The place literally touched my soul, and I did the proverbial; I came for the weekend and never went home.
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.
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,” says 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 these islands is strictly controlled, reserved only for those with special permits, granted for scientific use that will directly benefit the islands themselves.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chief Waikato gathered his warriors and set off to extract utu.
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.
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.
A couple of 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. 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.
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.