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New Zealand Historic Places Trust - Pouhere Taonga

Discovering D'Urville

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From Heritage New Zealand Winter 2006

by Gerard Hindmarsh

Our fith largest land mass boasts a fascinating past and a wealth of Pakeha and Maori heritage sites


Early days at Waitai

Image: Fieldair

Centrally located and well endowed D’Urville Island has always enjoyed plenty of comings and goings. Every coastal tribe in the country could recite sailing directions to the mineral-rich mass at the north-west tip of the South Island, where massive amounts of top tool-grade argillite got quarried off hill-tops and traded all around Aotearoa. Our first commodity crash, sparked off by the discovery of the first effective technique to saw through the superior greenstone, pounamu, put paid to the mass effort on D’Urville Island around the 16th century. Fourteen major quarry sites remain as our greatest industrial relics, their sloping, flaking floors often measured in hectares and still so deep with discarded flakes (such as that at Mt Ears) that nothing has been able to grow for 500 years.

Most people encounter D’Urville Island by driving to French Pass, the last winding section of ridge top road from Rai Valley, affording sensational views over the southern part of the 27km by 9.6km island. Right at the bottom, off the green grassed slopes of Ohana, Hautai Island was long used as a cemetery island for local Maori. Early settlers described the sight of rows and rows of canoes pulled up on the beach for the tangi at Ohana. Morning light can make some of the protruding – and more recent – headstones appear to twinkle.

The short walk down to the lookout over French Pass affords an excellent vista of the swirling currents going through the 800-metre wide passage separating D’Urville Island from the mainland. The continual equalising of water between Admiralty Bay and Current Basin is the reason the flow through here can reach a phenomenal eight knots, flood tide running to the south-west, ebbing to the north-east.

The island got its name from French Admiral Jules Cesar Dumont D’Urville whose decision to sail his corvette Astrolabe through the swirling French Pass on the morning of 29 January 1827 nearly cost him his life and that of his crew. One story relates how a tohunga named Pukuroa chanted the blackest of karakia from atop a nearby hill to destroy the boat, which managed just to scrape through on its beam ends in what must be one of the most remarkable near misses of our maritime history. As a tribute to him, D’Urville’s officers called the island after him, but their modest commander was careful to record that his name should only be used for as long as the Maori name was unknown. This would later be revealed as Rangitoto ki te Tonga, Rangitoto of the South, Rangitoto a reference to the red skies (of sunset), or black rock, after the argillite.

Six decades after D’Urville’s visit, arguments over ownership of the island became the subject of a specially appointed commissioner, who ruled in 1883 that the New Zealand Land Company’s purchase of the island was invalid and awarded title back to Ngati Koata. Their conquest in 1824 was considered valid, according to the customs of the day. But disputes among the new owners became so heated, fresh investigations were called for, resulting in the island being partitioned into 11 big blocks in 1895.

Before the ink was dry on the Native Land Court documents, five European businessmen from Wellington leased the island from the new Maori owners, forming the basis for the extractive opening up and freeholding of many of the original blocks that still appear on title deeds today.

Around 1910, the government made public a report on the developmental potential of D’Urville Island, its summary concluding what most already knew:

"The island is currently 3,500 acres [1,400 hectares] in 'natural' clearings, 3,500 acres is already cleared and 30,630 acres [12,400 hectares] are in need of clearing … part of the northeastern side and also the southern end would be suitable for dairy farming. Other areas could be allocated for sawmilling and village settlements, while the hilltops could be reserved for forest conservation. The tourism potential is great and there is a good climate for holiday purposes. There are fine harbours and some of the best sea–fishing to be found in New Zealand. With a steamer-passenger service going through on a regular daily-return basis between Nelson and Wellington, communication would not be difficult."

Joseph Banks on Cook’s Endeavour had been the first European to wax lyrical about the “most marvellous array of mineral-veined rocks” upon the island. Early copper miners sent a few 50 tonne-shipments off to Melbourne. The remains of efforts of The D’Urville Island Copper Mine, which started prospecting in 1866, can still be seen scattered across three bays; Copper Ore, Coppermine and Appletree. Visitors need to watch for vertical shafts hidden under vegetation when entering this area.

It was the pastoral runholders who really triumphed. They got in big gangs of bush fellers, mostly roughnecks recruited in Wellington boarding houses. Starting at the bottom, they would work their way up a hill, wounding strategically chosen trees by half-cutting through as they went. At the top, they would fell the biggest tree, causing a domino effect all the way down.

Quite a sight, as one 90-year old account put it:

“Where once stood thick bush, now it was all just sun rays. Our eyes travelled down the newly cut avenue. Everyone of its trees, big and small, lay smashed in an unbroken line all the way down to the sea.”

Once the tangle of bush dried out, over the following summer, it was lit in gigantic burns that would clog the skyline with smoke for days. At the inquest after the sinking of the wooden screw steamer Red Pine, which struck an uncharted rock in Stephens Passage in March 1913, Captain E. A. J. Eden blamed a blackout from bush fires raging on northern D’Urville. Around 48 ships have come to grief in the area.

Despite all past efforts to the contrary, around a third of the island remains in native bush and free of possums. Deer introduced themselves by swimming across from the mainland. Old French Pass locals recall small herds that would assemble on rocks, waiting for slack water before jumping in to cross the passage.

Life really changed for the island’s settlers, today around 52 permanents, with the opening of the D’Urville Island Road on 11 September 1967. With the closure of the Nelson to Wellington ferry service, the making of this road connecting the island to Rai Valley became a priority. Local MP Bill Rowling got to cut the ribbon where the road went through the “thousand foot” contour, congratulating the island’s residents for obtaining something most of the country took for granted, an all-weather public road. Despite a cold wind, Len Leov from Greville Harbour got a good fire going behind a couple of sheets of corrugated iron so everyone could have billy tea along with homebaked goodies. Afterwards, a loud procession did a jubilant grand tour of the new road.

It had been a marathon effort. Alan Johnston of Havelock used his biggest punt to shift over all the machinery to the start of the road at Kapowai. Apart from some gentle slopes through the mineral belt, it was cut through steep and rugged terrain, much of it covered in thick bush. Only the heaviest rainstorms ever stopped work.

Dead-centre positioned in the wide entrance to Port Hardy is Nelson’s Monument, an islet that got its name five years before the Admiral got his other memorial, in London’s Trafalgar Square.

With its two long arms, Port Hardy is significant not only as a superb deepwater harbour, but because it was the first sight of their new country for many New Zealand Company immigrants who came in the early 1840s. After leaving England together, the ships invariably separated, so it became standard procedure to rendezvous in the guaranteed shelter of Port Hardy and prepare for a grand entrance. Just prior to the first ship arriving, Wakefield asked the local inhabitants if they would hide their naked bodies;
“I told them several times … that Englishwomen were coming. But they only laughed at me and I got nowhere with
my implores.”

During World War I, a reluctant conscript hid out at what is now called Deserter Bay, a most secluded spot off East Arm. After World War II, it was revealed the Japanese had drawn up plans to use Port Hardy as its southern naval base. A quiet place maybe, but never short on intrique.

New Zealand military experts early identified Cook Strait as being the likely invasion gateway. Starting in 1942, a radar station was built in great secrecy upon Stephens Island. Barracks were constructed, on the long floor of which tuatara were raced. Locals could not help but notice the daily semaphore lights twinkling towards Patuki. Coastwatchers set up in isolated bays. Local members of the Women’s Division of Federated Farmers made sure they stayed well fed.

A coastwatcher of a different sort was Ross Webber, who lived alone from 1957 to 2005 on his 38-hectare Puangiangi Island, one of the three Rangitoto Islands off north-east D’Urville. Rarely without his pair of finger-worn binoculars, his reporting resulted in the thwarting of several attempts to steal tuatara off Stephens Island.

Captain Cook sailed past the three Rangitoto Islands in February 1770, confident his re-sighting of Stephens Island proved he had circumnavigated New Zealand. Before returning to England, he ordered his crew to drop anchor in Whareatea Bay, where he refitted it with timber cut from the bush and took on 30 tonnes of fresh water. An Historic Places Trust plaque on the rocks commemorates this event.

A succession of early, entrepreneurial whalers were associated with this coast. Jock McGregor, a descendant of Rob Roy, got caught up in Te Rauparaha’s allied tribe invasion after falling in love with Ngati Kuia chief Tutepourangi’s daughter, Hinekawa. Fearing she would be taken as a slave, he furled her in the topsail of his schooner and escaped. They had one son, Te One, who was described as “a huge man, 6ft [1.8m] high and 24 inches [60cm] around the neck who could lift a hogshead of beer weighing 540lbs [244kg]”. He went on to have a dozen children, their multiple descendants in this country today all claiming Rob Roy as their forebear.

Then there was John (Jackie) Guard, who was known to be trading with local Maori as early as 1824. He came out from the penal colonies after being convicted for stealing a bed cover. His remarkable story of being shipwrecked along the Taranaki coast in 1836 has become the subject of Fiona Kidman’s book The Captive Wife.

More recently, John and Wetekia (Ruruku) Elkington lived for a time at the northern end of Whareatea Bay. The dilapidated remains of their small house can still be seen just through the trees, (above the same little creek from which Captain Cook replenished his ship’s water supply. She bore 13 children (four of whom died young), and fostered 20 more, becoming the unofficial midwife of D’Urville Island. This great matriarch died in 1957. Some years ago, the New Zealand Geographic Board gave the island’s highest point, Attempt Hill (729m), the alternative name of Maunga Wetekia (Mt Wetekia) in her honour.

The recent government purchase of the old Leov farm at the entrance to Greville Harbour, which runs all the way back to the lake at Otu Bay, secures its heritage for all New Zealanders.

Not only is the extensive sand dune system a rare feature within the Sounds, but it was inhabited by a once thriving Maori community. Just inland, an expansive lagoon no doubt provided them with all the eels they could ever want.

Oral histories of the wonderfully warm and sheltered area known as Mo Awhitu tell of a disastrous tsunami called Taniwha Tapu-arero-utu-utu that swept through here and claimed many lives, possibly around the 15th century. Generations later, an invading war party from northern tribes largely wiped the locals out. Some tell how the invaders chased the last survivors across a natural rock bridge (which collapsed in 1916) to what is now Bottle Point. Rather than surrender, they all committed suicide by jumping off the cliff onto the jagged rocks below.

Auckland Museum archaeologists Nigel and Kath Prickett investigated the Greville Harbour area as part of two heritage site surveys of the island that came out in 1976. They identified hundreds of significant sites, including flaking floors, middens, pits, fortifications, old pack tracks and industrial relics, including remains of old wharves and jetties. Some of the sites relate to when ancestors of Ngati Kuia and other early iwi worked the argillite quarries. At Mo Awhiti they identified 40 habitation sites.

European settlers later drained the 120-hectare swamp on the south side of Greville’s lake, years of work that involved shovels, crawler tractors and excavators, all kept afloat on rafts of saplings.

Recalled Len Leov: “The surface was so soft, we had to keep the tractor up on sapling timber. If it slipped off, it would take days to jack it back on again. If I hadn’t been brought up in the bush, we would still be there yet.”

When completed, more than eight kilometres of ditches had been dug. and the lagoon level was lowered more than four metres. Drainers found huge tree stumps growing on a mat of manuka logs and sticks lying flattened, supporting evidence for a forest flattened by a great tsunami.

It hadn’t taken long for joiners and builders in New Zealand to appreciate the fineness of kohekohe timber for furniture and finishing work. And nowhere did the mahogany-like timber come in such quantity and quality, than from the sheltered valleys of D’Urville Island.

First the millers cut all around Port Hardy, then moved down to Greville Harbour, where Graeme Hayter operated the
New Zealand Mahogany Company. His youngest son James (Jimmy) Hayter recalls a disastrous day in the 1930s when he tried to tow a traction engine on a punt across the Greville lagoon. He watched in horror as it tipped into the lake, where it still lies. That loss signalled the end of the timber company, and probably preserved the last few stands of big kohekohe.

Jimmy Hayter became a World War II fighting ace with the RAF. He fought in the Battle of Britain, recorded 535 sorties, and picked up a DFC. An upbringing on D’Urville Island seemed to foster bravery. Out of the 18 lads from the island who enlisted for overseas service during World War II, 13 were cited for bravery in despatches home.

Winter 2006

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