.